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Asia Pacific Arts reviews narrative features at this year's Outfest film festival: Drifting Flowers, The Ode, The World Unseen, and Ciao.
dir: Zero Chou
In terms of content, there's nothing new about Zero Chou's third narrative feature Drifting Flowers. A group of Taiwanese women -- butch, femme, old, young -- come to terms with their identity as lesbians. Along the way, they suffer through family turmoil, AIDS, violence, and other staples of the genre. That said, stylistically and structurally, the film takes us in uncommonly whimsical directions, beginning with an enchanting early shot of a qipao'd blind chanteuse singing in front of a blood red backdrop with hanging crystal beads. The film is infused with this other-worldly sense of shivering beauty as hypnotically fleeting as the flowers of the title. The relationship between the blind singer and her charismatic butch accordionist reminds us that progressive romantic pairings can have the old school charm of a Taiwanese pop song. What gripped me most though was the film's narrative structure. Drifting Flowers is organized into three sections, each focusing on a woman and her relationships. While each section can stand alone as a narrative, there are clues throughout that tell us how they fit together. In the second section, the characters from the first are decades older. The third section jumps back to a time before that of the first section. However, this isn't mere non-linear storytelling. What we soon realize is that though each section appears to belong to a different time period in the lives of the characters, the world of each looks like 2008, and certainly doesn't reflect the 40-year gap between the first and second sections. The result of the temporal inconsistency is a magical folding together of the lesbian community's past, present, and future, allowing tradition and destiny to commingle in one spectacular gasp of air. --Brian Hu
dir: Nilanjan Neil Lahiri
There was a surplus of epigrams, chic sets, pretty bodies, and melodramatic freneticism. But it was all good. These may be the tried-ain't-true approaches that mainstream films everywhere take (since the old "again, but with a twist!" formula seems to sustain them well enough), but Lahiri instilled an equal amount of sincerity into each tradition -- and thus inspired after-film contemplation and even gave The Ode a bit of originality. Adapted from a Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla novel, the film is about dealing with (or avoiding) the severe and sometimes hot-blooded realities of urban gay life. From AIDS prejudice, the top/bottom psychology, and the parent phase-making of homosexuality, to the complexity of hating the deceased, the movie is surprisingly dark in color and mood, resembling more the city lights and shadows of Gotham City than the color and energy from a Pride parade. The realism of its characters sometimes faltered because of the film's reluctance to depart from the norm -- aka the 'discovered-you-cheating-now-I'm-walking-away' shot -- but this is made up, to some degree, by the performances. Sakina Jaffrey, who plays the mother of main character Ali (Sachin Bhatt), is especially noteworthy. --Ian Shaikh
The World Unseen
dir: Shamim Sarif
The World Unseen, based on director Shamim Sarif's 2001 novel of the same title, could be another Hallmark Movie Channel feature: overly dramatic to the point of being dull. Set in 1950s apartheid South Africa, Miriam (Lisa Ray) is a conservative Indian mother forced into domesticity by her husband patriarch. Co-owner of the Location Café, Amina (Sheetal Sheth) is a free-spirited masculine-dressing Indian who is skilled at growing vegetables and driving cars. Opposite in nature and in livelihood, it takes only a single encounter at the Café to turn Amina into a state of lust. But Miriam's passive and almost guarded attraction to Amina is not the only force against their relationship: pressures from a segregated society affect their life-changing decisions. Sappy and emotional, the script, the lighting, and the score are elements that make the film unbearable simply because it can't help but be absorbed in its melodramatic state. Perhaps the most genuine part of the film was the parallel love story of Amina's half-black Café co-owner Jacob (David Dennis) and the friendly white postmistress Madeline (Grethe Fox). That relationship could at least be called endearing. In Sarif's 2007 UK film, we fight for love lost, we weep with the downtrodden, and we don't lose hope, but unfortunately it all comes across as one big cliché. --LiAnn Ishizuka
dir: Yen Tan
Yen Tan's Ciao masqueraded as a narrative art film and almost pulled it off. Death and loss come at us peripherally -- sure, potentially a nice concept to explore -- but it lacks focus because the film never commits in emotion or in dialogue. It begins with a man getting into his car and driving away. His never-shown car accident is the first of many cinematographic references of how death visits us from out of nowhere. The newly dead guy is the love interest of both a Texan and an Italian, who, being strangers coping with the same death, gradually fall for each other. The film has some almost-interesting shots: the Texan looks off camera to the cliched indented pillow of the dead; later, they discuss some painting we can't see because they're behind a wall. All this would be great if the film didn't end up exposing its own innards with its obvious plot mechanics. The characters constantly explain their situation: the Italian explains why he dates online, the Texan explains to friend why he invites the Italian to visit. It isn't just a movie filled with conversations -- the movie itself is almost entirely conversational: all background, very little conflict. Some may see this as the point, but when Yen Tan's response to death (in a film about responding to death) is a three-minute shot of two men standing still at a graveyard, then his audience needs to first be engaged or entranced by the characters in order to buy into these pivotal scenes. Without that emotional conviction, the lengthy shots that make this film are boring and come out like blank photocopies of better films. --Ian Shaikh
Date Posted: 8/8/2008