Rather than wait until its 30th birthday, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has chosen 29 as the ripe age for a makeover. At a recent press conference announcing 2011's line-up, the fest introduced a new logo, website, tagline ("Stories to light") and most importantly, a new Festival and Exhibitions Director. Masashi Niwano, a 29-year-old Bay Area native, worked his way up the SFIAAFF ranks as volunteer, intern, theater operations manager and even filmmaker. He's come home after a four-year stint running the Austin Asian American Film Festival and now replaces esteemed Chi-hui Yang in helming the largest Asian fest in North America.
SFIAAFF has also replaced its traditional magazine-format program guide with a classy, but somewhat unwieldy and eye-straining 6" x 9" catalog. Flipping through it at the press conference, I noticed an absence of recognizable international auteurs—indeed, only two of the roughly dozen films I'd hoped for were in the program. Among the M.I.A. are new works by Lee Chang-dong, Tsui Hark, Takashi Miike, Kôji Wakamatsu, Anh Hung Tran, Amir Muhammad, Kim Longinotto and most strangely, SFIAAFF habitué Hong Sang-soo, who released two new films last year. Of course, SFIAAF is more than just a greatest hits collection from the previous year's fest circuit. A closer examination would reveal many programs worthy of anticipation.
My two wish-list fulfillments are Jia Zheng-ke's I Wish I Knew and Zeina Durra's The Imperialists Are Still Alive! Considered China's most important filmmaker by some, this new work from Jia (Still Life and last year's SFIAAFF entry, 24 City) is a portrait of Shanghai, shot by his extraordinary, longtime cinematographer Yu Likwai. Imperialists is director Durra's narrative feature debut and is set amongst NYC's post-9/11 "émigré intelligentsia." The main character is a bourgeois but politically provocative artist who falls for a Mexican PhD student on the same night she learns that a friend has possibly been abducted under the C.I.A.'s "extraordinary rendition" program. The part is played by one of my favorite French actresses, Élodie Bouchez (André Téchiné's Wild Reeds and Roman Coppola's CQ.) It remains to be seen how the film fits the context of an Asian American film festival, given that the director—as well as Bouchez's character—is of Bosnian-Jordanian-Palestinian descent. Also worth noting is that Imperialists was shot in 16mm and will be screened at the festival in that format. (Speaking of screening formats, you'll need to purchase the catalog to learn what's what—the free mini-guide and website make no mention of them).
This year's SFIAAFF runs from March 10 to 20 and I've got a big, red circle drawn around Sunday, March 13. I plan on parking myself at the Castro Theater from noon till midnight that day for what promises to be one helluva quadruple-bill. The marathon kicks off with what was originally a distributor-imposed "surprise" screening. Said distributor has changed its mind, however, and now I'm free to tell you that the surprise is Lee Jeong-beom's violent revenge thriller The Man From Nowhere, one of South Korea's biggest 2010 box office hits. Actor Bin Won stars as a taciturn pawnshop owner who's forced to revive his skills as a former government assassin in order to rescue the daughter of his junkie upstairs neighbor from child organ harvesters. Whew! Reviews say the film's occasional hoary genre clichés are outweighed by kick-ass set pieces and a riveting performance by Won, in a role that's polar opposite to the developmentally disabled son he portrayed in Bong Joon-ho's Mother.
The Castro mood shifts radically at 3:00 with Chito S. Roño's Emir, a campy, 22-song Filipino musical about an OFW (overseas Filipina worker) who becomes nanny to a young Middle Eastern prince. In his review for Variety, Jay Weissberg calls Emir "jaw-dropping in both good ways and bad," which is recommendation enough for me. The Castro's evening programming begins at 6:30 with SFIAAFF's 2011 Centerpiece Film, Le Thanh Son's Clash. This martial arts epic was last year's top box-office smash in Viet Nam and stars that country's very own "Brangelina," couple Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van. The trailer is a blast and friends who attended the press screening say it's sexy as all get out. Plus, Nguyen and Van are expected to appear live on-stage at the Castro. How do you top that? Perhaps with Raavanan, the latest spectacle from celebrated Indian director Mani Ratnam (Dil Se, A Peck on the Cheek), which screens at 9:30. This contempo retelling of a tale from the Ramayana stars mono-monikered hunk Vikram as a criminal who conducts a revenge kidnapping of a police chief's wife (Aishwarya Rai). By the way, all four films at SFIAAFF's day-at-the-Castro will be screened in 35mm.
Each year the festival presents a "ripe for rediscovery" movie from Out of the Vaults—traditionally at the Castro Theater. Unfortunately, this year's selection unspools at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive at the exact same time as the Castro's Centerpiece Film. I'm probably not the only person who's distressed over having to choose. This year's revival will be 1936's Charlie Chan at the Olympics, said to be "one of the best and most interesting of the 16 films in which Warner Oland played the title character." The event will include a conversation between Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and author Yunte Huang, who's just written the book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.
Several of the films mentioned thus far hail from the festival's new Cinema Asia sidebar, which is basically their old International Showcase with some foreign documentaries mixed in. Of the 15 selections on offer, I'm especially looking forward to Dooman River, the latest narrative feature about North Koreans in China from director Zhang Lu. His masterful Grain in Ear and its follow-up, Desert Dream, were shown at the festival in 2006 and 2008 respectively. I've also read good things about Jeon Kyu-Hwan's Dance Town, which follows an exiled North Korean table tennis champ as she adapts to life in South Korea. Those who follow the Golden Horse Awards—arguably Asia's most prestigious film accolade—will have the opportunity to catch two big winners from last year. Chang Tso-Chi's When Love Comes won Best Feature Film, Audience Choice Award, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction, while Chung Mong-Hong's The Fourth Portrait took home prizes for Best Director and Outstanding Taiwanese Film. SFIAAFF's Asian scope extends all the way to Iran, and I've heard nothing but raves for Homayoun Asadian's Gold and Copper from friends who've seen it at other festivals. Praised for how it "illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of traditional roles in Iranian society," the film tells the story of a young mullah-in-training who must assume household and parental duties when his breadwinner wife falls ill to multiple sclerosis. A few other Cinema Asia possibilities include Bi, Don't Be Afraid!, which was Viet Nam's Oscar® submission, and Passion, a documentary about the legacy of filmmaking in Mongolia.
Eight documentary and eight narrative features will compete in this year's Competition Awards. I've never been clear about the criteria for these awards, but it seems that the filmmaker must be North America-based, while the subject matter or setting can be anywhere in the world. In addition to the previously mentioned The Imperialists are Still Alive!, I'm most looking forward to Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, based on the provocative 2003 novel about an imaginary Muslim-American punk scene. Two directors familiar to SFIAAFF audiences return with new projects in competition. From Ian Gamazon (Cavite) comes Living in Seduced Circumstances, a tale of vengeance and torture that "traverses an imaginary border toward the darkened realm of fairy tale." And director Stephane Gauger (Owl and the Sparrow) returns to the streets of Saigon for a look at underground Vietnamese hip-hop youth culture (Saigon Electric). The only narrative feature of significant LGBT interest in the festival is Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat, a clandestinely filmed, multi-character weaving about young people in Iran that includes a gay couple facing the threat of an arranged marriage. Bertha Bay-sa Pan's romantic comedy Almost Perfect is notable for the appearance of Edison Chen—his first film, I believe, since 2008's XXX-photo scandal made him an industry pariah. Rounding out this year’s narrative competition are Jy-ah Min's M/F Remix, which "repurposes" Godard's Masculine/Feminine for a new generation, and Chuck Mitsui's One Kine Day, a skater dude's day-in-the-life saga that's steeped in Oahu working class youth culture.
Shifting over to the Documentary Competition, I've got an eye on Lynn True and Nelson Walker's critically acclaimed Summer Pasture, a strictly observational doc about a married yak-herding couple being confronted with modernity. News junkies might remember a 2004 item about a Hmong immigrant who killed six white hunters in a Wisconsin forest. Mark Tang and Lu Lippold's Open Season investigates that tragic story. The resurging interest in the life and career of actress Anna May Wong gets furthered with Yunah Hong's Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words. The only LGBT doc in the festival, Kathy Huang's Tales of the Waria, looks into the world of four Indonesian transgenders. Other competition documentaries explore such topics as India's booming trade in "procreative tourism," i.e., Indian women being paid to act as birth surrogates for Western couples (Made in India), a traditional Hawaiian song competition for students (One Voice) and the deportation of U.S. Cambodian refugees with criminal records to a motherland they no longer know (Resident Aliens).
After Masashi Niwano was named Exec Director of the fest, one of his first missions was to curate a horror series for this year. The result is a fun-sounding trio of terror tales called "After Death: Horror Cinema from Southeast Asia." His picks include Thai blockbuster Nang Nak, which was first shown at the festival in 2000; Histeria, from Malaysian indie director James Lee (The Beautiful Washing Machine) which features that country's first on-screen lesbian kiss, and Affliction from the Philippines.
What else? The SFIAAFF 2011 opening night film is Andy de Emmony's West is West, a sequel to the popular 1999 British comedy East is East. This new adventure follows the multi-ethnic Khan family from Manchester to rural Pakistan, with returning cast members Om Puri, Linda Bassett and Jimi Mistry. (The film was also the sold-out opening nighter at our recent Mostly British Film Festival). After the screening at the Castro, SFIAAFF opening night continues with a party at the SF Asian Art Museum. Closing night's feature is Surrogate Valentine by Dave Boyle (White on Rice), a rock-mockumentary starring local indie singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura. This year also shines a spotlight on director Gurinder Chadha, who will sort of be on hand to introduce her new macabre comedy It's a Wonderful Afterlife—via Skype. Chadha's spotlight also includes revival screenings of her 2002 mega-hit, Bend It Like Beckham. And finally, this year's festival delivers a whopping nine programs of shorts.
In his opening remarks at the press conference, CAAM's Stephen Gong declared 2011's SFIAAFF "the most ambitious festival in our 29-year history." Nowhere is that more evident than in the New Directions section, which includes seven panel discussions (Directions in Dialogue), a night of cutting edge contemporary music at the 111 Minna Street club (Directions in Sound) and the festival's largest event, the all day/all night Festival Forum on Saturday, March 12. This year's forum features live music, spoken word, dance troupes and a Bollywood Under the Stars outdoor screening. Also, as part of Directions in Digital Media, be sure to check out Pixels, Politics and Play, CAAM's first ever independent games exhibition which will happen March 11 to 13 at SUPERFROG Gallery (located in the New People building on Post Street). As someone who couldn't care less about electronic games, whether it's Grand Theft Auto or iPhone Scrabble, I look forward to playing The Cat and the Coup. In this game designed by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, the player becomes the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's first democratically elected Prime Minister who was deposed in a C.I.A.-engineered 1953 coup.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.