Posts tagged ‘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.
I’m sick as a dog this week with a pernicious chest cold and I blame it all on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I’d just started recovering from version one of this malaise when the Film Fest started last Thursday. But I had so much fun at the Opening Night party, the screenings, the receptions and the afterparties that I made myself thoroughly ill again. So now I’ve got version two, with a hacking cough that won’t go away. I’m chugging Wal-Tussin straight from the bottle and using up all of my Tiger Balm to try to get some sleep at night. But I’ve got no regrets, even when I’m coughing uncontrollably at three in the morning.
The SFIAAFF was especially good this year, with an embarrassment of riches of Asian American and international features, documentaries and shorts. I previewed several programs before the festival but I also went to see a bunch during the festival itself. It’s a testament to the depth and quality of the programming that the festival could only find a slot at noon on Saturday for an excellent film like Cao Baoping’s The Equation of Love and Death, starring chain-smoking A-list Chinese actress Xun Zhou, which in other years or at other festivals might have been an Opening Night movie. It’s equally telling that the screening at the cavernous Castro Theater was crowded with viewers despite its off-hour scheduling. It was like that for every show that I went to, including a Wednesday night short film program, the romantically inclined It’s Easy Because You’re Beautiful, which included Object Loss, A. Moon’s excellent, wistfully sad meditation on adoption, loss and patterns of behavior, as well as several slick Korean shorts that played like miniature versions of Coffee Prince.
I also had the pleasure of experiencing my very first Shah Rukh Khan film, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which has made me a fervent fan of the sexy and charismatic King of Bollywood. I’m a sucker for men who can dance and Shah Rukh Khan brings it on that count in spades.
The parties, social events, and casual meet-ups with old friends make up the other half of the festival and they were especially fun this year–sometimes the SFIAAFF feels like one big frenetic Asian American filmmaking convention. I talked to a half-dozen people who had specifically planned their vacations around attending the festival, including journalist, author and muckracker Pratap Chatterjee, who showed me his string of tickets to about two dozen festival shows.
I also noticed the latest trend in headgear for fans of Asian American cinema. Everywhere I went there were stylin’ dudes sporting porkpie hats—at one party I counted twelve wearers of this little topper, including two of the bartenders.
Of course porkpies and other fashionable hatwear go way back in Asian American history. Turn-of-the-century San Francisco Chinatown was full of men in queues and felted hats.
Famed Pinoy author and poet Carlos Bulosan often wore a tasteful fedora in his publicity stills, and the porkpie was favored by other manongs as well.
And Kaba Modern brought the porkpie to last year’s edition of America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the porkpie has found favor in the Asian American scene. Here’s a couple natty porkpie wearers at the festival.
And here’s the picture I wished I’d taken that I cribbed from the festival’s Best Photo contest website.
So I’m laid up with a cold this week, rewatching my collection of Francis Ng dvds and trying to keep up with my responsibilities like feeding my children and editing my film. But even though I overdid it, the festival only comes around once a year and I’m glad to have been able to participate in such an excellent, significant event. As someone once observed, Chuck D. claimed that rap music is the CNN of the black community and filmmaking has become the Asian American equivalent. Maybe it’s because it’s a little less scary for Asian American parents if their kids want to make movies instead of, say, becoming performance artists or abstract painters, but the Asian American film community is alive and kicking and the SFIAAFF’s continued health and well-being is a testament to that fact. Here’s hoping it continues to successfully channel our cinematic glories for many more years to come.
Update: Xun Zhou just won Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, for The Equation of Love and Death.