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Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.


It wasn't easy being an Asian filmmaker in Toronto last year. SARS hysteria crippled the city's filmmaking industry--also hit by the soaring loonie--and unfairly stigmatized the nation's largest Asian community. Amid this backdrop, the seventh Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival unspooled, exhibiting a strong lineup of films from the Asian diaspora.

The five-day festival (voted Toronto's best small festival by Now magazine) opened with Greg Pak's Robot Stories (U.S.), a Twilight Zone--like collection of four sci-fi films that were funny, poignant, even erotic. The standout segment from this collection was The Robot Fixer, featuring a stoic mother (a note-perfect Wai Ching Ho) who sublimates her grief for her comatosed son by completing his childhood collection of toy robots. The lone Canadian feature at the festival was the wonderful The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. The latest in Anne Marie Fleming's studies about her family, Long Tack Sam skilfully blends animation, still photos and contemporary, video to present the colourful life of Fleming's great-grandfather, a Chinese vaudeville magician and acrobat who delighted audiences from Manhattan to Shanghai in the early 1900s. Long Tack Sam is part mystery movie, starring Fleming as the sleuth uncovering the long-forgotten Sam across several continents, and part adventure flick where we follow Sam and his inter-racial brood (Austrian wife and two daughters) escaping the intolerant Nazis, then fleeing the Chinese Communists who seized his wealth. Fleming captures the unpredictable and playful persona of her great-grandfather with delightful storytelling wrapped in comic book charm.

All other Canadian entries were either fictional or documentary shorts. Most explored traditional diasporic themes of identity, generational strife and prejudice but a few broke the mould. Newcomer Samuel Chows Auditions to Be the Next Canadian is a clever two-minute medley of snapshots of himself portraying Asian stereotypes by making faces for the camera. In Chasing Chinese, student May Chew examines the inner conflict that Canadian-born Chinese suffer in denying yet embracing their ethnicity by taking her camera into places like a Chinese classroom. Though technically amateurish, Chasing Chinese is passionate and sincere. Samuel K. Lee explores identity and the generational divide through food. How to Make Kimchi According to My Kun Umma captures Lee's aunt preparing this Korean staple of spicy, fermented cabbage. His charming aunt needles Lee for not speaking Korean and for not being married. Will Kwan's Don't Toe the Line or Toe Your Own Line (Huron) is a whimsical record of the performance artist/director spray painting a hopscotch board in a downtown Toronto intersection and filming passersby skipping across or ignoring the child's game.

International films were gutsy, starting with Spencer Nakasako's Refugee (U.S.), a verite documentary that profiles a young Cambodian growing up in San Francisco's tough Tenderloin district. Similarly, Koji Hayasaki's Leang's Journey (U.S.) contrasts an upright Cambodian leader in the Bronx. a survivor of the killing fields, who clashes with his rebellious Americanized (pot-smoking, unemployed) daughter. The program Wherever You Are, You're Home was exceptional, and included Leonard Lee's Memoir of a Fortune Cookie Factory (Canada), a valentine to his family's 30-year-old business; Wook Steven Heo spent a day with a hardworking Korean couple in Texas Doughnut Shop; Jane Wong's Dim Sum (A Little Bit of Heart) (U.K.), a rare portrait of the Chinese diaspora in England, in this case a grocery-store owner in Liverpool; and Curtis Choy's Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue (U.S.) was a shot from the past (an Oscar winner from 1975). In the film, Choy critically looks at how Americans perceive their Asian citizens in an angry, funny rap that gives a nod to the Black Panthers. Although dated, Choy's film is passionate.

Other films of note included Patrick Epino's Spunk (U.S.), a witty look at thick, straight male Asian hair and self-image. Royston Tan's 15 (Singapore) follows three teenage boys who get in and out of trouble in uptight Singapore. The short film thrives on fast cutting and badass attitude, reminiscent of Trainspotting.

Vietnamese-American Ham Tram's gorgeously filmed The Anniversary (U.S.) tells a poignant parallel story of a family wrenched apart by the Vietnam War. This year's international spotlight shone on Indonesia. a treat considering that few films trickle out of this troubled nation. The searing feature. Garin Nugroho's Leaf on a Pillow, was the highlight, taking a painful look at the country's desperately poor homeless children. Memorable for entirely opposite reasons, Daniel Gordon's The Game of Their (U.K.) tells the rousing Cinderella story of North Korea's surprising run at the 1966 World Cup.

While the films themselves were strong, events this year were mysteriously scaled back, which limited networking and camaraderie. Festival sponsorship was down, inexplicable in a city with over half a million Asians, Canada's wealthiest demographic. The workshops offered the obligatory panel of seasoned directors (Fleming, Pak et al.) to impart wisdom to beginners on how to get a film made. Another workshop brought industry gatekeepers (Telefilm, Showcase, NFB, Canadian Film Centre and Seville Pictures) face to Face with filmmakers but failed to address the central question: How does an Asian Canadian get his film shown to the public? The speakers, all of them white, neglected to differentiate between films made in Asia and films made by Asian Canadians. What was the point?

Allan Tong is a Toronto filmmaker and freelance journalist.
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Title Annotation:FESTIVAL WRAPS
Author:Tong, Allan
Publication:Take One
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Next Article:Sundance Film Festival.

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