Friday, February 20, 2009

Cinematic Dim Sum

People who attend film festivals quickly discover that programs filled with short films are best approached like a meal of dim sum or tapas. Each film passes by quickly enough that it does not require the same kind of commitment as a full-length feature. Because the program represents a sampling of filmmakers (often from different cultures), each short may have a unique regional or ethnic taste. 

Although the people who put together programs of short films may try to find a unifying theme to encapsulate their choices, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. As a result, some entries may seem a bit lackluster while others show great promise. Every now and then you'll come across something that is so delightful that it will set the standard for other dishes -- or make you look forward to a second, albeit brief encounter.

Of the eight films included in the Times of Departure program at next month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival only one was a genuine knockout. All had their charms, but Not Here stood hands and shoulders above the other shorts on the program. Directed by Carol Ho and Teo Mei Ann, this 15-minute mini-adventure follows two attractive office workers who keep trying to find a place where they can enjoy a brief sexual respite. 

Their first attempt, a supply closet, is not a wise choice.  One of the men's restrooms in their office building offers different challenges. Just when the man and woman start necking in the privacy of a toilet stall, another man enters and continues to carry on a conversation on his cell phone while urinating. His phone call kills the mood.  

"Not here," whispers the woman.

Their next attempt is in the back seat of her car. Just as they try to find a comfortable position in which to start making love, someone else's car alarm goes off in the huge, multi-level parking garage. The lovers look into each other's eyes and whisper "Not here." 

Further adventures follow them around Singapore on the man's motor scooter.  As they scout the hallways of a hotel, they find a room that is being cleaned by one of the maids. At first, they can't get her to leave them alone. But with a little bit of extra money as a tip, she finally stops fussing and dusting and gives them their privacy. As soon as they lay down on the bed they start hearing sex sounds coming from the next room. The message couldn't be clearer.

Not here.

The next morning, they leave the hotel and drive out to a more rural area. As they run through the greenery, giggling and laughing at their misadventures, they find a beautiful spot, surrounded by verdant growth. They look into each other's eyes, smile and agree.


What sets this film so far above the others on the program is its strong narrative, highly photogenic protagonists, gorgeous cinematography, and an editorial restraint which shapes each moment with a maximum of visual impact and a minimum of fussiness. An utter joy from start to finish!

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Another frustrating trip around a busy city occurs in Sushrut Jain's powerful 18-minute Andheri.  Set in Mumbai, where people are still divided by caste and poverty, Jain's short focuses on a domestic helper named Anita (who desperately wishes to escape the world of indentured servitude which keeps her at the feet of a selfish, demanding, and verbally abusive old woman). Once she decides to make a break for freedom, Anita packs somes clothes, takes what little money she has, and heads out into the larger world, hoping to escape.

All it takes is one long, frightening bus ride in which she is befriended by a Muslim woman in a burka (whose husband is killed when he falls from the bus), to convinces Anita that her life as a domestic servant may be a lot cozier than the wilds of Mumbai outside the luxury of her employer's condo. When a chastened Anita returns to her nest, she finds her employer lonely and a bit remorseful for having been so difficult.

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In J.P. Chan's nine-minute video, a woman working at a suburban Chinese restaurant in East Providence, Rhode Island, thinks back to what her life was like before she left China. The smog in Beijing was so thick one could barely see the apartment buildings (she often felt as if she would never see a genuinely blue sky).  Prior to leaving Beijing she also smoked her last cigarette. Beijing Haze captures the sense of isolation in a person who as left everything familiar behind, only to find herself alone and perhaps a little homesick in a strange new land.

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The Dwelling is a 16-minute video by Sheldon Candis that examines a group of homeless Japanese men who have found ingenious ways to brighten their lives. Whether scrounging for cinder blocks and supplies with which to build and paint their tiny huts by the river, or describing their previous jobs in the printing industry, these men demonstrate a rare resiliency. 

Easily satisfied with cheap meals consisting of ramen noodles (and happy with an occasional chance to gamble), the men show the filmmaker how they do their laundry without any electricity by making clever use of the washroom facilities in a local park.  Showing little desire for the lifestyle they left behind, each man explains how he survives in a society that has always been obsessed with saving face.

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Howie Shia's seven-minute animated short, Flutter follows a pair of high-top sneakers that magically grow wings and take their owner on a whirlwind adventure. Although handsomely filled with black and white artwork, it did not hold my attention very well.

By contrast, Maura Milan's five-minute video entitled Crocodile easily captivated the viewer with its comparison between a young, confused teenage boy swimming in the river and close-up shots of a crocodile capable of inflicting harm with a fierce fury on anyone who crosses its path.

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Two other shorts, although far from perfect, had strong appeal. In Maya Lorton's refreshing five-minute video, Korean American children discuss the role that Christianity and the practice of religion play in their family routine. The interviewees in Save Me range from a young man in his teens (who basically  sees religion as a method for making him feel guilty) to younger children, who sometimes see it as a way to separate them from the Caucasian children at their school.

Lorton's film has a refreshing candor as children describe their parents' attempts to make them follow religious ritual, even if the parents are more interested in playing golf on Sunday.

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Finally, Boo Junfeng's Homecoming follows the path of a young Singaporean who returns home from school in Barcelona to prepare to enter his country's military as part of his national service. Although it is never overtly stated that he is gay, one gets the sense that he had the freedom to come out while in Spain.  Coming home to a nosy grandmother who wants to know why he didn't meet any girls -- and an angry father who cuts the boy no slack -- he spends some of his last moments of freedom in an empty sports stadium with a friend as they discuss what lies ahead. 

The actor who stars in this 16-minute short provides plenty of soulful eye candy. However, the best part of this film is its musical score -- a magnificent composition for piano that does a rare job of capturing the changing emotional makeup of a teenager who has seen a different part of the world and is now being forced to briefly return to the cramped emotional and physical confines of his childhood before heading off to the Army to become a man.

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