May 31, 2002|by Walter Chaw Now in its fifth incarnation, Denver's Aurora Asian Film Festival has grown year by year to become one of the region's most interesting cinematic events. Under the guidance of Denver Film Society program director Brit Withey, the decidedly small festival (twelve films are being screened over the course of four days) will feature eleven Denver-area debuts--including the much-lauded The Turandot Project and Tony Bui's Green Dragon--as well as a restored 35mm print of Conrad Rooks's 1972 film Siddhartha. It is a rare opportunity to see a largely-unknown film projected (an adaptation of Hermann Hesse's novel of the same name, the picture features the cinematography of the great Sven Nykvist), and an example of the kind of value a festival this intimate can provide.
directed by Adam Low
Adam Low's mishandled Kurosawa is a collection of mildly interesting vignettes about legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that lacks cohesion in a way the master's films never did. Beginning interestingly enough with the description of a devastating fire in Tokyo, the gruesome aftermath of which was witnessed by a young Kurosawa and subsequently found expression in some of his films (Kagemusha in particular), Low's documentary seems incapable of effectively integrating a late interview with the director, a reunion of surviving crew members (and star Machiko Kyô) from Rashomon, and a few maddeningly random street shots of downtown Tokyo into something revealing of the artist and his work. The film is repetitive in its use of clips, and its narration (performed by Sam Shepard, with Paul Scofield reading selections from Kurosawa's autobiography) drips with unfocused gravitas. Important films are neglected with nary a mention (Sanjuro, High and Low, The Hidden Fortress) while any critical readings are left to the estimable but truncated efforts of historian Donald Richie. While it's always a pleasure to spend a couple of hours looking at clips from Kurosawa's oeuvre, Kurosawa is sadly not much more than that--brief chats with James Coburn, Clint Eastwood, and long-time production designer Shinobu Muraki only serve to frustrate with the sense of opportunities for true insight squandered.
Green Dragon (2002)
starring Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker, Duong Don, Hiep Thi Le
written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui
The debut film of Timothy Bui (whose brother Tony made something of a splash with his lovely Three Seasons in 1999), Green Dragon is an immigrant drama detailing the glut of Vietnamese refugees interned in holding camps in the United States awaiting sponsorship during the last days of the Vietnam War. What emerges is something like Alan Parker's Come See the Paradise, with its theme of involuntary expulsion from a homeland and the inclusion of a Caucasian man (Patrick Swayze) to stand as a possible surrogate for a Western audience's point of view. The film is strongest, in fact, when it focuses on the dislocation of the camp residents (among them many South Vietnamese soldiers filled with remorse for a war and a country lost), and weakest when it takes time for a pair of love stories and the budding relationship between a child, Minh (Trung Hieu Nguyen), and a kindly cook Addie (Forest Whitaker). In turning away from the lingering stickiness of a Vietnamese social caste structure, the melancholy of a dislocated people mourning the effective loss of their country, and the fear of an unknown future in a potentially hostile land, Green Dragon errs on the side of mawkish predictability and eye-rolling events over-laden with the dead weight of too much significance. A cough is never just a cough in Green Dragon--more's the pity, for in the telling of a story largely untold, Bui chooses to produce something that is ultimately suspiciously familiar.
starring Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal, Romesh Sharma, Pinchoo Kapoor
written and directed by Conrad Rooks, based on the novel by Hermann Hesse
A film that almost single-handedly revived Hermann Hesse for a Sixties audience primed for his tales of hippified introspection and journeys into the Jungian shadow, Conrad Rooks's Siddhartha is a leisurely stroll along one man's path to self-discovery. It follows young Brahmin Siddhartha (Shashi Kapoor) as he experiments with various states of life and mind: asceticism to hedonism and physical love to ecstatic self-loathing before finally discovering a pervasive peace born of exploring all unexamined elements of the unconscious self. With legendary DP Sven Nykvist monumentalizing the amazing Indian landscape in deep reds, impossible greens, and expansive panoramas of water and land, Siddhartha becomes as much a visceral experience as a philosophical one. Simplistic in the extreme, Siddhartha takes on the mantle of parable by virtue of its directness. No conversation passes without a further unfolding of spiritual character, and its didactic nature, no matter how gentle, represents the main difficulty of the text for a modern audience. Rooks's Siddhartha is a lovely, evocative piece that may come across as stodgy and obvious thirty years after its release. All the same, the opportunity to see it projected in a restored 35mm print is one to be savoured.
The Turandot Project (2000)
directed by Allan Miller
Allan Miller's The Turandot Project is a chronicle of an often-contentious collaboration between two very different cultural traditions. It follows the staging of Puccini's "Turandot" in Beijing's Forbidden City in 1997, with Chinese film director Zhang Yimou and Italian conductor Zubin Mehta at the reins of a beast whose cost escalated into the fifteen-million dollar range and took on the aspect of a point of cultural pride. Highlights include a performance in Florence where Yimou was left largely the ornamental approval for Puccini's cultural hijack (though as hijacks go, it's nowhere near as heinous as Gilbert and Sullivan's dreadful "Mikado"), the construction of sets in China (a pleasant cultural director takes responsibility for the fragile structures in the Forbidden City, saying: "Yes, if they get damaged, then I go to jail!"), rehearsals (including much soothing of prima donna snit), and, lastly, "Turandot"'s gala opening night, featuring an audience comprising opera lovers from all over the world. Yimou, a somewhat bleak visual perfectionist, comes to loggerheads with lighting director Guido Levi in the documentary's sharpest exchanges, revealing that the difficulties of such a tremendous undertaking are more prickly than the merely logistical.
When Miller's documentary succeeds, it succeeds in conveying the minor miracle of pulling off any monstrous stage production: part diplomacy, part warfare, part vision. Its faults are in its elisions--The Turandot Project functions far better as a companion piece to the actual performance than as a stand-alone documentary. (Enough so that the very fine DVD release of Yimou/Mehta's Turandot would have been well served by the inclusion of this documentary.) As far as it goes, however, The Turandot Project provides a tantalizing glimpse into the intricacies of controlling chaos and managing megalomaniacs with only the accident of devotion to their craft easing the alliance.
Mai's America (2001)
directed by Marlo Poras
Described in the production notes as "an intimate portrait of Mai, a spunky, mini-skirted daughter of Ho Chi Minh's revolution," Marlo Poras's Mai's America is an alarming documentary following spunky high-school senior Mai as she comes to the United States on an exchange program to a high school in rural Mississippi. Unsure that I, born and raised in the United States, would survive such a cultural shock, that Mai manages to navigate the dire straights of proud "redneckism" ("My host parents say that a good redneck works very hard to make a living. I'm not sure that my host parents are good rednecks") and the somehow even more macabre peculiarities of the Deep South is a testament to the human capability for adaptation and endurance. Who let John Waters preside over a student exchange program?
Rather than an extended freak show, however, Mai's America becomes something of a process of understanding for the somewhat arrogant Mai, her conviction that America is full of murderous aggressors leavened by the reality that this part of America is full of slack-jawed yokels. (The murderous aggressor part of America is apparently elsewhere.) Points of interest include a well-intentioned history teacher taking Mai on a tour of the wealthier Mississippi neighbourhoods so that she sees that "America is more than what [her] host family represents;" wide-eyed descriptions of her first house-sister's and mother's manic depression ("I don't know what's wrong with Kim"); Mai teaching a roomful of Mississippi classmates the North Vietnamese national anthem; her interaction with her second host family (a very nice southern Baptist couple); and her befriending of a kindly transvestite, which demonstrates the emotional kinship of strangers in a strange land while providing the film with an extremely strong structure, the funniest line, and a surprisingly rich subtext.
With subjects as unusual and perverse as any found in Errol Morris, Mai's America, when it follows Mai to New Orleans on a visit to a fellow Vietnamese exchange student (including the requisite visit to Bourbon Street's motley collection of crackpots and hucksters), reaches a level of quiet brilliance and universality that is difficult to articulate. Mai's America is what the documentary format can accomplish: a fascinating topic guided by a keen eye, and an invaluable bit of cultural anthropology.