Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fools For Love

Many people recognize Catherine of Aragon as the first wife of England's King Henry VIII. Far fewer people know about Catherine's older sister, Juana, who reigned as Queen of Castile with her husband, Philip the Handsome and, later, as Queen of Aragon with her son, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

In June of 1979, Beverly Sills starred in the San Diego Opera's world premiere of Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera inspired by Juana's life: La Loca. When I interviewed her about the role, Sills confessed that, while reading the history about Juana (the mad queen of Spain),  she realized that Juana had been a folle d'amour -- a woman who took one look at her husband and madly fell head over heels in love with him. When Juana became pregnant with her fourth child, Philip decided to return to his own kingdom -- leaving his queen beside herself with despair. After she stood outside the castle gates in freezing weather one night, screaming for nearly 36 hours, she became known to her people as Juana La Loca.

In addition to fools for love (like Juana), other fools play important roles in literature, history, and popular culture. Shakespeare made the Fool the only character who could speak truth to power in King Lear. The Fool is also an important figure in any deck of Tarot cards

Some fools are buffoons, some are simpletons. Some fools are losers, some are merely inept. Here is Sammy Davis, Jr. singing one of his greatest hits (What Kind of Fool Am I?) from the 1979 Lincoln Center revival of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical, Stop The World I Want To Get Off.

* * * * * * *

Three films being screened at this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival deal with fools  of varying natures. From Manila to Los Angeles, from Bombay to Bayonne, we see people whose romantic nature, trust in others, bizarre logic, and inherent stupidity have had a severe impact on their lives (as well as the lives of those around them).

There are also times when, as a viewer, a person can't help wondering if he might be a total fool for sitting through a film that's going absolutely nowhere. In recent years I've sat through a series of movies by filmmakers from the Philippines who embrace real-time filming as a compelling means of telling a story. They often seem to prop up a camera, press the [Record] button, and believe that anything captured by this methodology is art. 

Editing?  They don't need no fuckin' editing.

The latest in this mind-numbing series is Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s Adela, which follows an old woman around Manila on her 80th birthday. The film begins as a very pregnant Filipino woman walks in on her husband as he is making out with another woman. The stress of the moment induces labor and, as her hapless husband and a group of poverty-stricken onlookers stand around wondering what to do, Adela (who used to be a midwife) arrives and guides the frightened woman through the birthing process. The arrival of a new child offers a slim ray of optimism in a landscape that is essentially a toxic landfill, where people scrounge through discaded junk every day in the hope of finding bits and pieces of someone else's garbage that may be recyclable.

Adela lives alone in a shack by the edge of this junkyard. Her environment is a poverty-stricken wasteland under the flight path of jets approaching Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The constant din of planes, construction machinery, and local traffic brings no solace to the weary. On what should be a day for Adela to relax and celebrate, she visits her son who is in jail, goes to church, gets a manicure, drops by her husband's grave, and does some cooking.  At the end of the film, when Adela realizes that none of her children are going to show up to help celebrate her birthday, she packs herself a tiny picnic, puts a blanket in her basket, and walks to a nearby promontory where she sits down, eats some noodles, and slowly starts to sob as a crushing sense of loneliness overwhelms her.

The 85-year-old actress portraying Adela (Anita Linda)  is a veteran of Filipino film who began her career in the 1940s. Her face clearly shows its age and betrays little emotion. Unless you are willing to sit through 90 minutes of very loud and boring footage, I would advise you to skip this film. The trailer offers an extremely condensed version of what you won't be missing.

* * * * * * * *

A much more coherent narrative can be found in a romantic comedy written and directed by Sarba Das. Whether you love or hate Indian telemarketers, Karma Calling has plenty of cross-cultural laughs along with some amusing animation sequences. Here's the setup:

Ram Raj (Darshan Jariwala) and his family are living in Bayonne, New Jersey. His wife Bebe (Gargi Mukherjee) helps sell women's clothing at a local mall while his son, Shyam (Ansuman Das), is an aspiring rapper who is trying to peddle a CD entitled "Happa Is The Japanese Name For Weed." Ram's eldest daughter, Sonal (Barnali Das), is stuck in a job she hates working at Plantex, a company that manufactures fake foliage. His youngest daughter, Jamuna (Ishani Desai), desperately wishes she could have a bat mitzvah

Because the entire household is suffocating under a mountain of credit card debt, no one answers the phone if caller ID indicates it could be a customer service representative from a bank (usually calling from India) asking when the next payment will arrive. When Ram Raj's sister, Mausi (Sulekha Das) arrives from Bombay for a visit, her presence (and traditional ways) cause chaos. As if the family didn't already have enough troubles, Mausi offers their hospitality to Radha (Kavi Ladnier), a distant friend of a relative of a friend of a friend of a relative who is arriving in the United States for an arranged marriage to Nikhil (Rizwan Manji), the owner of a local Dollar Store who, in line with the worst Indian traditions, is a total male chauvinist pig.

Meanwhile, back in Bombay, Rohit Rao (Samrat Chakrabarti), who uses the Americanized name of "Rob Roy," is one of the outstanding workers at a call center. In between phone calls where he has started to flirt with Sonal while pretending to live in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Rohit is helping to train a new hire, Chirag Chidambaram (Debargo Sanyal) who, after watching enough episodes of Friends, has decided to use Chandler as his customer service name.

Rohit (who has just started to score some romantic points with Sonal) fumbles when she suggests that they meet up in New York City. When he confesses that he is calling from Bombay, Sonal tells him that she never wants to speak to him again. Not only is Sonal angry that she has fallen for Rohit's lies, she is painfully aware that she fed him some whoppers of her own.

The call center's star performer, Promod Pattanayaka (Parvesh Cheena) -- who has chosen to use Peter Patnick as his alias when dealing with American consumers -- has been promised an employee reward in the form of a paid vacation to New York. But when he loses his cool and starts screaming at an American consumer (Bebe's boss)  about the man's recurring charges from a website called bigbutz.com, he is unaware that his call has been monitored "for quality assurance purposes." Once Peter Patnick gets escorted from the call center, Rohit has to figure out how creatively he can use his access to data on Sonal's family finances to set things right.

Will Radha end up marrying Nikhil (who has told his parents that her cooking skills will improve once she is "installed" as a wife)? Or will she fall for Shyam's street thug charms? Will Ram find a way to cover his debts or end up being swindled by a New Jersey mobster? Will his confused sister, Mausi, drive everyone crazy or get on a plane and go home to India? Will Sonal have a date to attend her school reunion?

Only Ganesh, the elephant-headed God voiced by Tony Sirico has all the answers. While Karma Calling pokes lots of fun at Indians on opposite sides of the globe, the humor begins to evaporate once romance rears its head. Still, it's an extremely enjoyable film. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *

Last week, as I was walking through the campus of UC Berkeley, I had a Maurice Chevalier moment. However, instead of the lyrics from Lerner & Lowe's wonderful Gigi (the last great movie musical produced by MGM), these words were cascading through my mind:
"Thank heaven for Asian boys
For Asian boys grow bigger every day
Thank heaven for Asian boys
They grow up in the most delightful way
Those little eyes, so helpless and appealing
One day will flash and send you 
Crashing through the ceiling..."
A few days later I had the privilege of watching Dave Boyle's hilarious new comedy, White On Rice. It only takes a few minutes to fall in love with Hiroshi Watanabe's gloriously goofy Jimmy, who is that rare combination of a dangerous dunce and lovelorn fool.

When Jimmy's first wife divorced him (back when he was living in Japan), she left him three months' worth of prepared meals, knowing that he could barely take care of himself. After the meals ran out, Jimmy moved in with his sister Aiko (Nae) and brother-inlaw Tak (Mio Takada). At 40 years old, he's happily camping out on the upper level of his 10-year-old nephew's bunkbed. 

Because Jimmy is the kind of idiotic whirlwind who causes trouble wherever he goes (imagine a middle-aged Japanese-American Dennis the Menace), his nephew's advanced musical talents have gone unnoticed by Bob's frenzied parents. Jimmy loves dinosaurs, hates responsibility, is jealous of his coworker Tim Kim's (Jayson Kyson Lee) growing attraction to his old friend Ramona (Lynn Chen), yet is strangely compatible with a young girl he meets at a costume party who is dressed as a banana. 

Adult logic eludes Jimmy, who is enthusiastically participating in a geology class taught by Professor Berk (Pepe Sema) that he never bothered to register for.  For Tak (who takes rare refuge in playing the violin), the trials and tribulations of coping with Jimmy's escalating fuckups literally reach a boiling point when Jimmy tries to cook dinner for the family.

Not only is White On Rice great, great fun, Watanabe (who has appeared in much more serious roles in films like Letters from Iwo Jima) proves to be a gifted clown. He receives strong support from young Justin Kwong as Bob, Ron Eliot as Tak's administrative assistant, Nathan, and the rest of a delightful cast of actors. This is a film that will charm you, disarm you, and occasionally leave you doubled over in laughter. When Jimmy and Banana Girl drive off into the sunset -- heading for his new job as a Japanese tour guide on a dinosaur dig in Montana, you'll be wishing you could go along for the ride.

No comments: