As it approaches its third decade of existence, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival seems to have turned a corner: This year, the selections present more action than passivity, more doing and becoming than had been and been done to. You see this mainly in the dearth of concentration-camp documentaries and manifestos of misery and victimization. But you'll also notice an increase in tales of obsession and purging among single-minded characters, liberally peppered with black humor. Finally, Silicon Valley residents needn't come up north to see all of the choices this year, as screenings have begun in San Jose. Initially I was puzzled that the opening and closing films should seem so similar. In both, a young SoCal Filipino-American man wrestles with his family and his cultural identity. (Both movies even feature giant forks and spoons on the wall.) But where The Flip Side hilariously ridicules its characters' preoccupations with basketball and plastic surgery, The Debut seeks to find answers by expanding beyond family to white friends and beyond youth to earlier generational conflicts. Note-perfect argument sequences in the former — and joyful dance performances in the latter — purge the sludge of inhibition and inertia that would otherwise block the movies' conflicted collegians.
In what's become a festival tradition, the shorts compilations boast stellar work. (Disclosure: I helped select these.) Surplus and Dog Days in the “Sins and Daughters” program are astonishingly passionate dramatizations of the extremes people will go to to stave off hunger. My personal favorite, Oma Rhee, is a devastating portrait of the filmmaker's Korean-American mother, a doctor who curtailed her career to raise daughters — children who now probe old vacation photographs to understand why their mother became a monster. The “warped narratives” in the “Urge to Purge” program spurred brushfires within the selection committee: Such purgative films are always good for dislodging the stick that sometimes gets lodged up our behinds.
Other feature films overcome initial missteps to deepen into profound portrayals of love-hate relationships. White-supremacist-goon stereotypes undermine Altman protégé Abraham Lim's Roads and Bridges, but the alliance between an “eyes on the prize” black manager and an angry, impulsive Chinese-American member of a road sign crew never becomes a cheap buddy shtick. Early scenes in Vivian Chang's Hidden Whisper overstate the protagonists' misery, but the film soon evolves into a rich meditation on mothers and daughters. The Cut Runs Deep wears its elegant Scorsese/Wong Kar-wai/manga influences like badges, but the scenes of violence among Korean street gangs in New York City, while accomplished, should convey more feeling. As for the erotic sci-fi I.K.U., don't even try to follow a story: Just sit back and enjoy each orgasm as it comes.
Everywhere you look, the protagonists in the fest's films are obsessed — whether it's the first film pioneer in China (Shadow Magic) or a third-generation Korean in Japan who can't understand why nobody else is haunted by his mysterious late grandfather, whose last words seemed to curse him (Annyong Kimchi). Come to the festival and purge a few obsessions you never knew you had.