For the first time, ever, I've attended the annual Visual Communications Film Festival in L.A., the largest Asian American film fest of its kind in Southern California. This year, I wasn't able to attend the SFIAAFF for the first time in over 10 years so I'm glad I finally made arrangements (read: find a babysitter) to at least get out to part of the VC fest (alas, I won't be able to see more than 2-3 films this year).
I went to go see Santa Mesa, by New Jersey filmmaker Ron Morales. (Interestingly, if IMDB is correct, Morales has a long background in working on films as a crew member but this is his first directorial work). In general, I resist saying too much negative about any film that is still seeking distribution so I'll keep this brief:
I found Santa Mesa to be beautifully shot by Yaron Orbach and the setting - a fascinating slum built around a rail station outside of Manila - was incredible. However, the strengths of the production values weren't equally matched by the storytelling. In terms of basic narrative, character development and script, the dynamics rarely cohered even though you could see what the filmmakers were trying for. I'll leave it at that - if the film gets distribution, I'll expound at that point.
Two separate thoughts:
1) In the last 5-7 years, I've seen a real leap forward in the production/technical values of Asian American cinema. I surmise this is the product of both 1) a generation of API filmmakers who've gotten more professional training, a very hopeful sign for the future, and 2) improvements in technology - both in terms of access and capability - that is empowering younger filmmakers to make better looking/sounding films without the exorbitant cost that might have been the case a generation ago.
However, what has yet to develop as quickly has been storytelling skills. The latter, I think, is far more difficult to master and, to be sure, it's hardly an API-specific challenge (just look at mainstream cinema). What I find interesting is how the ideas have gotten much more ambitious - Santa Mesa, for example, tries to do a lot with its characters and their relationships in ways that I don't think you would have seen 10 years ago. But ambition aside, execution is still uneven, especially in scripts. Like I said, I don't think that's unique to API filmmaking but it has been a historical challenge that, in my opinion, has yet to be transcended en masse.
2) I'm really intrigued by what seems to be a small wave of Filipino American directors going to the Philippines to make their movies. Apart from Santa Mesa, the excellent Cavite comes to mind and I know filmmakers like Romeo Candido and Gene Cajayon are actively working in the P.I. too. I know part of it is practical - the cost of filmmaking is much more affordable out there compared to in the States but obviously, there's a kind of transnational storytelling that's part of it too. I'm very intrigued to see how this will play out over time and how Filipino American stories will develop in that midst. Will we see more international storylines, such as in Santa Mesa?