Archive for March, 2010

Picture This: 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

I’m not sure that the nice Chinese American ladies sitting behind me during the screening of James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen’s Lessons Of The Blood, shown last Tuesday as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), knew exactly what they had signed up for when the bought their tickets. They had been behind me in line outside of the Sundance Kakuki Cinema, chatting amiably in English and Toi San, and I heard them mention that the film was “about the Nanking massacre” and that it had “won some kind of award in Europe.” As the film progressed and drew the audience deeper into its horrific tale, the ladies began to gasp and groan in dismay since Hong & Jin’s movie is not for the faint of heart and tells its story in chilling detail. Not unlike when I see a particularly brilliant horror flick, I found myself overwhelmed with dread and anxiety by the end of the movie, all the more so since its story is drawn from facts and history.

Germ warfare victim, Lessons Of The Blood, James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen, 2010

The film outlines the infamous series of war crimes commonly known as ‘the rape of Nanking,” but as told by Hong & Chen it’s quite a bit more. Unflinchingly graphic in its description of the various atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Nanjing during World War II, it also included several stomach-turning closeups of festering wounds found on the now-elderly survivors of the germ warfare unleashed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1940s. Lessons Of The Blood, however, is more than sensationalized propaganda or simple polemics. It’s also an impressively crafted film, using found footage from propaganda films, newsreels, Hollywood movies, television news, and other filmic detritus, as well as a disturbing and ominous soundtrack, coupled with modern-day interviews with Chinese wartime survivors (who willingly reveal their various scars and disfigurations). The result is a haunting condemnation of both the historical crimes as well as the modern-day complicity that implicates us all. Needless to say, watching this movie was hella intense.

Lessons Of The Blood was one of the strongest films from this year’s action-packed SFIAAFF. Although once again I spent more time at the parties than watching movies (in part because so many shows sold out), I managed to catch A Moment In TimeRuby Yang & Lambert Yam’s luminous elegy to San Francisco Chinatown movie houses. The film is a comprehensive look at the ways the Great Star, the World, the Bella Union, and the Mandarin theaters were in days of yore the glue that held together the Chinese community, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until their collective demise in the mid-1990s. I myself had the privilege of seeing several classic Hong Kong films with my buddy Patrick at both the World and the Great Star (including a strange and awesome double bill of the violent shoot’em up Big Bullet and the weepy melodrama Comrades: Almost A Love Story) and I can attest to the downscale utilitarianism of both of those movie houses. But there’s nothing like seeing a Chinese-language film with a roomful of Chinese people who are eating cuttlefish, smoking, and chattering incessantly in Cantonese during the show, and Yang and Lam’s movie captures that sensation exactly. One patron interviewed described his entire family including young children attending 9.30p Saturday night shows for 25 cents total, the kids running up and down the aisles and the parents gossiping and eating chicken wings and melon seeds until all hours.

Cell phone a-go-go, Tehran Without Permission, Sepedeh Farsi, 2008

I also caught a screening of Tehran Without Permission, shot surreptitiously on a cell phone in the months running up to the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Although I was dog-tired from attending my own world premiere and reception for The Oak Park Story earlier that day, Sepedeh Farsi’s verite documentary held my attention throughout its 80-minute run time. Through subtle and succinct vignettes the film captures the mood and attitude of citizens of Tehran, with small details and comments presaging the upheavals that would occur in a few months hence.

Deepika Padukone & Saif Ali Khan, just another impossibly gorgeous Bollywood couple, Love Aaj Kal, 2009

I also made time to see the festival’s annual Bollywood at the Castro movie, Love Aaj Kal, although it was the fourth film of a long day of movie-going. I have a soft spot for this program since it was at last year’s festival that I caught my very first Shah Rukh Khan movie, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which spurred my obsessive love for SRK in particular and for Bollywood movies in general. Love Aaj Kal, alas, does not star Shah Rukh Khan but the hot and charming Saif Ali Khan makes an acceptable substitute. Paired with the doe-eyed and astoundingly pretty Deepika Padukone, Saif plays dual roles as a modern-day commitment-phobic NRI in Britain and a noble and lovestruck suitor in the 1960s Punjab. The film deftly shuttles back in forth in time between these two stories, drawing parallels and distinctions between the romances from each period. A well-made and satisfying love story with some excellent dance sequences, the film is a great example of high-quality Hindi-language commercial moviemaking—in other words, a fun and rewarding bit of Bollywood entertainment.

I also passed by a rush line full of excited teens waiting for the special appearance of youtube darlings kevjumba, wong fu, nigahiga and timothy delaghetto. The youth were madly texting and tweeting as they waited to see their favorite internet stars in the flesh, but tickets were, alas, impossible to come by since the show had sold out as soon as it was announced. It was nice to see the next generation of SFIAAFF fans out in force, which hopefully augers well for the continued health and well-being of Asian American filmmaking.

Filmmakers Felicia Lowe & the late, great Loni Ding, 2009. photo: Jay Jao

NOTE: This year’s fest was dedicated to the memory of the force of nature known as Loni Ding, the legendary Asian American filmmaker and educator who a few weeks ago died at age 78 from complications from a serious of strokes. Loni was one of the fiercest and most amazing people on the planet and her energy, dedication, and sheer determination guided her filmmaking, which included seminal documentaries like Ancestors In America and The Color of Honor. She always had a kind word and a smile for younger filmmakers like myself and made us feel like we were doing something significant in our work. She was the moral center of the Asian American film community and she will be sorely missed.

March 24, 2010 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

Little Dragon Redux: Mike Lai at Southern Exposure Gallery

Fist atcha, The Legendary Lions vs. the Fists of Fury, Mike Lai, 2010, Southern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco

Just closed out my Chinese New Year celebration last Friday by attending Mike Lai’s wacky and inspired performance, The Legendary Lions vs. The Fists Of Fury. Staged one night only at Southern Exposure gallery in San Franciso’s Mission District, the performance was a face-off between two traditional Chinese lion dance troupes and the Fists of Fury, Lai’s goofy take on that venerable martial arts/dance/acrobatic form that featured two gigantic paper mache fists trailing yellow-and-black tails.

Nails of fury, Bruce Lee Manicurist/ Golden Dragon Massacre, Mike Lai, Queen’s Nails Annex, 2007

The performance continued Lai’s obsession/fascination with all things Bruce Lee and included yellow-and-black custom-made M & M’s emblazoned with Lai’s face in a Little Dragon bob. Mike Lai is heavy into Bruce and several of his past performances have referenced Siu Lung and his films. He’s especially fond of Bruce’s signature yellow-and-black tracksuit from Game of Death and has used that motif a bunch of times, including at an excellent event at the Queen’s Nails Annex Gallery where he painted tiny yellow-and-black designs on the nails of lucky manicurees.

Leung’s White Crane tears it up, Southern Exposure, 2010

For the first couple rounds last Friday at Southern Exposure the battle was pretty well-balanced between the lion dancers and Lai’s nouveau-dance Fists, but it was all over when the second lion dance troupe took the stage. Leung’s White Crane is one of the top lion dance crews in the world and they’ve performed in oodles of international competitions—the very next night following the SoEx battle they carried the gigantic dragon puppet at San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade. So though Lai’s Fists put up a valiant fight, they were no match for the mad skillz of Leung’s veteran troupe.

Mike & the Fists, 2010, Southern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco

Although the event was a bit too oppositional for my acculturist tastes (does it really have to be trad vs. modern?) it was a fun and furious, hella loud experience. The night ended with an impromptu confetti fight between myself, my younger daughter (staying up late to watch performance art with her mama), and Chi-Hui Yang, director and curator of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which is about to start in exactly two weeks. Chi-Hui informed me that Mike and the Fists will reprise their performance at the Film Fest’s big all-day Festival Forum event on Sat. Mar. 13 at 6pm in Japantown’s Peace Plaza. So check it out—it will be brilliant.

Just for kicks, here’s a video of Leung’s White Crane performing atop ten-foot high poles at the 2008 Genting World Lion Dance Championships in Malaysia.

March 4, 2010 at 7:00 am 3 comments


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