Sunday, July 11, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Turn of the Harvest & Daughters

There was a time when rural peasants represented an ideologically privileged class in China. Today, they mostly lead hardscrabble lives of strife and want, particularly when compared to the urban professional classes. It is an iniquity frequently captured by the digital-generation of independent Chinese directors, as well as two American-based filmmakers whose stylistically compatible shorts set in China will screen during this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

D-Generation documentaries represent the living conditions of the unfortunates who exist on the margins of Chinese society with scrupulous accuracy. However, their length and studiously languid aesthetics can try the patience of some audiences. In contrast, Tani Ikeda’s documentary short Turn of the Harvest never overstays it’s welcome, but still gives viewers an honest, tactile sense of its subjects’ lives.

A late middle-aged couple works their wheat field, quietly joking between themselves. The man has a broken finger he has not treated for three weeks. Yet, outwardly they seem happy. However, as Ikeda interviews his wife, it becomes clear their relationship is not all it might appear. Especially painful for her was a decision to relinquish one of the twins she gave birth to, out of economic necessity. Surprisingly, they choose to give up their son, because boys cost more to raise.

Of course, boys tend to be preferred over girls, which accounts for the looming shortage of marriageable women under China’s restrictive family planning. Take for instance the family of fourteen year year-old Maple in Chloé Zhao’s narrative short Daughters. With a coveted baby boy on the way, her parents suddenly have one daughter too many. Coldly pragmatic, they see only two options. Either they foist off her sweet tempered young sister on a distant family member or they arrange her marriage to a disturbingly old man. Not surprisingly, such news causes confusion and resentment for the preteen.

Daughters is nine minutes of focused heartbreak, featuring a devastating performance from young Luo Qian as Maple. Though brief, it is undeniably assured filmmaking, all the more impressive considering it was the NYU alumnus’s second year film.

While Harvest is a documentary and Daughters is a narrative, both convey rural China with unvarnished naturalism. They are quite well produced short works from young filmmakers with tremendous promise. Daughters screens this coming Saturday (7/16) at the Chelsea Clearview as part of AAIFF’s Oh Family, Where Art Thou? block of shorts, while Harvest screens the next day at the Quad as part of the Untold Stories shorts program.