For me, April's arrival instantly conjures up excitement for baseball, Easter dinner and Pacific Arts Movement's Spring Showcase. This year's compact program includes 11 films from nine countries, beginning with a splashy opening-night screening of To Be Takei, Jennifer Kroot's fun and engaging documentary about activist and former Star Trek actor George Takei. A series of live comedy performances by 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors will run throughout the event, and the festivities close with a screening of Hirokazu Kore-eda's lovely Like Father, Like Son.
Thanks to artistic director Brian Hu and his team, I was able to procure three of the selected films for advanced review. The clear standout among them is Richie Mehta's Siddharth, a devastating human drama set in the bustling streets of Delhi and, later, Mumbai.
Right away, you feel the gut punch of separation. Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) worriedly waves goodbye to his 12-year-old son Siddharth as the boy departs on a bus bound for a neighboring city. He's being sent to a factory to provide his family with extra income despite strict child-labor laws in India. When Siddharth doesn't return home for the annual Diwali Festival, Mahendra and his wife begin a long and arduous search, an investigation that leads them to multiple institutions for assistance. But none of the groups is particularly helpful, and conflicting reports about the boy's whereabouts begin to pile up, leading to fears that he may have been abducted, a rampant problem in modern India.
In its subtle realization of oppressive helplessness and panic, Siddharth reminded me of Vittorio de Sica's great neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves. Both are intricately woven dramas that consider the slow breakdown of families stripped of their economic livelihood. As each family struggles to survive, we gain a clearer picture of society's ills.
Depicting a story with far less at stake is Shift, a hip Filipino spin on the romance picture that makes its obsession with blurred sexuality and technology readily apparent from the first frame. Grumpy call-center employee Estela (Yeng Constantino) spends a lot of time hanging out with her gay coworker Trevor (Felix Roco), an odd-couple friendship that inevitably confuses both parties to the point of delirium when hints of romance start to flourish.
As SMS messages and IM chat boxes pop onto the screen, Shift wants to feel edgy by relentlessly displaying a mosaic of virtual media at one time. It succeeds in highlighting all of the opportunities for miscommunication one can find when living and growing through social media. But the film's tepid skewering of the classic rom-com setup proves that it doesn't have much else on its mind.
Providing a local angle to this year's Spring Showcase is AKA Dan, a documentary about hip-hop artist (and former Pac Arts employee) Dan Matthews, who traveled to South Korea after deciding to track down his birth family. Adopted by an American family when he was less than a year old, Matthews states early on that he has lived a happy life so far. This makes him feel conflicted about the journey, which invariably opens up wounds even as it answers long-gestating questions about his past.
While the film is often straggly and unfocused, the importance of Matthews' journey still resonates. Themes of identity, guilt and closure all play a role in the young man's brave attempt to explore a void that some people might deny existed in the first place.
At the festival, I plan to attend a screening of Sion Sono's expectedly batty Why Don't You Play in Hell? and possibly a few others. I recommend you do so, as well.