Ethnic Fare

Foreign films survive Newport festival shake-up

In its latest incarnation, the Newport Beach Film Festival has dropped the word "International" from its name. The Asian Cinema Kaleidoscope and Festival del Cine—which were essentially minifestivals devoted to Asian and Latino films—are gone. Downtown Santa Ana's Teatro Fiesta, which hosted massive crowds for last year's foreign and ethnic fare, is no longer part of the New port festival circuit; this year, all festival films will be screened at either Edwards Island Cinema or the Orange County Museum of Art, both within the sprawling, decidedly non-ethnic Newport Center.

Despite the changes, the lineup of foreign and ethnic films remains strong. You just have to hunt them out.

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Sophisticated filmgoers might start with the seductive Seducing Maarya (Canada, 1998). Its subject—incest with more than one relative—may turn off some viewers, but director Hunt Hoe manages to incorporate intelligent dialogue with well-framed shots and excellent acting in this dramatic slice of Indian life in Montreal. Sexual diversity—even perversity—takes on new meaning, and family values are stretched to the breaking point in this film set in Montreal and the Ganges, India. Hoe will be present at the showing.

A transplanted Malaysian Chinese-turned-Canadian, Hoe now works for the National Film Board of Canada, where he is currently finishing Who's Albert?, a documentary on Asian stereotyping featuring Jackie Chan.

At lunch in Little Saigon's Asian Garden Mall recently, the lean, bespectacled filmmaker recalled that in the midst of filming, his fax machine went berserk. Turns out Nandana Sen, the dashing star in the title role, is the daughter of Cam bridge University professor Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. When the prize was announced, folks all over the world started faxing greetings to the actress.

The film also stars veteran Indian actor/film institute director Mohan Agashe as Sen's uncle and Montreal actor Cas Anvar as her returning brother. It raises disturbing if overdue questions about what constitutes "family" in a community purportedly bound by "traditional Asian values." At one point, Agashe teaches his son-in-law (Vijay Mehta)—who turns out to be more interested in his gay Cau casian buddy (Ryan Hollyman) than in his wife—how to "seduce Maarya." But the viewer is left wondering who really is seducing whom.

Intelligent dialogue is also the hallmark of Gavin Hood's A Reasonable Man (South Africa, 1999). Again, there's a clash between traditional and Western values, but this time, the setting is in a courtroom in a dramatization inspired by an actual case.

A boy animal herder (Loyiso Gxwala) is on trial for killing a child in what the prosecution calls a superstitious ritual. The herder's white barrister (played by Hood) constructs a brilliant defense, arguing that his client was trying to kill a tikoloshe (evil spirit).

Another film about South Africa, Frances Reid and Deborah Hoff mann's documentary Long Night's Journey into Day (USA/South Africa, 2000), was not available for preview, but it has the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documen tary at this year's Sundance Festival going for it. Which is nice. The film follows four cases brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, including the murder of Amy Biehl, the Fulbright Scholar from Newport Beach. Biehl's parents, who appear in the film, will be present at the screening.

With tensions mounting in the Taiwan Strait as the governing Kuo mintang (KMT, the Nationalist Party) in Taiwan collapses, Peng Xiolian's Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (China, 1999) is especially timely. A dramatization of the 1949 downfall of the corrupt KMT when it still ruled Shanghai, this feature—released for the 50th anniversary of China's Communist liberation—contains an inevitable love story between a returning Chinese-American freelance journalist (Johnny Wang Yanan) and his fiancée (Yuan Guan), who is covertly working for the Reds. KMT fat cats are portrayed as plotting their own gain while the city's financial market collapses. Watch this film to understand why the KMT lost the civil war in China and retreated to Formosa—and then wonder why, half a century later, China is seeking entry into the exclusive capitalist nations' club, the World Trade Organization.

Another item in the news—the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez—makes Joe Cardona and Mario De Varona's Water, Mud & Factories (USA, 1999) worth seeing, if only to convince yourself that the life of Elian will never be the same as that of an 11-year-old Cuban-American boy (Emi li ano Diez) who lives with his family in Hialeah, Florida. Depicting in exquisite detail life in an émigré community, this film just begs for a sequel starring another boy.

Among other ethnic-American fare is Allan Holzman's Old Man River, an impressive documentary depicting the quest of Cynthia Gates Fujikawa to understand her father, character actor Jerry Fujikawa. Blending fresh documentary filmmaking with archival photography and television, film and audio footage (including some priceless Jerry Lewis routines), Old Man River is an amazingly seamless and creative journey into the unraveling of a father's hidden life, one that took him from the Manzanar internment camp to the battlefields of Europe during World War II.

The festival's Asian Cinema Series includes three artsy, exquisite, ethnically tinged shorts. Elizabeth Sung's The Water Ghost (1999) is a lyrical fable starring Hiep Thi Le (Heaven and Earth) and Yi Ding (Joy Luck Club), with a cameo appearance by Tuan Tran (Bastards). Just as surrealistic is Kimi Takesue's Rosewater (1999), an exploration of quiet solitude amid noisy urban life. And Chi Chi Zhang's Sky Above, Heaven Below (1999) is a brilliant, colorful depiction of Chinese New Year.

For more information, visit the official Newport Beach Film Festival website.

 
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