Friday, March 17, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—AMERICANese





Chris Tashima comforts Joan Chen.



According to the Hawaiians rain is a blessing. If so, those who attended last night's opening night screening of Eric Byler's AMERICANese were drenched with blessings. I know I was!! I sat wet and shivering in the Castro Theater but eventually dried out, no doubt due in part to the engaging warmth of Byler's second feature. I have to commend Chris, volunteer for the festival, who—without an umbrella or with borrowed umbrellas that blew inside out—unflinchingly did his duty in keeping the lines flowing into the theater. Good work, guy!! You're one of the festival's unsung heroes.

Fresh from its South by Southwest festival wins (Best Narrative Feature, Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble), Eric Byler's adaptation of Shawn Wong's 1995 novel American Knees is elliptically graceful in its subtle and suggestive silences. Advancing the issues of those racially marginalized, Byler takes an appropriately literary approach and asks filmgoers to read between the lines and to intuit what is being said in the blank space of the margins. Not only do I predict that the film will win Audience Narrative Favorite at 2006 SFIAAFF but I anticipate it will be nominated for an Oscar for best adaptation.

I was impressed with Byler's opening remarks to his enthusiastic audience. He respectfully genuflected to the mentors who paved the way for him, thereby gracefully paving the way for others. Byler's blogsite on the film will, undoubtedly, remain necessarily brief as he will be too busy garnering praise and insightfully fielding queries.

"We had Sulu on Star Trek," Byler stated to the Austin Chronicle's Kimberly Jones in response to her notation of the film's "quietly revolutionary" depiction of an Asian-American actor [Chris Tashima as Raymond] in a romantic leading man role, "and for how many years and how many episodes, he pushed all the buttons correctly and never wrecked the ship. But he never ever ever had a date. Not once."

Rather than beating filmgoers over the head with dramatic representations of racial tension (as in the recent Oscar winner Crash), Byler sought to depict these tensions as experienced by the racial minorities themselves. "For a person of color, you don't need to have somebody hanging upside down by a seat belt about to catch on fire to conclude that racism is bad. You just know. You just know it in your heart."

In league with the cautions expressed by such cultural theorists as Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and addressed in my recent interview with Jeff Adachi (The Slanted Screen), Byler states: "AMERICANese gives us a sneak preview into the realities of tomorrow as we become more and more racially and ethnically mixed in the 21st century." He does so with poignant accuracy. Byler shows us how Raymond's relationship with his ex-girlfriend Aurora (Allison Sie)—who is Hapa, half-Japanese—is complicated by inherited racist attitudes from her parents: An Asian mother who prefers she partner with a white man and a white father who denies racism even as he discourages his second daughter's relationship with a Black man.

The story becomes even more complex with the introduction of Betty (Joan Chen) in a disturbing role of a Vietnamese woman who confuses Raymond on the rebound. "I was drawn to my character because she is very mysterious," Joan Chen explains. "Her secrets are not fully explained, but under Eric's direction, the screen should be pregnant with her past." Indeed. Just as the future becomes pregnant with another child of mixed blood; perhaps—after all—the perfect snynonym for the future? I respect Fusion's appropriate co-sponsorship of the opening night film. While waiting in line and shielding the woman behind me from the torrential onslaught with a relatively ineffective umbrella, she told me she loved Shawn Wong's novel and was intrigued by the film because she had an adopted daughter of mixed blood. I hope that she walked away as confirmed as I did by this movie that her daughter can rightfully hold her head up high.

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