Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 12.7: Vulnerability as character at CAAMFest35

"Cardinal X" is Angie Wang's feature directorial debut.
"Cardinal X" is Angie Wang's feature directorial debut.

Here’s a scene from the script of my days:

RC: “I’m a psychiatrist.”
She: “Oh, what do you specialize in?”
RC: “Loneliness, vulnerability, shame and insecurity.”
(beat)
RC: “It’s a wonder I’m still single.”

I’ve been trying to see vulnerability as a character at this year’s CAAMFest, as one of the onscreen lives that is portrayed in performance, music, direction, lighting and mood. Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes more subtle. Either can work. Five films especially resonate with vulnerability and insecurity, our human lot in life, and I encourage you to watch them all.

WHO IS ARTHUR CHU?

"Who is Arthur Chu?," directed by Yu Gu and Scott Drucker.

“Who is Arthur Chu?” directed by Yu Gu and Scott Drucker.

In the end, “Who is Arthur Chu?” is a Zen koan (question). What makes any of us who we are? Yu Gu and Scott Drucker’s documentary was a wonderful collage of Chu’s identity, which lights our restive search for understanding selfhood. One answer is that Arthur is a human being, successfully using the flame of popularity to fuel battle with issues that are searingly vital to his core existence: misogyny, sexism, racism, nerd culture. Online, he comes across as a fierce and outspoken warrior, fueled by anger. There’s always something underneath anger, though. There’s always a vulnerability that leads to the fight-or-flight response. We see Arthur at his peak, and also in low points, speaking to the camera and listening as others speak about him. Ironically, though he’s a spokesperson for just relationship, he himself seems a bit too addicted to connection through screens. We all need and crave validation. The screen seems to relieve our existential isolation, but I sense it’s largely a mirage. 35K twitter followers or years spent online can’t equal a conversation over a meal, at least for me. The film leaves us hauntingly infused with the need for relationship, still unmet. I’ve also questioned the way the internet enshrines anger, which is the most viral emotion online. My e-book on the anger of Asian American men and women, available when you sign up for a free occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, both empathizes with Arthur and also interrogates his rage. I would love to hear your thoughts.

CARDINAL X

Cardinal X

The Angie Wang onscreen mirrors director Angie Wang’s life in many ways, in this, her impressive debut feature. Apparently real-life Angie also was a major supplier of then-legal Ecstasy in the 80s while an undergrad at Stanford. She also was very involved in community work in support of at-risk youth when she returned to Silicon Valley to become a successful entrepreneur. Beyond that, I’m not sure. Onscreen Angie (played by the magnificent Annie Q. in a virtuoso performance that carries the film) was an at-risk youth herself. Scenes of violence and abuse are seen in flashback. Angie rides her unresolved childhood traumas on a trajectory to the depths of Hades, and is finally surfaces in good works and reunion with her father, one of the only two caring male figures in the movie. It’s a powerful and painful journey to watch. My only criticism of this exceptional feat of filmmaking is that Angie’s vulnerability, as visible as it is to us as the audience, is still largely unspoken. Angie doesn’t really seem to break down and “need” anyone else. She charts and sails her own course. She is the rescuer, never really admitting need of rescue herself. Even in her rock-bottom moment, she goes it alone. There’s no place for the audience to really companion her – we can only passively watch. Perhaps more explicit exposition to draw us in would have been banal or sentimental, though. I’ll ask Angie about this in my interview with her, which should post in the next week. (CARDINAL X plays again this weekend at CAAMFest.)

I might contrast this with another film I enjoyed greatly, Tanuj Chopra’s CHEE AND T (which was just acquired for release), where vulnerability is exposed in word and deed, and brotherhood the needed salve and beacon for the viewer’s own redemption.

GOOK

Gook

Society’s vulnerability is a character in Justin Chon’s important second feature film. Poverty, have-not pitted against have-not, scar against scar, han against han in han-to-han combat, in a city where the oppressor is hardly seen but oppression fills the screen. Simone Baker delivers an incredible performance as 11-year old Kamilla, whose playful youth engages with both sides of the Black-Korean divide in L.A.’s South Central. She embodies innocence, a bird in flight, as she dances across the screen. Brace yourself. She is seen at open and close dancing before flames, like the Goddess Kali, destroyer of evil. In this case, the evil is our illusion of separation that births hatred. This film rends at the memory. Were they the L.A. riots, or the Uprising, as some would say? We’re always on a quest for the right and righteous word, but it’s all ambivalence. Like all great tragedy, there is fault all around, but in the end, no one to blame but the world itself and the “calamity of time” (in the words of Persian poet Sa’adi quoted in WINDOW HORSES) in which we lose our common humanity and awareness of common insecurity to make a stand with power, however temporary, situational and self-defeating, at least of our Big S-Self. This film somehow drew me back to BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD; there are superhuman and powerful human forces at work in each, both expressions of and set against a tender humanity.

THE LOCKPICKER

Lockpicker

Hashi weathers the soul-crushing confines of high school isolation with an MP3 player and a journal to scribble manifestations, if not a manifesto, of his confinement. He is imprisoned by painful scenes played on synaptic loop, which director Randall Okita smartly outsources to his digital device. Cruelties are pressed like dried flowers in his notebook of poetry and observations. Hashi (newcomer Keigian Umi Tang in an exceptional and perfectly understated performance) wordlessly communes with traumas, including the suicide of his friend and crush, and struggles for some way out. He struggles to pick the lock of his own shackles. He is a victim of locker-room bullies in what some might see as a staid narrative trope. I saw these scenes instead as weighty anchors scraping the bottom of our collective ocean bed, in an often dreamlike, interior, and psychologically driven seascape of plaintive emotions and memories. Okita’s calling card, as an artist working in sculpture, technology and cinematography, comes through most clearly in surreal sequences in which the silent screams of adolescent suffering become nightmares told in performance art. Sadness, loss, loneliness, angst, aggression, frustration and anger are displayed as our common night creatures, and evoke the viewer’s dawning empathy, for Hashi and all teens disaffected and estranged from a feeling of society. Hashi doesn’t talk about his emotions much; but we feel his moods throughout, especially through a score that becomes a primal conduit to our own buried, still-raw memories of teenage turmoil. In this case, a lack of explicit, spoken exposition actually heightens the felt sense of vulnerability. THE LOCKPICKER is a masterpiece of cinematography, performance, writing and direction, and leaves me wanting more from Okita’s imaginative dream factory.

One of my patients once told me that “Snapchat is an empathy engine”. I replied that relationships were the real empathy engine. But all art, by taking an audience into relationship, by telling a story, by portraying vulnerability, can evoke empathy, so direly needed in this time of division. Without vulnerability, there can be no compassion. It’s where the love comes in.

Perhaps the script of my days should read:

RC: “I’m a psychiatrist.”
She: “Oh, what do you specialize in?”
RC: “Love.”
(beat, and a quizzical look)
RC: “It’s a wonder I’m still single.”

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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. When you sign up, you can get his free e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.