This year's Asian American Film Festival was a mixed bag for me.
Much was made of the seven film Kiyoshi Kurosawa retrospective. Tokyo Sonata is his latest film and screened at the festival. I saw four Kurosawa films - Eyes of the Spider, Serpent's Path, The Revenge: A Visit From Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades. These films date back to 1997 and 1998 so it's certainly likely that Kurosawa has grown as a filmmaker. I'm still planning on seeing Tokyo Sonata. I found the 4 films to be fairly unsatisfying. They were standard revenge films with certain flourishes that hinted at Kurosawa's ability but I thought he was limiting himself by repeatedly focusing on the revenge plot. The plot device has its limitations. Shō Aikawa starred in all four films and he delivered strong performances although he played similar characters in all four films - a greatly wronged man keeping a tight lid on his rage. I've seen Aikawa in Zebraman and Takashi Miike's Gozu. He delivers consistently in off-beat, quirky, dark comedy roles.
You know you are in for trouble when festival director Chi-hui Yang introduces a film by saying it's "challenging." Such was the case when Yang introduced The Secret Lives of Urban Space, a short film program consisting of six insufferable entries including a 20 minute, fixed, long shot of an apartment building, a 7 minute film which consists solely of a woman doing a handstand and a 12 minute montage of kids moving furniture and then sleeping. The films were too experimental for my taste. I would not have chosen the program but a friend wanted to see it. The only interesting film was about a Filipina who found out that her husband had previosly proposed to her sister.
My favorite film of the festival was All Around Us, a Japanese film directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi. A critique of Japanese society that mixes dark humor with some heartbreaking scenes. Lead actors Tae Kimura and Lily Franky deliver strong performances as the depressed wife and her imperturbable husband, respectively. Strong performances by the supporting cast add to the force of the message - there is shrewish mother, a boorish brother and his bimbo wife, a group of hardened newsmen. The film is set over the 1990's decade and follows the lives of characters which stand in for the actual events unfolding in Japan - shocking crimes, a real estate bust and collective depression. I laughed, I cried and marveled at the paintings that Kimura's character paints to pull herself out of her depression.
As I mentioned, Diamond Head and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi were two of my favorites also. Two more films I recommend are Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession and The Love of Siam.
I wasn't going to see The Love of Siam but a friend urged me to go. The plot was about two teenage boys in Thailand who renew their friendship...and more. They explore their sexuality with each other although not explicitly. They have to also contend with family problems unrelated to their orientation and other typical teenage angst inducing events. The film was a coming of age comedy with a hook to reel in gay audiences. The film screened at the Castro & was close to being sold out. The comedy works quite well; the film was a hit in Thailand last year.
Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession is a non-Bollywood, non-musical Indian film. The film is a tear-jerker about a poor silk weaver that aspires for a better life. He makes promises to himself, his wife and his daughter that he is unable to keep due to his low station in life. Ultimately, he is reduced to stealing and filicide. Many but not all of his problems result from his embrace of that noble social institution known as communism.
I was told (or eavesdropped) by three people that they preferred Colma The Musical to H.P. Mendoza's latest musical, Fruit Fly. I agree with that sentiment. In addition to being another film that appeals to a limited audience (fruit fly is a term for straight women that associate with gay men), the tunes were not as catchy as Colma. Regardless, the screenings at the Castro and the PFA were sold out.
I also heard good word of mouth about The Chaser, a Korean film about an ex-cop pimp that is playing a violent cat and mouse game with a serial killer preying on the girls in is stable. Korean films that screen in the US seem to be ultra-violent and The Chaser fits that bill. It was a good film but not quite a suspenseful as I was hoping. I think the audience disagreed with this assessment because they went nuts for it. It certainly had some groan-inducing, wince-inducing, turn your head moments so I can't pan the film. Steve Seid, a curator with PFA, introduced the film and mentioned the film had been optioned by the same group that bought Infernal Affairs which was remade in the US as The Depated directed by Marin Scorcese.
Dirty Hand: The Art and Crimes of David Choe was a documentary about artist David Choe. Formerly a graffitist, porn magazine illustrator, lesbian erotica author, Japanese prison inmate and more, the filmmaker spent 7 or 8 years with Choe documenting his rise. That film also nearly sold out the Castro and won the Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2009 SFIAAFF. I didn't particular care of the art or the artist so my opinion of the film may be affected. Choe is certainly a polemicist worthy of a documentary chronicle is exploits so the film was not entirely unappealing but I can't fully recommend the film.
Two Chinese films The Equation of Love and Death and High Noon had their moments but I found them ultimately tedious and not quite fully developed feature films.
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