The most intriguing of this year’s LAFF sidebars showcases three films by foreign-born filmmakers who eventually became Los Angeles–based expatriates, offering a remarkable lesson in cinema’s ability to transcend cultural borders. The series kicks off with The Mission (1983), a provocative Farsi-language thriller, shot on the streets of New York, about the odd relationship that forms between a pro-Khomeini assassin and his intended target, an exiled former colonel (played by director Parviz Sayyad) in the Shah of Iran’s secret police. Sayyad himself went into exile following the Islamic Revolution, and so it’s little surprise that The Missionshould end up condemning the dead end of fanaticism, religious or otherwise — a view that seems as enlightened as ever more than 20 years after the film was made.
Like Sayyad, the late Shin Sang-ok came to America seeking political asylum, following a real-life misadventure far stranger than fiction. One of the leading lights of the South Korean film industry throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Shin was kidnapped in 1978 (along with his wife and frequent collaborator, the actress Choi Eun-hee) by agents of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and imprisoned for five years until 1986, when he and Choi executed a daring escape. In Los Angeles, under the pseudonym Simon Sheen, Shin became the impresario behind the highly profitable kids’ kung-fu franchise known as 3 Ninjas. Wisely, this series includes one of the most beloved films from Shin’s earlier career: the woman’s melodrama My Mother and Her Guest (1961), about a young widow (played by Choi) torn between her obeisance to 1920s moral codes and her growing affection for the dashing artist who takes up residence as a boarder in her home. I have only seen My Mother and Her Guest once, in an unsubtitled version, but I feel qualified to say that it is a devastating study in loneliness and the suppression of desire, its emotions so acutely rendered that they scarcely need translation.
Much the same can be said of The Arch (1969), which takes place 200 years before Shin’s film, in Southwestern China, but offers another timeless story of unrequited love, this time between a widowed schoolmistress and the young soldier sent to protect her village from bandit hordes. Shot by the USC-educated director Shu Shuen, the film went on to become one of the first Chinese films — and the very first directed by a woman — to achieve significant exposure on the international film-festival circuit. If Shu’s name sounds familiar, it may be because, after making three subsequent features, she gave up moviemaking to become a restaurateur, running Sunset Boulevard’s Joss for the better part of two decades. But before she stepped into the kitchen, Shu blazed a trail for female Asian filmmakers that is still being traveled today.
All films in the “L.A. International” series screen at the UCLA James Bridges Theater: The Mission on Fri., June 23, 6:30 p.m.; My Mother and Her Guest on Sat., June 24, 7 p.m.; and The Arch on Sun., June 25, 7 p.m.