Subverting Convention

Two festival entries challenge Asian stereotypes

Hunt Hoe doesn't watch martial-arts films and doesn't actually like them. He thinks Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its ilk reinforce stereotypes of Asians as kung-fu experts. While promoting his provocative 2000 film Seducing Maarya (for which he won the Best Director award at last year's Newport Beach Film Festival) in Bermuda, the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker was called "Jackie" by a total stranger.

So it's strange that for his Who Is Albert Woo?—the almost-hourlong documentary he submitted for this year's Newport Beach Film Festival—the Montreal-based filmmaker went all the way to Hong Kong with a Canadian film crew to interview, hang out with and follow Jackie Chan for several days. Chan thought Hunt was a fan, but the filmmaker had never admired the action star. Hunt was on a far different mission: to understand himself.

He didn't initially plan to include himself in the documentary on Asian male identity he made for his employer, the National Film Board of Canada, but questions nagged him. Who is the Asian male today in this globalized, media-saturated economy? Is it Bruce Lee? Jackie Chan? Do these film icons truly represent Asians?

The Malaysian-born director aptly gets past Chan's screen image and gets the international superstar to open up, talk about his family and painfully recall how he hated his father for leaving him behind in Hong Kong to seek a future in Australia (the two later reconciled). In one of the film's most touching scenes, Chan relates how his father insisted he should learn something useful, asking him if he was still going to "fight" when he turned 60. Chan is at once funny, revealing and—one suspects—real in the scenes Hoe deftly intersperses throughout the film.

Yet if Chan stands out, others—non-celebrities for the most part—help Hoe figure out "Albert" (the name taken from a stereotypical, camera-toting character he played in his earlier film, Foreign Ghosts). They are just the folks next door, like Salman Hussein, who calls himself a Moslem fag, and Ming Lee, a Chinese-Canadian who is acting in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon. There's Hunt's onetime girlfriend Cecelia Cristobal, who ends up marrying a white guy, and Herb Lim, a historian who documents the 150 Chinese-Canadians who fought for the Allies in World War II.

And then there's Dr. Mohan Agashe, the father in Seducing Maarya—in real life, a shrink-turned-actor and film-institute director—who offers enigmatic commentary on Hunt's quest for truth. By the film's conclusion, Hoe finds his answer: Albert (and Hoe himself) is really all of the above—a Renaissance man of sorts for the millennium.

Also playing in this year's festival, Azucena(Dog Food), challenges Asian stereotypes, too. Carlos Siguion-Reyna's film, set in the Philippines, concerns Azucena, a white lily and also the name of a tasty Filipino dish incorporating dog meat.

Like all of Siguion-Reyna's colorful melodramas (a couple of which won awards at past Newport festivals), this film is pregnant with social-justice issues, depicting how ordinary folks deal with everyday dramas. Avoiding the soap-opera quality of some of his past films, Azucenais a touching story of intergenerational love amid a turbulent setting of spousal abuse, incest and police corruption.

Here in the West, we anthropomorphize our pets. Yet in many other cultures, dog meat is an exotic delicacy with purported curative powers. I recall how as a teenager riding a bus, I eluded colonial police in Hong Kong while carrying a plastic bag full of chopped dog meat from my uncle's farm to another uncle's house in that metropolis. The poor dog had died of old age and was destined for the dinner table.

In this film, Bagwis, an aging dog, has been sold to the dog butcher, Mr. Teban (Dante Rivero), who plans to chop Old Yeller up for a birthday meal for suspended cop Tomas (Ricky Davao). When Tomas' 12-year-old daughter, appropriately named Lily (Alessandra de Rossi), discovers the planned source of the dinner, she confronts Teban, throwing a stone at his head and smashing his harmonica in frustration. Teban spares the dog, and when Lily returns to thank him, she serenades him on her guitar. They become buddies.

When Tomas discovers the platonic relationship, he tells cop friends to arrest Teban for selling dog meat on a newly enforced animal-welfare ordinance. He and his pals beat up Teban, Rampart-style. Turns out Tomas is just covering up for his own indiscretions: he has been entering Lily's bedroom and molesting her. Lily publicly accuses her dad of the abuse. Nothing happens to Tomas, who was also abusing his second wife, Sonia (Glydel Mercado), while Teban disappears. Years later, Lily runs into Teban, and what ensues should warm the hearts of all victims-rights groups.

Like all Siguion-Reyna films, strong female characters predominate, challenging Western notions of Asian women as weak and submissive. In her first major dramatic role, de Rossi stands out as an assertive, determined girl on the verge of womanhood. Mercado is also impressive as the wife who finds the guts to finally deal with years of abuse. Among the men, Rivero gives a sterling performance as a bad guy (whom even the dogs hate, Lily tells him) turned good. It's a film with conventional wisdom overturned. There are no social workers intervening here: the state is irredeemably corrupt. Instead, the oppressed take the future into their own hands.

Acuzena and Who Is Albert Woo? screen at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.tickets.com or www.newportbeachfilm fest.com.Acuzena: Sun., 9 p.m.; Who Is Albert Woo?: Tues., 2 p.m. Call For Ticket Prices.

 
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