Tuesday, July 28, 2015

AAIFF ’15: La Salada

For a Peronista, Carlos Menem’s economic policies were far better than anyone expected. Thanks to his reasonably free market reform program, the La Salada free-for-all shopping district became quite a dynamo of industriousness. Decried by the U.S.T.R. for its plentiful and inexpensive knock-off’s, the expansive market is still a recently arrived migrant worker’s best bet for employment. It is there that immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, and Bolivia cross paths as they go about their business in Juán Martín Hsu’s La Salada (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

La Salada works just fine for old Kim and his daughter Yun-jin. After ten years in Argentina, he leases one stall in the marketplace and will soon buy a second outright. Her arranged marriage to the son of his business associate is fast-approaching, but she is ambivalent enough to half-entertain the flirtations of Luciano, an Argentinean La Salada manager-in-training.

In contrast, La Salada is not such a good time for Huang, a painfully shy Taiwanese man selling DVDs that look suspiciously boot-ish. He does decent business, but despite his best efforts, he cannot make a simple human connection. He carries a torch for Angeles, the single mother police officer who collects the monthly pay-offs (welcome to the Kirchners’ Argentina), but it is not reciprocal.

Bruno and his uncle face a highly uncertain future in La Salada when they first arrive. They left the stagnation of the Morales regime, only to find their contact has disappeared. Nonetheless, they both find work in a Korean restaurant. Bruno is not much of a waiter, but he eventually finds more suitable employment with Kim.

To his credit, Hsu really cuts to the heart of the immigrant experience in La Salada. We get a sense Kim would be successful almost anywhere and Huang would adequately scrape by under nearly any conditions. Family is important for all three, but in some cases, it is rather messy and debilitating. However, the film has precious little arc. It just sort of ends at a convenient point.

Chang Sun Kim’s performance as Kim is remarkable nuanced and completely grounded. He makes it clear Kim has more going on inside than he cares to acknowledge. Although she does not have history’s most empowering role, Yunseon Kim exhibits a strong screen presence that well serves Yun-jin’s issues of generational disconnect. Ignacio Huang revels in pathos as his namesake, but Limbert Ticona’s Sean Astin thing is hit-or-miss for Bruno.

Although we intellectually understand there has been considerable Asian immigration to Latin America—that’s what made Fujimori possible—it often seems strange to see it in films like Vincete Amorim’s Dirty Hearts. Hsu drains away any remaining exoticism and casts the immigrant experience in terms that most Americans can easily understand. It is all quite earnest and well-intentioned, but it would be nice if the cast had more to sink their teeth into. As films go, La Salada is very slice-of-lifey. Modest but hard-working (just like its characters), La Salada screens this Thursday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.