Posted by: mel | November 11, 2009

Reel Asian Film Fest puts new twists on cultural identity

CTV News | Constance Droganes, entertainment reporter | 11 November 2009

The conflict between Asian traditions and North American ideals gets some new twists at the 13th annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (November 11 – 15).

The festival’s 2009 edition features 49 films chosen from more than 400 entries, many of which are Canadian and North American premieres.

“Dealing with one’s cultural identity drives this year’s entries,” says Heather Keung, the festival’s artistic director.

“Over the last 13 years we’ve seen this theme expressed in Canadian movies. Now we’re seeing more international filmmakers tackle their cultural identity in a modern, changing world,” says Keung.

From “Fish Story,” Yoshihiro Nakamura’s zany Japanese doomsday adventure to “Yanggaw,” Richard Somes’ Filipino vampire flick, this year’s features and shorts by emerging Asian talents touch on cultural identity in unusual ways.

For example, Jang In-hak’s “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” gives new perspective to the inner cultural crisis experienced by North Korea’s youth.

“In the past, films about North Korea have been riddled with political propaganda. This movie breaks that pattern,” says Keung.

The story showcases a teenaged daughter of a researcher committed to his country and his science. But, instead of busying her mind with political propaganda, the girl dreams of cool stuff she wants to own, just like any other teen.

“She’s torn between her desire for material goods and her struggle to pull away from North Korea’s ideas about national patriotism and the traditional family,” says Keung. “It’s a very strong, compelling portrait of a generation who want to move towards a free, modern lifestyle.”

Filmmakers are also exploring the subtle, alienating lines that separate Asians within their own communities.

In the Indonesian movie “Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly,” director “Edwin” spotlights eight anxious characters who yearn to be someone else.

The film also reflects on the racist after-effects of Indonesia’s 1998 riots on its Chinese community.

“Hundreds of Chinese women were raped. Businesses owned by Chinese families were destroyed,” says Keung. “Even today, a Chinese person may be born in Indonesia. But, they are still considered a different ethnicity.”

As Keung says, “Canadians have this perspective that Asians are one big ethnic group. But, there are very many complex views of ethnicity even amongst Asians. It’s riddled with cultural differences that can be very isolating.”

Reel Asian’s must-see films of 2009

Since 1997, Canada’s premier pan-Asian international film festival has spotlighted works form Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Mainland China.

“We’re always striving to bring award-winning films to the public’s attention they otherwise might not see,” says Keung.

“Overheard,” the nail-biting cop drama from Hong Kong directors Alan Mak and Felix Chong, tops 2009’s must-see list.

Starring Lau Ching-Wan (“My Name is Fame”), this cautionary tale of insider trading follows three cops who are torn between their greed and ethics.

The action flick also digs into the many ways personal privacy, financial security and law enforcement can be threatened by today’s surveillance technologies.

For vintage film lovers, “Red Heroine” offers a rare peak into the martial arts films of China’s silent movie era.

This 1929 entry is the only surviving silent film left from a popular 13-part Chinese serial.

In it, a young village maiden is kidnapped by the military and then rescued by the mysterious Taoist hermit, White Monkey. She spends three years training with him in the mountains, learning sword fighting and magic so she can enact her revenge.

“Audiences saw all that flying, sword-wielding action here, long before ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'” says Keung.

Domestic abuse anchors the gritty, black comedy “Breathless” from South Korean director Yang Ik-June, where a vicious debt collector and foul-mouthed teen join forces.

Finally, H.P. Mendoza’s “Fruit Fly” puts a musical spin on the theme of cultural identity.

Visually vibrant and full of wild, crazy San Francisco energy, Mendoza’s 19-song soundtrack accompanies his heroine as she searches for her birth parents amidst the city’s gay clubs and fringe theatres.

“This is such a fun, playful movie,” says Keung. “Once again, cultural identity drives this filmmaker’s journey. But, the journey can be very entertaining.”

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