Reviews From CAAMFest 37

by on May 7, 2019

Cai Chengjie’s Rotterdam Film Festival award-winner “The Widowed Witch” shows that  computer graphics aren’t necessary to make a film intriguing. All that’s needed is a mix of entertaining ambiguity married to some tart insights about human nature.

Er Hao, the titular supernatural being in question, proves a morally ambiguous heroine.  Losing three husbands makes her either a black widow or a victim of a continual bad luck streak.  The death of most recent husband Dayong seems a life-breaker as his passing has left her homeless and destitute.  Finally, she gets raped by a relative under terrible circumstances.

Given what’s happened to her in the past, perhaps it’s understandable why Er Hao doesn’t believe she’s gained any supernatural abilities.  She offers mundane explanations for what other villagers call her magical powers. Surviving getting publicly shot in the gut is possible if the gun isn’t loaded.  If a slap to the face relieves neck stiffness, magical powers aren’t needed to accomplish that.

Yet Er Hao soon finds advantages to claiming she has magical powers.  The powerlessness brought on by destitute widowhood gets replaced by leverage via the rural villagers’ superstitions.   A supposed friend who refuses to pay back 2000 yuan borrowed from Dayong may be angered by Er Hao’s “accidentally” running over his cart.  But when the ex-friend believes his neck stiffness resulted from a curse, he sings a different tune to the widowed witch. Most dramatically, a tough beating up someone stops quickly once Er Hao displays some uncanny knowledge of his personal life.

To be fair, Cai uses an inventively subtle way to show that the supernatural does exist and that the film’s protagonist does have magical powers. The extended opening color sequence featuring Er Hao trudging with Dayong through the snow feels like a non sequitur.  The change from color to the black and white stock that characterizes most of the rest of the film shocks the viewer. It’s much later that it becomes clear the color images that pop up in the film are examples of the supernatural or at least supernormal intruding on Er Hao’s life.  What opened the film was essentially the lead character’s near death experience, which she escaped by symbolically being brought back to life by the shaman.

The reason later supernatural occurrences are shown in black and white is quite simple.  They show that the extranormal world has become a normal part of the widow’s life.

Despite Er Hao’s using her supernatural powers to her advantage, she doesn’t do so by scamming others to enrich herself.  She uses these powers to help people. One guy, for example, gets advised to bulldoze the shabby vacation cottages he’s renting.  He does and discovers a humongous gold nugget unearthed by the bulldozer.

Ironically, Er Hao’s advice soon causes her to discover her powers’ limits.  The law of unintended consequences cannot be skirted by her powers. More importantly, human greed and callousness prove the equal of supernatural abilities.  These cumulative truths wind up leading to tragic results.

***

Hearing a Spanish song being played at full blast in a Chinese restaurant setting may not be the most unusual moment seen at this year’s CAAMFest.  But hearing that song while a quartet of young Chinese scuffle with someone in a bunny suit….that’s strange. It’s also the climax of Athena Han’s entertaining short “Bunny Man.”

A discussion on racial terminology provides the lead-up to the scuffle.  Four Chinese friends are having a late-night dinner in a Canadian Chinese restaurant.  They’re talking about whether the terms FOB (fresh off the boat) and CBC (Canadian Born Chinese) are offensive or rather a way of classifying people in a generally tolerant city.

The rhythms of the discussion are nicely rendered.  Various rhetorical points verbally slide between Chinese and English, as if both languages are equally valid.  Having Hong Kong film-like subtitles in both English and Chinese also buttress this point. Yet the discussion eventually reaches a rhetorical logjam, with nobody being persuaded or conceding anybody else’s divergent point of view.

How does the bunny suited figure provide resolution on this discussion?  The figure’s presence seems initially unrelated to this debate. Yet the scuffle first provides a release for the Chinese diners’ frustrations.

However, what does it mean that the song “El Gatito” plays on the soundtrack during the scuffle?  Is it really just a ridiculous non-sequitur? Or does that juxtaposition symbolize the absurdity of the personal intolerances displayed during the diners’ earlier argument ?  Han wisely leaves it to the viewer to puzzle out the answer.

***

“Ten Years Thailand” gives a Thai spin to the near-future dystopia film begun with Hong Kong’s “Ten Years.”  Filmmakers Aditya Assarat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chulayarnon Siriphol, and Wisit Sasanatieng use everything from understated drama to out-and-out fantasy (particularly in “Planetarium”) to generally depict the faces of openly secret repression.  Weerasethakul’s short may seem the exception as no figurative jackboots can be seen. Yet it feels as if government repression is baked into a city’s very stones.

***

Gretchen Carvajal and Violet Wang’s short “Baraha” bills itself as a visual chapbook.  Its raw materials encompass home movies, symbolic dance, poetry, and Tarot symbology. Following Carvajal through the phases of “Deception,” “Death,” and “The Moon,” the film sees her deal with the challenges of retaining her Filipino heritage while coming into her own personal power.

The opportunities represented by moving to America feel in Carvajal and Wang’s eyes to be not worth the shortcomings involved.  They include not measuring up to a mother’s expectations, being ashamed of one’s own heritage, and even losing the ability to love oneself.  In this regard, Carvajal’s father appears more supportive, tellingly feeding her fire ants to help her preserve her voice.

“Baraha” winds up being more than a survivor’s story.  The fable told in “The Moon” metaphorically relates how Carvajal learns to rediscover her own inner light and share it with the world.  If the life lesson in Carvajal’s short feels familiar, at least it’s expressed in a style that requires several views to unpack its lesson.

***

Director Justin Chon (the acclaimed “Gook”) returns with the autumnal and moving “Ms. Purple.”  Semi-estranged siblings Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and Carey have been traumatized in different ways by their mother’s abandoning them in childhood.  Their father’s slow lingering decline brings the two back together. The backdrop of downbeat classical music suggests their painful past keeps both siblings stuck in Los Angeles’ Koreatown in different ways.  Chu particularly shines as someone trapped by other men’s priorities.

***

In Anna Mikami’s short “Bed and Breakfast,” a spacious snow country bed and breakfast suddenly feels very cramped for the two couples staying the night there.  Lena, who’s there with her boyfriend Charlie, once had a serious relationship with Sam, her then-poetry teacher. Now the butch Sam has come with her lover Terri.  And it’s not clear Lena and Sam’s feelings have been totally forgotten.

The fun in this straightforward short is seeing the supposedly banked passions between Lena & Sam slowly roar back to life.  It hasn’t been that long since their relationship ended. Significant glances and stares asking such questions as “do you still love her” remain unsaid.    By the time Lena and Sam finally have a moment alone together, their passion can no longer be denied.

Yet the unexpected encounter between the former lovers forces them to finally lay the ghosts of their former relationship to rest.  Sam probably ended the affair because she realized it crossed a couple of very large ethical lines regarding fidelity and teacher-student relations.  Lena finally accepts her reasons for doing so. Mikami captures Lena’s acceptance of that emotional truth with a nice visual metaphor.

***

Far less straightforward but far more satisfying is Becca Park and Jun Shimizu’s “Speak Easy, B.”  It can be called a cinematic crawl through the wreckage of a terminated affair with a supposed soulmate.

B has gone for an initial consultation to a therapist for depression related to the end of her lesbian relationship.  Through B’s imagination, symbolic clues to the causes of her depression can be found. These clues include a home in the desert, a photograph knocked off a wall, dancing waitresses, and even a basketball game with a boy.

Park and Shimizu don’t throw in odd moments such as B’s vomiting a meal solely for the sake of startling weirdness.  These visual symbols offer ambiguous answers regarding the reasons for B’s unhappiness. The desert locale, for example, could represent B’s generalized feelings of emotional isolation.

The film’s images may capture what B cannot express in words.  However, the context from B’s life associated with these images, such as whether friction between B and her ex-lover contributed to the break-up, is missing.  Obviously finding the connections between these images will require a lot of therapeutic work. What’s not clear is how much B is intended to be a semi-fictional construct of director Becca Park.

***

Andrew Stephen Lee’s “Manila Is Full Of Men Named Boy” turns a father’s birthday celebration into an exercise in quiet humiliation for his estranged son.

Rodrigo Manatad is celebrating his birthday on the day Michael Jackson’s funeral is being telecast in the Philippines.  Rodrigo’s estranged son Boy has returned from Los Angeles to Manila for his father’s birthday. However, Boy’s buying a teen named Bing Bong to pass him off as Rodrigo’s grandson.  But what happens when Bing Bong makes a better impression on Rodrigo and his friends than Boy?

The reason for Boy’s ruse is hinted at by the film’s title.  When lots of men share your name, how do you personally stand out?  It’s probable that Boy’s failure to achieve success makes the younger man look in Rodrigo’s eyes like a mediocrity or even someone who’s failed at life.  Instead of being a doctor, Boy’s just a nurse. Being childless and not even in a relationship count as more strikes against Boy. Finally, having strangers express their sorrow for Michael Jackson’s death grates on Boy because he doesn’t even personally know the deceased King of Pop.

Rodrigo’s treating Bing Bong more like a son than Boy winds up pushing the adult son’s last buttons.  Sharing a love for smoking and drinking provides a bonding moment between the older man and his supposed grandson that’s denied the American visitor.  Perhaps that’s why Boy interrupts Bing Bong’s karaoke performance with Rodrigo so that he can use the karaoke song lyrics to express the agonies of his bruised relationship with his father.

By the end, the only mourning Boy Manatad does will be for losing any hope for earning Rodrigo Manatad’s respect.

***

CAAMFest’s heartbreaking Closing Night Film “Geographies Of Kinship” rips off the benevolent veneer covering the decades-long international adoptions of Korean children.  As Deann Borshay Liem’s documentary shows, humanitarianism proves less relevant to this industry than sexism, global politics, economic privation, moralism, and even racism.  Her film traces both the history of this international adoption industry and the human cost represented in the stories of four adoptees.

Fighting in the Korean War may have created war orphans.  But it was the American military entertainment districts known as Company Towns that would play a bigger role in boosting South Korea’s international adoption trade.  More than a few struggling Korean women who worked in those towns produced kids from their sexual relations with foreign troops.

The presence of those kids became a multi-level embarrassment to Korean society.  Thanks to the hojuk system, the kids’ lack of a Korean father made these mixed race kids non-citizens.  Single motherhood was frowned upon in Korean society. The presence of mixed race kids also undermined Korean president Syngman Rhee’s drive to make a racially pure Korea.  In this cultural context, sending mixed-race kids off for international adoption provided a quick and dirty solution for South Korea.

Liem shows how economic considerations also helped the Korean child adoption trade continue for decades.  For the orphanages, foreign adoptions became a cash cow. When the Korean War ceasefire took hold in 1953, there were 317 orphanages.  By 1968, there were now 600 orphanages which needed a steady supply of “orphans” to stay in business. Thanks to the absence of a social safety net, poor Korean families gave up their kids to reduce the number of mouths they had to feed.  South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan used the population reduction made possible by foreign adoptions to help the country’s economic development. Even the 1990s’ Asian Financial Crash helped keep the adoption trade going through creating what were called IMF (International Monetary Fund) orphans.

The horrors of the history behind the Korean child adoption trade gets balanced out by the personal stories of several international adoptees.  They include Estelle Cooke-Sampson, who was a bi-racial orphan; Dae-won Kim, who had to learn about his Korean heritage in secret; and Jane Jeong Trenka, whose fascination with family histories pushed her to find out about her birth mother.

Contrary to the rosy images of a better life outside of South Korea, these international adoptees led lives which were not fully emotionally satisfying for crucial reasons.  Estelle, for example, thought of herself as primarily African-American thanks to a lack of exposure to Korean culture. More seriously, the hostility of Dae-won’s Swiss adoptive parents to their adopted son’s efforts to learn about his Korean heritage left him near-suicidal and suffering from PTSD.

The last third of the film follows attempts on both the personal and political level to rectify the wrongs brought about by the Korean child adoption system.  On the personal level, the adoptees seen in the film work to find their roots or get reconciled to their Korean heritage with bittersweet results. At least one interviewee moves to South Korea to help other international adoptees reconnect with their birth parents.  Estelle’s journey in particular proves the hardest emotional lift as she seeks both her actual Korean relatives and her birth name.

On the political level, things begin promisingly with adoptee LenaKim Arctadius’ public question to future South Korean president Kim Dae Jung.  Her question sparks efforts to rein in the abuses of the international adoption system. But it would take nearly a couple of decades before South Korea’s government finally took effective action to begin curbing the factors that fueled the system.

One adoptee interviewed in the film states the long term goal of fellow adoptees very plainly: the return of their nationality, so they can belong to South Korea too.  Estelle’s story shows just how long this journey may take to reach its end.

(“The Widowed Witch” screens at 9:10 PM on May 15, 2019.  “Bunny Man” screens as part of the Altered States shorts program showing at 9:50 PM on May 10, 2019.  “Ten Years Thailand” screens at 9:45 PM on May 11, 2019. “Baraha” screens as part of the “It Runs In The Family” shorts program showing at 5:00 PM on May 10, 2019.  “Ms. Purple” screens at 7:30 PM on May 10, 2019. ”Bed and Breakfast” and “Speak Easy, B” screens as part of the “Out/Here” shorts program showing at 6:30 PM on May 13, 2019.  “Manila Is Full Of Men Named Boy” screens as part of the “Flip The Script” shorts program showing at 12:30 PM on May 11, 2019. All these screenings take place at the AMC Kabuki Theatre (1881 Post, SF).  “Geographies Of Kinship” screens at 7:20 PM on May 19, 2019 at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF) . For further information about tickets and the films, go to http://caamedia.org .)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment

Translate »