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Every film is a cultural document, packed with signals that reflect the identity of those involved in its creation. Arguably, it's these signals that make films interesting to watch, though sometimes we can lose sight of this and get caught up in the mechanics of narrative or filmmaking technology, as if these are elements that can be wholly extracted from issues of cultural identity. A festival with a geographic, cultural, and cross-cultural focus like the SF International Asian American Film Festival (which opened last night with a sold-out screening of Eric Byler's Award-winning AMERICANese) can help remind those of us who might otherwise wear cultural blinders to look at film through a different lens. No wonder it's such a popular festival in a city like Frisco, where so many residents have traditionally had roots in more than one identity group that it's as if the whole city is a cross-cultural experience.
I couldn't help but use this lens to view a film like Grain in Ear (playing Saturday Mar. 18 at the Kabuki and Sunday Mar. 19 at the Pacific Film Archive) as a portrayal of immigrants, in this case a Korean woman and her young son trying to survive as outsiders in a Chinese coal mining town. Certainly the feelings of isolation and anguish the film portrays are not unique to immigrants, and director Zhang Lu's framing of the film as one about "terrorism" works. It's not what came to my mind while watching the film, though. Rather I watched how the kimchee peddler protagonist Soon-hee's attitude toward her Korean identity and the stereotyping it provokes in her neighbors (not so much her literal neighbors, the genial prostitutes who befriend her young son, but the closed-off larger community) shifts in the film. Early on she meets another Korean-Chinese who seems like a rare opportunity for human connection in an unfriendly town. But this connection only sets off a chain reaction of downwardly-spiraling calamities that culminate in the film's remarkable final shot. This shot has been mentioned in every review of the film I've encountered as notable because it's the only tracking shot in a film filled with static-camera shots. After the building feeling of being held back by a camera lens proscenium, we finally move forward into the action and for me it triggered a strong emotional response. Zhang is almost as sparing in his use of close-ups on the actors' faces; the few that appear are reaction shots to off-screen violent acts, and their presence is crucial. I get the feeling he understands how Brecht's "distancing effect" works a lot better than I do.
Two other films recalled my own limited experience living in an unfamiliar country and dealing with my own cultural baggage. In 1999-2000, while I was working at a high school in Northern Thailand, I took the opportunity to play budget tourist in as many nearby countries as my teaching schedule allowed. I only spent a few days apiece in Phnom Penh and Singapore, so I particularly value the deeper inquiries into life in two very different capital cities provided by the Burnt Theatre and Be With Me, respectively. Both films straddle the line between fiction and documentary. Be With Me (playing Saturday Mar. 18 and Tuesday Mar. 21 at the Kabuki) is categorized by the SFIAAF with the fiction films in the International Showcase, and somewhat resembles the deceptively placid narrative filmmaking style of Tsai Ming-Liang. But unlike some of the films made by Tsai's imitators, Be With Me is unforced in its taciturn motivations. At the nexus of the film's three interlocking stories is a real Singaporean, Theresa Chan, a blind and deaf teacher doing some of the same kind of work we see Fini Strauberger do in Herzog's Land of Silence and Darkness. She's devoted to her work and to typing her autobiography, expressed through subtitles representing an inaudible "voiceover". Her typewriter, the letter a security guard sends writes to a woman he's shy to meet, and the text messages sent between a pair of teenagers discovering their sexuality, make for a tidy set of nonverbal communication motifs.
The Burnt Theatre (playing Tuesday Mar. 21 at the PFA and Wednesday Mar. 22 at the Kabuki), on the other hand, was placed in the SFIAAFF's Documentary Features category. It shows the struggle Cambodian actors are faced with daily in light of the irony that the Bassac National Theatre survived the Khmer Rouge that singled out artists in its horrific genocide, but the structure fell victim to a 1994 fire that has left the artform's few surviving practitioners without a proper place to perform. Still, the theatre's wreckage remains a destination for the artists, many of whom live nearby in one of Phnom Penh's most impoverished shantytowns. The three films I've seen by director Rithy Panh have increasingly blurred the documentary-fiction distinction. S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which played the 2004 edition of the festival, eschewed documentary conventions like the talking head, the omniscient voiceover, and archival footage. Yet it was most disturbingly memorable for the way it utilized re-enactments: Panh asked former prison guard interviewees to demonstrate the practices they used to terrorize political prisoners. He uses his actor subjects in the Burnt Theatre to go a step or two further, mixing "fly-on-the-wall" documentary footage with dramatized scenes. This sometimes creates a disorienting effect, as in a scene in which one of the actors returns to the theatre triumphant that he'd found work, only to be shunned by his colleagues, disheartened by his willingness to sully his craft by acting in a karaoke video. Is this scene drama or documentary, or perhaps a combination? And how about one of the final moments, in which one of the troupe calls a radio station to request a song and tells the DJ his profession: "early retired actor." It's clear that a number of the film's scenes are staged but as the film progressed I grew less certain which ones. One documentary aspect of the film remained, however: the nearly ubiquitous pounding sound of a Malaysian corporation constructing a humungous casino near the theatre is a reminder that in a globalizing economy, commerce easily trumps aesthetics.
I hope reading these descriptions doesn't make the SFIAAFF seem overly concerned with serious films about serious subjects. My previous preview post highlighted a pair of films that are as close to pure fun as cinematically possible: Citizen Dog and Linda Linda Linda. And tomorrow afternoon's James Shigeta tribute film the Crimson Kimono (3PM at the Castro), while it breaks ground rarely sown subsequently in regard to certain American racial issues, is also purely entertaining as a noir-ish detective movie. Though I'm perhaps most excited about the Heroic Grace II films wrapping up the Berkeley run of the festival with a nice sample of work from four different influential martial arts directors. Chor Yuen's Clans of Intrigue and Korean director Chung Chang-wha's King Boxer play March 24th, while Chang Cheh's the Boxer From Shantung (assistant-directed by John Woo) and Lau Kar Leung's Dirty Ho play March 25th. If the four ShawScope prints look nearly as good as the print of King Hu's Come Drink With Me shown at the SFIAAFF two years ago, the PFA is going to have some happy audiences next weekend.