Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Crisis of CAW Values

You won't find CAW syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Nor will you find much documentation about it on the Internet. It's a syndrome I'm beginning to think exists as a new genre of cinema.

Forget about Mumblecore, French New Wave, or emerging Thai filmmakers who can't figure out what they want to say. The CAW syndrome involves a "confused Asian woman" whose ongoing angst inflicts pain and doubt on the characters who surround her (mostly because of her inability or unwillingness to accept reality).

Once you've embraced the fact that this syndrome exists, you'll probably start to notice it in lots of films about Asians and Asian Americans. CAW characters are the polar opposites of the fierce, feminine Asian warriors, Manchurian martinets, and Mongolian matriarchs who leave otherwise macho men quaking in their shoes. The confused Asian woman's predicament is often triggered by an insurmountable language barrier, a general lack of sensitivity, or a perfect storm of cluelessness, stupidity, and denial. Trust me, it's a growing trend.

Three films screened at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival featured important characters suffering from advanced CAW syndrome. Each film involved some fairly obvious stretches of improvisation, which may have only exacerbated the problems of its confused Asian women.

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Written and directed by Woo Ming Jin, Woman On Fire Looks For Water (which received its North American premiere at the festival) is blessed with not one, not two, but three confused Asian women. While it would be easy to think that the men in the film are the main characters, that would be a foolish mistake.

Ah Fei (Ernest Chong) is a young Malaysian man who earns his living by catching frogs and selling them to the villagers for food. His father, Ah Kau (Chung Kok-Keong), has a small fishing boat and is not long for this world. The third male figure is a wealthy villager who owns a shellfish factory.

In a social setting where people may have trouble expressing themselves (or simply have nothing to say), ardent protestations of love are exceedingly rare. But what about the women?
  • Lily (Foo Fei-Ling) has been Ah Fei's girlfriend for quite a while. When he halfheartedly asks her if she would like to marry him, she tells him he needs to have more money before she will say yes. She also asks him if he would write her a poem.
  • Su Lin (Jerrica Lai) is the daughter of the man who owns the shellfish factory. When she was very young, she had some kind of accident which left one side of her face paralyzed for a while. Now fully recovered, she spends most of her time scooping cockles from the muddy river bed. Her father, seeing Ah Fei's potential has a husband for Su Lin, hires Ah Fei and instructs his daughter to teach him how to catch cockles. However, when Ah Fei explains that he already has a girlfriend whom he is hoping to marry, Su Lin secretly poisons his frogs with fertilizer. After Ah Fei gives the dead frogs away to some of his usual customers, they develop food poisoning.
  • Ah Kau also visits an old woman with whom he was once very much in love, but never had the courage to tell her how he felt. Now that he is dying, he asks her to meet him at dawn down by the river, apparently expecting that she will take care of him until he dies. Surprisingly, the old woman awakens her son in the middle of the night and demands that he drive her down to the jetty, but refuses to explain why.
Shot in the tiny fishing village of Kuala Selangor, Woman On Fire Looks For Water is more notable for its scenes of gutting and cleaning fish, catching cockles, and decapitating frogs with a pair of scissors. The most animated acting comes from Ah Guo as a fat factory manager who is jealous that Ah Fei always brings gifts to Lily but never brings anything for her. When his poisoned frogs prevent the woman's son from winning a competition at school, she lets Ah Fei know how she feels in no uncertain terms.

When Lily (who has worked in a fish salting factory but does not know how to swim) attempts to commit suicide near an exceptionally scenic waterfall, Ah Fei comes to her rescue and their love is reborn. In many ways, the dullness of this film reflects the dullness of its characters. While there are occasionally beautiful shots of nature, not much happens here other than processing fish and cockles.

This is a film about listlessness, lethargy, ennui, and apathy in which the dead fish have some of the most compelling moments. The following clip is about as exciting as it gets:

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Cheol-Mean Whang's new drama Moscow (which also received its North American premiere at the festival) is far more animated than Woman On Fire Looks For Water. However, that doesn't make it any more satisfying as a film. The drama focuses on an uncomfortable reunion between two Korean women who were best friends in grade school but whose lives have drifted apart.
  • Jin-hee (Sung Su-jung) comes from a poor background and was recently laid off from her job as a part-time factory worker. Although initially involved in a labor protest (where she and some friends had embarked on a hunger strike), Jin-hee eventually abandoned the cause. Now a slacker with no sense of direction, she does not know what her future holds.
  • By contrast, Ye-won (Lee Hye-jin) came from a rich family and had the advantage of a college education. Although she studied acting in school, pragmatism won out and Ye-won ended up in an administrative office job. Her lifestyle is clean, crisp, tidy, and tightly structured. She believes wholeheartedly in the corporate world and consumerism.
However, one day she decides to seek out Jin-hee and see what happened to her former best friend. After tracking her down through their former schoolteacher, Ye-won invites the unemployed Jin-hee to come stay with her for a while at her apartment in Seoul. If there was ever a tale of a guest overstaying her welcome, Moscow is it.

At first Jin-Hee is sullen, bored, and lazes around Ye-won's apartment. However, as the two women start to tire of each other's presence, Jin-hee becomes increasingly aggressive. Soon she is starting to wear Ye-won's clothes, hanging out with (and irritating) Ye-won's friends, and auditioning for an acting job that Ye-won lacks the time or motivation to pursue.

Because I studied Anton Chekhov's plays in college (and had not only seen Three Sisters performed onstage but also attended the 1986 world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's operatic adaptation of the work at Opera Columbus), I knew what the two young women were talking about every time they mentioned Moscow and argued over who was better suited to perform the role of Olga or Irina.

However, when I spoke with members of the audience who had no knowledge of Chekhov's play, it was clear that the film left them baffled and more than mildly annoyed. In 1996, Cheol-Mean Whang directed an 83-minute film entitled Fuck Hamlet (portions of which may have been spliced into Moscow for the segment in which the two women attend a friend's performance in a radical interpretation of Hamlet). It really doesn't matter very much.

A weekend hike in the country ends up with the two women getting lost in a blizzard during which their pent-up emotions finally erupt and they manage to settle their differences. While there is no doubt that Moscow has been beautifully filmed (the blizzard scenes are magnificent), whether or not the audience will care is quite another story.

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Mike Ott's latest film, Littlerock (which received its world premiere at the festival), has only one confused Asian woman on board. But the presence of Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), who can barely speak any English, is enough to set this little indie film careening through a small desert town's slackers and lost causes with surprising (and often entertaining) results.

Atsuko and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are on vacation from Japan. Although their plans include visiting San Francisco and Manzanar (where their grandfather's family was apparently kept in the internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II), their rental car has broken down near the tiny desert town of Littlerock, California.

When the noise from a party in the adjoining motel room becomes too much to bear, Rintaro goes next door to complain and ask the people to quiet down. However, he is quickly handed a beer by Cory Lawler (Cory Zacharia), a vapid stoner who thinks he has the potential to become a poet or runway model. During the rare moments when Cory is working at his father's Mexican restaurant (which is essentially run by Francisco (Roberto 'Sanz' Sanchez), he is essentially taking money from the cash register to support his drug habit.

Cory's friend Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes) doesn't hesitate to put the make on Atsuko, who mistakenly believes that this group of losers really likes her. Frustrated with his younger sister's stupidity and obstinacy, Rintaro decides to head up the coast to San Francisco on his own.

Left to her own devices, Atsuko tries to bond with Jordan, fend off Cory's amorous advances, and learn how to fill orders for Mexican food. After Rintaro returns with a replacement rental car, the two eventually find their way to Manzanar and tour the visitor's center.

Littlerock is heavy on improvisation and a bit lean on substance until Atsuko and Rintaro arrive at Manzanar. Yet, in many ways it is more satisfying than Moscow for the simple reason that its characters -- flawed though they may be -- at least know who they are. Special credit goes to Ryan Dillon, whose portrayal of a small town dope dealer has more vigor and initiative than the rest of the town put together. Here's a brief trailer for the film.

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