Wednesday, March 07, 2012

SFIAAFF 2012—Michael Hawley Previews the Lineup

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) turns 30 this year, thereby joining Frameline, Mill Valley and SF Jewish in that pantheon of Bay Area film festivals whose essentiality has earned them a fourth decade. My own earliest SFIAAFF recollection is of watching A Scene at the Sea—my first Takeshi Kitano movie—at the Kabuki Theater some 20 years ago. Highlights of 2012's anniversary line-up include an in-person tribute to Joan Chen, a pair of world premieres from the talents behind Colma: The Musical, and Patrick Wang's In the Family, one of the most acclaimed American indies from last year.

Of all this year's programs, however, I'm most anticipating Scenes from a Memoir with Cherylene Lee. This celebrated playwright has been my neighbor for 10 years. What I didn't know until just recently is that she's also
that Cherylene Lee, the Chinese-American child star who danced with Gene Kelly, headlined Vegas with her older sister and had numerous roles in movies (Flower Drum Song, Donovan's Reef) and TV (Bachelor Father, Ben Casey, McHale's Navy, My Three Sons, Dennis the Menace, M*A*S*H.) On Sunday, March 11 at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, Lee will stage a reading from her upcoming memoir, Just Like Really, augmented with photos and film clips, followed by a conversation between Lee, her sister Virginia and film historian Stephen Gong. The accompanying photo is of Cherylene Lee and actress Ruth Roman, from a 1967 episode of The F.B.I.

Back in 2008, SFIAAFF programmed Brilliante Mendoza's
Slingshot and Foster Child (my reviews are here). These two films almost single-handedly reignited my interest in Filipino cinema, which had been dormant since the days of melodrama maestro Lino Brocka (himself the subject of a posthumous 2010 SFIAAFF retrospective). Ensuing exposure to directors like Raya Martin, Adolfo Alix Jr. and Lav Diaz furthered my enthusiasm for this national cinema. I was therefore very pleased to open up this year's festival catalogue and discover five new Filipino features in the line-up. I've had the chance to preview all but the Closing Night film, Prison Dancer, an "interactive web musical" which riffs on the viral 2009 YouTube phenomenon, Dancing Inmates of Cebu.

My favorite of the four films I did watch is Marlon N. Rivera's The Woman in the Septic Tank, a smart n' snarky comedy in which a young filmmaker cynically sets out to make a "typical" Filipino art movie,
i.e., one specifically targeted to win international festival prizes. His project, With Nothing, tells the grim story of a mother forced to sell her son to an old white pedophile. Chris Martinez' well-constructed, rapid-fire screenplay follows the production team as they gleefully scout picturesque slum locations, take a meeting with their lead actress (real Filipina star Eugene Domingo, in manic mode) and visualize their film as a musical. It's frequently laugh out loud funny, especially if you're familiar with the films being sent up, like Mendoza's Foster Child and the works of Adolfo Alix Jr. I'm a big fan of the latter director's film Adela (my review is here), which screened at SFIAAFF three years ago—his new film Fable of the Fish, perhaps not so much. Here Cherry Pie Picache (who starred in Foster Child and cameos in Septic Tank) plays a poor dumpsite denizen who gives birth to a fish, but is determined to raise it like a child. This inspires absurdist, dead-end scenarios like Mom taking fishy on pram strolls through an aquarium and Mom attempting to baptize her offspring in the Catholic Church. If this fable had a moral, or even a discernible point to make, it was too subtle to register with me.

As its title suggests, there are real infants aplenty in Eduardo W. Roy Jr.'s Baby Factory, a low-key docu-drama that addresses the acute overpopulation problem of the Philippines. Shot in a beat-up, government-run "labor" hospital that in real life facilitates the birth of almost 100 babies per day,
Baby Factory exposes us to the institution's inner-workings and daily dramas of patients and staff. Our fictionalized guide is a harried head nurse (actress Diana Zubiri) with her own issues—she's pregnant by a married man and is being pressured by her greedy family to work abroad. All this transpires over the course of one hectic Christmas Eve, with the action never leaving the crowded confines of the holiday-decorated hospital.

For a jaw-dropping look at another Filipino institution, I highly recommend Give Up Tomorrow. Michael Collins' documentary covers a 13-year legal case in which a young man is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two sisters, despite photos and 42 witnesses putting him in another city on the day of the crime. Toss in paid prosecution witnesses, a lack of corpses or other hard evidence, a sleeping judge who later commits suicide, corruption leading up to the President's office and a mother channeling her dead daughters' spirits in the courtroom, and you've got just the iceberg's tip of this exasperating steampot of judicial miscarriage. Collins, who is related to the accused and therefore had special access, expertly navigates the case's twists and turns, delivering a cogent and absorbing piece of non-fiction filmmaking.
Give Up Tomorrow won the audience award at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and has been deemed a "must see" by no less than Yoko Ono.

It's impossible to think back on last year's SFIAAFF without remembering the devastating news of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, which arrived on Day Two of the festival. A highlight of this year's line-up is The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, a haunting new documentary from Lucy Walker (
Waste Land) which was nominated for, but alas did not win, an Oscar® for Best Documentary Short. Filmed one month after the disaster and featuring an elegiac music score by Moby, Walker's film profiles survivors who find strength and hope in the blossoms' on-time spring arrival. The only other doc I previewed is No Look Pass, an interesting enough gaze at one young woman's transition from college to professional sports. A caveat to non-sports enthusiasts—the film is as much about basketball itself as it is the story of one particular Burmese-American lesbian athlete struggling with family and identity issues. Docs I'm hoping to catch during the festival include The Jake Shimabukuro Documentary (a portrait of the virtuoso ukulele player, featuring a live concert at the Castro Theater), There Once Was an Island (how the residents of a Polynesian atoll are facing climate change and a rising ocean), Love Crimes of Kabul (about an Afghani prison for women convicted of "moral" crimes) and Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful (the story of 98-year-old Keiko Fukuda, the world's foremost female Judo practitioner).

H.P. Mendoza (writer-actor-director) and Richard Wong (writer-director-cinematographer) are the multihyphenate talents behind Bay Area crowd-pleasers
Colma: The Musical and Fruit Fly, both of which world-premiered to acclaim at SFIAAFF. This year's festival boasts two new works by this prodigious duo. First, Mendoza branches into the supernatural thriller genre as writer-director-cinematographer of I Am a Ghost. This haunted house mystery spins the tale of Emily, a ghost caught in a repetitive (and I do mean repetitive) cycle of events, necessitating a medium's involvement to guide her onward. It's a premise that increases in complexity and ultimately leads to an attention-grabbing climax. Anna Ishida gives an effective performance, although it's distracting that her lines, as both written and delivered, fail to match the Victorian era suggested by the film's art direction and costuming. Mendoza also penned the screenplay for Yes, We're Open, a sophisticated sex comedy of sorts which is the festival's Centerpiece Film. Richard Wong shot and directed this tale of an urban couple toying with the idea of an open relationship—with a second couple anxiously hoping to lead them astray. Yes, We're Open benefits from some knowing dialogue, an attractive cast and pleasurably recognizable San Francisco locations like Green Apple Books and the Roxie Theater.

This year's CinemAsia section (formerly known as the International Showcase) continues a recent SFIAAFF trend to de-emphasize the works of acknowledged Asian auteurs in favor of emerging filmmakers. For example, Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Lav Diaz, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Lou Ye, Shoji Aoyama, Jia Zheng-ke and Johnnie To all released new films in the past 12 months, but you won't find any of them in this festival. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I know many Bay Area cinephiles are feeling nostalgic for the days when such directors were an important part of SFIAAFF. Remember the knock-out retrospectives given Hong Sang-soo and Kiyoshi Kurosawa in 2007 and 2009 respectively? It's also notable there are no films from Iran this year, nor is there a Bollywood at the Castro screening (and as long as I'm lamenting, what's happened to the popular Out of the Vaults program?).

The most renowned director who is in CinemAsia's 2012 roster is prolific screwball Takashi Miike, whose Ninja Kids will undoubtedly prove to be great fun. Rithy Panh (
S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) is another name many will recognize. His latest is The Catch, an engaging low-budget, Vietnam War-era drama about an African-American pilot who is captured by Cambodian villagers recently brought under the ideological sway of the Khmer Rouge. I've also had a look at Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! This slick, South Korean dramedy is a shamelessly saccharine yarn about a talking toy robot and some too-cute North Korean urchins. The world is certainly begging for humanizing images of North Koreans, but this goes beyond the pale. I was shocked to learn it was written and directed by a former North Korean political prisoner. Of the remaining CinemAsia selections, I'm most intrigued by 11 Flowers from prominent Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle), South Korean war film The Front Line, which was that country's 2011 Oscar® submission and Night Market Hero, Taiwan's 2011 box office champ.

The festival kicks off on Thursday, March 8 with the world premiere of Quentin Lee's White Frog, followed by what's sure to be a typically fabulous Opening Night Gala at the SF Asian Art Museum. This will be one star-filled evening, given the famous cast Lee has assembled for his film: up and comers Booboo Stewart (
The Twilight Saga) and Harry Shum Jr. (Glee), plus veterans B.D. Wong and Joan Chen. As I mentioned at the start, Chen will be given her own SFIAAFF Spotlight tribute this year, with two screenings that will highlight her accomplishments as both an actress (Saving Face) and director (Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl). (Chen will live forevermore in my own heart as Jocelyn Packard from David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks). In this preview I've only touched upon half of what the festival has in store, so for the big picture be sure and check out the rest of SFIAAFF30's Doc Competition, Narrative Competition, CinemAsia, Special Presentations and six programs of Shorts. There's also New Directions, a catch-all for the festival's many non-filmgoing events that include a number of salons and panels, the Directions in Sound DJ party and extremely popular outdoor celebration Festival Forum, which takes place in Japantown's Peace Plaza.

Cross-published on film-415.

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