East Meets West Meets Island Meets L.A. Meets Orange County

By the Time It Gets Dark - courtesy of LAAPFF


The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival focuses on features, shorts and documentaries from and about Asia and the Pacific Islands. The films screened during LAAPFF in L.A. from April 27-May 4 and in Orange County from May 5-11 are all shot on location in Asia and Oceania and/or depict characters of and/or were made by talents of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry, such as Mele Murals, a documentary about Hawaiian street artists. As such, LAAPFF provides cineastes with an invaluable window into the movies and societies of Asia and Polynesia, and of individuals from those ethnic groups living in continental North America. The L.A. venues where LAAPFF screenings and conferences took place highlight specialty cinema, such as the opening and closing night galas at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre and the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Strip, as well as the Downtown Independent, the arthouse where I viewed the below.




Thai writer/director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (Dao Khanong) is an artsy rumination on post traumatic stress disorder, filmmaking, the role of writers, past and present day Thailand and Buddha knows what else. In its intricate, obtuse structure it reminded me of those early French New Wave movies with nonlinear film forms about memory and more by Alain Resnais, such as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. And Suwichakornpong’s follow-up to Mundane History, which won a Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, is every bit as perplexing, mystifying and indecipherable to most filmgoers as Resnais’ formalistic pictures and Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet’s complex Marienbad screenplay were to many 1950s/1960s viewers.


Moving back and forth in time and the minds of Dark’s characters, the feature appears to open with the Thammasat University massacre of 1976, when rightwing paramilitary and government forces butchered student protesters (the number of casualties is disputed but by the official count, at least 46 pupils were murdered for thought “crimes” including protesting the return to Thailand of a military strongman and mocking the crown prince). This despicable slaughter at Bangkok was to Thailand what, say, the Kent and Jackson State killings of student dissenters was to Americans.


So far, so good for lovers of political cinema - I thought we were in for a Thai film along the lines of, say, Costa-Gavras’ 1982 Missing, about Generalissimo Pinochet’s bloody coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 (three years before the Thammasat University slayings). After the troubling curtain raiser, a middle aged female writer named Taew (Rassami Paoluengton) - a former student activist who had witnessed the campus carnage in the 1970s - travels to the countryside in contemporary Thailand to meet with a much younger female filmmaker, Ann (not Anocha - played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan). She is - for some undisclosed reason - compelled to tell Taew’s story.


This has the makings of a first rate political thriller, but for whatever reasons, alas, that’s not the movie Suwichakornpong goes on to tell. In a fragmented way Dark flashes back and forth, from past to present, character to character, and along the way, it probably leaves most viewers behind in the, well, dark. It turns out that - just as the opening scene of shirtless students (the females bra straps visible) lying face down on the floor of what seems to be a classroom, guarded by rifle-wielding soldiers and/or paramilitaries, is actually mise-en-scène for a movie being shot about the student massacre - little, if anything, is as it appears to be in this complex film.


Further complicating matters is actress Atchara Suwan, a plain-looking young woman who appears in several different roles, from a waitress near the villa where the posher Taew and Ann are staying to one of Thailand’s many monks performing errands at a monastery. In the guise of the aforesaid server, the apparently simpler Suwan gives Taew and Ann advice that, perhaps, Suwichakornpong might have listened to: Since the story being told in Ann’s proposed film is actually Taew’s tale, she - and not the young cineaste - should write the script.


But Suwichakornpong doesn’t heed these sage if simple words of wisdom and her 105 minute film careens all over the place, from character to character (other prettier actress also portrays Ann and Taew in what may be their “glammed-up” silver spring versions), like an experimental movie. There is, for some inexplicable reason, even a clip from Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic sci fi short A Trip to the Moon and Dark’s grand finale is also somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic pyrotechnics towards the end of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


What is Suwichakornpong getting at in her stylish hodgepodge of imagery? How difficult it is to render past traumas as art in the present day? Or perhaps the political themes inherent in her material remain murky and are never allowed to reach fruition because this might displease her funders that include Qatar, which like Thailand is a hereditary monarchy? (Likewise co-funded by the Doha Film Institute, the Bolivian miners film Dark Skull also has a similar format in that while it revealed the harsh conditions miners work under it never actually depicts them going on strike per se.)


Having said all this, being an adventurous filmgoer, I’m glad I saw the West Coast Premiere of By the Time It Gets Dark - even if it was largely incomprehensible to me and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of its tales. Perhaps this is because of cultural differences (although, for what it’s worth, I’ve traveled to Thailand three times) or I just might not be smart enough to figure out what this eclectic picture means. Be that as it may, Suwichakornpong is an emerging talent cinephiles should keep their eyes on - although she might want to expand her expressive prowess to be able to better communicate her meanings to broader audiences, including this dolt and dullard, who didn’t get Dark, yet liked it.




Also created by a female auteur, Joyce Wong’s quirky Wexford Plaza is far easier to understand, although stylistically, like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and more recently the Showtime series The Affair, the same or similar events are told from the different points of view of characters taking part in the unfolding stories. In terms of content, Wexford has a vibe similar to Kevin Smith’s 1994 low budge cult classic Clerks, about menial workers in low status jobs living dead end lives in ’burby New Jersey, in that Wexford’s titular mall located in suburban Toronto is where key characters “work” as slacker security guards.


One of the protagonists is Betty, an overweight, lonely Caucasian woman full of yearning who turns 20 during the course of the movie. As the randy Betty, Reid Asselstine steals the show and her disarming performance is the best thing about this often charming indie.


Betty is more or less sexually harassed by her male security “colleagues” but she has the hots for Danny (Darrel Gamotin), who sidesteps her sexting and sexual advances because, unbeknownst to Betty, he is romantically involved with Celine (Ellie Posadas). Danny starts out as a bartender up to his neck in debt, and he’s one of those people who can’t face up to and cope with reality. He’s perpetually in over his head, and when I saw this flick at its L.A. premiere thought that given Betty’s hankering for him Wexford might have veered in another direction.


Be that as it may, Danny and Celine’s characters, like the thespians who depict them, are of Filipino ancestry. Yet this has little if any bearing on this Canadian film, although one might think having characters whose family origins are in the tropics but now live in the Great White North might have been commented upon. Perhaps Canadians are less ethnic conscious and sensitive than their racially troubled neighbors to the south? Likewise, although Wexford’s writer/ director is of Asian ethnicity, this seems to have no bearing on the story and its depiction whatsoever. Of course, artists must be free to pursue their individual visions, regardless of ethnic origins, and shouldn’t be hemmed in my stereotypes and typecasting.


Although the fact that Wong is female - like many of the other directors of this year’s LAAPFF’s movies - does make a difference. One could argue in the best sense of the cliché that Wexford Plaza bears a woman’s touch. Never heavy-handed, this affecting, truthful, simple (but not simplistic) film shows that Asian-Canadian filmmaker Joyce Wong has a promising big screen future, and I for one look forward to seeing her follow-ups.




This 90-minute multi-faceted documentary about the 11-time Jeopardy! champ who won almost $300,000 during his 2014 game show winning streak operates on many levels. Overall, the L.A. premiere of this Arthur Chu biopic revealed he’s the firstborn of a Taiwanese family that relocated to Yankee Doodle Land in order to pursue the much-vaunted immigrants’ version of the American Dream. As such, Who is Arthur Chu? works as a cultural case study of Asians living and growing up abroad in a country where they are members of a distinct minority group. For instance, according to the doc, when Arthur attended grade school in the USA he was the only pupil of Chinese ancestry in his class, and he grew up feeling out of place, if not like a total ludicrous misfit.

But this film, co-directed by Chongqing, China-born, Vancouver-raised Yu Gu and Chicagoan Scott Drucker, deals with much more, such as a father-son struggle between Arthur and his demanding dad that Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev could have written a novel about. Chu’s relationship with his Caucasian wife Eliza is also depicted (and astute viewers watching the suddenly prominent Arthur reading messages on his cell phone, while Eliza tries to reach out to him with her problems, can probably predict the outcome by film’s end of their marriage).


Beyond family dramatics Who also depicts the Sturm und Drang engendered by the sudden celebrity status thrust upon Arthur. The film reveals what happens when “a nobody from nowheresville” becomes, thanks to national TV exposure on Jeopardy!, a proverbial overnight sensation and how the unknown Chu deals with his newfound fame (and fortune). Of course, Arthur tries to capitalize on his unexpected prominence by writing for outlets such as The Huffington Post and, Chautauqua-style, he hits the speaking circuit, as well as gets a book deal.


But much to Chu’s credit he is not merely cashing in, like so many celebs do (hey Samuel L. Jackson, it’s none of your fucking business what’s in my wallet!!!), but uses his newly minted cult status to boldly speak out on pressing issues of the day, from the racial unrest in Ferguson after unarmed Michael Brown is shot to death to “Gamer-gate.” From the get-go Who shows how Arthur becomes the target of vicious online invective, trolled by computerized cretins who, among other things, wish death upon his wife, who suffers from the disorder fibromyalgia, and comes across as a perfectly nice person. Chu’s confronting misogyny on a panel about sexism and video game culture triggers even more outraged emails and tweets than did his unorthodox Jeopardy! tactics, which angered fans of the game show who apparently have far too much time (and devices) on and in their dubious hands.


In addition, Who goes into nerd culture - not only by showing it but at one speaking engagement Arthur verbally defines it. This was very on point because terms are often thrown around in public but never actually defined. (Populism is a case in point - but don’t get me started!)


Unlike By the Time It Gets Dark, this nonfiction motion picture portrait goes back and forth in time in a clear, coherent way, making skillful use of home movie footage, although some may feel that Arthur’s main claim to fame is not dwelled on enough (which could be due, perhaps, to copyright issues vis-à-vis Jeopardy!). Be that as it may, while the Asian ethnicity of the Filipino characters in Wexford Plaza is not even commented upon, Chu’s being an outspoken, outlandish individual who breaks stereotypical notions of the passive “Asian male” seems to be very much at the core of this thought provoking documentary. Its protagonist’s iconic, square-peg-in-a-round hole stature as a person of Taiwanese background in a majority non-Asian culture that, from the Chinese Exclusion Acts to today’s proposed Muslim bans, has historically and currently is racist helps to answer the question posed by this doc: Who is Arthur Chu? One can argue that like Bruce Lee physically did, Chu is mentally shattering preconceived geeky notions and tropes of the Asian male.


On May 6 Who is Arthur Chu? will be screened 9:30 p.m. at CGV Buena Park, 6988 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, CA 90621. For info on the rest of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s screenings in Orange County see:


Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length movie Strike on Friday, 7:30 p.m., May 26, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info:


Opening Night Red carpet photo-call (Protographer: Florante Ibanez)