Sundance Time Again, Pt. 2: The Devil In the Details

Having finished a full day of screenings on my first day at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, I start off by copping to a startling admission (for me at least): good chunks of Ice-T’s directorial debut SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: THE ART OF RAP either A) caused me to doze off in the screening room, or B) bored me to tears. Okay, now that I got that off my chest…

Today has been a full day of screenings, but one bookmarked by events occuring far away, in the world of sports: the death of disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, and the Super Bowl rematch that I think everybody wanted to see, New York Giants vs. New England Patriots. Bring it on, yo. Factoring in the cusp of a new Lunar New Year, and the pre-screening lion dance show preceding the world premiere screening of Yung Chang’s CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT suddenly brought a sense of levity to a decidedly weird first day.

In thinking through my earlier contention that CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT, FOR ELLEN, and VALLEY OF SAINTS brought a deceptively complex level of Asian Pacific filmmaking aesthetic to this year’s festival, I see sharp differences in filmmaking coming from these three works as opposed to the vast multitude of works I’ve screened lately that sacrifice content for style and pointlessness. I wonder if that might be due to the possibility that way too many works evidence a lack of maturity in both filmmaking technique and socio/political perspective, and whether this current generation of media makers are overly influenced by disposable pop culture identifiers. Time will tell if these works will find a measure of popular appeal, but if their critical and audience reception at Sundance are any indication, then I think these directors might well challenge their peers to at least step up their game — or more preferably, to rethink what kinds of stories they are bringing to the screen, regardless of whether they be aimed at a Sundance audience or not. We’ll see.

While I’m leaving my thoughts on VALLEY OF SAINTS for another day, it’s clear to me that directors Yung Chang and So Yong Kim (award-winning directors both) are fast becoming artists that succeeding generations of APA filmmakers will want to study closely for their uniquely individual storytelling aesthetics.

Already distinguished by two well-received narratives that demand the audience’s attention (IN BETWEEN DAYS and TREELESS MOUNTAIN), So Yong Kim again asks audiences to invest in characters for whom busyness of speech proves to be an impediment to real emotional connection. Joby, a struggling rock musician possessing all the typical rock-god affectations (tattoos, greasy hair, post-grunge uniform), travels back home to dissolve a marriage that stopped working years ago when he left to pursue his elusive dreams. However, there’s one catch: as a stipulation for a clean, 50/50 divorce, he must agree to give up all legal rights to his 5-year old daughter Ellen who he’s seen exactly once since birth. Not wanting to lose any contact with his only child, Joby balks at signing the divorce papers, leading to a heavily-mediated rendezvous with his daughter, and maybe one last chance at establishing a father/daughter bond that, until their afternoon together, never existed. As essayed by Paul Dano (L.I.E., LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, TAKING WOODSTOCK) and newcomer Shaylena Mandigo, Joby and Ellen could have been a wonderful father/daughter pairing, if not for Joby’s tunnel-vision like pursuit of his rock-star dreams. In my mind the most singularly crucial relationship in the entire film, Dano’s take on Joby, an absentee dad desperate to reestablish a fatherly bond despite the lure of rockstar life perhaps not suited to him; and Mandigo’s halting yet effective reading of the film’s titular character is at once funny, painful, and poignant. By film’s end, the two come to an understanding with each other, even as Joby realizes that a reconciliation is out of the question. We know how this story will end, though its denouement is a bit shocking but characteristic. The characters of FOR ELLEN are real, funny, and tragic. Here’s hoping that audiences will invest in director Kim’s scenario — my gut feeling is, they’ll be glad they did.

Montreal native Yung Chang’s CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT couldn’t have been better timed. Released in an Olympic year, and reflecting China’s recent interests in leveraging sport to become a major player on the world stage in the wake of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chang’s latest employs his fly-on-the-wall documentary style to observe select stories within an amateur boxing academy in Huili, a town in Sichuan Province. The film follows the fortunes of Miao Yunfei and He Zongli, two 20-year old boxing students whose burning desire to succeed at their chosen sport come into conflict with the wishes of their parents, even as the two entertain dreams of turning pro. Training them is Qi Moxiang, formerly China’s very first professional fighter and a volunteer coach for the Huili boxing academy. The fate of these three men are intertwined with Qi’s own advise to his charges to seek a life larger than the ones they are seemingly destined to follow — specifically, tobacco farmers and menial laborers. In fact, the themes of seeking a better life through sport — particularly a distinctly individualist endeavor seemingly inconsistent with the precepts of collectivist Communist Party ideals — is one that runs throughout the film, consequences be damned. As Qi prepares for  a hoped-for comeback to show his charges the way, the perils and realities of sport are brought into sharp relief, and further inform the realities depicted by film’s end. Yet, Qi’s efforts to help insure the success of China’s next great generation of pugilists is unflagging, even if the audience comes to a different conclusion altogether. While Chang is wading in familiar territory here (his earlier UP THE YANGTZE, about the effects of the massive Three Gorges Dam Project on China’s poor communities was an award-winner at the Film Festival back in 2008), his masterly storytelling has shown remarkable growth since he first started making short documentaries for the the National Film Board of Canada. Abetted by a talented coterie of producing and post-production colleagues that have jelled under an umbrella of production groups including Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, China’s Yuanfang Media, and Chang’s own production shingle, director Chang too is rapidly establishing a singular template for compelling storytelling, made more so because it is real.

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