2013 CAAMFest: Abigail Harm, Harana, Sunset Stories
Abigail Harm is a modern interpretation of a classic Korean folktale that drips with atmosphere and expertly balances fantasy with raw human emotion. Set in a darker, otherworldly version of New York City, we follow the lonely Abigail (Amanda Plummer), a woman unseen; her only human interaction is with the blind people she aids by reading books to them. She discovers an enigmatic intruder in her apartment (Will Patton), who she greets with warm hospitality, which inspires him to offer her a chance at true love. He instructs Abigail to visit an abandoned warehouse where she finds an attractive young man (Tetsuo Kuramochi) taking a bath who has seemingly materialized out of nothing. She takes possession of the stranger’s bathrobe which wins her his undying love as long as she keeps it. Abigail reacts to the extreme sensations that come with love much like a blind person would react to seeing for the first time.
Like another CAAMFest favorite, Late Summer, Abigail Harm is a great example of what Asian American cinema can be. Director Lee Isaac Chung delivers the message of the original tale with a touch of mystery and offers up a strangely stimulating style of romance. Plummer and Kuramochi playfully spin around each other like ballet dancers, touching and exploring with childlike naiveté. Plummer is always impressive, but this may be her best work. She conveys loneliness and desolation with delicate movements and facial expressions, and her chemistry with Kuramochi is fascinating to watch.
Chung’s New York is one-of-a-kind; the typical hustle and bustle is absent, with dreamlike serenity in its place. Everything feels unstuck in time and eerily still, which helps Plummer’s performance shine. This is an ethereal, contemplative romance that should delight fans of the arthouse.
Harana takes its name from a dying tradition in the Philippines, which is the act of a boy serenading a girl he fancies outside her house at night, in hopes that her parents will invite him inside to declare his love face to face. Nowadays, the tradition isn’t practiced nearly at all, with kids preferring to sing at their local karaoke bars. Florante, an Filipino-American guitarist, goes on a quest to gather an elderly trio of the last surviving “haranistas”— men who were masters at harana—and take them on a nostalgic tour of the Philippines to play and record previously unrecorded harana songs that would otherwise be lost.
Director Benito Bautista constantly provides beautiful moment after beautiful moment. From sublime, intimate footage of the haranistas overflowing with emotion as they sing their beloved songs, to a segment where the aging crooners enact harana on behalf of a young boy too shy to ask a girl out himself. When the haranistas bid each other farewell at the end of their tour, the emotion is overwhelming; it’s clear they will not meet again in this lifetime, though they are thankful that they got to share the experience with one another. Harana is good for the soul, a loving look at a tradition that represents the uninhibited romance lost on the youth of today.
May (Monique Gabriella Curnen), a neurotic nurse living in Boston, is sent back to her hometown of Los Angeles and tasked with picking up and transporting a cooler containing fragile human skin tissue. She’s thrown for a loop when she runs into her ex, JP (Sung Kang), and in her befuddlement, loses the cooler. The ex-lovers revisit their damaged history as they follow the trail of the Macguffin on an adventure through the So-Cal sprawl. They (predictably) encounter painfully stereotypical LA eccentrics on their journey and learn lessons about what love really means to them.
The premise is absurd, but the fairy-tale presentation softens the blow…slightly.The film’s heart is in the right place, and its message about love is an interesting one. However, nothing can save Sunset Stories from its main problem, that it thinks it’s more clever than it is. There is a cringe-worthy scene in which two small characters, a trans-gender night club singer and a butch bike mechanic, have a long, disposable, forgettable conversation for no good reason. It’s great whenever these communities are represented on screen, but scenes like this are woefully ham-fisted. We’re smarter than that. Ernesto Foronda and Silas Howard’s direction is sterile and uninteresting, though it never looks amateurish.
Easily the film’s saving grace is the wonderful cast, who really carry the movie. Everybody is great, and the sub-par writing betrays them. Curnen is high-strung and paranoid without ever being irritating, and Kang provides the perfect amount of calm-and-collected to complement her. There’s just not enough good in Sunset Stories to warrant a watch.