Two mediocre films close out 2011 Asian American International Film Festival

Let’s start with the good news: the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) has a very full lineup this Sunday.  The bad news:  the two features I prescreened are not particularly good.  Although certainly not disasters, they feel like missed opportunities.

In Korean American director Yunah Hong’s “Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words,” Doan Ly performs excerpts from the pioneer Asian American movie star’s letters and sings songs from her European stage shows.  Ly is a fairly good actor, and—although she cannot really overcome the unnaturalness of performing private correspondence—her reenactment enhances our sympathy with Wong’s plight.  Unfortunately, she is a very weak singer, and the producers could have dramatically improved the movie by hiring a professional singer to perform the songs.  Juxtaposed with Ly’s presentation are clips from Anna May Wong’s films, home/promotional videos—some of which I have not encountered in previous documentaries—still photos, and interviews with scholars, Asian American actors and writers, family friends and studio executives.

Ultimately, Hong presents an informative biography of Wong.  The problem is that she does not seem to have a clear audience in mind.  For those who already know something about Wong’s struggles and achievements, this film provides little new information or insight.  Meanwhile, for those who have no idea who Wong was, the title is unlikely to draw you into the theater.  Moreover, the documentary does not provide enough historical context about yellowface, stereotypes of Asians in early American film, or the politics surrounding people of Asian descent in the United States of the early 20th century.

Another distracting feature of “Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words” is the musical score by Kevin Horton.  On its own, the soothing and pastoral-sounding music is perfectly pleasant.  It would in fact be ideal for a documentary about a country estate, but it seems completely out of place in a film about a feisty woman who broke numerous barriers.


Since “Wedding Palace” is the festival’s closing presentation, I had high hopes for this romantic comedy.  As it turns out, my expectations were too high.  Korean American director Christine Yoo’s film has some excellent scenes—I particularly like the animated segment retelling the ancient family curse—and a few hilarious jokes.  Too often, however, it relies on clichés and Asian stereotypes for humor.

In this film, the males of a Korean American family are cursed; they will die if they do not marry by the age of 30.  A member of this family, a marketing executive named Jason (Brian Tee), has reached the age of 29 and is still unmarried.  On the last day of a business trip to Seoul, he meets Na Young (Kang Hye-jeong); they begin a long-distance relationship and quickly become engaged.  When she arrives in the United States, Na Young turns out, to Jason’s surprise, to have a physical “defect” that embarrasses the entire family.  Given the genre, you can guess how the film proceeds.

Overall, there is nothing really wrong with the film.  The pacing is initially a bit slow, but it gradually improves.  There is also some strong acting in “Wedding Palace.”  In addition to Brian Tee’s convincing performance, Bobby Lee (playing Brian’s insufferable friend Kevin) and Margaret Cho (playing the shaman) are excellent.  Unfortunately, the whole never completely catches fire, and there is not enough inventiveness in the humor to keep audiences engaged.

In summation: if you are heading to the AAIFF on Sunday, watch some of the other offerings instead.

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