Beauty and the East

A critical guide to the 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Ancestors in the Americas, Part II (U.S.A., 1998)
The men who left China to come to California in the mid-19th century were called "gold mountain men" by the wives they left behind. But their lives were far from the idyllic existence promised by the handbills, according to Loni Ding's fascinating documentary. The Chinese were the architects of California's economy, introducing strawberries and other important crops, reclaiming vast amounts of swampland, and of course building the railroads to transport people, merchandise, water, and gold across the growing nation. Their thanks for these efforts came in the form of state-sanctioned exploitation, discrimination, and murder. Typical of her people, though, says Ding, was their ability to create small communities in spite of their difficulties and, in the case of the 1874 "Temple in the Forest of Clouds," to build a source of spiritual solace in a land that offered them none. (G.M.) Kabuki, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Buddha Bless America (Taiwan, 1996)
The arrival of Americans for military maneuvers circa 1967 brings the world of rock 'n' roll, girlie bars, and drunk GIs to a small Taiwanese farming village in this sensational culture-clash comedy. Writer/director Wu Nien-jen (A Borrowed Life) cast fellow film director Lin Cheng-sheng (whose fantastic Murmur of Youth will play at the S.F. Film Fest in May) as a shambling village intellectual nicknamed "Brain," whose hangdog presence sets the film's wry, low-key tone. Terrifically funny and unsentimental but quite tender, it's the surprise delight of the festival for me. (T.B.) PFA, Friday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Saturday, 8 p.m.

Fakin' Da Funk (U.S.A., 1997)
Tim Chey's too-well-named neo-blaxploitation film would seem to be more evidence of a Pam Grier revival. But Grier is sadly just a glamorous fixture here, registering only briefly as the mother of two boys trying to survive in the slums of L.A. The real stars are Margaret Cho, playing a nerdy Chinese exchange student who's accidentally assigned to a black ghetto family; and Dante Basco, as a Chinese kid who's been adopted by Grier and her husband and raised as black. Predictable laughs are milked to the limit (Cho, in the equivalent of a 1950s China Doll characterization, teaches the "ghetto folk" tai chi), but the dramatic potential is barely touched in this slick, superficial, "life-affirming" production. Best moment is the great Rudy Ray Moore's thrillingly nasty dish about a dog, a cat, and "yo mama." (G.M.) Kabuki, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m., and Thursday, 5 p.m.

Frozen (China, 1997)
This is a gloomy but fascinating film about a loose community of young artists in Beijing, kids seething with ambition and ideas but so suffocated by life in China and haunted by Tiananmen that their art emerges in intensely nihilistic and self-destructive (as well as pretentious and self-absorbed) ways. Qi Lei (Jia Hongshen) is a particularly moody painter and performance artist who plans to literally die for his art by melting a block of ice with his own body and freezing to death. An intriguing, though rather humorless, portrait of life as a Chinese art student punk. (T.B.) PFA, Saturday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Monday, 7 p.m.

Kelly Loves Tony (U.S.A., 1998)
Producer/director Spencer Nakasako gave two Laotian teen-agers -- Kelly, a smart, ambitious honor student, and her ex-con, dropout boyfriend Tony -- a video camera to document themselves for a year. Reeling back and forth between joy and despair, the two kids lay their lives out in nakedly honest detail, creating a remarkable, heartbreaking portrait of themselves and the tensions between their traditional Laotian culture, the crime-ridden, economically depressed streets of East Oakland, and their American Dreams of success and transcendence. (T.B.) Opening night film, Palace of Fine Arts, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Kabuki, Saturday, 11 a.m.; PFA, Monday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Wednesday (March 11), 1:30 p.m.

Mahjong (Taiwan, 1996)
Edward Yang's audacious Mahjong is almost epic in its blackly comic screwball sensibility, as it digs into some deep, dark stuff about Chinese fathers and sons, the Westernization of the East, and the steely greed of seemingly everyone in Taipei. A huge cast of characters, from Taiwanese teen-age gangsters to British interior designers, bounces off one another in a million Altman-esque ways. It's a brashly cynical, kaleidoscopic look at modern Taipei by one of Taiwan's filmmaking masters, though you'll need to overlook some of the wincingly awful performances by the English-speaking actors. (T.B.) PFA, Saturday, 9:15 p.m.

My America (... or Honk if You Love Buddha) (U.S.A., 1997)
Documentarian Renee Tajima-Pena cites Kerouac's On the Road as her inspiration for this tour of some of the landmarks and enclaves of Asian America, but her subjects bring their own quite individual stories to this look at lives of "the invisible minority." In Seattle, we meet two Korean rappers ("I'm like Ken-tuck-y fried chick-en/ I'm fin-ga-lick-in'!"); in Louisiana, a group of eighth-generation Filipina women who've intermarried and are now "honorary whites"; in Chicago, a Laotian family who try to maintain their dignity in the face of unrelenting racism and poverty. Tajima-Pena injects the political into the everyday not by polemic but by the simple truths of people explaining their lives. The film is textured with the director's cutting wit, typified in her description of a New York fortune-cookie entrepreneur as "Horatio Alger on amphetamines." (G.M.) Kabuki, Friday, 7:15 p.m., and Monday, 4:30 p.m.

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