Sunday, April 4, 2010

2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) ran from March 11 to 21. I was able to watch 7 films.

Independencia directed by Raya Martin; Tagalog with subtitles; (2009)
The Forbidden Door; Indonesian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Housemaid; Korean with subtitles; (1960)
Dear Doctor; Japanese with subtitles; (2009)
Prince of Tears; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Webiste
The People I've Slept With starring Karin Anna Cheung & James Shigeta; (2009) - Official Website
City of Life and Death; Mandarin & Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

I had a ticket to an 8th film, Aoki, but felt tired that night so I went to sleep early instead of going to the film. Aoki is a documentary about sansei Richard Aoki, a founding member of the Black Panther Party.


The most epic and powerful film of the ones I saw was City of Life and Death whose Mandarin title is Nanjing! Nanjing!. The film was directed by Lu Chuan who also helm Kekexili: Mountain Patrol which screened at the 2006 SFIAAFF. The film told the story of 1937-38 Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Army. I've read a few accounts of the Nanking Massacre (although not Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking) and this movie basically told the story with a few (presumably fictitious) characters. Certainly the intimate interactions and private conversations between the characters were not recorded for posterity.

Among the more harrowing historical accounts that were depicted were the mass, summary executions of Chinese soldiers and militia and the assembly-line "comfort stations" where Chinese women were forced to service Japanese soldiers. One practice that I read about that was not depicted was the use of Chinese as human targets for bayonet practice. The Japanese would tie Chinese to a pole and bayonet them to show which thrusts were most incapacitating. I also recall that they would throw infants in the air and bayonet them before they hit the ground to work on quick thrusts and hand/eye coordination.

Although a Chinese movie, I thought several of the stand-out performances were by the Japanese actors. Hideo Nakaizumi as the inexperiences Japanese soldier who witnesses and participates in atrocities that would make the most hardened combat veteran retch serves as the de facto protagonist and guide for the audience. We follow him through combat, his first clumsy, sexual encounter with a Japanese prostitute (nice performance by Yuko Miyamoto, I believe), mercy killings and eventual suicide. Ryu Kohata as a more sociopathic Japanese soldier who alternately exhibited a detachment and cruel enjoyment of the suffering he was causing also stood out.

Another historically accurate storyline is when the Japanese asked for 100 Chinese women to "experience Japanese hospitality," the authorities in the Safety Zone (which was a girl's school) asked for volunteers to satisfy the Japanese request. Several of the women in the Safety Zone had been prostitutes or women of "questionable virtue." They volunteered for this distastefuly and most likely fatal service. The most disturbing scenes were in the "comfort station" or whorehouse. First of all, the soldiers had to pay more for sex with a Japanese women (there were a few brought in from Japan for the express purpose) than with Chinese women. However, the lack of privacy for the most intimate of acts was dehumanizing to watch. A sheet hung from the wall or curtain separated each bed. To enter or exit the room, soldier walked by the foot of the bed where they could see everything the couple was doing. In fact, a darkly humorous moment occurred when when Kadokawa (Nakaizumi) sat stunned by the decline in his favorite prostitute (the one he fell in love with and lost his virginity to). A fellow soldier asks, in the politest manner, whether Kadokawa has finished. Realizing that the woman cannot even remember him, Kadokawa mutters that he is finished (with sex or with his conscience?) and the other soldier proceeds to mount the women without bothering to wait for Kadokawa to leave the seat next to the bed.

Actually, Miyamoto progresses from the hooker with a heart of gold to a whore who can't keep track of her johns but can still appreciate an act of kindness to a morose, nearly catatonic, piece of meat with her legs spread. Eventually, she gets thrown out like the trash as they put a bunch of dead prostitutes into a wheelbarrow (all nude) and cart them away. It was like they were hauling away department store mannequins.

The Chinese actress that played Mrs. Tang's sister also stood out. Tang & her sister were from a well-to-do background. As the Japanese invaded Nanking, they played mahjong. Eventually, the safety of the Safety Zone and brutality of the Japanese occupation were made painfully clear to the sisters. Mrs. Tang's (Lan Qin) husband and child were killed by the Japanese. Her sister volunteered to be a comfort woman. After surviving that ordeal, she is shot by Ida. When asked why, Ida replies that life isn't worth living after suffering the ordeal she went through. He was probably right; just watching the film was traumatic. I felt numb afterwards.

Lu Chuan direction of the film was heavy-handed at times. The film could have benefitted by having a little more subtlety but there was much subtlety in the real events so it's hard to criticize the director or the film much. Appartently some Chinese think Kadokawa's character was too sympathetic and on the other side, there are still Nanking Massacre deniers who state the events have been exaggerated. In the end, I invested (emotionally) in the film and willingly went along with whatever emotions Lu manipulated.


Another film I enjoyed was Dear Doctor, a Japanese film directed by Miwa Nishikawa. Japanese filmmakers seem adept at mining bittersweet humor from death - Departures and to a much lesser extent, Still Walking. Dear Doctor is the story about a small village full of elderly people and the doctor (Tsurube Shôfukutei) who cares for them. Actually, in reality, he is not a doctor. He is the son of a doctor and former pharmaceuticals salesman. He poses as a doctor for reasons that are a little murky. He is ably assisted by a real nurse (Kimiko Yo) and traveling drug salesman (Teruyuki Kagawa from Tokyo Sonata who are both complicit in his fraud. "Doctor" Ino is loved and revered in the village because of his reassuring manner and he has a keen eye for the wants and needs of his patients...traits that are also present in gifted con men. Undoubtedly, Ino would have made a great doctor if he had gone to medical school. As it stands, he makes a great doctor in a small town treating high-blood pressure and gently guiding the elderly to their final demise.

His charade begins to unravel with the arrival of a young, newly graduated doctor (Eita) there for his internship and the onset of cancer for one of the residents (Kaoru Yachigusa). The film is filled with humorous bits but at its core, it is a drama dealing with weighty issues. The relationship with Shôfukutei & Eita is multifaceted. Eita is a bit suspicious of the doctor's skills but is in awe of his bedside manner and the positive impact he has on his patients. Shôfukutei needs to continue his fraud (he is getting paid a large salary by the prefecture) but has a genuine desire to care for his patients. Eventually, Eita bonds with the older man even going so far to tell him that he wants to return full-time after his internships are over. Predictably, this upsets Shôfukutei as this would only increase the chances of being discovered but he deftly handles the young doctor's pronouncement.

More complicated is the relationship between Shôfukutei and his cancer patient (Yachigusa). Having cared for her late husband during his prolonged illness, she does not want to be a burden for her children. As her symptoms become more severe, she cannot ignore them anymore. She makes a pact with Shôfukutei which will become is downfall. Shôfukutei is not to inform anyone of her illness (including her daughter, a Tokyo doctor) and she will agree to treatment in her house. He doctors the medical tests to diagnose her problems as an ulcer. Then he starts reading up on cancer and its treatments. It's unclear to me if he actually treats her for an ulcer or cancer but both doctor and patient are aware that it is cancer even if it is never spoken between the two.

The moment of truth arrives when the Tokyo doctor comes to see him. She is in town to visit her mother. She is concerned her mother may have cancer but Shôfukutei's falsified test results and patient but confident manner convince the woman that an ulcer is the correct diagnosis. She leaves her mother to his care and won't be back until next year when she can get extended time off for a visit. Shôfukutei realizes that continue his fraud would result in the death of the woman so he skips town in mid-consultation. On the way out of town (on a moped), he runs into drug salesman and tells him to give the real test results to the Tokyo doctor who is waiting in his office.

The plot has a bunch of twists & turns (which I've probably ruined with his entry). The story is told in flashback as two police officers are trying to track him down after events previously described. Ultimately, the film is a showcase of Shôfukutei to use subtle facial expressions and glances to convery the depth of the character - scheming, caring, frightened, confident, etc. Shôfukutei gives a tremendous performance; he was nominated for a Japanese Academy Award in the Best Actor category.


For the Out of the Vaults selection, SFIAAFF dug up The Housemaid, a 1960 South Korean psychological thriller involving an errant husband and his relations with the eponymous character. The film (in black & white) was badly damaged for a reel or two but it didn't diminish from the enjoyment of the film.

An uptight piano teacher (Kim Jin Kyu) works at a textile factory giving music lessons to the female workers. He supplements his income by giving private lessons at his house. After a long set-up, the film settles down to the main plot. The piano teacher and his hard-working and pregnant seamstress wife decide they need a maid. Based on the recommendation of one of the factory workers (who is attracted to the teacher), they hire Lee Eun-shim, an attractive if not strange woman from the countryside. I knew it was a great film when Lee kills a rat with her bare hands and holds it up by the tail to show Kim. He admonishes her to use rat poison in the future.

One night when the wife and kids are away, Kim is able to resist the advances of his attractive student. He slaps her across the face and sends her on her way. Outside the window, the maid has been watching and is turned on. She throws himself at him (forces herself on him by standing on his feet). They have one night together which he immediately regrets but he'll regret it more than he can imagine by the end of the film. The maid becomes pregnant and the man is forced to admit his infidelity to his wife. The wife is upset but surprisingly rational. She convinces the maid to force a miscarriage and eventually an abortion. That's when the balance of power shifts.

While recuperating from her abortion, the maid becomes unhinged. She grieves for her child, she resents the choice she was made and she lusts after the husband. Threatening to reveal the husband's infidelity and parentage of the fetus, she gains control of the household. She eventually requires the husband to sleep in her room.

I won't spoil the ending but rat poison, a staircase and a revolver figure prominently. Lee Eun-shim gives a flashy performance as the other woman who won't go away.


The fourth film I enjoyed (although not as much as the other three) was The People I've Slept With, a sex farce starring Karin Anna Cheung. The story deals with a rather promiscuous woman who finds herself pregnant. She narrows down the potential fathers to four, later five, candidates. One running gag in the film is that she takes photos of all her sex partners. She creates cards with photos of the men (and women?) on one side and vital stats on the other - nickname, length, girth, etc. She surreptitiously gets DNA samples from the potential fathers for a paternity test. She falls in love with one of the men who turns out to be a politician and engaged to be married (he is best of the bunch).

I won't recount the plot because it episodic in nature. Most of the humor comes from flashbacks to the sexual encounters or her attempts to get DNA samples. There were several funny moments but this was a lightweight comedy. Despite some questions from the audience that seemed to interpret the film as a manifesto for Asian sexuality or empowerment, this was a sex farce. That's not a pejorative but compared to the Rape of Nanking or seeing a Hitchcockian thriller from 1960 South Korea, the film is a cut below. Lest I be accused of elitism, I recommend The People I've Slept With; its a fun film which made me laugh. In its current format, it'll probably be rated R if it gets a wider release.

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