Looking back at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival


In “Abigail Harm”, Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”) has adapted a Korean fairy tale “The Woodcutter, the Deer and the Nymph,” as a minimalist Manhatten meditation on urban loneliness.

Shy, isolated Abigail Harm (Amanda Plummer) reads to the blind. Apparently that’s the extent of intimacy love-blocked Abigail can handle. She’s unable to make eye contact, nor can she visit her dying father. With her poignant face, softly weathered like an old sheet, Plummer inhabits all the crevices of the character, seemingly written for her nuanced performance.

Chung’s fable begins with our heroine reading Alice In Wonderland to a blind man. She breaks up over the word ‘Lovingly” like Maynard G. Krebs stammered the word ‘work’ on ‘The The Dobie Gillis Show.”

The narrator (Will Patton) intones, “she meets them everyday, no one else, reading them books they once loved; she spends her days never being seen by anyone.

A hospice nurse calls repeatedly to summon her to her dying father’s bed. She can’t face it. Not knowing what to say she imagines he’s fit and alive. In her daydreams, he tells her the story of “The Deer the Woodcutter and the Nymph.”  It’s a variant of a tale found in every culture. (The Celts have the Selkie myth, the sea-creature who only stays on land if their lover hide their seal-like skin, or the Italian fairytale tale of a  poor fisherman who throws back a magic fish and is rewarded with three wishes, which his greedy wife squanders).  In this Korean version, a magical deer rewards the huntsman’s kindness with the secret of how to captures the Nymph’s love by stealing her magic cloak. “All you have to do is believe.”

Replacing another reader she meets Mr. Warren (Burt Young) and reads his mail. “Look there’s a trash can underneath the sink”. He doesn’t like her voice. “It’s always about money. A person knocks on the door. They want money.”

Mr. Warren asks her to describe pictures in a girlie mag. The camera stays on Young as she describes the photos and he prompts her, guessing where the naughty model puts her finger. He’s alive, laughing as she describes the big-breasted woman straddling a tree.

The next time her father’s ICU nurse calls, she thanks her for letting her her know. “He’s been sick a long time. I don’t know what I can do. He’s always been going in and out. It has nothing to do with love”, she tells the coaxing nurse on the other end of the line.

A longhaired stranger appears in a room of her apartment wounded, bleeding. A stab wound on his side has never healed. He could be the risen Christ wounded by the Lance of Loginus, or perhaps an Angel.

“You’ve saved me.” The stranger (Will Patton) describes an abandoned building, rambling on, “I’ve be here a lot of years and I’m still not very good…speaking…At first I just wanted to get dirt under my fingernails, then I discovered this place. It was just a game, a small rebellion, then the others found out about the place and they started to come…I came out of the water and I saw I didn’t have my robe. You can’t go home without your robe. You’re lost…then someone took me in…and she, she…I want everyone to experience what I experienced. I could arrange it as a way to repay you… Have you ever ben in love? i could arrange it for you…They still go there…If you took his robe he’s couldn’t go home and all he would have is you.”

Abigail goes to the squat and bathes. Rejuvenated, smiling for the first time exhilarated, she runs hone to a blast of musical score.

The second visit she sees a naked young man (Tetsuo Kuramochi) and soothes him, “It’s Ok , it’s just me.” Taming the feral stranger, Abigail takes his robe, dries him with a towel and brings him home. A Stranger from a Strange Land, he’s unused to the apartment’s conveniences. He nests on the couch. She gates the window. Like a caged bird he pines for the open skies.

Feeding her new pet, she trails him as he walks by the river. They hold hands as if he’s reconciled, and explore like kids. Back home, Abigail nuzzles her new love object, who pines for his other world, and quits her job to spend more time with him. They make love.

On a walkabout, Abigail loses him in the subway. The narrator asks,” Does he know about the world, and how it takes?” then like Rod Mckuen’s lyrics from “The Lovers”, describes all the lovers looking for their Platonic shadow or other- “They wander searching for things stolen from them.”

Returning home, he opens all her windows, she closes them compulsively, warning, “Don’t go out there. Stay with me. It’s too dangerous out there. The world is not for you.”

Ironically her dream lover embodies all the tragedies of banal love stories. She clings to a man who’s unable to return her affections, who stays but chafes under her reins. “Do you love me? I don’t love you. I was only using you”, she says vituperatively when he doesn’t respond, then withholds his advances. “Leave me alone”, he parrots, learning the cruelty of love’s games.

In one of their rare conversations she explains, “My father died yesterday, but I’ve never felt so happy in my life. You’re all that I have left in the world. This world can be so harsh. You must leave, but will you stay?”

She liberates him, returns his magic cloak. Storing the robe back under the bed he chooses to stay or does he?

Chung handles their romantic story with silent minimalist scenes, which may prove opaque to some viewers. The stranger’s cautious character matches Abigail’s fragility. Love starved Abigail and the equally delicate stranger, explore the world like teenagers in dreamy forlorn scenes.

Chung knows his way around a small budget. His self-shot widescreen compositions add an unworldly touch to the haunting story. The film won LAAPFF’s  2013 Grand Jury Prize: Best Narrative Film and Best Director (Lee Isaac Chung).

Chung’s first feature, the compelling drama “Munyurangabo” set in Ruanda, premiered at Cannes in 2008. His second film, “Lucky Life”, developed at the Cinefondation of the Cannes Film Festival, premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and 2010 Torino Film Festival.

“The Playback Singer”
Accomplished TV producer/director Suju Vijayan (with over 100 hours of TV under her belt) was nominated for an Emmy for her work on The Style Network series, “Split Ends”. The Playback Singer.” is her feature directorial debut.

Vijayan’s multi-cultural dramedy follows hapless 30-something wanna-be architect Ray Tomassi (Ross Partridge) and his misadventures when his father-in-law Ashok (Piyush Mishra), a proud b-film Bollywood playback singer, arrives in the U.S. and, like “The Man Who Came To Dinner” overstays his welcome.

Actor, screenwriter, singer-songwriter, music director Piyush Mishra (“Gangs of Wasseypur”) stars as Ashok. Making his English language debut, the stage and screen vet brings a low key charm and gravitas to the role.

Out of work free-lance designer/couch potato Ray lounges around the house smoking weed and waiting for his wife, Priya (Navi Rawa-“The House of Sand and Fog”) to come home from work. Patient Priya waits for Ray’s life to turn back around, but she’s hardly prepared for the surprise visit from her estranged, demanding singer-father. Ashok, on his “American Tour ” changes everything. And, they’re expecting a child.

Ray has one architectural client, his Van Nuys neighbor Nathan (Joe Towne), who eventually fires him, and one commission, a backyard jungle- gym. But despite Nathan’s support, procrastinating Ray can’t seem to deliver his creative jungle-gym. Happily Partridge’s affability lets us under Ray’s skin and we root for him.

Ray’s not the only man on the skids. Hard drinking cantankerous Ashok, a performer of classical Indian music, is pissed off that there were no fans waiting for him at the Airport.  Envisioning the Beatles’ tour, Ashok finds himself ripped off by his tour promoter and forced to throw himself on his daughter’s hospitality. Contemptuous and racist, Ashok delivers his dead-pan barbs until Ray can’t take it anymore

Eventually, as in all such tales, the two irritable men bond over their shared grievances, and long-suffering Priva finds herself saddled with two lay-abouts, and the realization that by marrying an American, with nothing seemingly in common with her narcissistic, absentee father she somehow picked another version of him.

Vijayan keeps it simple with her light-hearted fare, focusing close ups on her actors and trusting in the script and performances to keep the audience amused. She stresses mid-life questions over multi-cultural farce and the film is better for her choice. An effective script allows the two men to bond in an unforced way.

And, they’re expecting a child, Jacob.Yoffe’s score is a plus.

“The Sound Of Crickets”- Jack Niedenthal is incubating a film industry In the Pacific Island Republic, the Marshall Islands.

Niedenthal arrived in the Islands as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1981. He married Regina, and started having kids. (They have five and a grandson.) Fully acculturized. He lives with his wife’s extended family. He can talk Yankee, but dreams Marshallese.

Niedenthal has spent over 25 years attempting to get justice for the people of Bikini Atoll. Between 1946-1958, their islands were used for nuclear testing by the United States. The 15-megaton hydrogen bomb “Bravo” showered radioactive fallout on unsuspecting people in the northern Marshall Islands. 60 years later the Bikinians are still not able to live on their homeland.

As Trust Liaison for the People of Bikini, Niedenthal helps them administer their trust funds. In 2000 he was awarded an honorary “Public Benefit” Marshallese citizenship.

The chairman of the country’s Social Security Administration, Niedenthal
liaised for U.S. productions shooting in the country, including the Oscar-nominated “Radio Bikini.”

He directed his first film “Ña noniep” (“I am the Good Fairy”) in 2009. It was the second full-length feature film in Marshallese ever produced in the Marshall Islands. DVD sales of “Ña Noniep” spread the film through the global diaspora so that “every Marshallese anywhere has probably seen the film”.

With partner Suzanne Chutaro, he co-directed “Yokwe Bartowe”,  “Lañinbwil’s Gift”, the short “Zori ” and “The Sound of Crickets at Night”(“Ainikien Jidjid ilo Boñ”). Their projects often use local mythical creatures in their plots.

Niedenthal, whose kids are Marshallese, revels in spreading self-esteem.  At the festival screening Niedenthal and Chutaro discussed the positives for this generation, finally able to see a film in their language that deals with local issues.

Standing in a video store in 2008, 10-year-old son Max asked, “Why are there no movies in Marshallese?” Shocked, Niedenthal decided to venture into filmmaking.  The 50-year old novice founded Microwave Films of the Marshall Islands, bought some filmmaking equipment and, with co-director and co-producer Suzanne Chutaro (daughter of RMI Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Murphy), made their first film. They are currently in production on their 5th feature film “Jilel” (“The Shell”).

Microwave Films, a community grassroots organization modeled on the community theater system in the United States, is volunteer-based and self-funded. The cast is all volunteer. The proceeds of “Ña Noniep” helped build the private Majuro Cooperative School, an accredited high school.

Spare parts on equipment can shut the production down, awaiting replacements from the U.S.

Niedenthal focuses on script, cinematography and editing. Chutaro guides the actors, who all work in their spare time. Neighbors lend them houses and shops.

Worejabato, the ancestral spirit of Bikini Atoll, is played by Niedenthal’s boss Alson Kelen, the former Mayor of Bikini Atoll. Dressed in a grass skirt Kelen plays the impressive diety. Niedenthal plays his modern day incarnation, the amnesiac American tourist dubbed ‘George Bush’ by young Kali who finds him and brings him home.

Elderly nuclear survivor Jebuki (Banjo Joel) moved to Ejit Island in the Marshall Islands when his Bikini Atoll home was evacuated for bomb testing,

Angry voices punctuate the sound of crickets in the night. Husband Taka (Randy Bourn) the town drunk, complains his wife Lorita (Cathy Joel) plays bingo instead of feeding the kids. Lorita complains he’s never home or sober. Sounds of fighting drive the two little girls and their grandfather outside.

Waiting it out, JIma (gramps) describes the bomb explosion to the girls; the bright light, the fallout. Jebuki’s mother took the sickened boy to the beach. All he could hear was the sound of crying people covering the nightly sound of crickets. Their grandmother died from radiation. Jebuki mourns the lost and longs to be buried on his homeland.

The next day, Mani (Toufina Faktou) and Kali learn their parents are splitting up; their father to look for work, their mother to join her sister in Arkansaw with little Mani. “Why are you taking Mani from me?” enraged Kali storms out.

Jebuki remains behind to raise his eldest granddaughter Kali (the precocious and affecting 10-year-old Salome Fakatou). She is his sole support and vice versa.

Three months pass. Neighboring kids are already gossiping about Kali’s mother’s new boyfriend. Kali languishes, won’t eat or do her chores.  Worried Jebuki has a heart condition, and hides his chest pains from Kali. Whenever they strike, he remembers his mother’s voice and the sound of crickets.

Jebuki goes to the big Island to the Town Hall to get a loan on his trust to bring Kali to her mother in Arkansa, but he’s already taken out a loan to send Lorita over. The council and the bank turn him down.

As a youth, Jebuki was entrusted with powerful magic from a local medicine man (Edward Bejiko), a vial containing the medicine of the Reef God Worojabat, and warned there would be a price for using this power.

Taking out the bottle he strokes the medicine across his beloved Kali’s forehead, unleashing a flashback to the Bikini Atoll creation myth.

Reef God Worejabato rows inland. Strolling ashore he looks around. Two fractious twins, a sort of conjoined Tweedledee and Tweedledum, approach. Worejabato climbs a palm and watches.

Vain Kweiar (Johann Anjolok) and Kwelik (Niten Anni) fight over local beauty Aline, each claiming the other scares the girl away. Catching sight of Worojabato’s impressive reflection in the water, each foolish twin believes it’s his own reflections.

Worojabato roars, “I’m a spirit from an island to the south looking for a home.” To punish the selfish twins he tosses them in the water and turns them to rocks. Setting protective sharks around the reef, he vows to protect the local people, who can summon him for help.

Meanwhile a couple of yacht owners, Captain Bart (Phil Okney) and First Mate Becky (Karen Earnshaw) conduct a whispered argument about their ‘spooky’ passenger. Forced ashore because their GSP is broken, they grumble that the stranger who wanted to land on the Atoll has caused their problems.

The stranger falls overboard and the pair decides to cover up his disappearance to simplify their lives.

Kali finds the stranger (Jack Niedenthal) washed ashore and brings him home.  She names him George Bush. “OK”, he agrees.  Showering, he reveals indigenous tattoos covering his body, more of a mystery.

Local police (Nicky Debrum, Danny Mino) question him but he remembers nothing. They advise Jebuki to take him to the U.S. Embassy.

Even the consul Tom Barnes (Mike Trevor) smiles when he hears Kali’s name for her stranger. All he can do is wait to see if he’s reported missing, meanwhile George Bush remains with Kali and Jumaki.

Motherless Kali is the butt of local bullying. George Bush protects her. Instead of asking the local boys to fish for them, Kali insists she can catch fish. Summoning help from his guardian sharks, Worejabato’s magic allows her to catch a fish from the pier, shutting the taunting boys up.

Jebuki suffers another heart attack. In a fugue state he recalls his mother’s perpetual questions and watches crabs scudder away to the sound of Crickets.

Riding home by cab, Kali’s alkie father Taka is the subject of the cabdriver’s gossip. Taxi Driver (Jukulius) and his passenger (Siouvener Ned). carry on in front of Kali, describing he many nights they took him to the drunk tank. Protective “George Bush” addresses them in Marshallese then to their astonishment curses their car so it stops running.

There’s a comic subplot with the annoying Brit busybody Becky. The gentle Island folk won’t fall in line with her snares, and her half-baked plot to recover money he supposedly stole goes nowhere.

Jebuki suffers a heart attack in church. Worejabato appears to him and telling him his time is short, promises he will protect his granddaughter. Sending for the Councilman (Hinton Johnson) Jebuki begs to be taken to Bikini to die. But there is no plane or boat to take him.

George Bush rouses him, “It’s time”. Singing a mournful song “I can no longer live in harmony with the world or rest on my sleeping mat and pillow.” remembering his long tragic history in flashback, Jebuki climbs aboard Worejabato’s traditional outrigger canoe and rows himself home. It’s his final act. Kali discovers his boat drifting at sea, his body on it.

‘Death is a time when people gather and learn who they are” reads a title.

All of Kali’s family returns. Her mother tends to her fever in hospital. Waking from her fever Kali find her family reunited on Ejit.

George Bush, his bushy hair haloed by the sun, wanders off. Assuming his true form, Reef God Worejabato rows away.

As her parents watch TV Kali joins Mani on the spot where they used to sit with Jumi Jebuki and listen to the sound of crickets. It’s a lovely moment.

Written, shot and edited by Niedenthal, the film features beautiful original music by Nelu Debrum and Lulani Ritok, and was filmed on Majuro Atoll and Bikini Atoll.

At the festival Q and A session, Niedenthal described how his 10-yearr old lead turned full-out diva on him. Driving her home every day now included a stop at a DVD rental store to rent her 2 DVDs, then a stop at an ice cream store to get her ice cream!

“Dal Puri Diaspora”

Doc director Richard Fung tracks the global journey of his beloved childhood treat dal puri (stuffed flatbread). Born in Trinidad, the associate professor at OCAD (Toronto’s famed art and design “university of the imagination”) produced twenty films before he went hunting the elusive floppy bread.

Fung, who’s made many trips to India, was astonished at how hard it was to find the iconic dish that is ubiquitous in Indian restaurants in Trinidad, Tobago and Toronto. And those he found tasted nothing like what he grew up on. Toronto style dal puri wraps around its savory curried contents, peas, sometimes other veggies, lentils or meat.

Fung can cook. He demonstrates making the basic Caribbean roti-sada roti. (There are seven varieties.)

Dal puri morphed. The original recipes from the poor regions of Uttar Pradesh (North India) and Bihar (Eastern India) used brown flour. In the Caribbean, British or Dutch plantation owners gave their workers all-purpose white flour, which had a longer shelf life. (indians still use brown flour, Atta-durem wheat).

Comparing Roti, paratha and dal purii, or the hybrid wedding bread Bussupshut (partha-roti,) Fung tracks the influence of the Caribbean slave trade and the wholesale immigration of Indian workers on the development of a comfort food, which like pizza or spaghetti had morphed from the versions found it’s county of origin. And, along the way he offers some thoughts on the historic racial tensions of the Caribbean, enforced by the Plantation owners view of the Indians as the solution to crop failures. When then newly freed slaves fled the plantations or made demands their former owners refused to meet, Immigrants from China (like Fung’s ancestors) or India were welcome as hopefully trouble-free workers. Their immigration spanned 1840 to 1917.

Nelson’s island was their version of Ellis island, where they were selected  and assigned plantations or sent back as troublesome. Often living in the substandard slave barracks they experienced a systemic cruelty. Eventually they regained their freedom and received better treatment and pay. Caste divisions collapsed as the immigrants adapting to a new culture.

Indians and Africans were treated differently. Spared realization, favored Indians retained their cultural identity and was encouraged to keep and grow their traditional foodstuffs. Mango, spinach, dates and tamarind traveled with them in their meager bundles. And they found local crop substitutes.

Much of the food they encountered, like salted meat, was culturally prohibited. Ironically the Hindu island immigrants were prohibited from eating ocean fish by an arcane religious injunction, hence the meat focal cuisine. (Chicken and goat is favored.)

Commercial curry powers enabled non -Indians like Fung’s mother began cooking the Indian dishes. The commercial powders were produced at a moment when women began to work outside the home and ensured the food would become the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago. Originally seen as an Indian ghetto dish it was adopted by Trinidadians of all colors and classes.

In New Delhi, Fung discovers that versions of the bread he’s used to exist, but are all labeled other names.

Food Historian Pushpesh Path proudly describes the sophistication of India’s palate, explaining that India has six tastes, the Japanese have five, the west has four flavors. And despite the tragic destiny that separated the region in the 20th century, the food is omnipresent on the sub-continent.

The puri dal Fung remembers is called dal ke parather from the Bhojpuri belt (the homeland of most Trindadian Indians.)  Roti expert Sohail Akbar describes the variants, including the rich Shirmal. Other interviews with food scholars include Naomi Duguid, Brinsley Samaroo, Radhika Mongia and Patricia Mohammed.

As in the travel writing of Paul Theroux, Fung collects interesting characters along the way like gourmet Jahendra Nath Lal, Chief officer East Central Railway, whose mother taught him all her cooking secrets and described the manly Jahendra as a “daughter” to her.

There’s a cautionary aspect to Fung’s tale, newly relevant by Globalized agro-business’ dependency on mono-crops. India’s poorest state of Bihar was devastated by the Opium trade. The fertile self-sufficient agricultural area dedicated all its fields to the Opium mono-crop, which failed, forcing the wholesale immigration of Indian workers to the Caribbean as Indentured servants.

In the villages, traditional cooks explain the local secrets. One difference, Trinidadian’s use baking soda and white flour instead of the flavorful ‘high extraction “Atta Durem.  Fung’s journey winds up back in Toronto and his comfort food.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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