First Kisses and Small-Time Hustlers 

The Asian American Film Festival crams an entire continent — and more — into eleven days of movies. And it fits.

With a given name like "Brillante," you'd better be damned good. Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, director of two of the brightest films in this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, actually lives up to his name. And the 26th edition of the Center for Asian American Media's annual fest — always one of the Bay Area's cultural highlights — is particularly strong, one of its best years ever, with an excellent slate of films from both sides of the Pacific. That ocean has never seemed smaller, or less of a barrier to communication.

Mendoza, a product of the up-and-down Filipino film industry who labored as a production designer in TV and theater as well as in feature films, broke out into the international film scene in 2005 with Masseur, followed by Kaleldo (Summer Heat) and Manoro (The Teacher) in 2006. In the tradition of such Filipino directors as Lino Brocka and Auraeus Solito, Mendoza's matter-of-fact tales of that country's enormous underclass disguise their social commentary as "reality," with non-actors and a documentary-style hand-held digital camera.

Mendoza's 2007 Slingshot opens with a nighttime police raid, illuminated by flashlights, in the slums of Manila's Quiapo district, then follows a group of tiradors, or slingshots (slang for street hoodlums), as they work their small-time hustles — shaking down students with iPods, scoring shabu (speed), etc. One young man named Rex, torn between feeding his drug habit and getting milk for his baby, snatches a gold chain off the neck of a passerby, then comes back and throws it in the victim's face: "That's a fake!" All this amidst the religious bustle of Holy Week, when processions turn the streets into sacred mosh pits and everyone, especially the poorest, wants to look his or her best.

Foster Child, also from 2007 from the prolific Mendoza, takes a quieter tack than Slingshot, but it's no less outraged at the story of John-John, a discarded Eurasian toddler whose kindly government-sponsored foster mother, Thelma, must give him up for adoption. We look in on Thelma (movingly played by Cherry Pie Picache) in her shanty home as she cares for the sandy-haired mestizo two-year-old and deals with Miss Bianca, the lady from the agency. At first we suspect Bianca of coolly running a baby farm, but gradually, as the two women visit a church orphanage full of abandoned babies, we see that the problem is so overwhelming it calls for methodical action. The film reaches a pathetic climax when Thelma finally delivers John-John to his adoptive family, a middle-age white American married couple who already have adopted Asian children. Thelma has no idea how to negotiate the luxurious hotel bathroom. She gets soaked in the shower trying to clean up the kid. Slingshot screens Saturday, March 15 (7 p.m.) at the Pacific Film Archive; Foster Child plays Friday, March 14 (6:45 p.m.) and Sunday, March 16 (noon) at the Kabuki.

Joan Chen, the actress (The Last Emperor; Lust, Caution) and filmmaker (Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl) who has seemingly spent her career resisting stereotyped casting, scores a bull's-eye in the role of Rose Hong, protagonist of writer-director Tony Ayres' socially conscious soap, The Home Song Stories. Chen, a Shanghai native, and Ayres, a Chinese Australian, have in former Hong Kong nightclub singer Rose the quintessential misunderstood immigrant character with the unbelievable backstory, a putative alley cat dragging her two children around Melbourne as she drifts from man to man (the kids have many "uncles"). Nevertheless this survivor, flirtatious but steely, maintains her dignity in the face of hard luck and clichéd dialogue ("I thought you were different. You're just like all the rest") and comes into her own by degree. It's one of Chen's best performances. The Home Song Stories closes the festival on Thursday, March 20 (7 p.m.) at the Kabuki, with Ms. Chen in attendance.

Four directors including Garin Nugroho (who made the wonderful Opera Jawa) contributed to Serambi, an eerie documentary account of the aftermath of the devastating December 26, 2004 tsunami that killed more than 100,000 in Banda Aceh province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The film begins with frightening footage of a three-meter-high river of muddy, debris-clogged water rushing through a town while screaming people scramble to rooftops. Later, as workers pick corpses from the soggy wreckage and ships sit crazily on top of houses, we get to know three subjects — a devout Muslim young man who also idealizes Che Guevara, an orphaned schoolgirl, and a middle-age tricycle driver named Usman, who continues to grieve for his lost family as he sits forlornly on the concrete pad of their former house by the ocean. It's a beautiful setting except that his wife and children were swept away, never to be found again. Serambi plays the PFA at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 18.

The scenario of Richie Mehta's Amal resembles a relic from the early days of cinema. An eccentric billionaire, fond of wandering the streets of New Delhi in shabby clothes and singing Indian classical songs in cafes, suddenly dies and bequeaths his hotel fortune to the title motorized rickshaw driver, "the one honest man" that the eccentric (veteran player Naseeruddin Shah) met in his travels. This does not sit well with the billionaire's playboy sons, nor with the lawyer (Roshan Seth from Monsoon Wedding, A Passage to India, etc.) obliged to seek out the unsuspecting Amal and make him a rich man. Meanwhile, saintly rickshaw man Amal (Rupinder Nagra) just goes on being his usual humble, gentle self to everyone he meets, including his regular customer, a lovely merchant named Pooja (Koel Purie). The story ends perfectly, and en route we're treated to a lively tour of the crowded Indian metropolis by filmmaker Mehta.

Alongside Brillante Mendoza's harshly realistic dramas of the Philippines, Ron Morales' Santa Mesa (aka Following Rosa) looks like a Nickelodeon after-school special. US-based writer-director Morales would have us believe that twelve-year-old Phil-Am boy Hector (Jacob Kiron Shalov) is somehow shipped from the States to Manila after his mother dies to live with his grandmother (Angie Ferro), whom he's never met. Once we swallow that, or not, the story proceeds along reverse-fish-out-of-water lines as Hector, who's pudgier than most Filipino boys, experiences life on those mean streets with the neighborhood tough kids, a local girlfriend, and a mentoring ex-pat (Jaime Tirelli) who teaches him photography. Sweet but improbable, with mucho local color.

Other films worth catching at the fest: Zhang Lu's slow, deliberate, taciturn, rather solemn drama Desert Dream from Mongolia. The South Korean/Mongolian/French production tells of Hungai, a farmer and herdsman living in a yurt at the edge of the desert that is slowly taking over the once-grassy steppes, and what happens when his wife and child leave for the city and a North Korean refugee woman and her child arrive soon after. Nobuhiro Yamashita's A Gentle Breeze in the Village is the quiet, minutely observed story of a provincial high-school girl named Soyo and her coming of age — first kiss, self-doubt, trip to the big city, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, the adults around Soyo seem to have more interesting lives.

In her documentary Wings of Defeat, Japanese American Risa Morimoto examines the whys and wherefores of kamikaze (aka tokkotai) pilots in WWII, whose self-sacrifice in crashing their planes into American ships accomplished little other than to underline the overwhelming militarism of Japanese society during that war. Pilots who sank US ships were revered as gods, but of the kamikaze survivors Ms. Morimoto interviews, most are ashamed of their roles as pawns. Declares one man, who blames the emperor for the war: "They treated people's lives like waste paper." Also from Japan is the lightweight art documentary Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara, an otherwise worthwhile chronicle of the work methods and exhibitions of the eponymous artist, who specializes in big, sad-eyed creatures on the walls of shack-like installations.

Meanwhile in New York, the mixed-up wife (Vera Farmiga) of a successful but depressed Korean-American businessman (David L. McInnis) goes off the deep end when she learns her husband's low sperm count means they can't have the baby they want. Without telling her spouse, she engages a look-alike Korean working man (Jung-Woo Ha) to, uh, fill the bill instead. Things go horribly wrong, of course. The distressingly titled Never Forever, written and directed by Gina Kim, plays the PFA on Sunday, March 16 at 7:50 p.m.

The Asian American Film Festival opens on Thursday, March 13 (7 p.m.) at the Castro with a showing of Wayne Wang's latest, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, starring Henry O and Faye Yu. The versatile, underappreciated director receives a mini-retrospective (The Joy Luck Club, Life Is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive, The Princess of Nebraska) during the fest, as does the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, whose 1991 epic A Brighter Summer Day screens at the Clay in SF. For full program details, visit: AsianAmericanMedia.org.

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