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22nd SFIAAFF (Mar. 4-21, 2004)


San Francisco: March 4 - 11, 2004 (primary venues: AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, Castro Theatre)

Berkeley: March 5 - 10, 2004 (venue: Pacific Film Archive)

San Jose: March 19 - 21, 2004 (primary venue: Camera 3 Cinema)

This year's festival will kick off with a gala screening and reception for Hero, Zhang Yimou's swordplay extravaganza featuring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen amongst its ensemble. Though Hero has played to enthusiastic audiences around the world (including America, but mostly on videodiscs), but Miramax has continually rescheduled the American theatrical run, now expected to be in June. So don't miss this chance to see the film (on a big screen at the Kabuki), followed by a gala reception (expected to include guests from the film) at the Asian Art Museum.

Closing night will feature Imelda, the buzzed-about documentary on Imelda Marcos. Following the film (again at the Kabuki), a reception at the San Francisco War Memorial Green Room offers the opportunity to mingle with Imelda director Ramona S. Diaz, among other luminaries.

In between these gala presentations, the festival will offer its usual spate of diverse Asian films, along with a tribute to breakthrough Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961). The festival will screen four of her films--Robert Florey's Daughter of Shanghai (1937), E.A. Dupont's silent Piccadilly(1929), Josef von Sternberg's Marlene Dietrich vehicle Shanghai Express (1932), and Chester M. Franklin's The Toll of the Sea (1922). The Toll of the Sea will be followed by a panel discussion titled "Dangerous to Know: The Career and Legacy of Anna May Wong," moderated by critic B. Ruby Rich and featuring authors Karen Leong and Graham Russell Gao Hodges (both of whom have written books covering Wong's legacy), and actresses Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song) and Jacqueline Kim (Charlotte Sometimes and Brokedown Palace).

I have previewed several of the festival's 2004 offerings. Below are my capsule reviews:

Dekada '70 (2002) (screens 3/5, 3/6 in S.F.). American audiences may scoff at Chito S. Roño's epic look at the '70s in the Philippines, and from a Western perspective, they wouldn't be wrong. The overreaching ambition (even Oliver Stone hasn't dared to make a film called "The Sixties"), the overcooked acting, the distracting synth score, and a thematic approach sorely lacking in finesse will leave many audiences cold. And yet, there's something about Dekada '70's lack of finesse that makes it more direct and surely more purely heartfelt than a more stylish, intellectual film on this subject. Roño tells the melodramatic story of a decade in the life of a country by using one emblematic family: a father whose well-meaning but repressive masculine impulses threaten his marriage, a pack of strapping or soon-to-be strapping young lads whose generational impulse is to rebel--by word or action--against Marcos's martial law (as well as parental protectiveness), and a mother straining, at times unconsciously, against her limited social role. Vilma Santos, as the mother, supplies the obvious narration ("They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world...She shouldn't only rock the cradle but row the boat along the sea of change."), but at least Roño acknowledges he will treat his audience as infants. After all, not everyone knows that "It's not easy to be a woman." A toss-up.

Invisible Light (2003) (screens 3/5 in Berkeley, 3/6 in S.F.). I tend to be very resistant to easy dismissals of so-called "arty" movies, but I feel compelled to ward you away from Gina Kim's Invisible Light. Set partly in Los Angeles and mostly in South Korea, this 78 minute film seems to take eons to make a few obvious points. Most movies, I suppose, deal in the obvious, but through creative labor, find fascinating facets or entertaining riffs of dialogue or performance which make the experience, if not magical, at least worthwhile. But Invisible Light seems designed as an endurance test, which could just as well have been called "Ha Ha, Made You Look" as Invisible Light. A bit like Morvern Callar without the art, Invisible Light begins by slowly observing a woman with an eating disorder padding around her Los Angeles apartment, the mocking hum of the powered-up fridge eventually leading to a lengthy, detailed binge and purge session, with the munching and smacking sounds mixed up to an absurd, fingernail-on-the-chalkboard level. We get it: eating disorders exist and are unpleasant. This situation is meant to be the fallout of an exploitative affair, but Kim pointedly never introduces us to the pivotal man. The majority of the film follow's that man's wife, as she returns, in pregnant ambivalence, to Korea; as she ponders abortion, she leans on a nice guy she meets and begins to stand on her own two feet. With minimalist fervor, Kim limits the dialogue and relies upon digital-video images and somnambulant acting to convey colorless lives. If Invisible Light works at all, it works as visual poetry (Kim quotes Marina Tsvetaeva's "The Poem of the End" to commment on "what bodies do"), but I'd just as soon take the 78 minutes back to read some damn fine poetry than slog through this insular excursion. Skip it.

Just One Look (2002) (screens 3/10 in S.F., 3/21 in San Jose). Hong Kong director Riley Ip helms this tragicomic romantic kung fu tribute, whose theme song is the Bee Gees' "Melody Fair" (covered by pop duo Twins—Charlene Choi and Gillian Cheung). Shawn Yu plays the aptly named Fan, a young movie buff in the 1970s who, with friend Ming (Wong You Man) frequents the local movie theatre and collects movie memorabilia from the age of stills and hand-painted movie posters. The young men are puppy-love romantics, whose goo-goo eyes draw them after every beautiful woman (or bra on a clothesline) they see (Choi and Cheung play the objects of their affections). But the loopy comedy here--which includes a comic circle-pee, penis electrocution scene--is balanced with disturbing drama, since Fan's father was shot to death in a movie theatre bathroom as his son sat before the big screen. As a young man, the confused Fan sees his father in movies, like Fists of Fury, and tentatively charts a course of revenge against the local loan shark who, he knows in his heart, killed his father. The loan shark is called Crazy, and his comic vitriol allows you to love to hate him (and eventually, perhaps, care for him). You may feel the same about Ip's somewhat haphazard movie, but it is amusing and clever and even touching. Recommended.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003) (screens 3/7, 3/11 in S.F.). This video memoir tells the story of "Long Tack Sam" (1885-1961), the Chinese star of American vaudeville who made his name with magic and acrobatic stunts, but also owned theatres in China and restaurants in London while holding his family (an Austrian wife and three mixed-blood children) together. This is a story of family, told by Sam's great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming. Fleming took a digital video camera around the world to interview those who knew Sam, including far-flung family. The film's publicity teases Sam's brushes with celebrity (the Marx Brothers had Sam's troupe as an opening act, George Burns called him the greatest, Orson Welles studied with him, and contemporary magician Harry Houdini monopolized the needle-swallowing trick, forcing Sam to remove it from his act), but the film offers no detail about any of these episodes. Sam's story is certainly interesting: he was a pioneer objector to Hollywood's stereotyping of Asians (which explains the almost total lack of film footage of the man), he nurtured his daughters into the act to the eventual exclusion of himself, and he reshaped his own origin story continuously. Still, Fleming's approach of telling the story in personal terms--her own journey to discovery of her great-grandfather--arguably makes the story less interesting than a straight biography would have been. The film's most memorable sequences are the colorfully computer-animated sequences, which render Sam's origin stories in a comic-book-panel motif; by contrast, the cheap-looking video interviews feel amateurish. They are invariably poorly lit and often out of focus or plagued by bad audio; in some interviews, Fleming even sits her subjects down to a meal, and lets them talk with their mouths full! Nevertheless, Fleming's closing bit of reflection goes some way to justifying her video-diary approach. A toss-up.

Purple Butterfly (2003) (screens 3/5 in S.F). This uneasy but provocative blend of The Third Man and In the Mood for Love has, it must be said, both style and substance; still, Purple Butterfly ultimately feels like less than the sum of its parts. Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rush Hour) expands her range to play Cynthia, a Chinese student who in 1928 Manchuria, carries on with a Japanese lover named Itami (Toru Nakamura). Circumstances separate them from each other, and her from her beloved, revolutionary brother. Three years later the paths of Cynthia and Itami converge in Shanghai, but both are now covert operatives on opposite sides (Cynthia even has a new name: Ding Hui). Further complicating matters is Szeto (Lui Ye), an innocent, Hitchcockian patsy drawn into the intrigue between the Chinese resistance group Purple Butterfly and the Japanese secret service. What follows--though impeccably lit, photographed with considerable skill, and possessed with a terrific score (by Jörg Lemberg) capable of lilting romance and sly menace--suffers from its sometime combination of swift, jerky camera moves and stuttered editing (which also works against Ziyi's most touching acting moments as a Mata Hari pressed to her limits). Purple Butterfly is slow and demanding, with minimalist dialogue and a confusing narrative, but it is also painstaking in its development of paranoid tension, all the way up to the virtuosic, film-ending crane shot. A toss-up.

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) (screens 3/8, 3/11 in S.F.). Rithy Panh's documentary has been described as "a Cambodian Shoah." The film begins by establishing the mindset of principal characters who have lived to tell the story of the genocidal S21 detention center in Phnom Penh. Then, Panh reacquaints two former inmates (rare survivors from the 17,000 who were interrogated, tortured, and executed there) with a dozen former Khmer Rouge soldiers (from guards to doctors) who inflicted or enabled the terror; both groups also reacquaint themselves with the place, which projects a quiet, ghostly echo of past sins. Panh has the former guards reenact their old routines and efficiency meetings in the gutted building, and the vivid playacting, almost thirty years after the fact, is deeply unsettling. The film works strongly as a historical document, recalling the ironic and sometimes bizarre rationalizations soldiers clung to then ("We had to believe in sabotage activities, or we couldn't arrest the enemy," "Better to make a wrong arrest than to let the enemy eat away at us from within") and now ("The evil is the leaders who gave orders"). The film also works as a deeply touching observation of profound suffering and guilt (on both sides). Survivor Chum Mey loses his composure with fellow survivor Vann Nath; he half-asks, half-wails, "Nath, why did it happen like that?" The former fighters remain considerably colder for most of the film, even under the incisive insights of Nath, a painter who uses a professorial, Socratic approach to ask tough questions of them. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a film full of hard truths (of literally bloodletting torture, starvation, and rampant suicide among the prisoners), but perhaps more so of lies, on all sides, many of them self-delusional. The final image--of Nath sifting through an ashen pile, finding an old button, and feeling its shape--speaks horrible volumes of an inescapable past. Highly recommended.

Travellers and Magicians (2003) (screens 3/6 in S.F., 3/7 in San Jose). Highly recommended. Review here.

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