The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival rounded out its selections after a brief but appreciated break in the programming. That is one of my favorite aspects of this festival, broken into two easily digestible spreads. The other plus of the fest has been the diversity of its selections and events. It truly expresses the complexity of what “Asian American” implies as a term. From Chinese, Indian, and Japanese, to Vietnamese and Filipino, PAAFF covers a broad swath of the Asian American community. The films themselves create a rounded sense of drama, comedy, reality, and fiction.
PEARLS OF THE FAR EAST is Cuong Ngo’s feature directorial debut. Shot entirely on location in Vietnam, and featuring cast and crew from Vietnam, Canada, and the States, POTFE has just as much a sense of diversity within its frames. Ngo tells his story in seven chapters that connect thematically rather than literally. Each independent entry, focused on perspectives of different women, is another variation on unattainable happiness, and the elusiveness of actualizing one self. These chapters deal with shades of happiness balanced, if not eclipsed, by shades of loss and emotional fragmentation, and across all of them is a portrait of aging womanhood (from childhood to old age). Though the film prevails of sentimentality in its tones – due mostly to the constant intervention of emotionally manipulative music, which this reviewer found repellant – the miseries suffered by these individuals was a welcome counter. Ngo, in attendance, explained that in a film of few words, music was used as the “voices of his characters,” however the sounds of the many beautiful environs could have served as their own music, and given the human drama its own chance to resonate as a voice unto itself. Ngo implements many tropes cinematography, staging, and casting that create very deliberate, if not transparent responses from the audience. They sometimes read as replications of well studied classic Hollywood. While these are frustrating to watch at times – especially when they casually disregard logic in the pursuit of overwrought emotion – Ngo almost always uses these tropes as a set-up for some emotional sting or element of ambiguity that makes one question any judgements they’ve made. Ngo has a clear cinematic sensibility, and is aware of what he is doing on a number of levels. He demonstrates the ability to be overt as well as subtle, direct as well as abstract. As a first film after receiving his masters in film, this is a commendable work even if it didn’t absorb me. His next feature will be a more commercial action adventure, which I think he will be well suited for.
TALK STORY brought PAAFF back to the Asian Arts Initiative as a bookend to the fest. It was a talk/Q&A/performance featuring Ukulele virtuoso Daniel Ho and Alan Okami who is part of the now world famous KoAloha Ukulele company conceived and run by his father. The event was lighthearted, open, and free to the public. Talk Story was formless and alternated between anecdotes, history and music theory, banter between the hosts, songs, and even an impromptu Hula involving the audience. The atmosphere generated a clean and positive energy from a varied crowd. It is always a treat to watch somebody do what they do best, and Daniel Ho speaks his first language when he plucks his Ukulele, and it helped form a context around the film which it preceded.
MY KoALOHA STORY was described as a love letter to the Okami family’s labor of love, manufacturing the best and the most honest Ukulele. A love letter is exactly what director Gary San Angel managed to create with his documentary. MKS doesn’t break ground as a film, but it is about people who did – and do – break ground with their creative and passionate endeavors as craftsman and community activists. In a sense, the film’s modesty is its strength, which allows the Okami’s to shine on the basis of their own story and the stakes that their now successful company was built on. San Angel collects conversations with players of the KoAloha Ukulele who express the impact the instruments have had in their lives, which lends a kind of third-party viability to the film’s congratulatory tone. By the end, I was pretty much sold and convinced that I wanted to – and could easily – play the Ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-lele).
And thus concludes PAAFF’s fifth annual fest, something I wish I had known about years ago so that I might have seen it grow and truly appreciate the state of it today. Looking forward to next year already!
Cinedelphia sends out a well-deserved “congratulations” to Joe Kim and the PAAFF team for another stellar year of programming.