Saturday, March 6, 2010

Smile, You're On Candid Camera

A new art form made its debut with the invention of the camera. After the first permanent photograph was taken in 1826, pictures could suddenly be created in real time, captured through the camera's eye and preserved for years without anyone needing to use paint, charcoal, or have someone spend endless hours posing for a portrait. From black and white to sepia and then full color photography, cameras have given us proof positive of our existence and often served as a mirror into the soul.
While photographs are invaluable for identifying someone (or keeping a person's memory alive), photographic art is often more evocative. Pictures of sunsets, skyscrapers, nature, and animals never fail to trigger a subjective reaction first which may, on occasion, be followed by a more objective critique of the shot.

What one sees in a photograph, however, is still open to interpretation. For instance, even if it looks pixel perfect, I can still look at an official photograph of President Richard M. Nixon and see a homophobic, antisemitic, lying crook.

Three new dramas rely on photographs as catalysts that can help their characters break through a maze of confusion. How strange that one should be a romantic comedy, one a study in mental health, and one an exploration of how art, commerce, sex, and photography are woven into a dramatic continuum linking vastly different cultures through vastly different eras.

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On Sunday, March 14, the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival will have a 6:00 p.m. screening of The People I've Slept With at the Castro Theatre. Trust me, you don't want to miss it.

Quentin Lee's rollicking sex farce is the kind of brazenly realistic romantic comedy that makes a movie like Leap Year seem downright cowardly (the only time anyone in Lee's film is beating around the bush is when they're wearing full leather). All you have to do is watch The Fabulous Miss Wendy's music video (also directed by Quentin Lee) for I Like Boys or the following music video directed by Stanley Yung (that was recently banned by YouTube) to get a quick idea of what kind of movie this is.

The film begins with Angela Yang (Karin Anna Cheung) pressing the "Record" button on her video camera and delivering a message to her new baby, Tiny, explaining how he came to be. The setup is simple: Angela is a proud slut, a hypersexual young Asian American woman who could give most sexually compulsive gay cock hounds some stiff competition.

In short, Angela behaves an awful lot like a gay man. She dutifully takes pictures of each and every one of her sexual conquests, gives him a code name, and records key data (such as his age, occupation, and sexual prowess as well as the length and girth of his penis). The only thing she hasn't done is entered all of her meticulous research into an on-line relational database.

Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) and Gabriel (Wilson Cruz)

Angela's closest friend is a sweet gay man who has trouble falling in love. Despite their vast wealth of sexual experience, when it comes to social skills, emotions, and maturity, both Angela and Gabriel (Wilson Cruz) are hopelessly stuck somewhere in high school -- until Angela discovers that she's pregnant and can't figure out who could be the father.

With a stack of photographs of past tricks that resembles a deck of old-fashioned baseball cards, Angela sets out to collect DNA samples from the most likely candidates and witness how they react to the news that she's pregnant.
  • "Five-Second Guy" is no longer available.
  • "Nice But Boring Guy" (Randall Park) is ecstatic to learn that he might be a father, but quickly turns into the dumbest stereotype of a romantic stalker.
  • Angela's presumed-to-be-gay neighbor down the hall, Mr. Hottie, had sex with her on one very drunken occasion. Although he insists that he's straight, Mr. Hottie would much rather Angela lend him a helping hand with a minor detail.
  • The man Angela thinks is probably the father, Jefferson Lee, has never told her what he does for a living. Perhaps that's because, although he would secretly like to become a chef, Jefferson (Archie Kao) is the spoiled scion an important Asian-American political dynasty and is currently running for local office. He's hot, humpy, handsome, and healthy. He's also engaged.
Turning to her family for help and guidance is equally dicey.
  • Angela's ultraconservative sister, Juliet (Lynn Chen), is pushing for Angela to have the baby, marry whomever she thinks the father might be, and settle down to lead a respectable life.
  • Their father (James Shigeta) is in a new relationship with a sexy Caucasian fitness fanatic named Becky (Stacey Rippy) and getting lots of sexual satisfaction late in life. After a very unhappy marriage to Angela's mother, Charlie Yang doesn't want his little princess to rush into anything that could ruin her life.
  • Needless to say, Angela's best friend, Gabriel, wants her to stop procrastinating and get an abortion.
Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) and her father (James Shigeta)

Meanwhile, Gabriel is having romantic problems of his own. For the first time in his life he has fallen in love and, in a moment of panic, sabotaged the relationship. BFF that she is, Angela is rather aggressively trying to persuade Lawrence (Rane Jameson) to "un-dump" Gabriel and give her friend a second chance.

As days turn to months, Angela gets increasingly pregnant and decides to schedule a joint wedding with Gabriel on the premise that if the two "brides" plan the wedding, their grooms will come through at the last minute.

Lawrence (Rane Jameson) and Angela (Karin Anna Cheung)

The joint wedding turns out to be quite a confusing event. Embarrassed by the fact that their son is planning to marry a very pregnant woman, Jefferson's parents (Dana Lee and Elizabeth Sung) refuse to attend the ceremony. When a very pregnant Angela finally waddles up to the altar, in a rare moment of clarity she turns to Jefferson and says, "Look, I'm a slut!" and runs away.

Lawrence (Rane Jameson), Angela (Karin Anna Cheung)
and Gabriel (Wilson Cruz)

How Angela resolves her situation is the crux of this very smart and snappy adult indie film written by Koji Steven Sakai (whose delightful script is a lot more realistic, sophisticated, and in-your-face than most romantic comedies). There are nice cameos from Sherry Weston as Angela's gynecologist, Dr. Richards, and Tim Chiou as her brother--in-law, Fred.

More than anything, however, it is the wit of the script (which makes Lawrence and Gabriel's same-sex marriage seem a lot more wholesome, honest, and desirable than a hastily-arranged marriage of convenience between two heterosexuals) and the smart direction by Quentin Lee that sets this film head and shoulders above the competition. Surrounded by Hollywood blockbusters that try to force a happy ending, The People I've Slept With is a disarming and hilarious indie film that celebrates the need for brutal honesty in relationships. Here's the trailer:

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Don't expect to find any music videos in Fog. Written, directed, and produced by Kit Hui, this film has no musical score for a reason.

Its protagonist is a young man in his mid to late twenties who has suffered a peculiar kind of amnesia that has wiped out his memory. Wai (Terence Yin) still knows how to drink, snort coke, have sex, ride public transit, and find his way back to his family's home. He's even managing to hold down a job as part of a film crew. But otherwise, Wai is totally clueless about his past.

Terence Yin as Cheung Kok Wai

Despite his doctor's encouragement, a trip to his old school, including an encounter with Principal Tam (Ben Yuen), yields no clues to his past. However, when Wai's old school buddy Andy (Phat Chan) reveals that Wai had a daughter with his former girlfriend, Jenny (Eugenia Yuan), the news is shocking and confusing. Matters are only made worse when Wai learns that his mother (Camy Ting) had instructed Andy and Wai's sister Kate (Joman Chiang) not to tell him about six-year-old Yan-yan (Ching-yu Cheung).

In his director's statement, Kit Hui writes:
"How does a person function without any memory, especially in a time when everyone operates under a certain social norm, when history and memory form our identity and guide us to behave in a particular fashion? A person whose memories have been wiped clean -- stripped away from the individual memory (of his past with family and friends), the communal and cultural memory (of his city), and the collective memory (of humanity) -- has to start over like a brand new baby. Constructing his past through the memories of others, what would happen when he discovers that his past, like everyone else’s, is wrought with deceit? This film is not about the cause of his memory loss. I’m most interested in the effect: How does memory loss affect a person’s daily functions and behavior, the small moments?"
Set during the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's reunification with China, Fog follows Wai around Hong Kong as he searches for clues to his past. His initial attempts to speak with Jenny are stymied by his confusion and difficulty articulating his thoughts. Even after his mother intercedes on Wai's behalf, trying to communicate with Jenny is still a challenge.

Terence Yin as Cheung Kok Wai

Several old photographs may give Wai some insight into his past, but a phone call from Jenny (who is in desperate need of a babysitter) leads to Wai spending a day alone with his daughter (who has no idea that he is actually her father). A trip to the local zoo and aquarium finds the two of them slowly bonding (despite the girl's sudden nosebleed and panicky cries for her mother).

Fog has an eerie quality to it that may alternately seduce and bore audiences who are used to thinking of amnesia as something that only happens to elderly patients with Alzheimer's disease. Here's the trailer:

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Don't be surprised if, sometime next season, you learn that the Berkeley Rep's production of Concerning Strange Devices From The Distant West is following American Idiot to Broadway. This thrilling new play by Naomi Iizuka, which had its world premiere at the Roda Theatre last Wednesday, is 95-minutes of theatrical magic crafted with intelligence and insight to spare.

Kate Eastwood Norris, Bruce McKenzie and Johnny Wu
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West is hardly the first drama to examine how Western culture sees, acquires, and easily misunderstands the the art and people of Asia.
Iizuka's play explores the way we respond to beauty, taboo sexual desires, and commercial appeal without always questioning our perceptions of authenticity, value, and morality. As Iizuka explains:
“I started writing this play because I was fascinated by a 19th-century photograph of a rickshaw driver. As I continued to look at old photos of Japan, I found myself asking more questions. Who was behind the camera, and why were so many people in the West drawn to these pictures? I wanted to understand the relationship between what we see, what we think we see, and the truth.

I love stage magic in the most literal sense. I love a surprising exit or entrance. I love when the space transforms or an actor transforms right on front of your eyes. The virtuosity of live theatre at its best is like nothing else. I'm fascinated by all the different ways you can tell a story on stage. The simple fact of live actors pretending to be somebody else in front of an audience who's pretending along with them is magical to me. It was magical to me when I was a kid, and it's still magical."
Johnny Wu and Danny Wolohan (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In discussing Iizuka's new play, director Les Waters states:
"She writes beautifully -- and incredibly visually -- about the limits of perception. We like to think that photographs are real; yet each one is artifice, a work of art that persuades us it represents reality. Similarly, in this mystery play, nothing and no one is quite what it seems. I enjoy how the plot challenges us to fit the disparate pieces of the puzzle together, and I trust the audience will as well.”
In order to facilitate rapid shifts in time and place, the design team for Concerning Strange Device From The Distant West has created one of the most versatile sets I've seen in years. This production employs lighting, video, and sound with such grace and dexterity that it should be carefully studied by aspiring set designers. I tip my hat to Mimi Lien (sets), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting), Leah Gelpe (projections), Annie Smart (costumes), and Brad Poor (sound) for their imagination and teamwork in enabling Iizuka's script to soar, her monologues to rivet the audience's attention, and her characters to float back and forth in time with a fluidity that is astonishing.

In the following clip, Les Waters explains what inspired Iizuka's play as well as how a workshop in Portland helped to expand its story line:

As the action ricochets back and forth over more than a century, Iizuka introduces us to an enigmatic cast of characters. In 19th century Yokohama:
  • Edmund Hewlett (Danny Wolohan) is an American arms trader who looks down on the Japanese but has nevertheless managed to have a child with a Japanese woman.
  • Isabel Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris) is Edmund's wife, a woman who never stops asking questions. Like her husband, she can show a remarkable lack of cultural sensitivity. She is fascinated by a picture she has seen of a man whose body is covered with tattoos.
Bruce McKenzie and Kate Eastwood Norris (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie) is a gay American photographer working in Yokohama.
  • Servant Girl (Teresa Avia Lim) is a Japanese woman employed by Farsari who understands English.
  • Tattooed Man (Johnny Wu) is a rickshaw driver who is one of Farsari's models.
  • Blind Monk (Johnny Wu) is another one of Farsari's models.
In modern Tokyo:
  • Dmitri Mendelssohn (Bruce McKenzie) is a cynical gay art collector who has a spy camera embedded in the ring on one of his fingers.
  • Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim) is a young woman hired by Dmitri to act as an interpreter. Although she doesn't remember her mother, her family history is most interesting.
Bruce McKenzie and Teresa Avia Lim (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
  • Hiro (Johnny Wu) is a modern day con artist who is all too happy to peddle photographs from the Meiji period (1868-1912) to Americans looking for "authentic" Japanese photographs.
  • Edmund Hewlett (Danny Wolohan) is a descendant and namesake of the previous Edmund Hewlett.
There is one peculiarity about Iizuka's play which I can't help but admire. So many new works will have 4, 5, or 6 moments when the play could have (and should have) ended but kept going, only to lose steam. By contrast, there are 4, 5, or 6 moments in the second half of Concerning Strange Devices From The Distant West where Iizuka shifts gears (and, like someone who, in the course of surfing the Web, keeps landing on one fascinating new link after another), catches the audience by surprise, and heads off in an entirely valid, yet unexpected direction.

Concerning Devices From The Distant West offers 95 minutes of theatrical brilliance that easily commands an audience's undivided attention. The production continues through April 11 in the Roda Theatre. Order tickets here while there are still some left. Here's the trailer:

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