Smitha Radhakrishnan reports on two of the documentary selections from this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel probe the Kashmiri conflict by turning their cameras on themselves in Project Kashmir.
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APA's report on the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival includes capsule reviews of Children of Invention, Speed of Life, and Audience Award-winner Fruit Fly.
Speed of Life
dir: Ed Radtke
Like an art house Goonies set in the streets of New York City, The Speed of Life draws much of its appeal from the ingenuity of its preteen characters who rumble through Times Square and apartment rooftops hustling not for money but for sport -- thieving to satisfy creative impulses that adults are prone to repress. Accordingly, The Speed of Life has an aesthetic that defies any kind of socialized maturity, favoring instead a mad-dash mash-up of moods, characters, and video formats. Like David Gordon Green's George Washington, there's a proclivity to have the acting style spring from the young actors, rather than fit non-professionals into Hollywood norms. The result is an off-balanced, though wholly fresh and unpredictable, immersion in what seems like a world of dreams. In fact, the film effectively creates a world of play by overlapping alternate realities -- dream sequences, home videos, surveillance footage. But The Speed of Life isn't simply an experiment in postmodernity. At its core are several touching stories of father figures gone astray. We've seen many such films before, but director Ed Radtke is so comfortable in this lo-fi non-cartesian world of kids (you feel he's lived it) that the emotional threads seem to follow their own paths, not some formula's. From the directing to the acting to the writing, The Speed of Life is brimming with a kind of talent that isn't even on the American cinema map yet. --Brian Hu
dir: H.P. Mendoza
While Fruit Fly recycles members of the cast and crew of 2006's indie cult-hit Colma: The Musical, this time it's writer-director-singer-songwriter H.P. Mendoza at the reigns. The experience of watching Fruit Fly at its world premiere in San Francisco's Castro Theater was probably the closest that a film screening can feel like a rock concert. The 1,400-capacity theater was jam-packed, including balcony seating. There was one catchy song after another, with a sequence that invited audience members to sing along. And each time a new character appeared onscreen, the audience cheered -- whether it was for leading lady L.A. Renigan, supporting character Theresa Navarro (from Richard Wong's Option 3), crowd-pleasing animation by Mark Del Lima, or the five-second cameo of SFIAAFF Festival Director Chi-hui Yang as club bouncer. The wildly enthusiastic reaction that night came with an obvious bias, because CAAM (Center for Asian American Media), the foundation that sponsors the festival, also produced Fruit Fly; and also because the film is such a love letter to the city of San Francisco. But Mendoza knew how to show his audience a great time.
Fruit Fly is a colorful adventure of a struggling performance artist (Renigan) who finds refuge in SF's gay clubbing scene as she searches for her birth mother. Along the way, there are flamboyant dance numbers and gentle jabs at angst-ridden teenagers, superficial relationships, and self-absorbed performers -- all crafted with lyrical glee. Personal favorites from the soundtrack include: "We Are The Hag," "We Have So Much in Common," and "Gay Gay Gay Gay Gay." Like its predecessor Colma: The Musical, Fruit Fly feels no need to wrap up loose ends with a fabricated bow. People come and go and opportunities are lost and found, but Fruit Fly is a tribute to finding new homes, and art as a life-long journey that continues even after the story is over. --Ada Tseng
Children of Invention
dir: Tze Chun
Single mother of two Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) wholeheartedly subscribes to one pyramid scheme after another to attain financial security, a particularly popular interpretation of the American Dream. What Cheng does not bank on is that tales of failure and heartache frequently outnumber glamorous ones of success. As the film progresses, director Tze Chun focuses on how her decisions impact her children Raymond and Tina (played respectively by Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu), who each develop belief systems to help make sense of the constant changes in their lives. Whereas older brother Raymond turns to self-reliance, Tina equates happiness with their old family home. Both ultimately take cues from their mother in defining stability with materiality, and survival with inventiveness.
Elaine and her sullen son Raymond may elicit sympathy from audience members, but it is Chiu's animated performance as Tina that rivets the most attention. The story, however, may not have been as engrossing if not for contemporary circumstances. Unbeknownst to Chun while in production, Children of Invention would be shown at a time when financial instability is an uncomfortably familiar threat for almost every American. Every parent already faces the challenge of balancing that fine line between instilling practical concepts of money without misconstruing its worth with life values. By pure fortuity, Children of Invention taps into the timeliness of these issues. Chun poses necessary questions on the ramifications of children with preternatural notions of wealth as a determining factor of not only survival, but also, what is truly worrisome, happiness. --Christine Chiao
dir: So Young Kim
There's something wondrously unbelievable about the two little abandoned sisters in Treeless Mountain. Whereas the kids in Tze Chun's Children of Invention live in fantasy worlds a little too unbelievable, and the siblings in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows are uncomfortably realistic, the sisters in Treeless Mountain are somewhere in between. They do and say things which are jarringly mature, but not beyond their years. They dream up fantasies of survival, but it's never alienating as it is in Children of Invention. Rather, as the kids dream, the film dreams with them, lulling us into a strange menagerie of grasshoppers and buses and above all, hypnotic close-ups of the girls' faces which tell us less about their anguish than their bright sensitivity to everyday life. Paralleling this almost non-narrative drifting into the girls' dream worlds is a movement from city to small town to farm, which is both a migration (in the sense of Kim' s previous In Between Days) and a retreat to some poetic primal scene of a family in tatters. --Brian Hu
White on Rice
dir: David Boyle
Dave Boyle's sophomore effort White on Rice follows the same thematic lines of his first film, Big Dreams Little Tokyo. This time, we are given Jimmy (Hitoshi Watanabe from Letters from Iwo Jima), a 40 year-old divorcee who made a living off of random jobs as well as random appearances in Japanese films. After his wife leaves him (and he exhausts the food supply she provided), Jimmy relocates to America to live with his sister Aiko (Nae, also from Letters from Iwo Jima), her husband Tak (Mio Takada, Big Dreams Little Tokyo), and their curiously intelligent son Bob (Justin Kwong) who plays the wise man to Jimmy's offbeat adolescent. Jimmy also takes a strong liking to Ramona (Lynn Chen), but finds himself at odds with rival Tim (James Kyson Lee). While Jimmy is pretty much hopeless, the character that Boyle constructs is easily likeable -- much like in the manner that Napoleon Dynamite charmed mainstream American audiences. Watanabe turns in a strong performance, and is well supported by the film's cast. Although the film has its flaws, the story and characters provide interesting moments and are definitely worth watching. --Kanara Ty
dir: Sarba Das
Cultural references get remixed to misrecognition in Karma Calling. But it's not in the usual way of quirky juxtapositions that make critics us' phrases like "cultural masala" and scholars say things like "inter-ethnic hybridity." It's not just that this family of "Hindus in Hoboken" includes an Indian-accented son who thinks he's black, or a pre-teen daughter who yearns to have a bat mitzvah. What makes Karma Calling so much more than precious is that it's not preoccupied with surprising the audience with strange cultural combinations (like the cameo by Tony Sirico, which falls dead flat). Rather, it' s about characters surprising each other, like an Indian immigrant who finds that her thuggish-ruggish housemate in NY sings DDLJ songs in the shower. And at the heart of this process of discovery are two charming inter-cultural romances -- not between races in America (been there, done that), but between Indians and Indian Americans who'd really have no reason to find each other if they weren't forced to wade through two of the weirder manifestations of globalization: the transnational arranged marriage and the call-center, the latter which, as it turns out, is a great source of comedy, if done with an ear sensitive to global politics. Sister and brother team Sarba Das and Sarthak Das prove to be clever scenarists, while Samrat Chakrabarti shows us why Asian American actors are perfect for playing call center operators. --Brian Hu
Previously covered by APA:
Date Posted: 4/3/2009