Thursday, June 10, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere

Shortly after I arrived in San Francisco on my 25th birthday, I was chatting with a small group of friends and roommates when someone posed the following question: "If money posed no obstacle -- and would never be an issue -- where would you really like to live?" Most of the answers were fairly predictable: Venice, New York, Paris, Rio, London.

Then it was my turn to respond. "I'd like to live in the ocean. I think it would be fascinating!" Chuck turned to me with a look that could kill and said "Why must you always be so fucking weird?"

My answer certainly had nothing to do with my astrological birth sign (Cancer the Crab, a water sign). Jacques Cousteau's film, The Silent World (which won the Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival) was barely 15 years old.

At the time, futuristic magazine articles were describing communities that could be built on the ocean floor (this was long before the era of underwater hotels). Underwater photography was nowhere as brilliant as it is today. Who can forget the thrill of watching Bob Ballard's 1985 footage in which the wreck of the RMS Titanic was discovered?

With today's technology, we often take filming underwater for granted. Whether looking at a pipe gushing oil from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico or a group of athletes swimming laps in a pool, whether watching deep sea footage of bizarre sea creatures or the slow grace of a pod of whales, something about underwater photography captures my attention so easily that I often find it hard to believe.

Water covers 71% of the earth's surface. At birth, a human baby is nearly 78% water. By the time a man reaches adulthood, water accounts for approximately 60% of his body. Women often speak of retaining water.

Not surprisingly, when we think about many of the words and phrases we use to describe our daily lives, images of water are found everywhere.
  • When seen under a microscope, sperm appear to be swimming toward their destination.
  • The first sign that an embryo which has been resting in a fluid environment is about to exit the body occurs when a female's bag of water breaks and amniotic fluid spills out.
  • We shower someone with love.
  • Baptism, which involves a water ritual, is often seen as a moment of purification.
  • When seeking a sense of rejuvenation, some people will try to wash their cares away.
  • Often, when bathed in attention, our spirits feel buoyed.
  • News floods the airwaves.
  • Many of us purchase sea salt for seasoning.
  • A personal failure can indicate that someone is all washed up.
  • A drunk may be described as soaked in gin.
  • Someone who has lost his sense of direction may be described as feeling all at sea, or sinking into depression.
  • An angry person might unleash torrents of vituperation.
Whether filmmakers look to water as an environment in which to stage Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus, hide The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, find The Water Horse or create another sequel to Jaws, the ocean is a constant battleground for survival. Whether water allows filmmakers to look deep into The Abyss, Run Silent, Run Deep, or spend time with Kevin Kostner in Waterworld, the water offers a constant source of wonder.

From Kon-Tiki and The Poseidon Adventure, to The Last Voyage and Raise The Titanic; from Lifeboat and The Perfect Storm to Planet Earth and The Day After Tomorrow, water is above, below, around, and inside us. Victory at Sea is never a sure thing. Water also plays a curious role in emotional bonding in three new films.

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In its current format, The Golden Pin is a 15-minute short (written and directed by Cuong Ngo) that will be screened at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. After watching it, no one should be surprised that plans are already underway to expand this short into a full-length feature. More than just another coming out story (or the tale of a young Asian man battling centuries of tradition) The Golden Pin has what many films lack: a clearly-articulated artistic vision.

The story revolves around a gay Canadian-Vietnamese college student who is still quite closeted. Keenly aware of his family's history and what is expected of him as the only young male in his father's family tree, Long (Kris Duangphung) has a strong sense of responsibility to his family as well as his college swim team.

Long (Kris Duangphung) and Ryan (Ben Bela Böhm)

If people could just leave Long be, he could remain close friends (possibly even more than friends) with his teammate Ryan (Ben Bela Böhm) and never have to come out of the closet. However, Long's father, Phong (Viet Tien Nguyen), is eager to have a grandson.

At the beginning of the film, Long becomes the recipient of a family heirloom, a golden pin which he is expected to give to his bride. When Ryan suddenly learns (the hard way) that Long is planning to marry his long-time girlfriend Vanessa (Lily Nguyen), he finds it difficult to believe that Long would go through with such a plan.

Long (Kris Duangphung) and Vanessa (Lily Nguyen)

The Golden Pin is so gorgeously filmed that, by the time Long's mother, Linh (Minh Ngoc Nguyen) intercedes -- telling her son not only how his father made it possible for her to escape Vietnam, but also about the man that got away (the true love she left behind) -- the audience may be fully sated. Cuong Ngo's skill at shaping and framing a story is evident in every frame. As he explains in his artistic statement:
"It started with all the bedtime stories that my mother read for my sister and I when we were little kids. My mother's narrative voice was hand-in-hand with the blue moonlight that made its way through my bedroom window and led me to the story world, to my imagination world. Growing up, I submerged into comic books and fictional books. At an early age, I found myself getting into literature, visual arts, and spending time watching cartoons and films on a 14-inch, black-and-white television.

Increasing the interest of storytelling via different art forms, I attended all the local performance and artistic events. I got a full scholarship for performing arts study at the Theatre and Cinema College of Ho Chi Minh City, where I studied performing arts with professors not only from Vietnam, but also France, Britain, Russia, America, and Australia. With years of formal training as well as working in theatre and international film productions based in Vietnam, my passion strongly and gradually developed into the field of directing.

Kris Duangphung as Long

Film is a window opening to the new world which houses different fascinating cultures that speak to your identity. Being deeply into humanities and cultural anthropology, they reinforce me into more than just becoming a visual storyteller. I hope the story world can represent for someone out there who could not speak for themselves -- or could not free themselves out of their surrounding environment -- due to the force of power and authority."

The short version of The Golden Pin offers plenty of eye candy from the swim team, as well as the traditional Asian costumes and furnishings in Long's home. Special mention should be made of the impressive cinematography by Stu Marks, original musical score by Mike Freedman, and art direction by Tom Yarith Ker. I'm eagerly looking forward to the full-length version. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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I don't think anyone who sees Children of God (which receives its West Coast premiere at the Castro Theatre on June 23rd as part of the Frameline festival), will be surprised that a key character dies as the result of a fagbashing. Frequently taunted and threatened by the black men he must pass on his way home, Johnny Roberts (Johnny Ferro) has the word "victim" written all over him.

Johnny Ferro as Johnny Roberts

Johnny is a skinny, white art student on scholarship whose father (Craig Pinder) doesn't pay much attention to his son's problems. When his art teacher tells Johnny that his painting is technically proficient but lacks emotion -- and could cause him to flunk out -- his general level of depression doesn't look like it will help him stay in school.

After his teacher offers him the keys to her house on the island of Eleuthera, suggesting that he go out to Lighthouse Point and try to paint what he sees, Johnny boards the ferry where he ends up sitting across from a hunky black man named Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams). Also on board the ferry is Lena (Margaret Laurena Kemp), who is in a desperate pickle.

The devout and devoted wife of the Reverend Clyde Ritchie (Van Brown), Lena has just been told by her doctor that she has a venereal disease. Despite her protestations that she can cure an STD with prayer, the doctor has warned her that if she doesn't take the medication he has prescribed, the disease could kill her.

Lena is unaware that her homophobic husband, who likes to preach fiery sermons against gays, doesn't mind dipping his dick into a man's ass from time to time. A fiercely dominant and controlling bully, Reverend Mackey likes to keep his secrets secret and his wife submissive.

Van Brown and Margaret Laurena Kemp

Once he disembarks on the island, it doesn't take long for Johnny to realize that, because he can't drive a stick shift, he needs Romeo's help. Romeo, of course, recognizes Johnny from when they were classmates in grade school, but it's hard for him to crack open Johnny's emotional armor. After having been bullied so frequently, Johnny he is not just afraid to let a black man touch him. He's afraid of himself.

Johnny Ferro and Stephen Tyrone Williams

Not only has Romeo has been under intense pressure from his mother (Adela Osterloh) and grandmother (Sylvia Adams) to get married, the musicians in his band have grown weary of all his excuses for missing rehearsals. Even as he teaches Johnny how to float, it seems that the only place Romeo feels free to be himself is in the water.

The two leads are quite strong, with Stephen Tyrone Williams displaying a laid-back masculinity that has plenty of strength. The finale (linked to a previous remark about what happens to a man's brain in the five minutes after his heart stops beating) may seem overly sentimental to some. Mark Ford has a strong supporting role as Lena's relative, Ralph Mackey, who has started to distance himself from church-driven hatred.

A key moment from the finale of Children of God

Written and directed by Kareem Mortimer, Children of God is set against a background of religious zealots, raging homophobia, and racial tension in the Bahamas. While the story is handled in clear-cut terms, Mortimer's film goes an extra distance toward exposing the stupidity of religious dogma, the way it traps people in situations they cannot overcome, and the blind faith people are expected to put in their religious leaders. Here's the trailer:

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How long do you think a drug mule can hold her breath in the frigid waters off the coast of Ireland?

Why would a fisherman lock his car at the end of an isolated country road?

Is it cruel to admit that you liked the hero's precocious daughter a whole lot more when she was confined to a wheelchair or hooked up to a dialysis unit than when she magically learned how to steer her father's fishing boat through the harbor?

These questions (and many more) will pop into your head as you watch Ondine, Neil Jordan's new film that stops just a wee bit short of asking the audience to clap if they believe in selkies. Colin Farrell stars as a recovering alcoholic named Syracuse, whose wife got custody of their medically-challenged daughter, Annie (Alison Barry). Even though Syracuse (nicknamed "Circus" by everyone in the village) is now living sober, his ex-wife Maura (Dervla Kirwan) and her boyfriend Alex (Tony Curran) are still drinking.

One day, while out fishing, Syracuse's net catches a beautiful young woman (Alicja Bachleda) whose behavior is quite strange. Terrified of being seen by anyone other than Syracuse, she seems to magically increase his catch by singing to the fish. At first oddly noncommunicative (hey, she almost drowned), she can't be a mermaid because she speaks perfect English. Nor does she have webbed feet.

But she does have a secret. And it's not the one that Syracuse's daughter is so fervently hoping for.

Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) and Syracuse (Colin Farrell)

Farrell and Bachleda (who are a couple in real life) have strong visual appeal in their scenes together. Indeed, Farrell's character -- who has struggled with alcoholism for years -- gives the actor a chance to play an extremely masculine hero with an uncharacteristically tender and honest soft spot. Bachleda, who wears clothes magnificently (ranging from a skimpy, torn dress down to a winter coat that belonged to Syracuses's deceased mother) never smells of fish, even if the audience expects her to seductively whisper "Hi! My name is Ondine and I'll be your water nymph tonight."

Syracuse (Colin Farrell) and the Priest (Stephen Rea)

Although Ondine requires a major suspension of disbelief from viewers, it does feature some strong performances in supporting roles, particularly those of Stephen Rea as the priest in Syracuse's tiny fishing village and Emil Hostina as the villainous Vladic.

Stephen Doyle's cinematography adds some lovely touches to this movie which, coincidentally, shines a light on the importance of reading for a handicapped child and the real value of a librarian to a small town. Here's the trailer: