Sundance 2013, Pt. 4: Infinite Shades of Drama

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I thought that after experiencing BEST FRIENDS FOREVER at the Slamdance Film Festival during my first day in Park City, there was nowhere to look but up for the narrative works screening at the Sundance Film Festival. I felt that BEST FRIENDS FOREVER was so blithe and audacious that I would have difficulties finding feature works by Asian Pacific Americans that could stand up to that Day One discovery.

Okay, let’s face it: these days, unless a work comes across the programmers’ desk at the Sundance Institute that was as game-changing as Gregg Araki’s THE LIVING END (Sundance 1992), Kayo Hatta’s PICTURE BRIDE (Sundance 1995), Tony Bui’s THREE SEASONS (Sundance 1999), Karin Kusama’s GIRLFIGHT (Sundance 2000), Justin Lin’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (Sundance 2002), Julia Kwan’s EVE & THE FIREHORSE, Tanuj Chopra’s PUNCHING AT THE SUN and Ham Tran’s JOURNEY FROM THE FALL (Sundance 2006), or Jennifer Phang’s HALF-LIFE (Sundance 2008), chances are that Asian Pacific American filmmakers should not count on being in the mix when the Institute announces its slate of Sundance Film Festival selections. Not that works produced by Asian Pacific Americans aren’t any good — quite the contrary, there is a lot of new and compelling works that find their way into other prestigious film festivals, Berlinale, South by Southwest, Tribeca, and Toronto being among the many. But because of its proximity as the first major showcase for independent American cinema in the calendar year, Sundance (and to a lesser extent, Slamdance) are seen as the bellwether for what is hip and happening for indie cinema. Just don’t expect to find much coming from people of color, though. And within that already limiting framework, we shouldn’t expect to find much from Asian Pacific American filmmakers.

That’s not to say there wasn’t an Asian Pacific presence at Sundance this year. Works by Asian international filmmakers abounded this year, and not just in the documentary sections, of which I have already spilt much ink. For instance, it was refreshing to see a feature from Indonesia in competition (Mouly Surya’s pensive and arresting WHAT THEY DON’T TALK BOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LOVE), Afghanistan (Barmak Akram’s WAJMA (AN AFGHAN LOVE STORY)), and South Korea (O Muel’s Busan International Film Fest award-winner JISEUL). I would want to talk more about Sean Ellis’ METRO MANILA, but the idea of Just Another White Guy Going On Cultural Safari in Another Asian Country to Direct A Feature That Asian People Have Already Done was just offensive to me. And the fact that director Ellis treads the same old tired “poverty porn” storyline that audiences are growing tired of just makes me want to dismiss this work from the canon of Asian Pacific cinema, regardless of how well-put together I though it was. Can I say “exploitative”?

Two of the more adventurous narrative features I screened this young season weren’t even in competition, but arguably should have been. PIT STOP, by Austin-based Yen Tan, is a carefully-observed glimpse into the internal struggles of gay men in small-town America. Centered on Gabe and Ernesto, two men dealing with troubled relationships, the film captures a tenuous optimism in the face of isolation and social monotony, and turned out to be one of the more rewarding viewing experiences of my week in Park City. Rewarding for completely different reasons was midwesterner Randy Moore’s outrageously brilliant ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, which benefitted greatly from the producing and editing prowess of Soojin Chung, who additionally filled those two critical roles for the well-received American Film Institute short THE 8TH SAMURAI and had been developing a trans-Pacific career in the years since she made the scene as Production Editor for Park Chan-wook’s LADY VENGEANCE (2005). Set during the last vacation day of a salaryman who discovers that he just lost his job and determines to hide the unpleasant news from his wife and children, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW is a monochrome wonder, veering wildly from David Lynchian psychodrama to faux nouvelle vague cinema realism (can you say, Jean-Luc Godard – meets – Ed Wood? I just did, and I’m not ashamed to have gone there.). I haven’t even discussed the setting of the film within the confines of a certain world-famous theme park that guarantees that the film will never see the light of day unless some intrepid film festival is brave enough to screen it. Let’s just say that for Jim, the film’s main protagonist, he isn’t fated to spend his last day of vacation in The Happiest Place on Earth. Mysterious, creepy, and just a little bit pervy, ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW elicited perhaps the funniest responses to a Sundance film from my longtime colleague Mona Kwan — “What the FUCK did we just watch?!?” My sentiments exactly — in a positive way.

Speaking of Park Chan-wook: after a hellish Sunday marathon of six feature-length selections, I return to the Festival on Monday, Martin Luther King Day (and the Inauguration of Barack Obama to a second term as our POTUS — a cool super-hero name if ever I heard one) to catch a 9:00 AM screening of STOKER, director Park’s American directorial debut. A slick, kinda creepy mystery drama that had audience members swooning over during the post-screening Q&A as a work that out-Hitchcocked Hitchcock, STOKER has a much different impression on me — I view it as a cautionary case-study in being real careful when trying to update Asian cinema aesthetic and package it for American audiences. The film — a drawing-room mystery that is as subversive as it is, ehhh, fatuous — tells the story of India (Mia Wasikowska), whose father dies in an auto accident. Soon after the funeral, her Uncle Charlie (a man she has never met) comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (a likewise fragile Nicole Kidman). What unfolds is a drama that in subtle ways throws the kitchen sink at the viewer, but whether it is in the screenplay or direction, or even the hyper-realistic cinematography courtesy of Chung Chung-hoon, leaves the viewer a bit cold. At least it did for me, and not that it was totally a bad thing. There’s the flashback sequence that mirrors a Cain-and-Abel explosion into violence. There’s also the obligatory creepy infatuation thing between young India and her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who comes with terrifying baggage of his own. There’s also a throwaway gay thing going on here, though in the blink of an eye, that relationship goes horribly, horribly bad — and provides the critical underpinnings of the main story.

During the post-screening Q&A, director Park shared the fact that he suggested a critical story element to put his stamp on the movie, the depiction of a pair of two-tones saddle-shoes, an annual birthday present to India from an unknown admirer from far away. One would have wished that director Park had insinuated himself into the script a bit more: STOKER is a good-looking mystery movie that walks the fine line between shocking and ridiculous, and on a couple of occasions, can’t stay on the tightrope. Critical minor characters somehow disappear, plot details are left hanging, and the film’s unique visual look, an amalgam of the same visual and production sheen observed in contemporary Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese cinema, struggles to serve a story that itself struggles to measure up to the standards of one of South Korea’s premier filmmaking talents. I’m curious to see how mainstream audiences will receive the film (it is due for release in the States in early March; and it has a “litmus test” screening on February 2 as the Closing Night attraction of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where legions of South Korean movie critics, scensters and tastemakers will be waiting for it like a lynch mob of sorts.). I don’t think they’ll be disappointed, but I suspect that they’ll leave the theater vaguely unsatisfied, just like I was when I exited the 1,500 Eccles Theatre to find that it was only 11:15 in the morning, with nothing to do but head over to a corner liquor store for some (non) alcoholic refreshment before heading to my next screening. The Rotterdam set, who knows? Maybe they’ll drown their sorrows in ganga and cheap ‘hoes — I dunno…

Comparisons to Hitchcock are typically Sundancian, and so so ridiculous. For me, STOKER recalls Kim Jee-woon’s  A TALE OF TWO SISTERS from 2003; as well as the original version of HANYO (THE HOUSEMAID) by Kim Ki-young, which was produced in 1960. So all is not bad. STOKER, I think, represents a promising introduction of director Park to mainstream American audiences. I just hope they don’t go in expecting OLD BOY, or even Hitchcock. Because STOKER just doesn’t roll like that.

I mentioned the inauguration of POTUS today, as this Sundance Film Festival seems oblivious to events outside of Park City, an observation I’ve made numerous times. I take note of that disconnect, and move on: there is an important launch party to head to this evening, and later in the week, the Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience in Park City party that I’m helping out on with a couple of other folks here. From movie and culture critic to party organizer…whew! Don’t know if this was something I bargained for…

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