The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) kicks off tomorrow night, March 11 and continues throughout the Bay Area until March 21. I've already posted an overview of the line-up and capsule write-ups of some documentary features. Below are capsule write-ups of 10 narrative features you'll find in the festival, more or less in order of most favorite to least. All were seen on DVD screener, except where noted.
About Elly (Iran dir. Asghar Farhadi)—Director Farhadi deservedly won Best Director prize at 2009's Berlin Film Festival for this complex psychological thriller about a group of young, upper-middle class Tehranis on holiday at the Caspian Sea. After a harrowing, near-tragic event, Elly, a teacher and interloper in the group who's been set up for some uninvited matchmaking, goes and disappears. The film becomes not so much "about" Elly, but about the deceptive, flawed personages who are left to deal with the aftermath of her disappearance. This was Iran's 2009 Oscar submission, and it's a glimpse into an Iranian social milieu we rarely see, at least in films which get exported. My favorite Iranian film since 2005's Iron Island. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
City of Life and Death (China dir. Lu Chuan)—Lu spent five years making this stunning masterpiece about the brutal 1937 siege of Nanking by Japanese occupation forces. Brilliantly walking the line between massive widescreen epic (cast of thousands, impressive sets, sweeping score) and intimate art film (B&W, hand-held camera), the film is constructed as a series of tangentially connected set pieces. A group of resistance fighters battle the enemy while perched atop bombed-out buildings. P.O.W.s are marched along atrocity-strewn roads en route to mass execution. In the film's central story, a Chinese collaborator, a German businessman (real-life figure John Rabe) and a young schoolteacher struggle with increasing desperation to maintain the integrity of the city's International Safety Zone, with its 300,000 refugees. Perhaps most surprising is the film's broadminded portrait of a conflicted Japanese sergeant and his relationship with a comfort woman. This month's scheduled U.S. theatrical release of City of Life and Death has been indefinitely postponed while distributor National Geographic Entertainment "negotiates" with the Chinese Film Board. Best to see it at SFIAAFF—this is one film that demands a big-screen experience. And be sure to check out the schedule changes which affect the film.
The Housemaid (South Korea dir. Kim Ki-young)—For 2010's Out of the Vaults selection, SFIAAFF has chosen this disturbing 1960 doozy which has been restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive. Rat poison, abortion, blackmail, suicide, marital infidelity, murder and a caged squirrel all figure into this transgressive, anti-consumerist cautionary tale of a music teacher and the treacherous live-in maid who shoehorns her way into his home. From the dripping opening titles, to the nerve-racking score and sound design, to Kim's determined, constantly roaming camera, The Housemaid is an unsettling experience that should be enormous fun to watch with a crowd at the Castro Theater. (Seen on streaming video at The Auteurs.)
Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4 & Part 5 (China dir. Yang Fudong)—Anyone who's curious what contemporary avant-garde Chinese cinema might look like won't want to miss this. And while I normally have a low threshold for ponderous artiness, I found myself engaged throughout. SFIAAFF will be screening two of the piece's five parts with separate admissions. While they're mostly self-contained, there are overlapping motifs and stylistic similarities—both were shot in B&W with zero dialogue and feature studied compositions, slow and purposeful camera movements, and full frontal nudity. Part 4 is set amidst a seaside community of kelp harvesters and dried cuttlefish cultivators. Part 5 takes place in a modern day Shanghai seemingly overshadowed by nostalgia for the city's opulent past of cafes, bathhouses and rooftop baseball (?!?). A coterie of business-dressed men and women, presumably the titular seven intellectuals, lug suitcases across both sea and city landscapes. Of the two parts, I'd probably recommend the more varied and playful Part 5.
The Forbidden Door (Indonesia dir. Joko Anwar)—Gambir is a successful sculptor of pregnant women who lives a chic lifestyle. He also suffers from erectile dysfunction and has a beautiful wife with her own Forbidden Door in their home. He becomes obsessed with a Lynchian private club where patrons watch unspeakable things being done to people on live TV, including an abused boy who keeps sending him messages for help. These are the key elements of this ultra-stylized metaphysical thriller from Indonesia, which reaches its apotheosis with a Christmas dinner scene worthy of Grand Guignol. Fortunately there's sufficient substance to warrant all that style, at least until the film's rather creaky denouement.
Talentime (Malaysia dir. Yasmin Ahmad)—In her final film (the talented filmmaker passed away last year at age 51), Yasmin Ahmad explores themes that are recurrent in all her works, namely love and loss and the need for tolerance in a multi-cultural/racial/religious society like Malaysia. The story focuses on three students who are finalists in a high school talent competition, each possessing their own set of familial tribulations. The film has a bittersweet, corny charm to it, but is hampered by some overly broad supporting characters, mawkish songs, abrupt editing and an overabundance of Debussy's "Clair de lune."
Like You Know It All (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)—With Hong you either admire his persistence of vision or become really irritated/bored over how he essentially makes the same film over and over again. I'm pretty much in the second camp, but am still interested enough in how he reworks his themes to jump ship just yet. His latest contains all the signature Hong moves—an immature protagonist who's approaching middle-age and has a career in the arts, a bifurcated story structure, a trip away from home and lots of public drinking that leads to fighting or fucking or both. Hong's avatar this time out is an art-film director. In the first half he juries an out-of-town festival (falling asleep during films) and reconnects with an old friend. (I believe this section contains Hong's first dream sequence!) The second half finds him guest-lecturing at an out-of-town university and reconnecting with an old mentor. In both cases he leaves behind a wake of petty resentments and pissed-off people. Many Hong fans are considering this film one of his best.
Dear Lemon Lima, (USA dir. Suzi Yoonessi)—This debut feature about a half Yup'ik Eskimo girl coming to terms with her heritage plays like a sweet and snarky after-school special. Thirteen-year-old Vanessa is the token minority student at a well-to-do school in Fairbanks, Alaska. She's appointed a team captain for the school's annual Snowstorm Survivor Competition, and enlists fellow nerds to do battle against her self-obsessed ex-boyfriend. Some fine performances, worthy intentions and snazzy visuals are nearly enough to overshadow the film's mega-cuteness and strained quirkiness. A shocking tragedy just before the final act nearly capsizes the whole enterprise.
Prince of Tears (Taiwan/Hong Kong dir. Yonfan)—This overwrought, yet stodgy tale of passion and betrayal during the communist witch hunts of 1950s Taiwan was Hong Kong's Oscar submission for 2009. It's based on director Yonfan's memories of growing up in that era, during which time he must have witnessed lots of impossibly gorgeous women and men languorously exhaling cigarette smoke. Come for the history lesson, stay for the truly sumptuous art direction (also by Yonfan). (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)
The People I've Slept With (USA dir. Quentin Lee)—Nothing gives me less pleasure than to slag a festival's Centerpiece Film, but man, this was no fun at all. Putting a broad, Asian-American spin on the sex comedy genre, we watch as a self-avowed slut (Karin Anna Cheung) discovers she's pregnant and sets off on a laborious mission to find the father with the help of her gay best friend. One candidate turns out to be Mr. Right (Archie Kao), and she (cluelessly? maliciously?) withholds the fact of his dubious paternity until seconds before they say their wedding vows. Ha ha ha. On the plus side, Cheung and Kao have an amazing chemistry in their scenes together, which might have worked wonders in a different movie. And I did crack up at a line where Cheung bemoans finding yet another white pubic hair.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.