Monday, July 20, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Claustrophobia

According to the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. In some case though, it can also lead to love. For five co-workers forced to carpool together, it leads to a combination of both emotions in screenwriter Ivy Ho’s directorial debut, Claustrophobia (trailer here), which kicks off this year’s Asian American International Film Festival.

After a long day of corporate togetherness, being cramped together for the long commute home might not be the healthiest thing for these employees of a struggling Hong Kong corporation. It seems particularly uncomfortable for Jewel, a young party-girl, and John, the overly-sensitive lover she spurned. Their strained relationship certainly leads to some awkward commuting moments, but the audience soon discovers the real drama is unfolding between John, the married boss, and Pearl, his quietly competent assistant.

Ho tells her story in reverse order, with each scene flashing backwards several months in time. With every successive rewind, Claustrophobia provides more contexts for the preceding scenes. It quickly becomes clear Pearl is in love with John, but his true feelings remain ambiguous. We also start to share Jewel’s ethical suspicions regarding her boss, Karl, an arrogant senior manager and the literal fifth wheel of the carpool.

Claustrophobia’s narrative structure might sound like a gimmicky device. However, it works quite well in the film because of the tremendous patience Ho shows, allowing her vignettes to unfold discretely and organically, rather than as a barrage of quick-cut flashbacks. While Ho declines to spell out every nuance of the relationship between Pearl and Tom, she subtly reveals hints of the disappointments and betrayals that the audience has already seen come to a head.

Ho focuses the film’s spotlight squarely on Karena Lam, the Vancouver-born Hong Kong-based actress, who is simply remarkable as Pearl. Toning down her considerable glamour, she makes Pearl a pretty but not beautiful, smart but not brilliant, hopelessly hardworking professional woman. She expresses the lifetime of frustration experienced by someone who has always done what was expected of her, yet never found the happiness she arguably deserves (at least more than her less conscientious colleagues). Her deeply affecting, fully realized performance is absolutely central to the film’s considerable success.

Ho proves to be a sensitive director, inspiring emotional truth and directness from her talented cast in every painfully intimate encounter, while never allowing the film to descend into melodrama. While Claustrophobia feels understated in the moment, it packs a real punch overall. It is an excellent selection to open the 2009 AAIFF this Thursday (7/23) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinema. Ho will also participate in a special one-on-one interview on Saturday (7/25).