America is a large, ethnically diverse region, and so is Asia, a fact that has always made the long-running Asian American Showcase an amorphous player among Chicago’s film festivals. The Showcase covers so many ethnicities that the only commonality is the friction between those cultures and the American melting pot, which gives the festival a thematic consistency many of its peers lack. Much of this year’s schedule, screening at Gene Siskel Film Center, consists of serious documentaries: Right Footed, about an armless Filipino-American who becomes a disability advocate; People Are the Sky, about a U.S. filmmaker returning to her native North Korea after 70 years; Tyrus: The Tyrus Wong Story, about the Chinese-American artist who crashed the white boys’ club at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s and became a key creative force on the classic Bambi. But opening and closing the festival are two crowd- pleasing comedies—Seoul Searching and Good Ol’ Boy—that throw into high relief the culture clash between East and West that propels the Showcase year after year.
In Seoul Searching (Fri 4/1, 7:45 PM), writer-director Benson Lee revisits his experience in the mid-1980s when, as a Korean-American teenager, he was sent to an annual summer camp in the title city to reconnect with his roots. Sort of a reverse melting pot, the camp pulls in second-generation expatriate kids from not only the U.S. but also Germany, Italy, Mexico, and the UK. Lee (who will attend the screening) has hit on a witty conceit for this cross-cultural gathering of kids: John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. All the social types are here—a sultry Madonna clone, a rebellious punk rocker, a rigid ROTC cadet, a scowling tomboy—and for the most part the action consists of the boys trying to score with the girls and everyone trying to score liquor. (“While the intentions of the program were honorable, the activities of the teens were not,” Lee notes drily in his IMDb summary of the movie.) Accompanying all this is a selection of 80s pop tunes from some forgotten Time Life collection (“Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “I Want Candy,” “I Melt With You,” etc).
All this may sound unbearable, but the dialogue is clever and the movie’s premise allows for some eccentric and thought-provoking laughs. The ROTC kid, who lives in Virginia, drums up a feud with a trio of LA hip-hoppers, and given their shared racial heritage, the epithets he hurls at them—”porch monkeys,” “jigaboos”—seem less vile than ridiculous. In classic Hughes fashion, the serious plotlines tend toward the mawkish, especially one in which a down-to-earth American girl (Rosalina Leigh), adopted as a child by German-American parents, tries to reconnect with the biological mother who gave her up. But the teens’ cultural confusion dovetails nicely with the sort of identity crises that have made the Hughes movie an adolescent touchstone for years. The Breakfast Club kids can’t figure out who they are, but the Seoul Searching kids can’t even figure out where they’re from.
Nostalgia also figures heavily in Frank Lotito’s Good Ol’ Boy (Thu 4/14, 8:15 PM), which takes place in 1979 in a suburb of Seattle. This time the hero is Indian-American, a small, bespectacled grade-schooler trying to survive in an era when his classmates still think Indians were made to get killed by cowboys. Like the teens in Seoul Searching, young Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is besotted with American culture: Star Wars, Happy Days, Saturday Night Fever. Menaced on the street by a trio of bullies, he hurls a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at them and takes off on his bike, which has a banana seat and streamers on the handlebars and a bullhorn that Smith often uses to call out “How are you doing?” to his neighbors (his father has told him that Americans like to be asked this). Perpetually the outsider, Smith pines for Amy (Brighton Sharbino), a blond classmate who lives across the street from him, and admires her good ol’ boy father, Butch (Jason Lee in a solid dramatic performance).
Smith can’t assimilate fast enough, but his father (Anjul Nigam, who will take questions by Skype at the screening) has already betrothed him to a girl back in India and struggles to keep his son connected to their native culture. “Today it’s the apple pie, tomorrow it’s the Jesus!” he exclaims when the boy and his mother prevail upon him to invite the family across the street over for a barbecue. The conflict between American and Indian culture generates plenty of laughs, not least when Smith’s mother presents him with the Halloween costume she’s been promising him for weeks and it’s the elephant-headed Ganesha; neighbors welcoming trick-or-treaters ask Smith why Dumbo has four arms, and one evangelical couple, informed that Ganesha is one of the Hindu gods, coldly reply, “There’s only one God.” Ganesh is Ganesh and Dumbo is Dumbo, and never the twain shall meet. v