Friday, October 22, 2010
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the Extreme Program at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, 2010.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival kicked off its 11th season last night with "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen." But the films that really interest me are playing Friday and Saturday night.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival (running through October 28) has a reputation for showing compelling documentaries, the latest in Asian American indie fare, and quality dramas from around the world. And there's plenty of that to choose from this year. But I want to focus on something just added last year, a sidebar program called Asian Extreme.
I know that violent, over the top films are not everyone's cup of tea but I also feel like film festivals are precisely the place that should highlight filmmaking that's out of the public's comfort zone. If festival audiences aren't willing to experiment then who is?
Last year the Asian Extreme program packed the house with a couple of its late night features. This year there are two films in the program and both from Japan: "RoboGeisha" and "Alien vs. Ninja." The names alone should tickle your imagination, the first for slamming cold hard sci-fi mecha with soft femininity. And the second for its blatant rip off of Hollywood's "Alien vs. Predator" franchise.
To the casual observer these films may look like pointless exercises in excess but to a longtime fan these films can reveal something interesting about the cultures from which they come. I've found that each country tends toward a certain kind of violence. Hong Kong extreme is all about style fitting to its cosmopolitan personality. Korean films show violence that's divisive either in terms of tearing apart families or in gangland tales of betrayal, and this reflects the country's own divided soul. Then you have Japan, which is producing some of the most extreme films in the region.
The violence here is like an act of rebellion against a society that prides itself on polite restraint. It's also a very patriarchal society so when violence is served up by women against men it's even more subversive. Take "RoboGeisha's" school to train sexy assassins. In a perverse way this empowers the female characters. If you think I'm reading too much into these films, well maybe so. But consider these images from the film: bikini-clad assassins that can shoot ninja stars out of their butt and acid milk from their breasts.
That may just sound sick and twisted but it also plays with the stereotyped images of women as sex objects or nurturing mothers. "RoboGeisha" also taps into a popular Japanese notion of science gone wrong. As the only country to have suffered two atomic bombs, Japan's science fiction and fantasy often explore the extremes that science can go tot. Here it goes to creating robot geisha assassins that use sex and love to get close to their targets.
"Alien vs. Ninja," on the other hand, is about taking on a Hollywood franchise and exploding it. With this goofball action entry, Japan chews up Hollywood formulas and icons and spits them right back in our face. You can take this film as an entry in the pop culture war. It's interesting for the way it plays off of Hollywood conventions delivering a mash up of Japanese and American filmmaking. So we have the basic premise of the "AvP" films but done up like a Japanese giant monster movie with a man in a rubber suit.
This is splatstick - splatter gore and slapstick -- of the highest order. It's along the lines of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" films. There's gore galore here and all done in good fun. You may find that hard to believe but it's true. In fact both "Alien vs. Ninja" and "RoboGeisha" display a giddy sense of absurd, provocative fun. Each time the audience exclaims, "I can't believe they went there," the film then goes one step further. This is not pushing the envelope to embrace the darkness as is done in horror but rather more out of a sense of anarchy to say there are no rules they are willing to follow.
So feel free to dismiss these films as merely dumb or excessive but I appreciate them for the odd and sometimes unintentional way a society reveals itself through pop culture. I also embrace them for their audacious sense of style and joyous lack of convention.
"RoboGeisha" screens tonight at 10:30pm. "Alien vs. Ninja" screens Saturday at 10:30pm. There is also a ninja costume costume Saturday night so you are encouraged to dress up for the "AvN" screening. If you really use your stealth ninja skills maybe you can slip into the theater without anybody even seeing you. The festival continues through October 28 at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center. I do also highly recommend "Ip Man 2" and "Air Doll."