Festival Picks: ‘You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story,’ ‘Arusi: Persian Wedding’ & ‘Shades Of Ray’

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García

These notes are taken from complimentary screenings courtesy of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which concluded Thursday night.

For those of us who only remember Jack Soo from watching Barney Miller with our parents, the documentary You Don’t Know Jack is aptly named, as it reveals a pleasant set of surprises.

Directed by Jeff Adachi, Jack is concise (it clocks in at just under an hour) but not rushed, covering its subject with a relaxed cool that, as we soon learn, fed not only the onstage persona he developed as a singer, nightclub host and comedian, but made him an asset to Japanese-American families interned in California during World War II, as he organized talent revues and shows to lift spirits at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. He even managed to arrange permission and transportation for off-site shows. Soo’s singing ability is shown off about halfway through the movie, when you hear his rendition of “For Once In My Life,” made popular by Stevie Wonder.

The film also covers the origin of the name “Jack Soo”; he was actually born Goro Suzuki, on a boat bound for Japan, to an Oakland family, but took on the stage name in order to sound Chinese and thus circumvent anti-Japanese prejudice to perform in Ohio. He was forced to retain the name, ironically, after landing his first breakout role, as the lead in Flower Drum Song, and while Soo/Suzuki rode his star turn to regular Hollywood work, it’s noted that he was able to forge his career without having to play manservant-type characters.

Upcoming screenings:
Vancouver Asian Film Festival, 11/08, 4 pm PST

Arusi: Persian Wedding follows a young interracial couple, Alex and Heather, journeys to Alex’s native Iran to go through a traditional wedding. Heather, who’s white, goes so far as to take language classes and sign a declaration of Islamic faith to get the necessary paperwork.

As they make the trip and meet with members of his family, Heather is more than willing to connect with them, while Alex feels alienation from not only her kin – “There’s definitely been that challenge with them,” he says – but from his own, in no small part because of his inability to communicate.

The film weaves together Alex and Heather’s respective efforts to acclimate themselves with a retrospective of Iran’s relationship with the U.S. and travel photography by Alex. Arusi is the kind of story a mainstream movie would render more farce than Farsi (indeed, it’s only too easy to imagine this getting “adapted” into something stupid more suitable for the multiplex). But this is a case where the truth – or at least these two peoples’ truth – is more interesting than the hackneyed fiction we often get.

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There’s moments when Shades Of Ray, which has garnered praise at various festivals, threatens to veer into that kind of territory. But Jaffar Mahmood’s story puts more stock in his characters than the average rom-com.

The story follows Ray (Zachary Levi) as he adjusts to his Pakistani father Javaid (Brian George) suddenly moving in with him while waiting for his white girlfriend Noel (Bonnie Somerville) to answer his marriage proposal. Javaid insists Ray marry a Pakistani girl, saying white girls will “crush [Ray's] testicles in a vice.” The kicker is, Javaid himself is married to a white woman – Janet (Kathy Baker). Regardless, Javaid fixes up Ray with his friend’s daughter Sana (Sarah Shahi), who is also the product of a white/Pakistani marriage.

As Ray tries to get his parents to work out their own problems, he finds himself drawn to Sana, even after he gets his answer from Noel. As you might expect, things culminate with a series of awkward moments. But instead of playing them for laughs, we get a glimpse of something closer to the everyday truth: when it comes to matters of the heart, nobody walks away unscathed.

Not to say there aren’t laughs in cranky Javaid’s confrontations with both Ray and Janet, and Levi and Shahi have a laid-back type of chemistry. But there’s time set aside to show each of them in doubt as much as they are in love. And that’s also a welcome change of pace for this genre.