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Robot Stories (2004)
Writer and director: Greg Pak

review by Amy Harlib

Robot Stories represents that rarity - an independent, low budget SF film that thoroughly entertains and stimulates contemplation of themes related to its tag line: 'Science fiction from the heart'. Korean-American director/scripter Greg Pak, hitherto known for his award-winning shorts, makes an impressive feature debut with this production. Set in near-future New York city, Robot Stories, a thematically linked quartet of tales that speculate on the continuously in flux, always challenging feedback influences going on between technological developments and humankind, also gets enriched by eternally relevant subtexts concerning love, mortality and familial ties.
   In the first segment My Robot Baby, a yuppified couple, Marcia (Tamlyn Tomita) and Roy (James Saito), seeking permission to adapt an infant, must first care for, in a month-long trial, an electronic simulacra resembling a cute-faced, large football. All seemingly goes well until Roy must depart for a weeklong, crucial business deal-making trip. He leaves Marcia having second thoughts about mothering, attempting to use hi-tech gizmos to rig her robot charge (programmed like a Tamagotchi capable of learning from stimuli), to nurture itself. The ensuing dubious consequences force Marcia to confront and deal with some long-buried, painful personal issues.
   The least science fictional sequence, The Robot Fixer, concerns comatose, accident victim Wilson (Louis Ozawa Chang-chien), a young workingman. His close-in-age sister Grace (Cindy Chung) gradually learns to accept Wilson's decline toward fatality while his mother Bernice (Wai Ching Ho) starts obsessing with the treasure trove of toy robot action figures she discovered in her son's room. Despite Grace's efforts to get Bernice to face Wilson's unavoidable, approaching death, instead the older woman seeks citywide for the missing components that would complete her boy's hoard. Bernice's symbolic acts serving to reconnect her with Wilson (estranged upon reaching maturity), feeding her wish for her son to return, eventually prove to be an ineffective coping strategy. How Grace helps Bernice to deal with family tragedy gives this narrative emotional heft and piquancy.
   Greg Pak himself, in Machine Love, admirably plays the Sprout G9 iPerson, a near human-looking android created to boost an office's production quota, using its processing power and its capacity to learn from human colleagues. Soon the robot discovers his co-workers cruelty and pettiness, especially when he witnesses in a building next door, a female counterpart suffering greater abuse from her human bosses than he does from his. When both machines override their programming to get together, we are left to ponder the nature of the need for contact. Is it love? Is there, in conscious beings, an all-powerful need for intimacy?
   The last, best part, set furthest in the future, Clay, focuses on dying sculptor John Lee (Sab Shimono), confronting a tough choice - to have his consciousness and memories scanned and uploaded into a computer network, presumably to merge with all human knowledge and to reunite in digital bliss with his beloved wife of African descent Helen (Eisa Davis), scanned years earlier just prior to her untimely death. Despite the encouragement of his doctor, his grown son Tommy (Ron Domingo) and his digitised Helen, John hesitates to take the next step toward electronic immortality. The ailing artist fears an afterlife where he may not be able, as he does now, to revel in the sensuality of the tactile world around him, enjoying physical sensations so vital to his essence.
   From the charming, animated opening credit sequence to the end, Robot Stories proves it is possible to independently produce a modestly budgeted, intelligently scripted, emotionally engaging science fiction film without elaborate special effects and explosions! Well-acted by its refreshingly ethnically diverse cast, lead performers of Asian and African-American backgrounds being present without a fuss, Robot Stories dazzles with its ideas and characters more than with its basically mundane, mostly urban visuals. For a first full-length effort, the cinematography, pacing, editing, etc. prove impressively accomplished along with the fine performances, clever sound effects and a lovely score.
   Robot Stories also deserves praise for the way its economically told tales hint at larger implications of their speculations without spelling out any message overtly, enabling viewers to interpret greater meanings for themselves. Such thought-provoking yet utterly entertaining filmmaking, examining the ever-closer merging of humanity and artificial intelligence and confronting knotty discourses on defining human existence - deserves to reach a wider audience than its limited art house/festival distribution will allow, but that is better than nothing. Anyone loving science fiction at its stimulating, fun best and anyone appreciating fine cinema, should automatically put Robot Stories on their must-see list.
Robot Stories - My Robot Baby
Tamlyn Tomita
and James Saito
in MY ROBOT BABY


Robot Stories - Machine Love
Greg Pak as
Sprout G9 iPerson
in MACHINE LOVE


Robot Stories - Clay
Sab Shimono and
Eisa Davis in CLAY




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