In recent years, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festivalbalanced domestic and international works, but this year's 20th anniversary program emphasizes its own continent's filmmaking with a superb 10 days of features and shorts. Opening night boasts the hilariously disturbing Better Luck Tomorrow, a cautionary tale for parents who overvalue an Ivy League education. In a fantasy that counters the "model minority" image, charismatic overachievers take "extracurricular" to a new level. The festival closes out its S.F. run with Green Dragon by the brothers Bui (Three Seasons), probably the first film set and shot in Camp Pendleton, Calif., where tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees were processed at the end of the Vietnam War.
The theme of the Asian-American mother-daughter quest gets a nasty but therapeutic jolt with Daughter From Danang. Tennessee-bred Heidi, sent to the U.S. via Operation Babylift by her Vietnamese mother, journeys back to Vietnam to meet her. Heidi's lack of cultural preparation leaves her insulted and horrified when her newfound relatives expect her to take her mother back to the States as a preliminary step in supporting the whole family.
The more benevolent Obachan's Gardenblends dramatic re-enactment with documentary for a saga stranger than The Joy Luck Club: A Hiroshima woman sent as a picture bride to British Columbia rescinds the contract and starts a family with a husband more to her liking. On the eve of the 100th birthday of her obachan (grandmother), granddaughter/director Linda Ohama goes to Japan to find two (now elderly) daughters Obachan left behind from a previous mysterious marriage.
Admission to individual screenings is $5-8.50, special events range from $2 to $45
The fest features several earlier productions with local color including the Rodgers & Hammerstein hit musical Flower Drum Song. Paper Angels, a filmed play about immigrants detained on Angel Island in the early 20th century, offers a less distorted rendering of the Chinese-American experience while paying tribute to character actor Victor Wong, who died in 2001. Just as relevant to San Franciscans' present-day concerns is Presumed Guilty, a profile of Jeff Adachi, recently ousted from the Office of the Public Defender. Too bad this screens after Election Day: It'd make a great campaign piece for Adachi.
The film offerings from Asia are mixed. Betelnut Beauty is a forgettable pop trifle of urban Taiwan. Japanese Devils is a courageous documentary in which Japanese war criminals talk frankly about atrocities they committed against Chinese civilians. Perhaps most timely of all, My Journey, My Islam, about women in various Muslim communities throughout the world, has taken on a special urgency.