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The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival goes global

Wednesday, Mar 9 2005
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In its 23rd year, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has gone global, no longer focusing specifically on the Pacific edge, but instead reaching into regions once considered Asian (Kazakhstan, Iraq) and places that are (or were) home to an Asian diaspora (Peru, Madagascar).

A partial result is that wars, always global in effect, form the theme of some of the festival's strongest works. This focus brings together such disparate films as Alain Resnais' 1959 Hiroshima, Mon Amour and the devastating Iran-Iraq co-production about children trying to survive our war in Iraq, Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly. A new Japanese movie, Out of This World, is more interesting for its Occupation-era Tokyo setting than for its tale of finding a reason to live thanks to American jazz.

Back in the 21st century, Joan Chen gives an endearing performance as a pregnant fortysomething mother of a budding lesbian in the opening night's romantic comedy, Saving Face, while on the closing night, The Motel's Solondz-esque blend of dorky-kid humor and unsettling sexual mentorship is memorably riveting.

The slate of documentaries is highlighted by a personal appearance by local filmmaker Steven Okazaki, along with screenings of his latest (the anti-nuke The Mushroom Club) and some of his earlier work, such as the '80s cult hit Living on Tokyo Time. As for docs on American life, director Grace Lee drives an apparently gimmicky premise (interviewing subjects who share her name) to emotionally profound conclusions in The Grace Lee Project. The Year of the Yao, despite some smug misconceptions about China, is still fascinating for its glimpse into the star-making machinery of the NBA, particularly as we watch Yao Ming learn how to respond to trash talk.

Perhaps the biggest buzz surrounds the grisly, sensational Korean thriller Oldboy. With its limp reveals, the movie doesn't measure up to other recent dramas that force the protagonist to reconstruct a lost past (such as Memento), but it does expose a memorably frantic search for the masculine self. Another exploration of Asian masculinity is the muddled Green Hat, which links criminality, impotence, mainland China's national virility, and the horror of being cuckolded; contrast it with Butterfly, a Hong Kong-made lesbian love story with pretty erotic scenes but a poorly integrated Tiananmen Massacre subplot.

Brief moments of brilliance can be found in the fest's short film programs, which regularly sell out -- for good reason. My favorite: the "3rd I South Asian International Shorts 2005" bill, bolstered by a hilarious spoof on outsourcing, Call Center, and Holly-Bolly, a look at moviemakers forced to create a "cross-genre" picture that combines a British gangster film and a Bollywood musical. This global approach, appropriate to the festival, can't help but feel inclusive, fitting for an event that's rightfully broadening its horizons.

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Frako Loden

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