Ranking the Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Part 3
The 8th Austin Asian-American Film Festival came to a close with a characteristically strong and diverse set of movies. Offerings from Indonesia, Japan, India, and Iran took us on a day-long sweep of the Asian continent. These are all brave and powerful flicks, but can any top our AAAFFchart?
Jakarta, capital of the world’s fourth most populous country, is home to a colorful population of street musicians. Many of them not only busk on the streets (and on city buses), but live there, too. Jalanan follows three partly-homeless singers and guitarists as they play for spare change and follow other dreams besides. Ho is a long-haired, radical man whose impromptu songs are politically-charged. When he is put in jail for busking, both the camera and the guitar accompany him inside. Ho wants to settle down though and spends his off hours courting a widowed mother of three. Titi has a high, clear voice, like an Indonesian Joni Mitchell, but she is somewhat estranged from her rural family and wants to make them proud by getting a long-delayed high school diploma. Boni is a lanky and jovial sort whose chief concern is beautifying the damp underpass where he lives. Unfortunately, the city of Jakarta has its own beautification plans, and those don’t include homeless buskers. Jalanan is a mellow, almost sleepy doc with a pleasant acoustic soundtrack of busker ballads. It may not leave a lasting impression, but it’s a good way to hear the sounds of street-level Jakarta.
3. Giovanni’s Island
Comparisons to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies are unavoidable since the anime Giovanni’s Island involves two young siblings whose lives are forever altered by World War II. It has even more melodrama than Fireflies, especially toward the end when it tries — and succeeds, despite the fact that we can see it coming a mile away — to put your heart through the wringer. At the same time, it has more narrative layers and more opportunities for stunning visuals than Fireflies did. Rather than a cave on the outskirts of a bombed city, the Giovanni’s Island kids live in an idyllic fishing village in Japan’s far north. Not many people in the West know that the Soviet Union invaded several northern Japanese islands during the closing hours of World War II and ultimately forced the residents from their homes; this movie gives us an intimate (if fictionalized) familiarity with that event, which continues to affect international relations in Asia. Giovanni’s Island isn’t a lecture, though, and it isn’t exclusively dour and depressing; there are some gorgeous and uplifting moments, particularly as the Russian and Japanese schoolchildren on the island form tentative friendships despite their parents’ mutual suspicion and enmity. Fantastical space-travel sequences involving a “galactic express” train are borrowed from a real-life novel, Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, from 1934. If you can stomach a lot of sadness on the back end, some of it frankly too maudlin, the aesthetic highs and unique historical moment of Giovanni’s Island make it more than worthwhile.
What do the students in India’s most competitive medical school do when they’re not studying? After documentarian Abhay Kumar’s brother, a student at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIM), permanently crippled himself by punching through a glass window in a moment of frustration, he went to find out. Kumar hung out in the dorms for two years, letting the seniors play with the camera, capturing their Beavis and Butt-Head sense of humor, listening as some of the most hyper-educated young people in India expound on Shakespeare and Kafka. All the students in the documentary are male, but their personalities are fairly diverse and they are imminently relatable to anyone who’s felt isolated or exhausted by the academic experience. As the days wear on, the miasma of AIIM saps Kumar’s own spirit. “It is day 631. I have a faint memory of why I came here in the first place,” he says. His narration is at times overripe, as is some of the pot-fueled philosophizing of his subjects, but it is interspersed with tense, often frightening atmospheric music and animation that make Placebo feel like something much more than a typical documentary. Time slows while you watch it, not because it is dull but because it transports you to a dark and inescapable place in the mind. Kumar has made a bleak masterpiece and an iconoclastic commentary on student well-being at a revered Indian institution.
1. Atomic Heart
When you think of Tehran, capital of Iran, do you think of pretty young people with anime-colored hair cruising around the city at all hours of the night, drinking and smoking and talking about American movies and their travel plans to Australia? If Atomic Heart is anywhere near the truth — and a bizarre disclaimer at the beginning swears that it is — then apparently you should. The snappy dialogue between two smart, fun-loving female protagonists is enough to make this a good movie, but a series of deeply weird twists make it a great one. I will not spoil any of them here, it’s important to witness things at the pace the girls do on first viewing, but I wouldn’t put Atomic Heart at #1 if I didn’t believe it would hold up after multiple watches. The script is witty but not weighty. It is loaded with political meaning and fantastical imagery, but at heart it remains a lark, a joy ride, even as the tension climbs. It ends far too soon, but at just the right moment.
Now, where will Atomic Heart and the rest of these flicks land on our final AAAFFchart?
And the provisional* Flickchart AAAFF Best Of list is. . .
2. Atomic Heart
7. Top Spin
9. La Salada
*You will, of course, discover the One True Chart when you’ve ranked these movies on your own Flickchart.
What a delightful AAAFF it was. I feel lucky to have caught some of the best new Asian and Asian-American films before the rest of the world, but now that I’ve seen them, I want to share them. So watch them when possible, rank them, and come back to let us know what you think.