Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Help Is On The Way

Blanche duBois always depended on the kindness of strangers. The Beatles managed to get by With A Little Help From My Friends. But, as we all know, the first step toward getting help requires admitting that a problem even exists. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Help!

The strange thing about asking for help is that, when it arrives, it might not be quite what you expected.
  • It might be an American missionary who has come to Haiti to round up orphans with the intent of offering them a better life.
  • It might be a group of do-gooders from California whose awareness of how to mobilize a community might be exactly what you didn't know you needed.
  • Or it might be a 40-year-old French ocean liner nearing the end of its career whose captain turned his ship around in order to answer an SOS from the sinking flagship of the Italian Line.
July 26, 1956: The Andrea Doria and the Ile de France

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Written and directed by the team of Christian Becker and Oliver Schwabe, Tender Parasites focuses on the loving (if parasitic) lifestyles of Jakob and Manu. In their director's statement, the filmmakers explain how their film was inspired by the survival strategies of a young couple that had fallen through the cracks in the system:
"Oliver chanced upon a few sentences on the Internet, which immediately burned themselves into our memory. Soon thereafter, Christian read a newspaper article about a young woman who, with her boyfriend, had been camping in the woods for half a year (not because the two were nature freaks, but because they wanted to try out what it means to live differently).

After our feature debut, Egoshooter, which captured the state of a solipsistic young man who seemed not to care about the future, we wanted the protagonists of Tender Parasites to face the world 'out there' as self-sufficient, head-strong, and self-determined heroes. They are sensitive enough to realize what is missing in people's lives -- and then they put this knowledge to use as providers of human services. We let Jakob and Manu loose upon an ailing society. Their motives are not altruistic; instead they use this strategy to make money. Jakob and Manu are no missionaries, but idealists acting for their own sake.

Jakob (Robert Stadlober) and Manu (Maja Schöne)

We learn, with our heroes, that the 'parasitic market' is incredibly big. Our tender parasites have discovered an insatiable market niche. They have found a way of dropping out of society in order to, in return, exploit the reality of lack: Emotions for money, money for emotions -- for Jakob and Manu it becomes an exhausting, holistic experience.

But with this line of work come certain dangers: Jakob and Manu absorb their clients' emotional garbage. They ingest it, so to speak. What remains are emotional scars made of experiences and memories of jobs to which they have devoted themselves wholeheartedly."
As the film begins, Jakob and Manu have been camping out in the woods. Manu has been working as a caregiver for the elderly Mrs. Katz (Gerda Broken), who occasionally lets the young couple make love on the floor in front of her to remind her what life used to be like.

Meanwhile, Jakob manages to insert himself into the lives of a wealthy couple who are mourning the loss of their adolescent son. After Martin (Sylvester Groth) nearly mows Jakob down while trying to land his glider, the two men start to bond in unexpected ways. Soon Jakob is staying with Martin and his wife (against Claudia's wishes) and Martin starts to show signs of opening up. However, Claudia (Corinna Kirchhoff) wants Jakob out of their home.

Martin (Sylvester Groth) and Claudia (Corinna Kirchhoff)

Things come to a head when Mrs. Katz dies unexpectedly and Manu must find a way to alert the police without being held responsible for the old woman's death. When the investigation leads the police to Martin's home, the older man covers for Jakob and then quickly becomes suspicious of his young friend's motives.

Was Jakob planning to murder Martin and Claudia and steal all their money? That might easily have happened had not Martin's kindness and tenderness started to make Jakob feel like a surrogate son. But when Manu shows up at Martin's house, pretending to be Jakob's sister, the young couple's plans fall apart.

Jakob (Robert Stadlober) and Martin (Sylvester Groth)

Jakob wants to stay longer, but Manu is determined for them to move on to a seaside resort filled with elderly people who are, no doubt, living pretty lonely lives. A series of angry confrontations ensue, after which Jakob and Manu drive off in Claudia's van (which they subsequently abandon).

Several months later, Jakob and Manu have dyed their hair and are working the boardwalk, looking for new clients. A carefully arranged rendezvous with Martin (who has driven several hours to see Jakob) finally allows for some closure between the two men. After Martin leaves, Manu introduces Jakob to a sweet, lonely old man she has met in the café where she is now working as a waitress. A new and willing host has presented himself for the young and solicitous social parasites.

Tender Parasites demonstrates how two young people with limited skills can target a niche market that longs for a taste of their vitality and virility. While Jakob and Manu could easily become vicious predators, they have approached their new career as business partners with a social conscience. As they try to anticipate the needs of their clients (and keep their employers happy), Jakob and Manu are careful not to break any laws or hurt the people they tend to.

Tender Parasites will be screened as part of the German Gems film festival on Sunday, February 28th at the Castro Theatre (you can order tickets here).

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Many critics have been hailing the "new Thai Cinema" from independent filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) as an exciting and radical style of moviemaking. I've got a different word for it: B-O-R-I-N-G.

Next month, the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival will present the Bay area premiere of Anocha Suwichakornpong's new film, Mundane History. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) and Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak)

Mudane History focuses on the activities in the household of a university professor (Paramej Noieam) living in Bangkok. A young male nurse named Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) has been hired to care for the professor's invalid son, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak) who became a paraplegic following an accident that no one in the household is willing to discuss.

In between segments which capture Ake's boredom and disillusionment, the camera focuses on him masturbating in the bathtub, watches his pet turtle swim around in his aquarium, and treats the audience to the mundane comings and goings of his father's car. Suwichakornpong's film is being hailed with such buzzwords as "lush, mesmerizing, languid, profound, subtle, epic," and other triggers designed to draw people to the box office. Most attendees, however, may be extremely disappointed with the experience.

Pun (Arkanae Cherkham) and Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanurak)

The filmmaker's attempts to impress include an artistic depiction of the death of a star (after a trip by Pun and Ake to Bangkok's planetarium) as well as a filmed childbirth via Caesarean section, followed by the clamping and clipping of the infant's umbilical cord. Although Suwichakornpong is quite excited about her use of music by the Malaysian band Furniture and the Thai group Photo Sticker Machine, this music can't do much to enliven a film that barely seems interested in holding an audience's interest.

It's easy to imagine this film symbolizing all kinds of things about life, death, science, and Thai culture. In the final analysis, what Mundane History embraces is a style of cinema that is devoid of storytelling (you'll find more dramatic tension in Bangkok's frequent downpours of rain). Here's the trailer:

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To suggest that "when it rains, it pours" would be a cruel understatement for the residents of New Orleans who survived 2005's Hurricane Katrina. A new documentary by S. Leo Chiang profiles how the aftermath of Katrina forced huge political, economic, and cultural changes on the district of New Orleans East, which is often referred to locally as Versailles (Chiang is currently at work producing Limited Partnerships, a feature-length documentary about the struggles of gay Americans and their foreign same-sex partners to stay together despite the challenges of American immigration laws that threaten to pull them apart).

Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang

In A Village Called Versailles (which will also be screened as part of the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival) Chiang does a remarkable job of depicting how an immigrant community of 8,000 Vietnamese Americans who had avoided the spotlight for many years was forced to become assertive, aggressive, and politically defiant in the wake of Katrina.

Many of the elders who lived in New Orleans East had fled Vietnam as boat people in the 1970s. Having escaped political oppression in Southeast Asia, they kept their heads low, their community tightly-knit, and rarely took part in local politics.

Like many immigrants, their goals had always been centered on upgrading their homes, boats, cars, businesses, and churches while providing for their children. When Katrina struck -- and those who evacuated New Orleans were torn from their community and their cultural ties -- the devastation inflicted by the hurricane was felt by everyone who had lived in New Orleans East.

Several young Vietnamese Americans from California, however, were eager to volunteer their help. When Mimi Nguyen traveled to Houston and offered her skills as a Vietnamese interpreter, she was shocked to learn that no one in Houston had anticipated such a need. The original assumption was apparently that the only language for which interpreters would be needed was Spanish (and that there were already plenty of local Spanish-speaking interpreters available).

It soon became obvious to Nguyen and others that the Vietnamese community had not done much to integrate itself into the larger population of New Orleans. Although Father Vien Nguyen was a key figure in the Vietnamese-American community, he was almost unknown outside of his parish. When Mayor Ray Nagin used his emergency power to open up the Chef Menteur landfill (located less than two miles from Versailles) for toxic Katrina debris disposal, the residents of Versailles quickly discovered that:
  • Nagin had never performed an environmental impact study.
  • There was no protective lining on the bottom of the dump.
  • The Chef Menteur landfill was right beside the body of water that had flooded the community during Hurricane Katrina.
  • Nagin's administration had never made any attempt to include the Vietnamese-American community of New Orleans East in its decision to use the Chef Menteur landfill.
Whereas San Franciscans would instantly be ready for a fight, the Versailles community barely even knew where to begin. Many of the elders (who are legally citizens of the United States) barely spoke English. With their allegiance focused primarily on their church and their neighbors, they lacked sufficient outrage to protest.

Many of the younger generation (who were more in tune with hip hop music and electronic gadgets than political action) lacked a sense of ownership in the crisis because their parents had never involved them in political issues. There was also a critical generation gap between those who identified as Americans and local elders who did not really consider themselves to be fully American.

The lone political voice in Versailles at the time was that of Joel Waltzer, a Caucasian attorney whose law office was in the district. Together with City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis (who subsequently hired Mimi Nguyen to work in her office), he helped to craft the legal challenges to Mayor Nagin's orders.

A Village Called Versailles should hold great interest for San Francisco's Asian-American community, which is thoroughly entrenched in real estate, local politics, and the city's business community. It should also inspire Asian-American youth to take on leadership roles in their own communities as they realize that their future is going to depend on them, rather than their elders. Young Asian-Americans already have Evan Low (the Mayor of Campbell, California) to look to as a role model.

A Village Called Versailles benefits from an original musical score by Joel Goodman. Chiang's documentary will be broadcast nationally in May over PBS stations as part of the Independent Lens series. Here's the trailer:

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Last Friday, I dropped into the Exit Theatre where (dressed as his alter ego Cora Values), Sean Owens was entertaining the troops with Cora's Recipe For Love. The troops -- barely a dozen altogether -- were mostly friends of Sean's who had been recruited into the act. Over the course of the evening, they got to impersonate denizens of the tiny town of Rectal, Texas who would drop by the local Gas 'n Gulp where Cora reigns supreme.

With Friday's show dedicated to "Break-ups and Shake-ups," Cora took turns between baking her breaded artichoke hearts in a smoking toaster oven and looking after her executive chef and ex-husband Zeke Plummett (Jim Fourniadis) -- one of the best straight men/banjo players and serial husbands a truck stop hostess could hope for. Accompanied on the piano by Emmett Corkpike (Don Seaver), Cora took turns between singing a few ditties, raffling off slices of pie, and tending to the emotional wounds of what she likes to call her "irregular regulars."

What could have been a disastrously underattended event turned into a wistfully down-home literary salon as Cora demonstrated her skill with improvising "five and ten stories." These tales essentially make stunning use of five words donated by the audience (which then get fed into ten extremely long run-on sentences). The words are incorporated into the first five sentences in their original order and then used again (in reverse order) in Cora's second set of sentences.

While that may sound fairly simplistic on paper, Cora's skill as a storyteller, yarn spinner, and cunning linguist gave the evening a special aura of redneck literacy with three types of sprinkles on top. Residents of Greater Tuna, Texas were gently given notice by Rectal's "hostess with the mostess" that they'd been served.

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