The actress Maggie Cheung, shown in a production photo from the film Clean, will be honored at this years Asian-American International Film Festival, a two-week film event. Below is a scene from Splendid Float by the Taiwanese director Zero Chou.
BY STEVE ERICKSON
The Asian-American International Film Festival, currently celebrating its 28th anniversary as a showcase for the work of filmmakers from U.S. and across the breadth of Asia, including Southeast Asia, has gone through some changes in recent years.
Once neglected, East Asian cinema has become the toast of film festivals around the world. The Asian-American International Film Festival once played an exclusive role in introducing directors such as Takeshi Kitano, whose Sonatine was screened in New York in 1994. However, the New York Asian Film Festival and the Korean Film Festival, as well as older series including New Directors/New Films, are now competing for the same pool of Asian films. In response, this festival has increased the prominence of Asian-American films, especially documentaries and shorts.
This years program includes a tribute to Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung. While she may be best known in the U.S. for playing herself in Olivier Assayas Irma Vep, her filmography is eclectic and lengthy. The festival offers a small samplingAssayas Clean, which will be released in September, and three first-rate Hong Kong films, Johnnie Tos fantasy Heroic Trio, Peter Chans melodrama Comrades: Almost a Love Story and Stanley Kwans very rarely screened Center Stage.
Were it American, Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheungs AV would never play film festivals. A slightly classier counterpart to American Pie, its an adolescent comedy about four students pretending to make a pornographic movie in order to sleep with Japanese adult video star Amaniya Manami, who essentially plays herself. Shot in two weeks and partially improvised, its sense of humor is uneven, though there are a few funny moments. Mostly devoid of moralism, it still plays as a male fantasy, albeit not a pornographic one. Rather than serving as a sex object, Manami, who has the obligatory heart of gold and a saints forgiveness, needs to be rescued by a man who can take her away from her faithless boyfriend manager. Despite the salacious subject matter and midnight screening slot, the film is surprisingly tepid and mainstream in sensibility.
This years festival includes two gay-themed featuresYan Yan Maks lesbian love story Butterfly and Taiwanese director Zero Chous Splendid Float, an improbable synthesis of François Ozons Under The Sand and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. A closeted Taoist priest by day, Roy (James Chen) also works as drag performer Rose, touring northern Taiwan. He meets and falls in love with Sunny, a fisherman, but tragedy strikes. He finds himself called upon to preside over Sunnys funeral. Afterwards, he is haunted by his lovers ghost.
Splendid Float has an interesting premise, exploring the mourning of a relationship that must remain closeted. However, the film never quite finds the right tone. Less arty than most Taiwanese films that play film festivals, it also refrains from melodramatic excess. Practically all the major events happen in the first 20 minutes. Despite the many kitschy musical numbers and garish, heavily saturated colors and lighting, its ultimately a rather quiet film. A more contemplative style might have better suited it. The potent intersection between spirituality and sexuality remains unexplored, as the film focuses far more on Roys travels with the drag troupe than his mission as a priest. Ultimately, he finds his real home and identity through drag, while organized religion offers little but repression.
Like recent films such as Greg Paks Robot Stories and Eric Bylers Charlotte Sometimes, Francisco Aliwalas Blue Hour is an Asian-American indie that avoids overt identity politics; the characters race is incidental to the story. A conspiracy-minded thriller, it begins when John (Arthur Acuna) approaches his childhood friend Catfish (Orlando Pabotoy), looking for a handout to pay off a debt. Catfish undergoes a medical experiment to get the money, but when its over, his life starts going awry.
His memory is full of holes. He suffers from strange flashbacks and seems to be responding to subliminal programming triggered by phone messages. A one-man band, Aliwalas directed, shot, wrote, edited and composed the music for Blue Hour. His talents may lie mostly in cinematography. Although the film is set in the present, it has a sci-fi ambiance, portraying New York as a sterile maze of concrete and glass, full of mirror reflections and distorted glass. At first, the performances and dialogue seem like the films weak spot, but their stilted nature feels deliberate; Aliwalas aims for the stylized, unrealistic feel of Hal Hartley or David Mamets scripts. However, such writing and acting requires a level of precision timing that his cast just doesnt have. Despite these flaws, Blue Hour suggests that Aliwalas has a bright future. The film is as good as Darren Aronofskys Pi, one of its probable inspirations.