Friday, March 5, 2010

The Short End of the [Chop] Stick

In a city whose arts calendar is chock full of film festivals from January through December, some stand out above the others. One of my favorite film festivals is March's San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. Why? The programmers at this festival consistently deliver a level of thoughtful content, lyrical fantasy, exciting film, probing documentaries, unfamiliar talent, and artistic satisfaction that delights their audience and continues to entrance, educate, and entertain viewers.

The short films showcased by this festival are often quite superior to what one finds on other programs throughout the year. Whether this is due to the quality of the entries, the acuity of the judging panels, or the curious fusion of Asian and American cultural sensitivities, here's a quick glance at some outstanding shorts that will be screened on programs entitled Take Me Anywhere, I Don't Care and Wandering, Wondering.

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Cui Li Ming's 13-minute short from South Korea, One Day, follows a woman destined for disappointment and disillusionment as she follows her husband to a local hotel. Asking that she be given the room next to the one the hotel clerk had assigned to the man and young woman who checked in just a few minutes earlier, she sits alone in the room listening to the sounds being made by her husband and his lover as they have sex in the next room.

When she tries to contact her husband on his cell phone, her call goes directly to voice mail. Emotionally crushed, but not knowing where else to go, she falls asleep on the bed in her hotel room. The next morning, her cell phone rings and her husband blithely states that he got her message and is returning her call.

What I really liked about this short was one particular cinematic touch. The filmmaker positioned the woman on the bed so that she would be bathed in the constantly rotating colors of a nearby lamp as it changed from red to orange, blue to green, and continued to sequence through a spectrum of colors that reflected her emotions. The next morning, when the woman opened a window, the glare of bright sunlight signaled her acceptance of the painful truth about her philandering husband.

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Another beautifully-realized film from South Korea is Lovers (Yeonaedam), which is receiving its North American premiere at the this year's festival. Directed by Kim Do-Yeon, this 30-minute film focuses on a curious love triangle:
  • A female college student (Myung-seon Kim) is obviously in love with a young male student whom she often finds to be surprisingly unavailable.
  • An older, divorced man (Bong-seo Park) whose business is crumbling, whose wife (Hui-soon Son) and children now live in America, and who is carrying on an affair with the same male student.
  • A young bisexual college student (Jeong-min Park) who can't decide who he is, what he wants, or who he wants to be with.
The older man would like to go away on a vacation with his boy toy, but is afraid to be seen in a hotel where one of his business colleagues might notice him with the young man. The young man is either afraid of the ocean or, more likely, worried that he will be seen in the company of an older man who is obviously not his father.

When the young man disappears for several days, things get really crazy. The young woman starts stalking the older man and making accusations about what he does in bed with his lover.

Meanwhile, the businessman's estranged wife shows up in town. When he pretends that the young girl could be his lover, the wife quickly deflates that macho balloon by pointing out that he's not fooling anyone. After all, she's a girl.

When the older man finally spots his boyfriend shivering in the cold, he brings him back to the apartment and tries to find out what the problem could be. It's interesting to see a film honest enough to show an elderly man fucking his boy toy, who lies beneath him with a sense of utter confusion and boredom. Eventually the businessman shuts down his office, sells his condo, and moves to the seashore alone.

In addition to an acutely sensitive musical score by Jong-soo Yu, this film boasts some wonderful acting by the four principals. Highly recommended!

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Tall Enough is a seven-minute short by Barry Jenkins. This may also mark the first time I've seen a film presented or sponsored by Bloomingdale's! You can watch this curious short about an interracial couple living in Brooklyn in the following video clip:

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Works of Art is a beautifully crafted 19-minute short directed by Andrew Pang that was written by and stars Paul Juhn. Juhn plays Art Hahn, a struggling Korean-American actor who, between boring temp jobs, runs around Manhattan trying to audition for roles. He encounters the usual ignorance of the differences between Asian cultures and, whenever he tries to adapt to the stereotype a director states he wants for a particular role, still ends up getting rejected.

One night, his close and much more financially successful friend, John Kim (Ken Leung), pays him some money to take on an acting job that will get John out of a tight spot. It seems that John's parents have set him up on a blind date in a Korean restaurant on West 32nd Street with a young Korean girl.

John wants no part of it. Art wants no part of it. But money is money and it's only for a few hours.

John Kim (Ken Leung) asks a favor of Art Hahn (Paul Juhn)

The girl he meets, Ji-Hyun (Sara Kim) is quite attractive, demure, and claims that she is visiting from Korea and understands that they will never meet again. Understanding that the entire setup is artificial, she confronts the fake John Kim and asks him why he's trying to speak in such a funny accent.

Once the pretenses have been dropped, the two spend the evening walking around lower Manhattan and genuinely enjoying each other's company. When they part, it is with the understanding that they will never see each other again.

However, a few days later, as Art is waiting for a subway train, he looks across at the opposite platform and sees Ji-Hyun waiting for a train. As their eyes meet and they each recognize the little white lie they've been living, the film comes to a bittersweet conclusion.

Written and directed with a remarkable sense of grace and kindness in the face of forced deception, Works of Art benefits immensely from Juhn's quietly sensitive and layered performance (Juhn is most definitely a talent to watch in the future). This short will receive its world premiere at the festival and is one of those obvious Indie gems.

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In Organism, a 14-minute short by Nina Reyes Rosenberg, two teenage lesbians struggling to understand their sexual orientation try to reach out to each other over the battleground known as high school. Jen is an Asian baby dyke while Carmen is first seen masturbating while watching some old black and white lesbian porn on a small television in her bedroom.

Menstrual flow plays a big part in drawing these two young women together. When Jen turns to her classmates in the girl's bathroom and asks if anyone has a spare Tampon, she is subjected to ridicule from the white and Hispanic girls who pretend to be far cooler than Jen. Later, Jen fantasizes about finding a way to communicate with Carmen but, in the middle of her fantasy, Carmen starts bleeding profusely in the school playground.

Neither girl is really mature enough to understand the forces driving them into each other's arms, although lust is obviously a factor. Rosenberg's short does, however, give a new meaning to what happens in high school "between periods."

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In his 11-minute short entitled Diana, filmmaker Aleem Khan has delivered one of the most dramatically insightful and emotionally powerful short films about transsexualism to be seen in recent years. Mohit (Neeraj Singh) is a skinny Indian preoperative transsexual living in London who awakens on August 31, 1997 to the horrible news of Princess Diana's death.

As coverage of the royal tragedy switches to news of monsoons near his home town in India, Mohit becomes more and more anxious and sad. When he musters enough courage to call his mother from a pay phone, she tells him never to call again and coldly declares that her son is dead.

Later that day, a sweet smile from an old lady at the supermarket (Ann Barnett) briefly makes up for the sting of a disapproving look from the checkout girl (Tuba Duman). Feeling lonely, isolated, and alienated from the mainstream (as did Princess Diana), Mohit slowly gets dressed and heads out the door for another night of turning tricks in drag on the sidewalks of London.

Diana benefits from a magnificent performance by Neeraj Singh as Mohit. In the following clip, you can see some more footage from the film and listen to him discuss some of the role's challenges with his director, Aleem Khan.

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Jason Ho's 10-minute short, Puncture Wound, focuses on an Asian American teenager torn between the domineering influence of his big brother and the mischievous antics of his close friend, Wing. Although he should be studying for a piano competition, Frankie's attention is drifting to thoughts of piercing his left nipple. Wing (Albert Kuo) has already managed to get himself a nose ring and is pushing his friend hard to add some body jewelry to his own life.

With no parents around, Frankie's only role model is his older brother, who has always regretted getting tattooed. When the older brother discovers Frankie's new nipple ring, he wastes no time reaching out and tearing it from Frankie's body (this short is not for the squeamish).

Feeling has if he finally has some war wounds of his own, Frankie goes back to practicing Edvard Grieg's famous Piano Concerto in A minor. You can see footage from this powerful short in the first half of Jason Ho's demo reel from 2008:

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Mio Adilman's 15-minute Canadian short, Unlocked, deals with another area of Asian American family shame: the son who is in Alcoholics Anonymous and has issues with anger management. Shot in Toronto, Unlocked stars Bobby del Rio as B, an unlucky young man whose bike keeps getting locked to other people's bikes through no fault of his own.

Bobby Del Rio in Unlocked

After this happens on a repeat basis (no amount of hearing his dragon-lady of a mother scream "You're my fucking son" will ever help matters), Unlocked's unlucky protagonist tries several different approaches to getting his bike back. One involves following his mother's suggestion that he go apologize to people, even if he didn't do anything wrong.

In a deliciously snarky fantasy, B locks horns with a female police officer who is also a big independent film fan. No amount of righteous outrage, however, can quiet down a mother who tells him "You're an alcoholic bicycle thief" without even understanding that she has made a reference to a classic film.

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In Thien Do's 24-minute film from Vietnam, an adult man returns to his childhood home in Saigon after having grown up in America. With a haunting score by Victor E. Guardia, The Fading Light employs some exceptionally strong editing to unfold the confused story of a grown man haunted by the ghosts and fears of his childhood.

As Nam visits with an older relative (or neighbor), she tells him what he was like as a child prior to his family's long, dangerous, and desperate journey across the ocean. In moments of solitude, Nam searches for clues from his past while trying to understand how far he has traveled in life (geographically, emotionally, and spiritually) from his innocent childhood days.

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There was a packed house over at the Roxie on Thursday night for the 2010 screening of Competitive Shorts at the Disposable Film Festival. This quirky little film festival was created in 2007 to celebrate the artistic potential of disposable video.

What is disposable video? For the most part, it's a short film made on non-professional devices. These can range from one-time use video cameras to cell phones, from point-and-shoot cameras to webcams, from computer screen capture software to scanners.

With films from four continents (the 2009 Disposable Film Festival drew over 500 submissions from 30 countries), the video shorts seen at this year's festival ranged from some quick pieces of line-drawing animation to ingenious ways of using video very cheaply (check out The Balloon Project for further details of how it's done).

The videos ranged in length from 11 seconds to a little over four minutes, with varying degrees of success and artistry. Some (The Lost Tribes of New York City, Toilet Paper Animation, How to Make A Baby) demonstrate a remarkable sense of whimsy and playfulness. Others (Wood Smoke, How To Google Maps, Wolf and Pig) show stunning dexterity with today's technology as well as keen editing skills. Then there is a third category (Hair and Diamonds Exercise, Memoirs of a Scanner, Turbo 2088) in which filmmakers experiment with new -- and sometimes bizarre -- forms of storytelling.

One of the wonderful things about these shorts is that, because they are usually being created by young artists using state-of-the-art technology, it's fairly easy to find more information about the filmmakers online. Whether one looks on Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, or Google, one can often find links to other videos by these artists.

Because so many of the videos shown at the Disposable Film Festival are also available online, it's easier for me to embed my favorites rather than try to explain them. Enjoy!

How To Google Maps
(by Ira Mowen, Yannick Dangin and Molly Morgan McDonnell)

The Lost Tribes of New York City
(by urban anthropologists Andy and Carol London)

Wood Smoke (by Fredo Viola)

Toilet Paper Adnimation (by Christophe Jordache)

Hair and Diamonds Exercise (by Christopher McManus)

How To Make A Baby (by Cassidy Curtis and Raquel Coelho)

Wolf and Pig (by Takeuchi Taijin)

Memoirs of a Scanner

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