23rd SFIAAFF (Mar. 10-20, 2005)


San Francisco: March 10-20, 2005 (primary venues: AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, Castro Theatre)

Berkeley: March 11-20, 2005 (venue: Pacific Film Archive)

San Jose: March 18-20, 2005 (venue: Camera 12 Cinema)

This year's festival kicks off with a gala screening and reception for Saving Face, Check out the film on a big screen at the Kabuki, then head to the gala reception (expected to include as guests the film's director and stars) at the Asian Art Museum. Closing night will feature The Motel, Michael Kang's quirky coming-of-age story. Following the film (again at the Kabuki), a reception at the San Francisco War Memorial Green Room offers the opportunity to mingle with filmmakers and other luminaries.

In between opening and closing nights, NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association) celebrates its 25th Anniversary in style with a typically ambitious and eclectic slate of programs comprising 132 films from 22 countries. Check out James D. Stern & Adam Del Deo's documentary The Year of the Yao, about basketball star Yao Ming or Turtles Can Fly, a drama—set in Iraq—from Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) or perhaps Evans Chan's Sorceress of the New Piano, about toy-piano diva Margaret Leng Tan. Just added: a sneak screening of Jet Li's Unleashed (screens 3/14 at the Kabuki in S.F.), a full two months before its May 13th opening; the film is written by Luc Besson (with Robert Mark Kamen) and Li's co-stars are Bob Hoskins and freshly minted Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Morgan Freeman.


Saving Face (screens 3/10 at the Kabuki in S.F.) This likeable romantic comedy—set in the Chinese-American community of Flushing, Queens—balances the vicissitudes of a lesbian relationship against a trying mother-daughter relationship. Michelle Krusiec plays Wil, a twentysomething medical resident who's blindsided when her widowed mother (Joan Chen)—long assumed to be thoroughly conservative—announces that she's pregnant but won't be marrying the father, who she refuses to identify. Meanwhile, Wil keeps her own secret—a burgeoning relationship with a woman named Vivian (Lynn Chen)—from her intolerant mother. The affectionate ribbing of the cultural milieu and Joan Chen's sly performance raise this a cut above the indie formulas we expect from lesbian romances and "my crazy family" comedies. If Saving Face is a little corny, it's also surprisingly zippy in its good humor. Recommended.

Oldboy (Oldeuboi) (screens 3/11 at the Kabuki in S.F., 3/12 at the PFA in Berkeley, 3/20 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) This grueling revenger's tragedy was purportedly Quentin Tarantino's fave when he served on last year's Cannes jury. Anchored by a feral and emotional performance by Choi Min-sik, Oldboy tells the story of two men whose obscure connection in the past leads them ultimately to seek revenge on each other. Since Oldboy is a cleverly structured mystery, the less you know, the more you'll enjoy the story. Director Chan-Wook Park gives his film—the second in a proposed revenge trilogy—the visual, visceral intensity of a graphic novel, a hallucination, or a nightmare; the faint-hearted may not appreciate Oldboy's diabolical horrors, though they're in keeping with the broad strokes of classical rip-roarers like Titus Andronicus. The director's Fincher-esque style may finally trump substance, but it's a fair fight, grounded in essential emotional truths. Highly recommended.

Schizo (screens 3/14 at the Kabuki in S.F.) Guka Omarova's assured first feature Schizo is a noir forced out into the sunlight. Set in modern-day Kazakhstan (specifically, the early '90s), Schizo follows a nearly fifteen-year-old boy (named Mustafa, but nicknamed "Schizo") as he circles and finally penetrates adulthood. A lapdog to his single mom's criminal boyfriend, Schizo rounds up human punching bags for an underground boxing syndicate. Schizo is decidedly anti-heroic, but nevertheless gives the film a strong rooting interest as he grapples with moral choice and getting what he deserves out of life, including an appealingly unconventional relationship with the widow of one of the boxers. Distinct flavor for time and place and unsentimental performances mark Omarova a director to keep both eyes on. Recommended.

Ethan Mao (screens 3/11 at the PFA in Berkeley, 3/12 at the Castro in S.F.) The hostage drama Ethan Mao uses a shopworn (nay, exhausted) dramatic device to force the hands of dysfunctional family members. After his father ejected him from home for being gay, the eighteen-year-old title character (Jun Hee Lee) returns—armed, dangerous, and accompanied by a friend-slash-potential-lover (Jerry Hernandez). Intending simply to collect his remaining belongings, Ethan is surprised when his father (veteran actor Raymond Ma), two brothers (David Tran and Kevin Kleinberg), and stepmom (Julia Nickson of China Cry) unexpectedly return to the house, triggering a hostage situation. Ethan Mao's strength is its well-defined, recognizable cast of characters, but the plot mechanics strain belief and the dialogue and acting sometimes dance together like awkward tweens at a sock-hop. Writer-director-producer Quentin Lee doesn't make this long, dark night of the soul amount to much more than the suggestion, through an allusion to Frankenstein, that the father's intolerance created the son's monstrous, vengeful behavior. A toss-up.