Every year San Francisco is host to roughly 6 gazillion film festivals (and counting). So it's logical to assume that, for survival's sake, each has become more parochial. Indeed, the first annual Festival of Animated Short Films About Washing Machines and Homeland Security Made by Preoperative Transsexual Lesbians of Icelandic Ancestry may not be far off. In the meantime, programmers still try for a balance between nailing the niche and selling something for everyone, and the folks planning the 22nd San Francisco International Asian American Film Festivalhave a fine sense of those proportions. With 124 movies from 23 countries, the fest isn't exactly isolationist. All the movies are in some way Asian, and to describe the broad swath of their ethnicity as "diverse" is to understate the matter.
The SFIAAFF, which has grown by about 20 percent each year, remains undiluted by the continuing expansion of its borders. This is how, without suffering an identity crisis, a single event can contain such films as Cosmopolitan, a tender, funny feature from the writer of Monsoon Weddingand the director of Chutney Popcorn; Kal Ho Naa Ho, a Bollywood romp set in post-9/11 New York; Masters of the Pillow, about a UC Davis professor's quest to become "the Asian-American Larry Flynt"; and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the Phnom Penh high school that became a death chamber for 17,000 Cambodians in the mid-'70s.
Given the abundance and variety of material, it is fair to ask for an organizing principle. One clear index is the festival's determination to reveal and challenge received ideas of heroism -- ideas often bestowed by movies in the first place. The run opens with Hero, a sensation of swordplay and cinematography from Chinese master Zhang Yimou, and closes with Imelda, a vital, personal portrait of the Philippines' former first lady. Taken as brackets for the whole event, these two movies in particular have a lot to say about the mysteries of power, authority, and image-making. And those themes are among cinema's essential raw materials -- universally affecting, however international, Asian, or American you happen to be.