Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SFIAAFF 2009—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

With a multiracial, Hawaii/Indonesia-raised president in the White House, it's fortuitous that the issue of mixed race is also at the core of many films in the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF"). That's the observation with which Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Assistant Director Vicci Ho kicked off last week's press conference announcing this year's line-up. Additionally, they noted a marked emphasis on films from South Asia, South Korea and Japan this year. I think the program is an even stronger one than usual, at least in terms of containing many of the films I've been hoping to see. Here's a look at some highlights.

The big event is undoubtedly the seven-film spotlight on Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese auteur best known for his metaphysical thrillers Cure and Pulse. Kurosawa was last here in 2004 for the SF International Film Festival's screenings of Doppelganger, and I've been assured that he will appear at all SFIAAFF screenings before leaving Sunday, the 15th. The series includes his most recent film, the critically acclaimed, Cannes jury prize-winning Tokyo Sonata, as well as four rare, older films which all deal with the theme of revenge. Those are 1997's The Revenge: A Visit From Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades, which screen back-to-back at the Pacific Film Archive; and 1998's Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider, which are being shown as a late-night, Friday the 13th double-bill at the Castro Theater. A third little-known film directed by Kurosawa in 1998, License to Live is described as a "Tokyo slacker merger of Rip Van Winkle, family melodramas and Samuel Becket-like surrealism." And finally, for those who missed its brief run at the 4-Star Theater in the summer of 2005, the J-horror classic Pulse will screen once only at the PFA on Sunday, March 25—presenting a real conundrum for those loathe to miss SFIAAFF's annual Bollywood night at the Castro. I'm a big fan of Kurosawa and there are five films in the series I've never seen—bravo to SFIAAFF for finally bringing them our way. It's interesting to note, however, the absence of 2005's Loft and 2006's Retribution, neither of which have screened in the Bay Area.

In addition to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, two other international filmmakers of note will be making appearances at this year's SFIAAFF. Following a screening of 2007's Lust/Caution, Ang Lee will appear in conversation with UC Berkeley Film Studies professor Linda Williams at the campus' Wheeler Auditorium. Then in a festival Special Presentation, Canadian director Deepa Mehta will present her new film, Heaven On Earth at the Castro Theater. You might remember that Mehta was at the festival in 2006 with her Oscar-nominated feature Water. Heaven On Earth is supposed to represent a new direction for her, as she uses fantasy and allegory to tell the tale of an immigrant Toronto bride (played by Bollywood star Preity Zinta) who's stuck in a miserable arranged marriage.

A pair of South Korean films occupy both the opening and closing night slots of this year's festival. Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy, which Festival Director Yang described as "almost a perfect film," is an urban road trip/city symphony flick in which two ex-lovers drive around the streets of Seoul from dawn till dusk. Happily, the couple are played by Jeon Do-yeon, winner of the 2007 Cannes Best Actress prize for Secret Sunshine, and Ha Jung-woo, the hunk hired to impregnate Vera Farmiga's character in Never Forever. The Closing Night feature is Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim's highly anticipated follow-up to In Between Days. The film has won unanimous raves since its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and is the story of two girls fending for themselves after being put in the care of an alcoholic aunt.

SFIAAFF's annual International Showcase section is where I tend to spend most of my time, and this year will be no exception. First and foremost, I'm anxious to see 24 City, the latest film from Jia Zheng-ke—arguably China's most important contemporary director. Like his previous film Still Life, this is another fiction/documentary hybrid about a nation in transition and people displaced by "progress." The setting this time out is a huge Chengdu munitions factory that's being disassembled to make way for luxury apartments. There are three other International Showcase films I'm highly anticipating. Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is supposed to be a stylish, balls-to-the-wall thriller about an ex-cop-turned-pimp who goes up against a serial-killer and stars the aforementioned Ha Jung-woo. You'll never find a more unlikely combination of directors than Leos Carax (Pola X), Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep), but amazingly, all three contribute segments to the omnibus film Tokyo!. Veteran Filipina actress Anita Linda (who has appeared in 176 films according to IMdb) is supposed to give the performance of a lifetime in Adela, which follows a day in the life of a poor woman preparing for her 80th birthday celebration.

There's a pair of LGBT-themed films in International Showcase which sound worth checking out: Chookiat Sakveerakul's The Love of Siam and Peng Lei's The Panda Candy. The former is a 160-minute gay teen romance whose popularity has allegedly brought it cultural phenomenon status in Thailand. It was also that country's 2008 Oscar submission. Peng Lei is the lead singer for the Chinese band New Pants, and his directorial debut The Pandy Candy is about two young women who've been looking for love in wrong places—and may have finally found it with each other.

Bollywood night at the Castro Theater is a consistent highlight of this festival because SFIAAFF audiences can't get enough of Shahrukh Khan on the big screen. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, King Khan plays a nerdy office worker who creates a motorcycle-riding macho man alter-ego. When the woman he loves starts to fall for his other persona, he finds himself competing against himself (on a dancing reality TV show no less). Another Indian International Showcase film playing the Castro the same day is Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession, described as combining "Bollywood flair, social commitment and film-noir grit to follow one man's political awakening among India's exploited silk weavers." Elsewhere in International Showcase, I'm curious about All Around Us, by Hush director Ryosuke Hashiguchi; Hong Kong juvenile delinquent drama High Noon from first-time, 24-year-old director Heiward Mak; and Cao Baoping's The Equation of Love and Death, starring Zhou Xun (Beijing Bicycle, Suzhou River) as a lady taxi driver on the lookout for her elusive ex.

Bringing things closer to home are three festival programs of considerable local interest. Fans of 2006's Colma: The Musical will be thrilled to know that the film's composer and co-star H.P. Mendoza, has written and directed (and edited and composed the songs for) his own movie. Centerpiece Film Fruit Fly will have its world premiere at the Castro on Sunday, March 15 and I predict this will be THE high energy, fun event of the festival. Described as a "loud and proud, indie-Asian/gay hijacking of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," Fruit Fly stars Colma's L.A. Renigen as a young performance artist who comes to San Francisco in search of her birth mother. Colma director Richard Wong is once again behind the camera.

From Sucker Free City to Watchmen: An Afternoon with Screenwriter Alex Tse will find the 32-year-old San Francisco native in conversation with friend and filmmaker Spencer Nakasako (AKA Don Bonus). Tse's original screenplay for the SF-set Sucker Free City was directed by Spike Lee for Showtime and his adaptation of DC Comics' Watchmen is one of the most anticipated Hollywood films of 2009. The third program of local interest is the world premiere of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, directed by Jeff Adachi (also known as San Francisco's Public Defender). In 2006, Adachi directed The Slanted Screen, an excellent documentary about the history of Asian American actors in Hollywood. This time he narrows his focus to one particular actor, Oakland-born Goro Suzuki, who would find fame on stage and screen (Flower Drum Song) and television (Barney Miller) as Jack Soo.

You Don't Know Jack is just one of six feature documentaries screening in competition, and they all sound equally interesting. Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority profiles the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress. One woman's fight for the right to pray alongside men in a West Virginia mosque is the subject of The Mosque of Morgantown. Whatever It Takes follows one year in the life of Edward Tom, an Asian-American principal at a rough South Bronx high school. Two friends seek to understand a bloody, 50-year conflict on the Pakistan/India border in Project Kashmir. And in Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, we're offered a warts-and-all portrait of artistic extremism. And although it's not screening in competition, Deepa Mehta's brother Dilip makes his directorial debut with The Forgotten Woman, a documentary about the marginalization of widows in India.

This year's Out of the Vaults selection is Diamond Head, a 1962 miscegenation melodrama in which a racist pineapple plantation owner and U.S. Senate candidate (Charlton Heston) with a pregnant Chinese mistress (France Nuyen), freaks when his kid sister (Yvette Mimieux) hooks up with a no-good native Hawaiian boyfriend (James Darren), despite his having a noble doctor brother (George Chakiris). This screens in 35mm at the Castro on a Sunday afternoon and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

What else? There are six films in competition for the
Best Narrative Award, seven programs of shorts, a tribute to Japanese experimental media artist Takahiko Iimura (co-presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque), the launch of HAPAS.US (a social net-working website for multiracial Asian Americans), and Directions in Sound (an evening of underground Asian American club music). Follow the links to find out more.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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