First up, the short SLAYING THE DRAGON RELOADED. It's a brief, densely packed look at stereotypes of Asian women in Hollywood. It's really an update of a longer documentary SLAYING THE DRAGON made back in 1988 (note: I haven't seen the original). Partially it's an update for younger students (and it is intended for classroom viewing) who don't know the older movies, and partially it's to show that not much has improved. The best part is early on showing clips of older movies side by side with clips from recent movies, showing that portrayals haven't evolved at all. But to play devil's advocate, I wondered how much was just an example of a greater dearth of good writing in Hollywood, and it's just more glaring when filtered through a minority (especially minority woman) viewpoint. Movies got dinged both for stereotypes (either submissive, servile Asian women, or dangerous, hyper-sexualized dragon ladies) and for avoiding all elements of race (in essence, making every culture "white" regardless of skin color). It's a fine line to walk between the two--to acknowledge and portray race and cultural backgrounds but not fall into stereotypes. And in defense of bad writers everywhere (and I feel I'm qualified to defend us), good writing is hard! That's why there's so little of it.
Next up was the feature documentary (although still brief, at just 58 minutes) ANNA MAY WONG: IN HER OWN WORDS. I love Anna May, especially since I've become more of a silent film aficionado while watching films and volunteering at the Niles Film Museum (where I saw TOLL OF THE SEA last May). I can confirm that A) that movie is still powerful, and B) she still has a ton of fans.
As for the movie, it was fascinating and moving. Partly a celebration of her accomplishments, partly a lament at the racist times that didn't allow her to express her full potential often enough (particularly heartbreaking is her unsuccessful campaign to star in THE GOOD EARTH). The great treat here is that it's based mostly on Wong's own correspondence (hence the, "IN HER OWN WORDS" in the title). And those words, and her cabaret act, are recreated by actress Doan Ly, who was a treat. If it's too late to give Anna May Wong the career she deserved, we can at least celebrate the career she had. And the world needs more Anna May Wong impersonators.
So then I caught the excellent but depressing tale of a North Korean defector, DANCE TOWN. Jung-Nim Rhee lives in North Korea with her doting husband, who has connections to bring beauty products and adult videos from South Korea. Unfortunately, a neighbor rats them out, and the have to flee. Or at least, she flees, gets to a Chinese boat that her husband has arranged for her, and defects to South Korea. He promises to join her later, but it's pretty clear that he was caught and won't be joining her until the afterlife. In South Korea, she has a hell of a time. First the interview is unexpectedly harsh, then suddenly they're nice, set her up in an apartment with a stipend, and welcome her as a South Korean citizen. But that's not all it's cracked up to be. She has little support system and works in a laundry. She's moved from one apartment to another, along with an elderly woman and a crippled man (an excellent cross-section of the people society would like to keep out of the spotlight). She has a couple of overly-aggressive suitors, but is basically all alone without her husband. An excellently made, very sad movie that certainly doesn't paint South Korea in a very flattering light.
And that was Wednesday at SFIAAFF
Total Running Time:182 minutes
My Total Minutes: 229,416