Shoestring wonder: A critic finds Brillante Mendoza's "Foster Child" both dramatically cohesive and beautifully shot. (Photo courtesy SFIAAFF/CAAM)

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Max Goldberg March 18, 2008

Cherry blossoms overflow the sidewalks and strangers suddenly seem willing to make eye contact. Spring in San Francisco, which, for the local film fan, means the start of festival season, a parade of one-time-only screenings running from the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival all the way up to July’s Silent Film Festival weekend. Now in its 26th year, SFIAAFF has grown from being a niche event to a major contender on the international festival circuit—with more than enough voices and crossovers to justify its unwieldy moniker.

It’s been clear for some time now that some of the world’s best films come from Asia, and SFIAAFF is invaluable first and foremost as a clearinghouse for these often hard-to-see movies. Beyond this, the real substance of Chi-hui Yang’s and Taro Goto’s (the festival’s director and assistant director) reliably eclectic programming lies in the way it emphasizes the transnational realities of film production, and, indeed, the changing tides of what “International Asian-American Film” means. Among this year’s featured guests are a Bay Area filmmaker originally from Hong Kong (Wayne Wang) and a Hong Kong actor originally from Berkeley (Daniel Wu). Before he helped spark the Taiwanese New Wave in the ’80s, festival tributee Edward Yang made his living in Seattle, while several of films by young Korean Americans in the festival were produced with Korean backing. They’re fascinating threads to follow, likely to be explored at length in a few months when Chi-hui Yang’s programs a prestigious Flaherty Seminar on the theme of “The Age of Migration.”

But for now we’re still in California, stuck figuring out where to eat between screenings at the spiffed up Sundance Kabuki and Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. In spite of the usual MUNI woes, I managed a pretty decent schedule for opening weekend, with more hits than misses.

As a longtime San Francisco filmmaker and sensitive narrator of Asian American stories, Wayne Wang was a natural choice for opening night. The director presented his latest film, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, to a packed house at the Castro. Adding to the local flavor was the fact that both this film and its companion work, The Princess of Nebraska (also at the festival), were adapted from stories by Yiyun Li, a young Chinese American novelist who teaches at Oakland’s Mills College. Wang has moved to broader mainstream productions over the last few years (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday), so it’s something of a relief to see him back to the unassuming, small-scale filmmaking which made earlier efforts like Chan is Missing and Smoke shine. Introducing a press screening of the new films, Wang seemed content to have taken a break from the studio grind. It shows in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, one of his most relaxed features in years and a gift to Henry O, an older actor usually limited to bit parts. He plays Mr. Shi, a Beijing widow visiting his Americanized daughter (Faye Yu) in Spokane after her own marriage has crumbled. Mostly comprised of quiet dialogues in Yilan’s sterilized apartment, the film sputters a bit as it reaches for its ultimate detente, but several early scenes (especially the ones over food) are no less sharp for being subdued—Wang continues to a patient unraveler of intergenerational relationships.

A slight mist brushed over Civic Center Plaza on Thursday night as well-heeled throngs waited to get into the opening gala at the Asian Art Museum. A loud rock trio played off a generator, and flashbulbs and minefields of conversation gave the queue something of a Fellini flavor. Once inside, patrons schmoozed and plundered large tables of sushi and dumplings. After asking a couple of people what they were excited to see, I swilled my seltzer and escaped into the night.

Most of us, after all, are here for the movies before the mixers. I rode the 38 over to the Kabuki for the first selection on Friday’s program, A Gentle Breeze in the Village. Japanese director Nobuhiro Yamashita previously won attention for his fan-favorite chronicle of a girl rock band, Linda Linda Linda, and returns to female adolescence in this altogether more delicate creation. The film centers on Soyo, the oldest of six students in a country school. A coiffed boy from Tokyo arrives at the start of a new school year, and Soyo struggles to reconcile her responsibilities with a newfound crush. It’s small enough to seem trite, except that Yamashita pays close enough attention to the rhythms and details of the rural town to bring us into that atmosphere of self-absorption (and revelation) which links all adolescence. There is a drama played amongst the town’s adults which occurs in the periphery of Soyo’s narration, but it’s in those voiceover passages in which she pauses to examine nervousness, misunderstandings and delight that A Gentle Breeze in the Village really takes off, never more than in a final time-bending, flickering camera movement bridging Soyo’s becoming. Compare Yamashita’s film with Little Miss Sunshine, and you’ll wish there was more justice to film distribution.

Saturday got off to a bit rougher start, as early-bird St. Patrick’s Day revelers clogged public transportation and, alas, spilled a little beer on my shoe. Instead of diving right in with the movies that day, I ducked in to two concurrent discussions. The first, moderated by Goto, invited Ted Kim (an executive for the Korean-based CH Entertainment), Andrew Ooi (a talent agent specializing in Asian American actors) and Daniel Wu (star of SFIAAFF selection, Blood Brothers) to discuss their perspectives on the increased frequency with which Asian-Americans are looking to Asia for acting opportunities, funding and audiences. Much of this boils down to simple economics of scale, with no one missing out on the fact that China’s exploding urban class signals new markets and priorities. The three panelists’ distinct perspectives on the movie business provided a multidimensional look at this rapidly evolving territory, with Wu providing wisely comic stories about being called “white boy” on Hong Kong film sets and being asked to caricaturize an Asian accent on an American production (“They still haven’t figured it out,” Wu said in regards to Hollywood’s disinterest in Asian-American audiences.).

The “Crossing Over” panel got into film as an import/export proposition, while New York Times film critic Denis Lim’s interview with Wayne Wang was all about aesthetics. Instead of parsing his own accomplishments (a favorite pastime for many filmmakers), Wang opted to screen long clips from those movies which had the greatest impact on him. I was only able to stay for three (scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine-Feminine, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story), but it was a treat to hear Wang weave formal appreciations of these masters with autobiographical recollections of how he first encountered them. Count Wang as another cinephile nurtured by the Pacific Film Archive, where he frequently went to movies as a student at CCA in the ’70s. He linked Antonioni’s penchant for existential detective stories with his own breakthrough film, Chan is Missing, and spoke reverently about Ozu’s domestic dramas, reflecting that, “When I found Ozu, it seemed like I found my place, like I found my home.”

I would have like to stay to see more of Wang’s clips, but festival schedules are unforgiving, and so it was that your intrepid reporter made a beeline from Tokyo Story to the most hotly anticipated screening of the day: what else, but Harold and Kumar Escape >From Guantanamo Bay. A festival volunteer told me tickets to the West Coast premier were going for up to $60 on the Internet, which fairly boggles the mind, though hype works in mystifying ways. The sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle aims low with its unrelenting pageant of raunchiness (bowels are cleared and semen spurted by the end of the opening credits; the new H+K is further proof that blow-jobs are the new banana peel in American slapstick), but co-stars Kal Penn and John Cho’s easy rapport and the script’s simultaneous skewering of bigotry and political correctness give the film a nice push through the picaresque chain of gags. Cho breezily chatted up the audience after the film, and even if it was mostly fluff (something about H+K really being an “independent” movie), fans seemed to soak it up.

A Saturday night sell-out at the Pacific Film Archive seemed equally responsive to South Korean revenge master Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) latest, I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK, though I wasn’t amongst the admirers. The film, which narrates the gee-whiz wacky romance of two mental patients, isn’t as bloody as Chan-wook’s previous features, but every bit as bodily oriented, with a steady stream of extreme close-ups and tricked-out compositions making mental illness come off as a carnival ride. Minus the violence—which, however gratuitous, at least sparked conversation—Chan-wook’s plastic, obligingly “weird” style seems positively vacuous.

Watching I’m a Cyborg, but that’s OK, I couldn’t help but thinking of all the money that had been wasted on pointless onscreen chicanery, a world away from Brillante Mendoza’s shoestring wonder, Foster Child. Mendoza effectively reworks the tenants of Italian neo-realism, establishing a simple, implicating situation (a family readies their young foster son to be handed off to his adopting parents, an older couple from San Francisco) and letting the camera roll in the slums of his native Manila. And does he ever let it roll—as with the film’s companion piece, Slingshot (also screening at SFIAAFF and also excellent), Mendoza’s handheld moves through the crowded shacks and alleys in breathless long-takes teeming with lives, color and peripheral stories. Foster Child is the more dramatically cohesive of the two films, not least because of Cherry Pie Picache’s big-hearted performance as John-John’s foster mother. When Mendoza momentarily halts the film’s restless rove to allow this maternal affection to flower over a bath or a bowl of rice, Mendoza’s film seems less a slice-of-life drama than a tender tribute to motherhood.

Mendoza is frequently cited as one of several adventurous, socially engaged filmmakers working in the Philippines today. There have been several Asian “new waves” over the last few decades, though perhaps still none so aesthetically refined as the crop of Taiwanese filmmakers which emerged in the ’80s and ’90s. Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were ideal ambassadors of this movement, producing films which channeled European art cinema and Ozu-like repose in Taiwanese-specific narratives. The two were more than collegial, sharing talent and funding (Hou famously mortgaged his house to help play for the The Terrorizer, Yang’s magnificent patchwork of urban ennui which played at the Pacific Film Archive on Friday night).

Yang died this past year at the early age of 57, giving SFIAAFF cause to revive three of his old films (The Terrorizer, A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi). Meanwhile, Hou turns up with his latest side-winding masterwork, an extended riff on Albert Lamorisse’s beloved short The Red Balloon, made at the behest of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay. Watching The Terrorizer and Flight of the Red Balloon over the weekend was a special treat—and proof positive that if a film movement is only as good as its enactors, the Taiwanese New Wave certainly ranks in the upper echelons thanks to these two cine-poets. Hou’s film, which inscribes an outsider’s perspective of Paris’s beauty on something as ephemeral as a set of red curtains, will have a general theatrical release a couple of months after its second SFIAAFF screening this Saturday at the Pacific Film Archive. Yang’s Yi Yi is available as a Criterion DVD, but no such luck with A Brighter Summer Day, the director’s 1991 historical epic (a film with “a novelistic richness of character, setting, and milieu unmatched by any other 90s film,” according to Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum), making a rare appearance at the festival in its full four-hour cut.