Ranking the 2016 Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Part 2
At the end of 2016 when I look at my personal Flickchart for the year, several of my highest-ranked movies will be AAAFF selections. I don’t say that about other festivals. This is the one, and these were the movies that closed it out.
1. Kaili Blues
This magnificent movie, comparable stylistically to a Tarkovsky or an Iñárritu but decidedly Chinese in content and expression, is the work of director Gan Bi, who was born in 1989. Like Conrad and Coppola’s characters entering their dreary/dreamy jungles in search of Kurtz, Gan’s protagonist heads into the comparatively isolated region of southwestern China, where minority dialects are spoken and reports of half-human “wild men” are commonplace. A deliciously slow-burning plot about family and history builds through long, still, naturally-lit shots until a triumphant 40-minute no-cut sequence near the end that is a new opus of timing, staging, and interweaving narratives. The camera, unfortunately, appears to wobble on the z-axis from time to time during this 40-minute shot, but the experience is nevertheless mesmerizing technically, artistically, and narratively. A masterpiece before the age of 30; where can Gan go from here?
After the Storm finds several strong potential endings before actually ending, and most of them put smiles on my face, so it’s hard to begrudge its reluctance to bring down the curtain on these lovely, flawed people. Hiroshi Abe gives a career-high performance as a divorced dad with a gambling problem, a novelist with writer’s block, and a prodigal son and brother following in his rakish dad’s footsteps. The supporting performances, each a first-rate mixture of comedy with the earnest emotions of family life, are equally powerful, from the vacillating ex-wife to the frugal, benevolently-manipulative mother to the preteen son who both idolizes his father and recognizes his shortcomings as a family man. Sweet and sympathetic but also clear-headed and practical, After the Storm captures the universal, day-to-day tensions between personal ambition and ennui, financial responsibility and material desires, children and parents, and husbands and wives. It may have become cliché in certain well-informed circles to refer to Hirokazu Koreeda as a contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, whose films explored the same dynamics in the middle of the last century, but as far as I know it hasn’t been said on the Flickchart blog yet. So there it is.
Dinesh Sabu’s childhood was very different from mine. Orphaned young and raised by his slightly-older sisters, he also had to reckon with being a brown-skinned child of immigrants living in the American south and southwest. When he reached his twenties and made Unbroken Glass in an attempt to learn more about his parents, he had to face uncomfortable realities about a history of schizophrenia and suicide in his family. None of that describes my life, yet I felt deeply invested in Dinesh’s journey. His directorial and editing decisions bespeak his objectivity and maturity in pursuit of a story that could have shattered both. Dinesh’s sense of humor appears early on when he tries, with an awkwardness I very much can relate to, to learn a traditional Indian wedding dance in preparation for a visit to his parents’ country. His unflinching honesty breaks the tension when he asks after one bizarre interview “Was my dad a crackpot?” and admits “I can’t quite forgive my mom.” The honesty that Dinesh captures in his interviews with his siblings is equally profound and disarming. Sabu’s judicious truth-telling skills will soon be applied to a documentary about the complexities of foreign aid in Haiti, and I can’t wait to see it.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest thriller is really not so creepy; it’s a hell of a lot of fun, though. Not all of the character motivations make sense, logic leaps are sometimes too far and sometimes not far enough, and there’s a predictability to the proceedings that slightly tarnishes their masterful staging. Yet when my festival buddy and I walked out of the Blanton Auditorium at the end of a strong day of films, the first thing we talked about was the button at the end of Creepy, the single, unexpected, perfect moment that brings everything in the film together and closes it out. I can’t say what that moment is (it isn’t a twist, though), but I can give the plot outline: a former detective, a specialist in serial killers, comes back to solve an old case that becomes entangled with his personal life. That’s basic enough, and even deep into the final scene I thought “basic” was a reasonably apt description of the film – a slick, pleasantly grotesque gloss on a basic detective plot. Then Kurosawa twisted the knife, and in an instant I became a fan.
To a degree, Nostrum is a “typical” offbeat indie coming-of-age film in the tradition of Miranda July, but it has a few special facets that can help the right audience hone in on it. First, the music, a great mix of obscurities and new garage rock that is part of the fabric of the plot in funny and logical ways. Second, the sense of place: Nostrum takes place in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and surely the climactic raft competition could happen only there. Third is the element that makes Nostrum a good fit for AAAFF; it is subtly Asian-American-influenced, with the lead character being of mixed race. The director’s Filipina mother plays a mother in the film, and her quirkiness feels much more honestly come by than the exaggerated, performative quirkiness of “typical” indie comedy characters.
Eddy Zheng has achieved some celebrity (or notoriety) for his work on reforming the California prison system. He knows its problems from the inside, having spent around twenty years behind bars, and nearly a year in solitary confinement, for armed robbery and associated offenses. The documentary confronts his crime and repeatedly accounts for his victims’ viewpoint, but it also makes a strong case that the reformed Eddy deserved freedom and even a public platform from which to promote institutional change. Eddy himself is a nearly constant presence in the documentary, whether speaking to the camera about his work to create an Asian studies program for inmates or reminiscing with his mother and girlfriend about the struggles they’ve faced. The doc’s use of animation to fill in the gaps is a nice touch, if not quite enough to make it my favorite doc of the fest.
The Best Thing I Missed
I missed the documentary shorts program, just as I missed the narrative shorts program earlier in the festival. But a couple of pre-show shorts I did see and enjoy were Forever, Chinatown, about a man who makes exquisitely-lifelike miniatures of historic interiors from San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Chenolia Memoriae, an arthouse short about the mystical connections between a woman’s pet turtle and her first digital camera.
And now, my full and final ranking of AAAFF 2016! (See additional reviews in Part 1 of our coverage.)
1. Kaili Blues
8. Mele Murals
12. The Wolf Mask
Bottom line, here’s my advice: if you’re a film buff and you’re planning a trip to Austin, schedule your visit to coincide with the next AAAFF. It’s where you want to be.
If you were lucky enough to be here this year, or if you’ve seen any of these movies in another setting, log in to Flickchart.com and rank ’em!