San Francisco: March 16-23, 2006 (primary venues: AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, Castro Theatre, Palace of Fine Arts)
Berkeley: March 17-25, 2006 (venue: Pacific Film Archive)
San Jose: March 24-26, 2006 (venue: Camera 12 Cinema)
This year's festival kicks off with a gala screening and reception for Americanese, Eric Byler's adaptation of Shawn Wong's novel American Knees. Check out the film on a big screen at the Kabuki, then head to the gala reception (with the film's director and stars) at the Asian Art Museum. Closing night will feature Journey from the Fall, Ham Tran's epic examination of the fallout of the Vietnam War. Following the film (at the Palace of Fine Arts), an on-site reception offers the opportunity to mingle with the filmmakers and cast.
In between opening and closing nights, the fest rolls out another dynamic slate of programs comprising 31 narrative features, 12 documentaries, and 9 programs of short films. The fest's centerpiece selection is Water, the third in the "Elemental Trilogy" by Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth). The festival will pay tribute to two late, lamented talents: actor Pat Morita (The Karate Kid, Part II and American Fusion, and Only the Brave will be screened) and director Kayo Hatta (Picture Bride will be screened). The "Spotlight Tribute" goes to actor James Shigeta (Flower Drum Song), who will participate in an on-stage conversation with filmmaker Arthur Dong (Mar. 18 at the Castro), following a screening of Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono; Walk Like a Dragon and Bridge to the Sun will screen the following day. For more on the special programs and panels, or to purchase tickets, visit www.asianamericanfilmfestival.org
The Burnt Theatre (Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé) (screens 3/21 at the PFA in Berkeley and 3/22 at the Kabuki in S.F.) "All the world's a stage," wrote the bard, but in The Burnt Theatre, the converse is equally true. This hybrid of documentary and narrative film from Rithy Panh (director of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) is, in turns, off-puttingly confusing and exhilharating. The genocide of the Khmer Rouge nearly decimated the community of Cambodian theatre talent, but it was a later, accidental fire that gutted the Preah Suramarith theatre. In the ruins, the surviving actors and directors persevere in their vocation (though one asks, "Why do I strive to perform my art when I suffer so much?"). Panh makes few concessions to the audience, which is admirable but also frustrating. Still, the raw memories of the genocide, spirited performers, and a transcendent shadow play are potent factors. A toss-up.
Café Lumiere (Kohi Jikou) (screens 3/19 at the Castro in S.F. and 3/25 at the PFA in Berkeley) Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Café Lumiere is designed as an homage to Yasujiro Ozu (on the occasion of the centennary of his birth). The Japanese film is peppered with allusions to Ozu's style, but Hou's minor key is distinct, and in this case, decidely less interesting than the work of Ozu. One could admire Hou for his conviction to be defiantly mundane, but why? Instead of crossing through minimalism to magnetism of style or meaning, Café Lumiere is simply a plodding chore that offers only scraps of plot (a shoe drops about a quarter of the way through the movie), a bit of storybook seasoning, and lulling low-light photography. The thoughtful final image—drawing a connection betwen gestation and train travel—is too little, too late. Skip it.
Dreaming Lhasa (screens 3/18 at the Castro in S.F. and 3/22 at the PFA in Berkeley) Dreaming Lhasa scores points simply for being the first film by Tibetans about contemporary Tibetan experience. A Tibetan documentarian living in New York comes to Dharamsala, India to record the stories of former political prisoners now living as refugees. Arrested by the story of one subject—whose only wish is to deliver a charm box on behalf of his mother—the filmmaker agrees to help the man find the box's rightful recipient. Co-directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam make the mistake of filming mediocre acting in tight close-up, but the story slowly builds momentum and the final scene has a surprising, redemptive kick. Recommended.
Eve & the Fire Horse (screens 3/18 and 3/20 at the Kabuki in S.F.) This Canadian feature (a Toronto Film Fest selection) from writer-director Julia Kwan is a cute (and arguably cutesy) coming-of-age tale about a girl born in 1966—year of the fire horse. That makes her a strong-willed kid, so when she gets it in her head to spearhead a Catholic conversion for her family, nothing will stand in her way. The humor and whimsy will evoke Millions for some (Jesus and Buddha dance in the living room): ultimately Eve & the Fire Horse is conventional but sweet. Mychael Danna (The Ice Storm) provides the score. Recommended.
Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (screens 3/20 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Hong Kong import Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is a terse, social realist crime drama about the rugged men who volunteered for the duty of protecting the endangered Tibetan antelope from poachers. Writer-director Lu Chuan frames "the last virgin wilderness of China" in panoramic widescreen; 5,000 meters high, the animal reserve Kekexili is a place replete with untouched spots, but also one sullied with bloody business. Though Lu Chuan depicts the punishing, unforgiving determination on both sides of the conflict, the film is not entirely pitiless for the pathetic criminal class. Eventually, the picture arrives at an existential question for its heroes: Why? The answer: tough-as-nails righteousness, at any cost. Recommended.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Yi Feng Mo Sheng Nu Ren De Lai Xini) (screens 3/17 at the PFA in Berkeley and 3/19 at the Castro in S.F.) Based on the same Stefan Zweig short story previously adapted for the screen by Max Ophuls in 1948, Letter from an Unknown Woman gets a transfer to China of the '30s and '40s. The story is built on a fair amount of absurd romanticism, but the cumulative effect is both deeply sad and at least arguably feminist. The man, a famous writer, is an urbane ideal of sorts and the woman, his young neighbor, allows herself to be pathetically defined by him. But he's tarnished by his love-'em-and-leave-'em ignorance, and she is a product of her misogynist culture. Her education at a woman's college (a pretext to be near the writer) is ironic; in one pointed image, she seems to blend into the background of his home's dusky blue facade. Xu Jinglei's lovingly photographed film probably doesn't go far enough to challenge the circumstances that allow this sad situation; but the moony, one-sided romance has a properly ironic undertone. A toss-up.
Linda Linda Linda (screens 3/17 at the PFA in Berkeley and 3/22 at the Kabuki in S.F.) This Japanese dramedy about an all-girl band sounds terrible on paper, but you won't be disappointed if you check out this festival highlight. Working from a script he co-wrote with Kosuke Mukai and Wakako Miyashita, director Nobuhiro Yamashita explores the drama, gossip, and exuberance of youth in a Japanese high school. As the Japan-Korea Cultural Exchange Festival approaches, three girls troubleshoot the loss of their lead singer by recruiting a Korean girl to learn the foreign lyrics of Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts. In plot terms, it's sort of a junior Hard Day's Night, run on girl-power—or a sports movie substituting art for athletics—with obstacles hurdled on the way to a nail-biting climax. The style,however, is low-key, with observational humor and one of the truest depictions of female friendships that I can recall. Attentive, scrupulously made, and sweet, Linda Linda Linda captures the personally meaningful euphoria of rehearsing and performing for a crowd. Highly recommended.
Red Doors (screens 3/18 at the Kabuki in S.F. and 3/25 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) Before its theatrical release, Red Doors has been distinguished multiply: it won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, a distributor, and a pilot order from CBS, which hopes to turn the film into a weekly series. Unfortunately, the storytelling here (by writer-director Georgia Lee) is disjointed, precious, clumsy, and self-consciously quirky. The Chinese-American Wong family is comprised of three ambitious daughters, a worrying mother, and a father (Tzi Ma of The Ladykillers) whose nervous breakdown leads him to run away to a Buddhist monastery. One daughter's having cold feet about her wedding, another is a lesbian replaying Saving Face, the third is a precocious high-schooler in a prank war with her puppy-lover. Skip it.
Rules of Dating (Yeonaeui Mokjeok) (screens 3/17 at the Castro in S.F. and 3/25 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) The downright strange Rules of Dating is a South Korean romantic comedy gone awry. Co-written by male director Han Jae-rim and female writer Ko Yun-hee, Rules of Dating first displays an anthropological interest in the dating world and its sometimes obscured motivations, exemplified by a male-female discussion about why people have sex. But the film consistently veers into risky territory: bold come-ons, a drunken date-rape and other graphic sex scenes, and the impact of rumor and innuendo in the workplace. It's admirable that Rules of Dating sustains interest by bending genre expectations, but by the time the obsessive, conflicted mating dance resolves, the film has taken a nasty right turn that's unearned and left dangerously open to misogynist interpretation. A toss-up.