With the first gusts of spring comes the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, blowing in the latest movies from both sides of the Pacific. This year's "Cinema of the Indian Diaspora" program celebrates the genius of South Asian filmmaking and music on a global scale. On opening night, for example, Gurinder Chadha's sweetly funny Bend It Like Beckham should spark plenty of pre-release buzz for its crowd-pleasing combo of cross-cultural wedding fu and girl-empowering soccer moves.
For a cinematic history lesson in the Bollywood genre, wallow in the ur-text: The extraordinary 1957 Technicolor Mother India shows in a fabulous new print that should be seen on the big screen, especially for its blazing, bloodcurdlingly pathetic climax pitting Nargis, the mother of Indian cinema, against her character's seriously berserk son. Its direct descendant, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, perhaps the most beloved Bollywood film of the 1990s, deliriously cheers on a little girl who tries to fulfill her dead mother's wish. Everything will look gray after this rainbow confection. Mango Soufflé takes the American gay-drama subgenre (in which a troubled man assembles his pals for bitchy dining and an agonized announcement) and gives it a few twists by setting it in Bangalore.
The festival has harvested some of the best new movies from other parts of Asia as well, including China's Unknown Pleasures, about young slackers whose future plans are limited to acting out scenes from Pulp Fiction while the world falls apart around them. I-San Special and Mekhong Full Moon Party, two very different products of Thailand's burgeoning film world, give imaginative play to the preoccupations of the people of the northeastern Isan province. No One's Ark hilariously nails Japan's popped-bubble generation in the protagonists' pursuit of a rural health-drink campaign.
Admission is $6-9, with special program tickets for $7-45 and festival passes for $15-75
It also runs March 14-16 at the Camera 3 Cinemas, 288 South Second St. (at San Carlos), San Jose
Must-see documentaries include Morning Sun, on China's Cultural Revolution; Refugee, a male answer to last year's downbeat Daughter From Danang; Bang the Machine, about suburban American gamers competing in Japan; Skin Stories, Emiko Omori's superb profile of the Polynesian origins of tattoo; and Saigon, U.S.A. and Wet Sand, both of which deal with recent controversies among ethnic communities in Southern California.
Among North American features are the two-time IFP Independent Spirit Award nominee Charlotte Sometimes, which Roger Ebert has championed, and Greg Pak's closing night Robot Stories, a moving omnibus film about more than just the relationships between humans and cyborgs.
As usual, the short films are a centerpiece of the festival, with every program this year a mixture of brilliant filmmaking by newcomers and proven masters like Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang (disclosure: I helped select some of these). Come see what the spring winds are sending to our shores.