Posts tagged ‘san francisco international asian american film festival’

Swagga Like Us: 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

A man and his ukelele, Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, 2012

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.

The lucky Kimberly-Rose Wolter with foxy Sung Kang, Knots, 2012

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.

BooBoo on the spectrum, White Frog, 2012

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.

Stillness and movement, In The Family, 2012

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.

March 4, 2012 at 3:31 am 1 comment

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

No Regrets: San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, part two

 

 

Xun Zhou abuses her lungs, The Equation of Love and Death, 2008

Xun Zhou abuses her lungs, The Equation of Love and Death, 2008

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.

 

Anushka Sharma & Shak Rukh Khan get down, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, 2008

Anushka Sharma & Shak Rukh Khan get down, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, 2008

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.

 

Trendsetter

Trending

 

 

 

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.

 

Queues and toppers, San Francisco Chinatown, Arnold Genthe, 1895

Queues and toppers, San Francisco Chinatown, Arnold Genthe, 1895

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.

 

Carlos Bulosan, fashion plate

Carlos Bulosan, fashion plate

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Kaba hat, 2008

Kaba hat, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

And Kaba Modern brought the porkpie to last year’s edition of America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV.

 

Tad Nakamura and Kevin Lim, porkpiers

Tad Nakamura and Kevin Lim, porkpiers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Mas porkpie, Poleng Lounge, SFIAAFF 2009

Mas porkpie, Temple Nightclub, SFIAAFF Closing Night Party, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

March 23, 2009 at 6:53 am 13 comments


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