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AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival October 30- November 7, 2009
Check our coverage on from Martha and Mark Halperin


Its a small world (Asian Cinema) It's Day 3 at AFI

IT'S A SMALL WORLD (Asian Cinema)


As a second generation Japanese-American, I spent much of my youth sitting next to my mother and pretending I could understand her Japanese soap operas and melodramatic samurai serials. What my mother and I laugh about to this day is how I "get" Japanese film and TV more than she does. I will guffaw at SMAP's sketch comedy when I don't understand a word and I will cry over an emotional monologue in a tearjerker Tokyo TV show as Mom takes a break to check dinner. She follows the dialect, but I follow the emotional language of my generation across the sea.

I now own more Japanese horror than my mother will ever know with Takashi Miike topping the list, but Azumi is next to Audition in the DVD library to show I am not above a good dose of Japanese pop culture. And as an Asian-American, I have broadened my cinematic interests to the rest of Asian film. Chinese dramas, Korean thrillers, Thai documentaries - all of the Asian cinema realm is such a bounteous treasure of culture as well as a lesson in universality.

Viewing the films as a group, you can't help being struck by the richness of global culture. Even with a film as distinctly Japanese as Mika Ninagawa's lush period piece SAKURAN, or Sherwood Hu's Hamlet adaptation, PRINCE OF THE HIMALAYAS, it is easy to see intercultural influences. When asked the difference between audiences across the globe, Hu simply stated, "Sometimes audiences respond to sensation and other times it is the suspension of reality. Worldwide, all audiences respond to good storytelling."

The beauty of Asian cinema is that filmmakers have a rich influx of foreign films to glean from. While Americans can feast on studio fodder their whole lives many Asian communities have European and American entertainment thrust upon them. Most of the filmmakers listed an American or European filmmaker as an influence next to an Asian one. Sherwood Hu mentioned Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa and SOLOS co-director Kan Lume mentioned Krysztof Kieslowski with Wong Kar Wai on his laundry list of influences. And this cross-cultural influence shows in everything from lighting to editing. Watch the darkness of Diao Yi Nan's NIGHT TRAIN and see the lack of sentimentality in Robert Bresson's classic films along with Bresson's shadows and light to emphasize the criticism of an unbending cultural structure with malleable victims.

The best thing about film is that, as a visual medium, humor can translate across languages. If you are a fan of the Wes Anderson quirk + character dimension, you can find it beyond the States in films like FUNUKE, SHOW SOME LOVE YOU LOSERS! The film made me laugh and cry and squirm. While a line may be lost on an American, the characters are not. We are all from the same mold and it is best seen in the humor and romance of each story.

However, there is a difference. It is in a slight shift in focus. The proverbial light is moved just a hair on these characters. A spoiled aspiring actress in Tokyo (FUNUKE) will be explored more as a monster of manipulation than a vapid, yet skilled, whiner. The Ophelia character of PRINCE OF THE HIMALAYAS is shown more to sacrifice than madness. In NIGHT TRAIN and SOLOS, the silence is louder than words can be. In many of the films, the background sound of the city is part and parcel of the ambience. All this is not because Asians are more manipulative or loving or quiet, but because the filmmakers have geographic and political influences that flavor their style, different challenges to confront, different social secrets to bring to light. As Kan Lume pointed out "Every country with a thriving film industry began with films that pushed the boundaries and broke the rules...found ways to circumvent their constipated system."

To sum it up best, when asked if the filmmakers "think in another tongue," Zihan (SOLOS) stated, "I think filmmakers think in a whole variety of tongues which we can't verbalize and that's why we make films." The bridge is not language, but passion and visual communication. And NIGHT TRAIN director Diao Yi Nan spoke similarly, "...[T]hinking with images is crucial. I like it when a particular space can decide the texture of the entire film. A sequence of interesting images can make me change the story in my script." So after seeing these films and hearing these filmmakers, I am realizing how much of an influence watching foreign films can have. Of course, I took for granted my "other" heritage and how Japanese and other Asian films influenced me. But now I see how foreign films influenced these filmmakers, added to their cinematic currency. Maybe just as I laughed and cried without subtitles as a child, I can experiment with turning off the subtitles of a German film or a Nigerian film.

So, what does the Asian film fan have in store for them at AFI FEST this year? Well, when I was given SAKURAN to watch, I expected it to be the guilty pleasure one would expect from a Tokyo pop diva trying her hand at acting by playing a period-piece hooker based on a popular manga. I was pleasantly surprised by not only a strong dose of eye-candy, but also a hearty serving of filmmaking acumen flavored with Tokyo punk attitude. The vibrant cinematography, catty characters, and Harajuku punk-pop score mixed amazingly well. One caveat: this is not a movie to see with Orson Welles junkies. This is one to see with your bitch-fest girlfriends. Taste the culture, guzzle the camp. It's been years since I've seen a "normal" Japanese film. By that, I mean it's not about geishas, samurais, or pretty women with corpses in their spare bedrooms. FUNUKE, SHOW SOME LOVE YOU LOSERS! is a refreshing return to "normal" by being far from it. A sort of Royal Tenenbaums set in Japan, this film journeys from quirky to twisted while staying relatable throughout. While some of thehumor may be inside jokes to the Japanese, the characters are across the board relatable in their obsessions, secrets, and manipulations.

Next up is the Chinese action thriller MAD DETECTIVE. Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai don't disappoint by balancing corruption of people and distortion of the mind. While the premise has been done (crazy cop comes out of retirement to help newbie cop find a serial killer), the style and character development takes some new and interesting turns. And someone cuts off a body part. Which I love.

Finally, of course, as AFI FEST always does, there are many good arthouse Asian films. Sherwood Hu has done an amazing piece of work with PRINCE OF THE HIMALAYAS. He has dropped the characters and premise of "Hamlet" into an ancient Himalayan kingdom. The rich scenery and costumes are impressive, but it is obvious that Hu's theatrical background has made him put his laser focus on character and story. Hu varies (or sometimes clarifies cinematically) the relationships and arcs of these Shakespearean archetypes.

NIGHT TRAIN explores the world of sexuality in a setting of sexual persecution. While uniquely Chinese in plot, the desperation and darkness of the heroine's sexual hunger and loneliness lets director Diao Yi Nan stand tall next to the likes of Troussard, Bresson, and Fellini.

The very first AFI FEST entry from Singapore (SOLOS) is well worth the wait. Loo Zihan and Kan Lume's daring film traces the remnants of a gay teacher-student affair and the mother of the student who fears her son is lost to her forever. More than a twist on a triangle, the film shines an uncompromising light on the principals that illuminates their loneliness.

Finally, both documentaries on my list, PLEASE VOTE FOR ME and HOLLYWOOD CHINESE (Latin Cinema) BY JUAN PACHECO (Asian Cinema) are not to be missed. PLEASE VOTE FOR ME is beyond compare in how frustratingly involved the audience can become with these ambitious children. The drama of competing for class monitor - who knew? And I will dare to say that HOLLYWOOD CHINESE should be viewed by every casting director, filmmaker and writer. The journey of Asians in the Hollywood wheel can be enraging. While there is a long road ahead, the Asian American film community is getting stronger and wiser and that spreads hope to cinema around the globe.


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AFI FEST presented by Audi is the longest-running film festival in Los Angeles and one of the most influential film festivals in North America. Each year the Festival presents one of the world's most anticipated showcases of international film, demonstrating AFI's commitment to celebrating the art form.

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