The Asian American Film Festival's Eastern Promises 

The annual festival puts you close to the fires of creativity.

We get the feeling that the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is happy with itself. And with good reason. The 27th annual edition of the fest appears to be humming like a smooth, well-oiled machine under the leadership of festival director Ch-hui Yang, Center for Asian American Media executive director Stephen Gong, and their adventurous cadre of programmers. Even the relative disappointments are at least stimulating enough to provoke a late-night discussion over a cup of genmai cha.

More about the disappointments below, but first let's take a look at a few of the 2009 festival's obvious triumphs. This year's SFIAAF is a good opportunity to see some world-class filmmakers up close. Ang Lee, one of this country's finest directors, appears in person next Tuesday, March 17, at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium (7 p.m.), to host a showing of his provocative 2007 drama, Lust, Caution, with a discussion afterwards. A few days earlier, on Saturday, March 14 (3:30 p.m.), in the Sakura Room of the Hotel Kabuki in SF's Japantown, screenwriter Alex Tse talks about his work — including Spike Lee's Sucker Free City and the newly released fantasy blunderbuss Watchmen — with filmmaker Spencer Nakasako. And what should prove to be an intimate encounter with one of the world's quirkiest and most fascinating cinematic minds happens Saturday at 6 p.m., when Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa appears at the Pacific Film Archive on the UCB campus for a screening of his latest, Tokyo Sonata (you'll have to race over the bridge from the Tse event).

Tokyo Sonata opens commercially on March 27 and I'll review it at length then, but in the meantime the Asian American is conducting its own crash course on Kurosawa at three separate venues. Kurosawa is best known in this country as the mad genius behind the virally influential J-horror items Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but his lengthy filmography encompasses more than just ghosts scaring the pants off twentysomethings.

In a career that goes back to 1973, the 53-year-old Kurosawa mastered a neat row of crowd-pleasing genres — "pink" sex flicks, yakuza crime actioners, youth-market horror — before his breakthrough success with Pulse evidently allowed him to pursue more personal, and more subtly unnerving, projects such as Doppelgänger and Bright Future. Since then, the grotesque shocks have subsided into a permanent case of queasy, ultra-modern melancholia for the writer-director's characters — of which Tokyo Sonata (made in 2008) is the grandest example yet.

The obvious place to begin your study of Kurosawa is with Pulse, screening Sunday, March 15 (8 p.m.) at the PFA. In addition, the festival has gone the extra distance to bring in a quartet of rarely seen earlier Kurosawas. The Revenge: A Visit from Fate and its putative sequel, The Revenge: The Scar that Never Fades (both made in 1997 and both playing the PFA on March 18) follow a vengeance-seeking Tokyo cop on his grim mission to get the turf-warring yakuza hoods who killed his family. People are constantly rushing in out of nowhere and shooting other people — it becomes kind of comical.

Kurosawa's late-'90s films worked the same sick-and-twisted side of the street as those of fellow J-shock helmer Takashi Miike. The prolific Kurosawa was still finding his style in the Revenge films. By the time the next matched pair of gangster films were released in 1998 — Eyes of the Spider and Serpent's Path ( they show Friday, March 13 at the Castro) — he had refined his narrative sense and moved into slightly different territory, where the things unseen were frequently more disturbing than the graphic violence. All four of the above star Sho Aikawa, the Great Stone Face, staring out at the haphazardly ugly world from behind his shades like a deadly Japanese Roy Orbison. As a bonus, the SFIAAF rounds out its Kurosawa seven-pack with arguably the first of the director's "modern life in ruins" dramas, License to Live (1998), the forlornly absurdist family story of a young man who awakens from a ten-year coma to find everything changed, featuring Hidetoshi Nishijima and Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho. It plays the Kabuki on Saturday, March 14, 1 p.m.

Into every film festival a little rain must fall. The unexpected drizzle on the SFIAAFF this year is H.P. Mendoza's Fruit Fly, the eagerly awaited follow-up to writer Mendoza's Colma. That 2007 indie musical bubbled with unexpected charm, imaginative production numbers, and plenty of gratifying local SF Peninsula touchstones in its panoramic story of three young friends finding their way out of the title cemetery suburb. No such luck in Mendoza's directorial debut, the tale of a Filipina-American performance artist named Bethesda (L.A. Renigen from Colma) trying to forge a career on the house-share fringes of SF's Castro neighborhood. It resembles a Broadway musical in training, a little more obvious than Colma and overloaded with clichés. If the songs are terrific, that can compensate for a lot. They're not terrific. Colma had a believable narrative flow to it. This one doesn't. Fruit Fly hits the wall early and never recovers. It receives its world premiere Sunday, March 15 (6:15 p.m.) at the Castro, with subsequent screenings at the PFA and the Camera.

One of the themes of this year's festival is depictions of "hapa," characters of mixed, half-Asian background. As a retro-nod to that theme and also as an object lesson in how far America has traveled in racial attitudes since the bad old days, Guy Green's 1962 interracial potboiler Diamond Head gets one more go-round at the Castro this Sunday, March 15 (noon). White man Charlton Heston, aptly cast as an energetic rightwing land baron in Hawaii who objects to his sister's (Yvette Mimieux) romance with hapa-haole James Darren on grounds of race-mixing, has a hypocritical secret stashed away — his Chinese mistress (France Nuyen), pregnant with a lil' El Cid. Whoo-ee. For best results, slug down a few mai tais before viewing. Cocktails may not help with another hapa film, Jennifer Phang's dreary social-problem drama Half-Life, in which a restless young half-Asian woman, her gay best friend, her frustrated mother, her confused brother, and her younger boyfriend all go bananas, restrainedly, in Walnut Creek. Entirely too earnest for its own good, it screens four times, beginning Friday night (8:20) at the PFA.

The festival's wide net extends to South Asia, with special programs devoted to filmmaking sister and brother Deepa and Dilip Mehta, as well as the US premiere of writer-director Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession, the affecting story of a South Indian silk weaver who resents the fact that he could never afford to own one of his creations, and who decides to do something about it (PFA; Saturday, March 14, 9 p.m.). Other good bets are writer-director Hashiguchi Ryosuke's All Around Us, a sensitive relationship drama from Japan about a buttoned-down publisher's rep named Shoko (Tae Kimura), a laid-back courtroom artist named Kanao (Lily Franky), and their lives together over a ten-year span; and The Speed of Life, filmmaker Ed Radtke's New Yorkish after-school special (but it's a good after-school special) featuring a troubled teenage boy named Sammer and his Asian-Am clique.

Also worth a peek: 24 City, an indisputably arty combo of documentary and narrative on a Chinese aircraft factory and the memories unleashed when it's dismantled, starring the ubiquitous Joan Chen; and The Mosque in Morgantown by documentarian Brittany Huckabee, an account of an ideological power struggle in the Muslim community of Morgantown, West Virginia. Yes, there is a Muslim community in that university town.

From the Philippines comes one of the fest's fascinating failures, Adela by Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., a soap-operatic melodrama starring former Filipino movie queen Anita Linda as a senior citizen reduced to living in a shack at a dumpsite, lost in dreams of the past and dreading each new indignity inflicted by her ungrateful family and friends. It shows this Friday, March 13 (6:30 p.m.) at the PFA. Another also-ran, Peng Lei's mock-impromptu The Panda Candy, demonstrates that Chinese youth now have enough disposable income to be just as vain and vacuous as their Western counterparts — hooray. Chinese slackers looking for love in all the wrong places. It world-premieres at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kabuki.

The festival opens Thursday, March 12 (7 p.m.) at the Castro with My Dear Enemy by director Lee Yoo-ki, a modern romantic drama set in Seoul. For more info and a complete schedule, visit: or


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