Friday, March 16


25th SFIAAFF preview

It's a busy week for me. There are only a few days until the March 21 Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Blog-a-Thon I'm hosting here, and tonight the Hong Sang-soo film in question screens at 9:30 PM at the AMC 1000 Van Ness here in Frisco. The 25th SF International Asian American Film Festival is now underway, and between working, writing, other commitments, and conflicts built into the festival program, there's no way I can possibly see all the films I want to there. That's why I decided to break down and view a few on screener DVDs graciously provided by the festival. I watched three festival films on screeners last year and though I didn't try to hide it I wasn't exactly upfront about it either, which I regret. Since then I've only grown more frustrated by writing which seems to pretend that the difference between going to a cinema and watching a DVD at home is not worth mentioning, and more thankful for the exceptions (like this). For me the difference can be enormous, at least with a large portion of the films I most want to see. I consider a screener an option of last resort, used only when I'm all but certain I won't have another reasonable chance to see a film I desperately want to.

It certainly wasn't the way to see Lee Jun-ik's King and the Clown, by any definition a pageant too grand for my living room. It follows a twosome of ribald namsadang performers from the streets of Seoul to the court of King Yonsan, who has a surprising reaction to their mockery of his regime. The film's political and sexual themes intrigued me, but I never really connected on a plot-character level on this first viewing.

I'm terribly frustrated that prior commitments will keep me from the Castro Theatre this Sunday afternoon, where I'll miss out not only on the second chance King and the Clown deserves, but also Pavement Butterfly. I rarely watch silent films at home now that I've been spoiled by the many opportunities to see them in Frisco theatres with live musical accompaniment, like the one Robert Israel will be providing for this 1929 Anna May Wong vehicle from her career peak in Europe. Having never heard of the film before I popped the disc in my player with low expectations but was completely enthralled. Not so much by the story which, as you might guess from the film's title (Street Angel with an Asian twist), is a fairly standard sub-Borzage melodrama: a fan dancer afflicted by a lecherous would-be blackmailer finds a refuge in an artist's loft but it proves to be a temporary one when the truth about her past isn't revealed. And the video transfer I watched was of a rather poor quality. But what I could see of Richard Eichberg's direction, his moody depiction of Paris decadence and dingy backalleys, and most especially Wong's performance as the dancer, were plenty to make me forget the usual home-viewing limitations and distractions, even without any music or other soundtrack at all.

Unlike the 2004 SFIAAFF presentation Piccadilly in which she's second-billed but steals the show, Anna May Wong is the central character in Pavement Butterfly. After seeing it there can be no trace of doubt that she had the star quality to carry a film, if only the pan-European film market hadn't fragmented at the coming of talking pictures, or if only Hollywood had been more enlightened. It's worth mentioning that Wong's Chinese ancestry, while noted, is not particularly important to her role in the film, at least not at a superficial level of analysis (though those who want to follow the film's subtextual perspective on miscegenation will find it fruitful to so do). And though her beauty, her Asian-American identity, her star persona (to the degree it was allowed to blossom) and her acting ability all get tangled up with each other in the entity we call her "performance", I really think it takes a kind of genius to play a scene like the one midway through the picture where she's forced at knifepoint to lie to the man she's fallen in love with, and make it not only credible but heartbreaking. I'd love to see the other four collaborations between Wong and Eichberg someday.

Like Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, So Yong Kim's In Between Days is an intimate portrait of young love that shares its title with a classic Cure song. It's an assured debut with an astonishing lead performance (first-timer Ji-Seon Kim as Aimie, a Toronto immigrant struggling to navigate the messy, conflicted emotions of her intensifying crush on a friend) and a sense of space's impact on character. But otherwise they're completely different films- honest!

Grace Lee's American Zombie (pictured at the top of this post) is another truly International Asian American production (financed in South Korea, made in Los Angeles) and, like In Between Days it was handsomely shot on DV. Though the festival publicity department has not asked me to adhere to a word count on this particular film, I'm having trouble thinking of anything useful to say about it that doesn't, in some small way at least, betray the unexpected delights the film has in store. I'll just say that, while it may not be a masterpiece, this look into a marginalized subculture is a fascinating and structurally unique curio. It certainly must be the first in-depth exploration of documentary filmmaking ethics that also at various points feels like a comedy, an exploitation film, and a post 9/11 political commentary. Come back after you've seen it (it plays tonight at the Pacific Film Archive and tomorrow at the AMC 1000 Van Ness, both times with filmmakers expected to appear in person) and we can discuss it in more detail in the comments section below.

In the meantime, more SFIAAFF coverage has been collected by David Hudson at Greencine Daily.

Brian, let me add another good link for In Between Days: Michael's terrific post from Toronto. (And not just because I'm name-checked in it!).

I sat next to Michael and marvelled while he (deftly) conducted his interview post-film...
Girish, thanks for that link. It's the one I used the last time I mentioned In Between Days.

Normally I like to avoid repeating links I've used before, but I probably ought to make more exceptions, especially when there's such a high-quality one available for use. Though I'm not in full agreement with the London Korean Links writer's take on the film, I thought it was a site worth highlighting and a perspective worth considering. Given the constrainst I was under by the festival's request that I write no more than 75 words on In Between Days, though, I can definitely see why it would have been useful to provide a link with a more comprehensive take on the film; that was my philosophy behind linking Filmbrain's review of King and the Clown.
Yes, sorry I couldn't like it more. It was Friday, I'd had a hard week, I was feeling tired, I needed a beer and the ICA bar was too crowded beforehand, and I was generally feeling grouchy. What I really needed was to be at home, or if I was at the cinema at all I needed to see a martial arts film. But this was going to be my only chance to catch In Between Days so thought I ought to go.
Another drawback of film festival pseudo-distribution. Even in a big city, one so often gets but a single chance to watch a film in theatres, no matter what mood you may be in.
Brian, I appreciated your comments on seeing films on screener. For me, they're OK for watching stuff I'm only marginally interested in, or am unable to see during a festival due to a scheduling conflict. But that's about it. If it's something I really want to see, I need that big-screen experience.

I'm really sorry you didn't get to see Pavement Butterfly at the Castro. It was definitely the highlight of the seven festival films I saw this weekend. Having Anna Mae Wong towering above me in my 5th row seat while accompanied by Robert Israel's masterful doesn't get much better than that. I love her performance in this, and the film's depiction of 1920's Parisian bohemia and the Riviera were a Francophile's wet dream.
Hopefully someday soon I'll have a more "normal" work schedule that doesn't have me occupied for weekend matinees like In Between Days and Pavement Butterfly. The fact that the latter was able to come so totally alive for me, when so often an attempt at watching silent films at home feels like a totally dead experience (I feel like I've really never actually seen films like October, the Holy Mountain and Intolerance because I've only watched them at home), made me feel certain I'd have loved it all the more at the Castro, preferably in the 5th row as well.

Interestingly, after writing this I took a look at the reaction to this film as reported in the Anna May Wong biography Perpetually Cool, and it said that at the time of release the Variety reviewer didn't like the film, essentially complaining that Wong's role wasn't Orientalist enough. On the other hand, author Anthony B. Chan makes a strong argument that her character's Asian ancestry actually plays a critical role in the narrative after all, and has got me thinking about my original assessment of how Wong's ethnicity affects her role in this film. For example, Butterfly's Asian outsider status surely helps explain why she is so easily blackmailed by a white man who policemen and judges might be more readily inclined to trust in 1929 Paris.

I also learned that, of the five films Eisberg and Wong made together, three (the Flame of Love, Hai-Tang and Weg zur Schande) were actually different versions of the same film, filmed in three different languages at the dawn of the talkie era in Europe. I'd love to see these, but it's Song that has a particularly high reputation, so that's higher on my list.
Dear Hell,

Pavement Butterfly exhibits more of Anna May Wong's talents than Flame of Love.

It took her awhile (Shanghai Express) to capture that special quality for talkies. And when she did it, she did it in spades.

Tony Chan, author,
Perpetually Cool
Thanks so much for dropping by! It's an honor. Pavement Butterfly was such a tremendous surprise; I'm still ruing the fact that I may have missed my only chance to see it projected in a grand theatre last year. That is, unless it becomes part of the 'canon' of oft-revived silent films, which it really should.

I love Wong in Shanghai Express too, of course. Sadly, I think that's the only of her talkies I've seen thus far. Hopefully your book will help unearth more of her lesser-known films to studios and programmers.
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