WorldFest: Wild, Mild and Wicked

Moviegoers may find both their Sixth Happiness and Seventh Heaven in these 40 featured indie films

Get ready, film fans. The indie invasion of Houston is under way.
The curtains go up Friday, April 9, on Three Seasons, but it will begin the 32nd season for the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival. The opening film, an unexpected classic of moral simplicity and cinematic beauty, marks a grand return for filmmaker Tony Bui. Only two years ago he left the Houston festival with his first prize anywhere for the short Yellow Lotus; now he has the likes of Harvey Keitel in his cast.

Bui's screening jump-starts nine days of independent filmmakers displaying 40 feature films, and twice that many shorts. Plan on an ending that is satisfyingly Wicked, Michael Steinberg's closer about incest within the confines of a gated community.

While the festival touts a salute to its five Canadian films, Poland has as many movies on display. The special attraction is a Polish import, director Agnieszka Holland, who crafted the 1990 cinema classic Europa Europa. As part of Poland's new wave of filmmakers, she has captured an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe award and major honors at heavyweight film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Montreal.

Among her works receiving widespread United States notice are Angry Harvest, Olivier, Olivier and The Secret Garden. Her most impressive film at this festival is Fever, an intriguing if murky look at bomb-tossing radicals of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.

For classics, the festival has unfurled The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the one-of-a-kind musical that first showcased the stunning Catherine Deneuve.

Filmgoers can find other international stops within the festival screens at General Cinema Meyerland. Bombay is the setting for The Sixth Happiness, a daring and delightful tale of a sardonic boy battling handicaps as well as his family's fascination with all things British.

Paulina awaits to usher viewers into an unusually powerful examination of rural Mexican society, while My American Vacation melds the Far East with the American Midwest. In that one, a colorful Taiwanese grandmother takes the trip that makes peace with her Americanized daughters.

Spliced in with the screen action are several seminars focusing on the finer arts of filmmaking. But the movies make the festival; these selections were culled from about 400 cinematic candidates.

Most entries lack the gloss of Hollywood. Some of them had budgets that would not even buy a respectable gown for Oscar night. While many of these films arrive as unknown quantities, that same quality of not knowing is present at almost every film festival, which, of course, is part of their appeal.

In these days, when moviegoers can feel bludgeoned by PR companies into seeing movies they'll live to regret, there is real delight in walking curiously into a darkened cinema and simply taking a chance on art.

WorldFest runs from Friday, April 9, to Sunday, April 18, at General Cinema Meyerland Plaza, West Loop 610 at Beechnut. (Where noted, some films will screen at St. Thomas' Episcopal School behind the Meyerland theater.) Matinee $4, evening $6.50. Multiscreening passes available at varying prices. (713)965-9955.

Great Trip
The delightful My American Vacation captures the warmth, tenderness and total raving lunacy that make for the most intimate family relationships, and it does it all without the goopy cheese factor that often characterizes so many films about the ties that bind.

The story centers around Grandmother (we never know her actual name), who is flown to the United States from her native Taiwan by her extremely Americanized daughters: the bossy and recently divorced Ming Yee (Kim Miyori) and the artsy, funky writer, Ming Na (Deborah Nishimura). In celebration of their mother's 70th birthday, they decide to go for a trip in an RV camper (they choose the star-spangled "Bicentennial Special"). Along for the ride are Ming Na's husband, Henry (Dennis Dun), and Ming Yee's preadolescent daughter, Melissa (Sasha Hsuczyk).

As the characters drive through the beautifully shot American Midwest, they bicker and chat, explore and make fun of one another. And, as time goes on, the film becomes less about a vacation and more about an examination of the various parts of their complex family web. Ming Na thinks her mother always liked Ming Yee better. Ming Yee can't explain her philandering ex-husband to young Melissa. Grandmother can't forget her dead husband, who visits her in luscious dream sequences throughout the movie. And so on.

Tsai Chin as Grandmother is reason enough to see this film. Chin, also superb in The Joy Luck Club, is tough and hilarious as the sassy, peacemaking, tai chi-loving matriarch. She is the bond that holds the family together, but she's no soft-spoken old woman. The cautionary comebacks she uses with her fighting daughters ("I am old and will die soon") provide much of the film's dry humor.

The entire cast is excellent, but Sasha Hsuczyk is outstanding as the precocious Melissa. Her character is young enough to fearlessly explore and ask questions, yet old enough to sense not all is right with her family. It is especially moving to watch her try to understand why her bitter mother now so publicly hates her father. She is not a "child actor" in that rehearsed miniadult way but is instead remarkably real and one of the film's many highlights.

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