By Dennis Lim
American Indie Filmmakers: Thinking Globally and Acting Globally, Too
AN Iranian-American director, influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement, the American New Wave of the 1970's and current Iranian cinema, makes a movie, in English and Urdu, about a Pakistani pushcart vendor's daily life in post-9/11 New York.
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Ian Gamazon stars in "Cavite," a film set in the Philippines that he wrote and directed with Neill Dela Llana. Mr. Gamazon and Mr. Dela Llana met in high school in San Diego, but were born in the Philippines.
A Korean-American director draws on her memories of growing up in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles for her first feature. She shoots her film, an intimate portrait of a withdrawn young girl, in Canada, almost entirely in Korean, and names it after a teen-angst anthem by the British pop band the Cure.
Two Filipino-American directors, friends since their high school days in San Diego, Calif., return to the Philippines, where they were born, in search of affordable locations for a no-budget thriller. Their movie, in Tagalog and English, ventures into rarely seen terrain — the slums of greater Manila — even as it pays homage to the Hollywood bomb-on-a-bus blockbuster "Speed."
The films in question — "Man Push Cart," "In Between Days," and "Cavite" — are among the most striking American independent movies of the past year, in part because they test the basic assumptions of what constitutes an American film (for starters, that it be in English or be set in the United States). The directors are first- or second-generation immigrants, and their movies, though hardly overt in their identity politics, are obliquely concerned with race and the challenges of assimilation.
To their credit these films make taxonomy tricky, but they could be bracketed under the rubric of Asian-American independent cinema, a diffuse and (until now) largely stagnant sector of the industry. Still, they go beyond dutiful multiculturalism. Implicit in their mix-and-match aesthetics is the utopian notion that all of world cinema is up for grabs.
They may be the first small rumblings of the globalization of the American independent film. (Robinson Devor's "Police Beat," now playing at Anthology Film Archives, is another example. A dreamy vision of perpetual transit, it chronicles a week in the life of a Senegalese-born Seattle bicycle cop who delivers the dislocated voiceover in Wolof.)
"The idea of national cinema doesn't make sense the way it used to," said Ramin Bahrani, director of "Man Push Cart," which was shown at the New Directors/New Films series in New York in March and is set to open this fall. "I find it frustrating when people expect a certain country to produce a certain kind of cinema. There's economic and cultural globalization, but also physical mobility. People move around more."
Chi-hui Yang, director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the largest such festival in the country, says that as Asian-American films become more difficult to categorize, they also get more interesting. "People are realizing that it can't just be about identity," he said. "Issues of immigration and assimilation are getting more complicated, and you're finding more in-between kinds of experiences — filmmakers who are mixed race or born and raised in another country."
"In Between Days," which encapsulates that fracturedness in its title, won a special jury prize at Sundance this year for its director, So Yong Kim. (It will have its New York premiere on May 18, as part of the Sundance Institute at BAM series.) Ms. Kim, 37, born in Pusan, South Korea, came to the United States when she was 12. "It's true to my experience of living in this little bubble," she said of her film. "I didn't know English and in Koreatown, I didn't have to learn."
Ms. Kim's alert, economical style amounts to a meticulous transcription of the no man's land of adolescence, compounded by a sense of cultural displacement. The movie's subtle naturalism connects it to Asian art-house imports and its unstinting focus on a lone, uncommunicative character strongly recalls the work of the Dardenne brothers from Belgium.
Ms. Kim and her husband and collaborator, Bradley Rust Gray, are directors without borders, nomadic by habit and open to casual cross-pollinations. Mr. Gray, 35, a co-writer and producer of "In Between Days," shot his 2003 directorial feature debut, "Salt," a jaggedly poetic road movie produced by Ms. Kim, in Iceland with an Icelandic cast and crew.
Mr. Bahrani, 31, born to Iranian immigrants in North Carolina, also began his filmmaking career abroad. After graduating from Columbia film school, where he was influenced by the Iranian master formalist Abbas Kiarostami, he went to Iran for the first time and stayed for three years. He made a semi-autobiographical film, "Strangers," in which he played an Iranian-American in search of his ancestral home. Returning to New York in 2001 as the war in Afghanistan was beginning, he found unlikely inspiration in the vendors who were selling him his morning coffee and bagel. The image of these men steering their carts down New York streets reminded him of Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus."
Mr. Bahrani was motivated in part to capture the anxiety and self-consciousness of being Muslim-American in the age of Patriot Act detentions. "I didn't want to make a message movie, but this paranoia had to be part of the film," he said.
Politics are also built in to Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana's "Cavite" (pronounced kuh-VEE-tay). If Mr. Bahrani and Ms. Kim represent international cine-literacy, Mr. Gamazon and Mr. Dela Llana represent a more familiar type of globalization: the imposition of an American model on a third world locale. The twist is that the duo pulled off their Hollywood-style thriller for little more than the cost of two economy-class tickets from San Diego to Manila.
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Mainly told in first-person and in real-time, "Cavite" (set to open in New York and Los Angeles on May 26) weds a high concept to a brashly topical narrative. A lapsed Muslim returns to his hometown, Manila, and is dragged into a terrorist plot, taking instructions on his cellphone from an Abu Sayyaf operative who has kidnapped his family. The film was made with a two-man cast and crew: Mr. Dela Llana behind and Mr. Gamazon in front of the camera.
Both men were born in the Philippines, but while Mr. Dela Llana, 32, had visited relatives there, Mr. Gamazon, 32, had not returned since his family left Manila when he was 9. "Cavite," the tale of an expatriate's nightmare homecoming, functions as an exaggerated documentary of Mr. Gamazon's culture shock. As he struggles with the language, squirms under the scrutiny of the locals and undertakes a forced tour of dumping grounds and squatter camps in Cavite, on the outskirts of Manila, Mr. Dela Llana said, "that look on Ian's face was definitely genuine."
"Cavite" won its makers the Someone to Watch prize at this year's Independent Spirit Awards. But subtler diasporic dispatches may find a harder time making their way. Ms. Kim said that at a recent screening in Hong Kong, a Korean journalist asked why "In Between Days" was not more concerned with "immigrant issues." "When you're 14, it's not like you're thinking, 'Oh, I'm Korean American, what does that mean?' " she said. "You're thinking, 'Oh, I have a zit on my face.' "
Mr. Bahrani balks at the idea that a film about a minority group should also fulfill an ethnographic purpose. One industry professional, he said, "read the script and told me, 'After seeing your film, I should want to have a really good Indian meal.' " If that professional catches the finished version of "Man Push Cart," it might compel him to buy a bagel and a coffee.