Tuesday, March 11, 2008

SFIAAFF08—Michael Hawley's Preview

Following up on his anticipatory remarks, Michael Hawley explores some of the films from the 26th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ("SFIAAFF08"), which opens in San Francisco this coming Thursday, March 13, 2008, and continues through Sunday, March 23, 2008. From there the program continues on at its Berkeley and San Jose venues. Now that we know how SFIAAFF is officially pronounced ("sfee-aahf"), I'm looking forward to hearing how it's mumbled and mangled with misplaced accents and undue emphasis. Oh, and I'm looking forward to some of the films too. Take it away, Michael.

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After weeks of anticipation, SFIAAFF08 is finally set to begin. I have an overstuffed roster of eight films I'm scheduled to see this coming weekend and couldn't be more amped-up for it. In the meantime, here's a look at some of the films I've had the chance to preview, all from the festival's International Showcase, Documentary Competition and Documentary Showcase sections.

Of the dozen or so films I've looked at, the one that most impressed me was Slingshot, a dynamic work from prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (his sixth feature in two years). In its astounding, elaborately-choreographed opening sequence, Mendoza's handheld camera charges headlong into the nocturnal labyrinth that is Manila's Quiapo slum, an urgent voice warning the populace of an impending police raid. Junkies frantically run for cover and thieves scramble to hide their contraband. The cops arrive and start busting down doors, dragging the men of Quiapo out into the night. The next day a local politician bails them out of jail, the raid having been an election year show tactic. With everyone back on the streets, it's a return to status quo, and the remainder of the film is spent observing the diurnal activities of Quiapo's thieves, gamblers, addicts and thugs. In a film full of unsettling images, none has stuck with me more than that of a father smoking crack in an alley chasm, all while holding a baby in his arms. In another curious storyline, a young woman who shoplifts electronic equipment for a living exalts in her new dentures, until she accidentally drops them down a drainpipe and must go clawing through sewage to retrieve them.

Mendoza and screenwriter Ralston Jover target the institutions of church and state with well-aimed scorn, setting the film during a time of local elections and Holy Week festivities. Voters walk away from their polling place with wads of cash, and a man is crushed to death in a religious procession. Police torture a robbery suspect and Mormon missionaries prowl the streets. In the film's final shot, we watch a man being pick-pocketed during a political rally in which the candidates blather on about their faith in God. Relentless and unsparing, Slingshot has the look and feel of a documentary, but was apparently fully scripted and rehearsed (the actors are a mix of pros and non-pros, and I defy you to tell me which are which.) The hand-held camerawork, sepia-toned imagery and minimalist, percussive soundtrack all contribute to making this one of the most original and potent pieces of filmmaking I've seen recently.

While Slingshot presents one vision of Manila's slums, Mendoza's Foster Child, also in the festival, presents one considerably more subdued and benevolent. In another remarkable opening scene, Mendoza fills the screen with an image of Manila's modern skyline, then pans down to reveal its ramshackle slums in the foreground. It's there that we'll spend the day with professional foster mother Thelma, as she prepares to hand off her ward of three years to an adoptive American family. These intimate scenes of familial domesticity, which fill up the film's first half, are followed by a cross-town journey led by Thelma's no-nonsense social worker. Their destination is a luxury hotel where the American family is waiting, and the contrast between the hotel's opulent sterility and Thelma's humble nest is jolting. These hotel scenes play out a bit clumsily, however, especially in the wobbly performance of the actor (?) playing the American father, and a weak attempt to wring comedy out of Thelma's unfamiliarity with the hotel's sophisticated bathroom plumbing. The film also makes a very odd choice by denying us the moment when Thelma and the young boy finally part company. At times, Foster Child comes off more like a documentary on the Filipino child welfare system than a piece of narrative fiction. But there's plenty to appreciate here nonetheless, not the least of which is Cherrie Pie Picache's warm, naturalistic lead performance.

From Indonesia, the festival presents new works from that country's two best known entities on the international festival circuit: Riri Riza (Eliana, Eliana; Gie) and Garin Nugroho (Opera Jawa; Of Love and Eggs). Riza's Three Days to Forever follows two cousins—uptight but likable Yusuf and wild, spoiled Ambar—as they take a road trip to attend a family wedding in Yogyakarta. Fueled by pot and pills, these young urbanites traverse a rural landscape that is both familiar and alien to them (I was often reminded of a similar road trip in Y tu mama también). They get lost along the way, making unscheduled stops at a hot springs resort and a Catholic pilgrimage site, all while ruminating pie-eyed on such issues as marriage, career and their ambiguous place in a conservative, developing nation. A mutual erotic attraction between the two cousins is allowed to play out in an unforced way, and a lackadaisical score of Indonesian indie-pop is its perfect accompaniment.

Garin Nugroho is actually one of four directors listed for Serambi, a documentary/mood piece which reflects on the tragic loss experienced by survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia's Aceh province (Nugroho is also credited with the film's "creative concept"). The film begins with horrifyingly surreal footage of the tsunami's arrival. We see a wall of water travel down a city street, dragging entire houses, cars and trees along with it as helpless onlookers watch from atop the neighborhood mosque. From here the film focuses on individual stories. Orphans in a refugee camp remember their parents. A man buys his meals at a food stall and eats them on the spot where his house once stood. A young man who plays in a metal band and makes Che Guevara t-shirts experiences a crisis of faith. Although a bit meandering and stagy at times, the film is still an affecting portrait of unruly nature's cruel aftermath.

In Alexi Tan's anemic Blood Brothers from Hong Kong, three pals from the sticks seek their fortune in 1930's Shanghai. In what seems like no time, they go from pulling rickshaws to becoming underlings in a ruthless gang headquartered at the ironically-named Paradise nightclub. Ambition, betrayal and revenge predictably follow, leading the story back to the trio's rural village for one last, nonsensical round of bloodletting. Because I'm not really a fan of this type of genre film, I checked out a number of reviews written by people who are. My disappointment, it seems, is shared pretty much across the board. What did work for me in Blood Brothers was the period art direction and the novelty of seeing gorgeous Shu Qi singing and dancing, as the star performer of the Paradise club. Local audiences may also appreciate the film's star-turn by Bay Area native Daniel Wu, who is expected to attend the festival screenings.

Fortunately, the films I previewed were not all gang slayings, tsunamis and slums. For lighter fare, I'd recommend checking out these two flawed, but very likable flicks: Royston Tan's campy Singaporean musical 881, and Wisit Sasanatieng's Thai ghost story The Unseeable. Michael Guillén has already done a wonderful write-up on the latter, to which I have little to add. This sensually filmed haunted house mystery is more likely to elicit screams of laughter than horror, but fans of the director's Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog will find much to like here. I know I did.

881 (which I caught earlier this year in Palm Springs) is a colorful and splashy tribute to the world of Getai. This uniquely Singaporean form of musical review is performed on the seventh lunar month, when the gates of hell are opened and the spirits who roam the streets need entertaining. 881 tells the tale of the Papaya Sisters, two untalented young women who make an unholy pact with the Getai Goddess to become Getai superstars. Aided by their ballsy, dictatorial Auntie Ling Ling and her deaf-mute son Guan Yin (played by Chinese/Singaporean heartthrob Qi Yu-wu, who also gets to woo Joan Chen in the festival's closing night film, The Home Song Stories), the duo go to battle against their nasty arch-rivals, the Durian Sisters. Director Tan once again shows off the playful visual flair he first exhibited in 15 (musical chickens, anyone?), and the film's eye-popping costumes should make this a must-see for all self-respecting Bay Area drag queens. The film's brash musical numbers and broad acting, however, do make for a rather bombastic and exhausting movie-going experience that may not appeal to all.

In addition to Serambi, I previewed two other worthwhile documentaries in the festival, Christine Choy's Long Story Short, and Ann Kaneko's Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Peru. Choy's engaging, bittersweet film examines the role of Asian entertainers in America by looking at the career of The Leungs, a husband and wife nightclub act popular in the 40s and 50s, and that of their actress daughter Jodi, who narrates the film. A Chinese-Australian tap dancer and a Japanese-American chorus girl, Larry and Trudie Leung were regulars on USO tours and the Chinatown "Chop Suey" circuit. Their career highlight (and a highlight of this documentary as well) was a May 7, 1950 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in which they sing, dance and tell jokes (and are made the butt of a racist bit having to do with Sullivan's laundry.) Daughter Jodi Long entered show biz in 1962 at the age of seven, when she was cast in the Broadway musical Nowhere To Go But Up (and was the only real-life Asian in the musical's family of Chinese launderers). 40 years later, she would have a leading role in Flower Drum Song, a revisionist revival of the musical her father had toured in for over 10 years. This connection is one of several points over which Long is able to compare her own struggles as an Asian-American entertainer with those of her parents. The film is structured around a stage piece Long composed about her unique life and career, and features some lovely archival material and interviews with her parents (I was particularly moved by Trudie Leung's accounting of her years spent in the Minidoka internment camp during WWII).

Ann Kaneko's Against the Grain is a fascinating look at the relationship between art and politics in Peru, particularly as it relates to the 10-year authoritarian presidency of Alberto Fujimori and his suppression of Maoist guerrilla groups. Kaneko traveled to Peru three times between 2001 and 2006 and chose to profile four very distinct artists. One of them is Eduardo Tokeshi, a Japanese-Peruvian whose flag-art addresses themes of his assimilation into the larger Latin-American culture. In the film he speaks about the racism Japanese-Peruvians have faced since the now-reviled Fujimori left office in 2000. (In one harrowing scene we see an example of this, as the filmmaker herself is nearly attacked by a crowd for being Japanese-American.) The other three artists profiled are Alfredo Márquez, a hippie-punk silkscreener who spent four years in a maximum security prison for painting Marilyn Monroe lips on a portrait of Mao; Claudio Jiménz Quispe, who sculpts 3-dimensional retablos on the subject of Peru's civil war of the '80s and '90s; and Natalia Iguiñez, a conceptual artist whose exhibit La Otra is a series of life-size photographs of upper-class women and their maids.

(Please note that a new film has been announced for the festival's International Showcase section, to be screened on Saturday, March 15, 9:15 at the Castro Theater (the time slot originally held by Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, which was moved to a smaller venue at the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki and is now sold out). The film is Jacob Cheung's lavish 4th century B.C. Chinese war epic, A Battle of Wits starring Andy Lau. Variety's Derek Elley gives it quite a good review here.

Cross-published on Twitch.