Friday, April 8, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (Part 2)

Going into the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival, I wasn't sure what to expect. Long time festival director Chi-Hui Yang had stepped down and seemed to have been replaced by Masashi Niwano and Christine Kwon who have the titles of Festival & Exhibitions Director and Managing Director, respectively. Assistant Festival Director Vicci Ho seems to have departed since last year so the festival leadership was brand new. The lineup of films didn't particularly impress me.

Then I read in the San Francisco Chronicle about Niwano's vision for the festival. "Three years from now we want music to be very influential, a big part of the festival," Niwano said.

He went on to say "There are two ways to look at a film festival. One is to look at it as a film purist, with the very best in cinema. The other side of that might be an event like South by Southwest. More live events, more engagement, more community, and for me it's how to merge the two together."

I'm a film purist, I like my film festivals to be focused on films not merged with music events. So that article didn't bode well for me. I recall a Dana Carvey character on Saturday Night Live. I think the character was Grumpy Old Man. Anyway, I feel like that character with respect to the music the "young folks" listen to nowadays. It's just noise to me; it has little appeal to me and I'm not particularly intersted in being exposed to it in a film festival setting.

So it was with quite a bit of trepidation that I entered the film festival. Coming off my highly impressed Cinequest experience, I was worried about SFIAAFF. I'm glad to report that SFIAAFF equaled and perhaps bested Cinequest. There were very few films at SFIAAFF which I didn't enjoy.


Let's get the bad out of the way up front. Niwano programmed an Asian horror film trio. The films were the highly touted Nang Nak (1999, Thailand), Histeria (2009, Malaysia) and Affliction (2008, Philippines). I watched Histeria which involved some high school girls forced to stay at their boarding school over a holiday break as punishment for some their tomfoolery. The film is infamous for Malaysia first lesbian kiss which was edited out of the version that was screened. Otherwise, I would rate it as a run-of-the-mill slasher film although in this case, the slasher is some evil spirit.

Nang Nak was 100 minutes long but seemed interminable. It dealt with a man who returns from war to his wife in a small village. It's not really his wife but rather the ghost of his wife. His wife died during childbirth but her love was strong that she returned in spirit form to car for her husband. Based on a Thai folklore, the story was as much a love story as a horror film. It fell short on both counts as far as I'm concerned. The film couldn't hold my attention although part of that may be cultural. These Thai horror films often incorporate some folk legend that's a common touchstone in Thailand but seems foreign to me.

After Histeria & Nang Nak, I passed on Affliction. Desptire seeing several films at Hole in the Head, I am not a horror film aficionado and this foray into Southeast Asian horror cinema reconfirms it. I don't really "blame" Niwano or SFIAAFF for not enjoying these film. I took a flyer with some horror films on the chance that selectively programmed horror films may appeal to me and they didn't it. I'd much prefer SFIAAFF keep doing some of these types of genre, mini-programs even if I don't enjoy them. I remember a few years ago, SFIAAFF programmed a number of 1970s era, kung fu films which I absolutely when nuts for.

I'll throw out a suggestion for next year's festival. I want to see some 1970s era, Japanese Pinky Violence films on the big screen. At the top of my list would be Zero Woman - Red Handcuffs and Lady Yakuza - Red Peony Gambler.


Whereas I didn't have big expectations for Histeria & Nang Nak, I was looking forward to Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words which consisted mostly of an actress (Doan Ly) reading Wong's letters. A few years ago, I saw Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows at the 2008 SFIAAFF. I wrote "I greatly enjoyed...Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows." I can't say the same about Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words.

In Her Own Words may have suffered in comparion because I saw Frosted Yellow Willows first. However, more important was the fact that the production standards were much higher on Frosted Yellow Willows. It was a straight documentary with actress Nancy Kwan narrating. In Her Own Words had some traditional documentary techniques but a lot of reenactments with Doan Ly reading Wong's letter to the camera in period appropriate clothing. The filmmakers largely tried to use Wong's own words to move the story along. Ly had a vaguely affected tone to her speech and it never felt like Wong was speaking. It felt like an actress was trying mightily to infuse Wong's word with more importance and gravitas then needed.

If pressed, I'd have to advise people to watch Frosted Yellow Willows if they are interested in Wong's life. If you have seen Frosted Yellow Willows, I recommend you skip In Her Own Words.


I don't think have a favorite film at this year's festival. There are about a dozen films I was equally impressed with. I think that is a strong testimonial for the quality of the programming this year.

Two documentaries which impressed me are The House of Suh and Open Season. I thought Open Season was the better made film but they were both fascinating.

The House of Suh follows the Suhs, a Korean immigrant family. Andrew is the son & Catherine is his older sister. While children, their father dies of cancer and a few years later, the mother was murdered a few years later and a few years after that, Catherine's fiancée was murdered. Soon afterwards in 1993, 19 year old Andrew was arrested for the murder of Catherine's fiancée. Andrew would implicate his sister in the crime which would lead to questions about their mother's murder.

Clearly, there are lot dynamics at work in this family and Catherine comes off as a sort of Lady Macbeth. It's a little unfair because Andrew cooperated with the filmmakers and was interviewed from prison whereas Catherine did not cooperate. Catherine was a fugitive and live under at least one alias. The evidence definitely points to her being the mastermind of her fiancée's murder. My only quibble was with the storytelling. At 90 minutes, the story dragged at times. It could have been edited to make it tighter.

There was an interesting sequence where the The House of Suh showed footage from Bad to the Bone, a 1997 television film based on the Suhs. The interesting (racial) part is that the Suhs had been transformed into the Wells family with Kristi Swanson playing Francesca Wells who was based on Catherine. So much of the family dysfunction was based on their immigration from Korea and Korean customs that I wonder how Bad to the Bone explained the circumstances and motivation for the murder. It was a nice sideshow but didn't really add much to The House of Suh. It seemed like a few of the scenes were just filler to pump the runtime to 90 minutes but they weren't nearly as interesting as the Kristi Swanson digression.

While surfing the internet, I ran across this website. Be forewarned that these prison penpal situations can be scams by convicts. I rolled my eyes at how he describes the events which led to his incarceration. I will say that Andrew Suh was quite sympathetic in the film. He is articulate and earnest in his interviews. I felt sympathy towards him...until I recalled that he shot a man in the back of the head twice...but then I recalled that he was under the impression that the man killed his mother & threatened his sister. I don't know how I feel anymore which is a hallmark of a good documentary.

"Born in Seoul, South Korea, I was raised in Chicago, Illinois, and I attended Providence College in Rhode Island; until a series of tragic events would vault me into this foreign and brutal life, behind these cold and unforgiving bars. Akin to a Greek Tragedy, the facts of my life unfold like a badly scripted soap opera and I pray for a fairy-tale conclusion."


Equally ambiguous was Open Season which told the story of a 2004 sextuple murder in Wisconsin for which Hmong immigrant Chai Vang was convicted. Chai Vang claims he was subjected to racial epithets and shot at before he quickly returned fire, shooting eight Caucasians total. The survivors say Vang shot first.

Like the Suh case, nothing is cut and dried. Four the shooting victims were shot in the back and multiple times. Vang claimed he was fired on first and one of the survivors testified he fired a shot but his bullet was never found. Additionally, the rifle of the man Vang claims fired first was never forensically tested to determine if it had been fired at the time of the incident.

While most of the audience was in accordance with the charges of racism, I found Vang to be less sympathetic. He had a documented history of domestic violence. While I readily acknowledge that racism was quite likely played a role in the incident, the fact that Vang was able to fire about 20 rounds without being struck by return fire is suspicious. On the other hand, Vang served in the California National Guard and attained a sharpshooter badge. That implies he had the training to fire quickly and under stress.

Much of the film focused on the Wisconsin and Minnesota Hmong community's reaction to the incident which was initially to throw Vang under the bus and later to embrace his case as a battle against racism. My opinion is that Vang was confronted with racist comments by men with rifles. He felt threatened and responded. Did he have to respond with gunfire? The crucial point for me is that he shot several people multiple times in the back. Apparently the jury agreed because he is currently serving six consecutive life terms plus seventy years. I wonder why those sentences aren't concurrent.

The true story was engaging but directors Mark Tang & Lu Lippold briskly move the film along; bringing it in at taut 57 minutes.


SFIAAFF had a two film series of Gurinder Chadha movies. Chadha, married to former SFIAAFF director Paul Mayeda Berges, is the director of Bride and Prejudice among others.

SFIAAFF screened Bend It Like Beckham. I didn't really want to go but my friend wanted to watch the film again so we went. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Keira Knightley looked so young.

The other Chadha film was her latest - It's a Wonderful Afterlife. With a title reference to the Frank Capra classic and a scene paying homage to Carrie, It's a Wonderful Afterlife was a delightful comedy. The premise is quite dark. A mother (Shabana Azmy) kills the families of potential grooms who have rejected her daughter (Goldy Notay) for arranged marriage. The spirits of the dead haunt her and won't leave until their killer is dead. Stubbornly, the women won't atone for her sins until her daughter is married. The spirits go about helping her with the task. Meanwhile, the police are closing in on the murderer and their prime suspect is the daughter who had a connection and motive to kill the victims.

That description belies the hilarity which ensues. Azmy, Notay and Sally Hawkins as the Englishwoman who is more Indian than Azmy & Notay anchor the film. The film was outstanding and I can't recommend it enough.


The Taqwacores is an adaptation of a Michael Muhammad Knight novel by the same name. The novel described a fictitious Islamic Punk Rock scene. Arguably, the book inspired real-life Islamic Punk Rock bands which are the subject of a documentary called Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009).

The Taqwacores was a film that didn't really interest me but I had the festival pass. The festival had closed in SF, my pass wasn't good for the SJ opening and the only other option were the films at the PFA.

The film captures the anger and camaraderie of a group of young Muslims in Syracuse. Dominic Rains shines as the mohawked Jehangir who serves as the de facto rabbi of the house; the other roommates come to him with their issues. Bobby Naderi plays Yusef, the newest housemate who is straight-laced, observant of Muslim religious customs and unsure about what to think of his new living arrangement. Throughout the film, Jehangir and Yusef argue point/counterpoint as to what it means to Muslim. Along the way, the two good-natured men develop a friendship primarily as a result of the uptight Yusef loosening up a little.

The other roommates have their foibles and idiosyncrasies which add to the humor and drama. The most interesting is Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, the sole female tennant who wears a full burka but espouses ideas that run counter to conservative attire. Without giving away the ending, other than to say it's like the Woodstock for Islamopunks, Rabeya plays a shocking and critical role in the tragedy which follows.

The Taqwacores was an exciting, funny & exhilirating film. It fully deserved the Special Jury Prize in my opinion.


Surrogate Valentine stars Bay Area musician Goh Nakamura playing a Bay Area musician named Goh Nakamura. He's tricked into giving guitar lessons to Danny (Chadd Stoops), a vapid and superficial actor who is looking for a serious role to give him some acting cred. Unbeknownst to Goh, the film that Danny is cast in is based on Goh's life. The most regretful part of Goh's life is his failure or more accurately, inability to have a romantic relationship with high school classmate Rachel (Lynn Chen).

A lot of the film is spent on the road as Goh is on tour and Danny tags along. When Rachel has relationship troubles, she comes to San Francisco to visit Goh. Will this be the chance he's been waiting for? I don't know because the film leaves the ending ambiguous although I have an opinion as to what Rachel chose. I won't share it so as not to spoil the film or embarrass myself.

I characterize the film as a bittersweet comedy. Three things buoyed the film - Goh Nakamura laid back performance (which matches his music), Chadd Stoops mugging it up (he does a great Christopher Walken impression) and Chen's subtle portrayal which hinted at a woman with some self-esteem issues.

Although I said in the last post that I'm not too interested in music, I truly enjoyed Nakamura's title song; more for the clever lyrics than the melody. I particular liked this lyric.

You can be the magnet
and I’ll be the iron
you’re drawing me closer
like a sailor to the sirens


It seems like for the past two days, I've spent every spare minute writing about the 2011 SFIAAFF. There are still about a half dozen films that I want to discuss so I'll carry them over to part three.

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