Monday, July 27, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Pastry (and The Eighteenth Birthday Party)

Movie goers well understand the sort of emotional nourishment to be had from sweet confections. In Hong Kong, the simple egg tart can do wonders for young Mui as she watches her four older sisters struggle with difficult marriages and disastrous romances in Risky Liu’s Pastry (trailer here), which screened on the concluding day of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival.

Mui’s father slips out to the movies on the mornings of his first two daughters’ weddings, yet he always makes it to the church on time. Young Mui is simply waiting for the egg tarts to be served. There is undeniable merit to both their approaches to wedding day festivities/angst. Unfortunately, relationships will prove increasingly problematic for the younger sisters, but at least the family’s neighborhood café is always open, serving their beloved “Portuguese tarts.”

With its bittersweet mix of love and food, Pastry would sound tailor-made for the American indie market. However, it is a much more down-to-earth screen story, portraying characters free of the forced quirkiness of most foodie films, despite director Liu’s whimsical flourishes that often seem at odds with his largely serious material. Mui’s family must face legitimate, every-day problems that are not always resolved entirely happily. Still, even in a highly imperfect world, it seems hard to believe the five attractive sisters keep getting involved with such losers.

Mui herself has a waifish Amelie-like charm, but matures in realistic ways as the film progresses. Based on the work of writer Chan Wei, Pastry gives a slice-of-life flavor of turn-of-the-millennium post-transfer Hong Kong that de-emphasizes politics, aside from showing news footage of Chris Patten, the final British Governor, triumphantly returning on a book signing tour to enjoy some of those egg tarts.

The cornerstone of Pastry is a quite touching connection between Mui and her father. Ironically, it was preceded by Ching-Shen Chuang’s narrative short, The Eighteenth Birthday Party, which features a horrifyingly dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. A weird epistolary film that veers into gothic territory, the disconcerting Birthday boasts a subtly powerful performance from its lead as Emma, a beautiful young woman, kept physically and emotionally isolated by her twisted father. It was the best narrative short of an incomplete sampling of AAIFF’s shorts and one of the best shorts seen in on the New York festival circuit in recent months. Together with Pastry, it made a memorable for a memorable block of programming