"Life," relived: Wayne Wang gets the spotlight at SFIAAFF, with new films and a reprise of the classic "Life is Cheap... but Toilet Paper is Expensive." (Photo courtesy CAAM)

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival 2008

Erika Young March 12, 2008

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is always nothing less than enticing. There’s pre-show dinner in Japantown; the noisy, neon-colored anticipation of a big show at the Castro; and you might drop in on a film like My Secret Cache (Shinobu Yaguchi, SFIAAFF 1998) for nothing more than the words "Japanese" and "comedy," and have one of the worst laughing-fit moments of your life when the heroine, escaping from a holdup, runs into trouble (two words: air bag).

Or you might buy a ticket for The Dream Catcher (Ed Radtke, SFIAAFF 2000), not expecting much more than a darkened theater and the occasional Junior Mint, and leave struck by the impressionistic feeling of how painterly, wide-open spaces compare to an identity that’s open to interpretation.

The 26th annual SFIAAFF, playing from March 13–23 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose, kicks off with Wayne Wang’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, based on the book by Oakland-based writer Yiyun Li (currently a visiting professor at Mills College).

Marking Wang’s return to independent film after a 15-year stretch in Hollywood, the film shows alongside three of his other films: The Joy Luck Club, a new cut of Life Is Cheap… but Toilet Paper Is Expensive, and The Princess of Nebraska, Wang’s companion film, set in San Francisco, to A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers.

Festival director Chi-hui Yang particularly recommends Life Is Cheap…but Toilet Paper Is Expensive. "It’s so rare to see, it has a new cut—it’s so different from his other films," he said. Wang said the new version is shorter by a few scenes, with "some of the more gratuitous parts" cut out.

Which might make the film’s lead actor, documentary director Spencer Nakasako, happy to hear. Reflecting on his experience in the film—his first and only time acting—he said, "I gotta tip my hat to Wayne. I’m not a real actor. To Wayne’s credit, I’m not quite sure why he took a chance on me. I don’t think I would’ve."

"Guys like Victor Wong, my wife Laureen, Laureen’s mom… they’re naturals. I just did things. ‘Walk there, look there.’ What I learned is that it really increased my respect that acting is a craft, and I couldn’t just get out there and wing it. It’s a serious pursuit."

Nakasako, who is particularly known for his 15 years of dedicated mentoring and film production with the Tenderloin’s Vietnamese Youth Development Center, said that when he worked with the kids, "I always made them get in front of the camera so they knew what it felt like, and I don’t know that I would’ve done that if I hadn’t been in Life Is Cheap."

Whether it’s a Chinese actress with extensive American experience turning to Australia for her next film, or a Korean-American director receiving funding from a leading South Korean production company (West 32nd, Michael Kang, USA/South Korea, 2007), more and more films are securing financing overseas. Festival director Chi-hui Yang points out closing night film The Home Song Stories, starring Joan Chen (Tony Ayres, Australia, 2007), as a particular example.

"This film is basically built for her," said Yang. "The idea of American independent films is really changing. I think that Asian Americans are more comfortable going overseas for financing than they used to be… there used to be a fear of audiences confusing Asians with Asian Americans, and I think that’s no longer the case."

Of course, nothing says true cross-culturalism and representation like the hunt for a mess of White Castle burgers and a little baggie of green, and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, directed by co-writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (USA, 2008), will show at the Castro this Saturday in all its chronic glory.

"I really liked it," said Yang. "I thought it was even better [than the first one]. The filmmaking is better, the writing is better. It’s more political, and it pushes more buttons. They didn’t fall into the trappings of the genre."

"I think their inexperience is to their benefit. They’re not simply recreating a teen stoner comedy."

Yang, a sure candidate for Coolest iPod in The Room, has also curated his annual live music program Directions In Sound: Notes from The Asian American Underground. A blend of electro-pop and indie rock, global dub, dancehall, funk, Brit-pop and even "global slut psy-hop," the program takes place at 111 Minna and the Rickshaw Stop on two separate nights.

Ready to roll out of the club and back into the theater? Club-kids, hipsters and artists alike are sure to enjoy Koji Sakabe’s Traveling With Yoshitomo Nara (Japan, 2007), which follows the renowned artist on a marathon 240-day international road trip to create his largest work yet.

For those who want a chance to interact with the filmmakers themselves, there’s a compelling series of panels and discussions over the weekend: Crossing Over: Asian Americans And Asia, A Conversation With Iris Yamashita, featuring the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, and Dialogue: The Hypersexuality of Race with Celine Parreñas Shimizu, curated and led by Shimizu, the associate professor of Asian American, Film, and Women’s Studies at UC Santa Barbara. The program is an exploration and discussion of sexual depictions of "Asian/American" women in film, video and theater.

Bringing kids? Be sure to check out the free family screening of an episode of Ni Hao, Kai-lan!, the new bilingual animated series from Nick Jr. and the Nickelodeon channel. Creator and animator Karen Chau will be there, but be sure to get there early, as seats are limited. "It’s really exciting to see a major content provider [do this]," said Yang. "There’s so little content being made for young audiences."

Meanwhile, the Narrative Competition showcases everything from Ron Morales’ Santa Mesa (USA/Philippines, 2008), where a young Filipino American—unable to speak Tagalog—returns "home" after the death of his mother, and Ping Pong Playa, (USA, 2007) Oscar winner Jessica Yu’s debut in the world of wacky cultural comedies.

There’s also a huge International Showcase, stuffed with fascinating features, such as Royston Tan’s 881 ("If ABBA could sing in Hokkien, they might have auditioned for 881…"), a film that the catalog describes as an "exuberant re-creation of the campy and uniquely Singaporean" musical performance known as getai.

Alexi To’s period noir Blood Brothers (Hong Kong, 2007), starring Hong Kong actor/Orinda native Daniel Wu, Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, and actress Shu Qi, promises glitzy underworld crime drama in 1930s Shanghai, while crimes of another sort—cultural and psychological—unfold in Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame, Hana Makhmalbaf’s film about the children affected by the violence in present-day Afghanistan.

In the Documentary Competition division, you’ll see everything from the swirling rhythms of breakdancing in Planet B-Boy (Benson Lee, USA, 2007) to the story of groundbreaking Asian American actress Anna May Wong in Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows (Elaine Mae Woo, USA, 2007).

And finally, lighter fare—"dessert," if you will—can be found in Derek Shimoda’s The Killing of a Chinese Cookie (USA, 2008), a humorous deconstruction of the history of the fortune cookie. This film interviews everyone from Giant Robot publisher Eric Nakamura to Steven Rodriguez, owner of the Los Quitos Cookie Company, who sells fortune cookies "in the shape of a taco."

And it only takes two words for P.F. Chang himself, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro owner Phillip Chiang, to show the difference between business (critics of his restaurants describe bland-ish, Westernized Chinese food) and individual personality with his idea of who would write good cookie fortunes ("Richard Pryor?").