Monday, May 8, 2017

2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

Of the films that played recently at the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, that played recently in various theaters across Los Angeles and Orange County, I was able to view and review the following:

Tokyo Idols [2017] [IMDb] (written and directed by Kyoko Miyake [IMDb]) is a fascinating if really quite disturbing documentary about a seamy and, yes, quite _creepy_ contemporary Japanese pop-culture phenomenon: groups of grown-men, from their twenties and into their fifties / sixties latching themselves to teenage to early twenty-something young women who these men follow and arguably "worship" as "idols."  To a certain extent, the phenomenon resembles "soccer worship" in Europe where groups of fanatical sports fans have devised complex pre-game, during-the-game and post-game rituals to express their "devotion" to their particular team, who then follow their teams _fanatically_ across their country / the world and yes, to most North Americans cross a line from simple fandom into disturbing (and in the case of soccer, violent) devotion.  
The focus of adoration followed in the documentary here, far more explicitly sexualized (though still kept arguably at a PG-13 level, which is in itself quite strange), is on individual teenage girls / to twenty-something young women who often do "self-promote" (the documentary spends much of its time focused on a 19-y.o. woman with a stage name Rio who lives at home and whose parents, father a masseur, mother a nice basically content homemaker are basically _fine_ with what she does).

Why would this phenomenon (this arguably "half-chaste" _perversion_) exist?   It is just weird and the documentary actually does _not_ endorse it.  Indeed, it features primarily a Japanese feminist commentator who repeatedly points-out that this phenomenon is based on (Japanese) socially accepted male privilege and promotes "male laziness." Exasperated, the commentator notes at one point: "Look, these men don't even try to get a wife or girlfriend anymore.  They just follow one or another of these idols."  And even some of the male "devotees" note (with some sheepish embarrassment) that this phenomenon is contributing now to Japan's ridiculously low birthrate.   

Why note this film here?  Well, the film could actually be a very interesting avenue into opening discussion into the distorting effect of the more world-wide phenomenon of internet pornography.  For the commentator's condemnation of Japanese modern-day "idol worship" could _easily_ be applied to the more world-wide phenomenon of internet porn:  Again, why bother to even try to make oneself attractive enough to attract a real significant other when one can just sit back and bury oneself in hours upon hours of internet porn?  A fascinating if disturbing documentary - 3 1/2 Stars.

King of Peking [2016] (written and directed by Sam Vautas [IMDb]) is a lovely "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso [1988]"-like film about a 40-something father, Big Wong (played by Jun Zhao) and his 10 y.o. son, Little Wong (played by Wang Naixun) -- "Wong" meaning "King" in Mandarin Chinese -- two random Beijing-of- the-early-1990s hucksters (only a few years actually after Tienanmen...) who helped through their initiative (basically they learned how to pirate and copy movies...) bring "world cinema" (Hollywood films) "to the masses" ;-).  It's an endearing film.  Big Wong was basically nothing more than a common laborer who ... loved movies ;-), knew that others, if only they had the chance to see them, would love movies too ... and he and his quite imaginative / innovative son (as only a 10 year-old with some freedom to play / dream could be) "found a way to do so."  The director, a Westerner, but who grew-up in Beijing of the time, present at the screening, told the audience that the film was basically a love letter to the "Big and Little Wongs" of China of the time, who in all sorts of little / creative ways made China into what it has become today.  Great film! -- 4 Stars.

She's the Boss (orig. Ban Gai Toi La Sep) [2017] (directed by Ham Tran [IMDb]) is a very cute, contemporary Vietnamese Rom-Com.  Inspired by a Thai hit of some years back, ATM: Er Rak Error [2012] and set in rapidly re-modernizing Saigon of today, it's about a nominally forbidden office romance between two workers -- Oanh (played by Miu Le [IMDb]) and Cuong (played by Do An [IMDb]) -- in the accounting department of a large Saigon-based bank, who are sent out "into the provinces" to "fix" a problem after a random ATM machine out there is accidentally mis-programmed to give-out 4x more cash than asked.  Needless to say, that ATM became a "big hit" in that random provincial town, but the two are tasked with finding a way to recover the cash that was accidentally given away.  Oanh is the more straight-laced boss, Cuong her boyfriend seems at least initially more clever, but both prove rather devious in their methods as they try to put this "genie back in the bottle."  Much ensues.  Certainly an endearing film throughout, the most fascinating aspect to the film for the American / Westerner would be how thoroughly modern Vietnam of today is portrayed.  One would think that one was in Singapore of today rather than "'Nam."  Fascinating and very light-hearted / fun! -- 4 Stars


Lipstick Under My Burkha [2016] [IMDb] [FiBt] (story, directed and screenplay cowritten by Alankrita Shrivastava [IMDb] [FiBt] along with Suhani Kanwar [IMDb], dialogue by Gazal Dhaliwal [IMDb]) BANNED in India (for reasons problematic yet perhaps "understandable" when one sees the film OPENED last month's Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and PLAYED again as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (where I was able to see it).  Why would the film be BANNED in its home country?  EXCELLENT though it is --  a drama about the struggles of four contemporary Indian women, two Hindu, two Muslim, living basically "on the same block" in contemporary Bhopal (provincial), India -- one could EASILY IMAGINE how a film like this IN GENERAL RELEASE could cause riots in a large and precarious country like India today:  

 The youngest of the women, Rehana (played by Plabita Borthakur [IMDb]) is a Muslim college student who leaves her quite traditional home in a burka, and, of course, by the time she gets to campus, she's dressed like everybody else ... in jeans and a t-shirt.  Indeed, she's found the burka "useful" at times ... to shoplift ... among other things, said lipstick, in the film's title.  

Among Rehana's neighbors is a still relatively young Muslim mother / wife Shirin (played by Konkona Sen Sharma [IMDb] [FiBt]) with three little boys (and also having had already three other abortions) who, since the family has been struggling (her husband's often "away" on jobs "in Saudi Arabia") has found a way to "make ends meet" ... by finding a job (without her husband knowing it) a job that she's actually quite good at.  However, since her husband doesn't know that she has a job, accepting "matter-of-course promotions" (for a job well done) becomes a real challenge... (all the more so, when one considers that her husband is struggling _at his job_).   

Yet, lest one think that the film is merely "highlighting the plight of Muslim women" (and thus somehow "picking on Muslims") another twenty-something neighbor, Leela (played by Aahana Kumra [IMDb]) finds herself in another drama.  She is in love (and quite sexually active) with a young-but-poor photographer but engaged through an arranged-marriage-to-be to another.  It's not that her fiance' is a bad guy.  He's not, but the marriage is arranged, she does not love him.  And yes, compared to photog, he's really quite boring.  So why doesn't she just run-off with the photog?  Well, it's not that easy.  Her mother, perhaps widowed, perhaps divorced, but certainly no longer marriageable and single, is depending on her only daughter to "marry well." 

Finally, there's Leela's 50 or even 60-something "auntie" named Usha (played by Ratna Pathak [IMDb] [FiBt]) long widowed, long considered in the society to be "way past her marriageable, let alone sexual, expiration date" ... who finds herself nonetheless reading / liking "romance novels" because ... well ... she's NOT DEAD YET ;-).
And so the film is about these four women, all "living on the same block" though not necessarily particularly close (at least initially).  Why not particularly close?  Well, they may have been "living on the same block" but they're also living quite quietly "in their own particular hells."   Yet, of course, circumstances do make their stories intertwine.

Is there a resolution to any of these four women's difficulties?  No, not really.  However, the film does point out quite well, quite starkly, the problems and societal injustices that these four "everywomen" face.

Without a doubt, THIS IS AN EXCELLENT FILM.  It reminds one of the recent French-Turkish Oscar nominee Mustang [2015], and perhaps even of the American feminist classic Thelma & Louise [1991].  Again, it does not resolve ANYTHING but ... IT CERTAINLY IDENTIFIES / NAMES a FAIR NUMBER OF THE PROBLEMS facing women in INDIA, throughout much of South Asia and, if one is honest, throughout much of the world as a whole as well.  

Yes, I could imagine a film like this "causing riots" in a place like India today.  Yet, what a discussion piece! -- 4+ Stars

 Gook [2017] (written and directed by Justin Chon) is a brave / sincere if perhaps _still incendiary_ film about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots from a then 20-something Korean young adult's perspective.  Justin Chon plays Eli, said 20-something Korean-American young adult, who along with his similarly aged brother Daniel (played by David So) run a never entirely "above board" discount shoe store at the then far north eastern edge of L.A.'s Koreatown at the time of the 1992 L.A. Riots.  (Note Dear Readers that I would actually know somewhat the neighborhood, as I lived -- as a 20-something Caucasian American -- in and around Koreatown and its neighboring neighborhoods when I was a grad-student at U.S.C. at the very same time).

The two were running the shoe store largely in memory of their dad, who had founded the store, but had been murdered (along with an African American cashier) in a hold-up some years earlier.  Kamila (played by Simone Baker), the cute-as-a button 8-10 year old daughter of the fallen cashier, remains a daily visitor to said store (indeed, she often ditches school to hang out there), largely because the small shack of a store (overlooking presumably the 101 or perhaps 5 Freeway, just north of Downtown) is the strongest connection to the mother she never really knew (Kamila's being raised by her older brother and sister) who still live in the neighborhood.

Well, it's April 29, 1992 and the verdict of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King comes in -- all four declared largely innocent of the charges against them -- and the city soon explodes, eventually, inevitably reaching said store.

Dear Readers, this is an honest, nuanced and complicated film.  Where it does perhaps come _too close to home_, however, is when something inevitably happens to Kamila, the cute as a button African-American 8 year old.  The problem here is that PART OF THE REASON that L.A. Riots played out the way that they did -- as, among other things, a virtual pogrom against the Korean American shopkeeper community in L.A. -- was that THERE WAS A TRIAL PREVIOUS TO THE ONE REGARDING THE COPS WHO BEAT RODNEY KING.  In that other trial, of Soon Ja Du a Korean American woman shopkeeper who shot dead Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl, in a tragically confused confrontation, though convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the Soon Ja Du did not receive any jail time, which _nearly_ produced rioting then, if not for the intervention of many African American leaders in L.A. including _many clergy_ who pleaded for calm.   Since the city was already primed for an explosion from that trial, the not-guilty verdicts from the trial of the four cops who beat Rodney King, set the city on fire.  Anyway, the tragedy that visits cute-as-a-button Kamila in this story, COMES REALLY CLOSE to the tragic death of Latasha Harlins and though ever sensitively done, _may_ just be too much for many African American viewers, even today to bear.

Anyway, one thing I have to say about the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is that, oh my, this Festival did not flinch from all kinds of explosive topics (many already recalled above).  I would ask that Readers here take this into account in forming their opinions of this film, and (with some trepidation) I WOULD LIKE TO APPLAUD THE COURAGE of this Festival's organizers.  Film Festivals are _often_ forums for the screening of some very brave films.  I just want to say here that this year's 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival was truly exemplary in this regard. -- 4 Stars (for both the current Film and the Festival itself).  Great job!

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