2014 CAAMFEST—“ILO ILO,” “GOLDEN GATE GIRLS,” “AMERICAN ARAB,” AND “A PICTURE OF YOU”

by Peter Wong on March 14, 2014

Anthony Chen’s semi-autobiographical Cannes Camera d’Or winner “Ilo Ilo” depicts the attempts to build or maintain family unity despite economic uncertainty’s decaying influence. The film revolves around the evolving relationship between Philippine maid Teresa and Jiale, the discipline-challenged son of the supposedly well-off Lims. Teresa doesn’t turn out to be a magical outsider nor is Jiale easily likable. Economic fear and desperation aren’t surmounted by the Lims. But Teresa and her employers do grow in different ways by the end.

Watching Louisa Wei’s documentary “Golden Gate Girls” proves a particularly frustrating experience. Important forgotten cultural history gets buried under an annoyingly simplistic presentation.

Three women involved in 1920s-1940s commercial cinema are the subjects of Wei’s documentary. Anna May Wong, the most famous of the trio, was a talented actress typecast into Oriental Temptress roles. Dorothy Arzner rose through the industry ranks to become the first woman to direct a Hollywood movie.

The most successful of the trio is the mostly forgotten woman director Esther Eng. Beginning as a producer of the Chinese patriotic film “Heartbreakers,” Eng would go on to direct ten feature films in both America and Hong Kong. That success, it should be noted, came from Eng’s generally working without Hollywood talent except for that of cinematographers James Wong Howe and Paul Ivano.

Wei justifiably dedicates the bulk of her film to telling the story of Eng’s life. One of ten children in the Ng family, her break into filmmaking came through her father’s involvement in making “Heartaches” a reality. The success of that film combined with Eng’s chutzpah and patriotism helped open film industry doors for her.

Where “Golden Gate Girls” starts to unravel is in its inability to show enough of Eng’s directorial talent in action. It’s true practically none of Eng’s films have survived to the present day. But if the actual films don’t exist, weren’t there at least comments from critics who were Eng’s contemporaries? As is, it’s hard to pronounce Eng a forgotten talent or a well-intentioned hack.

The Arzner and Wong material don’t feel as if they offer sufficient counterpoint to Eng’s story. Had Eng also worked in Hollywood, would she have directed ten films? Had Arzner and Wong worked outside Hollywood, would their oeuvre have been far richer? Instead of such fruitful speculation, Wei’s treatment of Arzner and Wong feels more intended to pad her film to feature length.

The probability that Eng was a butch lesbian doesn’t get directly asserted by Wei. It seemed an open secret at the time given the bold and assertive Eng’s preferences for the company of female Chinese opera actresses and to be addressed by the male honorific Brother. The filmmaker avoids trying to settle the matter through investigating Eng’s suspected lovers.

One thing Wei does do (badly) is pointlessly insert herself as a secondary subject into her film. The director fails to display her urgency in reviving or reclaiming Eng’s legacy.

“Golden Gate Girls” ultimately comes across as a wasted opportunity. The glimpses into the pre-World War II Hong Kong film industry prove intriguing. Yet that’s outweighed by the film’s failure to make the prospering of Eng’s film career matter compared to Arzner and Wong.

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Usama Alshaibi’s documentary “American Arab” is both a personal and a political film about living as both American and Arab.

America has not been a haven for the filmmaker. Growing up in Iowa, the filmmaker just wanted to be invisible. Younger brother Samer died of a drug overdose. Despite fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, his family got treated as local representatives of the Iraqi enemy. Alshaibi’s film serves as his inquiry into finding a satisfying life given he’s never fully treated as either American or Arab.

Did Samer’s spirit die because his American birth meant nothing in a country where Americanness is equated with being white? The white neighbors at an American flag-waving rally claiming the Arab neighbors’ non-appearance demonstrates their insufficient Americanness would support this theory.

Yet to constantly be aware of the depth of Americans’ casual anti-Arab hatred can be soul-sucking. Anonymity allows electronic commenters to falsely assert Alshaibi faked a racially-motivated beating. Hijab-wearing women might feel singled out in a world where habits and babooshkas are respected. Even popular movies such as “Back To The Future” provide little escape from anti-Arab racism.

Marwan Kamel of taqwacore band Al-Thawra offers Alshaibi a useful survival strategy: carve out a personal space that is neither solely American nor Muslim. For the filmmaker, that involves finding like-minded soulmates regardless of race. It also involves creating films satirizing typical anti-Arab attitudes, such as a stereotypical Arab terrorist making a declaration in front of a “Star Wars” backdrop.

Viewers from other American racial minorities will empathize with Alshaibi, as they’ve endured the same pressures in similar forms. Yet it’s sad to see that social advancements in American racial relations have not made all that many Americans less racist.

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Ghosts of grief and old resentments haunt Kyle and Jen, the estranged brother and sister at the center of J.P. Chan’s drama/comedy “A Picture of You.” A very long weekend packing up their dead mother’s belongings leads to the siblings unearthing both old memories and an unexpected secret. The siblings’ memories of the late Professor Woo resemble emotional pixels helping to build a picture of who she had been in life. Ironically, Kyle’s and Jen’s characters eventually feel somewhat incomplete.

(“Ilo Ilo” screens at 6:00 PM on March 17, 2014. “American Arab” screens at 12:20 PM on March 15, 2014 and 7:00 PM on March 18, 2014. “A Picture Of You” screens at 4:30 PM on March 15, 2014 and 6:40 PM on March 19, 2014. These screenings take place at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). “Golden Gate Girls” screens at 6:30 PM on March 18, 2014 at the Great Star Theater (636 Jackson Street, SF). For further information on these films, go to www.caamfest.com/2014 .)

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