Ranking the Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Part 2
Movie rankings are just, like, your opinion, man. That may be especially true for this second set of films from AAAFF (see the first set here), which includes such diverse offerings as a niche sports documentary, a historical melodrama, and an oddball comedy. But the bold Flickcharter ranks where others dare not, so without further ado. . .
4. Paradise in Service
Slick and tidy to a fault, this period piece from Taiwan is better in concept than execution. It is the story of a virginal soldier in 1960s Quemoy (an island fortified by the Taiwan-based Nationalists during their cold war against the mainland Communists) who is tasked with guarding a state-sanctioned brothel that services soldiers. Though the film takes its cues from real history — the brothel was in operation until 1990 when it was shut down in response to human rights concerns — its commitment to conventional movie morality prevents it from feeling true to the spirit of the place. There is, predictably, one special woman written to be worthy of the love of a prudish soldier, and she is, predictably, conceived to be in the brothel for noble and honorable reasons. A more licentious and remorseless resident gets to voice some passionate speeches in defense of her line of work, but she is ill-rewarded for the effort and exists primarily to further a gruff-yet-sensitive sergeant’s arc. That arc is elevated by the performance of Jianbin Chen, who won an acting award for the role when it played at a Taiwanese film festival. The closing moments of Paradise in Service exhibit some whimsical visual storytelling, but they are jarringly out of place from the rest of the film, which is rarely more meaningful than sex in a whorehouse.
3. The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor
It’s a somber bit of movie trivia, but worth knowing: can you name a murdered Oscar-winner? Haing Ngor, a medical doctor, escaped the torturers and murderers of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, then won an Academy Award for his work alongside Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields where he played a photographer covering the crisis. Sadly, Dr. Ngor was killed outside his Los Angeles home a few years later. Officially his death was ruled to be the result of a gang-related botched robbery, but at least one high-profile Khmer Rouge member, when on trial for unrelated offenses, said that he thought Dr. Ngor had been assassinated for his very public criticisms of the regime. This documentary based on Ngor’s autobiography features a creative blend of animation, historical footage, and original (albeit impromptu) interviews with Ngor’s niece as she goes through his personal effects. The highlights, though, are the clips of Ngor’s many appearances on talk shows and college campuses in the 1980s. It’s not a documentary to watch if you’re looking for a good time, but it’s a story that everyone should know something about.
2. The Purple Onion
The Purple Onion shows a few weeks in the life of a feckless, narcissistic standup comic, played by real-life comedian Edwin Li, whose material inspired the screenplay. Something like a perverse, Asian-American Napoleon Dynamite, its story is not exactly funny to recount, but the cumulative effect is that of straight-faced mordancy. It grows on you as anti-humor becomes humor and as vignettes that are individually mundane add up to a surprisingly strange result. There are shades of P.T. Anderson and Adam Sandler’s Punch-Drunk Love, too, with a moderately-raunchy comedian playing a lonely man unable to relate to the world. If you don’t care for those two movies, don’t have a particular attachment to workaday San Francisco, don’t enjoy Eastern European music (which, randomly enough, provides the emotive soundtrack), or want to know more about the titular Purple Onion comedy club (the connection is thin), this may not be your kind of movie. But I check a few of those boxes, and I still liked it, so you never know. Comedy is weird.
1. Top Spin
“If you want to be good at table tennis, just never stop doing it.” That’s what a Chinese coach says. He should know, since his country is best in the world at the sport. And a sport it is — if you think ping pong is a pastime for beer-drinking frat boys, or that because 15-year-old Olympians do it it must be easy, you haven’t watched it in slow motion. Every part of the player’s body is involved in each swing of the paddle, and the swings come fast and furious. It’s not mere reflex, either. An Olympic-level player has to execute his or her own moves while reading the opponents’ moves and reacting accordingly. At the highest stages of competition, the difference between defeat and victory can depend on a player’s frame of mind. The documentary Top Spin will give you second-hand exhaustion, but it is incredibly fun to watch its three American teenagers, a white boy and two girls of Asian heritage, fight through mental and physical fatigue on their way to the North American Table Tennis championships. In addition to the intrinsic demands of the sport, American Olympic hopefuls have a geographical and cultural disadvantage. It’s hard to follow the Chinese coach’s advice, to “never stop doing it,” when your nation lacks an infrastructure for your sport. With no Major League Table Tennis to aspire to and a very small number of Olympic spots allotted to the region, these kids have to balance their hobby with practical considerations like school. They still live like professional athletes, going to school half-days so they can fit in 6-8 hours of training, traveling to China for more training, studying match videos. . . but in this country, with this sport, it’s Olympics or bust. That’s a lot of pressure for teens to take on themselves, but it makes for great documentary material. The sports-movie editing, a slow-mo here and a montage there, is fully equal to the challenge of one of the fastest Olympic sports, but it’s the pure drama of sacrifice, of victory, of defeat, of young kids facing fears and following dreams, that makes Top Spin my top film of this set.
Merging this list of films into my rankings from Part 1 brings us to 8 films (discounting shorts) ranked thusly:
4. Top Spin
6. La Salada
So our AAAFF Top Three is unchanged since Part 1, but there are still movies to add to the chart. The third and final part of our coverage is up next.