The Best of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival

Photo: <b>Trailblazer.</b> Jeff Adachi chronicles Jack Soo's pioneering career in show business.
Jeff Adachi/Courtesy
Trailblazer. Jeff Adachi chronicles Jack Soo's pioneering career in show business.

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Photo: <b>Staunch iconoclast.</b> 'Words of Advice' puts a documentary spin on the literary philosophy of Beat author William S. Burroughs.   

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Featuring 35 works by filmmakers around the world, the Berkeley Video & Film Festival held its 18th annual run at Shattuck Cinemas last weekend. From student shorts to feature-length documentaries, the two-day marathon managed its share of quality independent cinema.

"You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" (Dir.: Jeff Adachi)

Jack Soo's career as an entertainer may not be particularly well known today, but his place in the pantheon of 20th-century Asian American pioneers is indisputable. His life and legacy are the subject of Jeff Adachi's documentary "You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story," both a lovingly framed tribute to a truly inspiring figure and a fresh rumination on the possibility of transcending societal limitations.

The film begins by tracing Soo's childhood roots, from his formative years growing up as Goro Suzuki in a modest Japanese-American household to the hardships of World War II internment camps. After his breakthrough role in 1958's "Flower Drum Song," Soo landed significant roles that helped break down Asian stereotypes in the American media, including works such as John Wayne's "The Green Berets" and the hit television series "Barney Miller."

"I'm hoping that Jack's story holds contemporary value, especially to a younger generation," said writer and director Adachi ("The Slanted Screen"), who currently serves as the public defender of San Francisco. For breaking through the confinements of race and attaining the level of success as Jack Soo did, his is a story to celebrate, a consummate chronicle of individuality and perseverance.

"Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs On the Road" (Dir.: Lars Movin, Steen M. Rasmussen)

With "Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road," Danish filmmakers Lars Movin and Steen M. Rasmussen have crafted a documentary that is as revealing as it is uniquely personal. In its keen intent on portraying William S. Burroughs as a leading light of the American Beat Generation, the film builds on the qualities that rendered its subject a singular voice of his times: namely, his avant-garde sensibilities and the effect his traveling had on his literary worldview.

"Words of Advice" acknowledges Burroughs as emblematic of the counter-culture of his day-a culture that produced artists both tremendously original and aware of the significant link between literature and society. By complementing never-before-seen footage of Burroughs' visit to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1983 with images of rural American expanse that dominate the writer's later years in Kansas, the filmmakers create a portrait of Burroughs that fascinates in its intimacy.

As the film shows Burroughs reading his own works in club venues and theaters to new generations of fans, one can not only detect the writer's knack for conjuring power and satirical wit from his creations but also the timeless nature of his idiosyncrasy. In this context, "Words of Advice" is a discourse worth savoring.

"At Night" (Dir.: Max Landes, Philip Aceto)

Part domestic thriller, part surrealist psychodrama, Max Landes and Philip Aceto's "At Night" recalls the cinema of David Lynch in its exploration of the dark side of humanity. This profoundly unsettling short manages to create an atmosphere of dread simply by harnessing its audience's fascination with unspoken desires, resulting in a mood piece that is at once perverse, erotic and haunting.

The structure of "At Night" is deceptively simple. Landes and Aceto keep the dialogue to a minimum, allowing the camera to take on the role of the omniscient eye. It's late at night and a couple sits at the television set, ostensibly unhappy with each other. On their screen, a macabre thriller unfolds: A seductive blonde strips before entering the shower. Moments later, the couple kisses awkwardly before the woman proceeds to imitate the blonde. Deceit and reality bleed into one another as the viewer becomes implicated within the film's actions.

Never mind that the film ends on an unresolved note, or that its characters' motives and actions are never fully explained; with a total running length of 11 minutes, "At Night" is a marvel of concision. With assured visual flair and a solid grasp of neo-noir tropes, Landes and Aceto have created a thriller that truly compels.


David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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