Sunday, July 18, 2010

AAIFF ’10: Woman on Fire Looks for Water

No frogs were killed in the making of this film. Okay, maybe one. A whole lot of fish and cockles also met their maker during the shoot, but that is just a fact of life for a hardscrabble riverside Malay community. It might not be glamorous, but there is a living to be made from the river’s bounty. It is relationships that are difficult in Woo Ming-jin’s Woman on Fire Looks for Water, which screened at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

Ah Fin works at a shellfish factory, selling live frogs on the side. He is crazy about his sorta-kinda girlfriend Lily, keeping her well stocked with prime frog and even somewhat seriously broaching the subject of marriage. Though she also works in a fish factory, she evidently comes from a good home. By contrast, Ah Fin and Ah Kau, his fisherman father, must eke little better than a subsistence living. It would be much easier for Ah Fin if he would just accept the advances of his boss’s daughter, but he is in love.

Ah Kau understands the pain of unfulfilled love only too well. All too conscious of his impending mortality, he tries to settle some unfinished business with the woman he always pined for. Indeed, Ah Fin does not want to repeat his father’s mistake, but suddenly, like a true teenager, he falls out of love with Lily.

As Lily, Foo Fei-ling should probably be way out of Ah Fin’s league, but she brings a quiet expressiveness to the role that never wilts under Woo’s long, patient close-ups. In contrast, despite showing some convincing puppy-love chemistry with Foo, Ernest Chong is something of a cold fish as Ah Fin. However, Chung Ah-nga lends some quiet gravitas as his faltering father.

Stylistically, Woo’s approach is quite similar to the aesthetics of China’s Digital Generation of independent filmmakers. Meditative and impressionistic, Water would not be out of place in a Global Lens showcase of international cinema. Indeed, it is an art film with a capitol “A.” The audience also learns quite a bit about cleaning and salting fish and assorted mollusks during the film, whether we wanted to or not. Tidying up is a snap too, since all the waste products seem to go back in the river. It is biodegradable after all. Still, some viewers might feel like a nice piece of veal after watching Water.

As a story-teller, Woo is more interested in those on the short end of their relationship dynamic. Initially, he focuses on Ah Fin when the young man is still earnest and dutiful. When the young man turns cold and distant, he shifts the film’s orientation to Lily, who suddenly misses Ah’s attentions.

Clearly, Woo privileges mood, setting and character far above storyline. In fact, some plot points are dispensed with so elliptically, it frankly compromises narrative clarity. Woo was also represented at this year’s AAIFF with Slovak Sling, a contribution to the 15Malaysia short film collection that is Water’s stylistic polar opposite. At just under five minutes, it is essentially a punch-line short. All story and no serious character development, it is a pointed but very funny attack on the pervasiveness of petty corruption in Malaysian society.

Based on both films presented at AAIFF, Woo should definitely be considered an emerging star of the film fest set. He can also be quite demanding, as is the case with Water. It is a beautiful film in many ways, but it can also be maddening. Still, it showcases Foo’s talent quite effectively. Look for Water on the festival circuit, but do not hold your breath for a theatrical release. The 33rd AAIFF continues with more bold selections through Wednesday (7/21) in Manhattan’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood.