Park City ’17: Outcasts, Aliens, and Anti-Heroes

Arriving in Park City for another full day of movie-watching turns out to be significantly delayed…this day, Saturday, the third full day of screenings at Sundance and Slamdance, is all about the women. Well, at least the 10,000 or so angry white women in pink “pussy” beanies who gathered to stick it to the new President. As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones choking off local thoroughfares. Spearheaded by a Washington DC rally and march estimated to be 500,000 strong, the March would serve as a declarative “answer” to the incoming Donald Trump Administration. With the new President and his minions boasting about an “astronomical” in-person audience that turned out to be a quarter of the 1.2 million who witnessed the swearing-in of Barack Obama in 2009, an estimated 3 million women, men, and children jammed the streets of DC, Los Angeles (750,000; woo-hoo!), San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, and even Orange County, California to defend the rights that have been earned over the course of the last 100 years. In Park City, the sight of those 10,000 marchers streaming down Main Street was a sight to behold. Of course, the speakers could have been WAY more of a rainbow coalition than it actually was. But on this day, the numbers, and the strength of unity, was the priority.

As an odd counterpoint to the Women’s March, my complement of works I chose to screen on this day are three Asian Pacific feature-length works that are all about MEN! Oh, the irony! Seeing as the trio represent major offerings of the renegade Slamdance Film Festival, the “alternative to the alternative,” I know I am truly heading off the reservation, the “Sundance” one, that is. It is here that I encounter some positively visionary, albeit challenging and at times confounding and head-scratching works that tell me the filmmakers are at least thinking through the best method of realizing their artistic visions.

Possibly the most challenging viewing is the first one: Li Jheng-Neng’s AEROTROPOLIS concerns a young-thirty-something who has sunk all his money into a pricey housing development in the hopes that he can “flip” it for a profit. The house sits on the edge of a long-planned new airport, but with the property left fallow and pressures mounting to sell the house, Allen moves closer and closer to a breaking point. AEROTROPOLIS can best be described as an “anti-movie” in which actions can best be described as observational, with precious little meaningful dialogue and plenty of contemplative, meditative shots of a man whose sense of hope gives way to a certain despair — unusual for one who is established as a Christian in the film’s early moments.

Even more of a challenge Liu Shumin’s THE FAMILY, a holdover from the 2015 Venice Film Festival’s Fortnight. Clocking in at a whopping four hours and 45 minutes, THE FAMILY observes a couple, Liu and Deng, septuagenarians who both grew up long before the generation of the “new” China emerged in the last decade, find themselves slowly but surely succumbing to the onset of a modern society. The kids hardly ever visit; a holiday outing to see the grandkids turns melancholy, and a shocking incident of negligence foregrounds the collision between the traditional and the modern, and the onslaught of time on an outdated way of life. That THE FAMILY unfolds at a deliberate, even leisurely pace, the viewer is able to see up-close the process of alienation even before the story pivots to a new story, one that seems to indicate that the cycle of life is destined to begin all over again.

Probably the most challenging of Slamdance docs this year has to be Yu Gu and Scott Drucker’s WHO IS ARTHUR CHU?, a dogged look at the former Jeopardy! sensation and controversial lightning rod who, like the biblical Job, finds that he must lose himself before he actually finds his primary purpose in life. Opening the story sometime after his multiple appearances on the popular game show, we see a man-child who seemingly has no real direction in life. His long-suffering wife Eliza, an aspiring novelists who works at a veterinarian’s office, puts up with Arthur’s unintended lurch into celebrity — from a successful but hated game show contestant, a sought-after speaker on the tech circuit, to a controversial firebrand in a gaming community debate over extreme gender bullying that he arguably might not be totally conversant in. Directors Gu and Drucker walk a delicate tightrope in WHO IS ARTHUR CHU? — that is, how do they compel us to root for a man who can charitably be described as an anti-hero, whose self-professed nerdiness contributes to a gradual rift between him and his family and loved ones, and whose own sense of self-worth can only best be measured by Twitter “likes” and “retweets” and YouTube “follows”? Screening WHO IS ARTHUR CHU? turned out to be more of a challenge that I could have imagined. It’s as if directors Gu and Drucker themselves were passing on to me, a humble viewer, the burden of likeability for this accidental activist whom nobody seems to like or admire much — when the most supportive tweets on your account reads like 10,000 different variations of “eat shit and die, Chink,” then THAT’s when you should begin to know that you have a likeability problem. WHO IS ARTHUR CHU? ends with an acknowledgement that Arthur himself has a lot of issues to work out with both family and spouse, and I thinking through the experience of watching Gu and Drucker’s documentary debut, I find myself comparing Chu’s ongoing travails to that of another recent internet sensation that many may find an immediate affinity to — Colorado-based wannabe-femme Suey Park, a Korean American Twitter troll whose claim to fame was to coin the viral hashtag “#NotYourAsianSidekick” and whose own descent into hell could be attributed to the simple inability to just turn off the laptop, get out of the house, and engage with those communities that she professed in countless tweets and blog posts to advocate for. In WHO IS ARTHUR CHU?, the titular character finds that the opposite can very well be true — engagement with the real world has an insidious way of exposing the lack of substance and conviction behind the façade, and the journey to reconnecting with oneself can and will be a long, painful process.

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