Monday, March 9, 2009

SFIAAFF 2009 Preview

The 27th 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is set to begin this Thursday, March 12. Since posting my overview of the line-up a few weeks ago, I've previewed 16 of this year's offerings. My capsule write-ups are below, more or less in order of favorite to least favorite. Overall it's a strong program, so even those at the bottom have things of value to recommend them. Coincidentally, the top five were all films I caught at press screenings, and the rest I saw on DVD screeners. Half are Hold Review (HR) titles, which means my praise or scorn is limited to a 75-word count.

My Dear Enemy (South Korea, dir. Lee Yoon-ki, HR)
(Opening Night Film)
A pissed-off woman (Jeon Do-yeon, Cannes Best Actress for Secret Sunshine) tries collecting an I.O.U. from her charming, but broke ex (Ha Jung-woo) in this, my favorite film of 2009 thus far. The pair's day-long Seoul odyssey takes them everywhere from a rooftop golf-driving range to a Hell's Angels hangout, as she drives and he attempts to borrow money from a series of female 'friends.' Assured direction, seamlessly comic performances and a smart crackling screenplay – this movie's got it all.

Treeless Mountain (USA/South Korea, dir. So Yong-kim, HR)
(Closing Night Film)
With a depth and complexity I found lacking in her much-praised debut In Between Days, So's masterful 2nd film sees the world through the eyes of two small girls who've been left in the care of an alcoholic aunt. More sad than harrowing, we watch as the sisters employ kid's logic to navigate circumstances they're powerless to control. So's directorial style contrasts extreme close-ups with open skies. She coaxes brilliantly naturalistic performances from her leads and rescues us all with a hopeful third act.

Tokyo! (France/Japan/South Korea/ Germany, dir. Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho, HR)
One city. Three directors. Three short films. In Carax' sublimely seditious tale, a primordial gnome exits the sewers to wreak Godzillian havoc – hurling grenades, snatching cigarettes and licking adolescent armpits. At his terrorism trial, Japanese society gets lambasted and a cult movement is born. In Gondry's hilarious yarn, a talent-less, insecure young woman with a pretentious filmmaker boyfriend copes by making a surreal physical transformation. In Bong's apocalyptic tragedy, an earthquake and a pizza delivery girl lure a hikkomori out of seclusion.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, HR)
A down-sized salaryman conceals unemployment from loved ones in this Cannes prize-winning, darkly comic take on the contemporary Japanese family. With two rebellious sons to support – the eldest has joined the US Army and the youngest is taking clandestine piano lessons – Dad's reduced to cleaning shopping mall toilets while Mom tries to hold everyone together. In the last half-hour, Kurosawa's narrative takes a dive off the deep end, the absurdities of which will either work for you, or not.

The Chaser (South Korea dir. Na Hong-jin)
In the tradition of grisly thrillers like Old Boy comes this Korean box office smash that's being fast-tracked for a Hollywood remake. When a hot-headed ex-police detective turned pimp discovers another of his 'girls' missing, he tracks down a regular customer he suspects of selling her to another pimp. After a heart-stopping chase through the back alleys of Seoul, both men wind up in police custody. The customer confesses to being a serial killer, and the film becomes a rip-roaring race to gather evidence before the idiotic cops release him for lack thereof.

Adroit, suspenseful and laced with a cracked sense of humor (the cops are more concerned with a guy who threw feces at the mayor), this is one helluva debut for first-time director/co-writer Na. There are some annoying clichés to contend with (such as a schmaltzy subplot involving an endangered kid), but they're negligible. Kim Yun-seok is riveting as the film's desperate anti-hero, and Ha Jung-woo proves he's one of the most versatile actors working anywhere with this portrait of a cagey killer. (Ha also stars in opening-nighter
My Dear Enemy, American indie Never Forever and Kim Ki-duk's Time and Breath.) Some words of warning: this film isn't for everyone. The serial killer's modus operandi is a hammer and chisel to the head, and one grueling scene had some press screening attendees fleeing for the exits.

Adela (Philippines dir. Adolfo Alix Jr.)

Adela is an 80-year-old slum-dweller and today is her birthday. As she prepares for a family celebration, the film's dawn-to-dusk time frame packs an absurd amount of activity into the old lady's day. She delivers a baby, goes to church, visits her husband's grave and visits a son in prison. She shops, irons, cooks, gets a manicure, eats in a cafe, attends a karaoke party – and still that ain't the half of it. Amazingly, all this unfolds at a laconic pace, with most of the film done in long shots with a strictly ambient soundtrack. (Adela is a former radio soap opera actress and we catch her listening to programs tellingly titled "You Ruined My Life" and "The Promise of a Better Tomorrow.")

Two things make this film unforgettable. The first is Filipino screen legend Anita Linda's modulated, un-showy performance in the title role. The buoyant air with which she starts the day transforms into dispirited melancholy as life and the day's disappointments bear down. In the heart-breaking final scene, she picnics alone on a secluded beach while the sun sets on her thwarted birthday plans. The other memorable aspect is the film's distinctive setting – a dusty dumpsite shantytown outside of Manila. Surrounded by mountains of garbage, a buzzing expressway, tranquil Manila Bay and non-stop air traffic overhead, the location could be considered the film's second main character. Director Alix conveys a clear sense of the rhythm of life there, and in his press notes states that the dumpsite "acts as a macrocosm of what seems to be pivotal to every Filipino nowadays – survival at all cost."

All Around Us(Japan, dir. Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
It's been eight years since Hashiguchi's last film, the LGBT-flavored Hush (although you still see its poster promoting Frameline at MUNI bus shelters around town). His latest offbeat opus tracks a 10-year rough patch in the history of a marriage and of a nation. It's 1993 and Shoko and Kanae seem a perfectly mismatched couple. She's controlling and emotional, and he's laid back and reserved. As the film's narrative skips over months (and sometimes years) we learn that at some point they lost an infant girl, an event that gradually causes Shoko to fall apart. Japan falls apart, too, recounted through Kanae's work as a courtroom sketch artist. We witness several trials based on real-life events of the time – from child-eating cannibals to the sarin gas subway attacks. Meanwhile, intermittent TV news reports focus on earthquakes, typhoons and economic slumps.

By the end of the film's sprawling 140-minute running time, Kanae and Shoko have worked through their marital issues (via art therapy of all things). As for Japan itself, I'm not so certain. This is a film I quite liked and might have loved had Hashiguchi narrowed his focus – way too much screen time is devoted to peripheral characters and inconsequential events. I was intrigued by his wry, almost light-hearted approach to tragedy, and his satirization of Japanese media and (I think) Japanese society as a whole. Best of all is the enigmatic performance of acclaimed writer/musician/illustrator/photographer Lily Franky as Kanae, an unassuming guy who's happy to stand by and just let life happen to him.

I previewed three of the six films competing in this year's SFIAAFF Documentary Competition, and chose biographical portraits of an actor, a politician and an artist over the three social issue-driven films. While none are ground-breaking exemplars of the documentary form, they all succeed at conveying who their subjects are, why they're important and why we should care.

You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story (USA dir. Jeff Adachi)
Jeff Adachi, better known is San Francisco's Public Defender, follows 2006's The Slanted Screen with this affectionate portrait of actor/comedian/singer Jack Soo. Born Goro Suzuki in 1917 Oakland, this 6' athletic, former class clown would spend WWII at Tanforan and Topaz internment camps. It was there that he honed his skills as an entertainer, which lead to eventual success in nightclubs, Broadway (Flower Drum Song), movies (The Green Berets) and TV (Barney Miller). In addition to interviews with family and friends, Adachi calls upon George Takei, Nancy Kwan, C.Y. Lee and Steve Landesberg to share their memories and reflections. We see some terrific archival material, including clips from the forgotten 1964 TV show Valentine's Day, in which Soo plays Tony Franciosa's wisecracking, hipster "houseboy." Finally, in the film's biggest surprise, Adachi reveals that it was Jack Soo, not Stevie Wonder who originally recorded "For Once in My Life" for Motown Records. Over at The Evening Class, Michael Guillén has posted a great interview with Adachi regarding this film.

Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority
(USA dir. Kimberlee Bassford)
She was the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress and a champion for the rights of women, minorities and the underprivileged. After seeing Bassford's film you'll be convinced she was also one of the most important women in U.S. political history. Mink was born Patsy Matsu Takemoto in 1927 and raised in the canefields of Kauai. Upon graduating class valedictorian in 1944, she attended the University of Nebraska and was assigned to the dorm for "foreign" students. This became her first civil rights battle, as she led a coalition forcing the school to end its segregated student housing policy. After no U.S. medical school would admit her, she decided it was more important to change the law and attended the University of Chicago Law School (gaining entrance on the foreign student quota). Her early political career was closely aligned with the struggle for Hawaiian statehood, and in 1965 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of 12 terms.

Here are some reasons why you've gotta love her: She was an early opponent of the Viet Nam War and traveled to Paris with Bella Abzug to discuss peace with North Vietnamese officials (earning her the nickname Patsy Pink). In 1972, she co-authored Title IX (renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act shortly after her death in 2002), the revolutionary legislation which forced colleges and universities to give women equal access to admissions, scholarships and sports programs. In 1994 she led the fight against Clinton's welfare "reform" and in 2001 voted against the Patriot Act. Director Bassford documents all this with clarity and conviction, calling on Mink's former Congressional aids and fellow lawmakers (such as Maxine Waters) to round out her portrait. My only complaints are with the overly fawning narration and occasional trite music cues.

Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe (USA dir. Harry Kim, HR)
"I make art for people who don't give a fuck about art," rages Korean-American David Choe. 90 minutes later we learn a $2.5 million 2008 gallery show sold out – a perfect symbol of this guy's extremes and contradictions. Shot over seven years, Kim's insular film documents Choe's Congo dinosaur hunt, his Japanese prison stint, the lesbian porn writing, his conversion to Jesus and yes, his art, executed with aerosol spray paint, blood, urine and soy sauce. All that's missing is an outsider's perspective to it all.

24 City (China, Hong Kong, Japan, dir. Jia Zheng-ke, HR)
The dismantling of a city-sized munitions factory and its toll on displaced workers is the latest subject for China's top filmmaker, riffing once again on the human consequences of modernization. Workers, some real and some played by actors, deliver monologues about their lives – a suspicious gimmick that brings mixed results. Jia has a magnificent eye for composition and ironic visual counterpoint which frequently shines here, but unfortunately this is minor stuff compared with 2006's transcendent Still Life.

Serpent's Path (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Eyes of the Spider (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
License to Live (Japan, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
In 1998, tucked in between the previous year's career-high of Cure and the following year's baffling Charisma, Kiyoshi Kurosawa directed three features which are all part of this year's SFIAAFF tribute. Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider are two of a kind. They're both off-kilter deconstructions of yakuza genre films and were shot back-to-back with the same cast (including Tokyo Sonata's Teruyuki Kagawa) and same basic premise – a man seeks revenge for the murder of his young daughter. I watched them with interest and took delight in their more outwardly absurdist elements. But they were ultimately too inscrutable, leaving me to wonder if I really "got" them. I'll be anxious to hear Kurosawa-san himself introduce the films when they screen as a double-bill at the Castro on Friday the 13th. But for now I'll kindly direct your attention to The Evening Class, where Professor Guillén obviously did get them and articulately explains it to you all.

License to Live is a bit more commonsensical, a relative term in Kurosawa's world. A young man awakens from a 10-year coma and is guided home by an old family friend (Koji Yakusho). The homestead is now a dumping ground with an on-site carp farm, and the two men dabble in transforming it into a dude ranch-cum-roadside milk bar. The young man literally gets dragged into adulthood (driving lessons and a whorehouse), while family members mysteriously drift in and out of the picture. A visit from the man responsible for the coma sets off a calamitous finale, and once again, head-scratching, existential absurdity reigns supreme.

High Noon (Hong Kong, dir. Heiward Mak, HR)
The antics and hard knocks of seven teen delinquents mark this ambitious if overloaded debut by 24-year-old Mak. Bursting with undeniable youthful energy, the film exploits every imaginable teen issue (drugs, gangs, suicide, V.D., shoplifting, prostitution, parental neglect/abuse) and every imaginable cinematic device (slow-mo, fast-mo, animation, color filters, handheld, sound effects). Within the mayhem, however, lies an earnest heart not easily dismissed. Translated subtitles of colloquial-heavy dialogue are problematic.

The Panda Candy (China, dir. Peng Lei)
A lesbian and a bi-curious gal share post-coital chit-chat in this film's opening, then meet at the end for a softcore sapphic flashback. In between they search for something like love with a string of inappropriate partners. Both women are pretty humorless, so it's fortunate for us that the bi-girl meets two hilariously annoying men – a deatbeat porn-addicted skateboarder and a pushy self-absorbed poet. Director Peng hails from the Beijing new-wave band New Pants and there's vitality in the way he edits music to his images. Most of the scenes and dialogue appear to be improvised, and unfortunately the results run tediously flat as often as not. The videography is frequently gorgeous, but I have to ask, what's up with all the 90° camera tilts. Finally, if you have a fetish for watching women exhale cigarette smoke, boy is this film for you.


Vicci said...

The SFIAAFF 2009 screening of THE PANDA CANDY will have new subtitles!


Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for the info, Vicci. That'll help immensely.