Tuesday, January 23, 2007

JANUARY 2007: Out of the Past

It's January, and as I write this I'm beginning to extend invitations to select feature-length works to participate in our event this coming May. This process is a time-consuming one and it will be quite a number of weeks yet before we can step back and consider the program completed. With a host of different variables to negotiate -- conflicts with competing festivals, availability of prints or tapes, filmmaker "requests" for favorable screening times -- invitations this early in our organizing process are never ever a fait accompli. Still to come are the meetings with filmmakers to strategize around audience development, event planning, and promotions. And if past years are any indication, there may very well be the odd film that drops out from nowhere to dazzle the program committee and, ultimately, the Festival audience -- does anybody remember a little film entitled COLMA: THE MUSICAL? So clearly, the programming process is entering a next phase: one that is infinitely more stressful but rewarding in its own ways.

As I mentioned last time, individual filmmakers and titles from both our Open Call and from our pool of solicited and invited works are beginning to emerge, portending another "step up the ladder" this year for Asian Pacific American cinema. Some are filmmakers who have presented first or second or even third films at past editions of VC FILMFEST. Others are artists who are emerging onto the scene with absolutely fascinating debut works. Most importantly, the works address myriad subject matters that serve as a referendum of where society is at these days, and of what is most important to the filmmakers themselves. In any event, I obviously cannot announce any confirmed selections just yet -- our organizing team would whip me for "spilling the beans," and besides, there are way too many works yet to see and get excited about.

In the course of my viewings, two feature-length works -- both by veteran artists, and both set to make their World Premiere screenings a week apart but on opposite ends of the world -- leapt out at me right away, not in the least because both cast a revisionist eye on the 1970s, a period derided in the pages of the old British style magazine THE FACE as "the decade that good taste forgot." While one is concerned with reexamining racism as filtered through Hollywood studio hypocrisy, the other observes women's lib from a distinctly garish, white trash aesthetic.

That film, Anna Biller's VIVA, will join fellow VC FILMFEST veteran Stephane Gauger's OWL AND THE SPARROW in the Netherlands where both will be featured at the Rotterdam International Film Festival beginning January 24. The film itself complicates the strict precepts of "Asian Pacific American" cinema -- Biller, a Hapa (Japanese) who cut her filmmaking teeth at the California Institute of the Arts, also acts, art directs and in some cases composes and sings her own soundtracks. More significantly, her stories foreground characters not unlike her -- mixed-race ingenues who would not be thought of as "ethnic" but stand out enough from a cast of blond-haired, blue-eyed denizens to be thought of as "exotic." The evidence, as seen in short works such as THREE EXAMPLES OF MYSELF AS QUEEN (Festival 1994) and A VISIT FROM THE INCUBUS (Festival 2002), indicate that Biller, through her many on-screen incarnations, is interested in being her own agent of interrogation where issues of race, gender, and self-worth are concerned.

VIVA begins with empty poolside conversation among the vacuous denizens in one of those too-well manicured suburban backyards in 1970s Los Angeles. Barbi, a buxom housewife (played by director Biller) finds that her "perfect" marriage to Mark, an upwardly mobile suit is a sham, prompting an exploration of self-discovery through sex and debauchery, but with a catch: the victim of repeated male indiscretions, Barbi is determined that her participation in the sexual revolution be strictly on her own terms. She even takes on a new name -- Viva -- as a means of further defining an identity beyond her socially assigned role as housewife and sex-toy. Meanwhile, her husband, away on yet another extended ski vacation, is too preoccupied with his missing wife to care about the bevy of loose women circling him in the ski lodge bar. When the husband returns, he finds that his wife is a changed person -- sexually liberated, but ambivalent as to whether she want him back. But just when boredom and sexual ennui threatens to once again set in, an unexpected opportunity for Barbi/Viva allows her to finally find the self-esteem she had been looking for.

A light drama set in Playboy-era El Lay, VIVA is awash in colors and interior designs so loud and hurtful to the eye that no self-respecting decorator would dare use them today -- at least, that's what I think. Equally garish is the delivery of the actors' lines, which purposefully foregrounds both the sexually-charged atmosphere of the times, as well as the hypocrisy of male/female roles of the period. VIVA is also not lacking for explicit sex and decadence, but unlike another nominally hedonistic film of recent vintage (SHORTBUS by John Cameron Mitchell), VIVA is feminist filmmaking that knows its strengths and limitations, and works within those parameters to turn the whole paradigm of feminist liberation upside down.

Another new film that examines the 1970s is FINISHING THE GAME, the latest feature-length effort by Justin Lin which received its World Premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. Featuring many of the cast who starred in Lin's previous Sundance selection BETTER LUCK TOMORROW as well as later efforts ANNAPOLIS and THE FAST & THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT, FINISHING THE GAME represents a further growing of director Lin's extended family of filmmakers, actors and cinema craftpeople he began working with starting at the UCLA Film School on 1993. Indeed, the "Justin Lin Playahs" including the likes of Roger Fan, Sung Kang and others have gradually introduced audiences to a new mode of cinema production -- infiltrate the mainstream and keep making good films (and good career choices) while continuing to grow your craft. And never, ever give an inch if humanizing characters of color hangs in the balance.

In the case of FINISHING THE GAME, director Lin is finally able to act on an issue that has gnawed at him since he was a pre-teen in Orange County, California: a fan of the late martial arts pioneer Bruce Lee, he was as perplexed and outraged as others when, shortly after Lee's unexpected death in 1973, movie executives moved to complete his passion project GAME OF DEATH with a Bruce Lee lookalike, "Bruce Li." The blatant dissimilarity between the real Bruce Lee and the studio-minted imposter is what motivates the narrative of FINISHING. In it, Lin's directorial eye observes the search for the replacement Bruce Lee as filtered through a documentary film crew purportedly capturing the process as a series of hopefuls emerge. There is Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), a star of cookie-cutter martial arts flicks that actually rip off the Bruce Lee legacy; Colgate "Cole" Kim (Sung Kang), a terminally insecure actor desperately looking for his big break; Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen), the accidental star of a TV crime drama that apes the real life bomb "The Green Hornet" (coincidentally co-starring Bruce Lee himself); Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett), a Eurasian who looks far more red-neck than Asian; Raja Moore (Mousa Kraish) a starry-eyed doctor who, with his Middle-Eastern looks, could not be further from a Bruce Lee lookalike as possible. In fact, as the casting call that dominates the middle third of the movie makes clear, Bruce Lee had plenty of fans, admirers...and legions of actors and wannabe actors who somehow think they ARE him. While these Hollywood hopefuls are systematically beaten down, one by one, through the unforgiving casting process, FINISHING THE GAME casts a cold cinematic eye on the true nature of Hollywood hypocrisy. As the cattle call is whittled down to the chosen few finalists, Lin introduces touches of absurdist comedy/tragedy that must evoke the studio battles that the director himself has endured in the years since his breakout film BETTER LUCK TOMORROW. Troy, fast becoming aware of the hypocrisy of the casting sessions, fires his manager on the spot (a outrageous cameo by broke-down rapper MC Hammer); while Breeze, in a classic profanity-laced moment, chews out his agent and publicist for even subjecting a star of his magnitude to an open casting call. Cole fumbles his way through the audition process and actually makes it to the finals. And either because the casting directors and producers are themselves blind or just-plain-stupid, Caucasian-looking Tarrick is also passed through to the final, climactic casting session. Which one of these finalists will become the new Bruce Lee?

Although I firmly believe that director Lin will chafe when he reads this, FINISHING THE GAME, with its visual and narrative kinship to period films CROOKLYN and BAMBOOZLED, finds Justin Lin channeling his inner Spike Lee. From its gleeful willingness to lampoon the corporatization of art, cinema and culture (check out the pre-title intro, which indicts public television and the movie studios alike), to its predictable, albeit satisfying denouement (this development, I WON'T reveal here), FINISHING THE GAME is a different kind of political filmmaking, one that gets the closest I've seen in a long, long time in defining the "truthful and honest" objectives of old-school Asian Pacific American cinema. You won't find "positive" representation here. Instead, you'll find something far scarier in FINISHING THE GAME -- people who act, for better or worse, like you and me.


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