June 12, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Love as laughter
By Johnny Ray Huston
'DO YOU KNOW how hard I have to work to put pussy on the table?" Margaret Cho asks at one point during her new concert film. The hard work has paid off: Notorious C.H.O. reaches its comic peak when Cho reveals her own very specific turn-ons and turnoffs, free-associating herself in and out of absurd bedroom scenarios, some imaginary, some hilariously real. Cho doesn't meet doctrinaire definitions of a gay man (though she's one in sensibility) or a lesbian (while attracted to dykes who resemble John Goodman, she admits pussy isn't her first choice). But she has an opening-night spot at this year's 26th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. And deservedly so no other feature I've viewed from this year's festival matches Notorious C.H.O.'s sexual freedom or funniness.
Despite an opening interview that contains words such as "inclusion" and "validated," Cho's new movie trims down the empowerment mantras of her first, I'm the One That I Want. The emphasis is on raunch. Cho is equipped with one-liners, expert turns of phrase, and an arsenal of silly voices, but her secret weapon is physical comedy, a talent ideally suited to sexual stand-up. One highlight: a fisting, well, passage that moves from her impression of being pummeled by a guy with a Popeye arm (never happened) to her becoming a human Muppet for a butch daddy named Eileen (did happen, and Cho acts out both sides of the interaction). Lorene Machado's mostly artless direction intuitively hooks up with Cho's pantomimes only once: a crotch-level view as she imitates an ex-boyfriend bellowing, "Why can't you cuuuuum when I fuck you?"
Frameline includes Notorious C.H.O. in "Tsunami Warning: Queer Asian Cinema," a leaflet separate from the festival catalog that highlights the preponderance of Asian features at this year's SFILGFF. The leaflet idea is typical of an era when the neat labeling and packaging of identity is fundamental to more and more film festivals (and, in turn, the films submitted to them). "Tsunami Warning" can be used as a marker of quality as much as quantity; barring a few exceptions Karmen Geï, Claire (see "Quickies") the strongest and strangest full-length movies at this year's festival come from South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.
One film that fits both categories is Bungee Jumping of Their Own. Saddled with a truly torturous English title, Kim Dae-Seung's movie is an eccentric addition to South Korea's current romantic melodrama renaissance. The 2002 San Francisco International Film Festival showcased Hur Jin-Ho's One Fine Spring Day and Song Hae-Sung's Failan, the latter an update of Max Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman (with a tear-jerking star turn by Cecilia Cheung as a tragic heroine), the former a boy-loses-girl story from a director who isn't unaware of Preston Sturges. These '40s-era references aren't meaningless; both films and Bungee Jumping use sincerity, sensitivity, and unashamed sentimentalism to revive a genre that contemporary cynicism has almost rendered obsolete.
Bungee Jumping distinguishes itself through a plot twist. Its initial half plays like an idealized, sherbet-colored comic book account of heterosexual young love, complete with an initial rainy-day meeting under an umbrella a nod to Hur's Christmas in August and a cliff-top sequence that utilizes a swoon-inducing crane shot (a favored technical approach in Failan). But then the narrative leaps forward 17 years. Married to a woman who looks nothing like his college sweetheart, Suh In-Woo (heartthrob Lee Byung-Hun) is now a teacher. And he's overwhelmingly attracted to one of his male students, who seems like the reincarnation of his very first affair to remember. A spanking results, but you'll have to see for yourself how bungee jumping relates to all of this.
Equally loopy but far more languidly paced, Ryosuke Hashiguchi's Hush! adds comedy to romantic melodrama while subverting the latter genre's typical equation: in this case, boy meets boy, then boy and boy meet girl (who wants one of them to father her yet unborn baby). Hashiguchi's long-awaited follow-up to 1995's Like Grains of Sand is a much better thing than The Next Best Thing, though, observing and redefining "family" with a wisdom absent from John Schlesinger's Madonna monstrosity. A whistling soundtrack by Bobby McFerrin is the movie's one misstep into cloying whimsy.
The audience is introduced to potential mom Asako played by Reiko Kataoka at a pet salon, where she trips the bratty daughter of a woman breeding golden retrievers to raise money for a new car. (Mother and daughter wear matching Michelin Man-like Dolce and Gabbana down coats). Asako might not be an ideal candidate for maternity, but her unpredictable actions and emotions seem preferable to the various societal straitjackets Hashiguchi reveals. Hush! is deceptively casual in tone the film's chief dramatic scenes are shot using one long take, an approach that highlights the awkwardness of the characters as they struggle to understand their relationships to one another.
In terms of directorial assurance, Hashiguchi has only one superior at this year's festival: Stanley Kwan, whose Lan Yu the festival's other opening-night film updates the romantic melodrama by injecting Sirkian detachment into sexually charged intimacy. (There are also a few brief nods hotel hookup sequences that use brightly tiled bathrooms to showcase male nudes to Tsai Ming-liang, whose absence from gay film fests such as this is puzzling). Early on, country boy Lan Yu (Liu Ye) resembles River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, but by the end of the film he's achieved a maturity missing from his older lover, corrupt businessman Chen Hangdong (Hu Jen). The pair's love is marked by the kind of luck you might expect from an affair that obliquely pivots on the 1989 killings at Tiananmen Square, and Kwan deploys mirrors with symbolic precision, creating vast emotional expanses within cramped, humid settings.
Not every movie included in "Tsunami Warning" sticks to the aforementioned romantic comedy or melodrama formulas: the camera-surveillance paranoia and glossy violence of Kim Yoo-Min's Running Blue is closer to Chang Yoon-Hyun's recent Tell Me Something than it is to South Korea's current boom of sweet and dorky love stories. And not every movie listed in the leaflet is successful: Andrew Cheng's Shanghai Panic flaunts Dogme pretensions while sporting an undistinguished home-video look; the simplicity of Li Yu's Fish and Elephant, shot underground in Beijing, is effective until a clichéd criminal subplot takes over. Still, a case could be made that Asian film is the current heart of international queer cinema a heart that's sometimes candied, sometimes bloody, but always bittersweet.
The San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival runs through June 30. "Tsunami Warning: Queer Asian Cinema," a free panel discussion featuring Stanley Kwan, Li Yu, Marcus Hu and Sandip Roy, takes place Fri/14, 3 p.m., Castro Theatre. See box for more information.