Now in its 18th year, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has finally reached critical mass. In particular, this year the festival boasts an unprecedented number of narrative features by North American Asian filmmakers, ranging from the campus coming-of-age drama Freshmen to a scruffy road movie (The Dream Catcher), a dystopian love story (Junk), and a comical DIY indie (Post Concussion). Happily, each of these works transcends these labels, revealing a new depth and breadth in Asian-American filmmaking that is exhilarating to see in one week-long festival.
After half an hour of witless surface banter, Freshmen detonates some emotional depth charges that blow its generic cover. The same can be said of the intense Dream Catcher, whose creator knows the terrors of unwanted fatherhood and the juvenile justice system up close. The closing-night Post Concussion is also autobiographical, blaming a head injury for the dazed right-brain odyssey of Fortune 1000 management consultant Matt Kang (played by Canadian director Daniel Yoon). Restless, a U.S.-Chinese co-production, is less successful in dramatizing a Beijing expat's search for roots.
Among the overseas films, the box-office hit Thai ghost story Nang Nak overwhelms with its jungle sensuality, gruesome corpses, and a wife so faithful even death won't keep her from fixing dinner for her muscular husband. (An elongated ghost-arm is very convenient for retrieving the eggplant she dropped under the house, but the neighbors disapprove.) Throne of Death from South India tries, but fails nobly, to be a savage fable about the apotheosis of a wrongly accused man sentenced to death in a U.S.-made "electronic chair."
Despite its occasionally irritating perkiness, many moments from the Chinese Spicy Love Soup linger for the warmth and generosity the film shows towards children and old folks struggling to stave off loneliness. The Philippines' Yesterday Children is an unsettling story of a village that resorts to sacrificing virgins to end a drought -- while its rapturous ending is a pure delight. And the controversial Toro is seen here in a director's cut which includes more of the in-and-out drudgery of Manila sex workers' lives than the version shown domestically. It certainly says as much about the depressed Asian economy as the U.S. documentary Made in Thailand, a heartening account of unionizing efforts among the women who make Disney stuffed animals.
I strongly recommend the two features that represent Japan this year: Suwa Nobuhiro's M/Other is a slightly overlong (probably because it's scriptless and improvised) but deeply moving account of a young woman who resists subtle and unrelenting cajoling to become a stepmother. Then, in a film that at first seems like a gratingly conventional home video by a young man who's got nothing better to do than irk his family by filming the birth of his sister's child, Tel-Club transforms itself into a study of Japanese male frustration as the director, killing time and loneliness while waiting for the baby to come, gets stood up by a number of young women he's talked to at a telephone dating club.
Among the documentaries, two world premieres claim the Bay Area as their provenance. A Wok in Progress, the third in a trilogy by longtime collaborators Arnold Iger and Paul Kwan, examines the healing effects of rediscovering one's Asian heritage in food. Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story tracks the struggle of one generation of Japanese-American attorneys to test the constitutionality of the World War II internment of the previous generation. (Oaklander normal-guy-turned-American-rebel Korematsu is scheduled to appear at the screening.) In another film dealing with the aftermath of the internment, Los Angeles is the epicenter of a puzzling series of drug suicides in the early 1970s among the descendants of internees in When You're Smiling.This debunking of that community's model middle-class minority gloss instead depicts a Sansei generation which went to Vietnam, experimented with drugs, and found commonality with their African-American neighbors. Finally, fresh from Sundance, the opening-night film First Person Plural portrays an alien abduction right here on earth: Deann Borshay's determination to uncover the truth about her Korean origins after her adoption by Fremont Caucasians wiped out her memory.
Despite the increased focus on feature films this year, the shorts programs (disclosure: I helped choose some of these) remain as strong as ever, especially the "Degrees of Viscosity" experimental series and the "In the Space of a Kiss" program thematizing love. The latter provides a chance to see three works by the outstanding Indian-English director Avie Luthra.
The panelists on the various festival seminars highlighting digital filmmaking and the state of Asian American film promise lively exchange, disagreement, and schmoozing, while a seminar on Asian American film fests throughout the country is a welcome historical -- as well as "meta" -- sidebar to a phenomenon increasingly taken for granted. Allow yourself to be kidnapped for a week, and surrender to the finest recent films in Asia and Asian America.
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