The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the largest such event in Southern California, is now in its 29th year, and its lineup of films from more than 20 countries is, as always, a mixed bag of talent, intentions and indie spunk. Of the films screened for review, four stand out for their creativity and ambition.
The first fiction feature for which North Korean producers collaborated with Western ones (from Belgium and the United Kingdom), Comrade Kim Goes Flying almost defies description. On the surface, it's a quirky and enjoyable social-realist fantasy, filmed in North Korea, about an adult coal miner whose lifelong dream to be an acrobat comes true when she's discovered by the national trapeze team. Although it obviously panders to North Korean censors, its storybook narrative, bubbly dialogue and sitcom melodrama can't help but register as satire. Filmed with the flair and exuberance of a Technicolor musical without the music, the film abounds in sweet, exaggerated whimsy. Constantly asserting the happiness of the proletariat and taking full advantage of Pyongyang's natural amusement-park aesthetic — with its grandiose architecture, manicured streets and more public transportation than automobiles (Jacques Tati's metropolitan set in Playtime pales in comparison) — its artificiality feels subversive.
About as far geographically and tonally from Comrade Kim as a Korean film can be, Jiseul, by writer-director O Muel, highlights a major 1948 atrocity on South Korea's paradisiacal Jeju island that only recently began to receive widespread attention. Shortly before the Korean War, the army and police of South Korea — which was at that point occupied by the United States — instigated a reign of terror, ostensibly against leftist rebels, which resulted in the destruction of entire villages and thousands of deaths. The film centers on a group of fugitive villagers who hole up in a forest cave during wintertime. As the latest black-and-white dramatization of crimes against humanity, it's far more subtle than Schindler's List or City of Life and Death, but it's also less informative, opting instead for haunting imagery that resonates with existential force. Long takes gaze upon apocalyptic clouds and bony trees swaying over shivering bodies in the firelight; gaunt soldiers (running the gamut from sadomasochistic to humanistic, to the film's credit) saunter within the ruins of their decimated victims.
Lee Isaac Chung, whose superb Kenyan drama Munyurangabo (2007) established him as a filmmaker to watch, offers the soulful fable Abigail Harm. Set in contemporary New York City, it boasts a knockout performance by Amanda Plummer as the titular character, a reclusive woman who gets paid to read books aloud to people. Gliding between her fictional and real worlds, Abigail meets a mysterious, bohemian stranger (Will Patton), who suggests an unusual method of finding a lover. With a free-flowing, impressionistic narrative style at times reminiscent of Terrence Malick, the film is an extended character study that presents Abigail's life in solitude, as she occasionally reads but often wanders anonymously through bustling streets in a private reverie of interpersonal connection. Movies love to play with the line between fantasy and reality, but Chung blurs the line to a point where it almost doesn't matter; the film takes its time to listen to its protagonist and project her emotional world. It engrosses and fascinates long after it's over, pivoting on Plummer's hesitant vulnerability and wealth of subdued expression.
A River Changes Course is the first documentary feature from Kalyanee Mam (producer-cinematographer for Inside Job), and it's a beautifully lensed and compelling portrait of an endangered way of life in her family's native Cambodia. Over the course of several years, she visits three regions (a mountain village, a floating river town and the capital, Phnom Penh) to document families struggling with global capitalism. Mam's eye for composition is extraordinary, contrasting the serenity of Cambodia's lush landscapes with its inhabitants' hardscrabble life as children help their parents chop sugarcane, work the rice fields, scavenge fish or weave baskets. Mam is equally adept at portraiture, capturing the earthy personalities of her subjects and emphasizing their difficult choices between education and livelihood, or family cohesion and employment. Never alarmist or sensational, the film grips with quiet sincerity.
LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL | Citywide | May 2-12 | asianfilmfestla.org