Review – Beautiful 2013
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival rebranded itself CAAMFest last year, thereby completing its transition from a festival which dependably exhibited the latest works of established Asian auteurs, into what is now a film-music-food festival dominated almost exclusively by emerging filmmakers. Anyone in the Bay Area who wants to see the newest films from Tsai Ming-liang (Stray Dogs), Kim Ki-duk (Moebius), Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History) or Hong Sang-soo (Nobody's Daughter, Our Sunhi) in a public setting had better hope they've earned a slot at next month's 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (program TBA April 1.)
Oh well. Things change. And it's not like CAAMFest 2014, which runs from March 13 to 23, is bereft of familiar names. This year's festival features a 20th anniversary screening of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, as well as a three-film tribute to legendary Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw, who passed away this year at age 107. For those who either missed it at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival or can't wait for its local theatrical release on April 4, there's also Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture from Cambodia. In this devastating, not-to-be-missed autobiographical essay film, Panh uses carved figurines, rudimentary dioramas, archival footage and voiceover narration to reconstruct memories of his 5-year enslavement by the Khmer Rouge.
Then there's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Beautiful New Bay Area Project, one of four shorts that comprise Beautiful 2013, the most recent omnibus co-production between the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Youku, China's version of YouTube. My personal highlight of last year's CAAMFest was the Beautiful 2012 entry Walker. In this 27-minute minimalist masterpiece, director Tsai Ming-liang's perpetual muse, actor Lee Kang-sheng, posed as a monk walking at a snail's pace through a series of flawlessly composed Hong Kong cityscapes. (Tsai has since expanded that idea into a feature-length film called Journey to the West, which premiered at the recent Berlin Film Festival). This year's Beautiful marquee name is Kurosawa, whom this festival fabulously feted with an in-person retrospective and tribute back in 2009. The 29-minute Beautiful New Bay Area Project is set on the docks of Yokohama, where a young, unhinged urban developer becomes obsessed with a female dockworker. After his attentions are repeatedly spurned, he steals her nameplate from work, setting off a lengthy set-piece in which she kicks the ass of every security guard, executive and office worker who stands between her and her precious nameplate. It's not quite as thrilling as the swimming pool scene in Kurosawa's 2012 TV mini-series Penance – whereby a female kendo master battles a knife-wielding maniac around a pool of terrified schoolchildren – but it's still awfully fun. The ominous mise-en-scene, poetic camera set-ups, unsettlingly music and unexpected laughs are all pure Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Fans of his features (Cure, Bright Future, Tokyo Sonata) definitely won't want to miss seeing the Japanese master's latest short on the big screen.
As with most portmanteau collections, the other three shorts in Beautiful 2013 are a mixed bag. Every bit as good as the Kurosawa is the visually arresting 1 Dimension, directed by cinematographer Lü Yue (John Woo's Red Cliff, Zhang Yimou's To Live and Shanghai Triad). Employing silhouetted figures against a backdrop of Chinese scroll paintings, Lü stages the ancient tale of "Prince Piety from the Land of Toto," in which a young royal goes on a six-year journey to acquire the life lessons necessary to be a good king. That's preceded by the wryly dour A New Year, the Same Day by Taiwan's Wu Nien-jen, who's best known as a screenwriter (Hou Hsiao-hsien's A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster) and actor (star of Edward Yang's Yi Yi). On New Year's Day, a put-upon husband and father who describes himself as a "fat and exhausted slave," calls a family powwow and tries to elicit a bit of succor from his crabby wife and distracted teens. The best response comes from the daughter, who squeals with delight, "I posted on Facebook that my family is falling apart and I got 30 "likes!" Beautiful 2013's weakest entry is saved for last, the borderline insipid Indigo from Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung (An Autumn's Tale, The Soong Sisters), in which a nightclub dance instructor (a vibrant Elaine Jin) sends her resentful teenage daughter out to look for her mentally challenged little brother who's gone missing.
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Elsewhere in the CAAMFest 2014 line-up:
● In addition to Cambodia's The Missing Picture, the festival brings us two more films which were their respective country's Oscar® submission. Anthony Chen's directorial debut Ilo Ilo is set during a time of economic crisis and observes what happens when a joyless Singapore family brings a Filipina maid into their household. Ilo Ilo took the prize for Best Feature at last year's Golden Horse Awards (essentially the Academy Awards for Chinese language art/indie films), as well as Best Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress and Best New Director for Mr. Chen, who is scheduled to attend the CAAMFest screenings. The festival is also showing Yûya Ishii's The Great Passage, which was Japan's surprise Oscar® choice over Hirokazu Koreeda's vastly superior Like Father, Like Son. Over the course of 134 minutes, the film chronicles the laborious 15-year task of creating a "living" Japanese dictionary, and succeeds as often as not in making it interesting. The film stars Ryûhei Matsuda (the boy who drove the other samurai wild with desire in Nagisa Ôshima's final film, Taboo) as the painfully awkward linguistics nerd who shepherds the project, and the ubiquitous Jô Odagiri (the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Koreeda, Kim Ki-duk, Seijun Suzuki, Shinji Aoyama and others) as his more gregarious co-worker.
● I'm always interested to learn which films top the box office charts around the world. This year's CAAMFest boasts three which were the 2013 blockbusters in their country of origin. The only one I've previewed is Banjong Pisanthanakun's Pee Mak from Thailand, a well made, really stupid, but funny-enough lampoon of a classic Thai ghost story. I was glad to have seen a more serious version of the story at a previous edition of this festival – the film's title and year escape me – so I had a clue what was being spoofed. Be prepared to lose a few brain cells watching this one. South Korea's top performer of 2013 was the "high-octane thriller" Cold Eyes, which chronicles a police surveillance operation's efforts against a sophisticated robbery ring. The film is a remake of the 2007 Hong Kong hit, Eye in the Sky, and is one of CAAMFest 2014's two Centerpiece Presentations. It should be a blast to watch on the Castro Theatre's big screen, with co-director Jo Ui-seok scheduled to attend. CAAMFest 2014's Opening Night movie at the Castro will be Viet Nam's 2013 B.O. champ, Ham Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels. Described loosely as a rom-com mash-up of The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls, the film stars Bay Area native Kathy Uyen.
● CAAMFest 2014's other Centerpiece Presentation at the Castro will be Grace Lee's documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, which celebrates the life and work of the 98-year-old Chinese-American political activist-writer-philosopher who was also an outspoken advocate for African Americans. Both director Grace Lee and subject Grace Lee Boggs will attend. Earlier in the day there'll be an In Conversation with Grace Lee at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. CAAMFest 2014 will also feature a revival screening of Lee's 2007 mockumentary American Zombie, which I originally reviewed for The Evening Class in my first year of blogging about this festival.