Thursday, March 10, 2011

SFIAAFF 2011—Michael Hawley's Review Capsules

The 29th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) begins this evening Thursday, March 10 and runs through March 20 at various Bay Area venues. In a previous post I gave an overview of this year's extensive line-up. The following are capsule reviews of six narrative features and four documentaries I've had the opportunity to preview on DVD screener.

Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words (USA / South Korea, dir. Yunah Hong)—Those who attended SFIAAFF's 2004 Anna May Wong retrospective won't want to miss this seamlessly constructed documentary that covers all aspects of the star's career and personal life. Deftly blending quotes from letters and interviews, along with choice photos, clips and interviews with those who knew her (including renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff), director Hong renders a clear sense of just who this legendary Chinese-American actress was—beyond the exotic stereotype she seldom escaped on-screen. Among its many revelations is that lyricist Eric Maschwitz wrote "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" especially for his lover, Anna May. What doesn't quite work are the film's reenactments with actress Doan Ly, especially the attempted recreation of Wong's cabaret act.

Bi, Don't Be Afraid! (Viet Nam / France / Germany, dir. Phan Dang Di)—In this sumptuously photographed family drama, a boy maneuvers his way around a world of troubled adult relatives. Five-year-old Bi's grandfather has returned to Hanoi to die, while his absent alcoholic father cavorts with a masseuse. Putting up with it all is his empathetic mother. Bi's young schoolteacher aunt is pursued by a hunky construction worker, but she's developed the hots for one of her students. The film is leisurely paced to a fault, with peculiar editing choices that fail to unite disparate plot threads. There's also an overheated eroticism that verges on creepy. And I never thought I'd ever say this about any film, but the ample male nudity here is fairly gratuitous. Still, Bi is worth a look for its urban
mise-en-scène (particularly that of an ice factory where Bi spends much of his time), uniformly fine performances and the stunning, aforementioned Red One cinematography.

Dance Town (South Korea, dir. Jeon Kyu-hwan)—A female escapee from North Korea adjusts to life in the South in director Jeon's third and final installment of his "urban loneliness" trilogy. The film is strongest in its first half, as Jung-rim tentatively stakes out a new existence, prodded by a well-meaning caseworker and some overbearing churchgoers. It all gets a bit overreaching and
Crash-y, however, with storylines focused on characters in equally desperate straits. By the end, Dance Town seems to enjoy wallowing in its own miserablism, almost to the point—I hate to say it—of being laughable.

Dog Sweat (Iran / USA, dir. Hossein Keshavarz)—Most of Iran's population is under 30-years-old and living amidst an authoritative, fundamentalist society. How they reconcile youthful desire for personal freedom in the face of such strictures is the theme of this modest, clandestinely-shot indie. The film juggles a number of potentially interesting, inter-connected storylines, but tends to lurch gracelessly between them. There's also a lack of depth in the characterizations, which holds particularly true in the depiction of a gay man and aspiring female pop singer who are joined in an arranged marriage. First we see their initial meeting amongst family members, followed by a scene of their wedding, and then a shot of them at home watching TV—all without a single word of dialogue in which they discuss their mutual predicament. Still,
Dog Sweat has value in that it depicts a side of Iran we rarely see. Just don't go in expecting the level of artistry seen in youth-oriented films like Bahman Ghobadi's No One Knows About Persian Cats, Jafar Panahi's Offside or even last year's SFIAAFF shot-on-a-cellphone documentary, Sepideh Farsi's Tehran Without Permission.

The Imperialists Are Still Alive! (USA, dir. Zeina Durra)—In this impressive directorial debut, we witness post-9/11 New York City through the eyes of its young "
émigré intelligentsia." Theirs is an enviable life of limos, swag bags, galleries and underground clubs—but if you're young and Arab, it's also a life of disquiet and paranoia. French actress Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds, The Dreamlife of Angels) portrays a politically provocative artist of Bosnian-Lebanese-Jordanian descent, who in the opening scene is being photographed with nothing but keffiyeh wrapped around her head. One eventful night she learns that a friend has probably been abducted by the C.I.A., and she meets a handsome Mexican PhD student. The film follows the course of their burgeoning relationship amidst this life of privilege. Director Durra obviously knows this life well and her film is full of delicious rib-poking that avoids full-on lampooning of her bourgeois characters. These are real people with valid concerns—Bouchez's character spends much of the film fretting about a brother who's trying to escape the Israeli bombing of Beirut. Durra's screenplay has also devised interesting ways for her characters to interact with NYC's immigrant economic substrata of manicurists, maids and taxi drivers. Poignant, charming, politically aware—and shot in gorgeous 16mm depicting a wintry Manhattan—this is one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

Living in Seduced Circumstances (USA, dir. Ian Gamazon)—The co-director of 2005's urgent Philippines kidnapping drama Cavite returns with this curious two-hander tale of revenge and torture. At a remote forest cabin, a demented pregnant woman torments an older man she's duct-taped to a wheelchair. Fancying herself "Princess of the Jungle," she shoots him with arrows, smacks him with a shovel and sticks his feet in a wood-burning stove. A motive for all this aggression is given early on, but another one arises that relates to the two characters being Vietnamese. Color camera filters and animation give the film a dreamlike quality, and Quynn Ton tears into her role with a terrifying, childlike malevolence. Overlong at 76 minutes, this would have made for one awesome short.

Passion (Mongolia, dir. Byamba Sakhya)—In its communist era heyday, Mongolia produced seven features and 40 documentary films per year, but today the Mongolian Studio complex lies in near ruin. Jigjid Dejid was considered the country's greatest director, and today his son Binder struggles to carry on the tradition. When he discovers that his latest film can't be screened in Ulan Bator's only cinema because of format and aspect ratio issues, he takes it on the road. Unfortunately, Human Traffic, his cautionary tale about a rich city woman who sells her rural sister's kidney, inspires few ticket sales, even in the provinces. Joining this dispiriting 2,000 km journey is Binder's longtime cinematographer, Passion's director / narrator / DP Byamba Sakhya. Their close friendship renders this an extremely personal film, perhaps a bit too much so. But those with an interest in national cinemas, or for that matter, an overall concern for the future of film exhibition everywhere, will find much to appreciate. Highlights include Sakhya's staggeringly beautiful photography of Mongolia's towns and villages, along with a trove of fascinating clips from the country's cinematic legacy.

Piano in a Factory (China, dir. Zhang Meng)—Chen Guilen plays accordion in a band and is in a fluctuating relationship with its comely lead singer. He's also in a custody battle with his soon-to-be
nouveau riche ex-wife. To win the affections of his daughter, he launches a monumental scheme to build her a piano with help from his scrappy friends and bandmates. This is the framework upon which writer/director Zhang hangs this delightfully loopy film, which in quite unlike any Chinese movie I've ever seen. Zhang has a sublime visual sense, utilizing interior and exterior spaces for utmost effect in his compositions and camera movements. This is also a musical of sorts, with several production numbers and a soundtrack that encompasses everything from Russian pop songs to the theme from Super Mario Bros. One could complain that Piano in a Factory is a bit precious and overworked, but that criticism is easily overshadowed by the film's enormous ambitions and sense of fun.

Summer Pasture (USA / Tibet, dir. Lynn True, Nelson Walker)—Yama and Locho are married Tibetan yak-herders whose way of life is fading as fellow nomads choose life in the city. This extraordinary documentary observes them through the course of one summer, giving us a rich portrait of both their quotidian lives and individual personalities. Wife Yama suffers from heart disease, yet rises at 4 a.m. to gather yak dung for fuel, with the rest of her day spent making butter and caring for their baby daughter. Husband Locho, a ladies man in his younger days and still rather vain, grazes the family herd. He has an illegitimate child by another woman, which counts against the three-child maximum he's allowed by the Chinese government (and the woman in question had to be paid off in caterpillar fungus, which is the region's new cash crop). One revealing sequence cuts back and forth as Yama and Locho, filmed separately, recount the incident. This is yet another SFIAAFF 2011 documentary with eye-catching cinematography, with yak silhouettes against a dawn sky and the arrival of a hailstorm among the high points. In the end credits I noticed that Philip Maysles—son of acclaimed documentarian Albert Maysles—was one of the cameramen, and the Maysles Institute itself is listed as one of the funders.

Tales of the Waria (Indonesia, dir. Kathy Huang)—This fine documentary brings us four touching, humanist portraits of transgenders living in Makassar on the southern tip of Indonesia's Sulawesi island.
Waria is a combination of the words wanita (woman) and pria (man), and their existence in this Muslim society is tolerated because in pre-Muslim times they were trusted caretakers of the king. None desire sex-change operations, believing that they were created as men and must ultimately return to God as men. (This is in contrast to Iran, where the government pays for the operation, believing that transexualism is okay because nothing in the Quran forbids it). The most compelling story is that of Mama Ria, a waria in her fifties who has been a policeman's second wife for 18 years. One memorable scene shows her strolling arm in arm with the first wife during a family outing at a water park. Over the course of the film, however, we sadly watch her marriage come to an end, despite recent plastic surgery to improve her looks. The other warias are Suharni, a hairdresser who leaves her boyfriend to earn money in Bali; Agus, a husband and father who struggles with the desire to return to the waria way of life; and Tiara, an exuberant showgirl and beauty pageant trainer.

Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.

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