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Jennifer Phang's Half-Life has been winning awards at Asian American film festivals across the nation. We at APA do not approve.
Since debuting at Sundance in 2008, Jennifer Phang's Half-Life has received laurels from two major Asian American film festivals. At New York's Asian American International Film Festival, Phang was given the Emerging Director Award in the narrative features category, while at the recently-concluded San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Half-Life picked up the prestigious Best Narrative Feature prize for "announcing Jennifer Phang as a striking and original new voice in independent film."
Both awards highlight Phang as an emerging voice, and we at APA wouldn't necessarily disagree with that. But at the same time we're deeply disturbed. We want to celebrate the creative impulse that Half-Life represents, as well as the critical impulse by the jurors to highlight the film's novelty. But let's face it. Half-Life is a terrible, nearly unwatchable film. Its good intentions become its burden as it's clear Phang is unable to craft a coherent sentence, shot, or scene strong enough to buoy her ideas.
So now that Half-Life has picked up a few prizes, it's time for the Asian American critical community to reassess. Should we really be lauding a film for being a "striking and original new voice in independent film" if that new voice is just cacophonous, artless noise? Most people we've talked to admire Phang's spirit, but few can admit to actually having had a pleasurable experience watching the film. Four APA writers independently saw Half-Life at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year, and all four are still trying to get the distaste out of their mouths. The following excerpts from our LAFF coverage is a reminder of what we felt about the film upon seeing it in summer 2008.
And I am very sorry to say that the festival ended upon a sour note with the indie Asian American feature Half-Life, directed by Jennifer Phang. Although I came into the film with great expectations of a new hope on the American film scene, what I got out of it was a convoluted, unpolished mess of an MFA project gone sour. I'll admit that there were some brief romantic moments in this film -- a sunset that reverts into a sunrise, or a plane that drifts into the horizon -- but for the most part the film was a collision of cut-rate animation, weak writing, soggy dramatics, a hundred different themes, and stilted community theater acting. If the creators had just zeroed in on some specific element to work with, the film could have been a great deal better. Rather one has to wade through such various narrative threads as an interracial gay relationship, an Asian American father's abandonment of his children, an alcoholic mother who's involved with a philosophical younger man that turns out to be a sexual predator... oh, and did I mention the fantasy sequences of manta rays drifting out of the ocean? None of this plot makes any believable sense when one tries to fish for meanings within it. One only emerges with the lethargy of an awkward construction of a film that dearly needed a new editor. Yet, as Charles Burnett says, "It's a miracle that any film ever gets finished." I'll give Half-Life that at least.
It was positive sign then that Half-Life was pitched by the festival as something of a special event. The "sold-out" free screening was sponsored by Project:Involve, an admirable collective dedicated to promoting diversity in the American film industry. Half-Life arrives at LAFF with buzz from Sundance and South By Southwest, not so much for its representation of Asian Americans, but for its dream-like use of rotoscope animation.
The animation itself is decently done, and contributes to the film's sense of sci-fi other-worldliness. The problem isn't the execution, but the formula. Rotoscope animation + ambiguous dialogue (as when characters answer questions with other questions) + philosophical weight + vivid cinematography combine into something a little too calculated for me. The symbolism is so heavy, it sinks before it takes off; the tropes of flight and the images of sea creatures grew tiresome fast. Meanwhile, the film is loaded with clichés. I'm sick of angry characters chucking dinnerware at the wall in the middle of dinner; and as far as I'm concerned, Dustin Hoffman's plunge in The Graduate should be the first and last time any character takes a cathartic dive into a swimming pool.
Thematically, the film has all the right elements. What is more topical in America today than homosexuality, ecological disaster, the culture of fear, media sensationalism, mixed-race families, and social decay (it's in the title, in case you forgot)? But it's all pasted together with a film-school deliberateness that's probably much more exciting and meaningful to the filmmakers than to the audience.
A problem is that Phang never explores these topics in any depth, preferring to leave them half-exposed and more symbolically important than actually so. She shrouds the unexplored topical elements in a haze of deliberate ambiguity. She doesn't dissect the environment, the media, or race; she smudges them into a beautiful but diffused aesthetic pattern -- much like a rotoscope blur. Jennifer Phang is a promising director with keen ideas and great ambition. But she's not the philosopher the film demands that she be, and she frequently confuses the typical and the topical.
But why must Phang dwell on "the issues" when her priority is clearly family drama? After all, isn't the trend in Asian American cinema now to make films that are not racially specific, but rather to show that Asian Americans are able to simply exist as mothers, lovers, friends, and neighbors, as opposed to just Asians? Sure, and in many ways, Half-Life is a significant step forward for Asian American filmmaking in the indie world. But when "the issues" are nothing more than decoration to lend an otherwise banal film some apparent gravitas, it can be excruciating, even insulting.
Date Posted: 4/3/2009