There are a lot of solidly crafted films on the program of this year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival — movies that are well shot, directed and acted. But only a few really push past expectations visually, thematically, or emotionally.
One of those is Debbie Lum's engrossing documentary Seeking Asian Female, which follows the relationship between a 60-year-old white American man with a fetish for Asian women and the 30-year-old Chinese national woman he meets online, proposes to before meeting in person and brings to America for marriage. Neither speaks the other's language (computer software translated their emails), and the clashes of language, culture and expectations (he has not been fully honest about his living situation; she's a lot smarter than the country mouse she initially seems) creates squirm-inducing tension in this layered, real-life character study.
Sasha Friedlander's documentary Where Heaven Meets Hell captures the brutal working conditions of four men who labor in the sulfur mines of East Java, Indonesia. The work, for which the government pays them the equivalent of $8 a day, is back-breaking and hazardous; the noxious fumes from the mines are inhaled by the men, leading to all manner of deadly illnesses. But with no other real financial options, the crews trudge on, and Friedlander captures them in visuals that are often paradoxically beautiful. One segment in which European tourists visit the mines and blithely snap photos speaks volumes about first-world privilege and obliviousness, and is more powerful for Friedlander letting it unfold sans commentary.
The best of the narrative films screened was Young-mi Lee's Secrets, Objects, in which a copy machine and a digital camera share voice-over duties as they relate the May-December romance of their respective owners. Hey-jung Li (Seohee Jang), a 40-year-old sociology professor, owns the copy machine; her assistant, 21-year-old Usang Lee (Suk won Jeong), owns the camera. Unhappily married, with a raunchy online sex life, the professor falls hard for the handsome student, but when she discovers his secret life, she reveals herself to be surprisingly judgmental. Having the objects narrate the story could have been a tiresome gimmick, but they're sparingly used. Instead, the film zeroes in on the psychology behind the slow-building romantic and sexual tension between its main characters (scorching scenes are delegated to secondary characters in a subplot that serves as metaphor and cautionary tale for Hey-jung and Usang's relationship), and the result is surprisingly moving.
Also worth checking out is "Straightjacket Sexualities," a panel on the ways Asian male sexuality has been handled in film. —Ernest Hardy
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28TH LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL | May 10–20 | DGA Theater, CGV Cinemas, Art Theatre of Long Beach | asianfilmfestla.org/2012