Venturing into “A.I.” territory, “Robot Stories” explores the relationship between technology and emotion in a quartet of short pieces of slightly varying length and greatly varying impact. One tale, “The Robot Fixer,” is so deeply moving and finely realized that it blows the other well-crafted, studious exercises right out of the water. Helmer Greg Pak understands the short form well, mercifully avoiding blatant O’Henry twists while pulling off neat reversals of expertly set-up genre expectations. Anthology format seems tailor-made for cable, though strong thesping by largely Asian-American cast and clever sci-fi concepts may play on the arthouse circuit. Pic won best screenplay award in Golden Starfish competition at Hamptons.
In “My Robot Baby,” a yuppie couple is given an inanely Humpty-Dumpty-ish robot “infant” which cries, wets, learns, purrs and uploads detailed records for a parenting test run. Complex emotional responses of workaholic careerist mom (Tamlyn Tomita) to the large plastic egg she must feed, stroke and nurture recall Frank Tashlin’s underrated 1952 comic masterpiece of maternal helplessness and horror, “The First Time.”
There’s no technology involved in “The Robot Fixer,” but rather a collection of childhood sci-fi toys that a mother (Wai Ching Ho) of a brain-dead comatose son determinedly repairs, combing garage sales and specialty shops in search of missing parts for microbods and gigatrons in the unacknowledged hope that if she puts the pieces back together her son will somehow be whole again.
What makes this potentially bathetic episode truly stand out, aside from Ho’s powerfully idiosyncratic performance, is her character’s close relationship to her other child, her daughter, Grace (played with casual ease and warmth by Cindy Cheung), a fully-realized young woman whose parallel reactions give depth and complexity to the richly-layered story.
High concept rules in “Robot Love.” A humanoid office-model automaton (director Pak himself), designed to interact with his human co-workers but ill-equipped to deal with their egotism and contempt, finds himself drawn to his equally abused female counterpart in a lighted window across the way. “Love” measures the limitations of Pak’s character-driven aesthetic, the more abstract subject-matter requiring stronger formal stylization.
An aging artist (Sab Shimono) chooses flesh and blood death over virtual immortality in the final segment, “Clay,” a brooding, somewhat dreary and vaguely pretentious philosophical workout that recalls Edward G. Robinson’s holographically-assisted swan song in “Soylent Green.”
“Robot Stories,” shot on DV, was lensed by Peter Olsen with a conscious design adapted to what digital can do best, avoiding cluttered long-shots and relying on evocative tight closeups. The end result, when blown up to 35mm, is quite impressive. Slyly cute award-winning opening animation credits by Daniel M Kanemoto set the stage nicely.