Thursday, October 21, 2004


"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam," a HIFF presentation, is the result of filmmaker Anne Marie Fleming's exploration into her family history and the life of her great-grandfather, vaudeville magician Long Tack Sam. Above, the troupe he performed with.

Festival of
life’s riches

Documentary illuminates
history via one magical life

Independent Canadian filmmaker, writer and artist Anne Marie Fleming believes "history is relative."

She enjoys the expression so much that she ends her captivating film "The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam" with those words on the screen.

The award-winning filmmaker, born in Okinawa of Chinese and Australian parentage, has made her own family history the protagonist in several of her films. "Long Tack Sam" is no different.

Sam was a world-famous, globe-hopping Chinese vaudeville magician and acrobat -- and also Fleming's great-grandfather.

Fleming traveled to five countries in five years to interview hundreds of relatives -- including an aunt who lives at Koko Head -- and friends of Sam.

"I'd done a lot of work on my family, so the last thing I wanted to do -- and I'm sure what they wanted me to do -- was another film about my family," Fleming, 42, said in a telephone interview from her Vancouver studio. "But I'd found some film footage about Sam after my great-grandfather died, and it was the first time I had learned anything about him."

Following Sam's death and her discovery, Fleming started getting contacted by other magicians about him. "It seemed like it was something I had to explore. And voilà, now there's a film."

Since "Long Tack Sam" was completed in 2003, the film has been shown at dozens of film festivals in North America, Latin American, India and Hong Kong. The film is nominated for the Hawaii International Film Festival's Golden Maile Award as best documentary.

"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam" celebrates the spirit of the man's magic and art in a richly textured first-person road movie that is an exhilarating testament to his legacy. His life offers a prismatic tour through the 20th century, beginning in a small village in China.

"This was a very hard film to make because I started at zero," Fleming said. "I knew nothing about him, and at first I couldn't get anything out of my family. They were unwilling to talk about him."

Fleming was relentless and eventually family members opened up, though some of tales conflicted with others.

"The film became a healing process for my family as many became more interested in their own immediate families," she said. "They began to value not only (Sam's) career, but his life and the difficulties he faced."

Originally, Fleming wanted to use film footage of Sam and his troupe onstage, but she couldn't find any. She solved the dilemma by using animation drawn from dozens of photographs.

"Since his was a variety show, it led to a collage way of moviemaking and was a perfect method, since animation is the legacy of magic," she said. "The first films were made by magicians and photographers."

When she learned that her Koko Head aunt, Vivian Stackpole, had all of Sam's costumes and some other artifacts, including his "magic feather," Fleming traveled to Hawaii to go through it all and to interview Stackpole.

"She didn't exactly know the significance of what she had, but at least she kept it," Fleming said.

The aunt also helped her contact with some older-generation Chinese who'd known Sam.

Fleming considers herself first a writer whose prose is best expressed in film. She became interested in animation after graduating from college. She enrolled in art school at age 24, planning to make "small animated art films."

"I still work in documentary, experimental, animation and drama, and 'Long Tack Sam' is a combination of all of them," she said. "I work in the medium that suits what I want to say."

In 2002, Fleming finished the award-winning short film "Blue Skies," her personal reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2001 she completed "Lip Service -- a Mystery," a 45-minute animated film about a single, unemployed, lipless woman who hires herself out as a private detective.

Her 1996 film, "Automatic Writing," uses the adventure-filled diary of her great-great-grandfather, So To-Ming, as a guide to explore the nature of biography. She also wrote "Waving" in 1987, about the death of her grandmother, a poetic vision on the eternal quality of family bonds.

In spring 2000, after living and working in Germany and Chicago, she returned to Canada with her partner, Bruce Alcock, and started Global Mechanic, a Vancouver, B.C., production company that makes multimedia commercials and independent films. Fleming is head of independent production.

She credits a wayward seagull that fell on her head for inspiring her to become a filmmaker.

"I was in London during the mid-'80s, and in the middle of the night, a seagull that had all this fishing line wrapped around it fell on my head as I was walking," she said, laughing.

When she returned to Vancouver, she saw an independent film that showed a swan falling on a car, killing pregnant twin sisters inside. "It just got me to thinking about what had happened in London, and then seeing this film may be some sort of a message," Fleming said.

"Long Tack Sam" shows few of great-granddad's blemishes other than always being away from his family performing.

"I wanted this to be a celebratory film," Fleming said, "Sam was a show-business person before everything else, and I do show what it can do to a family."

She also shows that period in world history.

"This is also a story about immigrants, issues and cultures, and that history is always continuing," she said. "The film provides the viewer entry into history and shows pretty forcefully that we are history and our family is history, though we think that history is something which happens outside of us."

Fleming anticipates that "Long Tack Sam" will be her "cottage industry" for the next 20 years as she publishes all the interviews she did for the film and her family's varied lineage. She also hopes to squeeze in a dramatic feature film, and she's been approached about writing a novel.

"It pretty much will take the rest of my life."


Filmmaker does justice
to an incredible ancestor

Long Tack Sam was the greatest Chinese magician in the history of vaudeville, traveling around the world in dangerous times and leading a truly magical life.

Director, producer and actor Anne Marie Fleming has done enormous research into her great-grandfather's life to discover his real story. She had to cover a lot of territory, as Long Tack was known in China, Australia, the United States, Europe and countless other locales.

Long Tack Sam

"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam," Canada, Golden Maile Award documentary nominee. Shows at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow at Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts, and 4:15 p.m. Wednesday at Dole Cannery cineplex.

Rating: * 1/2

Fleming has made a charming, historical film -- an ode to her relative that brings this remarkable man's story to light.

Few people have heard of Long Tack for a simple reason: He never went into movies, so he's been doomed to obscurity outside the magic community.

Long Tack broke boundaries as he crossed borders, mixing Asian and Western magic, marrying an Austrian woman at a time when intermarriage was very unusual, and refusing to be hemmed in by xenophobia while successfully dodging both world wars. His really was a magical life, and Fleming's comment that "memory is a lot like magic" rings true in this amazing homage.

She uses captivating cartoon sequences and animated photographs to bring a circuslike magic to the film. These techniques bring to life otherwise droll interviews with family members and turn-of-the-century film footage.

This easily could have been yet another amateurish, monochrome, monotone documentary, but Fleming, through her obvious love of family, magic and filmmaking, has unfurled a tale as whimsical as its name.

What becomes especially interesting is Fleming's discovery of Long Tack's varied past. He worked with Laurel and Hardy and Orson Wells, and opened for the Marx Brothers. Harry Houdini tried to recruit him. His talents were appreciated more in the United States and Europe than in his homeland.

"The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam" is simply one of the best biographical documentaries ever made.

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