At this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (a.k.a. VC Filmfest) — another typically strong program from the 24-year-old event — the documentaries shine brightest. What makes the nonfiction lineup so powerful isn’t just the timeliness of the issues addressed but the ways in which the films seem to speak to one another. Ann Kaneko’s fast-moving, riveting Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide looks at two decades of political upheaval (civil wars, dictators) and economic hardship in Peru, and the art and artists that have emerged from that climate. The film’s melding of several primary concerns (class warfare that ravages the country; identity issues facing the Japanese-Peruvian community; questions about the role of art in political discourse) never becomes unwieldy, and Grain maintains its sense of urgency from start to finish. The biting dismissal by one of Kaneko’s subjects of the idealistic notion that hard work assures success (and access) for all who apply themselves ricochets throughout another documentary, Up the Yangtze, which examines the devastating effects on China’s working and peasant classes of the massive Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project. (The film is a solid companion piece to 2002’s Drowned Out, which documented similar class battles around water dam–building issues in India.) Cutting between wealthy Western tourists who blithely cruise down the river on holiday and a peasant girl who works on a cruise ship to support her family, as well as to save money for school, Up the Yangtze isn’t quite as seamless a work as Grain is, but it is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the dark, often devastating flipside of China’s rise to economic power. On a much lighter, over-the-top note, Japanese director Noboru Iguchi’s fiction feature The Machine Girl offers a tongue-in-cheek reclamation of frequently exported cultural influences (take that, Mr. Tarantino), with its blood and gore gross-out tale of a schoolgirl who turns assassin to avenge her brother’s death. The film runs out of creative steam before it actually ends but is filled with lowbrow brilliance. (Directors Guild of America and Laemmle Sunset 5; through Thurs., May 8. www.vconline.org)
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