June 11, 2003|by Walter Chaw There's a genuine sense of community engendered by the Aurora Asian Film Festival, down on East Colfax where a great deal has been done to make an old community feel intimate and inviting. Old-growth trees dot the sidewalks and nice cobbled walks bisect the intersections. A lot of construction along Colfax reminds that this area may boom if we ever get Democratic leadership back in office, and a lot of uniformed police officers remind that until we do, economic revitalization is sort of holding its breath down here. On the last night of the festival, I moderated a Q&A with director Gil Portes after an exceedingly well-received screening of his tedious film Small Voices; just before that, my wife and I had dinner at my favourite diner (Pete's Kitchen) and then dessert at a little Mexican bar across the way that not only had no waitresses who spoke English, but also no menus (and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes playing in Spanish on a beat-up television (it's better that way)). Nothing like a little cultural displacement to get the juices flowing.
I was asked before the discussion, in private, by one of the Denver Film Society representatives what I had thought of the films, and my response to him serves as good as any wrap-up for the festival just finished. I said that the films weren't for me--that the films were for a middlebrow audience disinterested in being uncomfortable or particularly challenged, but very interested in having their beliefs reinforced and their memories of home presented in ways cute or popularly bitter. That for a young festival with vested interests (and governed, to a mysterious extent, by community leaders and their own tastes), the choice of films that aren't very good but push the right buttons is not necessarily a bad one in terms of unique attendance, but is a very bad one in terms of critical support. If the Aurora Asian Film Festival is ever going to enjoy any sort of crossover popularity, it needs to have waitresses fluent in English, and a menu of some value. But that little Mexican bar has been there for years, and though it doesn't mind overly if I stop by, it doesn't need me, either.
Dry Wood Fierce Fire
starring Louis Koo, Miriam Chin Wah Yeung, Flora Chan, Wyman Wong
written by Kwok Tsz Kin & He Gu & Eileen Yeung & Wilson Yip
directed by Wilson Yip
Making a bid to be Hong Kong's Amélie, Wilson Yip's Dry Wood Fierce Fire mistakes irritating for quirky and fashions a wearying romantic-comedy formula flick that is, in truth, unforgivable and verging on the unwatchable. The sources mined for humour are broad and shameless, a man skewered in the rump serves as the high point (and the meet-cute), and the heroine's myopia is so great that she's rendered effectively blind when she loses her glasses. The acting is grating and the plotting inept; if the whole thing weren't a Punch & Judy archetype (with the merging of a men's magazine with a woman's magazine the would-be update), there'd be no telling what's going on at all--the subtitles offer no help in that regard, though they do provide the film's one funny moment, when sodomy is referred to as "sex of anal." Comedy the hardest thing to carry off and translate, it's appropriate to allow for some difficulty in the language/culture barrier, understanding that giving the picture too much credit for being an alien artifact may, in fact, begin to insult Chinese audiences, who frankly deserve the benefit of doubt.
New Moon (Bagong buwan)
starring Cesar Montano, Caridad Sanchez, Amy Austria, Jericho Rosales
written by Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Ricky Lee and Jun Lana
directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Marilou Diaz-Abaya's probably-topical screed on the plight of Islamic island Mindanao and its struggle for emancipation from an oppressive Filipino government finds its way to Denver after opening New York's 25th Asian-American Film Fest. Alternating murky firefights with interminable speechifying, New Moon is gruelling fare that attempts to show the Muslim point-of-view in its focus on a small family at the centre of the conflict, with pacifist Ahmad (Cesar Montano) forced to defend his religion and his beliefs. An interesting subject undermined by length first but also by the odd malady of so universalizing a conflict that it becomes less relevant than ultimately over-familiar, even trivial. The desire to create films with universal appeal tends to make everything the same flavour of faceless bland.
Hi! Dharma! (Dalmaya nolja)
starring Park Shin-yang, Jeong Jin-yeong, Park Sang-Myeon, Kang Seong-jin
written by Park Gyu-tae
directed by Park Cheol-kwan
A slapstick Korean jopok comedy, Hi! Dharma!'s massive popularity in its homeland suggests nothing more than Bruce Almighty inevitably breaking the $200 million dollar mark in the next few weeks. The film is formulaic and sloppy, finding ways to be disrespectful of Buddhism while elevating Sister Act to completely unjustified heights. A group of gangsters hides in a Buddhist temple, infuriating the monks and resulting in a series of contests (diving, a 3000-bow test, solutions to koans) to determine whether the ruffians may stay. Abandoning rational thought in favour of squeezing in as many gags as possible, the frenetic pacing of the piece doesn't do much to bridge the humour gap that manages mainly to make Hi! Dharma! a relic of a past that no one in this hemisphere has ever experienced.
starring Supakorn Kitsuwon, Siriyakorn Pukkavesh, Black Phomtong, Somlek Sakdikul
screenplay by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, based on the novel by Wat Wanlayangkoon
directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
A film that batters down defenses with its relentless charm and the dawning certainty that its Thai-wood camp is intended with a satirical bite, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Mon-Rak Transistor is a delirious mish-mash of styles and narrative hiccups at the service of opera-house melodrama. Part musical, the picture has an amazingly dark undercurrent that makes the inevitable romantic ending no less predictable, but the path to it often mysterious and occasionally surprising. The cinematography is beautiful and the performances engaging, creating, from its merging of stage convention (including fourth-wall breaking), high cheese, and a few pointed spasms that feel suspiciously like keen social critique, something along the lines of Damn Yankees. A film about love, death, and karaoke, with a lead character named Pan (Suppakorn Kitsuwan), Mon-Rak Transistor finds a way to be different without being obvious about it, drawing blood with a subtle, even breezy, sureness.
starring Rachel Maryam Sayidina, Jajang C. Noer, Henidar Amroe, Marcella Zalianty
written by Riri Riza, Prima Rusdi
directed by Riri Riza
Early in Indonesian hyphenate Riri Riza's Eliana, Eliana, a mother looking for her child in big-city Jakarta passes a booth where a pink, air-brushed Statue of Liberty T-shirt hangs. The ideas of cultural diffusion and the insidious encroachment of capitalist empiricism (mainly through the vilification of U.S.-made cigarettes) form the skeleton for the loose flesh of the picture's mother-and-child reunion story. Edited with a chainsaw and trying too hard to convey deep emotions with a half-dozen long soulful looks into bathroom mirrors, the tale of a young woman (Rachel Maryam Sayidina) fleeing an arranged marriage in her rural Padang to set up a terse confrontation with her mother (Jajang C. Noer) in the metropolis some time later is handled with a little too much didacticism, and too little real meat. Still, moments hint at something better; maybe it's the Wong Kar-wai colour scheme and setting--and a benefit of a doubt should be afforded the language barrier, which, in this instance, is enforced by unusually incompetent subtitling.
Small Voices (Mga munting tinig)
starring Alessandra de Rossi, Dexter Doria, Gina Alajar, Amy Austria
screenplay by Gil M. Portes & Senedy H. Que & Adolfo B. Alix Jr.
directed by Gil M. Portes
Wearying and ridiculous, Gil M. Portes's Small Voices is a series of exhausted scenarios arranged in two dimensions that betray either an over-reliance on stagecraft or an over-confidence in the audience's willingness to believe that four people having a conversation would stand in a row. The prosaic blocking and lugubrious camera sweeps are the least of the film's problems as an idealistic young teacher (Alessandra di Rossi, just awful) goes into rural Philippines to teach a ragtag bunch of moppets how to dream again. As social critique, it lands with a deadening didacticism, and as pocket uplift Dangerous Minds/Stand and Deliver/Not One Less doppelgänger, it reeks of fatigue and an alarming dearth of imagination and life. Plot holes abound, sharing time with disturbing continuity errors, hiccups in narrative, and the sort of scripting problems that inexplicably punish one young girl for leaving her country while rewarding the heroine for doing the same. It wants to have its cake and eat it, too, wishing to be inspirational and satirical in the same breath but managing mostly to be derivative and mawkish.
25 Kids and a Dad
starring Hong Huang, Kesheng Lei, Lin Li, Gaowa Siqin
written and directed by Hong Huang
The sort of film that used to star Walter Matthau, 25 Kids and a Dad is a weightless social farce with a big-talking Daddy Warbucks forced to put his money where his mouth is when all the orphans of his small town take him up on his boast that he'd like to be the dad to every orphan in his small town. The opening-night film of the sixth Aurora Asian Film Festival, the picture marks something of an unfortunate trend among this year's selections towards tales of pocket uplift in the Goodbye Mr. Chips mold. To that end, 25 Kids and a Dad is Stripes by way of Bad News Bears with a little It's A Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music, making the flick pretty much no-miss amongst an audience looking for a maximum level of comfortable lack of controversy. It's not without its moments of manic charm, ultimately, most of them wrung from the energy of its cast and a particularly Chinese sense of humour marked by self-deprecation and wry fatalism.
To Dance with the White Dog (Shiroi inu to warutsu wo)
starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Mayumi Wakamura, Kosuke Toyohara, Kaho Minami
screenplay by Azuma Morisaki, based on the novel by Terry Kay
directed by Takashi Tsukinoki
Mawkish and dreadfully over-scored, Takashi Tsukinoki's To Dance with the White Dog (based on a Terry Kay novel, and a remake of a 1993 made-for-TV film starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) follows the plight of widower Eisuke (legendary Japanese actor and Kurosawa fave Tatsuya Nakadai) after the death of his wife in a house packed to the rafters with nattering women. The portrayal of his daughters and a peculiar "aunty" is unkind at its worst and hysterical at best, with the titular dog the only girl in the piece to retain anything resembling dignity. Most unbearable is Eisuke's obvious frailty, his constant pratfalls the kind of thing that supports his daughters' contention that he be put in a home instead of the intended effect of demonstrating sudden great bursts of passion. The film aspires for Ozu in look and topic, but save a few lovely, contemplative shots of rural Japan, the picture washes out as desperately sentimental and impossible to watch without one ironic eyebrow raised.
Sumo East and West (Bagong buwan)
directed by Ferne Pearlstein
Ferne Pearlstein's Sumo East and West feels long at around ninety minutes, detailing more of the western experience in Japanese sumo than the eastern perspective promised by half of the title, yet it does manage along to way to provide some insight into the sport. A documentary in the traditional form, the picture surprises when it details the obsessiveness with which the sumo ring is prepared ("special" clay complete with religious blessing), and the lengths to which the wrestlers will go to meet height requirements (silicon implants on the crown of the noggin). Where the film fails is its lingering on Wayne Viera, a Hawaiian wrestler forced to retire when his pancreas exploded now wiling away his days training young sumo wrestlers in Hawaii. The collision of cultures hinted at but skirted, and while there are a wealth of interesting topics surrounding sport, tradition, and insular societies (ritual abuse of sumo apprentices is left a disturbing subtext), Sumo East and West is a skip across the big pond--a long one, but a glancing blow all the same.