Sunday, March 13, 2011

Surrogate Valentine

As promised in my previous post, a video of me discssing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the new cinema program "Look Of The Week" was posted on Friday. Check it out and tell me what you think. What I didn't know at the time was, the film would be extended for at least another week in San Francisco; it currently screens at the Presidio Theatre in the Marina. Meanwhile, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is well under way. I'll be heading to the Pacific Film Archive this evening to attend the award-winning Vietnamese film Bi, Don't Be Afraid, preceded by CAAM director Stephen Gong's discussion with Yunte Huang, author of a fascinating new cultural history/biography of Chang Apana, the real-life inspiration for the Charlie Chan character. A screening of a rare 35mm print of the 1937 film (not discussed in the book, so I'm excited to hear Huang's comments) Charlie Chan At The Olympics is the centerpiece of that talk.

The SFIAAFF is, quite commendably, probably the most conscientious of all Frisco Bay festivals when it comes to placing information about screening formats in their program guide, but there are almost inevitably a few changes that occur after the guide is printed. The Film On Film Foundation calendar has the most up-to-date information on which SFIAAFF (and other locally screening) films are projected on film rather than video. A good 35mm print can help make a mediocre film worth watching, as I remembered Friday night when I watched When Love Comes Friday at the Clay. Although I wouldn't advocate a festival itinerary that totally avoids digital screenings, as that would mean missing out on the terrific festival closer Surrogate Valentine, which would be a shame. It's my favorite of the (admittedly few compared to, say, Michael Hawley) SFIAAFF selctions I've seen so far.

Surrogate Vaentine is named after a song by local acoustic rock up-and-comer Goh Nakamura, who plays an up-and-coming acoustic rocker and guitar teacher named Goh in the movie. The meta-cinematic layering doesn't end there though, as the on-screen Goh is hired to play a "technical consultant" on a feature film made from a friend's screenplay, loosely based on incidents from his own life. Initially, he's asked to teach guitar-playing basics to the film's star, a well-known TV actor named Danny Turner (played by Chad Stoops, making his feature film debut). It soon becomes apparent that Danny is less interested in music lessons than in hanging out and finding clues to playing his Goh-inspired character. He accompanies the performer on a short West Coast tour, getting recognized everywhere for his hospital-soap character, and playing over-eager wingman when he recognizes Goh's attraction to a former flame met on the road.

The morass of plot detail I just recounted only scratches the surface, yet may obscure the fact that, though Surrogate Valentine never lacks a dramatic motor, it's really not a plot-heavy film, but a modern (musical) comedy and a character portrait. As writer-director Dave Boyle plays it out in its brisk 75 minute running time, there's nothing arch about the multi-leveled biographical blurring; rather the stark contrast between Goh and his would-be doppelgänger provides opportunities for a steady stream of satirical humor and pathos. Stoops makes Danny an ingratiating figure as if on excursion from a Todd Phillips bro-fest, while Nakamura portrays himself as the kind of almost stereotypically sensitive, aloof but endearing hipster seen on San Francisco streets more commonly than on San Francisco screens. His romantic interest Rachel (played by Lynn Chen of Saving Face and White On Rice, the latter also directed by Boyle) stands out as the best of a mostly-excellent supporting cast. Goh's world includes the orbits of many varieties of satellites -- from starstruck groupies to aging ex-rockers to the friends who "knew you back when".

Despite authentic location shooting (in Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles), it's easy to lose track of exactly what leg of the physical journey the wandering characters are on at a given moment, but any such confusion surely mirrors the discombobulation a touring musician experiences while on the road. The essence of the film comes not from its road-movie exoskeleton but from the interior journeys of Goh and Danny, though this is expressed without resorting to the screenwriter-guru-approved clichés. The open ending makes for a more aesthetically satisfying conclusion than found in a typical studio product. The penultimate shot, a close-up of Goh foregrounded against an out-of-focus but entirely static Portrero Hill panorama, provides an example of digital cinematography underlining an emotional state perhaps even more precisely than 35mm film stock could. Ultimately Surrogate Valentine earns more heft through its understatement than one might expect from a fun comedy. And its oblique, never finger-wagging, underlying critique of the shameful Hollywood trend of erasing Asian faces from the stories it wants to repurpose as mass-market entertainments comes off as more effective than a hundred disproportionately bilious critical pans of the Last Airbender could ever be.


  1. Thank you Michael! Nice to see you last night at the Yunte Huang event. Jealous you got to see Hours For Jerome as well, though since it's a PFA restoration I except it'll be shown there as well before too long. I imagine you've already seen Max Goldberg's Cinema Scope interview with Dorsky...

    Speaking of Cinema Scope, thanks once again for your role in wardrobing me for the interview. And thanks for introducing me to Sara oh those many years ago at the Variety Club. See you soon, I hope!

  2. Very much enjoyed the video! I've got a ways to go before I make up my mind how I feel about Uncle Boonmee or Apichatpong Weerasethakul in general, so I found this not only helpful but also reassuring, as I take it you don't think there's anything wrong with my decision to take my time. And I'm thrilled that I no longer have to append "or however you pronounce his name" to any conversational mention of his name!

  3. Andy, thanks so much for the comment, and apologies for the delay in response. I'm glad that my on-screen appearance is helping people to pronounce Apichatpong's name better. Do tell me if you write something about him!