Between the suicide of Hong Kong omni-star Leslie Cheung and Justin Lin’s movie-as-movement Better Luck Tomorrow forcing a toe in Hollywood’s door, this 26th annual congregation of Asian and Asian American interests arrives amid considerable community clamor.
The homegrown selections pick up the only mandate from BLT that found near-unanimous approval: the right to be incidentally Asian, without the obligation of representation but open to it nonetheless. The centerpiece presentation, Greg Pak’s Robot Stories, offers four vignettes of tenderized sci-fi concerned more with human mortality than identity politics. Eric Byler’s artful, slyly self-conscious Charlotte Sometimes universalizes the bumpy morality that troubles a bizarre love rectangle of young twentysomething Asian Americans who presumably grew up on the Cure.
Though Mina Shum’s Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity resolves its stock culture clashes with the do-gooder aplomb of an after-school special, the film’s community of quirky Asian Canadians is rich with detail and tiny transcendences. The vaguely Asian American Guy pursuits of turntablism and kung fu are enlisted for the rousing Hop Fu, a live project that re-audios Sammo Hung’s Prodigal Son (1983) with scratches and commentary from DJs IXL and Excess of the Kolabz crew.
Where these North American offerings embody a sense of promise and perpetual rise, the Asian programs seem divided between serious films about people haunted by war, love, and/or the unbearable weight of history, and slightly less serious films about the same thing. Mani Ratnam’s lush A Peck on the Cheek trails an emotionally precocious girl who, upon discovering that she is adopted, embarks on a morose yet uplifting journey to Sri Lanka in search of her birth mother. Chito Rono’s Dekada 70 bitterly recounts the political and social tensions in the Philippines of the 1970s from the perspective of a sprawling, middle-class family constantly factioning against itself. South Korea in the 1980s gives Cho Keun-sik’s Conduct Zero a fertile playground of roller rinks and record shops for its high school bully-turned-porno dealer-turned-redeemed Romeo.
Makoto Shinozaki’s lighthearted Asakusa Kid nostalgically recounts writer-director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s youthful days in the Tokyo district of Asakusa as an aspiring comedian. Action buff Danny Pang just seems nostalgic for Natural Born Killers; his anticipated Nothing to Lose is Mickey and Mallory with the steering wheel on the other side.
Just as Yu Ha’s softcore Marriage Is a Crazy Thing is as hokey as its title, Cheng Wen-tang’s magnificent Somewhere Over the Dreamland manages something sublime. Biting from the sad, stoic pacing of Tsai Ming-liang, Cheng’s meandering, folksy stories try to be hopeful about the anonymity afforded by modern life. Watan, a middle-aged man from one of Taiwan’s aboriginal minority groups, returns to the city in search of a wallet he lost 10 years earlier, and the idealism he lost somewhere in between. Cheng makes it all—the gargantuan promise of a city ahead, and the swaying millet fields left behind—feel sad as hell.
It’s tempting to read Leslie Cheung’s last film, Inner Senses, as autobiography: The late actor plays a shrink who accompanies a troubled young woman through the phantoms of her mind, only he’s the one who’s spooked. His surfaced repressions become real depression and the film descends, more somberly than was likely intended, into psychosis.