Friday, May 2, 2008

MAY 2008, Part A: Politics and Park City, Revisited

Looking back on last January, the 2008 edition of the Sundance Film Festival was cold in so many different ways. Most obvious, it was COLD. I thought that Berlin in February was cold enough as the weather during the Berlinale and European Film Market never gets above 35 degree farenheit. That was until I started coming to Park City in January -- the weather up in the mountains make Berlin feel like a resort town. Perhaps that is why I view attending the two major "Dance" film festivals, Sundance and Slamdance, as a necessary evil: for Asian Pacific American filmmakers, a coveted slot in either of these two festivals insure an appreciable degree of exposure and expanded filmmaking opportuntiy down the road. And, inclusion in either festival serves a larger purpose in validating our right to "belong."

"Belonging" and "cold" were synonymous in other ways as well in Park City. With a far slimmer than normal slate of Asian Pacific American works at Sundance, it really felt as is APAs were being frozen out of the proceedings. Imagine the unfair pressure placed on director Jennifer Phang and the crew of her second feature-length film, HALF-LIFE, as the standard-bearer of APA cinema -- as there were precious few other feature-length works by APAs in any of the marquee sections of the Festival (Competition, Spectrum, or Premieres), a prominent APA presence was clearly missing. Thankfully, the handful of short films programmed as part of the Sundance slate brought much-needed levity to the proceedings. Seeing veteran filmmakers like Julia Kwan (SMILE) and Tad Nakamura (PILGRIMAGE) was reassuring, even as the rest of the Asian Pacific slate intimated an emphasis on emerging vioces and, in some cases, cinematic visions that began their lives on web-based delivery systems.

A perfect case-in-point is New Yorker Kenneth Hung, who brought two blatantly political works of animation to Sundance in GAS ZAPPERS (a wickedly envisioned take on the effects of alternate fuel development on both the economy and the war on terror) and BECAUSE WASHINGTON IS HOLLYWOOD FOR UGLY PEOPLE (which willfully skewers all the then-candidates for President). BECAUSE WAHSINGTON... also had the unintended effect of illustrating the limits of agitprop and advocacy filmmaking: not two weeks after the conclusion of Sundance activities, all but four of the candidates dropped out of the race, rendering the piece either prophetic or irrelevant. I like to think that it is the former, but those who don't take care to read into the meaning of the ingenious cut-out animation might dismiss it as the latter.

Politics, advocacy, and social engineering are at the heart of two distinctive non-fiction features that were nested in Sundance's World Documentary Competition. The first, DINNER WITH THE PRESIDENT: A NATION'S JOURNEY by Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan, offered a wildly contrasting portrait of a Pakistani society in turmoil even as President Pervez Musharraf wrestles with enacting the institution of nominally democratic principals to a country that is essentially run as a dictatorship. A decidely awkward dinner party bringing together the president and the co-directors elicits a strained conversation detailing Musharraf's rationale for using dictatorial tactics in uniting a country fractured along ethnic, class and religious faultlines. In areas far from the urban areas, however, college students, peasant farmers, religious extremists hold vastly different views on their country and what it would take to eradicate decades of political infighting. A vital sidebar to this ongoing soap opera is the return of former Pakistani President and exile Benazir Bhutto, who herself has not been immune from scandal and inefficiency during her rule. The film then parallels Musharraf's struggles with the sense of "promise" that attends an anticipated return to Pakistan of Bhutto, undoubtedly to regain power once again. DINNER WITH THE PRESIDENT stops short of the inevitable and obvious conclusion as recorded by history (Bhutto's assassination last December), and instead concludes by foregrounding the perspectives of Pakistan's dispossessed.

The second, Canadian documentarian Yung Chang's UP THE YANGTZE, was produced through the National Film Board of Canada, and made waves when it was sold to New York-based Zeitgeist Films just days before its Sundance debut. Taking as its starting point the massive Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River, UP THE YANGTZE regards the creation of the dam as a foregone conclusion; instead, this observant and meditative work focusses on the impact of the project on just some of the over one million Chinese whose lives are adversely impacted by the disappearance of their homes in the face of the rising river waters. Director Chang tells the story through the eyes of two young adults: Yu Shi, a teenager compelled to defer her dreams of higher education and work for a riverboat tour company to help support her family, and Chen Bo Yu, a coworker who merely sees his job as an opportunity to make money. Yu Shi, an inexperienced but willing novice in the ways of customer service, slowly gets the hang of her job duties, which consists of waiting on tour groups and cleaning up after them. Chen Bo Yu, meanwhile, is seemingly the ideal hire -- handsome, self-assured and possessing of decent English language skills, he is best equipped to interact with foreign tourists. However, his callow personality gets him into hot water with management. The contrasting fates of this pair echoes that of the many families forced to relocate as the waters of the Yangtze rises and slowly but surely obliterates homes, villages, a way of life.

Jennifer Phang's stylish science fiction narrative HALF-LIFE was deemed fitting of placement within Sundance's New Frontiers section, which seemingly served to further marginalize APA cinema this year away from "showcase" exposure. Too bad: Phang's story, about a young boy who discovers that he has "special abilities" even as his fatherless family is threatened by the untowardness of his mother's live-in boyfriend, is at turns meditative, creepy, and eeirily prophetic. Though it enjoyed a positive reation in Park City, HALF-LIFE would have benefitted even further from the added exposure of being placed in a competitive category. But then, that's just my opinion.

Maybe I've being a bit too dogmatic about it, but in reconsidering the somewhat slim line-up of APA Sundance films, I'm left wondering -- in a "political" year in America, did the selections in this year's Sundance skew away from the overtly political? Or were they political enough? I hate to think that a short animated film like BECAUSE WASHINGTON IS HOLLYWOOD FOR UGLY PEOPLE was the standard bearer for politically active and activist filmmaking among Asian Pacific Americans at Park City in 2008. Maybe it was a case of bitter medicine, taken in small doses, going down easier than the messages of prominently-programmed features. I'll leave it at that for now.

Some programming notes: As mentioned previously, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is fortunate to present UP THE YANGTZE at this year's event, and we are excited to welcome director Yung Chang to introduce the film on Saturday, May 3 at 2:30 p.m. at the Laemmle's Sunset 5. Julia Kwan's SMILE, selected as a 2008 Festival Golden Reel Nominee, will screen on Sunday, May 4, 2:30 p.m. at the DGA.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

APRIL 2008, PART A: Coming Up For Air

As I write this diary entry, we are mere days away from the start of the 24th edition of The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Having started working with our programming committee since mid-September, I'd have to say that this year's group have put in a superlative effort in weeding through nearly 350 individual works the past several months -- a whopping 40 percent increase in submissions over last year. When the works that me and David Magdael, the Film Festival's Co-Director, are factored in, our programming team will have screened over 500 works that will be filtered down into a program line-up of 169 films and videos. The increased volume is a sign that cinema production by Asian Pacific peoples is growing by leaps and bounds; the dramatically increased percentage of rejected works indicates that the competition is becoming quite stiff. I've already taken a handful of calls by filmmakers whose works we couldn't include. It's a part of the job that's the most unpleasant for me, and the part where I have to be counselor, cheerleader, psychiatrist, and executioner -- a role far more than that of a mere Festival Co-Director. Someone has to do that job. On many days, I wish it wasn't me.

This year's Festival program is a mix of near-misses and happy accidents. "Near misses," meaning that there were a LOT of excellent films we saw that for one reason or another will not be programmed. WONDERFUL TOWN is just such a work -- I absolutely loved it when I saw it last fall at the Asian Film Market, and we came THAT close to programming it when it got sold to a French distributor last December. From there, all reservations went out the door, and we found ourselves at the back of a looong line of other film festivals waiting to include it in their own programs. Then there were a couple of other films we dearly wanted -- but not for the $2,000 asking prices that were thrown in our faces.

On the other hand, films we were afraid would not be available fell into our lap at the eleventh hour. Case in point: Canadian director Yung Chang's riveting UP THE YANGTZE was bought by a U.S. distributor on the first day of its U.S. premiere engagement at the Sundance Film Festival last January. We were dismayed when the distributor announced a mid-April release date, two weeks prior to Festival Week! But then, a change of scheduling, a late phone call, and voila! UP THE YANGTZE will make its Los Angeles Premiere at the Film Festival, prior to its theatrical premiere engagement in mid-May. The opportunity to screen a country's official submission for Foreign Language Oscar, as UP THE YANGTZE is) is exciting. It's doubly exciting to screen TWO country's official Oscar submissions, as Tony Ayres' stellar drama THE HOME SONG STORIES, starring Joan Chen, is set to make its L.A. Premiere screening on May 8 as our Closing Night feature.

While I was busying myself with the tasks of confirming our screening programs, I've received a series of responses to my earlier diary entry around "The Question." One of the more interesting comments I've gotten was from a reader who only signed his name as "Anonymous." His response, which was decidedly catty, went like this:

oh well, bad question to ask.
I agree to that, but at the same time, i think that you shouldn't be so harsh on "some white lady" asking a question that apparently others in the audience want to know the answer to. You are a festival co-director, and you should sensor your own reaction, so you and more importantly the organization you represent, don't come off looking like a jerk on your own site. Yes, you need to address your snobbery for the sake of your own festival.

no, i'm not white.

-asian guy

Now, I really don't respond to respondents who won't bother to actually identify themselves, and instead hide behind some safety hedge like "Anonymous" or "Asian Guy." For me, I'm willing to own my remarks, and quite frankly, if a white lady, or anyone else of any ethnicity for that matter, invests two hours of their time to experience a work of moving picture art and the best thing they can feed back to the artist is, "What was your budget," then how sad is THAT? In my experiences, I've consistently seen that form of marginalization carried out at Q & As whenever I've screened events at the old Independent Feature Project/West (now Film Independent). That my two cents, and if anyone out there has an issue with it, then write your own blog.

Well so much for that. On to more important things, namely, what's on tap for Festival Week 2008. We're happy to welcome a new blogger to the Festival website -- say hello to past Film Festival artist Michael Caigoy. He'll be writing his thoughts on just some of the films in this year's festival in a diary entitled, "Radical Posture." Check out his first entry on director Sarab Neelam's OCEAN OF PEARLS, and be sure to visit back for his upcoming reviews and critical comments.

As for me: throughout the week and into the back end of the Festival, I'll be sharing my thoughts and observations on how this year's bumper-crop of films are received by the audience and by fellow filmmakers. Regardless of what happens, I'd like to think our audience is not only watching, but paying attention as well.

Friday, January 18, 2008

JANUARY 2008: Who's Gonna Love This Work?

It's the latter part of January, and as the days inch forward to the Lunar New Year, I should be thinking of final arrangements for attending one of the two big European marketplace festivals slated for the coming fortnight. Indeed, I've trekked eastward to the European Film Market at Berlinale religiously since 2001, in part to discover new films to include into our festival line-up, and also to network with filmmakers and industry professionals who regard Europe as a valuable proving ground for their productions and artistic visions. So what, do I ask myself, am I doing in snowy Park City, Utah at the Sundance Film Festival? I'm not sure it's the films: indeed, I've not bothered to screen such critically-acclaimed and provocative fare of recent vintage as TEETH, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and whatever other film has broken out due to Sundance. More to the point, my presence here has more to do with the Asian Pacific Filmmakers' Experience Reception that Visual Communications and other organizations have presented here since 2002 (and which I've blogged about extensively on the Visual Communications website -- look for the whole 4-1-1 there).

The switching of my programming research calendar to a warm-weather itinerary (basically, a six-week long trek dominated by my attendance at the Pusan International Film Festival and Asian Film Market) insures that I come into contact with a critical mass of Asian Pacific international films, not to mention the rare opportunity to observe the ever-shifting directions of world cinema through the films and filmmakers I encounter. For instance, it was quite breathtaking to experience the debut feature films of past VC FILMFEST artists Aditya Assarat and Liew Seng Tat at Pusan this year -- Aditya's mesmerizing WONDERFUL TOWN and Seng Tat's rambumctious yet precious FLOWER IN THE POCKET have won numerous awards on the international film festival circuit to date, and as I write this, the two films are poised for their European premieres at the Rotterdam International Film Festival at the end of this month. It was also beneficial to know that the digital cinema revolution has fully taken hold in Southeast Asia; that region has in recent years played host to new and exciting filmmakers from Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. The Philippines, in particular, has asserted itself as a new hotbed of vanguard filmmaking talent through the efforts of film festivals including Cinemanila and Cinemalaya to expose this new generation, as well as the emergence of new voices as Khavn de la Cruz, Lav Diaz, Ruelo Lozendo, Raya Martin, Auraeus Solito, John Torres, and many others. These artists and many others like them have not only been nurtured and developed in their home countries and regions, but have found a foothold and even critical and popular acclaim in the West.

In a sense, the exciting developments of new Asian Pacific cinema only serves to bring into sharp relief the relative homogenous personality of the Asian selections here at Sundance 2008; the heavily China and Japan-centric line-up of international work vis-a-vis the concommitant lack of diverse APA offerings. For instance, a publicist friend of mine bemoaned the exclusion of works this year from South Korea, while glimpses of the new and exciting Southeast Asian cinema are nowhere to be found throughout the program line-up. If it wasn't for the otherwise fulfilling task of organizing the APA Reception, I myself would be asking what I'm doing here. Uh, on second thought, I've been asking myself that ever since the full Sundance line-up became public. I have to think that perhaps Sundance has missed the boat this year -- that in an effort to give a nod to the fact that this is after all an Olympic year, a measure of recognition is being paid through the Asian programming. If so, that would be a shame. The Sundance audience would be better and much more enlightened by exposure to what's going on throughout Asia right now. But then, I am not a Sundance programmer. And this is not the audience I program for and answer to...

Friday, December 28, 2007

DECEMBER 2007: "The Question" and Other Burning Issues

Back in June, I was sitting in on a sneak-preview screening of a trimmed-down version of Richard Wong's COLMA: THE MUSICAL, which was being readied for a coveted theatrical release courtesy of Roadside Attractions, a boutique distributor that fell in love with the film as it was beginning its 2006 film festival run. The screening, sponsored by Project:Involve (a diversity initiative of Film Independent, the breakaway L.A. arm of this country's Independent Feature Project, or IFP), was an opportunity for director Wong to talk about the long road to realizing a theatrical release with his first feature, one paved with numerous award prizes and laudits along the festival circuit. The discussion started out fine -- that is, until the moderator turned the discussion over to the audience for questions. Straight away, the first question, from some white lady obviously watching the screening in "sleep" mode, was the dreaded

"Could you tell us what your budget was for the film?"

What was quite irksome was the lady's response when director Wong demurred -- she aggressively pressed the question until he hesitantly divulged the film's production budget, prompting a buzz among the audience members who apparently craved that information. The next question was even more shocking in its inanity: another white lady congratulated the filmmaker's effort and, quoting her, sent out her "hope that you find a distributor," which must have really pleased the Roadshow Attractions reps in attendance that night.

I filed away that night as just another example of what happens when "colored" filmmakers take their works out into the mainstream arena and forgot about it until another night, four months later, in the South Korean port city of Busan. As part of that city's Pusan International Film Festival, WEST 32ND, director Michael Kang's follow-up to his earlier THE MOTEL, was enjoying its international premiere. As me and Kim Yutani, a former member of our programming team who now splits her time between the Sundance Film Festival and OutFest, sat through the crowded post-screening Q & A, a young Asian woman who we presumed was a journalist asked, you guessed it, The Question:

"Could you tell us what your budget was for the film?"

Over the years, I've heard the question asked so many times at IFP screenings that I've assumed that the right to ask such questions must be some kind of birthright of the privileged. But to hear it at the Pusan International Film Festival, a venue that has gained a reputation for the intelligent and uniquely interrogational dialogues between artists and audiences, was absolutely disheartening. Michael deftly sidestepped the question by stating his preference to concentrate on the aesthetics and craft of making film. But for me, hearing it again, half away away from La La Land, was quite odious and discouraging indeed. Me and Kim could only look sideways at each other, suppress a laugh, and give each other a bemused look as if to say, "What the muthah f.....?"

Months later, as I enter the first of hopefully many observations on the programming directions that will frame the 24th edition of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival set for May 1 to 8, 2008, I dial up those memories -- this time, to assess whether my attitudes toward The Question and others like it (you know the ones: "What was your shooting ratio," "How did you cast your film," "Where can I buy the DVD," "Who were your cinematic influences," "What advice would you give young filmmakers starting out," etc. etc. etc.) reflect an inability for audiences to truly engage the moviewatching experience; or if they reflect a kind of elitist attitude towards the audience's basic Need to Know.

As a matter of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that in past editions of our very own film festival, we've fielded various versions of The Question at numerous artist Q & As; I remember presiding over one especially embarrassing session when the only two audience members with questions to ask intended to ask the very same question -- "What was your budget" and "Uh, never mind, I was gonna ask the same question." Thinking back over the years, it's also become clear to me that ethnic-specific cultural events such as the Film Festival exist precisely as a forum for audiences truly interested in finding out about the filmmaking process to ask questions that may come off as inane or utterly disengaged. To them, so what if they may come off to us "cultural workers" as cinema bumpkins? Turning the equation around, maybe it's a case of us "cultural workers" being "art snobs," only in the worst sense of the term. I have to admit that in an event intended to be as populist and inclusive of everyone's perspectives and opinions as possible, maybe we're forgetting that in its most elemental form, this event exists so that people will learn, discover, and -- basically -- find out.

As I comment on our programming findings and selections in the coming weeks and months, I'll endeavor to consider the question of "whose film festival is this anyways" as well as the impact of our audiences on how and why we program the work that we will present to you this spring. I suspect that in this diary, I'll address my own snobbery honed by years and years of co-directing this film festival, and hopefully be able to intelligently articulate my excitement around our selections without coming off as some schoolteacher. This is cinema, after all, an opportunity to both learn and be entertained -- and not some kind of medicine that's supposed to be good for you.