by David Cornelius
“Robot Stories” is exactly the kind of movie you will never, ever find coming out of Hollywood, and exactly the kind of film you’ll often find hiding in the wonderful world of indie cinema. Too strange, too smart, too willing to take chances. And above all, too different. This is a film that’s impossible to pigeonhole; it’s a science fiction drama anthology, but to label it even that doesn’t feel quite right, as this ultimately is a film without labels.The movie consists of four short stories, all written and directed by Greg Pak, making his feature debut. Each are linked - thinly - by a theme: how robots (or technology in general, really) have, or will, or may, affect our lives. More specifically, the stories use the technology to reveal how we are. It’s the human condition that’s under the microscope here, not the items we use.
"And now for something completely different..."
The first story, “My Robot Baby,” is the weakest of the bunch, but its oddness does warm us up for what is to follow. In this tale, a workaholic couple (Tamlyn Tomita and James Saito) are required to adopt an egg-shaped robot “baby” for one month, after which, if the data the robot has collected proves acceptable, they will be allowed to adopt a human child. It’s precisely the kind of test you wish they’d administer to potential parents-to-be every time you see some negligent mom at the mall. But this first story cuts deeper. It uses the robot to reveal parallels with the wife’s own childhood, uncovering a cycle of problems that, with real families, tend to repeat themselves throughout generations. Once you get comfortable with the weirdness aspect of it (the egg baby is a bizarre first image, a strong “welcome to the movie!”), you’ll see that this is solid stuff.
The best of the four stories lands the second spot. “The Robot Fixer” abandons every ounce of science fiction seen in the other tales, instead putting us firmly in the heartbreaking reality of a mother (Wai Ching Ho) whose estranged son is now comatose. To deal with the grief, and to avoid confronting the reality of the situation, she becomes obsessed with the discovery of the son’s collection of Microbot toys. She begins to visit used toy shops in the hopes of completing the set - as if a completed set will bring her son back, or at least help her understand him better.
Perhaps it’s because this tale refuses to engage in sci-fi speculation, or perhaps because any geek with a fond memory of his childhood robot toys can easily connect to such an idea… either way, “Fixer” hits hardest. There’s a genuine tragedy here in the story of a parent learning too late that she wants to know her child. The mom here isn’t a bad parent, just a distant one, and her revelation of this fact crushes her. Excellent performances from both Wai Ching Ho (who devastates with just a glance) and Cindy Cheung, playing the daughter trying to force her mother to come to terms with reality, help seal this as a marvelous piece.
On to story three, “Robot Love.” Pak himself stars as Archie, a “Sprout G-9 iPerson.” An iPerson, of course, is an android created for office use, able to be stuck in some cubicle somewhere and do all the data processing, computer programming, or any other chore a human would find too boring to do. Aside from the compassionate office tech geek (Bill Coelius), everyone treats him like, well, like a novelty, a toy, a thing. With Archie - and, it turns out, with the female iPerson in the office building across the street - the workers tend to do anything they’d never been able to do to an actual person. Which, of course, displays the worst in humanity, how we manage to dehumanize others in order to distance ourselves, or to justify our behavior to ourselves, or to just be pricks in general. There is a bit of comedy in this story, but the underlying themes are harsh stuff.
Our final story, “Clay,” finds us in a future in which our memories can be transferred to computer, so when we die, we become part of cyberspace. It’s a great way of cheating death, really, as hologram devices allow us to return to our loved ones, sort of, anyway. Sab Shimono plays a dying sculptor who finds the whole thing wrong - even though he still converses with the digital version of his late wife (Eisa Davis). The story revolves around his attempts to avoid being computerized, which, of course, plays into the greater theme of our battle with technology.
The symbolism is easy to spot, really: the sculptor works with clay, taken from the earth, and refuses to use any of the technological enhancements available to make his work faster. But here, Pak pushes the idea even further. Listen to the soundtrack, and you’ll hear blues music every time the sculptor works. Raw, heartfelt blues, the kind only a human could produce. It’s a nice touch, adding just that extra kick to an already compelling yarn. (It should be noted that while the symbolism is obvious, it’s not thick or overbearing. As with the other stories, Pak finds a nice balance, never nudging the viewer too much. It’s meaningful sci-fi, but it’s not forceful.)
I should also note, if briefly, the fun credits sequence, in which cartoon robots line up to shoot 1’s and 0’s from their heads. It’s a nice piece of animation, a memorable short work that stands on its own.The most interesting aspect of “Robot Stories” as a whole is how Pak uses ethnicity in his tales. Namely, he doesn’t. His cast seems intentionally multicultural, especially in “Clay,” as if to tell us that these themes are indeed universal. It’s a nice touch, really, just one of many such touches Pak provides throughout his film. With “Robot Stories,” Pak sets himself up as a filmmaker to watch, a creator of intelligent, thoughtful stories that refuse to be contained by traditional definition. Which is exactly what we need in our movies.
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originally posted: 02/11/05 08:52:32