Use your (dis)illusion

Anxious young artists turn the camera on themselves in the 13th annual S.F. International Asian American Film Festival

While it opens with a beautiful period tale (Kayo Hatta's Picture Bride) and closes with a culture-clash dramatic comedy (Mina Shum's Double Happiness), it's in between that the sparks really fly at the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival. Fueled by low-budget, high-impact projects, this 13th annual celebration of Asian film and video looks beyond technical limitations and focuses on powerful subject matter.

Works like a.k.a. Don Bonus, a video diary shot with consumer-quality equipment by a 17-year-old Cambodian refugee who lives in the Sunnydale housing projects, or Osaka Story, which chronicles the filmmaker's traumatic reunion with his family in Japan after years abroad, function simultaneously as personal reflections and as sounding boards for collective wounds. The festival runs March 2-9 at S.F.'s Kabuki Theatre, with additional programs at Center for the Arts and Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive.

Video/film diaries aren't the sole province of artists from the Pacific Rim, but recently a lot of young, disillusioned Asians have decided to turn the camera on themselves. Confronting issues of ethnic, personal and sexual identity, many of these self-reflexive works also forage into family history to root out secrets some relatives would prefer to leave buried.

Video artist Valerie Soe, writing in the festival program, suggests that though the style might strike some critics as “self-indulgent,” visual diaries reflect a need for Asian artists to “make visible the realities” of their daily life in a straightforward way, free of caricature, free of stereotype.

Whether this particular art form panders to an artist's ego never comes into question in the primal and honest a.k.a. Don Bonus (Tues 3/7 7 pm). Given a Hi-8 palmcorder by local filmmaker Spencer Nakasako (who teaches video production in the Vietnamese Youth Development Center), Sokly Ny — a Galileo High School senior and Cambodian refugee also known as “Don Bonus” — was asked to shoot whatever he wanted over the course of the year. The resulting collaboration is an unforgettable and poignant study of the pure tragedy of immigration.

Sparse and sobering, a typical scene in Don Bonus unfolds with Ny returning home from school to a literally empty hovel in the projects; everything, including the sofa, has been stolen. Abandoned by his mother, who has returned to Cambodia with her new husband, and not knowing the whereabouts of his younger brother, Touch (who has joined a gang), Ny has nowhere to turn, except to his camera.

Don Bonus — which pours painfully private thoughts onto the screen and creates deeply personal moments that are a stark contrast to the unreality of The Real World — could never have been made in the pre-video revolution age. Ny brings his tiny, lightweight camera to awkward family gatherings, uses it to “spy” on the war zone outside his bedroom window and even conceals it under his coat in juvenile court, where Touch, finally surfacing, is being arraigned for attempted murder.

His camera seldom records joyful moments; the rare exception comes when the family finally moves out of the projects into a Richmond District home. Tragically gut-wrenching, a.k.a. Don Bonus reveals the immediacy and power of the visual diary while painting a larger picture of the hardships faced by many Southeast Asian immigrants.

Osaka Story (Fri 3/3 5 pm) starts off slowly, with filmmaker Toichi Nakata arriving in Osaka from England. In voiceover narration, the filmmaker confesses how much he dreads revealing two secrets to his parents: that he cannot stay to take over the family business (as is expected from an eldest son), and that he will never fulfill his obligation to marry and have a family of his own (hint, hint).

As if the anxiety of these revelations weren't foreboding enough, Nakata further complicates matters by recording every moment, placing himself in the frame while prompting everyone to let it all hang out. Awkwardness is the prevailing mood until Nakata's brooding father arrives home from Korea.

Father's return introduces the issue of Asian-on-Asian prejudice (Nakata's mom is Japanese, his dad Korean, a group traditionally discriminated against in Japan) and highlights the relative ease with which dysfunctional Japanese families go about their business (Dad has a second wife in Korea, but no one except Toichi wants to even broach the subject). Indeed, Osaka Story finally emerges as an unflinching portrait of Nakata's wandering and saddened father.

The elder Nakata unveils his morose yet philosophical take on life in the middle of a karaoke party for Mrs. Nakata, standing up to deliver a speech on the misery of life. “Life is tough …,” he concludes. “It seems to me that in each 24 hours we can only be happy when we are asleep. That is, we experience more pain than pleasure.” Those words — spoken with utter, albeit melo-dramatic, sincerity — might easily be the Nakata family motto. It becomes glaringly obvious that Toichi has made the right choice in heading back to England.

Staying with the low-tech, high-energy feel is Eric Khoo's Pain (Tues 3/7 9:45 pm, with the filmmaker's Symphony 92.4 FM). With Pain, Singapore's reigning dark and disturbing young director has made one of the more unbearable yet unforgettable works in the fest. Shot in crude and muddy 16mm, Pain's soundtrack grates on your nerves, while its creepy subject (a chain-smoking sadomasochistic youth who unravels before your eyes) slowly corners you. Very violent and very ugly, this is definitely not the film the Singapore Tourist Bureau would choose to represent the country.

Finally, there's Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express (Fri 3/3 9 pm), the highest octane film in the festival. A dash of a Hong Kong gangster film, a sprinkle of breezy French New Wave, and a heavy topping of Wong's own experimental and distinct visual sensibilities make Express the “arthouse breakthrough” of the festival. At times funny, intensely claustrophobic and attractively confusing, Chunking Express tells two stories about a pair of cops who just happen to grab coffee at the same fast-food joint. Don't try to understand it, just enjoy the dizzy ride.aS.F. International Asian American Film Festival runs Thurs-Thurs, March 2-9, at the Kabuki and Center for the Arts in S.F. and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley; for schedule/ticket information, call 863-0814.

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