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APA reviews nine of the documentaries screened at this year's Visual Communications festival, including Grand Jury Prize winner, Oh Saigon.
Long Story Short
dir: Christine Choy
Jodi Long's family history happens to be a story about the child following in her parents' footsteps, uncannily toward Flower Drum Song. In 2001, Jodi won the part of Madame Liang in the revival of Flower Drum Song, reimagined by David Henry Hwang. The part had special meaning for Jodi because her father had starred in the original Broadway version of the musical, the first and only with an all Asian American cast. The premise for Christine Choy's documentary Long Story Short is coincidentally rife with Asian American themes. By following Long's parents' Chinatown variety act and its aftermath, the film touches upon the history of limited opportunities for Asian American entertainers and the importance of family without belaboring either issue. In one of the highlights of the documentary, Jodi tracks down the footage of her parents' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. "I wanted to give my parents back their history," Jodi says. The most powerful moment in the film is when Larry and Trudie Long, now divorced, watch the footage separately. Larry watches his starry-eyed younger self tap dance. He claims to not remember any of it but mouths along all his lines. Trudie gets teary-eyed and says, "This is the first time I ever saw myself on stage." Even more amazing is their talent. Larry and Trudie come onstage in traditional Chinese costumes with gongs banging in the background, but it's a bait and switch routine. They fling off the Chinese-y act to sing, dance, and tell jokes, which fifty years later, made the VC audience laugh out loud. --Lisa Leong
Up the Yangtze
dir: Yung Chang
Before we embark on our journey Up the Yangtze, we are first in Chongqing where Victoria Cruises' "farewell trips" begin. We see the river, notice the sky yellow from pollution, and hear the jarring honking of ships. But then there are the voiceovers, by the director and by locals, talking about the "changing China" in the wake of the world's most ambitious hydroelectric project. There are sayings probably found in history and economic textbook, and then there is talk about fate, luck, fear and pride. There is history, but more striking are the voices and faces of individuals and the very open performances by main characters. It is this sociological focus that defines Yung Chang's first featured-length documentary. The Canadian Chinese director says he tried to make a film about "modernity and modern China," yet more so, he wanted to tell a "very personal and intimate story." Up the Yangtze is a documentary that acts as a narrative, following two teens brought aboard to work on a luxury cruise ship. The tourists are Westerners who pay for good recreation, alongside a last glimpse of the allegedly natural and authentic Yangtze before the Three Gorges project changes it forever. While the passengers seek an old China that has already been supplanted by "candy colored tower of China's neon future," those serving them below their deck are the living souls of "old China," brought by "fate" aboard the ship to carve a new life in contemporary China. This is an effective way to illustrate a society, a contemporary society, its different classes and groups, and more importantly by the individual stories that shape it. --Christie Liu
dir. Doan Hoang
April 30, 1975 was the date that director Doan Hoang remembers as "the day her family fell apart." Turning the camera on her own family history, to retell the story of thousands of Vietnamese refugees entering the United States during the fall of Saigon, Hoang's journey is at once genuinely personal and universal. Hoang's documentary begins with emotional footage of families scrabbling to flee Vietnam. Her father's split second decision to gather the family on the last civilian helicopter out of the country changed everything. But when Hoang's family was airlifted to the United States, someone was left behind -- Hoang's half-sister, Van. Placed in Louisville, Kentucky, Hoang's family was one of the only Asian faces there. Hoang's mother, once a high class socialite in Vietnam is now the town's local seamstress. Hoang's father, once a major in the Air force and graduate of the National Military University, now washes plates. Van eventually arrived to the United States as one of the thousands of boat people. The struggle over assimilation into a new country harbors what it means to hold onto cultural belonging -- something that Hoang has struggled with throughout her life. But more than just the immigrant story, Oh, Saigon is fundamentally about family. It's been almost sixty years since Huong's father has seen his older brother who sided with the Communists. Hoang's mother learns to accept the daughter that she left behind in Vietnam. Huong returns to Vietnam in time for the New Year Festival of Tết, in an attempt to reunite her half-sister with her parents and to reconcile her family's hurtful past. Hoang appropriately dedicates her documentary to those affected by the Vietnam and Iraq wars. --LiAnn Ishizuka
Yours Truly, Miss Chinatown
dir: Daisy Lin Shapiro
Pageantry and fakeness go hand in hand, but Daisy Lin Shapiro's documentary cuts through the sequin smiles to reveal the real-life experiences of two Miss Chinatown hopefuls and one Miss Kristina Wong, a performance artist who dresses up as a Jack-Daniels-swigging second-runner up. At the outset, Yours Truly, Miss Chinatown juxtaposes the contestants' rehearsed Q&A responses with their disarmingly relaxed interviews. Shapiro's interest in the Miss Los Angeles Chinatown pageant comes from a childhood of attending the show every year with her parents. They were the "perfect Chinese girls," recalls Shapiro. In getting to know the girls, they became relatable, real, and admirable for entirely different reasons than her girlhood awe. Celeste, a bubbly tomboy, hides junk food under her bed and alcohol in her desk. She later looks back upon the pageant as an attempt to understand her Chinese heritage, but a not-so-great experience that made her into one of those "plastic" girls she hates. Priscilla, the pageant winner, is in love with her black boyfriend despite her father's disapproval. When Priscilla marries her boyfriend, the father orders the rest of the family not to attend. And then there's Kristina Wong, a.k.a. Fannie Wong, whose zits-and-all confessions are the voice of comedy as well as the voice of truth. The documentary follows up on the young women three years after the 2003 pageant. In the end, the would-be Miss Chinatowns, who are supposed to "bridge traditional and modern Chinese culture," do so the best by being true to themselves. --Lisa Leong
dir: Joanna Vasquez Arong
Over time, the list of famous expatriates have collected some notable names: Hemingway, Eliot, and James Morrison, who have all made names for themselves in their respective European locations. Filmmaker (and expatriate herself) Joanna Vasquez Arong presents a refreshing look on the expatriate life in Beijing in the documentary, Neo-Lounge. The film focuses on its namesake, a trendy bar that is frequented by expatriates. In particular, it focuses on Diliana Georgieva, a Belgian jazz singer/model/actress, and Italian Leonardo Griglie, who spends his days drinking excessively in his posh mansion. Both narratives are drowned in their drunken miseries and ramblings. Arong also follows Henry Li, the bar's free-spirited and unrestrained owner, his girlfriend and his beer-guzzling six year old child. While it becomes difficult to sympathize with characters who show a disregard for their own lives, Arong makes a strong case in providing a discourse for the meaning of expatriate life in today's world. --Kanara Ty
Wings of Defeat
dir: Risa Morimoto
Risa Morimoto's documentary is an excavation of uncle's untold memories. Her uncle had been trained to be a kamikaze pilot, but Morimoto did not discover this until after his death. In the absence of his memories, Morimoto's exploration of how her uncle could have trained to be a kamikaze takes on national dimensions. She begins with interviewing her family members, who admit to not really knowing much because her uncle didn't reveal that part of his past. Her search for testimony and general information about the "special attack forces" then takes her around Japan to makeshift museums and memorials commemorating the young Japanese men who "volunteered" as pilots. She also meets with four former kamikaze pilots/survivors who recount their personal experiences. An estimated 4000 pilots died, but according to Morimoto, the subject remains taboo in Japan. That said, Wings of Defeat provides a dramatic arc that makes the film an almost counter-cultural archeological project to find the humanity behind the standard reputation of fanatics attributed to the kamikaze. It's a fascinating trek with Morimoto -- who makes sure to keep herself on the screen as a kind of surrogate spectator -- through the military rhetoric juxtaposed with the testimonies of the four pilot-survivors. Were it not for the absorbing subject, Wings of Defeat at a formal level is your standard factual documentary with talking heads and primary source documents/footage used to corroborate the authority and authenticity of the memories. But she does one thing that is out of the ordinary: as two of the pilot-survivors recount their flight out on a suicide mission, the film switches to animation to reenact for us, as well as for them, their memories -- for which there is no material evidence. The animation sequence is not remarkable in itself, but it's an interesting decision on Morimoto's part to animate (literally) testimonies to move us. New Year Baby (2006) contains a similar sequence, and it is a formal technique that should, in fact, be explored more. --Rowena Aquino
Against the Grain
dir: Ann Kaneko
What does it mean to be an artist in a dysfunctional country? That's the burning question Ann Kaneko attempts to answer while filming this documentary in Peru, a country still transitioning after the brutal regime of Alberto Fujimori. Her subjects are four punk pop artists, including a Peruvian Japanese (Eduardo Tokeshi) who struggles to assert his own identity through his art. These four distinct artists express the difficulties in creating art against the background of political turmoil. Their art and philosophies also cover complex issues of race, class, and diaspora. In one tense scene, Kaneko herself is subject to racism, stirred by the populace's resentment towards Fujimori's dictatorship. Interspersed between the segments is archival footage of Peru's political unrest that effectively illuminates their points. Kaneko's own footage is fearlessly gritty, undeterred by the potential dangers of seeking truth in a conservative country. In the end, Against the Grain may be a fascinating documentary that touches on the struggles of artists in restrictive environments, but is the film enjoyable to the average person? The answer may depend on your appreciation of art. In the case of Against the Grain, the art pieces say just as much as the artists. --William Hong
Made in Korea: A One-Way Ticket Seoul-Amsterdam?
dir. In-Soo Radstake
Born in Korea but raised in Amsterdam, ethnically Korean but Dutch is your native language -- does that make you Dutch or Korean? Documentary filmmaker and Korean adoptee In-Soo Radstake asks himself this very question as he travels to his native but foreign birthplace of Seoul, in search of his biological roots. Radstake, with the help of his girlfriend Ungila van Es, who shares a similar Korean adoption background, looks for his birth mother but, in the process, learns more about the history of Korean adoption. It is Radstake's determination to search police stations and adoption agencies -- even partake in a popular Korean show which brings families together -- that convinces the viewer of his earnestness. Made in Korea: A One-Way Ticket Seoul-Amsterdam? asks more than just the straightforward question of cultural identity; Radstake wrestles with the fact that his biological mother denied him as her son and that adoption will forever be a part of him. Radstake points the camera heavily at the community of Korean adoptees who grew up in the Netherlands and then turns the lens on himself to invoke personal reflection. --LiAnn Ishizuka
Previous APA coverage of the festival's documentaries at this year's festival:
Date Posted: 5/16/2008