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Kino on Video presents
"In a world of robot babies, robot toys, android office workers, digital immortality... Everything is changing, except the human heart."
DVD ReviewSince long before Philip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, science fiction writers have wondered how much of humanity is transferred into our mechanical creations. From Blade Runner to Lt. Commander Data, the issue has been the subject of films as well. Independent filmmaker Greg Pak explores the issue from a slightly different angle—what can humans learn from robots?—in the 2003 anthology film Robot Stories.
The first segment, My Robot Baby, sets the tone for the anthology. A married couple, Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita) and Roy (James Saito), want to have a child, so they head to the adoption agency and are given... a robot. The machine is designed to record all of its interactions with the "parents," who must feed it (recharge the battery), hold it, tickle it, and even clean up after it (it spits out a mist of graphite after "meals"). If they can care for the robot, the couple will be eligible to adopt. But when Roy has to leave on a business trip, it quickly becomes apparent Marcia isn't ready to give up her life as a business executive to take care of a baby, even a robot baby, so she engineers a scheme to get around its programming.
The robot baby itself is the film's jumping off point. If you can take one look at it—a small, egg-shaped creature that wouldn't look out of place in an episode of Dr. Who—without being taken out of the film entirely, you should be able to enjoy what the piece says about the way humans sometimes inherit misery from their parents. Tamlyn Tomita, one of the most prolific Asian actresses in Hollywood, carries the short with an affecting performance opposite, well, some glued together Tupperware.
The Robot Fixer, the least sci-fi oriented short, is also perhaps the most emotionally affecting. After her estranged son suffers severe brain damage in an accident, Bernice (Wai Ching Ho) convinces herself that the only way she can fix him is to repair his treasured collection of childhood toys (toy robots, of course). Even as daughter Grace (Cindy Cheung) tries to make her mother accept the reality of the situation, Bernice becomes obsessed with visiting garage sales and pawn shops search for one last missing piece. Though Wai Ching Ho is the only actor who stands out, The Robot Fixer connects. It's the best example of the film's tagline, science fiction with heart.
Robot Love, set in a future where an android iPerson is a common sight filing data around the office, features director Pak as the robot Archie, who can only watch humans interact, without understanding, before catching the eye of the android across the hall. Though Pak does a fine job acting the machine, and the piece features some of the most memorable sci-fi elements, it's just a little goofy, and doesn't seem to have much to convey about human relationships. Nice sound design work, though, making the androids really sound like machines.
The final segment, Clay, is unquestionably the best of the bunch, and the closest to "pure" science fiction, with a thought-provoking, touching story that delves into questions of technology, spirituality, and digital immortality. John (Sab Shimono) is an aging artist dying of cancer. In the year 2027, however, a brain can be scanned before death, so the mind can live forever, and experience the world, digitally (it's implied that refusing to be scanned is illegal, akin to pulling the plug on someone in a coma). But John isn't sure he wants to live forever, despite the prodding of his already digital wife (Eisa Davies), who speaks to him via a holoprojector and is able to transport her consciousness anywhere in the world. After all, is there any more human experience than the mystery of death?
Pak's film is well written, often moving, even when some of the segments don't entirely come together, whether due to awkward acting or oversimplified ideas, but it's never boring—using themes of technology to ruminate on the plight of humanity is nothing new, but Pak does it in a way I've never quite seen before. I also like the fact that his entire cast is Asian-American, and that he never makes it an issue—it's just a film that happens to be about Asians, Asians who don't know kung-fu or win math team competitions in high school. The only thing holding Pak back is the budget. Robot Stories was shot independently, on the cheap, and it shows. The digital video image often looks flat and undefined, like a home movie, and the production design is often woefully inadequate. But it doesn't take a lot of money to make an intelligent film, and in the field of intelligent sci-fi, Pak's can stand proudly next to Spielberg's big-budget human-robot relations fairy tale A.I..
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The image is presented in a clean widescreen transfer hampered only by the film's low budget. Robot Stories was shot on digital video, and looks like it. The image is very flat, and colors are dull. I noticed some aliasing here and there, but that, too, could be an artifact of the filming rather than the DVD transfer. Just know that this is probably the best this particular film can look.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in a simple stereo mix. It serves the material well enough, and makes use of stereo separation in a few of the segments, but at times dialogue is a bit low in the mix and can sound muddy.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Deleted Scenes
3 Alternate Endings
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Greg Pak, animator Dan Katamoto, producers Kim Ima and Karen Chen, actors Tamlyn Tomita, Wai Ching Ho, Cindy Chung, Bill Coelius, and Sab Shimono
Packaging: Keep Case
Pak also contributes to no less than three commentary tracks on the feature, and manages to find plenty to say about the film without repeating himself. He flies solo on the first, talking about the themes of the film and the process of putting it together. On the second, he's joined by producers Kim Ima and Karen Chen, along with animator Dan Katamoto, who worked on the opening title sequence. This track focuses more on the work that goes into mounting an independent production, from finding financers to booking the finished product at festivals in hopes of attracting a distributor. On the third track, Pak is joined by his actors in each anthology: Tamlyn Tomita on My Robot Baby, Wai Ching Ho and Cindy Chung on The Robot Fixer, Bill Coelius on Robot Love, and Sab Shimono on Clay.
A reel of deleted scenes includes three alternate endings (for all segments by The Robot Fixer). The deleted ending of Clay hints at larger sci-fi themes that are interesting, but I suppose out of tune with the film's focus on humanity. Still, worth a look.
In Pak's 11-minute 1997 short film Mouse, a man tries to escape having a conversation with his girlfriend about having a baby by chasing down a mouse that has invaded his apartment. For a first effort from the NYU film student, it's pretty impressive, with an interesting use of sound effects and an interesting premise. In his commentary, Pak explains how Mouse helped his career as a filmmaker.
The only bad bit: No subtitles for the feature.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsIt's a bit ironic that Robot Stories says more about the human condition than most of the big-budget dramas churned out by Hollywood studios in the past few years. Even when the stories in this anthology collection don't quite connect, the movie clearly has something to say, and that's always appreciated.
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