Friday, June 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Nuts and bolts could use tweak, but "Robot Stories" has lots of heart

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

"Robot Stories," with Tamlyn Tomita, Sab Shimono, Wai Ching Ho. Written and directed by Greg Pak. 85 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains mature themes, mild profanity). Varsity, through Thursday. Pak will be in attendance for evening shows today and all screenings tomorrow.
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Five weeks from now, a modern Hollywood tradition continues with the July release of another Will Smith blockbuster. Bearing name-only relation to Isaac Asimov's seminal sci-fi tales, "I, Robot" will dominate its opening weekend with high-concept action and dazzling digital wizardry. With director Alex ("Dark City") Proyas at the helm, it might even retain the integrity of Asimov's fiction.

Writer-director Greg Pak's "Robot Stories," which was the closing-night feature at last year's Northwest Asian American Film Festival, enjoys none of the advantages of Smith's box-office clout. It was shot on MiniDV (digital video) on a minuscule budget, its special effects are anything but special, and there's not a single star in its Asian-American cast. If there was ever an underdog in the swift current of independent distribution, "Robot Stories" is it, and it's probably a better film than "I, Robot" could ever hope to be.

A triumph of talent over resources, Pak's quartet of conceptually related stories (his feature-length debut after a decade of short-film activity) has won 33 awards at various lesser-known film festivals.

Described as "science fiction from the heart," Pak's stories reflect upon the personal, societal or philosophical relationship between humanity and technology.

The first, "My Robot Baby," stars Tamlyn Tomita (currently appearing in "The Day After Tomorrow") and James Saito as married professionals who "rehearse" for parenthood by adopting an egg-shaped cyber-infant programmed to encourage positive parenting skills. It's a test of an actor's skill to play mommy to a silly-looking prop, but Tomita pulls it off, aided by Pak's emphasis on her character's fear of motherhood. While acknowledging the increasing role that technology plays in our lives, "My Robot Baby" offers a refreshing alternative to Hollywood's soul-numbing brand of sci-fi.

Science fiction is absent altogether from "The Robot Fixer," in which a grieving mother (well played by Wai Ching Ho) responds to her comatose son's worsening condition by obsessively repairing the broken Transformer-type robots in his action-figure toy collection. It's the kind of transference that could only emerge from maternal anguish, arriving at a moment of acceptance that's quietly moving.

Pak himself appears in "Machine Love," playing a "Sprout G9 iPerson" — literally an office drone, programmed to deliver the ultimate workplace efficiency — who develops a desperate yearning for another robot, since his human colleagues offer nothing but intolerance and office politics (enough to make anyone blow a fuse). A cheesy but effective indictment of corporate inhumanity, "Machine Love" begs for more thematic exploration than its 20 minutes will allow.

Likewise, the final story, "Clay," presents a near-future scenario that deserves feature-length consideration. It's too brief to fully illuminate a classic sci-fi dilemma: Between digitized immortality — by having your consciousness stored in a computer — or death by natural causes, which would you choose? The distinguished Sab Shimono, a Hollywood veteran, expertly plays an aging sculptor faced with that decision, the implications of which are only partially explored.

Generically speaking, limits of time and budget are Pak's biggest liability. His humanitarian priorities are in order, but "Robot Stories" begs for the costlier production values that Pak may eventually command, and his stories would benefit from revisions and rewrites to clarify their praiseworthy intentions.

As it stands, "Robot Stories" has the look and feel of an above-average student film, but Pak's potential promises better things to come. Let's hope he gets a chance to spread his wings with the sensitivity, intelligence and resourcefulness that is demonstrated here.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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