Outer Limits: Chris Chan Lee's Undoing and So Yong Kim's In Between Days
Two of the Asian American selections at this year's Los Angeles International Film Festival -- one a festival darling, the other a festival-darling-to-be -- offer new and exciting ways to look at the Asian American indie. The question is, will anyone actually notice?
Published: Thursday, July 13, 2006
Little ink has been spilled on the liminal spaces of Asian American filmmaking, and for good reason; despite the best efforts of Justin Lin and company, defining the epicenter, the pulse, the crème de resistance is already an unenviable task. Consequently, filling out the margins becomes mere guesswork: we don’t know what film noir has anything to do with the Asian American film canon, except that it does, and it has. Likewise with stories of the diasporic community --somewhere in America, someone else with aspirations to be the next Jia Zhang-ke is crafting his or her latest opus, but it’s up to us to decipher whether Asian American cinema has a place for it.
Two recent films screened at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival -- Chris Chan Lee’s noir-of-sorts Undoing and So Yong Kim’s Jia Zhang-ke knockoff-of-sorts In Between Days -- attempt to fill this void, with varying degrees of success. Of course, aesthetically, thematically, and ideologically, they're worlds apart. And yet, both are invariably products of the kind of film circuit naivete brought on by clueless distributors whose idea of hardball marketing is retorting, "But is it Better Luck Tomorrow?"
Of the two, Undoing is the more likely to catch on, if only because scenesters love beautiful people doing dark, dirty things. A cast highlighted by NBT (Next Big Thing) Sung Kang, Kelly Hu, and Russell Wong certainly fits the bill, though Undoing is far from one of those actorly showcases that the IFC channel plays with such frequency. Sparsely plotted, dimly lit, and glumly acted (with the notable exception of Russell Wong, who dons the best Christopher Walken impersonation since, well, Christopher Walken), Undoing is the sort of independent feature that earns pensive nods and existential gestures, with virtually nothing in between. That inconspicuousness is one of the film's strengths doesn't help its commercial outlook. Neither does the wide array of jump cuts, which are disorienting without being compellingly so. Still, it's an admirable effort, beginning with the audacious move to relegate Asian America to a backdrop, not a social conscience. You can argue that Koreatown in Los Angeles is an ideal setting for a film noir (and you'd probably be right), but for Lee, it's simply a locale, not the locus of lost souls, the criminal underbelly, or whatever else it is these days that (white) film noir propagates.
Perhaps Undoing is too preoccupied with not doing too much -- there's a certain world-weariness cast over the film and its band of underachievers, and without the usual narrative fussiness of the film noir to keep things brisk, we're often left with vacuity instead of emotional veracity. After a while, the liminal spaces occupied by the characters within the film begin to resemble its commercial prospects, which, for a film that makes little ado about nothing, but is actually quite extraordinary at it, seems too harsh a fate.
Though greeted by a chorus of hosannahs and endless Jia Zhang-ke comparisons in the vacuum that is film circuitry, So Yong Kim's In Between Days is even more unassuming and painstaking-for-the-sake-of-being-painstaking. It's readily apparent that Kim has studied up on her long-take-auteurs and champions of cinema verite -- each frame is formally rigorous, each visual metaphor labored over and lingered upon. The narrative is barebones immigrant-rite-of-passage plopped onto barren landscapes and affectless dialogue, though Kim is decidedly more at ease in the scenes where she observes her characters' tumult quietly. As for the Jia Zhang-ke parallels, they're only partially accurate; Kim has a great deal of the Chinese master's formal chops, but little of his subtlety, or even warmth -- In Between Days, like its setting, often feels glacial, especially when Kim decides to project ideas of alienation through listless voiceovers and stolidly earnest gestures and expressions. She fares better, however, with assimilation, experimenting with a multitude of shots, varying in angles, distances, and tone that perfectly capture both the confusion and the desire to impress.
The difficulty that arises, then, is one not only of identity, but instinct. It's instinctive for a Korean Canadian filmmaker such as So Yong Kim to make a film about the plight of the Korean Canadian immigrant. It also makes sense that Chris Chan Lee, a native Los Angelian, would attempt to capture the sprawled-out, scattered identity of the Asian American in Los Angeles, even if he does so only peripherally. What's less clear is whether we, the casual moviegoer, understand our own instincts well enough to decide whether films that don't hoist the Asian American banner loudly and proudly should be understood as such. All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I hope that they do. Because they are. Asian American, that is. And don't let any greasy studio exec tell you otherwise.