Three-film Asian series forms snapshot of a decade

Pre-millennium films depict era's anxiety for universal appeal


October 31, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Baltimore cinephiles who want to revel in the sights, scenery and sensibilities of the other side of the world may do so by attending the New Asian Cinema film series organized by the Creative Alliance.

The timing is auspicious: Interest in Asian films has blossomed after the box-office and critical success of movies from Asia such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the surprise 2004 hit Hero; and The Grudge, a recently released Japanese film, which was then made into a smash hit starring former vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar.

It's also nice that Hong Kong hottie Tony Leung - one of the lead actors in Hero - is prominent in two of the films in the series.

"Asian cinema is becoming more a part of the mainstream moviegoing experience," said Kristen Anchor, a film curator at Creative Alliance, a nonprofit artists' organization. But "cinephiles have known for a really long time how great it is."

Beginning Wednesday, the film series will feature three movies - Cyclo (Tran Anh Hung, 1995), Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai, 1997) and The Hole (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1998) - that share the sense of anticipatory anxiety that seemed so pervasive as the millennium approached.

"These seemed to have this feeling of change coming, a sense of doom that represents to some extent movies that were made in the 1990s," added Alana Roth, a volunteer film curator who helped organize the series.

Creative Alliance curators aim to fill in what they see as gaps in Baltimore's film offerings by presenting series that focus on B-movies, Bollywood and the silent screen, Anchor said.

The three current selections were originally screened during the heyday of art-house indie Asian cinema in the 1990s and present a stark contrast to the Asian action-epics and Japanese horror re-makes such as The Grudge and The Ring.

Progressive tastes

Their choice for the series may reflect a growing interest in the United States in Asian films.

"Americans are, in their tastes, becoming more progressive and increasingly willing to spend their hard-earned box office dollars on films that are challenging, whether they're from foreign cultures or presented in languages other than English," said Jeff Yang, author of Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to Hong Kong, Mainland, and Taiwanese Cinema, and head of Cultural DNA, a New-Jersey based multi-cultural marketing agency.

But he cautioned that Americans are getting a narrow selection of Asian films. "A lot of the stuff we see is selected in an idiosyncratic fashion. You're not seeing the most popular mainland films. You're seeing art-house cinema, so what we would see here in the U.S. is almost by necessity kind of filtered by people who have agendas and aesthetic considerations in terms of what they're trying to do," Yang said.

While Hero and Crouching Tiger captivated fans with visually arresting cinematography, the films in the series burn themselves into memory because of common themes leading up to the millennium, a historical moment that deserves reflection, said Anchor.

"They're all very stylized films, beautiful to look at. The characters are really well-written and for people who like films that struggle with the idea of truth, they're really invested in investigating that," Anchor said. "They also deal with the human condition - loneliness and loss and the struggle to maintain relationships and dealing with death."

Exotic locales

The series immerses viewers in those sensations by transporting them to exotic locales. Directed by Tran Anh Hung, who also made The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo focuses on a family's descent into the seedy underbelly of Ho Chi Minh City and shows actor Leung at his nefarious best as a poet/pimp.

Leung returns in Happy Together, which takes viewers into another frenetic city - Buenos Aires. Director Wong Kar Wai depicts the end of a tempestuous relationship between two gay men, fine-tuning an atmospherically charged style that would reach perfection with In the Mood for Love three years later.

Finally, The Hole is set a week before the millennium in a Taipei tenement where residents hoard toilet paper and dream in song-and-dance numbers while a strange disease infiltrates the rain-soaked city.

Roth said the series illuminates a pivotal moment in cinema history, both for what was going on in the world and how it was being expressed.

"It seems to me like people looking back on this time period are going to note this past decade for Asian cinema as a really creative and lively time like French New Wave," Roth said.

New Asian Film Festival

When: Nov. 3 (Cyclo), Nov. 17 (Happy Together), Dec. 1 (The Hole); all films begin at 8 p.m (doors open at 7 p.m.).

Where: Creative Alliance at The Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave.

Tickets: $5 at door or in advance at www.missiontix.

For information: 410-276-1651 or

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