Subjected to the joyless bloodletting of academic theorizing and the equally grim process of assembly-line debasement (see: American Idol), pop music often is crushed flat by the very folks who professionally make and talk about it, who generally seem to have little true respect for its complicated simplicity, its capacity for taking root in everyday people and transforming — sometimes saving — lives.
Two sweet but hugely potent films in this year's L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival remind us of pop's power. A subplot of Phil Cox's documentary The Bengali Detective, which recently played the Los Angeles Indian Film Festival, features less-than-graceful investigators taking time out from their grim profession to prep for a nationwide TV dance contest — a hobby that heals the soul.
Likewise, in New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi's Boy, set in 1984, the title character is obsessed with Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album is in the midst of its run as a global phenomenon. Poor and being raised by his elderly grandmother alongside his younger brother and a houseful of cousins, Boy retreats into a world of fantasy that spills over into his real life. It allows him to see his screw-up convict dad as a larger-than-life hero. The first act is filled with funny riffs on '80s pop culture, mercifully free of the cloying irony deployed by so many American films that draw from the same well. As the scales fall from Boy's eyes, the film glides into a register of heartbreak, powerfully underscoring the attraction of, and need for, escapist fare.
Those are just two of the highlights in a typically strong lineup for this festival, which leans heavily on crowd-pleasers for its programming. That's demonstrated in everything from all-star opening-night flick Fast Five (directed by Justin Lin) to the boilerplate drag-queen comedy Madame X, from Indonesia. (Though there are lots of notable LGBT titles this year, it'll be hard for any of them to be more queer than Fast Five, which stars Vin Diesel, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Paul Walker and the requisite female eye candy deployed to quell the homoerotic undercurrents that float the Fast & Furious franchise.)
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More experimental fare is found in the slightly overlong (even at 75 minutes) Living in Seduced Circumstances, in which an eight-months-pregnant woman kidnaps and tortures a man for unnamed crimes. With a bag of beautifully executed visual tricks, including animation and oversaturated color giving way to grainy black and white, director Ian Gamazon slowly reveals a horrifying backstory that is not at all what you'd expect.
Must-see documentaries include Iris K. Shim's The House of Suh, in which the brutal end to an immigrant family's assimilation dreams is teased out into a complex tale of in-house culture clashes, sibling jealousy and a family dynamic set to "mind fuck." The Lulu Sessions, co-directed by S. Casper Wong and Laura Minnear, has a lesbian love story at its center as it tracks a near-16-month battle with cancer being fought by a brilliant, profane, hard-drinking, chain-smoking woman who will absolutely charm you precisely because she's not trying to. And Finding Face, co-directed by Patti Duncan and Skye Fitzgerald, is a real-life horror story tracking the fallout of a powerful married Cambodian government official's obsession with and seduction of a 15-year-old girl, only to leave her horribly scarred for life when his furious family drenches her body in acid. An infuriating study in the ways that power greases the wheels of justice, Face is draining but riveting.
Also recommended: Retrospective: James Wong Howe: Master of Light; Among B-Boys; Where Are You Taking Me?; Late Autumn.
LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL | April 28-May 7 | CGV Cinemas, DGA Theater, Sunset 5 | asianfilmfestla.org