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Pacific's Edge

[whitespace] Spring in My Hometown Vision Quest: Director Kwang-Mo Lee's 'Spring in My Hometown' (left) chronicles a young boy spying on the Yanks during the Korean War.

The Pacific Rim Film Festival turns its lens on pride, illusion and rock & roll

By Richard von Busack

THE BOOKERS of the 12th-annual Pacific Rim Film Festival are a little flexible with the definition of "Pacific"--one of the films in this year's lineup comes from Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Yet there's still no arguing that the festival brings to the Monterey Bay a telescope's view of life from the far shores of the Pacific, from China, Korea, the Philippines and, yes, Sri Lanka.

Most westerners have drunk countless cups of tea from Sri Lanka without knowing what goes on in that remote land. The import film Death on a Full Moon Day (May 10 at 1pm, May 11 at 3:30pm and May 12 at 9:30pm, all at the Del Mar), one of the best offerings at the festival, is set in the island nation off the coast of India. Death on a Full Moon Day is the story of an old man's dignity eroded by the demands of his children.

Joe Abbywickrama plays Wannihami, an elderly, feeble villager whose son was killed by a bomb, a casualty of the Sri Lankan civil war--the latest round of the centuries-old struggle between Hindus and Buddhists there. Since his son was a soldier for the government, the old man is entitled to a compensation payment. Wannihami refuses to endorse the necessary papers because his intuition tells him that his son is still alive. Even the casket--closed because the body was mutilated in the explosion--isn't enough to convince him.

The money is desperately needed by the old man's family--the roof leaks and the monsoons are coming. Marital strife has broken out between Wannihami's daughter Sunanda and her husband, because Sunanda is working at a factory to make ends meet. To her conservative spouse, a woman leaving the house to work elsewhere is about a half-step away from whoredom. Still, Wannihami refuses to take the government's money.

The quavering, stubborn, apparently emotionless old man is the moral center of this story--his obstinacy is a hard-earned virtue in a land undone by poverty and war. Prasanna Vithanage's direction makes this short film (74 minutes) an impressive, delicate and understated work in the vein of Satyajit Ray.

Death on a Full Moon Day Wannihami (Joe Abbywickrama) conveys the dignity of a Sri Lankan man in 'Death on a Full Moon Day.'

ALSO PLAYING is a prestigious Philippine film that marks the beginning of quality cinematic offerings from a national film industry better known for grindhouse fare. In the Navel of the Sea (May 9 at 4pm, May 10 at 7pm and May 11 at 9:45pm, all at the Del Mar) is set in the Philippines in the sleepy 1950s, in what looks like a tropical paradise of shacks, palm trees and a lapping surf.

In director Marilou Diaz-Abaya's lens, little has changed in the island for decades. But it's an illusion of contentment. As the narrator, Pepito (Jomari Yilana), says, "The island holds many secrets, secrets that speak of a dark power and of people whose wrath, if incurred, is to be feared."

Voodoo, abortion and prostitution complicate the idyllic life on the island. The restless narrator loses his father to a fishing accident. To his vast humiliation, he's drafted into his mother's business as a midwife. When Pepito falls in love with an Americanized schoolteacher, what is left of his contentment comes to an end.

This is the finest Philippine film ever seen in our area. Its vision of a simpler past is never compromised by simple-minded nostalgia.

Another film by Diaz-Abaya, her better-known epic Jose Rizal (May 12 at 2pm at the Del Mar and May 13 at 2pm at the Fox Theater in Watsonville), isn't as highly recommended. This film about the Philippine national hero, a revolutionary and an author, was one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of the archipelago, outgrossing even Star Wars. Yet to those not versed in Rizal's life and work, the film is both confusing and extraordinarily long (two minutes short of three hours).

The Making of Steel (May 9 at 1pm, May 10 at 3pm, May 11 at 1pm and May 12 at 7pm, all at the Del Mar) by Lu Xuechang, looks at the changing life in China from the point of view of a disillusioned young man who briefly flirts with the Beijing rock & roll scene. The film takes in 20 years of Chinese history, from the repressed society of the early '70s to the cash-crazed present. The misfit hero, who goes from being a boiler-stoker to a frustrated musician, develops a sort of nostalgia for the revolution, represented to him by a social-realist book he had when he was a kid titled The Making of Steel.

Of all the films in the Pacific Rim Film Festival, The Making of Steel struck me as the one that would have been most right for local distribution. It has scope, it has angst and it has rock & roll.

Chinese in the Frontier West
Americans West: Long Din's 'Chinese in the Frontier West' examines the lives of some Chinese immigrants in California, like these women, known only as 'China Mary.'

The director displays a cool, economical hand with the material--check out his brief, expert handling of a mother's misery over her husband's affair with another woman. The Making of Steel is banned in China, and you'll see why: Lu Xuechang is bitter and eloquent about sex, crime and the failed promises of the revolution.

Local filmmaker Lon Ding has a big part in the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Two episodes of Ding's yet-uncompleted Ancestors in the Americas series are on view. Part 1 is titled "Coolies, Sailors and Settlers" (May 9 at 7pm at the Del Mar).

Using a combination of historical documents, interviews, found footage and fiction--Ding calls the technique documemoir--the filmmaker tells of forgotten pioneers, such as the Philippine sailors who settled in Louisiana in the late 1700s.

Ancestors in the Americas Part 2, "Chinese in the Frontier West" (May 13 at the Fox), picks up a more familiar story of Chinese immigration to California. Despite what a viewer might expect, it's not all a litany of oppression. Some of the settlers came and left as free men, making fortunes and leaving behind an Asian state of mind that's kept California slightly different from the rest of the U.S.

Also in the festival is Spring in My Hometown (May 10 at 9:45pm and May 11 at 7pm at the Del Mar), from Korea, a memoir of the American military intervention in "World War 2 1/2," the Korean War. A young boy from a poor village spies on the Yanks in Kwang-Mo Lee's film.

The Pacific Rim Film Festival is a real festival, not just a series of travelogues. Parents should be advised that there's adult content in most of these movies. The two Lon Ding movies and Jose Rizal are for all ages. (Jose Rizal has violence and no sexuality.) Discussions follow some of the events, all of which are free. Here's a rare opportunity to leave a movie theater feeling smarter than you did when you went in.

The Pacific Rim Film Festival opens on Sunday, May 9, and runs through May 13 at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz and the Fox Theater in Watsonville. The screenings are free. Check Film SantaCruz for showtimes.

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From the May 5-12, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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