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Films
by Kathi Maio

Four Very Human Robot Stories

ELIOT thought that April was the cruelest month. But January, February, March (and most of May) are also way harsh, in my book. Those are the months when major studios dump their designated loser films onto the market. The Oscar nominations are closed. The holiday season is over. And the Memorial Day start of the blockbuster summer cycle is still but a dream in the heads of Hollywood executives. (You can almost see their little legs twitching in their sleep, can't you?)

Movieland's dim and dull first quarter is a yearly misery for film lovers. Yet every April shower has a silver lining. Or so they say. And the bright spot in this annual gray season at the cineplex is those little gems of independent film that often show up at art houses this time of year. Most times, in most markets, such movies get lost in the shuffle. But this is the time of year when such films sometimes find the grateful audiences they deserve.

Here's hoping that's the fate for a small movie—or, to be precise, a modest quartet of linked short films—called Robot Stories. Writer/director (and actor) Greg Pak has been doing the film fest circuit for the last two years with his debut feature, and he is now in the midst of the Herculean task of self-distributing his film around the country and globe. In February, the film finally got its theatrical premiere in its birthplace of New York. (The film started its digital video shoot on 9/10/01 and continued production in the midst of that sad season of tragedy.)

Throughout March and April of this year it has been rolling into a city here and a city there. Usually in one theater only. And usually only for one week. I tell you this because, despite the dead days at your local mall movieplex, you will have to keep your eyes peeled if you want to catch this one. And I would advise that you do just that.

For Robot Stories is not your average robo-flick. At a time when almost all films about technology-human interface seem to be filled with explosions and ultra-violence, and not much else, Pak has created something more subtle and respectful toward not only humanity but also the technological companions that will undoubtedly accompany us into our future.

And this film is unusual in another regard. Mr. Pak, whose father is of Korean ancestry and whose mother comes from a white, European heritage, is dedicated to telling stories that involve Asian-American characters. No, don't picture a live-action version of some noirish anime adventure here. And don't expect stereotypes of high-tech tongs ravaging Chinatown, either. The tales Mr. Pak relates in Robot Stories just happen to focus on ordinary Americans who are at least partially Asian.

"My Robot Baby," the film's opening short, exemplifies how naturally Mr. Pak deals with race. Which is to say, how he makes it a non-issue. The film stars Tamlyn Tomita (one of those many actors in The Joy Luck Club you hoped you'd see a lot more of, but never did) as Marcia, a hard-working marketing executive, who, along with her equally driven husband, Roy (James Saito), plans to adopt a baby.

Before the couple can be approved as parents of a human baby they have to do a test run with an oversized Easter egg of a substitute. "Bobby," a programmed plastic orb, cries out for food and cuddling, and has to have his graphite discharge wiped away. Sensors are set to record how well the couple nurtures their "baby."

It all seems like a simple test to pass. Especially when Marcia—with a little help from her techie papa (Glenn Kubota)—thinks she's figured out how to cheat the system. But before long the simulation grows all too real for the overwhelmed new "mom." And just when the story seems set to degrade into a Spawn of Chucky horror plot or a Baby Boomish farce, it settles back into a very believable conclusion. In the final scene, Marcia learns a lesson about parenting that reverberates in her own long-ago experiences as an angry and frightened child.

The second short in the group is the strongest. However, it is not, as we eventually learn, even remotely sf. In "The Robot Fixer," a young technology worker's traffic accident brings his estranged mother and sister back into his life. Unfortunately, the young man is in a vegetative state and on life-support. Doctors are advising that the family consider organ donation and let the young man go. But Bernice (Wai Ching Ho) is fiercely determined to have her son back. While cleaning his filthy apartment she discovers the broken remains of his well-loved toy-bot collection. And before long she is scouring yard sales and junk shops trying to mend the broken toys as if each completed space ranger were a magic charm with the power to heal a mortally wounded man.

It is somehow fitting that this is the story that Mr. Pak was filming on and immediately after 9/11. It is a little gem of a film about loss and acceptance and healing. More Playhouse 90 than Outer Limits, it features a brilliant performance by Wai Ching Ho, and an equally solid supporting performance by Cindy Cheung as Bernice's daughter, Grace.

The third segment, "Machine Love," moves back into the realm of science fiction. It stars the filmmaker himself as Archie, a "G9 Sprout" robotic office drone, who delivers himself to an unpleasant office where he is designed to toil tirelessly at coding and programming. An innocent to office politics and everything else in the human world, Archie is pathetically eager to "interact" with his human co-workers. But they only enjoy taunting and exploiting him. (This is a slavery for the new millennium, after all.)

Pak doesn't go the predictable Westworld revenge-of-the-robots route. Instead, he opts for something a bit more whimsical and sweet.

The final short is a film called "Clay." In it, veteran actor Sab Shimono plays a renowned sculptor, John Lee, who learns that he is dying while he struggles to complete a major commission. At this point in the not-too-distant future, people die of the simple infections that used to be successfully treated with antibiotics. However, they also have the option of choosing a kind of cyber-immortality before their bodies expire. Scientists now have the power to make a "perfect digital copy of the human brain," capturing a life's experience for continued interaction with the real world.

Lee's son and doctor try to convince him that having himself "scanned" is not only the logical choice, but a moral one as well. Lee doesn't doubt the logic. But he doesn't think he deserves, or even wants, the placid afterlife being offered him. For years he has shared his existence with his long-dead wife's digital consciousness. She is serene and kind, and seemingly content to be a gentle wraith who can pose for her husband at the same time she comforts a child in a hospital in South America. Yet there is a flatness in her affect that disturbs Lee.

Is it better to rage against the night, and die, or to live an eternity as a zen angel without anger, or artistic dynamism?

"Clay" doesn't quite work. It is an ambitious story to tell, and needed more than the few minutes of screen time the filmmaker is able to give it to do its themes and issues justice. The characters can't be sufficiently explored, and the story is just too compressed. In the end, it comes off as incomplete and a little pretentious.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Robot Stories is a very impressive first feature. Shot on the cheap—Mr. Pak has said that his entire budget would probably have covered about three shots in Steven Spielberg's A.I.—you'd never know it from either the look or the feel of it. Inspired by the shape-shifting robot toys of his childhood, the television classics like Twilight Zone that he devoured in his youth, and his ongoing love of the science fiction of authors like Ray Bradbury, Greg Pak has fashioned an impressive anthology of domestic science fiction.

Robot Stories is both heartfelt and entertaining. I found it to be one of the most human and humane science fiction films I've seen in a long time.

But will you be able to see it, gentle reader? Only time and entrepreneurial pluck will tell. Pak and his film have received good support from three communities: Asian-Americans, sf fans, and art house mavens. The movie has garnered good word-of-mouth and has inspired a virtual grassroots campaign to win it theatrical showings throughout the land. Yet, so far, it has played in fewer than a dozen cities.

Greg Pak, who is also a Web editor by trade, maintains a website for his movie. Check out http://www.robotstories.net to see where Robot Stories is playing next. You can also e-mail the filmmakers to suggest a possible venue. You may not be able to get your favorite candidate elected President this year. But you just might be able to help an admirable little movie find a larger audience.

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