The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) unveiled the line-up for its 28th annual event last week, during a press conference at VIZ Cinema. The snazzy, state-of-the-art subterranean Japantown theater that opened last summer will serve as a supplemental venue for this year's fest. Festival Director Chi-hui Yang, Assistant Director Vicci Ho and Program Manager Christine Kwon took turns spotlighting the impressive roster of 109 films – 44 of them narrative and documentary features – as well as some of the special events celebrating the 30th anniversary of CAAM (Center for Asian American Media). Sadly, this will be Yang's 10th and final year as director, but it's fun to see him go out with a starring role in this year's festival trailer.
One of the strands running through 2010's festival is a Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema, the highlight of which is a long overdue tribute to Lino Brocka. Openly gay and often at odds with Ferdinand Marcos' regime, Brocka directed 60-plus films between 1970 and his death in 1991, most of them melodramas with a social/political bent. To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of one-off screenings of 1988's Macho Dancer (for better or worse, his best known film in the U.S.), the Bay Area hasn't seen a Brocka film since the SF International Film Festival (SFIFF) showed Dirty Affair in 1992. (And if memory serves, the screening I attended got cancelled after the film broke midway through). Even the venerable Pacific Film Archive lists only one Brocka screening in its entire online archive; again the 1992 SFIFF presentation of Dirty Affair.
The SFIAAFF mini-retrospective consists of only four films, but they seem very well chosen. Yang explained that SFIAAFF wanted to program more, but prints were extremely hard to acquire. 1975's Manila in the Claws of Neon is a neo-noir about a country boy in the mean city, which I first saw at the 1980 SFIFF under the title Manila in the Claws of Darkness. (Oddly, the film is a.k.a. Manila in the Claws of Light). SFIFF also screened Brocka's mother-from-hell masterpiece Insiang in 1984, but I missed it. Bayan Ko is the film that got Brocka's Filipino citizenship revoked, and a print had to be smuggled out of the county for its competition screening at Cannes in 1984. The fourth selection is 1974's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (what a title!). All four films will be screened in 16mm or 35mm prints.
The rest of SFIAAFF's Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema can be found scattered throughout the line-up. Classic Filipino American Shorts is, well, exactly that. From this year's Documentary Competition comes Ninoy Aquino & the Rise of People Power, about the revolutionary leader, political prisoner, exile and martyr to the cause of Philippine democracy. Manilatown is in the Heart – Time Travel with Al Robles is part of the CAAM@30 Documentary Showcase and the latest from director Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). From the Narrative Competition we have the world premiere of Gerry Balasta's The Mountain Thief, a docudrama about one family's struggle to live amidst a garbage dumpsite. And finally, the one I'm most looking forward to, Raya Martin's hyper-stylized allegory of early 20th century American colonialism, Independencia. Oh, and be sure to check out the fest's Filipino or Not mobile phone game app.
Apart from the Brockas, there's one other revival in the fest – an Out of the Vaults screening of Kim Ki-young's 1960 shocker The Housemaid. Released the same year as Hitchcock's Psycho, it's been described as "making Fatal Attraction look like The Brady Bunch" and proves that transgression in Korean cinema didn't begin with Kim Ki-duk or Park Chan-wook. The 35mm print being screened at the Castro is a recent restoration done by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and the Korean Film Archive. Folks into this type of thing might also want to check out the contempo Indonesian urban horror film, The Forbidden Door, being presented as a Midnight Show at Landmark's Clay Theater.
Although Iran falls within SFIAAFF's definition of "Asian," films from that country are only intermittently represented in the festival – Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly in 2005 is the last one I remember. This year they've programmed About Elly, for which Asghar Farhadi won the Best Director prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival. I caught this psychological thriller about a group of middle-class Tehranites on seaside holiday at last month's Palm Springs Film Festival, and recommend it highly. To my dismay, the Palm Springs screening was digital, so I look forward to seeing it again in 35mm. (This is as good a place as any to specially commend SFIAAFF for always showing 35mm prints where possible and being totally upfront in their catalog about the format for each presentation. No other major festival I know bothers to do this!) Also from Iran this year is Tehran Without Permission, a documentary collage on life in Iran's capital city, shot entirely on a Nokia camera phone just before last summer's civil unrest.
Of all the new narrative features in the fest, I'm most anticipating City of Life and Death from Chinese director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol), one of five films in the Special Presentations section. This dramatization of the Nanking Massacre got yanked from Palm Springs by the Chinese government because the fest refused to withdraw a pro-Dalai Lama documentary. The film's U.S. theatrical release was set to begin March 31, but it's been cancelled because distributor National Geographic Entertainment is "still in negotiations with the Chinese Film Board." So if you're interested in seeing this, you'd best do it at SFIAAFF. Be sure to check out some schedule changes that directly affect this particular film. On a related note, the festival is also showing a documentary about Japanese use of biological weapons and human experimentation during the occupation years (Lessons of the Blood).
Apart from About Elly, Independencia and The Forbidden Door, I've got my eye on several other selections from the festival's International Showcase section. Although the drunken, infantile protagonists of Hong Sang-soo's films get on my nerves big-time, I wouldn't think of missing his latest, Like You Know It All, in which a Korean art-film director serves on a festival jury. The groundbreaking Thai film Mundane History just won a Tiger Award at the recent Rotterdam Film Festival, and concerns a male nurse and his invalid charge. For this year's Bollywood-at-the-Castro night, SFIAAFF has chosen Love Aaj Kal, starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padulone in an Indian re-imagining of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times. Talentime is the final film from beloved Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, who died prematurely at age 41 last summer, and The Message is a lavish, all-star Chinese historical drama set during WWII. Finally, I rarely attend shorts programs at film festivals, but when the directors involved represent the cream of Asian filmmaking, I'll be there. What We Talk About When We… is comprised of short films from Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zheng-ke and the aforementioned Hong Sang-soo.
SFIAAFF is one my favorite festivals for documentaries, and there are many intriguing titles spread across its Documentary Showcase, CAAM 30th Anniversary Showcase and Documentary Competition. Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang (The Blood of Yingzhou District) returns to SFIAAFF with A Moment in Time, a look back at the golden era of Chinatown movie theaters. Agrarian Utopia is an acclaimed, lyrical portrait of rice farming in Thailand. As part of Spotlight: Frieda Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), we get to see her latest work, Lt. Watada, about the Japanese-American soldier who refused deployment to Iraq. Aoki tells the story Richard Aoki, a Japanese-American who was a founding member and Field Marshall for the Black Panther Party. A Village Called Versailles focuses on New Orleans' Vietnamese community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, while Hana, Dul, Sed… looks at North Korea's champion women's soccer team. There'll also be a work-in-progress screening of The Bonesetter's Daughter: Making of an Opera, about the creation of San Francisco Opera's recent lauded adaptation of Amy Tan's novel. The screening is free for CAAM members and the audience will be asked to provide feedback to director David Petersen.
Finally, here are mentions of some remaining SFIAAFF presentations/events I've yet to touch upon. The festival opens with Today's Special and closes with Au Revoir Taipei. Actor Aasif Mandvi, star of the opening night movie and "Senior Foreign-Looking Correspondent" on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, will be feted with a special An Afternoon With. This year's Centerpiece Film is The People I've Slept With, an Asian-American sex comedy from director Quentin Lee (Shopping For Fangs, Ethan Mao). Seven narrative features "by or about Asian Americans or Asian Canadians" will be vying for the top prize in this year's Narrative Competition. Directions in Sound is the festival's annual underground music event, and Festival Forum is an all-day-and-evening happening with live performances, interactive storytelling and screenings in Japantown's Peace Plaza. Details for these two events are here.
* * * * *
I always find it interesting to consider which films didn't get programmed for a particular festival, so in closing, here are some words on films I incorrectly assumed/hoped would be a part of SFIAAFF28. Because of this year's focus on Filipino Cinema, I was certain Brillante Mendoza's two new films would be programmed. Both Kinatay (a horrifying tale of a prostitute's kidnapping and dismemberment that won Mendoza a Best Director Award at Cannes) and Lola (about the ramifications of a crime on two elderly women), were on YBCA curator Joel Shepard's 2009 Best Of list, so maybe we'll see them there. While the fest included Raya Martin's Independencia, they passed on Manila, his collaboration with Adolfo Alix Jr. (Adela), which also screened at Cannes. I'd also hoped to see Filipino director Pepe Diokno's Clash, which won the Horizons Award last year at Venice.
Besides Kinatay, I'd anticipated two other 2009 Cannes Competition entries: Lou Ye's (Suzhou River, Summer Palace) gay-themed Spring Fever, which won a Best Screenplay award for its writer Feng Mei, and Johnnie To's Vengeance, starring veteran French rock n' roller Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps Spring Fever will show up at Frameline in June. And will Nymph, which screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, become the third consecutive Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe) film to bypass the Bay Area? Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, which also debuted in Un Certain Regard is a bit of a letdown after the masterful Still Walking (I saw it in Palm Springs), but is still very much worth a look. Another worthy film I caught Palm Springs was the South Korean adoption drama A Brand New Life. Likewise Sawasdee Bangkok, a four-director Thai omnibus that's a decidedly mixed bag, but still of interest. Perhaps a few of these will appear when the SFIFF announces its 2010 line-up next month.