Friday, June 08, 2007

JUNE 2007: Farewells and Final Thoughts

It is now early June, a month after the Film Festival has wound down. I'm in the middle of wrapping things up, finishing a lengthy evaluation process, and if this can be believed, finalizing new screening programs for the summer and fall. Already, my boss and I have been talking more and more about next year, when we present our 24th edition, and going through our mental lists of what films are currently in whatever stage of post-production or principal photography, all to get the jump on what programming we can line up for next year. I've promised her a new budget (!!!), and we are still working to reconcile everything so we can close the books on this year's Festival by the end of the month. Ahh, the work never ends...

I truly believe that the memories of a completed festival never really recede from memory, especially since I've done so very many of these things before. In rewinding the events of Festival Week 2007 back in my mind, I once again have to go back in time, to August 2006 when I first came across the blog entry of IFFR's Gertjan Zuilhof, who seemingly hasn't let up in his healthy suspicions of the internet as aviable means of delivering cinema to the masses -- his latest blog references YouTube video content in derisive terms as "utter rubbish" and "childish." Ouch! His blog this month does go on to acknowledge the internet's importance in revisiting cinema that won't otherwise be seen, as when he describes the value of (re)discovering Hu Jie's THOUGH I AM GONE via YouTube. But, once again, I digress.

YouTube, Podcasts, iTV, and its ilk, though increasingly indispensable, remain largely uncharted territory for many of us independent film artists and cultural workers. Maybe we (Asian Pacific media arts organizations and festival organizers) are the ones who are behind the curve -- the ones who really need to get with the program and exploit the internet much more in order to connect with our audience or risk becoming irrelevant. In the meantime, I see instances in which the sense of community created through the film festival experience really brings people together; in the case of VC FILMFEST, it's as if Festival Week is the springtime after a long winter's hibernation. I recall the experience of viewing music videos with a live audience; the gratification I feel of seeing those filmmakers who accepted the challenge of filling DGA Theater One with their audiences; the shriek of collective joy that reported the announcement of Charlie Nguyen's THE REBEL as the winner of the Festival Grand Jury Award at Closing Night; and the relief of watching it all shut down after eight days, 161 productions and nearly 16,000 guests; and can't help but think, we did pretty good.

If anything, I know that the issues I encountered while organizing this year's VC FILMFEST, not to mention my own antipathy towards the new delivery streams of cinema to the masses won't go away. But with the Festival now over, it's time to give it a rest and see if some time off will change my opinions of the changes impacting our filmmaking community. With that, I think it's time I put this journal to rest for now. We'll spend the summer pulling apart and recontextualizing the Festival program for specific audiences -- to keep abreast of those developments, check with us here. And please stay tuned -- though this blog is being retired, it will remain online; and I'll be back after Labor Day (for those of you in other parts of the world, that's early September '07) to chart the developments for the coming edition of the Festival set for May 2008. See you all again soon!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

MAY 2007, Part D: Prizes? Who Needs Prizes?

A number of years back, the question was put to me during a panel discussion as to why our film festival confers competitive jury awards. At the time, the question was legit: after all, why institute a competitive award, complete with cash and valuable goods and services when the whole practice might serve to create a have/have not system among our artists. While I remember giving a not-too-coherent response to the question, I've had a chance to ponder the question in subsequent years while watching how our VC FILMFEST selections -- mostly shorts, but in recent years features as well -- have performed in other festivals.

To put it succinctly (and not to be sanctimonious about it), the films we program benefit greatly from the imprimatur of "award-eligible" that we bestow upon our selections. In the absence of a viable delivery system of "marginalized" media controlled, programmed, developed, marketed and managed by people of color (read: theatre chains, television network, satellite/broadband, internet, movie studios), venues such as VC FILMFEST have to be much more creative and open to "outside-the-box" means of insuring that events such as our Festival does not become a week of dead-end screenings, but the agent of continued and sustained opportunity for our filmmakers. And if that means organizing such "sell-out" mechanisms as film awards, well I've made my peace with that a long time ago.

As well, the work of our program committee to select awards finalists each year hopefully gives our selections an enhanced opportunity to be noticed. More importantly, we'll hopefully serve notice to filmmakers seeking to be included in the program line-up that they need to step up their filmmaking craft, that "cinema as usual" just won't cut it, and that if they're seeking to submit sloppy, incoherent or just-plain lazy work expecting to get a pass from their hometown film festival -- well, they're in for a rude surprise.

Even if their works aren't one of the selected few for awards consideration, the opportunity to shine in front of their peers, their families and community (not to mention visiting film festival programmers, eductator, distributors and exhibitors) should be incentive enough to put on their best effort. Take the case of one of our former program committee members, Juli Kang. Her UCLA MFA Thesis project DAMN THE PAST! premiered on Opening Weekend to a packed house and is being spoken of as a true Festival Week audience fave; yet, it wasn't initially selected as an awards finalist. No matter -- she got the word out to ALL her family, friends, and industry associates; and worked hand-in-hand with the Festival to make sure industry professionals saw her program. Needless to say, her hard work is beginning to pay dividends -- programmers have started to pay attention to her, word-of-mouth has been positive, and as a result, DAMN THE PAST! is poised for a long festival tour lasting into 2008. Damn the certificate -- adulation, affirmation, attention and more opportunity is indeed its own reward for hard work and inspiration.

Monday, May 07, 2007

MAY 2007, Part C: Catching My Breath

Some random thoughts as VC FILMFEST embarks on its second and final leg -- the Festival in J-Town:

1) On Opening Night, none other than Ron Jeremy showed up -- he had a memorable speaking role in Justin Lin's FINISHING THE GAME opposite Sung Kang, and as he was posing with countless guests at the post-screening reception, I could only think of one thing: why would people want to shake his hand? Do people know where it's been???

2) I met actor Rondell Sheridan at the Screenwriters' panel on Saturday, a rare treat as I religiously watch his show, THAT'S SO RAVEN every Saturday morning on ABC. A true celebrity sighting, indeed.

3) Some sniffling in the audience at the THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI screening on Saturday. Much of the same audience ran right across the street to the screening of Desmond Nakano's AMERICAN PASTIME and rubbed shoulders with stars Aaron Yoo and Leonardo Nam.

4) I hang out with all the Vietnamese and French folks after the screening of SAIGON ECLIPSE, and have my first margarita in what must have been ages. For some, the party is never over, as Ham Tran organizes a company move to Silverlake to a hooka bar. I'm like, a hooka bar at 3:30 in the morning on a Sunday??? Sorry dude, I gotta get up in the morning.

5) There was a Bai Ling sighting at the Festival! Enough said...

6) Oh my this journal turning into an Asian American fan boy blog???

Friday, May 04, 2007

MAY 2007, Part B: Pondering Wild West Kultcha

The other night, I was rewatching director Chen Shi-Zheng's DARK MATTER (a film that for a variety of reasons was not included in the final program line-up of VC FILMFEST) in order to find some kind of logic -- any kind of logic -- as to the nature of pathological violence. Anyone who has been watching the news the past couple of weeks must certainly be familiar with the massacre at Virginia Tech and the disquieting similarities with the real-life events at the core of DARK MATTER's narrative. For awhile, select members of our programming team did a double-take at some of the other works in this year's Festival and wondered aloud if we would unwittingly upset some sensibilities among our audiences. Things weren't assuaged when we received the full-color advertisement of one of our major sponsors -- a promo for an upcoming computer video game featuring a certain Hong Kong superstar in a pose that unintentionally mimics that of the V-Tech killer's most iconic image. Concerns were expressed, and at least one programmer reacted by asking to opt out of a hosting assignment of one of our films, a body-count film uncomfortably close to real-life events. At the end of the day, with a week's time to consider the connection of real-life events to his hosting assignment, he thought better of his decision and agreed to follow through.

For years and years now, we've been confronted by submissions that trade heavily on "genre" subject matters including violence as a result of misogyny, domestic abuse, gang and/or crime culture -- fill in the blank. I don't know why, but from my personal perspective, many of these works failed in part because the filmmakers were all too willing to employ stereotypes in the name of reality; but mostly, these movies have never sat well with me because they were incompetently made. It's one thing to have to make an audience sit through two hours of shootin', lootin' and killin'. To have to make that audience sit through two hours of inexcusably shoddy filmmaking in the name of "real" portrayals of Asian Amerikkkans in da hood is inexcusable, and as a result I've been mauled badly over the years by filmmakers complaining why I'm so inhospitable to submissions that channel the filmmaking style of Wong Kar-wai and John Woo, but lack an once of soul or craft.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Or maybe I'm letting my aversions to all things insufferably male-centric come through when I should think better of it -- after all, I'm not THAT big a fan of THE JOY LUCK CLUB. In any event, males, testosterone and guns seem to occupy most of the subject matter that we see. And I'm not so sure I like that.

Though we indeed have works in this year's program that may, at first blush, trade on the very things I despise, I have to reference the acumen of my colleague David: he programs by intuition -- "I understand why you don't like it, but you know, there's a there there..." Maybe I should follow David's advice...we programmed this year's Festival with works we believed in because there was a there there, so we should be brave and stick with our gut reactions. Even if it looks like we, uh, I might be contradicting myself...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

MAY 2007, Part A: Sex? Or Magic?

There is a thin line that exists between true love and unbridled sex. I'm not talking about porn, though we came pretty close to satisfying that segment of our audience hungry for Japanese "pink eiga" films through our programming this year. No, the kind of stories I'm talking about are ones in which filmmakers place multi-faceted aspects of love, romance, and sexuality as an integral ingredient of compelling storytelling. So what if the random breast (well, copious depictions and representations thereof) and male/female genitalia abound throughout our programming this year? In this year's edition of VC FILMFEST, filmmakers not only confront all aspects of "nakedness," but pay just as much attention, if not more so, to the inevitable morning after -- both literal and figurative.

Take, for instance, Lou Ye's SUMMER PALACE, which includes numerous scenes of college coeds having hot n' heavy sex, complete with both female AND male full frontal nudity (gasp!!!). This would be considered quite scatalogical and frivolous if not for the setting: late 1980s Beijing, in the months leading up to the June 6, 1989 government crackdown of student protestors in Tiananmen Square. Seen in this context, SUMMER PALACE is at once an altogether different sort of coming-of-age film: one in which the potential of youthful ideas and experimentation is blunted by both time and dissolusion. As the main characters disperse around the world and take up other pursuits, the dualities of love/hate play against the realities of growing up, damning both one's faith in progressive ideals and in true love. The end result is a film that is at once epic, brilliant, messy, and unresolved. Kind of like the relationship at the core of the story.

I've made mention of Anna Biller's VIVA in an earlier entry, but the vast expanses of flesh (again, b oth male and female) that dominate much of the film serves a dual purpose: sex and nudity firmly place the film's characters within a distinct social and cultural milieu; and foregrounds the director's resolve in being true to her characters -- she herself plays the lead character, Barbi, and spends much of her screen time either nude, or having sex, or both! Such commitment!

A far tamer (and arguably, less frank) brand of sexuality is on display in both Gene B. Rhee's THE TROUBLE WITH ROMANCE and Othello Khanh's SAIGON ECLIPSE. Rhee's film, a veiled riff on Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's FOUR ROOMS and Park Ki-yong's MOTEL CACTUS, observes the ambiguities of modern romance within the walls of a luxury hotel. And SAIGON ECLIPSE, the second of three features starring Dustin Nguyen, is yet another retelling of Vietnam's national peom, Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu). Modern, sexy and thoroughly accessible, this tale of Kieu is as much male eye-candy as tragic romance.

Love and sex is not limited to the young, as evidenced by Michael T. Uno's THE WASH, which features vetran actors Mako and Nobu McCarthy making whoopie in a last-ditch attempt to rekindle a failed marriage. And it doesn't come without grave consequences, as seen in Nadine Truong's THE MUSE, in which the randomness of circumstance visits a young artist in a most cruel way.

There are a lot of other images throughout the selections in this year's Festival that may strike audiences as risque or offensive. My thoughts on the matter is: look deeper -- MUCH deeper. Representations of both physical and emotional love, not to mention honest depictions of sex (different from porn!!!) will be, I think, much welcomed this year.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

APRIL 2007: Water Under the Bridge

It's been quite awhile since I last updated this journal, and already so many things have passed through. To wit: this entry, which was to have been dated Feb. 27, started something like this:

It's the weekend of the Academy Awards, and as usual, I'm not at another one of those Oscar parties that pop up around town. No, I'm multi-tasking yet again, watching the Oscar telecast and typing up directives to our program committee members while, unbelievably, scanning through yet more entries for this year's edition of VC FILMFEST.

Of course, much has happened since I first wrote that entry and gave up on it. As a visit to our website makes clear, I not only finished watching the mountain of screeners clogging up my desk, but actually watched more than a few of them with our program committee, and made decisions on all of them. Some choices were excruciating, as I really wished we had the programming space to include them. Others, just didn't seem to have that "X" factor that screams, "Include me in the program!" All of them, however, convinced us once again that Asian Pacific diasporic cinema is taking yet another step forward.

Besides the Oscars, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and Chicago Asian American Showcase have come and gone, providing a tantalizing taste of what's to come to Los Angeles in May; the third bienniel edition of the Vietnamese International Film Festival is currently in full swing; and a new crop of feature-length and short works are set to screen at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival. And on a more somber note, I haven't forgotten that the world exists outside the universe of festival organizing: an English major of Korean descent went 1-8-7-Rambo on a building full of students on the campus of Virginia Tech yesterday, killing over 30 before taking his own life. Other bloggers have covered this incident in greater detail and from other perspectives than I possibly can, so I'll depend on others to do that job. Needless to say, our Film Festival reflects the myriad perspectives of our communities, positive and otherwise. It's the "otherwise" that proves to be problematic to certain elements of our audience -- and which offers the closest encounter with filmed reality.

With the program now complete, I can now step back and comment of not only my own observations on programming, but those of our programmers as well. As we approach the start of Festival Week, these blog entries will be more frequent, the better to acquaint one and all with just some of the many works we've programmed this year. I'll be looking out for you all real soon.

Here are some facts, for those who may not already know:

VC FILMFEST: The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Presented by Honda
May 3 through 10, 2007

Directors Guild of America
Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theater
National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
Aratani/Japan America Theatre

161 productions
55 screening programs
8 days
And a whole lotta shakin' goin' on...

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.