R.A.W.R – Reel Asian Wicked Recap

The Fifteenth annual Toronto International Reel Asian Film Festival downtown event came to a close on Sunday.  With a Richmond Hill satellite festival planned for the 18th & 19th  November here’s my blog diary from the showcase of contemporary Asian cinema.

Day One

The Isabel Bader could have quite possibly hovered, if not lifted a little off the ground with the high spirits of the crowd, special guests and some helium filled birthday balloons as opening night finally took flight.

A few extra peddles down from the renovating Bloor, the fifteenth year really graduated to another level at the lush venue. While I loved last year, the Bader really gave the red carpet a space to breath without the line competing for the busy Bloor sidewalk.

The anniversary theme was carried through out the evening with the poster boy Franco Nguyen donning the frilled shirt once again to bring the festival trailer to life with a bouquet of inflatables.

After messages from the committee and supporting sponsors the curtain raised with a surprise, CHOIR!CHOIR!CHOIR! serenading the audience with a hit from 1997 to turn back time to the festival’s origin date as well as another number.

With music being the food of love then the main course for everyone to visually feast on was served by actor and first time director Derek Tsang Kwok Cheung & an absent Jimmy Wan with Lover’s Discourse.

Love is the drug of choice as the opening credits seemed surprisingly scientific to set the scene for the movie posing the question that as much as we know, some mysteries are more than chemical reactions under our skin.

Told in segments that crisscross cleverly I was prepared for a mushy love story but was pleasantly surprised at how all sides of the spectrum from the power of love, whimsical to hurtful were expressed on the screen.

Starting with the story of two old flames meeting up, getting playfully drunk before a lip lock on a pebbled path, the predictability stops there and the intertwining of characters aware or in unrecognized life proximity begins.

Fantasy infatuations in a laundromat by the suds specialist behind the counter make for some amazing hilarity as her daydreams are cultivated by one male customer who she falls for while fluffing and folding for him.

This attachment and getting to know someone at a distance takes a darker shade during a flashback by twelve years when the detective work of a smitten teen is besotted by the mother of a friend. His unwitting malice and stalking comes full circle as the story ties it’s self in a bow connecting the dots, proving not everyone survives once struck by Cupid’s bow.

Day Two

Day two of the festival let me sample the sensation of a little opening night nerves, although on a smaller scale.

My heart fluttered a little faster as I hosted Reel Asian’s Industry series panel on Social Media Strategy for Film Makers to discuss how the role of digital communication can impact marketing and engage audiences with story telling alongside guest speakers Anthea Foyer, Shasha Nakhai & Sol Friedman.

The love theme from the festival movies spilled over in to the debate with Anthea’s companion piece to Sarah Polley’s forthcoming Take This Waltz, Conversations About Love using the core theme elements of the movie to be supportive without directly referencing or spoiling the actual feature. Shasha from The Sugar Bowl discussed the approach from a perspective of entering the festival with a film & the lead up from initial funding processes to dispensing content at a rate of sustaining interest. Sol, who won last years winner Reel Asian Movieola Best Short Film or Video Award for Junko , talked about Junko’s Shamisen and the perfectionist involvement on behind the scenes footage as well as some of the tactics behind getting your film seen in contrast to the art of the piece.

Mumbling to myself about the wet weather that had appeared while inside I headed to the Innis Town hall for Summer Pasture which abruptly put my spot of rain complaining in to perspective. Documenting the life of a nomadic couple in Tibet with their small daughter their daily routines are intimately captured with an amazing openness and stunning visuals. The tasks of living in this manner is fast changing with traditions being eroded as modern life is reaching out. The advantages any family would want for their child are at the core of surviving. I never thought trading & yak poop spreading would sound like something appealing to watch but Locho & Yama are captivating characters. You can view the question and answer session here.

Normally it’s sweet sixteen but The Sugar Bowl brought more than a spoon full to the table of the 15th Anniversary for the first set of shorts I’d seen at the festival in the Trailblazers presentation alongside A Drummer’s Passion, Totte Mitsu, Let’s Go To Russia, Grandpa’s Wet Dream & Granny’s Rock.

I’d previously watched these alone so was craving to see these super charged seniors dashed across the big screen with extra audience involvement. It was definitely an added experience sharing the movies en masse. Grandpa’s Wet Dream provided the most laughter as a 76 year old is documented on his secret accident life as a mature star of a niche adult porn film industry. The juxtaposition of his collected vintage movie posters with his own catalogue of X-rated accomplishments were an interesting legacy to be left behind. Another less secret legacy came up in A Drummer’s Passion. Mr. Kwon is the name of the Korean Drummer who set a beat to over a million views on YouTube. While it was easy to smile and share the clip, this was the time to hear about the reason behind his style and his life before the internet shone a spotlight on him. Stealing the show is what he does best as a personal warmth transcended the screen. Granny’s Rock reminded me of a real life Harold & Maude with a true bond between young and old generation. With an outsider art style of capturing portraits Miya Yumemi is the streaking legend who’s work can be found worn on people’s t-shirts & scattered all over bars in her area. Satoru Yasuda befriends her and joins her drinking & art antics making his film in to a gallery of her work and personality. The Sugar Bowl was the most anticipated section of the series for me. Having seen their winning pitch in 2010′s So You Think You Can Pitch contest it was very satisfying to have seen the start of the journey come to conclusion in the same event space. The Negros Island, provider of the sugar supply to America is a prince to pauper story on a grand scale effecting everyone of the inhabitants. The lavish lifestyles that accompanied the plantation abruptly ended as Government and sweet alternatives sunk the price of sugar like a dissolving cube in a cuppa. The industrial elements remain on the lush green island as rebuilding and hope returns. A once decadent dwelling is now a museum and the occupier now the tour guide advanced in years that provided the eccentric fit in to the overall presentation.

Day Three

Hard to believe it was already the mid point of the festival, day three was the final visit to the Innis Town Hall before moving to the Royal for the weekend festivities.

Greeted by a large furry lion head I knew I was in for more than a conventional screening. Lily Eng: Real Asian Canadian Warrior Woman was Reel Asian’s Canadian Spotlight. In attendance Lily Eng and writer/filmmaker Peter Dudar were honoured for the evening with a traditional dragon dance brought to life with the costumes from the corridor. Sitting in the front row I received a playful fluffy mauling which was another cheeky highlight of the festival so far.

Having no reference for Eng’s work I was very lucky to witness a special piece acted out live by the performance artist. Taking the open stage space before the screen she provided a kinetic controlled interpretation of music almost playing it with her fingertips and limbs in movement. The screenings which followed were documentation and recorded extracts from a vast career that moved chronologically from the 70s – 80s. Powerful expressive body movements rippled over the screen in the restored retrospective. The question and answer session was a perfect end to the presentation with tales of interrupted performances at the AGO and relentless concurrent takes. She truly can find in a universe inside a small space and masters the invisible constrictions.

Fortune Teller was the follow on documentary film to finish the evening. Li Baicheng takes the titular profession which is technically illegal to practice and is treated akin to prostitution in the eyes of the law. Sex workers and others seek him out to find a solution in advice from another level. The film is split in to segments of clients starting with a Madame who wants to learn about the prospect of future happiness. Li Baicheng is very blunt and to the point with his forecasts. Changing your name as well as releasing animals in to the wild are some of the rituals needed to alter your set course. While going about his life we are introduced to his wife Pearl who is mentally handicapped and mute yet the pair share a bond. Their relationship is the focus of the documentary as we learn how Li Baicheng rescued her from an abusive family. His compassion was premeditated for company which at times he regrets. Images of the Fortune Teller feeding a bird with saliva and the drama around those seeking predictions make the film a curious winding tale behind the lives & stories of those overlooked.

Day Four

11/11/11 only comes once on a calendar which was a reminder to Seize the Moment with the presentation of the same name. This round of shorts were the best Asian Canadian selection.

Starting with a PRESS START and 1 player mode was Insert Credit the 8bit narrative. The Side scrolling Nintendo-esque beat-em up tackled growing up from boy to manhood. This is my favourite film of the festival so far. Maybe the medium is tapping in to the buttons I tapped growing up on a controller. This is the perfect primer before going in to a viewing of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. If that was a love letter to Toronto this must be a low res LOL at Vancouver with Whales spraying hockey sticks through their blow holes and Maple leaf lasering death rays.

Much like the season it start to get dark early in the presentation. The next short was also animated with a retro, in the sense of traditional hand crafted, style by last year’s Master Class maker Koji Kamamura. 2010 saw him show Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor informed by the director’s misadventure to Prague. 2011 presented his take on another historical figure, Eadweard Muybridge the pioneering motion photographer. Various beasts take their footsteps triggering a camera capture with a tale told about the process and life of the man which included a true tale of his wife taking a secret lover which Muybridge shot as well as the paternity questions over a child. Mixed with surreal beauty the strings of life are indeed very tangled

Introducing the selection in perhaps the funniest video memory testimonial, Randall Okita’s No Contract was even more amazing on the screen of the Royal with the venue feeling like an extension of minimal set. A twisted Houdini seemingly invites friends to witness his combustion (which sounds like the plot from a old classic horror no?. .I could imagine envelopes arriving at the household of each person). What connections they have is only known by the director. The eerie sound design and glimpse cuts make the mystry even more uncomforting before a beautiful ballet of flames dance from each side.

Plants Out of The Sunlight was the work of the poster boy for this year proving that the funny man is more than a cinephile with a penchant for taking balloons on a date to the flicks. The serious issues of Mia a mother in Toronto finding isolation in her home as her son is out and unwilling to help let alone communicate the events of his day. Work is tough with a language and cultural cuisine understanding missing from the attitude of her boss.

Left-Behind Woman and A Winter Song closed the screening. The penultimate visited China where men are leaving the family home to seek work that is well paid leading their wives to work the land and take on other more labour intensive jobs. There’s a war like resonance where these task are undertaken in their absence. While the traditional head of the family is gone what impact this has remains to be seen. A Winter Song felt like the right conclusion with the medical worries of a store owner during the Christmas season in Montreal. More hard work and long hours are complicated by the potential of returning ailment hidden from family members. Was it the right choice to come to Canada for a better life?

Saigon Electric pumped a little extra body heat & sweat in to the crisp air outside as my main feature of the evening. The Vietnamese dance movie set on the bustling streets of Saigon lets us arrive to the big city with Mai a young Ribbon dancer, leaving her countryside life to try out for dance school. Her neon pink ribbon twirling is looked down upon at the interview but her endearing qualities are accepted by Kim a hip hop dancer who befriends her and introduces her to the urban environment with the help of her troupe Saigon Fresh. Much like the open scene of dueling roosters in a spray painted ally the dance demeanor of Kim is bold & boisterous which is contrasted by the gentle fabric rotations of Mai. As Kim lets her guard down to the advances of a rich guy who’s never ending attempts to woe her finally work she leaves her friends in the lead up to the big Samsung sponsored dance off. Things are also in jeopardy as the practice venue is threatened by redevelopment. The fancy footwork and other body parts popping to the beat were undoubtedly the highlights punctuating the character journeys beyond the initial desire to make it to the big time with traditions showing them that team work and community are more important.

Proving that after a year I still don’t know the city well without WiFi I finally made it to the music night to see Goh Nakamura perform ahead of his movie Surrogate Valentine (screening Sunday). Providing something outside of simply film is such a great way to diversify the festival content and allowing free entry with a ticket stub from any movie really makes Reel Asian special and accessible.

Day Five

Sounding a little like a new Indiana Jones Adventure – Lost Secrets of the Royal opened at the home of Reel Asian, 401 Richmond, in the A Space Gallery. The exhibition was a rebirth for old salvaged film prints that Colin Geddes had rescued from what was to become the Royal Cinema.

These prints were identified and given as the pallet to artists to interpret. There were two projects in the gallery (the sister site is in Mississauga’s Blackwood Gallery is the home to more). The first encounter is through black curtains passed a glowing lightbox poster case for the piece, Officer Tuba Meets the Happy Ghost. A Character taken from the two films interact in new landscapes shot by artist soJin Chun in Toronto and Sao Paolo. Her love of grain and super eight adds a beauty & bleakness to Toronto which makes Brazil and other other footage pop like a frog flying at the screen. The other projection is a triple threat when your eyes won’t know where the action with fly from next.

Pumped for Jump Ashin! I returned to the Royal with an new extra curiosity of what else was hiding in the bowels of the building. The gymnast gone bad redemption story was the action element I was hoping to find at the festival after last years kick off with Gallants. I wasn’t disappointed as JA provided lots of action, drama & comedy. This was the busiest screening I’ve attended thus far with the Taiwan support raising the roof for the director.

Based on the true story of the director’s brother Ashin starts his childhood gate crashing a traditional stage show with some added cartwheels and bouncing where it didn’t belong. Finding more mischief he spies on a gymnastics class after finding an escape in to fantasy while bouncing on a trampoline. It isn’t long before he’s enrolled in the class. Jumping forward in time his skills are growing yet his landings leave a lot to be desired. His doubting Mother finally reveals to his coach that his legs are not equal and insists he leave the spring boarding behind to help the family fruiterer business. Taking this badly he rebels using his natural bounding to fight with gangs in his town. With his best buddy Pickle they both find themselves in a dire situation when things get out of control. Forced to run away they escape to the city to flee their crimes. Set before 1994 there’s a sweet story revolving around a pager messaging service operator who is the human message delivery service before SMS. Their lovely interactions anchor some light hearted moments as it comes time for Ashin to return to face his past. Previously seen in Lover’s Discourse, Eddie Peng is the pin up hubba hubba anti-hero Ashin who bulked up between roles. His heartthrob status was cemented when the girls in front of me at the screening took photos at various points in the movie. An energetic question and answer session followed that had everyone one their feet and shouting jump!

Piercing 1 was the next interesting later night film that I was open to but unsure about.  Beavis and Butthead had been the token comparison animation style linked to the movie. Short enough to give the benefit of the doubt too I’m I stayed in the squeaky seats at the theatre. Much like my folkes not being able to see past The Simpsons being a cartoon, it did take at least 20 minutes to adjust to the simple line drawings. Zhang is a little out of luck like the rest of the world in recession. Beaten a few too many times and not believed for honest actions lead him and his friend in to funny plot between shady goings on with the corrupt police and fat headed business owner. The injustice experienced by the main character is really felt. The situations he finds himself in become so comical with an edge of grit.

If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom you can read about Day Six over on Reel Asian’s Blog !  I might even explain this…


Surrogate Valentine

Where would you least expect a film festival to take place? A beautiful sun drenched volcanic island with perfect beaches and blue skies is an unlikely location to encourage hiding in the dark of a matinee yet Hawaii said aloha to it’s 31st movie showcase.

With the airport landing card surveying those arriving with the first assumption being honeymooners I checked “other” and checked out Surrogate Valentine.

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