A Constellation of Asian Films at San Jose's Cinequest 2003

by Celeste Heiter, Feb 27, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

A former orphan who becomes a foster dad for 25 mischievous children... An abandoned daughter of the Chinese Red Guard in search of her biological parents... An aimless newsstand attendant in Beijing with aspirations of becoming a violinist... A lovelorn water-quality control agent seeking answers and acceptance in rural Japan... A businessman by day, a masked and mysterious major league pitcher by night... Five North Vietnamese soldiers who become lifelong friends while fighting for their cause in the American war... Seven contemporary Asian youths facing life's travails in San Francisco...

This eclectic menagerie represents but a few of the compelling characters in seven of the Asian films featured in this year's Cinequest Film Festival. With screenings in cinemas located throughout downtown San Jose, California, from February 27 through March 9, 2003, these flagship films run the gamut from light comedy to edgy urban realism. And although each has its own clear message and undeniable merit, the brightest stars in this cinematic constellation are definitely Daughter from Yan'an and Song of the Stork. These two documentary works take daring risks to present a unique glimpse into political, historical and emotional realms heretofore unseen by western eyes. The other five... are simply stellar.

Daughter from Yan'an
Country - Japan
Director - Kaoru Ikeya
Producer - Satoshi Kitagawa
Cast - Haixia, Huang Yuling, Wang Lucheng
Running Time - 120 minutes

This groundbreaking documentary dares to delve into the emotional wreckage of the lives of former Chinese Red Guard youths who were 'sent down' by Chairman Mao to learn the grassroots of the 'cultural revolution' firsthand, from the simple, hard-working peasants in the village of Yan'an. Although these once-zealous partisans joined the cause with youthful enthusiasm and the best of intentions, once there, they were forced under pain of torture and death to live and work in squalor and starvation, to betray each other in treachery for the sake of self-preservation, to forego the natural course of love and marriage, and to abort or abandon their much-wanted babies.

Japanese filmmaker Kaoru Ikeya, who has unblinkingly fixated his camera on China since the Tien'anmen Square incident of 1989, zooms in on the life of one young peasant woman: Haixia, the Daughter of Yan'an. This young woman, now 28 years old, and a wife and mother herself, was born in secrecy and abandoned at the outset of her ill-fated life by her parents, both members of the 'sent down' Red Guard. With the unrelenting help of Huang Yuling, also a former 'sent youth,' Haixia leaves her husband, her son, her foster family and her agrarian life in the famed Yellow Highlands of central China to go in search of her biological parents, in hopes of the learning answers to a lifetime of excruciating questions and haunting doubts, and maybe, just maybe, to return to the welcoming arms of a loving family.

By his own admission, director Kaoru Ikeya knows that "the camera can be a cruel instrument," and among those involved, no life was left unexamined. Yet he filmed the lives of his subjects in microscopic detail, with remarkable sensitivity and pathos, for more than two years. The result: a riveting, gut-wrenching, real-life quest for answers, for acceptance, for closure, and for the grace and courage to carry on.

Song of the Stork
Country - Vietnam / Singapore
Directors - Jonathan Foo, Nguyen Phan Quang Binh
Producers - Peggy Lin, Ngo Thi Bich Hanh
Cast - Chi Bao Pham, Ngoc Bao Ta, Quang Hai Ngo, Quang Vinh Luu, Mai Nguyen Trinh, Ngoc Hiep Nguyen, Hai Yen Do, Kung Nhi Le
Running Time - 96 minutes

This unique combination documentary drama cum historical fiction lays claim to many 'firsts.' It's the first Vietnamese-Singapore joint filmmaking project, the first time an international film production has been allowed into Vietnam to make a film about the Vietnamese-American War, the first time that a Vietnamese film has been shot on location following the path of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and the first to use actual military equipment from the Vietnamese-American war in the making of the film.

Overlaid with narration by Tran Van Thuy, a documentary filmmaker and former video correspondent for the North Vietnamese government, The Song of the Stork opens on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon. With this momentous event as its point of departure, the story shifts backward and forward in time throughout the lives of five young North Vietnamese men who became lifelong friends during their enlistment training at Xuan Mai.

These archetypal, yet true-to-life characters include May, the happy-go-lucky optimist who dreams of the good life with a fat wife and a passel of roly-poly children; Manh, the naïve but stoic underaged youth who perjured himself to enlist in the army; the poet Van, with his journal and his guitar, pining for his devoted wife and daughter back home in Hanoi; Lam, the cool and steely spy who is willing to cross that thin line between patriotism and passion; and Vinh, the war correspondent whose life so closely mirrors that of the storyteller himself.

The film is seamless in its revelation of past and present, with snippets of actual video footage juxtaposed with reenacted battle scenes, and dramatic fictional dialogue punctuated by softly forgiving conversations between once-sworn enemies, American veteran-turned-language-professor Wayne Karlin, and the narrator, war correspondent Tran Van Thuy.

From its reverse perspective, this compelling work casts strong illumination on the wages of war. "No one wins in war," says Tran Van Thuy. "We all lose something. Some lost their youth. Some lost their love. Some lost their lives. But all of us... lost a little bit of our souls."

Country - China
Director - Jiang Cheng
Producer - Zhu Yongde
Cast - Gu Jing Lin, Annie Wu, Cheng Qi, Zhzo Liang, Lu Sha
Running Time - 100 minutes

At once both beguiling and heart rending, Violin wastes not a moment in getting right to the plot of the story. Within the first two minutes of the film, a $500 violin falls off the back of a moving van and into the hands of an aimless and slow-witted newspaper vendor named Wu. As fate would have it, despite his sincere efforts to find its owner, no one comes to claim the instrument. All the while, the dulcet melody of violin music wafts overhead, produced at the hands of a comely teacher in the fine arts school on the third floor of a building overlooking his humble newsstand.

Seeing this as his calling to a higher purpose, Wu enrolls in the school with his mind set on learning to play the violin. Toward that end, he is willing to endure not only the heartlessly cruel taunts and ridicule of his six-year-old classmates, but also the relentless harping of his petulant neighbors, who demand that he cease and desist as he scrapes away, night after night, on the strings of his precious violin. Meanwhile, his comely violin teacher, Ng aspires to join a traveling symphony orchestra.

As their lives become more deeply entwined, Ng struggles with her quest for a more fulfilling livelihood, while Wu descends ever more profoundly into his obsession, until he finds himself facing an audience of mental patients who, oddly enough, give him his first standing ovation.

If ever a film offered a modern-day Chinese interpretation of "follow your bliss," Violin does.

25 Kids & One Dad
Director - Huang Hong
Producers - Ni Wei, Zou Ling
Cast- Huang Hong, Li Lin, Lei Kesheng, Siqin Gaowa, Yu Lan, Huang Zhaohan
Running Time - 90 minutes

There's bound to be big trouble in rural China when Zhao Guang, a former orphan turned wealthy chicken farmer, shoots his mouth off on public TV that he'd like to be a father to all orphans. Within a matter of days, a rag-tag band of ersatz orphans shows up at his engagement party looking for their new "dad." And within minutes, Liu Guiqing, his wife-to-be delivers the ultimatum, "It's me... or them." But old haunts die hard, and Zhao chooses the feckless rabble of 25 orphans, and all the haphazards that come with them, over the pleasures of wedded bliss.

Quicker than you can say, "Won't you be my daddy," Zhao finds himself, at once, father, mother, provider and teacher to a mischievous army of vagabonds who, from day one, terrorize not only his chickens, but the shrill Auntie Liu who lives next door as well.

But little by little, day by day, through thick and thin, he lovingly molds and mentors them into a true family of children for whom he will always be "Daddy." And... as if you haven't guessed already... he also gets the girl.

Country - Japan
Director - Naoki Nagao
Producer - Hiromichi Inoue
Cast - Miako Tadano, Keiko Matsuzaka, Etsushi Toyokawa
Running Time - 112 minutes

Subtlety and metaphor abound in this deliberately paced and pastoral film set in rural Japan. Sazanami, which means "ripples," like the ones created when a tossed pebble penetrates the glassy perfection of a body of still water, tells the story of Inako Natsui, a young (but not-so-young) woman, whose career as a water-quality control agent takes her into the less-than-reputable world of Tatsuo Tamamizu, small-time hooligan and owner of a failing hot-spring resort. It seems that his source of mineral water has dried up, and he is being forced to spring for the expense of tapping into an adjacent stream... or close his doors.

And although there is a palpable spark between them , Inako has complicated issues of her own. Let's begin with the matter of a bee (yes, a bee) flying into her ear as a child while visiting the hot-spring resort of Ryoukyo, which left her with a chronic hearing disorder... all this compounded by the fact that her father, a marine biologist, ran off to Brazil in search of rare fish to stock a local marine park in Japan, only to take up with another woman... and for 17 years, her mother has been pretending that her father is dead, but Inako finds out that her father has been alive and well in Brazil all these years, except that now... he's really dead. Phew! All that being said, this young woman still manages to go about her daily routine of micro-testing beakers full of water samples with nano-precision. And yet, there's still the matter of the seductively rakish hot-spring hooligan.

But in a tender moment between Inako and her family physician, she arrives at the essence of her disparity. Her doctor says, "After our conversation the other day, I wondered what exactly 'the truth' means. I have patients complaining about a buzzing in their ears, or a ringing noise. All kinds of examinations prove useless. Then the patients say, 'It's true. I hear the noise. I'm not telling you a lie.' Now we know how our genes are structured, but we cannot hear that simple ringing noise. If we could, then things would be so much easier for us and the patients. But we can never, ever hear it. We are so far removed. It feels so lonely, but perhaps that is what the truth is all about."

To which Inako replies, "How do you know it's true when you can't hear it?" How, indeed? By listening... to your heart.

Mr. Rookie
Country - Japan
Director - Satoshi Isaka
Producer - Kei Ijichi
Cast - Kasushige Nagashima, Mayu Tsuruta, Jun Kunimura, Mirai Yanamoto, Tamao Sato, Mitsuru Fukikoshi
Running Time - 118 minutes

The lightest fare of the seven, baseball meets big business in Mr. Rookie, a convoluted tale in which a Japanese salaryman makes it to the big leagues as a rookie pitcher for the Hanshin Tigers, yet manages to keep his identity a secret for a whole season behind a strikingly stylized tiger mask. A la Shakespeare's As You Like It, even his wife and son, as well as a whole office full of co-workers are fooled, while a nosy young newshound is hot on his trail. Only his collegiate arch-rival recognizes him, and that only by way of his wicked fastball.

Needless to say, the plot thickens... and thickens, until the bottom of the ninth on the night of the "big game," when all is revealed.

Not your typical film festival fare (assuming there is such a thing), Mr. Rookie feels more like a heartwarming, happily-ever-after family comedy, without the edgy candor of its other Asian counterparts. Nevertheless, this little film is worth watching, if for no other reason than a chance to see a slice of life in contemporary Japan.

Book of Rules
Country - United States
Director - Sung H. Kim
Producer - Sung H. Kim
Cast - Michael Cheng, Mark Marking, Anna Laveria May, Joyce Thi Brew, Poppy Nguyen, Denice Lee, Samuel Sheng
Running Time - 107 minutes

Take two parts Friends, mix with one part St. Elmo's Fire, season generously with soy sauce and a soupcon of street drugs, skim off the humor, and you've got Sunh Kim's Book of Rules. Not to be disparaging, but this attempt at dramatizing the travails of life in "urban" San Francisco is well-meaning, but unoriginal at best. The quirky, yet all-too-stereotypical cast of characters mirror our favorite sit-com/brat pack players just a little too closely to be ignored, while the 'epiphanies' and 'just desserts' are hopelessly predictable.

To its credit however, there's a good little piece of irony in the scene that reveals the story's connection to its title "Book of Rules." In a moment of truth between Juliana, the savvy but jaded drug dealer, and Bounce, our disillusioned trust-fund baby hellbent on substance-abusing himself into an early grave, he says, "I wish life was just simpler sometimes...I just wish there was, like, a book of rules that would tell us what's right... what's wrong." To which his languorous commodities supplier replies, "There are no rules. You make your own rules as you go along." A few short scenes later, she gets arrested for breaking the very rules she so smugly defies.

Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings, Book of Rules manages to pull off an impressively stylish and relevant production on an obviously limited budget; and factoring in the quotient that every generation and every ethnic demographic needs its "St. Elmo's Fire," then this one's certainly as good as any.

For venues, show times and further details on these and the dozens of other films featured in the Cinequest 2003 Film Festival, visit the Cinequest website.