Transnational Tales at This Year's SFIAAFF

Johnny Ray Huston March 16, 2006

It’s no surprise to encounter many movies at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival that hail from more than one nation, such as the Cambodia/France documentary “Burnt Theatre,” the India/UK special presentation “Dreaming Lhasa” or the Thailand/USA closing night feature “Journey from the Fall”. If in the ’60s the name and money of someone like Carlo Ponti could add another European layer to what most viewers thought of as a “French” film, then today the addition of Ponti’s lire seems downright simple in comparison to the complications of a typical international production – even a modest feature from Denmark can boast a list of subsidiary countries (Switzerland, Belgium, France…) only slightly shorter than the tale of a comet.

But how often is the relationship between countries that are funding sites played out in the film itself? In the case of Zhang Lu’s “Grain in Ear,” the label of a South Korea/China co-production to some degree reflects the actual thematic contents. Composing a drama based from a newspaper account, novelist-turned-director Zhang sets out to explore the prejudices and discrimination that one South Korean single mother encounters in rural China. What he winds up with is a statement about the terrorizing qualities of a society – and a film that sympathizes with, if not endorses, terrorism as a response to them. (Think of it as a smarter, older, little-known relative of “V for Vendetta.”)

Wary as she is weary, Soon-hee (Ji Liu Lan) peddles – and pedals – kimchee for a living; she and her young son live by a railroad line, sharing a ground-level open-air apartment next to one occupied by a quartet of prostitutes. “Grain in Ear” is exquisitely photographed by Liu Yonghong, who makes wonderful use of multiple passages (doorways, windows, TV screens) within what might seem like a simple, enclosed mise en scene. The dramatic impact of Zhang’s film also stems from the subtle ways in which it observes Soon-hee’s quiet kinship with the women next door, and how that bond compares and contrasts with the view of Soon-hee favored by the men she encounters. (A Korean man is first drawn to her kimchee cart and then to her, but when his wife finds out about their trysts, he is quick to dismiss Soon-hee as a hooker, a stereotype faced by Korean women in China.)

This isn’t the only time that the protagonist of “Grain in Ear” will be treated like a straight man’s or dominant culture’s idea of a prostitute, and when she finds herself being asked to cook for the wedding of someone who has violently mistreated her, both she and Liu’s cinematography make a decisive shift from stasis into action. Relatively speaking, his deed – allowing the previously locked-in-place camera to move alongside or just behind Soon-hee as she walks away from a scorched-earth scenario – is nowhere near as severe as hers. Making creative use of the soundtrack during the closing credits, Zhang doesn’t telegraph his memorable finale, fully realizing that it supplies its own exclamation marks. Some cruel things happen on camera during “Grain in Ear,” but harsher still is the world just outside of – or around – what Zhang frames, endlessly wielding a cruel puppeteer’s influence on the film’s characters. This is the kind of melodrama – in a word, merciless – that Brecht might admire.

As another story of Korean diaspora, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda” couldn’t be more different from Zhang’s film. It isn’t that Japan – the only country listed as a production site here – hasn’t exerted its own imperialist will on Korea, or that Koreans living in Japan don’t face everyday alienation or discrimination, but that Yamashita has fashioned a forward-thinking fantasia of sorts in which those aspects of life are no longer dominant. He’s certainly chosen the right sub-genre to put forth such a vision – a teen rock ‘n’ roll movie, and a teen girl rock ‘n’ roll movie at that. They may be fresh from a triumphant appearance at the Castro Theatre, but the recently revived fabulous Stains had better watch out – Paran Maum are coming to town, and they’re ready to rock the Kabuki as unforgettably as Cheap Trick rocked the Budokan.

Yamashita’s also definitely chosen the right actress to break down barriers: Bae Du-na, who also stars in Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” Going in to “Linda”, I suspected with some dread that Bae’s character might bear some mark of sexual difference (perhaps being depicted as sultrier or more experienced) in relation to her Japanese band mates, so it was a relief to discover that her exchange student, Son, is a smart goofball, more concerned with learning lyrics than enticing boys – the scene in which an admirer confesses a crush on her is priceless, primarily for Son’s nonplussed reaction.

SFIAFF Assistant Director Taro Gato has mentioned Aki Kaurismaki in relation to “Linda” – an unconventional and apt comparison, right down to both directors’ love of ramshackle music, but I’d have to say I prefer Yamashita’s new film to Kaurismaki’s oeuvre. Mainlining adrenaline from the same type of indie sources that may have inspired the fantastic sounds of Cornelius (Paran Maum’s cover of the Blue Hearts’ song that provides the film’s title is inspiring in each manifestation, from lousy practice-space lift-off to talent show climax), the director’s verite approach, in opposition to the slick phoniness of most rock movies, is whim-driven enough to make time for side characters – such as a bluesy, boozy ex-student – to show off their musical skills. Even the incidental ambient tones on the soundtrack are terrific, in tune with how sleep-deprivation almost torpedoes a budding band’s dreams of a mind-blowing stage debut.

In a discussion posted earlier this week on SF360, Goto mentions a “huge Korean fad” in Japan at the moment in relation to Yamashita’s film. Certainly, being considered hip or stylish isn’t necessarily an exemption from discrimination – in the future or the present – but “Linda”‘s approach to the Korean experience in Japan, and a Japanese view of one particular Korean, is subtle and uplifting, an about face from the almost preordained tragedy of the Korean-Chinese relations in Zhang’s “Grain in Ear.”

Earlier during the same interview, SFIAAFF Director Chi-hui Yang refers to Taiwan as “a place where people are still shopping for identity,” an observation that ricochets interestingly off of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s contribution to the fest, “Cafe Lumiere,” which finds the director – no slouch in terms of establishing his own auteurist identity – paying homage to Yasujiro Ozu through a partial appropriation of Ozu’s minimalist understatement. On the surface, a link between Hou and Ozu might seem odd, but Hou models a Tokyo-set Tokyo Story update quite effortlessly, perhaps too easily for passive viewers’ tastes. This 2004 Japanese production also resembles a “typical” contemporary Japanese film, from its cinematography – a gray, leached sunlit look more akin to Hirokazu Kore-eda than the bleeding nightclub colors of Hou’s previous film “Millennium Mambo” – on through to its use of a J-pop song (fitting rather than grating, and written and performed by the film’s star, Yo Hitoto) during the closing credits.

Commissioned by Ozu’s studio Shochiku to create a centenary tribute to the director, Hou presents a tiny reversal of this project within the plot of “Café Lumiere”: journalist Yoko (Hitoto) researches and investigates the life of Chinese composer Jiang Wenye, who was schooled in Japan. This undertaking is hardly the focus of Hou’s comparatively long-take and -distance approach to the Ozu-like story of a young woman faced with decisions related to tradition and family, and it isn’t connected to Hou’s revision of Ozu’s train sightings. This may be falling prey to oversimplification, but the train-obsessed Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, uniquely superb as always in fusing strength and tenderness) could be a corollary for Hou’s directorial inspiration, while Yoko’s absent Taiwanese boyfriend might be seen as a Hou surrogate, or at least the bridge – or train track? – by which Hou connects his own contemporary experience to the present-day Japan of Yoko and the past Japan recorded by Ozu.

Such musings ultimately are pointless in the face of “Cafe Lumiere”‘s observational delicacy, which finds humor and pathos in the quiet resignation of Hajime about his feelings for a willfully oblivious Yoko, and the highly individual discomfort of Yoko’s parents when they are faced with the news of her incipient pregnancy. (Once again, Yoko uses obliviousness to get what she wants.) Quiet and near-suburban, the Tokyo that Hou uncovers is different from the one dominated by disused prefectures that can be found in recent films by Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Akihiko Shiota – not to mention the glossy neon techno-land favored by Sofia Coppola and commercials. Hou’s project could be seen as a 21st-century version of a European art house director’s ’60s-era flirtation with Hollywood, an in this case, an outsider’s view is more compelling and revealing than heavy-handed.