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APA takes a road trip to Palm Springs and finds that the world is a scary place, but at least the scenery is nice.
I always have high expectations for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and the programmers typically come through on them. What amazed me this year was that so many of its most exciting titles came through outside of what I like to call PSIFF's "built-in quota system" of Oscar foreign film submissions. Thailand submitted Ahimsa: Stop to Run, but PSIFF also programmed Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves; South Korea submitted King and the Clown, but we also got Woman at the Beach; China submitted the popular Curse of the Golden Flower, but audiences also got the banned Summer Palace. In other words, aside from getting films from traditionally under-represented countries like the Philippines and Nepal through the "built-in quota," PSIFF also took the effort to program creatively while attracting the festival hits Southern California has been waiting for.
Palm Springs is a good two hours away from APA headquarters, but we made two weekend trips out to the desert to review a few of the films we hadn't seen yet at AFI Fest, the American Film Market, or elsewhere. There were surely some disappointments, but some big surprises too. I wasn't at the festival long enough to make any solid conclusions about the general trends at the festival, but it seemed that the usual "tortured Third World children told through beautiful cinematography" logic to Asian film programming was in full effect. Related perhaps is the one thing I'm most certain of: PSIFF must have the highest median age for attendees of any film festival in California. Make of that what you will. Meanwhile, here are mini reviews of the films we caught this year. --Brian Hu
The Blood of Yingzhou District
Dir: Ruby Yang
Recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, Ruby Yang's Blood of Yingzhou District sheds light on the AIDS epidemic in China, capturing the hardships of the many children who have lost their parents to AIDS. The film follows three sets of orphans over the course of a year, as they deal with the stigma of the disease and the ostracism they face due to ignorance and fear of infection. First, there is Gao Jun, a young HIV-positive boy, solemnly quiet in his isolation, often playing by himself in a barn as no one dares to go near him. There is Nan Nan, a young girl who is under the care of her teenage sister after being shunned by relatives. And there are the Huang siblings, who despite not carrying the virus themselves, are taunted viciously at school about their dead parents.
What Blood of Yingzhou District (a project of The China AIDS Media Project) aims to do is to shatter misinformation about HIV and AIDS. Yang reports that many of these adults contracted AIDS through contaminated needles, since the Chinese government was running blood banks with poor and irresponsible health practices, enticing the poor to donate blood while promising money in return. Once one HIV positive person's blood was mixed in, these banks ended up spreading the virus like wildfire, leaving behind many children with nowhere to turn. Where the documentary shines is when Yang skirts the slow close-ups of adorable, crying children and delicately probes at her subjects, gleaning honest conflicted reactions and illustrating them without judgment. His uncle who cares about Gao Jin but knows that accepting him under his roof would come with harsh consequences and discrimination for his own children; the teenager who vows she can never tell her fiance or his family the truth about her sister; the neighbor who isn't even sure what the disease is called but figures everyone needs to stay away -- these stories are more poignant because there aren't monsters involved. It's truthful. Likewise, watching children find the strength to emerge from deathly, bleak situations, who dream of success, who play and laugh like normal children -- these small joys are more heart-breaking than any teary-eyed gaze into the camera lens. -- Ada Tseng
King and the Clown
Dir: Jun-ik Lee
Wonderful little pleasures have made King and the Clown one of the year's most notable Korean films, from the tightrope routine of ambitious street performers to the pearly smooth abdomen of the dashingly pretty Lee Jun-gi. Critics have been tongue-tied in trying to explain how a film without big stars or special effects skyrocketed to the top of Korea's all-time box office champions. Confounding the matter is the film's "sophisticated" content. A merry team of foul-mouthed male troubadours penetrates the palace of Korea's decadent king. One of the performers – a fair-skinned player with delicate moves and the aforementioned torso – specializes in female parts, to the carnal fascination of the promiscuous king. The film's high-brow critics (those confused about the film's mainstream success) have drawn attention to the dramatic crossings of gender, sexuality, and class, but what they're ignoring are the film's sensual attractions. Lee Jun-gi's physical performance (the showcasing of his body, the seductions of his gestures) has been said to have single-handedly redefined masculinity in Korean pop culture. Meanwhile, the acrobatic pleasures -- the tightrope walking, the vaudevillian showmanship -- shine with freshness and style. And that's ultimately the film's primary point: that the power to sway a king resides not in the official palace festivals and their rigid court music, but in the base instincts of the low-brow, from the childish games to the potty humor to the seductions of pure love. --Brian Hu
Dir: Roger Michell
When an elderly man lusts after a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, we usually wince. But in writer Hanif Kureishi's latest film Venus, we're a little less quick to judge because Kureishi's old man is just too charming, too witty, and too sympathetically vulnerable for us not to like him. In Venus, the elderly Maurice (Peter O'Toole) takes a romantic interest in his best friend Ian's (Leslie Phillips) crude, but street-smart twenty-something niece (Jodie Whittaker), who comes to "help" Ian with housekeeping. Unfortunately for Ian, Jessie's "help," amounts to finishing his best Stoli and eating junk food. While Ian is "screaming for euthanasia" after a mere 24 hours with the girl, Maurice is completely infatuated with her youth, vitality, and body. After all, his life now consists of a dwindling career (he's typecast as a corpse) and dwindling health (his recent prostate surgery leaves him plagued by incontinence and incompetence, a fate arguably as bad as death). As clichéd as it sounds, the film isn't so much about sexual desire as it is about learning to live when life seems most unbearable. While this genre of film often falls prey to overdone sentimentality, Venus emerges as a poignant tragicomedy on aging thanks to Kureishi's wryly funny script, which takes full advantage of generational comedy and potty humor. It's hard not to laugh at a seventy-something Englishman who spits out the word "fuck" as freely as he quotes Shakespeare. Of course, even Kureishi's witty dialogue would have fallen short without the effortless, nuanced performances of his leads. Seasoned actors O'Toole and Phillips make the perfect grumpy old men and a feisty, but naïve Whittaker has incredible chemistry with O'Toole, making their unexpected connection believable and touching. -- Ana La O'
Dir: Lou Ye
Lou Ye's magnum opus -- the troubled, chaotic, breathtaking epic Summer Palace -- has been the source of controversy at home and of mixed-reviews abroad. Famously banned from attending Cannes for technical reasons (clearly to draw attention away from the explicit sex and depiction of Tiananmen), Summer Palace immediately drew tepid marks from critics expecting much more in the wake of government anxiety and of Lou's previous features Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly. But now that the hype has settled, Summer Palace's brilliance shines through with a vigor that goes well beyond anything we've seen from Lou, and with a grand sense of historical breadth we haven't seen in China since Jia Zhang-ke's Platform. The opening scenes of college life in late-1980s Beijing are the most beautifully choreographed and designed moments I've seen in any Chinese film in quite some time, better even than the similar backstage long takes in Jia's The World. I wasn't there in 1987 so I can't attest to the authenticity of Lou's depiction, but the details he provides in swift camera movements, soaking up the rock music, the cigarette smoke, the drinking, the political discussions, the guzheng lessons, the Truffaut films on little TV sets, all amount to pure cinematic bliss and a visceral sense of a time and place in Chinese cultural history. The momentous build-up -- which encompasses the sexual and social awakening of the protagonist Yu Hong (played by Hao Lei, an astonishing new discovery) -- gets the blood churning and allows the film to extend the emotional swells into a crushing slow-burn dénouement. Time passes and history takes its cruel turns, and two lovers are left bruised and jaded. The closing sequences are a little overlong; but for so many Chinese whose intellectual and social development were stunted by turmoil, so was the process of growing up and adjusting to the times. --Brian Hu
Ahimsa: Stop to Run
Dir: Leo Kittikorn
Ahimsa: Stop to Run has been praised for its creativity and it's hard to disagree. In this Thai thriller, director Leo Kittikorn presents the age-old Buddhist philosophy of Karma like you've never seen it before -- as a devilish twenty-something guy with buzzed red hair, wearing a retro red tracksuit and Nikes. Karma pops up when his troubled human, 23 year-old DJ Ahimsa (Boriwat You-to), trips out on LSD. While Kittikorn's Karma follows tradition by quite painfully making sure that Ahimsa gets what he deserves, Kittikorn adds an interesting twist to the situation by linking Ahimsa's visions of his Karma to visions of the future. And here's where the suspense comes in: when Ahimsa sees his best friend and his pretty doctor in dire situations, he resolves to reverse fate, but as the film constantly repeats, you can’t outrun karma.
Generally, the film’s crossing of genres works quite well. Kittikorn successfully updates traditional Thai spirituality for a modern audience with his colorful cast of characters (Ahimsa’s friends include a young closeted gay man who wears a pink nightgown, and an afro-wig wearing DJ that rides a wheelchair, even though he doesn’t need it) as well as a soundtrack heavy with youthful reggae and electronica. However, the film's attempt to blend darker undertones of violence and revenge into its comedic premise at times leads to disturbing sequences that are difficult to watch. Furthermore, just as the film’s main man finds himself confusedly trying to discern what going on in his head, the film itself grapples with some loose ends of its own: mainly, never explaining if Karma is real or just a hallucination. Ultimately, Ahimsa is a trip. It's exciting, it's bizarre, but it isn't always pleasant. --Ana La O'
Dir: Royston Tan
Singapore's most exciting young talent Royston Tan follows his groundbreaking 15 with 4:30, a quiet schematization of congruous spaces and repetitive time schemes that has more in common with long-take auteurs Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo than his previous work. In one way, that's disappointing since the hyper-stylized 15 went where few art cinema directors went before; in fact, much of 4:30 feels on the brink of settling into the formula of the festival-friendly Asian art house "genre" we've seen so many times before. But Tan succeeds because of his fascination with the randy tics of troubled teens (also why 15 was so captivating), be they in the form of kleptomaniacal tendencies or artful uses pubic hair. 4:30 is grounded in a formal precision we haven't yet seen from him, and while I'd prefer he continue to explore the ground he blazed in 15, this exercise in shape, color, and sound could be just what he needs to re-energize his already-unmatched creativity. --Brian Hu
Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley
Dir: Harry Bal and Rajesh S. Jala
This "inspirational" documentary reminds us of the importance of good storytelling. Without it, a viewer can be presented an important, tragic, profound story of violence and suffering and yet be left befuddled and irritated. To the credit of Harry Bal and Rajesh S. Jala (a Kashmiri Pundit who's own family was forced to flee the country), there aren't many filmmakers daring enough to make a documentary about Kashmir and the India-Pakistan conflict. In fact, the directors were in constant personal danger from the militants while in Kashmir capturing the personal story of nine-year-old Arif amidst the backdrop of political strife.
Arif is currently supporting his mother and four younger siblings by ferrying passengers across a lake because his Muslim militant father has abandoned them for the sake of the jihad. It is a fascinating feat and a heartbreaking story; however, in execution, the documentary plays out like a melodramatic 60-minute trailer -- histrionic voiceovers, flashy text and imagery, breathtaking backdrops of scenery, a close-up shot of the boy blowing a dandelion in slow motion. Scratch that. Multiple close-up shots of the boy blowing a dandelion in slow motion. Keeping up a jarring bipolar tone all the way through, each time the film dipped its toes into the intense waters of terrorism, poverty, abuse, and devastation, an opposing force would rip the audience back out of "learning-about-history" mode and force us to watch excessively romanticized shots of a bright-eyed boy rowing a boat off into the sunset in a river covered in lily pads. If the point was to juxtapose war and hopelessness with the resilience of youth, the film succeeded more in turning the struggle into a cliche ["But Arif carried on despite the struggle. As did Kashmir."] than enlightening us about the psyche of children living in war. There are very exquisite, powerful moments in the film: where Arif talks about his father, when his mother (only 25 years old) talks about her dreams for her children. But it all inevitably seems contrived in presentation; the emotion feels manipulated. Which is unfortunate, because this is a story that could have stood on its own without embellishments. Even if the embellishments were gorgeous to stare at. -- Ada Tseng
Dir: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Click here for Rowena Aquino's review.
Other previously covered films at the festival:
Date Posted: 1/26/2007