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San Francisco: March 13-23, 2008 (primary venues: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Castro Theatre, Landmark Clay Theatre)
Berkeley: March 14-22, 2008 (venue: Pacific Film Archive)
San Jose: March 21-23, 2008 (venue: Camera 12 Cinema)
As ever, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has a genuinely thrilling program of the latest in Asian and Asian-American cinema, as well as cutting-edge panels and worthy tribute events. SF Bay Area film lovers would be crazy to miss out on this annual opportunity, especially since its reach extends to Berkeley (through the Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (through the Camera 12 cinema).
This year, the spotlight turns on director Wayne Wang, and when the SFIAAFF says "spotlight," they mean "spotlight." Opening night features Wang's new film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, with Wang and cast members in attendance for the Castro screening and Gala Reception to follow at the Asian Art Museum. The followikng days include two retrospective screenings (1989's Life is Cheap...But Toilet Paper is Expensive and The Joy Luck Club, celebrating its fifteenth anniversary), another new Wang film (The Princess of Nebraska), and "An Afternoon with Wayne Wang" moderated by New York Times critic Dennis Lim.
Everyone's favorite local actress Joan Chen just can't stay away—she headlines closing night film The Home Song Stories, an Australian feature about a Chinese family (followed by a Closing Night Party at Bambuddha Lounge). The recently late Edward Yang (best known for Yi Yi: A One and a Two) gets a deluxe tribute, with screenings of Yi Yi, The Terrorizer, and A Brighter Summer Day, described by the fest as "his rarely screened masterpiece." Rising star John Cho (J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) will be featured in both the festival's Centerpiece Presentation (Michael Kang's West 32nd) and the Special Presentation Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, sure to be a can't miss sequel (you don't believe me? read that title again). Beloved local cult film Colma: The Musical returns for an encore, this time as a singalong, and "Out of the Vaults" comes the 1936 Japanese jazz musical Whispering Sidewalks.
We're just scratching the surface here, folks, with 35 narrative features (nine in competition, five of them world premieres), 12 documentaries, 52 short films, and 20 music videos. The world's top Asian filmmakers are represented, like Park Chan-wook Oldboy, Hou Hsiao-hsien (Milennium Mambo), and Nobuhiro Yamahita (Linda Linda Linda). As always, there are special events: panel discussions and Q&A talkbacks, parties, and live musical performances, including two "Directions in Sound" live music events. For more on these events, or to purchase tickets, visit www.asianamericanmedia.org
Amal (screens 3/6, 3/8, and 3/9 at the California) Richie Mehta's film is a modern parable about the nature and role of wealth in our lives (it's based on a short story by Shaun Mehta, who co-wrote the script with the director). Cranky old billionaire G.K. Jayaram (Naseeruddin Shah) is slouching towards death when he meets Amal Kumar (Rupinder Nagra), an autorickshaw wallah with a strong moral sense. When Jarayam passes on and leaves a new will naming Amal, the billionaire's son launches a conspiracy to entrust himself the money he needs to pay off his debt to a gangster. Mehta tries a little of everything (romance, murder) when less probably would have been more, but cleverly intersecting plot threads demonstrate that we're all closer than we may think. In the end, the point is well taken: "the poorest of men can be the richest." Recommended.
Never Forever (screens 3/15 at the Clay in S.F. and 3/16 at the PFA in Berkeley) Writer-director Gina Kim helms this corker about the delicacy of marital infertility and sympathetic infidelity. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) plays Sophie, a Caucasian housewife married into a Korean-American family. With her husband (David L. McInnis) unable to impregnate her, Sophie turns to a financially needy Korean immigrant (Jung-woo ha) for seeding sessions What begins as prostitution inevitably evolves from physical to personal intimacy, creating a love-triangle crisis of emotionally epic proportions. For my money, Never Forever marks an improvement over Kim's self-consciously arty Invisible Light--here, fearless performances and incisive writing put adultery and even stalking into understandable and, yes, sympathetic contexts. Highly recommended.
Planet B-Boy (screens 3/15 at the Sundance Kabuki in S.F.) For a full review, click here. Highly recommended.
Santa Mesa (screens 3/15 at the Clay in S.F. and 3/22 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) Appearing in its world premiere, Ron Morales' debut film explores the culture shock of a twelve-year old Filipino-American boy (Jacob Kiron Shalov) dispatched to Manila to live with his grandmother (Angie Ferro) after losing his mother in a car accident. Though colorfully photographed on location, the results are blandly typical of the international coming-of-age genre: entanglement with a bluff street gang, tentative mentorship from a grumpy older man (Jaime Tirelli, the next best thing to Joe Mantegna), tender romance with the first girl to come along (Maria Lopez). The boy's indentured apprenticeship ostensibly teaches him about photography, but the true endgame is, natch, forgiveness and healing, with wisdom like "The hardest thing you'll ever have to accept is this is your life. And what you do with it is up to you." Charisma-deficient acting and a poky story suggest Santa Mesa is best suited to an adolescent audience not yet familiar with its cliches. Skip it.
The Unseeable (screens 3/16 at the Sundance Kabuki in S.F., 3/21 at the PFA in Berkeley, and 3/23 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) If you're like me, you enter latter-day horror movies with a "show me something" skepticism. It's all been done before, which puts a special premium on doing it with style and humor. Thanks to director Wisit Sasanatieng, The Unseeable takes barely contained pleasure in emptying its bag of tricks: whispers, fluttering shadows, peekabo ghosts, a creeping hand, and an eye peering into a shower room but some of them. The plot concerns the search of rural woman Nuanjan (Siraphun Wattanajinda) for her missing husband; the road leads her to a remote plantation compound, where reclusive widow Madame Ranjuan (Supornthip Choungrangsee) likewise holds out hope for her husband's return. Though the needlessly coda squanders the snappiness of the climax, Sasanatieng generally proves his knack for creepy fun. Recommended.
The Voyeurs (screens 3/17 at the Clay in S.F., 3/19 at the PFA in Berkeley, and 3/23 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) A couple of inexperienced bachelors in the security business secretly install a pinhole camera in the apartment of one's pretty young neighbor in this eccentric allegory about an isolating era in human history. In going after corruption in the ranks of the police and Bollywood, writer-director Buddhadeb Dasgupta isn't afraid to get goofy: try not to laugh when a little-person film director wails on a fat producer, or to scratch your head when the surveillance-camera-tech protagonist gets a wee-hours visit from the mascot of safe sex, there to troubleshoot his lack of desire. Did I mention the fidayeen (terrorist) subplot? Though slow-cooked and not entirely convincing, The Voyeurs has a comic warmth and a valid subject in the disturbing ease of modern relationships that eschew people in favor of movie and computer screens. A toss-up.
West 32nd (screens 3/16 at the Castro in S.F.) The festival's Centerpiece Presentation is this unfortunately squishy crime drama that plays more like the Justin Lin of Hollywood than the Justin Lin of independent film. In fact, West 32nd is the sophomore feature by Michael Kang (The Motel), set in NYC's Korean underworld. John Cho (Better Luck Tomorrow, Harold and Kumar...) plays John Kim, an ambitious young Korean-American lawyer whose primary interests in the defense of a Korean teen are what the case can do for his career and his love life. Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) plays the boy's sister, who's more in touch with her heritage than the sellout lawyer. West 32nd takes slightly more time to expose the "room salon" culture than the average gangland picture, but it's a shame character depth didn't attract Kang more than melodrama and stray gunshots. Skip it.