Reviews From 2018 CAAMFest

by on May 8, 2018

The “Altered States” shorts program offers a collection of short films employing fantastic elements in ways both direct and indirect.  Of the program’s shorts, the longer entries turn out to be the more memorable offerings.

The Airbnb guest taking “A Vacation In Hollywood” gets an evening phone call about a possible break-in.  What she discovers soon makes her wish human burglars were her only problem.  Mukesh Vidyasagar’s short feels like an extended excerpt from a longer film, not a complete short film.

A pregnant white neighbor gets a quickie lesson in Pilipino mythology from her dweeby Pilipino neighbor in Bernard Badion’s attempt at dark humor “Aswang Next Door.”   The man in question warns he might be an aswang, a creature which eats unborn children.  There’s nothing wrong with the short’s venerable “is he or isn’t he a monster” plot.  But successfully pulling off this story depends on how well the possible monster’s performance creates viewer uncertainty.  The falling flat of an attempted jump scare shows how well the central performance worked.

The titular character in Yung Jae-Chen’s moving short “Runner” doesn’t say a word.  Why she has no one to talk to and what’s happened to everyone else in San Francisco is gradually revealed over the course of the film.  The point of her running training, her backstory, and how loneliness eats at her soul are each rendered in good slow burns.  Everything satisfyingly comes together with a twist or two by the film’s end.

David Chai’s animated short “Space Butthole” seems determined to set a world record for most poo jokes stuffed into a short film.  The title refers to a space warp phenomenon which threatens to inundate the human race with all the fecal matter it had dumped into space for years.  Whether a viewer is truly entertained by this short depends on how low their humor level goes.

Cyrus Tabar’s “Sanzu No Kawa (The River Of Three Crossings)” effectively uses indirection in its story of facing traumatic loss.  Pedants will point out that there are no fantastic genre elements in this short.  Yet respecting genre conventions prove less important than capturing the now lost imaginative play relationship between a boy and his now dead sister.  On the other hand, telling how the girl died would have sharpened the story.     .

Entertainingly mashing together Korean mythology and urban modernity is the Forest Ian Estler & Sebastian Simon short “The Troubled Troubador.”  A musician’s mysterious journey leads him through the mountains to the edge of life and beyond.  This venerable story gets livened by seeing historic Korean garb symbolize life while the intrusions of the modern day represent death.  Seeing the musician’s boat being pushed along a railroad track provides an early clue about the film’s resolution.  Ignorance of Korean mythology will not hamper a viewer’s enjoyment of this short film.

Anna gets an unwelcome surprise visit from former lover Adam in Alice Park’s quietly tragic “Your Hand In Mine.”  The apparent threat of physical violence yields to a supposedly justified emotional violence that still feels disturbingly wrong.

***

How have dating apps changed the way gay men connect?  Chou Tung-Yen’s semi-personal documentary “Looking For?” tries to answer this question.  Filmed over the course of four years, Chou travels from Taipei to London to casually interview Asians and a few white men who’ve used these apps for everything from a casual hookup to meeting a dinner companion.

The loss of gay bar culture thanks to dating apps gets shown as not necessarily a bad thing.  One interviewee welcomes the relaxed searching offered by app scrolling compared to the pressure of making every minute count in a two hour bit of bar cruising.  Apps also allow the freedom of more easily finding people who have no problems connecting with “objectionable” fairies and fatties.

Yet “Looking For?”’s insights more frequently belong to Gay Culture 101 classes.  The viewer learns that drug use helps some gay men get sexually aroused faster for a one-night stand.  Also, casual sex can communicate more about a person through non-verbal means.

Particularly in Asian cultures, do dating apps facilitate treating the LGBT community as something kept out of sight?  Chou’s film does not confront this bigger question.  Its focus on personal pleasure over the wider consequences in Asian societies of dating app culture makes “Looking For?” an unsatisfying and shallow look at a current phenomenon.

***

A case can easily be made that Patricio Ginelsa Jr.’s “Lumpia” is a shambolic mess.  Its klutzy fight scenes will never disturb Ching Siu-Ting’s sleep.  Its humor’s broadness makes San Francisco’s Great Highway look like a one-lane road.  Its visual continuity errors would be used as textbook examples of how not to make a film.

Yet “Lumpia”’s cinematic sins are easily forgiven thanks to a heartfelt amateurishness comparable to “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.”  Making “Lumpia” offered a way for the filmmakers to bring together old childhood friends to relive their summer glory days of making movies.  Taking seven years to film the project on Video 8 cameras adds to “Lumpia”’s genuineness.

These endearingly amateurish qualities shouldn’t be surprising as “Lumpia” celebrates internal genuineness over superficial smoothness.  That celebration plays out dramatically in a conflict at Fog City High School (a thinly disguised Daly City) between the cool bullies led by Tyrone and the geeky FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat) who haven’t seamlessly assimilated into American society.  Caught in the middle is the FOB-ish James.  He wants to appear part of Tyrone’s crowd to impress his secret crush Kelly.  The mysterious silent lumpia-thrower Kuya ultimately shapes the bullies vs. FOBs conflict’s resolution.

“Lumpia”’s made by friends for friends energy translates into everything from local in-jokes  (Serramonte Mall becoming the fictional Serra-Manila Mall) to a kicking music soundtrack of performances by independent Filipino-American artists.  The cinematic results might not be to everyone’s taste, but maybe crunching on some lumpia during the screening will put skeptical viewers in the mood to just sit back and watch.

***

Cathy Yan’s ensemble comedy/drama “Dead Pigs” shows the modern-day Chinese live down to the stereotype of being obsessed with making money by any means possible.  While certain American media commentators would have you think mass pursuit of money is a civic virtue, Yan’s five main characters demonstrate the emptiness of this pursuit.

Pig farmer Old Wang thinks he’s on the Chinese road to prosperity.  His son Wang Zhen has a great job.  Semi-estranged sister Candy Wang is a successful and ambitious beauty shop owner.  Reality starts hitting Old Wang hard when he discovers he’s lost the money he’s invested to a scam.  The local loan shark cares little for the farmer’s misfortune.  But selling his pigs will not pay off Old Wang’s debt.    Wang’s pigs are among the thousands of pigs suddenly dying of unknown causes, and nobody wants to buy the meat.

Old Wang’s hopes of being bailed out by his family soon get dashed.  Zhen barely scrapes by working as a waiter at a high-end nightclub.  The son is friends with rich girl Xia Xia, but he has little interest in hitting her up for money.  Candy meanwhile refuses to sell the Wang family home to Golden Happiness Properties.  The house’s land is part of the proposed site for the company’s tacky upscale apartment complex Sagrada Familia, designed by American expatriate architect Sean Landry.

The significance of the film’s title lies in more than being a plot point.  It turns out to be a metaphor for the toxic relationship between many Chinese citizens and their attempts to improve their economic lives.  The meaning of the metaphor gets explained in a man on the street interview Old Wang gives to a TV reporter.  He complains about eating soft rice and vegetables regularly so he has the money needed to take care of his pigs aka his major source of income.  The sudden and unexpected demise feels to Old Wang like a betrayal of all his financial sacrifices.

Yan’s film shows the Chinese economical miracle as the pretty face of a snake pit of greed and deception.  Old Wang is doomed to believe that his persistence will eventually enable him to strike it rich.  Sean is the naIf whose foolish belief in Chinese economic opportunities makes him a useful idiot for investment scammers.  Circumstances eventually force Zhen to turn to auto collision fraud to scrape by.

Candy and Xia Xia can hardly be called the moral center of a world which lacks one.  Candy’s successful hairstyling business gives her the financial security to resist Golden Happiness Properties’ attempts to bribe her to leave.  Xia Xia’s comfortable life keeps her cocooned away from the street-level struggles of poorer citizens.

The “accumulating wealth as the ultimate social good” mentality deserves as much artistic pummeling as possible.  “Dead Pigs” does land a few nice blows, but nothing that would cause mental wincing.

***

Mina Shum’s new film “Meditation Park” feels as heartwarmingly satisfying as a good cup of hot tea.  Starring legendary Chinese film star (and this year’s CAAMFest Spotlight honoree) Pei-Pei Cheng, Shum’s film shows that you’re never too old to find personal freedom.

Maria (Cheng) lives in an authoritarian marriage to Bing (Tzi Ma).  She may have had two children, Ava (Sandra Oh) and Charlie.  But that joy is balanced by her general lack of job experience or even financial independence from Bing.  The accidental discovery of Bing’s extramarital affair spurs Maria to slowly start breaking out of her socially isolated existence.

Shum makes this basic but very serviceable story work through three factors.  First, the number of films set in East Vancouver’s heavily immigrant populated Renfrew and Hastings area can probably be counted on one hand without using all fingers.  Small details as a fish shop selling a fish more deserving of being dog food than people food provide a sense of place.  More relevant for the movie’s plot is the area’s proximity to a nearby sports/concert venue and the local residents’ selling parking spots to attendees despite the Vancouver municipal government’s displeasure.

Second, Shum’s film big-heartedly believes in giving potentially objectionable characters a chance to explain themselves.  Thus, apparent rude greedhead Gabriel turns out to be a husband stressed out by helplessly watching his wife slowly die.   Even Bing gets a moment to earn viewer sympathy when he shows a more vulnerable side.   The film’s big-heartedness even extends to giving some characters second chances in life.  How these characters use those second chances depend on the person.

Third, and most crucially, Cheng runs away with Maria’s role.  The viewer sees that Maria’s generosity of heart is both her strength and her weakness.  She’s able to find the good in Gabriel and still care for the disowned Charlie.  Yet Maria’s generosity gets yoked to a generational upbringing which prizes serving men above all else.  This cultural training explains why Maria never directly confronts Bing about his infidelity.  Fortunately, the old woman doesn’t ignore Bing’s betrayal.

Maria’s learning to see life outside of her husband’s shadow turns out to be a collection of small failures and triumphs.  Alarm bells don’t ring for the old woman when her husband ridicules her attempt to get a job.  However, she does find a way to make money for herself by reaching out to others.  The amount made proves less important than the sense of accomplishment she gains.  It is the cumulation of such small triumphs as enjoying a park’s silent disco that builds up Maria’s confidence to handle her ultimate challenge.

Originality is always worth lauding.  But Shum’s entertaining film shows satisfaction can also be found in a familiar story told well.

***

The short film program “American South Initiative: Stories From The American South” brings together five short films about the Asian-American experience in this infrequently considered region.

The best and most timely film is the documentary “Come And Take It.”  In PJ Raval and Ellen Spiro’s short, Texas music student Jessica Jin’s online joke ridiculing the Texas State Legislature’s authorization of concealed carry handguns on college campuses unexpectedly catapults her into gun control politics.  Jin’s joke leads to the formation of the group #CocksNotGlocks.

The consequences of the popularity of Jin’s joke catch her off guard. It is encouraging that the joke sparks protests ridiculing the law’s insensitivity and absurdity.  But even though pro-gun trolls expectedly make racial epithets and sexual violence remarks against Jin on social media, doxxing Jin takes the viciousness to another level.

Jin certainly deserves props for trying to rise to the political occasion.  But her well-intentioned effort to find common ground with pro-gun advocate CJ Grisham winds up undermining her political credibility.  Engaging with your political opposite means little when that opponent declines to accord credibility to your position.  Perhaps that’s why Jin eventually ends up in a different place from her sister #CocksNotGlocks activists.

Huay-Bing Law’s dramatic short “June” also takes place in Texas.  But it’s the Texas of 1955.  Husband Gene has finally brought his titular immigrant wife with him to a graduating class party to meet his classmates.

Law’s real story is the slow revelation of June’s social isolation.  June’s self-consciousness is not helped by the failure of Gene’s classmates to reach out to her.  An incident of casual racism starts undermining  June’s comfort.  But the biggest betrayal comes from Gene.  His ultimate treatment of June shows he’s become so Americanized that he quietly considers her a social embarrassment.  .

The documentary “Leadway” from Robbie Fisher & Dudley Percy Olsson shows how subject Cindi Quong Lofton pays forward her father’s legacy of social generosity.  Alfred Quong was a hard working and well-liked store owner living in Shaw, Mississippi.  His death during a store robbery and the community’s reaction gives Cindi a way to use her skills to help the community.  This short ends up being solidly inspiring.

Another tribute to a father is Rita Phetmixay’s documentary “Phetmixay Means Fighter.”  The filmmaker’s father, Peter Phetmixay, would have been a military officer in the Laotian government.  The Communist takeover of the country eventually led to Phetmixay’s fleeing the country and eventually settling in Ashboro, N.C. The father’s recollections of the struggles and sacrifices he makes for his family seem just as momentous as his escape from the Communist prison camp.  Yet what’s ultimately affirming about Phetmixay pere’s meeting his many life challenges is the sense from his family name that he was born to eventually triumph over whatever hardship life threw his way.

“Whitman, Alabama” from Jennifer Crandall proves the program’s only misstep.  The cook and co-owner of a Vietnamese restaurant reads Verse 10 from Walt Whitman’s classic poem “Song Of Myself.”  Lines from the poem are matched with real-life images of the restaurant’s operation.  But instead of insightful cleverness, the flat reading of Whitman’s verse makes the entire short feel  twee.

(“Altered States” screens at 10:00 PM on May 11, 2018 at the AMC Dine-In Kabuki (1881 Post, SF).  “Looking For?” screens at 5:10 PM on May 19, 2018 at the Roxie Theatre (3117 – 16th Street, SF).  “Lumpia” screens at 9:50 PM on May 19, 2018 at the Roxie Theatre.  “Dead Pigs” screens at 8:50 PM on May 13, 2018 at the AMC Dine-In Kabuki and 12:30 PM on May 20, 2018 at the Roxie Theatre.  “Meditation Park” screens at 6:00 PM on May 15, 2018 at the AMC Dine-In Kabuki.  “American South Intiative: Stories From The American South Shorts” screens at 4:30 PM on May 13, 2018 at the AMC Dine-In Kabuki.  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.caamedia.org .)

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