Friday, March 11, 2016
On March 10 at Castro Theater, the festival opens with a mesmerizing documentary "Tyrus" (USA 2015) about a remarkable 105-year-old Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong (黃齊耀) who will be attending the opening night in person. Ten days later on March 20 at New Parkway Theater, the festival closes with another striking documentary "Right Footed" (USA 2015) about a motivated young woman Jessica Cox who is the first pilot without arms.
One big venue change for this year's festival is that most screenings take place at the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission neighborhood, besides the New People Cinema, Castro Theater, and Chinatown locations in San Francisco, and the New Parkway in Oakland.
Here are my reviews of a few films, mostly in my favorite CinemAsia section, in this year's program. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order:
- Tyrus (USA 2015 | 76 min. | Documentary)
- The Kids (小孩 | Taiwan 2015 | in Mandarin | 90 min.)
- Right Footed (USA 2015 | 82 min. | Documentary)
- Please Remember Me (我祗認識你 | China 2015 | in Shanghainese | 78 min. | Documentary)
- Thanatos, Drunk (醉.生夢死 | Taiwan 2015 | in Min Nan | 107 min.)
Tyrus (USA 2015 | 76 min. | Documentary)
It cannot be more fitting to open the festival with director Pamela Tom's feature directorial debut "Tyrus" that tells the story of an extraordinary Asian American artist Tyrus Wong (黃齊耀). Bringing Tyrus's story to light is precisely what Center for Asian America Media (CAAM) is created for and has done well with. With this film, partially funded by CAAM, Tyrus's life story will surely offer inspiration to generations of Asian Americans.
It is no exaggeration to claim Tyrus's life is the testimony for Chinese American history. Born in 1910 in China, Tyrus came to the US when he was nine years old and his first stop was to be detained in Angel Island Immigration Station where some Chinese were imprisoned for years. Later when he worked for Disney and Warner Brothers as a sketch artist, he encounters the same discrimination and prejudice as most Asian immigrants face even today. Tyrus works hard and builds a family, but his art-work is largely unknown or uncredited. Now at the age of 105, his achievements as well as his rich life finally begin to be recognized and celebrated.
Through archived photos and candid interviews, the film is able to paint a clear although brief picture of Tyrus's career and his personal life. It is not an easy task to unfold his century long story into merely 76 minutes. Although the film does a decent job in establish Tyrus's influence and contribution to the animation and movie industry, the film seems to have miss a few opportunities to dig deeper into its subjects. There are many harder questions that could have been asked. It is also unfortunate that the film ends softly that appears to be a rush to a finish. Nevertheless, Tyrus's mesmerizing story will have longevity just like the remarkable artist himself.
The Kids (小孩 | Taiwan
2015 | in Mandarin | 90 min.)
The writer-director Sunny Yu's (于瑋珊) feature directorial debut "The Kids" is one of the little gems at the festival. It quietly observes a naive young couple who try their best to hold their fragile family together. Yet, they seem to always step in the wrong direction.
The soft-spoken Bao-Li (Wu Chien-He 巫建和) definitely gives girls the impression that he is probably the nicest guy they can date. It turns out that he indeed has a big heart that won over Jia-Jia (Wen Chen-Ling 溫貞菱) when they were in the 8th grade. Now at the tender age of sixteen, they quit school, get married, and have an infant girl who is cared by Bao-Li's gambling-addicted mother (Debby Yang 楊琪). No matter how hard Bao-Li is trying to hold the young family together, Jia-Jia begins to have an affair with her married boss (Lawrence Ko 柯宇綸) and plans to leave Bao-Li. The two teenagers pay the price for losing their innocence and they experience harsh reality too soon.
It takes a while to realize the clue that whenever the young couple appears on the screen in their school uniforms, it is a flashback to the past when the two were in high school. Despite the clumsy transitions between the past and the present, the film is able to keep us captivated with its protagonists' daily struggle and the emotional crisis these young minds have to endure. Both Wu Chien-He and Wen Chen-Ling give terrific performances as the helpless and devastated teenagers. Through the film's observant lens, we get to know these two sympathetic characters that are hard to forget and impossible not to be touched by.
Right Footed (USA 2015 | 82 min. | Documentary)
It's impossible not to be awestruck when you first meet Jessica Cox, not only by her uncommon physical appearance, but also by her energetic cheerful outlook. At least that is the impression you will get based on the portrait about her in director Nick Spark's documentary "Right Footed." The film mostly focuses on Jessica's career as a motivation speaker instead of giving a full profile of the process of her remarkable achievement despite her disability.
Even if Jessica Cox were not born without arms, she would still have been on the cover of many magazines as woman of the year. She never shows any discouragement by her physical condition. She learns how to perform daily activities from tying shoe laces to combing her hair, all with her feet. She earns her black-belt in Taekwondo. She graduates from college. She gets married with her Taekwondo instructor. She learns how to drive a car with her feet, and then drives an airplane, also with her feet. She travels around the world to give speeches and inspire others with disability. She advocates the rights for disabled individuals to the lawmakers. Is there anything that she cannot do?
The film vividly captures numerous exciting moments in Jessica's life, and makes you feel like that she can light up a room no matter where she walks into. She always appears in front of a crowd with a big smile. She often surprises her audience by showing off what she can do with her feet. Despite the undeniable noble motivation to show how remarkable Jessica is, this one-sided point of view might actually hurt the good intention. The film is overly selective in choosing the rosy side of Jessica's life to show us. It is inconceivable that we almost never get to see any difficulty or problem she may encounter due to her disability, as if they never exist. She seems more capable of doing anything than anybody with four working limbs. Despite its inspiring value, it is hard to shake off the uneasy feeling that you just watched a feature length promotional movie for her next speech—that is how Jessica and her husband make a living, which roots in her disability, ironically.
Please Remember Me
(我祗認識你 | China 2015 |
in Shanghainese | 78 min. | Documentary)
The "unprecedented, pervasive, and enduring" aging population phenomenon in the world does not spare China, the most populated nation. Currently more than 10% of the population in China is over 60 years old, and the number is growing. Caring for the elderly poses a serious challenge to each individual family and to the society as a whole. The Chinese director Zhao Qing's (赵青) gripping documentary "Please Remember Me" not only brings this burning issue to the front and center, but also affectionately tells an endearing love story between an elderly couple.
Born in 1927, 88-year-old Feng Shufeng (冯树锋) has been married to 87-year-old Lou Weifang (娄味芳) for over 45 years. Although they fell in love at first sight in their twenties, they didn't get married until Shufeng's first wife died of cancer at a very young age. After surviving the turmoil of the notorious Cultural Revolution, they have been enjoying each other's company and sharing a happy life quietly in Shanghai, while Shufeng's only son lives abroad.
But now, Weifang has Alzheimer's disease and her mind has deteriorated to the level of a 4-year-old. She does not recognize anybody else except her long time husband. Worried about his own health and Weifang's care-taking, Shufeng must face the excruciating reality and reluctantly moves himself and his wife into a retirement home. They do not seem to have any other choice.
This lovely couple's heartbreaking story offers a snapshot of today's Chinese society. Traditionally, a family of a few generations may live together and create a micro-community to support and care for each other in China. No more. The modern Western-style family structure leaves the elderly more isolated than ever. This film timely brings that wide-spread and urgent problem into light. It is no surprise that one of the film's executive producers is Academy Award-winning documentarian Ruby Yang (楊紫燁) who has a terrific track record on telling compelling stories about social, environmental, and economic issues in China.
But what makes the film even more captivating and touching is when it sensitively and sincerely tells a love story between two life-long partners. The couple tightly embrace to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. As if a pair of elegant swans, they try to dance gracefully one last time before they exit the stage. The fact that they are the great uncle and great aunt to the director Zhao Qing (赵青) and the film's producer Violet Du Feng (冯都) helps to give the filmmakers' intimate access to the couple's daily life. (Zhao Qing and Violet Du Feng are also cousins.) The terrific editing by veteran editor Jean Tsien (also credited as a writer for the film) beautifully assembles the pieces of the couple's life together.
Aging is one of those inevitable issues we all must face, but fortunately love will prevail, at least for Shufeng and Weifang.
(醉.生夢死 | Taiwan 2015
| in Min Nan | 107 min.)
Inequality isn't unique for people in America. Behind the scenic tourist attractions and delicious night market foods, there are plenty of sorrow and hardships among the have-nots. The Taiwanese writer-director Chang Tso-chi's (張作驥) award-winning new film "Thanatos, Drunk" is a poignant character study of one of the drifters in today's Taiwan.
After his alcoholic mom (Lu Hsueh-Feng 呂雪鳳) passed away, reticent Rat (Lee Hong-Chi 李鴻其) drifts around the neighborhood and sells vegetables in the market while his gay brother Shang-he (Huang Shang-Ho 黃尚禾) lives in the US. Rat's only role model is his cousin's gigolo boyfriend Shuo (Cheng Jen-Shuo 鄭人碩) who wheedles just about everyone he crosses.
Despite his tough-acting appearance, Rat has a tender heart and he patiently plays with ants, tries to raise tilapia in his fish tank, and cares for a mute underage call girl (Chang Ning 張寗). However, while trying to survive, he has very few outlets to express his guilt, grief, anger, resentment, and desire. All he can do is to go to the rooftop and stare at the smoggy sky, reflecting his murky future.
The film is no doubt more of an art-house delight than a multi-complex entertainment. Its characters resemble those you would see in Tsai Ming-liang's (蔡明亮) works; its mood, pace, and cinematography remarkably shows the influence by Wong Kar-wai's (王家衛) films. A shabby alley or a fluorescent lamp can look quite mysterious and mesmerizing, echoing the mindset of Rat. Even though the narrative is loose and often drifts like its protagonist, the film is strikingly engaging and the superb performance from a terrific ensemble cast keeps us captivated. We grow to care about these underdogs and their future, if they manage to find one.