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Distant Boy : 'Marathon' is based on the true story of autistic Korean distance runner Bae Hyeong-jin.

Watching A Changing World

The Pacific Rim Film Festival offers a glimpse into rapidly morphing societies—and it's absolutely free.


Education is the unofficial theme of this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival, running Oct. 5-10 at locations throughout Santa Cruz County. The annual festival—admission to which is free, except for the benefit on the final night—is mostly a selection of works about Asia and the Pacific Islands, and of the getting of wisdom along the way. Two films this year go further afield. A Nepalese offering, On the Road With the Red God: Machendranath, chronicles a ritual held once every 12 years in the Himalayas. And a Brazilian documentary brings some rare good news from the Third World: A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions From Curitiba, Brazil, profiles a city of nearly 2 million in southern Brazil. The surprise is that this huge city is well managed: through transportation spending, civic and environmental planning, Curitiba is being studied by the rest of the world. Felton-based screenwriter and producer Maria Terezinha Vas is coming to the Oct. 9 screening to discuss this model city too few have heard about.

Perhaps the biggest name guest at this year's fest is Iris Yamashita, who scripted Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. My Name Is Belle is a documentary about Belle Yang, a UCSC biology alumnus, artist and writer based in Carmel. Maxine Hong Kingston has called Yang "a cross between Chagall and Isaac Bashevis Singer," meaning, in this case, someone who uses both art and words to retrieve imagery of the old country for the children of those who emigrated overseas. Yang and the documentary's directors, Terri DeBono and Steve Rosen of Monterey, will be on hand on Oct. 9.

The Chinese hit Sunflower, by Zhang Yang, concerns the kind of artist who never made it through the Cultural Revolution (see story, page 13). A painter whose hands were broken during the Chinese calamity has a rebellious son; together the two generations face the past and present. San Francisco's Joan Chen co-stars.

Hula teacher Robert Cazimero is scheduled to arrive from Hawaii. He's the one of the stars of the documentary Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula, about the preparations for the Big Island's 2005 Merrie Monarch cultural fest.

Hula Girls, by contrast, is something more like a demure Japanese answer to The Full Monty: a fictionalized story of an isolated mining town gone post-industrial. There, shy local women are recruited to be dancers for a Hawaiian theme park. My Mother Is a Belly Dancer offers more fictional liberation through dance, in a story of proper Hong Kong women taking lessons in the Arab art. Marathon, a.k.a. Running Boy, is based on the life of the Korean autistic running champ Bae Hyeong-jin.

Of the previewed films, most highly recommended is 2000's Happy Times Hotel, by Academy Award nominee Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern). The unlikely comedy features a cast of broadly painted characters and a good-hearted chump of a hero, along with a bittersweet ending. Another Chinese film, Shanghai Kiss, the new effort by Kern Konwiser and David Ren, tells the tale of Liam, an artsy Southern California babe magnet (Ken Leung), and his journey from self-obsession to cultural rediscovery following his return to the homeland. As it laments the plight of the stereotype-blighted Asian-American actor, Shanghai Kiss has its own stereotypes, from dim-witted L.A. blondes to the silky, threatening Shanghai gangsters who take Liam for a ride.

More on the subject of stereotypes: The Color of Fear (1995) documents a mixed-race encounter group of men talking about their prejudices. The screening is dedicated to the late Tony Hill. Another local hero in the fight against prejudice is Tommie Lindsey, coach of Union City's James Logan High School Forensics team. Accidental Hero: Room 408 (by DeBono and Rosen) played at San Jose's film festival Cinequest, where it won the "Best Documentary" award. Oprah saw this and plotzed. Now Lindsey is the winner of one of Winfrey's "Use Your Life" awards, to help him lead more bottled-up, endangered kids to express themselves creatively.

Ordinarily, education is expensive, but the Pacific Rim's séance of films offers a free escape through the wall of Hollywood solipsism.

Filial Duties

A trio of films offers insight into the current state of family relations in China

By Richard von Busack

There are certain Chinese fathers who can make a Chinese son wish that Confucius had never been born. Three films debuting locally at the Pacific Rim Film Festival concern the struggles between generations. One—the funniest of the three—takes the point of view of a stepfather trying to deal with his new offspring.

2000's Happy Times Hotel is a fresh and extremely uncharacteristic comedy by the emperor of epics, Zhang Yimou. It's very much Zhang's tribute to a Charlie Chaplin plot. A lovelorn clown (Benzhen Zhao) out to protect a sweet-natured blind girl involves himself in some dubious activity: he helps to turn a marooned bus into a ramshackle hot-sheet hotel for Beijing trysters.

The movie includes a gallery of Mack Senettish types, especially a pushy fat lady and her spoiled, heavyweight son, the latter the exemplification of the Chinese slang term "a little emperor," the petted and preferred only male child. Happy Times Hotel's strangely somber ending is probably the only reason this unlikely comedy isn't better known.

The purported crowd-pleaser of the festival is Shanghai Kiss. Avoid it like the Hong Kong flu. Americans Kern Konwiser and David Ren's movie is the kind of thing that is euphemistically described as a Woody Allen-style comedy, if only because the lead Liam (Ken Leung) is a self-obsessed artsy type pestered by the ladies. It borrows copiously from Manhattan; rising starlet Hayden Panettiere of Heroes does the Mariel Hemingway bit as the blonde underage girl heading to Europe to study. A Year in Provence gets hit on, too, when Liam inherits Shanghai property. Joining the gentry helps Liam reracinate himself. So does his fling with a Westernized Chinese girl (Kelly Hu). Liam's No. 1 problem, as he's the first to admit, is his father: the old man (James Hong, in a fine one-scene cameo) prefers bourbon to all things.

The father (Sun Hiyiang) in Yang Zhang's 2005 epic Sunflower is also far too thirsty. He has other troubles, too. The Red Guard sent him to the rural dungheaps during the Cultural Revolution, and his hands were deliberately broken in a torture session. When he returns home after six years, he's unable to continue painting. So he pours his thwarted artistic ambition into his son—shoves it down the boy's throat, more like. And Mother (Joan Chen, house-coated and gray) doesn't interfere. The slow crushing of the son's spirit takes place over decades; meanwhile, Beijing transforms from a city of alleys and courtyards into a city of tower blocks and freeways. One major reason to see this is Sunflower's affection for the rickety tile and concrete old city, smashed up by earthquakes and redevelopment alike.

When the smothered son gets involved with the girl of his dreams—an ice-skater whose crimson hat and scarf makes the whole frame glow—Sunflower finally evolves into disenchanting melodrama.

Still, one starts to feel there's a secondary meaning in Sunflower, because of its emphasis on passing political events: the end of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the purging of the Gang of Four. A story of toxic parenthood in the People's Republic has to be loaded with meaning. It might well reflect the Chinese government's uneasy past, and the wretched excesses of its paternalism.

Curitiba Cityscape

A Felton resident's documentary showcases creative alternatives to urban sprawl

By Traci Hukill

When Maria Terezinha Vaz first arrived in Santa Cruz 11 years ago, it was, in her words, "love at first sight." The downtown Victorians and mountain cottages struck the Brazilian photographer as exotic, the redwoods in their shroud of summer fog enchanted. Only one thing troubled her about her new home.

"I started to realize the city wasn't growing, economically speaking," she says. "It was shrinking. I had the feeling like people were getting less opportunities."

At the same time, Santa Cruz was physically expanding—and contemplating what Vaz considered wrongheaded plans for growth, like widening Highway 1.

Remembering a Brazilian city called Curitiba (pronounced "Curricheeba") that in the 1960s began a remarkable turnaround, Vaz embarked on an ambitious project. She would film a documentary—her first—about Curitiba, now considered a model of creative and responsible urban growth, and use it to educate policymakers and the public about alternatives to sprawl and traffic congestion.

The result, A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions From Curitiba, Brazil, is utterly inspiring. In 1965 Curitiba was a choking, smoggy city center surrounded by crumbling favelas (slums) encrusted in trash. A group of forward-thinking city planners, led by Mayor Jaime Lerner, undertook radical changes. In 72 hours one weekend in 1971, and over the protests of appalled shopkeepers, they blocked off a major downtown street to create the first pedestrian mall in Brazil. Three years later merchants throughout town were clamoring to have their streets blocked off. Growth was guided out of the clogged city center and focused along five spokes in "linear centers" leading out of downtown. Public housing moved away from the blocky warehousing model and became a mixed-use, rent-to-own enterprise where people could run businesses downstairs. A favela located in a troublesome floodplain and crippled by grief and disease with each annual flood was torn down to make way for a terraced park that doubles as open space and flood protection. In the garbage-filled slums, residents who produced bags of recyclable bottles and cans were paid in transportation tokens, which gave them entrée to Curitiba's pride and joy: the trinary road system. An elegant system of broad one-way avenues combined with central thoroughfares dedicated to the city's comprehensive bus service, the trinary system has been replicated in 83 cities around the world. In Curitiba, 60 percent of people choose to take the bus to work—in spite of the fact that the city has the second-highest rate of automobile ownership in Brazil.

Vaz, who co-wrote and produced the film with her son, recent UCSC graduate Giovanni Vaz Del Bello, says the project was a staggering amount of work. She hopes it will pay off in attention from civic leaders. She's screened it for Santa Cruz City Councilman Tony Madrigal, but not for the council as a whole. "I have tried, but there's been no action, no initiative, from them," she says. "Which to me is sad—the film was made for them."

Vaz has seen better reception from the Department of Defense, of all things, which brought her in to make a presentation at the Fort Ord Reuse Authority in Marina.

If she could pick one aspect of Curitiba to replicate in Santa Cruz, Vaz says it would be transportation.

"There is an urgent need to take cars out of the streets," she says. "It would be much better if we could have buses to move people from one place to another. It is cheap, it is comfortable, reliable, and it is good for the planet."

MARIA TEREZINHA VAZ will take questions after the 5pm showing of 'A Convenient Truth' on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the Rio Theatre.

Through A Child's Eyes

A new film examines the artistic journey of Carmel artist and UCSC alumna Belle Yang

By Traci Hukill

Watching My Name Is Belle is like seeing a collage fall slowly into place. First are the beautiful, brightly hued, folk-influenced illustrations of Carmel artist Belle Yang, which anchor the film in Yang's quiet, intense esthetic. Next are the few animated sequences, built on Yang's illustrations for her children's books, relating the story of her family's suffering during the Cultural Revolution. And then there are the interviews with Yang herself and her parents about the shock of arriving in late 1960s San Francisco and embarking on the journey of becoming Chinese-American. Steady and subtle, the film retains a certain faithfulness to the way life is for most people: challenging, rich, full of twists and turns, but hardly melodramatic.

My Name Is Belle almost wasn't made. Terri DeBono and Steve Rosen, the two members of Monterey-based Mac and Ava Productions, had tried off and on for years to get funding for a film about Yang. The film was to be about her journey to China as a young woman in the late 1980s and its impact on her identity and her art. But no one was biting.

"We couldn't find anyone at that time interested in funding a film about art or an artist," says DeBono. "It was really hard to find funding at all."

Compounding the difficulty of securing scarce post-9/11 dollars for the arts were the details of Yang's life, which didn't conform to the struggling artist story line. After having emigrated from China with her parents in the late 1960s, Yang grew up comfortably in Carmel, where she lives today.

"Belle's seemingly idyllic little life just didn't seem much of a catch for them," Rosen says.

DeBono wrote one last grant, to the Community Foundation of Monterey County, focused on Yang's experience arriving in the United States as a 9-year-old girl who didn't speak a word of English, and on the children's book she wrote about the often frightening and lonely experience. Immigration seen through a child's eyes proved the magic formula, and DeBono and Rosen started interviews and production on the film.

The finished product, which shows this week as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival, consists of a compelling narrative woven together from interviews with Yang and her parents as well as the narrative of her book Hannah Is My Name. Interspersed among shots of San Francisco, the Yang family's landing point, and Yang's Carmel studio are Yang's own illustrations, whimsical and almost mythical, which have earned comparisons to Chagall.

Yang says the film's process helped her come to terms with one of the defining features of her life: a boyfriend-turned-stalker whose increasingly violent behavior led her to abandon her life as a student of commercial art.

"I've been having nightmares forever," she says. "I guess the film made the story overt and public, and made me feel protected in a strange way."

Yang also says that chapter in her life brought its blessings. To escape a situation that had become intolerable, she traveled to China, where she rediscovered a sense of Chinese identity that would forever stamp her work as an artist, and where she witnessed the events of Tiananmen Square, endowing her with a dark understanding of what her parents and grandparents had endured under communist rule. Her next project, in fact, is the third installment of a trilogy about her father's family's survival during the latter half of the twentieth century. A graphic novel in the mold of Art Spiegelman's Maus, it tells the tale of her great-grandfather, a wealthy industrialist who wound up blacklisted by the Party, begging and wandering, turned away even by his grown children.

Its title? "Forget Sorrow," Yang answers. "My Chinese name."

BELLE YANG, TERRI DEBONO AND STEVE ROSEN appear in person at the Rio Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 7pm for the screening of 'My Name Is Belle.' Admission is free. Yang also appears at Capitola Book Cafe (1475 41st St., Capitola) on Saturday, Oct. 6, for a 3:30pm booksigning.

Aloha Boys

Famed hula master Robert Cazimero expands definitions of masculinity

By Matthew Craggs

Words like grace, poise and beauty are not commonly associated with masculinity in Western society. Then again, neither is the word "hula." Since the 1970s, Robert Cazimero has slowly been changing the way Western society—and native Hawaiian culture—view the traditional dance form and the grace, poise and beauty that masculinity can engender.

At the urging of his kumu hula, a Hawaiian term meaning "hula instructor" and which carries associations of mentorship and kinship, Robert Cazimero formed an all-male hula halau, or school, in 1975. In what would become a symbiotic relationship, Cazimero's efforts to show that hula was not a strictly feminine art form merged with what many Hawaiians called the Hawaiian Renaissance. The 1970s were a time of change throughout America, and for Hawaii it was a time when cultural pride enjoyed a resurgence after the indignities and misfortunes brought by Western missionaries, World War II and statehood.

The tourist industry has turned hula into a sexualized dance performed by young, thin women and kitschy artifact embodied in dashboard figurines, but hula as an art form is about storytelling, tradition and life. In the documentary Na Kamelei: The Men of Hula, Cazimero describes the dance as a means of expressing everything an individual sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells. This description inherently owns a sense of welcome vulnerability to the world, which is stereotypically not a masculine outlook on life. Cazimero and his students have fought this stereotype ever since the opening of their school, Halau Na Kamelei.

The documentary is filled with interviews in which students address the common homophobic reactions to their passion for hula, with its leis and grass skirts—even though, when performed by kane, or men, hula takes on a powerful and distinctly martial aspect. But in another twist against stereotypes, Cazimero and the students laugh off the homophobia, perhaps because, as one student mentions, hula is calming and centering.

Watching Cazimero's journey through three decades of hula brings a perspective to both the dance form and Hawaiian culture. Na Kamelei: The Men of Hula, which closes out this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival with a special benefit screening at which Cazimero will appear, gives a candid look at the lives of the students at one of the only all-male hula schools in Hawaii. Through interviews, historical and home footage, Cazimero and the filmmakers explore hula through the traditions from which it was formed as the students at Halau Na Kamalei prepare for the 2005 Merrie Monarch Festival in the town of Hilo on the Big Island. The festival is the biggest and most important hula festival in all of the islands, but when returning to the festival for their 30th anniversary, Cazimero and the students feel the pressures of gender as well as age. As Cazimero puts it in the film, the dancers at his school range from "19 to dirt."

As a type, Cazimero would be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever practiced an art form under a gifted and passionate instructor. At one point he is a tyrannical leader, berating his students for their inabilities to implement his vision, and in the next moment he oozes love and adoration. Neither image is a falsity, both beings expressions of his passion for an art form that he has helped regenerate in modern times. Combined with three decades as a successful musician, Cazimero's passion for Hawaiian culture and traditional art forms is ever-present in the documentary. The scenes in which he brings his students to the edge of Kilauea, the Big Island's active volcano, to pay respects to the goddess Pele are haunting and genuine in their sincerity; this is a society that has been threatened by global pressure for decades. This passion for the Hawaiian culture is summed up in the film by Cazimero when he recites a Hawaiian proverb: "I dare to hula; leave your shame at home."

NA KAMALEI: THE MEN OF HULA shows Wednesday, Oct. 10, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre. Hula dancers perform before the screening, and kumu hula Robert Cazimero will appear in person. Tickets are $15 and available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Logos, Westside Stories, Aloha Island Grill and online at

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