Over the course of attending press screenings and viewing over a dozen screener DVDs, I kept changing my mind about the overall quality of the offerings in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), beginning its 30th year of existence this Thursday, March 10. Maybe it's because last year's event was particularly outstanding, at least in the category of documentaries. Or maybe it's my anxiety over regime change after Chi-hui Yang's assured stewardship of more than a decade. At any rate, I'm happy to report that there's plenty to like about this year's bounty, and depending on your choices you will have the film festival experience you hoped for.
First of all, I want to wish a hearty "Welcome home!" to new Festival and Exhibitions Director Masashi Niwano. It's reassuring to know that, despite his youthful looks (he's 29 like the festival), Masashi actually spent years toiling in different departments of this festival before submitting his own film for screening (Falling Stars, 2006), then moving on to preside over the Austin Asian American Film Festival. He's now returned to the Bay Area where he was born (Campbell) and matriculated (SF State).
Almost Perfect—A moderately entertaining romantic comedy focused on a beleaguered heroine (Kelly Hu) whose troubled family members keep getting in the way of her pursuit of love. Her love object, handsome can't-put-a-foot-wrong Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), is more than patient especially with her resentful little brother (Edison Chen) and recently-retired father (Roger Rees), both of whom crash at her loft. I should have been more absorbed in the family conflicts, but instead I kept wondering how much it cost to heat such a living space in the Manhattan winter, especially with siblings who leave the refrigerator door ajar. (Press Screening)
Surrogate Valentine—A listless comedy about a semi-successful musician (played by local artist Goh Nakamura) who reluctantly takes on the job of teaching a narcissistic TV star how to play guitar in one week. I kept getting reminded of Steven Okazaki's 1987 Living on Tokyo Time, with its introverted Japanese-American guitarist's pathetic attempts at communication and Bay Area locations. Being a big fan of Dave Boyle's more obviously comic stories of outsize eccentric personalities, Big Dreams Little Tokyo and White on Rice, I was disappointed by this more reserved comedy. (Press Screening)
Clash—A handsome but derivative action film from Vietnam. All it showed me was that Vietnamese filmmaker Le Thanh Son can also do a conventional mixed-martial-arts action film, albeit with Saigon as backdrop. It has its strengths: The constantly pissed-off assassin played by Veronica Ngo is entertaining to watch as she pummels her posse of thugs into submission and gets them to cooperate on the job she needs to complete in order to be reunited with a daughter taken from her years ago. And true to its 1980s Hong Kong roots, we can enjoy the action without the crutch of CGI. (Press Screening)
Raavanan—Veteran director Mani Ratman's Tamil version of his modern retelling of the Hindu epic the Ramayana is a study in extremes, set in breathtaking natural locations yet heavily daubed with CGI and wire work. Vikram plays a vicious, possibly mentally disturbed, bandit leader who avenges his sister's death by kidnapping the wife (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) of a police inspector (Prithviraj). As the modern equivalent of the Demon King Ravana, with the demons mostly in his own head, he holds her hostage waiting for virtuous King Rama to come rescue his chaste Queen Sita. While in captivity, she comes to know her captor better and reluctantly falls in love with him. There are a few interesting references to the disenfranchisement of darker-skinned peoples at the hands of the lighter-skinned security forces, but clearly the pleasure lies in watching Aishwarya Rai tied up soaking wet as Vikram flexes his tattooed muscles and makes threatening animal noises while Prithviraj's forces approach his bandit camp for the showdown. (Press Screening)
For me, still thrilled by the final film (Naan Kadavul) in Lalitha Gopalan and Anuj Vaidya's recent series Cruel Cinema on 21st-century independent Tamil film at Pacific Film Archive, Raavanan was an opportunity to see Tamil cinema's higher-budget and more commercial counterpart. I'll take the lower-budget, more politically audacious and iconoclastic Tamil works any day.
Histeria—This Malaysian thriller about a group of schoolgirls punished by being locked into a school building over the weekend, inadvertently conjuring a spirit they had only been joking about, is an uninspired rehash of countless teen slasher films both Asian and American. (Screener) For a more satisfying horror experience, see the 1999 Thai Nang Nak, based on a traditional ghost story about a pregnant wife who insists on coming back from the dead. I remember seeing it on its initial release and being astonished, and creeped out, at how different Thai ghosts are from other Asian ghosts.
M/F Remix—We seem to be witnessing a spring awakening of Jean-Luc Godard. First the Academy gives him an award (OK, back in November), then two films giving him the intertextual nod show up in this festival: The Imperialists Are Still Alive! and M/F Remix, a playful Asian American riff on Godard's 1966 Masculin Féminin. "We know Coca-Cola, but who the hell is Marx?" (Screener)
Bi, Don't Be Afraid!—An impressionistic Vietnamese film about an inquisitive and footloose little boy coming upon the secrets of his elders. I don't want to say too much about this film since I wrote the catalogue note. But if you've ever spent time in Hanoi and sat in front of a fan feeling the sweat flying from your brow, it will all come back to you watching this. (Screener)
Bend It Like Beckham—Another encore presentation, this one part of a tribute to director Gurinder Chadha (whose husband Paul Mayeda Berges is a former director of the festival), still holds up from 2002 as a lively cross-cultural comedy about a London girl who idolizes footballer David Beckham and pursues the sport despite opposition by her traditional Sikh parents.
I still think of last year's remarkable program of documentaries and can't help comparing it to this year's less brilliant selection. There are high points though, and even some of the low points are strangely compelling.
One Voice is this year's crowd-pleasing inspirational doc, following high school students competing for the coveted Kamehameha Schools Song Contest in traditional Hawai'ian (better not forget the apostrophe) language. The quieter Amin also celebrates traditional song, but the players are older and not enjoying a resurgence. Widely admired young musician and musicologist Amin Aghaie must search through modern Iran for old practitioners of Qashqai music, recording them before they fade away. (Screener)
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is valuable for using the legendary actress's own letters and articles as its narration for a much-needed career overview. But the use of re-enactment for such a visually spectacular subject, whose film clips we also get to see, is just a bother. (Screener)
Two documentaries about Asian subcultures compel conflicted compassion. Resident Aliens profiles Cambodian "returnees," or young Cambodian-Americans, never made citizens of the United States, who—as a result of being convicted of a crime—have been deported to a country they don't really know. The viewer is torn between pity for these Americans who have had to leave their families behind, and impatience at their poor judgment and self-sabotage in their new and alien home. Tales of the Waria evokes indignation at the treatment of a community of Indonesian men who live openly as women and choose to abide by Islamic doctrine by not undergoing sex reassignment. The idea of anyone sacrificing everything for love is moving, but these people get an especially raw deal in their personal lives. You can imagine which other San Francisco film festival will screen this film a few months hence. (Screener)
Two of the more sensational documentaries try to understand the motivations behind unspeakable crimes. Open Season explores the 2004 mass murder by a Hmong-American man of six white hunters in Wisconsin, asking if shooter Chai Vang's rampage was an act of self-defense (as he claimed) or of rage against anti-Hmong sentiment, especially in the deer-hunting community. The House of Suh, another film investigating the shooting death of a white man at the hands of an Asian-American man in the Midwest, tries to pry open the deeply locked secrets of a Korean-American immigrant family. The revelations grow more horrifying as the film uncovers the passionate ambitions of parents and children who feel cheated out of their portion of the American dream. (Screener)
Another pair of documentaries take us to Central Asian regions. The melancholy and spectacular Passion is a road movie that traces the history of Mongolian cinema through the works of its most notable filmmakers, including one on tour screening his latest melodrama to a frankly indifferent viewership. (Screener) Far from film culture or any media for that matter, Summer Pasture is a charming and increasingly anachronistic account of a nomadic married couple who herd yaks and make butter in the eastern Tibetan grasslands. He's immature and vain, applying acne ointment to his face. She never stops working and is aware of his infidelity. When they break into giggles, you realize how young they are. Meanwhile, an easier life in the city for their infant daughter is a constant temptation. (Seen at Palm Springs Film Festival, January 2011)
Finally, my choice for best film at the fest so far is the Iranian Gold and Copper. This is the film that singlehandedly changed my evaluation of this year's prescreened offerings. Don't miss this one! It starts out as a mundane story of a sober young theology student who brings his rug weaver wife and two small children to Tehran. Seyyed can't concentrate on his studies when he's constantly disturbed by a neighbor girl who plays music on the radio. Other stresses of city life distract him from noticing his wife's months-long complaints of numbness in her fingers and legs. It isn't until she collapses and has to be hospitalized that they learn she has the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Her inability to weave, cook or care for the kids forces him to take over these tasks at the expense of his mullah training. What sounds like an Iranian Mr. Mom is much more profound and even transcendent, as the young family faces crippling disease and loss of income while it grows stronger in love and courage. (Screener)
Cross-published on Twitch.