Reviews from CAAMFest 35

by on March 10, 2017

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The heartbreaking documentary “Plastic China” gives viewers an uncomfortable look at a more lo-fi version of waste reclamation.  Director Jiu-liang Wang’s portrait of two families involved in Chinese plastic recycling keeps its future tragedies understated.

Former farmer Kun Wong runs a homebrew plastic recycling plant, one of 5,000 in his village.  Peng and his family work for Kun.  Peng complains about money, yet constantly drinks away his salary.  His daughter Yi-Jie dreams of getting an education despite Peng’s previous broken promises.  The girl’s future is torn between undeserved filial loyalty and Kun’s possible offer of help.

For these plastic recyclers, imported waste is their manure from the West.  Hills of waste primarily get harvested for reusable plastic.  But for the children of Kun and Peng, these garbage mounds serve as everything from an improvised house to windows on the world of Western consumerism.

Neither of the subject families appears aware of the hazards of working with and living among plastic waste.  The rendering of scavenged plastic into reusable plastic beads is regularly done without protective breathing apparatus.  Nor does anybody see anything hazardous in standing for warmth near a fire fueled by burning plastic waste.  Unsurprisingly, Kun develops some medical problems whose cause escapes his understanding.   Compared to the future health problems awaiting her family, what ultimately happens to Yi-Jie’s dreams feels doubly cruel.

The leavings of Western consumerism may seem grand compared to the hard lives led by the plastic recyclers.  Yet people like Kun and Peng remain unaware they’re paying the price of that grandness.

***

“Finding Kukan” demonstrates that re-discovering forgotten history can yield treasures as valuable as gold or jewels.

The titular “Kukan,” aka “Battle Cry of China,” is a supposedly lost Academy Award-winning documentary.   16mm Kodachrome color film captured real-life images from China of the country’s late 1930s struggle against the invading Japanese military juggernaut.

Director Robin Lung’s documentary follows her seven-year search for a restorable print of “Kukan.”  Lung meets the descendants of Reynold “Rey” Scott, the adventure-seeking photographer who shot “Kukan”’s amazing color footage.  More importantly, she rediscovers the forgotten life of Chinese-American firebrand Li Ling-Ai.  Li’s determination and financial backing shepherded this project to completion.

At first, it seems Lung’s chasing a cinematic chimera.  A Chinese-American woman producing a commercially distributed film in the racist 1930s sounds unbelievable.  But as the director finds old newspaper reviews and vintage film programs for “Kukan,” the viewer gets drawn into Lung’s hopes of finding a complete print of the film.

The documentary shows that searching for a surviving print of “Kukan” is tied into telling the stories of Li’s and Scott’s lives.  This project would not have happened without understanding Scott’s taste for adventure or Li’s desire to use film to show Americans real Chinese life for the first time.  That said, there are some questions about Ai and Scott that can never be answered, such as whether the two were ever lovers.

Besides the expected interviews and historical photographs, Lung throws some surprises into the documentary.  Dramatization of principal moments in her main subjects’ lives are recreated with a combination of shadow puppetry and voiceovers from the likes of Kelly Hu and Daniel Dae Kim.  Most thrillingly, there is crisp actual footage from “Kukan.”

The ultimate reward from Lung’s search comes towards the film’s end.  Those scenes remind viewers that time’s ravages can be defeated in small ways.

***

“Gook,” the racist insult that gives director/writer Justin Chon’s film its title, was coined during wartime.  Appropriately enough, the film’s events take place in a metaphorical war zone.  Early on, Chon’s lead character Eli gets a casual beating from a carful of cholos just because.  Later, a trio of young black men and Eli give each other stares reserved for venomous snakes.

The burning building images that open “Gook” metaphorically hint at an eventual eruption of violence.  But it takes an April 29, 1992 title card and news broadcast excerpts about an upcoming verdict in a notorious Los Angeles police brutality trial to identify that spark.

The women’s shoe store that serves as “Gook”’s main setting feels like a delicate shelter from the coming racial storm.  The struggling family business is run by Eli with begrudging help from wannabe R&B singer brother Daniel.  Young Kamilla plays hooky from school to help out at the store.  Most importantly, Eli and Daniel are Korean-American while Kamilla is African-American.  The trio’s harmony contrasts with the antagonism of Kamilla’s brother Keith towards Korean-Americans.

“Gook” puts itself head and shoulders above more mainstream dramas about racial tensions by acknowledging there are no easy “Kumbaya” moments to de-escalate these tensions.  Characters such as Keith and neighboring liquor store owner Mr. Kim have very good reasons for their openly antagonistic racist attitudes.  Yet even after the viewer learn these characters’ backstories, that knowledge proves useless.  No ideas seem forthcoming for moving forward.  Instead, the viewer can only watch the coming racial train wreck with the inevitability of a prophesied Greek tragedy.

Have black-Korean American antagonisms been handled with this depth in a dramatic film before?  Certainly not in a manner which avoids either demonizing one particular side or both-siderism.  The frustration of being on an economic hamster wheel has just as much emotional validity as struggling to better one’s life even in a poorer neighborhood.

“Gook” uses its flights of fancy judiciously rather than drown the viewer in them.  In the film’s tense setting, these imaginative moments provide moments of much needed relief from an oppressive situation.  More importantly, they’re “Gook”’s closest approximations of hope.

(Information about the CAAMFest lineup can be found at www.caamfest.org .  “Plastic China” screens on March 11, 2017 at 2:40 PM at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF). “Finding Kukan” screens on March 11, 2017 at 12:40 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse (2550 Mission, SF) and March 18, 2017 at 3:20 PM at the New Parkway Theater (474-24th Street, Oakland).  “Gook” screens on March 11, 2017 at 9:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse.)

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