The Ninth Annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
Directed by Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon
THE PHILIPPINES/80 MINUTES
Though one can't help but admire what filmmakers Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon have accomplished here - particularly given the distinct lack of budget and non-existent production values - there's no denying that Cavite eventually comes off as an overlong and slightly pretentious indie effort. The film introduces us to Adam (played by Gamazon), an American who - upon arriving in the Philippines for his father's funeral - learns that his mother and sister have been kidnapped by an unknown foe. Said villain communicates with Adam via cellular phone, and attempts to coerce the young man to carry out an exceedingly sinister plot. The majority of Cavite follows Adam as he wanders the Philippines to and fro while carrying out various demands made by the kidnapper, which is initially pretty interesting (in an exotic-country-travelogue sort of way), but eventually becomes tedious and flat-out dull. Ato Mariano's relentless, often infuriating score certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the inclusion of a thoroughly unpleasant cock fight midway through. Having said that, there are a few genuinely suspenseful moments interspersed among the many walking sequences and Gamazon does a nice job of portraying Adam's fluctuating emotional state. Ultimately, it's impossible to overlook the fact that Cavite generally feels like a short that's unnaturally been stretched out to feature length.
The Grace Lee Project
Directed by Grace Lee
USA/SOUTH KOREA/68 MINUTES
The Grace Lee Project details filmmaker Grace Lee's efforts to make sense of her own identity by talking to as many similarly-named women as possible, a task that quickly proves to be no small feat - as there are over 2,000 Grace Lees living in the United States alone. Lee's personable narration - combined with the admittedly loose and quirky tone - lends the movie a breezy, fast-paced sort of vibe, though there are a few surprisingly affecting moments. This is particularly true of her interview with a fellow Grace Lee who's had to overcome incredible adversity in her life (ie she was beaten as a child and went deaf as an adult), and sacrificed her own safety (as well as that of her son) in order to provide shelter for an abused friend and her kids. While one can easily envision a documentary revolving solely around her trials and tribulations, director Lee does a nice job of filling the movie with other intriguing subjects (including a perky Christian and an 88-year-old social activist). In the end, The Grace Lee Project is a fairly inconsequential but thoroughly entertaining documentary that doesn't necessarily break any new ground, yet it's hard not to become wrapped up in some of these stories.
Directed by Michael Kang
The Motel stars Jeffrey Chyau as Ernest Chin, a put-upon 13-year-old who lives at a rundown motel with his mother and little sister. Forced to contend with his uncommonly cruel mother and neighborhood bullies, It's clear right off the bat that Ernest is living a desperate, miserable existence. He finds solace in an off-the-wall tenant named Sam (Sung Kang), who teaches the boy how to cut loose and stand up for himself. The Motel moves at an extremely deliberate pace that eventually becomes oppressive; writer/director Michael Kang focuses entirely on Ernest's exploits, presumably in an effort to turn the character into a sympathetic figure. But because Ernest never quite becomes anything more than a misanthropic grouser, there's virtually no way for the viewer to actually care about what happens to him throughout the film's running time. Chyau's flat, lifeless performance certainly doesn't help, although he comes off as a master thespian when compared with Jade Wu (who plays Ernest's shrill, hateful mother). Only Sung Kang delivers what can reasonably be called an effective performance, as the actor infuses The Motel with sporadic bursts of energy (brief as they may be). While there's no denying that filmmaker Michael Kang possesses a fair amount of talent, this certainly isn't an appropriate vehicle with which to judge his abilities.