AAIFF 2008: From Princess to Ping Pong
Writer Anne Lee reports on this year's Asian American International Film Festival in New York, covering Wayne Wang's Princess of Nebraska, Jessica Yu's Ping Pong Playa and more.
Published: Friday, July 25, 2008
The Asian American International Film Festival in New York City may be only 10 days, but the schedule was jam-packed: a slew of films varied in format, subject and tone, complete with parties and special programs sure to satiate any appetite. It opened July 10 with the East Coast premiere of Wayne Wang's The Princess of Nebraska. Was the opening night party hoppin'? I can't tell you because I didn't go, but I sure was tempted with those shiny new Toyota Matrixes (or as a certain festival organizer said, "matrices") sitting outside, waiting to shuttle festival-goers to the venue.
Of course, the same Toyotas were on hand at closing night on July 19, at the New York premiere of Jessica Yu's Ping Pong Playa. Needless to say, Toyota was a big sponsor. Maybe if I had stuck around and sat in a plush, new Matrix seat, I would have forgiven the promises of food after the opening screening (Since when did wine count as food?) and the many late starts (Can we not perpetuate the Asian time stereotype? We're talking anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes here). But minor messiness, disorganization, and one too many volunteers aside, I could feel the warmth and passion that can only be the result of some Asian and Asian American film festival lovin'.
First up: The Princess of Nebraska, directed by Wayne Wang. Actress Ling Li shines in her debut as the pregnant, emo youngster from China in Princess of Nebraska, Wayne Wang's sister film to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The plot is at times vague and the 77-minute film feels long, trying to achieve too much in too little space, but Li's performance as the self-absorbed and headstrong Sasha, with her doe-eyed stares and glares, gives the movie a necessary kick. The character represents the new generation of youth growing up in China, with few qualms and little direction. A Chinese transplant from Omaha, she's undoubtedly a princess in her answer-to-no-one ways. Brian Danforth plays the borderline creepy but kind Goshen who takes in Li when she travels to San Francisco to abort her baby. (The father of her unborn child, who is also Goshen's former lover, is still in China.) Goshen tries to convince her to keep it so they can be a family with their mutual lover, but their dialogue is often awkward: why does Goshen refer to him as "Yang," a western construction, when he is clearly fluent in Chinese and spent time in China? This is hardly the only instance where the mix of Chinese and English feels odd and unnatural.
Strung together with beautiful artistic images, interspersed with "cell phone camera" shots of Sasha recording herself and her raised belly (actually shot with a smaller camera), the film has a grittiness and an extra layer of visual texture that works for the thumbnail sketch of this new-generation Chinese girl who doesn't understand her native country's past. While the film's open-ended conclusion leaves us wondering whether or not Sasha keeps the baby, we're left with a haunting last image to ponder: a shot of Sasha's profile. She's lip-syncing to a song, and the camera pulling out into a picture you might expect to see on display at a contemporary museum.
On a muggy New York Sunday afternoon, I went to check out Asian American Film Lab's Fifth Annual 72-Hour Film Shootout, a program where filmmaker teams are given a theme and given only three days to shoot a film to enter into competition. AAIFF screened the top 10 films and presented awards for the top three films and the winners of individual categories such as Best Actor and Best Actress. Film quality ran the gamut, with some films of professional caliber (hello Drain) and others looking like I could have shot them with my $200 Mini-DV -- further showing that in this day and age, anyone can make a movie, even with your camera phone, if you please. (Though, none of the top 10 were shot with a camera phone.) But in terms of plot and execution, each film -- with the designated theme of "A First Goodbye" -- had its unique qualities, and of course, were impressive when considering they were all written, shot and edited in 72 hours.
A few favorites:
CinemAsia's simple but beautifully shot "Say Goodbye," -- which incidentally won "Best Story" -- created a lasting impression with its leads falling for each other, despite a language barrier. The short took place in a dry cleaners and showed that five minutes is all you need to paint a love story.
White Rabbit's "Miles Apart" rightfully won "Best Cinematography" with its rich, professional quality shots, but it went beyond its visuals, adding a compelling (though not fully hashed out) father-son relationship, showcasing a convincing portrayal of a young kid's frustration with his single-parent father.
The non-traditional "Drain" by Fish Grenade (pictured above), which won "Best Editing" and "Best Direction" -- Director Derek Shimoda's Killing of a Chinese Cookie was also screened at the festival -- delivered an interesting and textured story of a doll being repaired before it's flushed down the toilet.
Team Big Egg's "No Holding Back" was well done, with well-planned shots that flowed seamlessly and initiated quite a bit of laughter from the audience, but it's never completely clear why a man is on the back of another man all day long, from sleeping to eating to using the bathroom. The short ended up winning the Grand Prize, which was a bit baffling to me.
During the next weekend, I caught Kenneth Bi's The Drummer. Bi first got the idea for the film after being moved by a performance by real-life Taiwan-based drumming troupe U Theatre. Once you get past the in-your-face Buddha reference (Jaycee Chan's character's name is Sid -- as in Siddhartha Gautama -- and he later appears in the film with a shaved head and monk-like visage), you'll be impressed with a film that successfully weaves documentary-style footage of drummers with a story about a reformed Hong Kong gangster youth. Chan's rebellious Sid knowingly sleeps with a triad boss' girlfriend (Yumiko Cheng) and hides out in Taiwan when the mob boss demands his hands.
Chan gives a telling performance as the reformed bad boy, and Bi portrays the drummers as the ones responsible for Sid's transformation. It helps that Chan, who is musically talented, actually does play the drums. His initial rival and later love interest Hong Dou (played by Angelica Lee) is frankly a weak drummer, but that is a minor detail because she's supposed to be the least experienced anyway. As long as Lee brings her sharp, piercing gaze -- lest we forget those eyes have won her numerous best actress awards in the past -- that is all that matters. It helps that the leader of the drumming group, Lan Jie, is played by a former actress, Liu Ruo-Yu, real-life leader and founder of U Theatre.
There is a strong supporting cast: Sid's enemy and triad boss Stephen Chou, played by veteran actor Kenneth Tsang; Sid's sister (Josie Hou); lover (Yumiko Cheng); family friend (Roy Cheung); and most importantly, Tony Leung Ka Fai, who skillfully depicts the traditional Chinese father who loves his children in his own, sometimes nonsensical way. Despite only one actual scene with Sid, the father-son relationship is carried throughout the entire film and serves as a solid backbone that fleshes out Sid's character and acts the perfect tool to complete his ascent to "enlightenment."
Last but not least was closing night's Ping Pong Playa.
Director Jessica Yu said Ping Pong Playa was created to fill a void in Asian American films -- superficial comedy -- and that's exactly what it did. So what if it's formulaic and not particularly deep? The theater was filled with nonstop laughter, and isn't that what entertainment is about?
The characters are hilarious, the acting is spot-on, and even the Chinglish is natural and realistic -- precisely the things you (or your friends) probably said (and still say) to your parents.
From Jimmy Tsai's wannabe thug, Christopher "C-Dub" Wang -- who other community Chinese moms refer to as the son who "talks like he's black" (though the English subtitles didn't quite translate it so literally) -- to the perfect balance struck while taking on stereotypes without perpetuating them, Pong Pong Playa is a well-written, well-shot and well-packaged comedy. It's funny at the right moments, serious without being heavy, and racial without being utterly racist, including many cleverly constructed lines.
Tsai is perfect in his obnoxious but loveable C-Dub, who half bullies and half mentors his students as he subs his mom's ping pong class. The supporting cast is solid, with a scene-stealer in the traditional but loving Mr. Wang, C-Dub's father, played by Jim Lau. C-Dub also has a great sidekick in Khary Payton's JP Money, someone who doesn't forget to have a few laughs at his friend's expense. The love interest subplot adds humor but is appreciatively, and appropriately, kept to a minimum. The kids contribute a lot of soul to the film, whether it's the kid who can't stop stuffing his face even while "playing" ping pong or the one who worships C-Dub to the point of giving him all his allowance money.
C-Dub's smack-talking character matures slightly throughout the film -- it's not completely without depth! --but it's a classic C-Dub moment when he finds out that he isn't actually required to wear "Daisy Dukes" to compete in the ping pong tournament. Instead, he changes into his signature head-to-toe basketball gear for the final rounds.
And it all ends with a big ping pong showdown. Predictable? Perhaps. But it'll definitely satisfy those who just want a good laugh.
AAIFF 2008 films previously covered by APA:
Against the Grain, Killing of the Chinese Cookie, Long Story Short, Wings of Defeat
Always be Boyz, Kissing Cousins, Pretty to Think So, Santa Mesa
Flower in the Pocket, Slingshot, Half-Life, Option 3