Ranking the Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Part 1
Hot on the heels of the Austin Film Festival comes the Austin Asian-American Film Festival (AAAFF), and I’m excited. It’s a smaller fest, but I think its specificity is its strength. Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and India are all cinema titans of long standing, and others parts of Asia aren’t far off. This festival offers a chance to preview new features from or about those nations and to connect with other lovers of Asian film.
Of course, since this is Flickchart, there’s a more important question to answer than who, what, and why: namely, how do the movies of AAAFF rank? Let’s count them down.
5. When Mom Visits
This is a short and a student thesis film, so its placement below the feature-length movies is a matter of scope and scale rather than a judgment on its quality. When Mom Visits lands a couple of well-timed punches in its brief runtime. Vic is a young Chinese-American woman living with her longtime girlfriend, but she hasn’t come out to her more traditional Chinese mom. The mom shows up, the girlfriend leaves, and the story begins. Five years ago it might have been enough for this to be Vic’s coming-out film, but in 2015 we need, and get, more; When Mom Visits is well-titled because the focus is split evenly between the visitor and the visitee, and it is as surprising, funny, and moving to see the former learn about the latter as it is to see the mother learn about the daughter. A remarkably long list of credits comes attached to this short film, so I hope the team will create something full-length in the future.
4. La Salada
For all I know there may be plenty of movies about Chinese, Korean, and Spanish/Quechua-speaking people searching for happiness and prosperity in Argentina, but at present this is the only one I know. I’m glad I do. It’s supremely well-shot in what look and feel like the claustrophobic spaces where low-wage-earning immigrants spend their days and nights: kitchens, market stalls, loading bays, karaoke rooms, one-room flats. An older man, better off than most, opens the film at an urban driving range, but he also has money on his mind; he’s there to ask an elder whether he should expand his business. His teenage daughter, born in Korea but Argentinian by experience, looks on with the air of resigned disappointment that runs throughout La Salada. That mood, maintained through purposefully (yet at times excessively) slow pacing, a pale fluorescent-bulb palette, and punctuated by a well-curated soundtrack, is a unifying element as the story moves with assurance between three separate arcs in four separate languages. An AAAFF programmer observed that this film would require subtitles no matter where in the world it is shown, but I hope it is shown widely.
3. The Chinese Mayor
The director of this documentary once worked for China’s National News Agency, and here he tells a grand, yet very local, story of change and stagnation in one of China’s most historic cities. Even casual China-watchers know the superlatives: the country is one of the most polluted, one of the fastest-developing, has one of the most arcane political systems… All are on display in the smoggy city of Datong, which Mayor Geng Yanbo is determined to restore to its Classical Era glory. Geng is a visionary. He’s rebuilding the city’s ancient encircling wall, a wall that Datong’s poor residents cannot eat when hungry, a wall that does not create lasting jobs, but a wall that Geng hopes will make the city a tourist destination and cultural icon for decades to come. At the same time, he is a pragmatist: “It’s just another vanity project” if it doesn’t get finished, he warns. And, perhaps most of all, Geng is a destroyer. He earned the nickname “Demolition Geng” because his wall project required the destruction of over 120,000 homes and the forcible relocation of their residents, many of whom lacked the appropriate papers to get into the nicer public housing. The documentary has a way of ending nearly every scene on a “wow” moment, as when Geng quietly warns critics “Don’t challenge the government” and when a relocated resident asks “If Mao were still alive, dare he do this?” Nevertheless, by the end of the doc I was thoroughly in Geng’s camp — and so were some of the Datong residents who previously hated him. The Chinese Mayor is an instant historical artifact, just like Geng’s wall; see it while it’s fresh.
2. Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal & a Whore
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Ruined Heart has an international yakuza movie cast and plays like an X-rated, make-your-own-narrative music video. It’s everything that movie drug trips have always wanted to be. There isn’t much point in describing it further — you’ll see it when your weird friend with a cinematographer’s eye and a depraved soul gives you a copy. If you don’t have that friend, make one so you won’t miss Ruined Heart as it makes the underground rounds.
1. Seoul Searching
If you love the Brat Pack but feel a bit awkward about the whole “Long Duk Dong” thing, search no further than Seoul Searching. Writer/director Benson Lee is an avowed John Hughes fan and has created a new 80s teen comedy masterpiece, but with two twists: 1) it’s not the 80s anymore, so recreating the look and feel of that decade is a true achievement of period piece cinema, and 2) every teen is of Korean heritage. Instead of bonding over detention, they meet at a government-run summer camp for Korean kids raised in far-flung locales like the USA, Germany, Mexico, and England. The teens check the clique boxes — a preppy boy, a Madonna-wanna-be, a ladies’ man, some shy kids, a punk rocker type — but overlayed on these identities are the diverse mores of their adopted cultures and conflicting ideas about what it means to be Korean. The cast list is longer than in most Hughes movies, so several characters drop in and out at Lee’s convenience, but the core troupe is endlessly fun to laugh, cry, and chill with. Not that they do much chilling; two hilarious set pieces, one at Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, show why South Korea cancelled the summer camp program after just a few years. In Lee’s words, “They just couldn’t control these kids!”
It won’t be easy to top Seoul Searching and Ruined Heart, but something from the second half of the festival could shoot straight to the top of our AAAFFchart. We’ll be back soon with Part 2.