Charlotte Sometimes director Eric Byler Reviews Robot Stories
Winner of over 23 film festival awards, Robot Stories is science fiction from the heart, four stories in which utterly human characters struggle to connect in a world of robot babies and android office workers.
The stories include: My Robot Baby , in which a couple (Tamlyn Tomita and James Saito) must care for a robot baby before adopting a human child; The Robot Fixer , in which a mother (Wai Ching Ho, Best Actress, St. Louis Int'l Film Festival and Puchon Int'l Fantastic Film Festival ) tries to connect with her dying son by completing his toy robot collection; Machine Love , in which an office worker android (Greg Pak) learns that he, too, needs love; and Clay , in which an old sculptor (Sab Shimono) must choose between natural death and digital immortality.
Awards include the Special Jury Award for Emotional Truth from the Florida Film Festival ; Best Feature Film
from the Rhode Island Int'l Film Festival , the Sci Fi London Film Festival , the DC APA Film Festival , and the F Korean American Media Arts Festival ; and Audience Awards from the Fantastisk Film Festival in Sweden , the Boston Fantastic Film Festival and the Michigan Film Festival .
Charlotte Sometimes director Eric Byler Reviews Robot Stories
In film school we are warned against anthology films, the wisdom being that three or more separate segments are unlikely to add up to a cohesive whole. If cohesion is an indisputable criteria, Greg Paks Robot Stories has some hurdles to climb because it starts over again every twenty to thirty minutes. But the films anthology format allows Pak to explore a broader scope and evoke a deeper meaning than might otherwise have been possible.
Paks inventive vision of the not-so-distant future leaps through time in a sequence that mirrors the sequence of life-- a mothers love for her newborn child; a mothers love for her grown child; a young mans love for a young woman; and an old mans love for his departed wife. Never mind that four of these characters store their memories on computer processors rather than brain tissue. This is a story that celebrates humanity, even as it contemplates technologys endeavor to replace it. Robot Stories is a discerning, poignant, and insightful commentary on the encroachment of technology on the human predicament.
In My Robot Baby , Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita) and Roy (James Saito) go to an adoption agency where prospective parents must take home robot babies to test their parenting skills before being granted a human baby. Marcias only interest in the robot baby is passing the test, but Roy is taken with the pint-sized R2D2 immediately. He watches, elated, as Marcia lifts a bottle-shaped battery to the robot babys mouth. The robot baby responds with a funny little robot suckling sound, melting the hearts of the audience as well as its adoptive father. But Marcia remains fearful of the robot babys sudden movements and sounds.
When an unexpected business obligation calls Roy out of town for a week, Marcia is forced to deal with the robot baby on her own. She thinks shes beaten the system when she enlists a computer whiz to break into the robot babys hard drive and fool it into thinking it is being loved. One of the saddest moments in the film is when the robot baby is tricked into making its funny little robot suckling sound while sitting alone in the dark, plugged into a desktop computer. When Marcia unplugs the robot baby and brings it home again, it seems to know that its been cheated, and acts out with sudden porcupine pokes and destructive temper tantrums. Marcias challenge is to find it in her heart to love the robot baby, and prove to herself shes capable of loving a human one. If a robot cannot substitute for a baby, neither can a desktop computer substitute for a mother.
In The Robot Fixer , a car accident shatters the life of Wilson Chin (Louis Ozawa Changchien) at the tender age of 20, and his mother and older sister are summoned to New York City to say goodbye. His sister Grace (Cindy Cheung) puts aside her own grief in order to aid her mother, Bernice (Wai Ching Ho). Though his hands and face are warm to the touch, Winstons brain is no longer functioning. Grace knows that a decision needs to be made about when to take Winston off of life support. But Bernice is not ready to face this decision. She decides to clean Winstons apartment from top to bottom, and Grace patiently assists her. When they discover Winstons treasured collection of toy robots, Bernice finds herself searching used toy stores and sidewalk sales for missing wheels, missing rockets, and missing wings to make the robots whole. She is desperate to mend the toys in the hope they can somehow mend her son.
In most movies that dramatize human tragedy, ubiquitous close-ups, tearful monologues, and condescending music serve as gentle reminders that, however unhappy the situation may seem, its only a movie. But Robot Stories offers no such reprieve. The subtle dignity in Hos performance, and judicious restraint in Paks directing have earned critical acclaim and countless film festival awards. At times, they fill the screen with such heartbreak, you almost wish it were just a movie.
In Robot Love , humans are portrayed by actors who are Asian or Caucasian, while robots are portrayed by actors who are Hapa (Asians of mixed ancestry). Pak, who is half Korean and half Caucasian, casts himself in the role of the I-Person Archie. He told me at the Hamptons International Film Festival that he portrayed robots of the future with Eurasian-looking Hapas because he noticed that Japanese Anime characters and mixed-race fashion models tend to idealize the mixed race aesthetic. I couldnt help but sense a more personal commentary having to do with ethnic isolation, one that Pak acknowledged as our conversation progressed.
At the outset of the piece, Archie delivers himself to his owners/employers by way of the New York subway. While sitting on the train, with perfect robot posture and perfect robot poise, he notices a female I-person (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) sitting in another car. She glances at him briefly, but her perfectly chiseled, perfectly sad-looking robot face does not show recognition.
Archie is put to work at a computer station in a very small cubicle in a very large high-rise office-- just like the human cubicle inmates that surround him. Only Archie speeds through his work ten times faster than they do, with no need for lunch, coffee or cigarette breaks. Archie is shut down at the end of each day. And he is rebooted in the morning.
Archies human office mates are almost always rude to him, and exclude him from social conversations and gatherings. They decide to leave him without a shirt so that his interface connections are easier to access. When no one is looking, two female employees take the opportunity to feel him up. As they purr sarcastic sweet nothings into Archies ear and rove their hands over his chest, Archies eyes search the walls and the ceiling for some hint or explanation as to why this is happening to him, and why he feels humiliated by it.
One evening, everyone leaves the office and forgets to shut Archie down. So, he decides to explore the world beyond his cubicle. He finds a window, and gazes across the dark cityscape, spying another lighted window, in another building half a mile away. In it, the female I-Person sits at her computer with perfect posture, hard at work. Archies robot eyes zoom in hard. For the first time, Archie abandons his economy of motion. His right palm thrusts itself against the window in an effort to get her attention. Of course, shes too far away to hear him. But Archie repeatedly slams his hand against the glass wall with muted passion and anxiety.
The next day, Archie finds it difficult to concentrate on his work. Perhaps hes in love. Or perhaps hes obsessed with the sudden realization that someone else is experiencing the same loneliness, the same isolation, and the same objectification that he has experienced-- in fact, the next time he sees her, she is subjected to a parallel sexual assault at the hands of two men. Soon, Archie will escape the office building and venture out into the bustling city in an attempt to find her.
This beautifully abstract portrayal of human loneliness is made all the more powerful with writer/director portraying the male robot himself. I asked him about my ethnic interpretation because the social isolation and sexual objectification depicted in Robot Love reminded me of ethnic minorities growing up in homogenous communities-- Hapas in particular. Many biracial children grow up, not just a minority, but a singularity among their peers. When they escape to a larger city, or to a university, they at last encounter others who have similar ethnic make-ups and similar life experiences. The stir of emotion that results is very much like Archie, the I-Person banging his hand against that glass wall. Robot Love is my favorite of the four accomplished vingnettes that make up Robot Stories , and the most poetic expression of biracial isolation I have ever seen.
In the final segment, Clay , a world-renowned sculptor named John Lee (Sab Shimono) faces a momentous decision in the last days of his life. Thanks to the wonders of technology, John still nurtures and maintains a relationship with his late wife Helen (Eisa Davis), and thus has never truly mourned her death. Because Helens mind was downloaded into an international supercomputer, Johns life companion is a walking, talking holographic image of Helen in the prime of her life. She not only remembers everything that happened during her life, she remembers everything that has happened since her death. Free to roam the wonders of the cyber-universe, Helen tells John of her travels and chores, all of which involve interaction with the world as John knows it. Their visits are filled with tenderness, laughter, and sensuality. They are the highlight of Johns day. But somewhere deep down, John knows that his wife is no longer alive.
When Johns doctor tells him he has only a few weeks to live, he is pressured from all sides to download his mind as Helen did. If he accepts digital immortality, John can join Helen permanently and forever in a virtual afterlife, merge his consciousness with the accumulated knowledge of human kind, and continue his career as a sculptor. Both Helen and their son Tommy (Ron Domingo) do not want to see Johns consciousness perish with his physical self. The foundation commissioning Johns latest sculpture wants assurance that he will complete his work from beyond the grave. And Tommy gives voice to those in the art world who feel Johns passing would be too great a loss.
But Johns love of art and his fear of death are not so great that he can make such a decision easily. I like to feel the clay in my hands, he explains. His connection to life is the clay he pulls from the riverbed, the slick wet grime that smears over his skin and dries in his hair as he molds it into shapes that form in his heart, flow through his mind, and into his fingertips. For John, art imprisoned in digital purgatory would not be a satisfactory encore to a lifetime of creating in the flesh.
As with the film as a whole, it is love- not art or technology-- that takes center stage. The emotional crux of Johns dilemma is that his imminent death forces him to deal with Helens death as well. If he is to follow his heart and refuse digital immortality, he will need to finally say goodbye to his beloved wife and explain to the woman he loves why he must banish her to an eternity without him.
Although set in the future, I have rarely encountered a film as relevant to present day life as Greg Paks Robot Stories . When I graduated from high school, e-mail was as strange an invention as Archie, the I-Person would be today. Robot Stories shows us machines taking the place of babies, office workers, departed loved ones, and finally supplanting life itself. But in the closing moments of the film, as John rejects immortality, choosing to accept his death and affirm his life, he also affirms that humanity is something to embrace, not replace, even if it means embracing our mortality.
Click here. to read AsianConnections' exclusive interview with Greg.
85 minutes, 35mm color
Everything is changing... except the human heart
Director and Screenwriter: Greg Pak
Producers: Kim Ima and Karin Chien
Starring: Tamlyn Tomita, Sab Shimono, Wai Ching Ho, Greg Pak, Cindy Cheung, John Cariani, Bill Coelius, Eisa Davis, Ron Domingo, Tim Kang, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, James Saito
Genre: Science Fiction, Independent, Asian American
Distributed by Pak Film and Shotwell Media
Now playing at Two Boots Pioneer Theatre in New York
Mar. 12 - Mar. 18 in NYC
Two BootsPioneer Theatre, 155 E 3rd St. at Avenue A, New York, NY
Mar. 12-18 in Los Angeles and Pasadena
Laemmle Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
Laemmle One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Old Pasadena
Mar. 12 - Mar. 18 in Boston
Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA
March 19-25 in Palm Desert, CA
April 2-8 in St. Louis
April 16-22 in San Francisco and Berkeley