Journey to the East

A complete guide to the 15th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The festival is presented by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA). All screenings are at the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post (at Fillmore), except as noted. Ancillary screening sites include the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley; the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones); and the World Theater, 644 Broadway (at Columbus).

Tickets are $7.50, $5 for weekday shows beginning before 5 p.m. There are discounts for seniors, students, and the disabled. The opening-night event is $45; closing-night tickets range from $15 to $50. The following guide represents the information available Tuesday. Call 252-4800 for details, show confirmations, and updates.

Thursday, March 6
(Opening Night)
7 p.m.: Screening at the World Theater. Chinese silent screen star Ruan Lingyu was the subject of Stanley Kwan's celebrated The Actress, with Maggie Cheung playing the title role. Bu Wancang's Love and Duty (China, 1931) gives us a rare chance to see the real thing. Ruan plays Nei Fan, an innocent schoolgirl who falls in love with handsome Tsu Yi (Jin Yan). Family pressures force her to marry a wealthier man, but she abandons their two children and elopes with Tsu Yi. Inevitably, the refugee couple fall quickly into a nether world of poverty and assumed identities, and the film ends in tragedy. You can see why Ruan Lingyu is still remembered, though she committed suicide in 1935 at age 25: Like international stars like Lillian Gish, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Giulietta Masina, whose company she surely belongs in, Ruan fearlessly deglamorizes herself, moving with riveting style from wide-eyed gamin to wrinkled, crooked-toothed wretch. Love and Duty's U.S. premiere will be accompanied by a new score written by John Yi and performed live by Yi and a nine-piece orchestra.

10 p.m.: Reception at the Grand Palace restaurant, 950 Grant.

Friday, March 7
4 p.m.: "Remote Memories" is a program of shorts that examine personal responses to the Vietnam and Lebanese wars.

6 p.m.: Lindsey Merrison's Our Burmese Days (Germany/U.K., 1996) is the filmmaker's study of the hidden history of his mother's mixed racial identity.

7 p.m.: Massacres of citizens by the state have become so commonplace in the last few decades that it's hard to keep score. In 1980, Korean troops murdered hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in an event known as "Kwangju." In A Petal (Korea, 1996) Jang Sun Woo begins with graphic documentary footage from this episode, then pulls his lens back to the personal story of an unnamed 15-year-old girl (Lee Jung Hyun), who somehow extricates herself from the piles of dead. Her escape is short-lived. The director's approach is meant to be as rough and harrowing as the Kwangju, a strategy that succeeds with disturbing brilliance in the violent scenes and a very unsettling sequence where the girl relentlessly pursues a terrified woman she calls "Mom!"

8:30 p.m.: Gay filmmaker Nick Deocampo's father was a communist guerrilla and a drunk who abandoned his family and disappeared after Japan's occupation of the Philippines. Private Wars (Philippines, 1994) documents Deocampo's search for the mystery man with a mix of archival footage, re-enactments, and interviews.

9:30 p.m.: Aging enfant terribles Quentin Lee and Justin Lin send up a rainbow of genres from horror to thriller to sex comedy in Shopping for Fangs (U.S.A., 1997). Watch for homages to Hong Kong cinema in a Woo-style standoff between a brainless hunk and a Brigitte Lin look-alike in blond wig and sunglasses.

Also today, at the Pacific Film Archive -- 7 p.m.: Wushan Yunyu's Rainclouds Over Wushan. See 9 p.m. Saturday, March 8, for details. 9:15 p.m.: Wan Jen's Super Citizen Ko. See 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, for details.

Saturday, March 8
Noon: "Fate No More" is a program of shorts on female adolescence and coming of age.

1 p.m.: A panel -- "New Asian American Feature Films" features Michael Idemoto, Chris Chan Lee, Quentin Lee, Justin Lin, Eric Nakamura, and Rea Tajiri.

2:15 p.m.: Jang Sun Woo's The Road to the Racetrack (Korea, 1991) tempers the director's Marxism in this study of sexual intrigue among the intellectual classes.

3 p.m.: Controversial Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili gets far more than he bargained for when he thinks he's discovered the right boy for a movie he's making, as detailed in his documentary A True Story (Iran, 1996).

5 p.m.: Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio's documentary Girls Like Us (U.S.A., 1997) is a kind of condensed version of Michael Apted's 28-Up series; here, in a scant 60 minutes, four girls of diverse backgrounds grow up before our eyes, from barely teen-agers of 14 to young women at 18. Much of the material sounds like the stuff of tabloid TV -- teen-age mothers, drug-addicted parents -- but the filmmakers never condescend to the girls or treat them like fascinating freaks. These teens are strong, funny, hopeful, and somehow poignant. All the girls talk frankly about sex, and one of them even says the unspeakable: "Fucking with a condom doesn't feel like sex -- it feels fake!"

6 p.m.: There's no cat on Lee Min Yong's A Hot Roof (Korea, 1996), but the film abounds with other pleasures, not least of which is a riot caused by a group of women defending an abused sister.

7 p.m.: The title of the shorts program "Stories About Leaving Home" says it all.

8 p.m.: A new wave of Asian-American cinema arrives with the first feature film by and about Korean-Americans, Chris Chan Lee's Yellow (U.S.A., 1996).

9 p.m.: Sixth-generationer Wushan Yunyu's Rainclouds Over Wushan (China, 1995) was banned in China not for its political content but for its subtle validation of the individual.

11 p.m.: The standout in the shorts program "Asians From Uranus" is David Kalal's Love Song for Persis K, a dazzling ode to Indian actress and model Persis Khambatta, familiar from Star Trek -- The Motion Picture.

Also today, at the Pacific Film Archive -- 6:30 p.m.: Hong Sang Soo's The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. See 7 p.m. Sunday, March 9, for details. 9:15 p.m.: Chang Tso Chi's Ah Chung. See 9 p.m. Monday, March 10, for details.

Sunday, March 9
Noon: The title of Jang Sun Woo's imagistic Hwa Om Kyung (Korea, 1993) refers to an ancient account of the path to Buddhist enlightenment.

1 p.m.: Armchair travelers who want something meatier than the Discovery channel are advised to see the various shorts in "From the Sun to Macau: Asian Travels."

2:30 p.m.: Abusive husbands and illicit love affairs in postindustrial Seoul are featured in Jang Sun Woo's The Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (Korea, 1991).

3 p.m.: For the army of Hong Kong film fans, Tony Rayns' stolidly titled "Hong Kong Cinema Presentation" is a must. Rayns will offer much-needed context and help explain the current splintering of one of the world's most vital cinemas.

4:45 p.m.: Thrilling native music and photography distinguish Xie Fei's bittersweet A Mongolian Tale (China/Mongolia, 1996).

5 p.m.: Ming-Yuen S. Ma and Cianna Pamintuan Stewart's There Is No Name for This (U.S.A., 1997).

6:30 p.m.: Clashes of culture, age, and race mark the shorts program "Cowgirl and the Man." Filmmakers Michael Arago, Anita Lee, Sunny Lee, Yuri Makino, Jessica Yu, and Patrick T. Yu are among the guests.

7 p.m.: First-time director Hong Sang Soo will appear at the screening of his film The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (Korea, 1996).

8:30 p.m.: A ghost, a teen-age pyromaniac, and acid trips all appear in Rea Tajiri's first dramatic feature, Strawberry Fields (U.S.A., 1997).

9:30 p.m.: Michael Idemoto and Eric Nakamura's Sunsets (U.S.A., 1997) is a coming-of-age drama featuring the slacker trio "Dave the Chicano, Gary the white boy, and Mark the Japanese American."

Also today, at the Pacific Film Archive -- 5:30 p.m.: A rare chance to see pioneer Asian-American actor Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. De Mille's The Cheat (U.S.A., 1915). 7:15 p.m.: Like other artists of color in the early decades of the century, Sessue Hayakawa found a warm haven in Paris. In Roger Lion's deco-drenched I Have Killed! (France, 1924), he shows off the naturalistic acting style that distinguished him from the typical grimacing silent star.

Also today, at the San Francisco Art Institute -- 7:30 p.m.: One element of exile culture rarely treated on-screen is the imported domestic. Nilita Vachani's feature When Mother Comes Home for Christmas (Germany/Greece/India, 1995) shows the effects of this phenomenon on a family. The director will attend the screening.

Monday, March 10
1 p.m.: "Tell It Like It Is" is a program of youthspeak shorts.
3 p.m.: Antonio A. Montanari Jr. mined the archives for this stirring defense of one of America's mythical monsters in USA vs. Tokyo Rose (U.S.A., 1995).

4:30 p.m.: Human rights abuses get the once-over in Islands on Fire, one of three shorts in the "On Fire" program.

6 p.m.: Arnold Iger and Paul Kwan detail the latter's search for a cure for his food allergies in the aptly named Pins and Noodles (U.S.A., 1997); a reception for the filmmakers follows.

7 p.m.: The pitfalls of consumer capitalism are explored in Jang Sun Woo's Age of Success (Korea, 1988).

7:30 p.m.: Peter Rosen's First Person Singular: I.M. Pei (U.S.A., 1997) looks at the life and career of the man who renovated the Louvre.

9 p.m.: More proof (as if it were needed) that "dysfunctional family" is a redundancy in Chang Tso Chi's Ah Chung (Taiwan, 1996).

9:30 p.m.: Director Jang Sun Woo will appear in person at this screening of the sexually explicit To You From Me (Korea, 1995).

Tuesday, March 11
1 p.m.: The daily life of Vietnamese villagers, particularly the women, is showcased through recently released North Vietnamese footage shot at the height of the war in Janet Gardner's A World Beneath the War (U.S.A., 1996).

2:30 p.m.: Two short films show the drawbacks and payoffs of incorporating art into daily life in "Feet and Soil: Documentaries of Art and Expression."

4:15 p.m.: "Missing" is a slate of shorts on the ever-popular topic of death.

6 p.m.: Christine Choy and Spiro Lampros' documentary The Shot Heard 'Round the World (U.S.A., 1997) looks at the murder of Japanese exchange student Yoshi Hattori, "accidentally" killed on the way to a Halloween party in our beloved South.

7:45 p.m.: Taiwan's version of 1950s anti-commie hysteria colors the lives of its victims in Wan Jen's feature Super Citizen Ko (Taiwan, 1995).

9 p.m.: TBA.
10 p.m.: An interview conducted with the camera aimed entirely at the feet speaks volumes about the subject of Wang Feng and Gary Wu's Comrades (China, 1996): the lives of gays and lesbians in mainland China. While some writers and a few average citizens speak freely about this taboo, "counterrevolutionary" subject from their homes, many of the faces at public gay meeting spots like discos and parks are optically scrambled to "protect their identity." The film shows China's homosexual community struggling with the byproducts of repression -- suicides, pleas for tolerance (read: crumbs), debates over rights, and books with tellingly vague titles like Their Lives, as if the word "homosexuality" had an incantatory power that must be suppressed.

Also today, at the Pacific Film Archive -- 7 p.m.: Nick Deocampo's Private Wars. See 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 7, for details.

Wednesday, March 12
3 p.m.: TBA.
5 p.m.: Sun, Xiang Xin, and Guang Hua Jia's Great Wall of Flesh (China, 1995), a documentary about the Second Sino-Japanese War.

7 p.m.: The "double nationality" and multiple artistry of one of the century's great artists is explored in Hiro Narita's Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper (U.S.A., 1997).

7:30 p.m.: The various shorts in "Queer Potion #9" are a heady mix. Watch especially for Margarita Alcantara's riot grrrl self-portrait, Fuckin' Chink.

8 p.m.: Gorgeous, gleaming black-and-white compositions distinguish Ishii Sogo's melancholy Labyrinth of Dreams (Japan, 1996).

9:30 p.m.: Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon (Hong Kong, 1996) stars the enchanting Leslie Cheung and Gong Li in a tragic story set in China in 1911.

Thursday, March 13
(Closing Night)
5 p.m.: Reception in the Kabuki lobby.

7 p.m.: Lesbianism as a powerful tonic to the suppressions of Indian culture is the subject of Deepa Mehta's contemporary melodrama Fire (Canada, 1996). Radha (played by megastar Shabana Azmi) is the traditional "good wife" who never questions her husband, a sect-follower who tests his libido by forcing her to lie naked next to him every night, so that he can resist temptation. Sita (Nandita Das) is her younger, more modern-thinking sister-in-law, whose arrival coincides with Radha's increasing alienation. Sita is horrified by her own marriage to self-absorbed philanderer Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi): "This devotion thing is overrated," she says flatly. The film, a deft mix of pathos and humor, lovingly details their increasingly indiscreet trysts. A wizened, judgmental granny provides a wordless black-comic Greek chorus (she's mute from a stroke); the high point occurs when the house servant nervously masturbates to a video called The Joy Suck Club while granny watches in horror. Fire was shot in India at the same time Mira Nair's Kama Sutra was causing a scandal, so Fire's upfront treatment of a lesbian amour, normally a taboo subject in the country, went happily unnoticed.

9 p.m.: Party at the Russian Center Ballroom, 2450 Sutter.

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