Macho Like Me (Helie Lee, 2010). At first glance, this low-budget documentary/one-woman show about author Helie Lee’s six-month stint living as a man has gimmick written all over it. The opening act curdled with stereotypical jokes about Asian family dynamics, female insecurity, and male oppression certainly seems to justify concern, but somewhere between the silly PowerPoint-like presentations and pandering admissions, Lee’s experiment shifts from being a one-note ploy to an honest, vulnerable examination of what it means to be a man in today’s world. After cutting her hair, dressing in men’s clothing, and attempting to deepen her voice, Lee’s devotion to the study gets challenged immediately. “Everything you do is so graceful,” a friend says to Lee during an early stage of the film, implying that even when dressed as a boy her femininity exudes from the façade. Over time, Lee learns to subdue movement, language, and expression to pass off as a man. Throughout the process, Lee’s facial structure changes and she becomes emotionally disillusioned, beginning to understand the stark contradictions haunting her understanding of the male perspective. What starts out as a critique of male-gender advantages soon turns into an unexpected personal enlightenment for this female filmmaker.
Directed and performed by Lee, both the archival footage and filmed stage production take some time to intertwine, as if the amateur filmmaker experienced a learning curve on how to pace a narrative feature. But Macho Like Me becomes transcendent when Lee’s stage performance begins to frankly address the gender implications witnessed in the raw documentary footage, creating a dialogue between the perception of physical change and the emotional turmoil bumbling underneath. Gender identity, sexuality, and emotional connection all become sturdy themes that Lee dissects in a personal context, deconstructing the male identity from an outsider’s perspective. Lee’s blooming friendship with a Korean senior gives the film added resonance, revealing a filmmaker willing to discuss the layers behind emotional frustration and loneliness without descending into sentimentality. Macho Like Me might sound like digressive reality television on paper, but it’s both a tender coming-of-age story and a necessary portrayal of all types of men on the verge of nervous breakdowns.
Bodyguards and Assassins (Teddy Chan, 2009). The concise title of Teddy Chan’s exciting kung fu epic suggests professional warrior groups driven by clarity of purpose. The evolving honor of the pro-democracy protectors defending a key leader in 1906 Hong Kong is just as palpable as the brutal precision of the traditionalists attempting to preserve the ruling Qing Dynasty by killing him. Instead of simply relying on high-flying martial arts and action set pieces, Chan shows an interest in character ambiguity from the very beginning, separating Bodyguards and Assassins from another Donnie Yen vehicle at the festival, Andrew Lau’s plodding Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. In this film, Yen plays Sum Chung-yang, a tormented man destroyed by gambling debts who’s become a scout for the deadly Qing assassins. After witnessing his greed, he comes to a moral crossroads, but he’s just one of many conflicted characters dealing with a crisis of purpose and ideology, one piece of an always expanding human puzzle of loyalties and betrayals. Small character moments dominate the film’s first half, ranging from a tender and selfless marriage proposal, a silence shared between father and son, or a symbolic influence of a broken rag doll. This gives the break-neck momentum of the final real-time chase sequence even more substantive power beyond the immersive violence and set design. In a stunning aesthetic flourish, Chan highlights the human cost of each character’s decision to fight and perish by showing their date of birth and death as their eyes slowly close, a visual gravestone to remind the audience of the character’s impact on the narrative. The thematic weight of Bodyguards and Assassins comes down to the duality between varying belief systems, and how codes of honor and villainy can be associated with both sides of the battlefield.
Alien vs. Ninja (Senji Chiba, 2009). How many movie fans have been waiting for this iconic match up? It appears far too many considering the ecstatic reaction die-hard extreme-cinema junkies gave the film at the late night screening. Yet no matter your level of fan-boy enthusiasm, it’s hard to defend such a reductive and defective piece of low-budget trash like Alien vs. Ninja. Sure, it’s ridiculously bloody and occasionally hilarious, but the film panders to a certain retarded faction of cinephilia that vilifies coherence and celebrates idiocy. After opening with an exciting riff of swordsmanship, Alien vs. Ninja gets to the heart of the matter: An alien crash lands in feudal Japan and begins decimating villages, with the local Iga ninja made up of a rag tag bunch of cliché personalities forming the last line of defense against the creature. Despite the extremely amateurish special effects, the hand-to-hand combat scenes are wonderfully choreographed. But the aforementioned alien (basically a guy in a lizard suit) looks like a cross between a cracked out Barney and a sweaty teradactyl, and its various body horrors exist primarily to gross out the audience instead of cohesively tie into the narrative. Late in the film, when the alien picks up a katana sword and squares off against the main ninja badass, it’s supposed to signify a transcendent battle of iconography finally coming to fruition. Instead, the climax is a culmination of director Senji Chiba’s mind-numbingly simple obsession with pleasing genre followers willing to lap up even the lowest common denominator. There has to be a far better movie still to be made under the guise of this wonderfully singular title. Right?
The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs from October 21 to 28. For more information, click here.