By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
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By Alex Hochman
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My friend Tom, who ought to know, told me that there are now 75 film festivals in the Bay Area. I was surprised, but I shouldn't have been, since I was still bemoaning missing some movies I'd wanted to see in last month's San Francisco Independent Film Festival while contemplating the schedule for this month's Tiburon International Film Festival. The appeal of seeing a movie in a festival context is manifold: Sometimes the picture's creators appear and are available for question-and-answer sessions after the screening; the audiences are attentive, knowing, and excited about being there, adding something ineffable to the occasion; and a well-programmed festival, in addition to being fun, can enlarge your view of the world.
Shanghai-style clay pot meatballs $16
Vietnamese spicy prawns $20
Scrambled eggs with pea shoots and scallops $18
Shrimp-and-pea-shoot dumplings $3.70/three
Walnut soup $3
Mango pudding $3.50
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and for dinner daily from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Parking: easy (validated for Embarcadero Center -- reduced during the day, free after 5 and on weekends)
Muni: 1, F, J, K, L, M, N
Noise level: moderate
Just such a festival is San Francisco's venerable Asian-American, whose 22nd annual edition unspooled over the last few weeks. It was hard to choose from among the 90 screenings of 122 films and videos, ranging from shorts of a few minutes made on DV8 for a few hundred dollars to a nearly three-hour Bollywood romantic-musical extravaganza set in New York.
Well, to be honest, that was an easy choice, as I'd already seen the Bollywood picture, Kal Ho Naa Ho, thanks to the intrepid Tom, months ago in an Indian multiplex in Fremont. Still, it was hard to leave the Castro on Sunday and walk past the crowds lined up around the block for it, knowing what fun being part of that audience would be. But I was leaving on a high after an extraordinary screening of the restored silent Piccadilly, starring the exquisite Anna May Wong, her profile like an art deco brooch pinned to the movie, for which festival organizers had commissioned a jazzy new score by the local Asian-American composer Jon Jang, who performed it live. It was the last of eight movies I'd seen over the weekend (more, really, because there were a dozen well-chosen shorts in the program called "Miss Match," including a couple of the best pictures I saw, the nine-minute Green Stalks and the 15-minute Full Moon, both directed by young women and shot on video), a dizzying array including the first feature made in Bhutan, a charming blend of romantic comedy, fantasy, and road movie called Travellers and Magicians; a Chinese martial-arts masterpiece from 1965, Come Drink With Me; and a documentary from Werner Herzog about a Buddhist ritual, filmed in India and Austria.
It should come as no surprise that many of the other pictures I chose to see had food themes. I loved the touching documentary Dream Cuisine, about the husband-and-wife owners of a traditional Chinese restaurant in Japan ("No sugar, no lard, no MSG"!). I picked another couple of movies based almost on their names alone: Take Out and Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile. And I induced my friends Robert and Gail to join me in watching them by promising a Chinese meal to complete the evening. It should also come as no surprise that watching Asian movies induces Asian food hunger. (After Piccadilly, in which Wong rises from scullery maid in the kitchen of a fashionable London nightclub to its star dancing attraction, I drove to Chinatown in search of just such a bowl of noodles as her friends had been shoveling into their mouths when she took her nightclub-owner lover on a slumming tour of Limehouse. I chose the restaurant because it was open and directly in front of the only parking space I found. The noodles were nothing special, but exactly what I wanted.)
Our hungers were inflamed, surprisingly, more by the run-of-the-mill fare being cooked all through Take Out -- a thriller about an illegal Chinese immigrant trying to get enough money to pay off a loan shark while working as an ill-paid delivery boy for a modest takeout place -- than by the spots featured in Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile, a documentary about Chinese eateries in Haifa, Cape Town, and Istanbul, which turned out to be more of a sociological study than a gastronomic one. (One dispiriting reference: The philosophical owner of Yan Yan in Israel feeds his customers "almond chicken, green pepper beef, sweet-and-sour pork, spring rolls, and salad.") But Take Out's house special lo mein, broccoli and bean curd, pork-fried rice with chicken -- "Make sure you don't put no vegetables!" -- and wonton soup looked amazingly delicious being wokked up before our eyes.
We set off for Harbor Village without especially great expectations because it's better known as a dim sum house. The setting, in the deathly-quiet-at-night Embarcadero Center, is plush but kind of anonymous -- in a glitzy, mirrored, floral-carpet, white-linen, dark-wood furniture way. I was slightly stunned by the prices on the multipaged menu heavily bound in leatherette: double digits on everything, and some of them mid to high two figures (braised shark fin soup, $65; braised whole abalone, $45; stir-fried fillet of Atlantic fluke, $50; Nobleman's chicken, $80). And these dishes were listed right at the top of their sections, instead of lurking at the bottom. (I could understand the high prices on the luxury items, such as lobster at $32 a pound, but why is rock cod $36 a pound?) Robert pointed out the useful and reassuring list of fresh vegetables available, including three kinds of bok choy, as we enjoyed a refreshing house-made crisp vegetable pickle bathed in sesame oil (which turned out to be made of mustard greens). Once I got past my sticker shock, I saw that there were lots of intriguing dishes priced around $16 or $18, and we'd assembled an interesting-sounding array -- including pan-fried short ribs of beef with aromatic garlic (is there any other kind? Oh yes, elephant garlic), tender pea shoots with fresh shiitake mushrooms, and camphor-wood-and-tea-smoked half duck -- when Robert picked up a little bound menu that we'd all thought was for drinks, and we fell down the rabbit hole.
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