San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival


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One of our favorite festivals of the year, SFIAAFF 2009 brings a Kiyoshi Kurosawa tribute, a discussion with Ang Lee, and a plethora of work from promising Asian American filmmakers.

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is the only festival I’ve been to where I’m glad almost everything is sold out. True, as a result I have to hustle for tickets or wait for the films to play at another Asian American film festival. (Luckily, we Californians have three good ones to choose from.) But there’s pride in knowing that all of those sold-out stickers on the big board at the Kabuki means there’s a crowd for Asian American cinema, and that there are films out there to cater to the demand. Sold-out screenings at most other festivals mean that all of the cast and crew’s friends came out to party at the premiere, or that the festival managed to secure some big names, though not always best films. At SFIAAFF, neither is the case. The audiences come out in droves purely on blind faith.

But this article isn’t written for the faithful. They will already know that the Asian American film circuit begins here, that it’s programmed by film-lovers with vision and a sense of history, and that the audience is more than your ordinary collection of festival-goers: it’s a community.

No, this article is for those who need a little bit of coaxing. So how about this: three towering figures of world cinema will be in town to show their films. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, master of the most oddly relaxed macabre you’ll ever see, will be around for a surprisingly representative seven-film retrospective, including his latest, Tokyo Sonata. (Also screening is Pulse, the scariest Japanese film ever made. Period.)

The festival’s March 17 screening of Lust, Caution will conclude with a discussion between director Ang Lee and Professor Linda Williams from UC Berkeley’s Department of Film Studies. As a world authority on film melodrama as well as filmed sex, Professor Williams is perhaps the ideal cultural critic to take on Lee and his 2007 masterpiece.

Oscar-nominated Deepa Mehta will be on hand to present her latest film, Heaven on Earth. Mehta is no stranger to controversy, and in light of the poverty porn paranoia incited by Slumdog Millionaire, the discussion following Heaven on Earth will no doubt be hot, given that the film is about an Indian bride brought to Canada, where she gets the dimples slapped off her face. Preity Zinta fans: you’ve been warned.

And of course, there are the Asian American features, always the festival’s main attraction. This year, six films are in the running for the coveted best narrative film prize. The films reflect the breadth that Asian American cinema has to offer. Jennifer Phang’s award-winning Half-Life is a bold vision from the future, sprawling (often aimlessly) across time and multiple realities; Sarab Singh Neelam’s moving Ocean of Pearls is a film like they used to make ‘em: classically focused, sensitive, and character-driven in the best sense. David Boyle’s White on Rice and Sarba Das’s Karma Calling are quirky comedies that take on ethnicity without indulging in it. They’re charming romances too. Tze Chun’s Children of Invention showcases a new talent’s take on the old immigrant story, while Ed Radtke’s The Speed of Life is a respected veteran’s take on Asian American cinema’s final frontier: the non-Asian American story.

The documentary category is no less impressive. Six films again; three are world premieres. “Big topics” abound: Project Kashmir is an acclaimed examination of Indian-Pakistani disputes, Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority looks at the first woman of color in Congress, The Mosque in Morgantown tracks the lives of Muslim Americans in post-9/11 West Virginia, Whatever it Takes follows the everyday life of a Chinese American principal in a black and Latino high school, and You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story looks back on the career of one of Asian America’s pioneering musical actors. But the highlight of the competition is the anything-goes graffiti symphony Dirty Hands: the Art and Crimes of David Choe, our favorite Asian American documentary of 2008.

SFIAAFF’s international showcase is gradually becoming the San Francisco Bay Area’s best showcase for Asian cinema, and this year’s lineup proves why. Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City is as good a movie as you will see anywhere this year. Jia takes his experimentation with fiction/documentary hybridity in scandalous new directions, topped off by a Joan Chen you will never forget. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us was one of my favorite films at last fall’s Pusan International Film Festival, in part because it took marriage seriously without scaring the audience off with the seriousness, in part because of Lily Franky’s stoner-cool depiction of a courtroom sketch artist. Thailand’s The Love of Siam and South Korea’s The Chaser were big winners in their nations’ respective film awards. I haven’t seen The Love of Siam, but The Chaser is no doubt impressive, although I’m getting pretty sick of Asian pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold movies.

There are many more Asian films playing, many of which will play in San Francisco as well as Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, which is home-base for the Bay Area cinephile. Not playing at the PFA is Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which plays at the Castro Theatre (the Bay Area’s home-base for the triumphantly campy). Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi isn’t my favorite Chopra film (that would be DDLJ) or my favorite Shah Rukh Khan film (possibly also DDLJ), but it features “Haule Haule,” the best song you’ll hear at SFIAAFF this year.

Maybe. After all, Colma: the Musical composer H.P. Mendoza is back in town for the world premiere of his directorial debut, Fruit Fly, a musical love letter to fag hags and the city by the bay. And then there’s Tad Nakamura’s short documentary A Song for Ourselves, a loving tribute to the late singer-activist Chris Iijima. And the “Directions in Sound” program, SFIAAFF’s annual live showcase for some of the area’s hottest DJs.

In fact, it’s hard for me to say anything definitive about this year’s festival, and not just because I haven’t seen most of the programs offered. Mostly, SFIAAFF is a festival of the people — no small feat for a festival which has grown to such stature. Everyone has a different experience at SFIAAFF, depending on what films people see, what restaurant they eat at afterward, which bus line they choose. SFIAAFF is as diverse, alive, and unpredictable as the city itself.

I haven’t even mentioned the screening of Hollywood hapa classic Diamond Head (vive France Nuyen!), the retrospective of experimental media artist Takahiko Iimura, the panels, the parties, or even the opening and closing night films (My Dear Enemy and Treeless Mountain), which is pretty inexcusable in an article previewing a film festival. Clearly, SFIAAFF’s bounds well exceed mine.

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2 Responses

  1. I live North of the Bay area – and SF is an amazingly beautiful and vibrant city.

  2. Thanks for posting this Pakhi – San Francisco is my favorite city in the US after NY. By the way, do you live in Frisco?

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