Swagga Like Us: 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
Now in its thirtieth year, the San Francisco International Asian American film festival offers several treats this year, with some brand new narrative films from Asian American directors. These include features by some familiar names and one remarkable debut by a newcomer that is astoundingly assured and original, demonstrating the continued growth and expansion of Asian American cinema.
Michael Kang’s Knots is a fast-paced rom-com with great comic performances and a decidedly un-cloying script. As in his debut film, the offbeat adolescent comedy The Motel, Kang has an eye for strange yet engaging characters coping with the bizarre dynamics of dysfunctional family life. Lead actress and screenwriter Kimberly-Rose Wolter is a marriage-phobe whose weird mom and sisters are wedding planners in Hawai’i. Sung Kang (Fast & Furious; Better Luck Tomorrow) is the dreamy love interest.
Yes, We’re Open, directed by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is an entirely agreeable, sleek and charming timepass, with a clever and engaging script (by Colma’s star and screenwriter H.P. Mendoza) and winsome performances from its cast. Lynn Chen and Parry Shen play a comfortable yet slightly bored couple whose relationship has lost its groove, until they meet another couple that tantalizes them with the possibility of an open relationship. The film does a good job capturing the feel of non-tourist San Francisco, with locations at Green Apple Books, the Alemany Farmers’ Market, the Roxie Cinema, and other neighborhood locations, as well as gently lampooning foodies, hipsters, and tech geeks. I haven’t seen Parry Shen in a movie since Better Luck Tomorrow and he does a great job as the slightly neurotic male lead who is somewhat lacking in self-awareness. Lynn Chen is funny and endearing as the other half of the conflicted couple. The movie is not unlike Annie Hall or some of Woody Allen’s other earlier romantic comedies in its young urban groovester milieu, its reliance on a specific cityscape (here San Francisco instead of New York) and its lighthearted take on the foibles of contemporary relationships.
Quentin Lee turns up the melodrama with White Frog, a family tale of a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome dealing with tragic circumstances. Led by a strong performance by BooBoo Stewart (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), the cast also includes some of the best-looking teenagers I’ve seen since Beverly Hills 90210, yet the actors overcome the handicap of their beauty by turning in convincing performances. The story makes a plea for tolerance and understanding of difference, and while it tilts toward maudlin at times, director Lee’s strong direction steers it back toward steady ground. He modulates the somewhat overwrought twists of the narrative by drawing out believable and sympathetic turns from his actors, including BD Wong as the conflicted father and Joan Chen at her dreamy and vulnerable best.
Although it also delves the family dynamics of coping with a tragic loss, Patrick Wang’s In The Family is a horse of a different color. Subtle and smart, the film offers a new way of seeing that diverges radically from the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking–it clocks in at nearly 3 hours, and the majority of the film is shot in long, deep-focus master shots. However, its formal style is in no ways mannered or pretentious. The film begins with a series of long, static scenes that simply explicate the quotidian lives of Joey and Cody, an interracial gay couple living in Martin, Tennessee with their energetic and precocious young son Chip. The long lockdown takes emphasize the normalcy of their everyday life despite a family structure that falls outside of the heteronormative frame. The time that the film takes to establish their deep emotional bonds pays off later in the film as tragic circumstances as well as societal pressure conspire to destroy their idyllic home life. With a reliance on long single takes the acting had better be good and here it’s stellar, anchored by actor-director Wang as the humble yet passionate and devoted father.
In The Family is not only one of the best Asian American films I’ve seen in a long time, it’s one of the best films, period, that I’ve seen in a long time. Not to overstate the point but Wang’s compositions and his confidence in the power of the action within the frame are reminiscent of Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Although touching on several hot-button issues the film deftly sidesteps polemics and instead presents a subtly shaded, morally complex story.
Also of note: Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, his first feature-length film that centers on the Okinawan-Hawai’ian ukelele wizard. The film follows up Tad’s short docs Pilgrimage, Yellow Brotherhood, and A Song For Ourselves and, although there were no advance screeners of the film, it promises to be as brilliant and moving as Tad’s earlier work. It’s great to know that not all Asian American filmmakers aspire to making narrative films, and Tad is following in the footsteps of Loni Ding, Steve Okazaki, Renee Tajima-Pena, Christine Choy, and his own parents, Bob Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka, all seminal Asian American filmmakers whose documentaries are the gold standard for Asian American cinema. The film festival will feature a program with Tad and his parents, A Conversation with the Nakamura Family, on Saturday, Mar. 10 at 3.30p, where science will surely be dropped.
Bonus: here’s a clip of Jake Shimabukuro from the upcoming documentary playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
For tickets and a full schedule go here.
Entry filed under: movies, san francisco international asian american film festival. Tags: asian american film, booboo stewart, hp mendoza, in the family, jake shimabukuro, michael kang, movies, patrick want, quentin lee, richard wong, san francisco international asian american film festival, sung kang, tad nakamura, we're open, white frog, yes.