TORONTO REEL ASIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The Reel Asian festival continually proves that there's more to Asian cinema than sword-filled wushu actioners, bloody Korean revenge dramas and Japanese ghost stories.
See these movies now, or hope for a DVD later. Consisting mostly of works from the Asian diaspora, Reel Asian's films are consistently good but aren't widely screened later on. Two of last festival's strongest features, The Motel and The Grace Lee Project, which I reviewed a year ago, got limited releases in the U.S. but not here.
One not-to-be-missed feature this year is What's Wrong With Frank Chin? (November 18, 1 pm), a fascinating portrait of the teacher/writer/activist.
The loudmouthed and grumpy Chin (imagine a Chinese-American male Camille Paglia) is one of the most controversial figures in the cultural landscape. He helped put Asian-American writers on the map, started the first U.S. Asian theatre company and was a key player in the redress movement of Japanese Americans interned during the second world war.
Chin's probably best known, however, for his public diatribes against such canonized artists as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan and David Henry Hwang, all of whom he's accused of taking undue liberties with Chinese mythology. In one telling scene, the ever-dramatic Chin refuses to set foot again in the David Henry Hwang Theatre, where one of his own plays is being performed.
Now in his mid-60s, Chin remains blunt and graceless. But director Curtis Choy rounds out the film with an eclectic mix of colleagues/admirers and amazing archival footage of some historic moments. (Chin's counterculture wedding ceremony, complete with masks, is a riot.)
Another worthy documentary, more introspective in tone, is Books Of James (November 16, 7:30 pm), Ho Tam's moving look at artist/AIDS activist James Wentzy.
Drawing on decades of Wentzy's own footage of himself and the events around him, Tam lets him tell his own life story. The early parts, with Wentzy reading journal entries in a sad-sack monotone, lack direction, but news of his HIV-positive status wakes him up and focuses his life and work.
Most moving of all is Tam's presentation of some of Wentzy's journal entries - drawings, receipts - that capture a sense of urban isolation and poverty with chilling simplicity.
Two other charming films bump up the queer content of this year's festival.
Colma: The Musical (November 17, 9:15 pm) is a low-budget musical about three ethnically diverse kids living in the middle-class San Francisco suburb of Colma, stuck in that limbo between high school and real life.
The set-up is amusing, and director Richard Wong pulls off the musical sequences with campy gusto.
The tunes, by H.P. Mendoza - who also plays the queer Filipino guy in the bunch - have a catchy pop vibe, but the lyrics are often hard to make out. The ending is stylish, but you have to sit through a rambling, melodramatic middle section to get to it.
There's very little padding - filmic anyway - in Cut Sleeve Boys (November 16, 9:15 pm), Ray Yeung's sure-to-be-popular look at a couple of gay Asian guys living and lusting in London, England.
This isn't a subculture that's been seen much on film - certainly, in no episode of the original Queer As Folk. But Mel and Ash, played with wicked sparkle by Steven Lim and Chowee Leow, strut their stuff with balls and bravado, even if their journeys through the amazingly coutured world of clubs and pickups are a tad predictable.
Reel Asian runs through November 19 at various theatres.