The more than a dozen Asian and Asian-American films featured at the fourth annual Newport Beach International Film Festival almost uniformly avoid obvious political subjects and instead focus on relationships and other "family" issues (or on martial arts--there's a whole program devoted to Bruce Lee fans, who can catch a digitally remastered version of Enter the Dragon and chat with representatives from martial-arts dojos). Even Indian director Santosh Sivan's supposedly political The Terrorist (not previewed) focuses more on the personal than the political.
But this is no Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore's former supreme leader) version of family values. These films are subversive in their own ways, challenging conventional wisdom about what constitutes friendship, family and personal worth--presented with warts and all, while raising questions about the inexorability of fate.
From India comes a fast-paced odyssey about three returning, Generation-X South Asians who become instant friends after fate puts them in the same airport taxi. Writer/director Kaizad Gustad, a 29-year-old enfant terrible of Indian cinema, already had his film Bombay Boys banned in his homeland (Indian censors reportedly found it "morally repugnant"). Gustad successfully captures the frenetic energy of a modernized urban metropolis that makes up today's Bombay. He zeroes in on the criminal-underground activities of mobster (and Bollywood filmmaker) Mastana (masterfully played by Naseeruddin Shah), who is as deft with knife throwing as he is with tyrannical outbursts--at one point, he even asks why he has to kill someone once a day.
The three expats tempt fate, eventually getting snared into roles as bandito actors in Mastana's spaghetti Western--a "bad" film the mobster wants to make as a tax write-off. In the meantime, one of them, Rahul Bose (Ricardo Fernandes), from Perth, screws the don's mistress Dolly (the indomitable and beautiful Tara Deshpande). Another, Xerxes Mistry (the handsome Alexander Gifford), a bad violinist who made the trip from London to India to find his (gay) identity, comes out, has sex and gets bashed. The third, Krishna Sahni (Naveen Andrews of English Patient and Buddha of Suburbia fame), after dreaming of stardom in Bollywood, is the first "recruited"--at knife point--into the mobster's film. A solid performance comes from Roshan Seth as Persi, a seductive old Farsi queen hoping to seduce a fellow Farsi, his new tenant Xerxes. When he fails, he downs a bottle of wine and heads for a gay hangout, where he picks up a male hustler.
The complications of a marriage and a friendship that turns intimate are incompletely explored in Hong Kong director Casey Chan's The Poet, a dramatization of the tortured life of a real poet who in 1988 left contemporary China for--inexplicably--Auckland, New Zealand, to live in a self-described Garden of Eden with his wife and a mistress. Hong Kong pop star/teen heartthrob Stephen Fung (who plays a male hustler in Beauty) initially excels as the diligent, prolific poet, but when he stops writing, he seems more like a petulant, self-indulgent child. Just 24, he never seems to age in the film, and he looks too young to be the poet Gu Cheng, a leading member of China's "Cloud/Mist Poets" from 1979 on. Japanese actress Ayako Morino is seductive and sexual as the poet's student Ching, who runs off with him but ultimately betrays him. Teresa Lee ably portrays the disdained wife, Reimi, who tries valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to escape her fate.
From Hanoi comes Fated Vocation, veteran director Nguyen Vu Chau's fine portrayal of an artistic tradition at risk of extinction in post-Doi Moi (Economic Reconstruction) Vietnam. At a Northern Vietnamese village where the Cheo opera tradition originated, economics dictates whether it will die or live. The movie tells two stories, one very personal: the sexual and other travails of members of a Cheo drama troupe itself, and the classical mythologies the group brings to life onstage. Tung Thuy shines as the lead Cheo actress, Lanh, whose fated life--thwarted love and false accusations--mirrors the roles she plays. Like other films from the same studio, women like Lanh are portrayed in strong, leading roles, even if fated to take a certain path or profession (hence the title). Party bureaucrats at one point threaten the Cheo tradition's continuation, but in the end, the troupe manages to eke out a tenuous existence.
Last summer, perhaps seeking to guarantee the film's own fate and somehow anticipating recent events, the movie's North American distributors snipped out a fleeting image of Vietnam's national flag from the film just before it premiered at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival, months before a Little Saigon video merchant made the flag a First Amendment issue. (In the interests of full disclosure, I helped--pro bono--subtitle this film, as the film credits indicate.)
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Perennial festival favorite Carlos Siguion-Reyna (They Call Me Joy, The Man in Her Life, Elena's Redemption) returns with another Filipino drama, Three, that again challenges conventional family arrangements. Elsie's (Ara Mina) love for Alice (Rita Avila) leaves husband Tito (Tonton Gutierrez) out in the cold. Tito shacks up with mistress Susan (Sharmaine Suarez). The hot lesbian sex scenes between Elsie and Alice even turned me (a certified fag) on.
Other films also explore taboo sex and love. Fellow Filipino director Marilou Diaz-Abaya focuses on extramarital relationships, destiny, and the sexual awakening of an adolescent Pepito (well-played by hunky Jomari Yllana) in the lyrical depiction of a remote fishing village in the film In the Navel of the Sea. From South Korea, director J-Yong E's The Affair looks at forbidden love in a languorously photographed feature. This is E's first feature; his 1991 short Homo Videocus won a best film award at the San Francisco Film Festival. Chinese director Lu Yue's Mr. Zhao focuses on yet another adulterous affair, while South Korean director Kim Ki Dyk's Birdcage Inn looks at the friendship between a prostitute and her college-student friend. Thai director Somching Srisupap's Fear/Faith/Revenge explores the limits of friendship among a group of cute boys in a prep school as they investigate (with a Ouija board) another student's death. Taiwan director Arthur Chyu's Falling up, Walking Down takes a satirical look the love lives of a group of apartment dwellers.
Several shorts showcase emerging talent from and beyond Little Saigon. Minh Nguyen-Vo, of San Pedro, directs Crimson Wings, a tight and surprisingly uplifting (given its subject) film of a Caucasian lover's remembrances of his Vietnamese-American girlfriend after she is killed in a car accident. Noted actress Hiep Thi Le (Heaven and Earth and Bugis Street) enchants with her all-too-brief depiction of the girlfriend as a "butterfly." Is she just a ghost? Or are these flashbacks? And does it matter? Huntington Beach director Stephane Gauger, who was born in Vietnam of biracial parents, presents Seabirds, featuring the dashing Tony Nguyen as Hai Nguyen, an Amerasian seeking to locate his white American father against scenes of Orange County Tet celebrations, hip-hopping LA blacks, and re-enactments of bureaucratic maze in Ho Chi Minh City. Gauger's depiction of an Amerasian living among black street youths deserves more extended film treatment. And Van Phan's Wild Card is a 3-minute computerized animation of unattainable love.
For information on where and when to catch the films listed above, call the Newport Beach International Film Festival hot line at (949) 651-8555 or visit the Web site at www.nbiff.org.