Sunday, December 11, 2011

Boston Asian-American Film Festival: Almost Perfect and One Big Hapa Family

Hopefully the other programs at the Boston Asian-American Film Festival were good; I couldn't commit to the whole festival, but it seems to be run by good people who were able to get filmmakers present for every screening. The films I saw were solid enough, although I don't know if I'd necessarily see either of them without this sort of push.

It's kind of a shame, though, that it's sometimes hard to see these movies outside of this festival setting. Almost Perfect, for instance, is a fairly typical indie drama, with the fact that this family is Chinese/hapa not trivial, but certainly not the driving force behind the characters' actions. It seems that, even on television, there are fewer shows with "visible minority" leads and supporting casts (is it really just Fox's The Cleveland Show, whose title character is voiced by a white guy?). It shouldn't be like this; there should be something like The Cosby Show with an Asian-American family and, really, there should be at least one Asian-American movie star in Hollywood. Just one.

Heck, a few years ago, there was hope that Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle would be a sort of breakthrough, but the main result seems to be a career boost for the white co-star, and the leads getting to be cool in supporting roles in Star Trek and House. I've got no desire for progress to put things like the BAAFF out of business (things like One Big Hapa Family will always need events dedicated to their niche), but even as white as I am... I doesn't have to be all about me, Hollywood.

Almost Perfect

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 November 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Asian-American Film Festival)

It's not an insult to say that Almost Perfect is a decent movie that would probably make a pretty good TV series. It's more a case that Bertha Bay-sa Pan's film feels less like a crisis point than a somewhat larger example of the issues its characters deal with on a regular basis; it could be extended without much trouble. It's not a bad family drama, just not a big one.

The "almost perfect" daughter of the title is Vanessa Lee (Kelly Hu); an attractive single New Yorker in her mid-thirties, she runs the family business's philanthropic foundation, and is the one that the rest of the family leans on. That family includes recently-retired father Kai (Roger Rees); mother Sandra (Tina Chen), a much-respected professor of architecture; fashion-designer sister Charlene (Christina Chang); and younger brother Andy (Edison Chen), who is hiding out on Vanessa's couch to avoid the troubles in his marriage. An old college friend of Andy's, Dwayne Sung (Ivan Shaw), shows up at one of Vanessa's charitable events, and quite enjoy reconnecting, even if Vanessa's needy and difficult family keeps getting in the way.

Movies like this, about the drama and comedy of family life, demand a well-rounded cast, and this one is pretty good. It's a group whose members are each a little familiar from previous parts in various ensembles, and that experience works to the movie's advantage: We get what's going on with each character quickly, without a lot of exposition, and they can move in and out of the background without seeming to be trying to claim screen time or going the other way and just feeling like place-holder characters. Tina Chen is especially good; while all of Vanessa's family members are designed to be somewhat unreasonable and demanding, Chen is the one that takes the best advantage of the room they're given to make them somewhat sympathetic individuals as well.

Full review at EFC.

One Big Hapa Family

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Family Screening Room (Boston Asian-American Film Festival)

There's an interesting idea at the center of One Big Hapa Family - investigating the astonishingly high rate of "mixed marriages" among ethnically Japanese Canadians - and director Jeff Chiba Stearns is enthusiastic about pursuing it and occasionally ingenious in presenting it to the audience. I'm not sure that there's a feature-length movie to it, though, even if his using his own family as a sort of lens isn't as limiting as one might think.

The idea for the movie came from the 2006 Koga family reunion he attended in Kelowna, British Columbia. Amid all the seeing near and distant relatives, playing silly games, and the like, he notices that every married couple there younger than his grandparents is mixed, leading to a couple generation's worth of "hapa" kids running around. This isn't the case with other visible minorities - though such marriages are the majority among Japanese-Canadians, they are relatively rare among those of South Asian descent, for instance - and he set out to find out why this was.

The short answer, it turns out, is that it goes back to World War II; not only were many Canadians of Japanese descent placed in internment camps, but laws were passed preventing them from living near the western coast. Spread thin and disparaged, intermarriage was inevitable. The section of the movie devoted to this information is intriguing, especially when Stearns visits the New Denver Camp on Vancouver Island and speaks to caretaker Sakaye Hashimoto, a man interned there as a child. The potential is there for a movie or two on this subject alone.

Full review at EFC.

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