Saturday, April 9, 2011

2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (Part 3)

One final enrtry on the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Fiim Festival (SFIAAFF)...


Raavanan is a retelling of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic. The film is notable for being filmed simultaneously with two casts in both Hindi & Tamil. SFIAAFF screened the Tamil version. Here's where it gets interesting. The Tamil version's three lead actors were Vikram as Veera (Ravana in the Ramayana), Aishwarya Rai as Ragini (Sita in the Ramayana) and Prithviraj as Dev Prakash (Rama in the Ramayana). The Hindi version, Raavan, stars Abhishek Bachchan as Beera Munda (Ravana in the Ramayana), Aishwarya Rai as Ragini Sharma (Sita in the Ramayana) and Vikram as Dev Pratap Sharma (Rama in the Ramayana). So Aishwarya Rai plays the same role in both versions but Vikram plays the two lead roles in the two versions. I wonder how he mentally kept the roles and performances separate.

Vikram's performance is the best thing about Raavanan. His Veera is charismatic, dangerous, über-masculine and sexy. Vikram almost pushes the performance too far with the facial gesticulations and manic laughs but the epic story, lush outdoor cinematography and a driving soundtrack balance out Vikram's flamboyant moments.

I've never been that impresed with Aishwarya Rai's acting abilities and Raavanan doesn't change my opinion. Prithviraj didn't show much either as Ragini's husband. The movie changed the ending so it's not entirely consistent with the Ramayana; the ending while solid was a little disappointing to me. I'll reveal one spoiler, there isn't a epic or hellacious battle between Veera and Dev Prakash (Ravana and Rama in the Ramayana).


The Piano in a Factory combines pathos, comedy and musical numbers to great effect. The setting is a deteriorating steel plant. Chen, previously employed at the plant, now scrapes by with a band (he plays the accordian). Chen's financial trouble means his daughter cannot attend music school and his ex-wife wants full custody of the girl. Chen paints a keyboard on some wood but after failing to steal a piano, decides to use the steel plant to build a steel piano.

That's the backdrop which director Zhang Meng has to insert numerous musical numbers including a spirited flamenco or some Spanish type of dance. There is a lot of social commentary going on in Piano including displaced workers in China's decreasingly industrial economy and the role of women in modern society but Zhang's light touch draws genuine humor from the situations. Qin Hai-lu as Chen's girlfriend and singer in his band stands out from the otherwise solid cast.

The Piano in the Factory

The Break-Up Club is a faux documentary partially within a faux documentary. The premise is inspired. Set it Hong Kong, Joe (Jaycee Chan, Jackie's son) and Flora (Fiona Sit) are a young couple. Joe is a slacker and Flora is more ambitious. They have their ups and downs. After breaking up, Joe finds a website called (which is the homepage for the movie) at an internet cafe. The website promises to reunite couples but a couple has to be broken up to accomplish this. In other words, Joe can enter Joe and Flora for reunion but he needs to enter another couples (whom he knows) for break-up. At the same time, Joe sees a television commercial for a new documentary about couples breaking up. Barbara Wong, director of The Break-Up Club, plays Barbara Wong, the director of the documentary.

Joe shows up at an audition with the pitch of However, he can't access the website from the audition site. The only place he can access the site is from a specific computer at the internet cafe. Barbara likes the idea and gives him a camera to document what happens.

Joe still has the problem of entering the unlucky couple's names into the website. His best friend Sunny, Patrick Tang looking like Wayne from Wayne's World, offers himself up. He and his girlfriend have hit a rough patch and will likely break up anyway. Joe bites on the offer and voilà! Joe & Flora reconcile while Sunny and his girlfriend break up.

Unfortunately, Sunny has second thoughts on the subject. Now he needs a couple to break up so he can use the website. He enters his own cousin's name, on his wedding day no less. Tough break for the wedding couple.

All is well, Joe & Flora are together and Sunny and his girlfriend are together. Before long, Joe & Flora begin to argue. Joe's lack of ambition rubs Flora the wrong way, especially after she is assigned to be an Japanese artist's personal assistant in preparation for a big art exhibition. The two hit it off and eventually he offer Flora the chance to travel to Spain as his girlfriend. Joe begins to suspect what is going on but is unable to stop it even after a dramatic confrontation which results in a broken and his melodramatic dash to the airport to see Flora once more before she goes to Europe.

That should be the end of the film but Wong adds a cute twist. The audience discovers that the footage they been watching since about the mid-point of the film has been surreptitiously filmed. Sunny made a backroom deal with Barbara to film Joe without Joe's knowledge. Here's the best part. After the credits roll for a few seconds, we see Sunny & his girlfriend. It's implied that Sunny entered Joe & Flora into to 1) get footage of the breakup and 2) get back together with his girlfriend.

Wong is too cute by a half with all these movies within a movie and hidden motivations. The film feels gimmicky but The Break-Up Club delivers quite a few laughs and even high drama as Joe's relationship disintegrates. The website and mockumentary cheapen the dramatic aspects of the film but it's still quite powerful. Wong needed them as she is saying as much about modern "look at me" culture as she is documenting the life and death of a relationship.

At least Wong had Joe destroy the computer which could access thereby ending the cycle of anonymous malice. That is set up as the turning point for the rest of Joe's life.


Almost Perfect had a big name cast including Kelly Hu, Edison Chen and Roger Rees. The film focuses on Vanessa (Hu), the least maladjusted of the Lee family which includes her promiscuous sister, alcoholic brother, philandering father and passive-agressive mother. Into this maw comes Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), a friend of Vanessa's brother, who has the courage or foolhardiness to attempt a serious relationship with Vanessa, the long time, secret object of his desires.

The film is a romantic comedy with the obligatory dosage of melodrama. What set the film apart is the level of neuroses exhibited by the Lees or exhibited by the actors who play the Lees. Tina Chen, as Vanessa's mother, excels as a woman whose resentment towards her husband creates a seething and toxic wife/mother. For reasons left unstated in the film and the Q&A with director/writer Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Roger Rees played Vanessa's father despite his character having the Chinese sounding name Kai Lee. Perhaps a mixed family is nothing worth commenting on. Rees has the most fulsome role in the film and seems to be channeling Lord John Mabury to great comic effect.

It's a bit of a left-handed compliment to praise the supporting actors in a romantic comedy. Kelly Hu is 43 years old and looks great but she didn't quite get the role right. Vanessa seemed to vacillate between strenght and weakness. Perhaps my knowledge of Hu's age (she is the same age as me) detracted from my appreciation of her performance. Ivan Shaw was ok; I'm not sure what his character saw in Vanessa other than some remnant of a teenage fantasy.

There were a lot of laughs in Almost Perfect but Tina Lee & Roger Rees provided most of them.


Abraxas is the story of a punk rocker turned Buddhist monk. One of the few Japanese feature length films in the festival, Abraxas made its mark among the festival entries. Jonen, the former punk rocker, is in a state of depression at the start of the film. Encouraged by his temple's head monk, Jonen reconnects with his punk rock roots. He surprises everyone in town when he decides that reunion concert with his ex-bandmates is the perfect elixir for what ails him. His wife and the head monk are gently disapproving but when the town's busybody organizes a boycott, Jonen's friends and family give him their full support. A friend's suicide complicates matter but ultimately Jonen rocks the temple.

Abraxas is a heartwarming comedy told in the way that only Japanese filmmakers make films. It reminded me of a number of Japanese films from recent years including Linda, Linda, Linda, Detroit Metal City and The Chef of the South Polar.


In the previous post, I forgot to write disapprovingly of Living in Seduced Circumstances. Directed by Ian Gamazon, who made the much better Cavite, Living in Seduced Circumstances becomes very tedious and annoying. The most annoying aspect of the film is actress Quynn Ton's sing-song, grating voice. Ton, who also the produced the film, is a very pregnant woman avenging an unstated transgressing upon Mr. Thanh (Long Nguyen). The film consists of one torture scene after another with Ton (I'm not sure her character was ever identified by name) calling out "Mr. Thanh!" and speaking to him with mock affection as if he were a baby or puppy dog.

Unlike Cavite which was ultra-realistic and ratcheted up the tension levels as the movie progresed, Seduced Circumstances was highly stylized and felt like a bad nightmare in more ways than one. I didn't like Living in Seduced Circumstances even though it was selected for both Cinequest and SFIAAFF.


Two Taiwanese films warrant mention. The Fourth Portrait and When Love Comes tell coming of age stories about a young boy reunited with his prostitute mother (and her killer boyfriend) and a 16 year old girl who gets pregnant. Bi, Don't Be Afraid, a Vietnamese film which also screened at Cinequest, covers similar territory as a six year boy observes the fractured relationship between his grandfather, parents and aunt.

All three of these films skillfully tell stories of youth slightly stained by dubious (if not criminal) behavior by adults. I thoroughly enjoyed all three films.


There were a number of short films I enjoyed which, in the interest of time, I'll reduce to a list - Raju, Chubby Can Kill, Room #11, Lychee Thieves, My Name is Mohammed, Withholding, Inhalation, A Loud Quiet and Bicycle. Bicycle, a Japanese film, was possibly my favorite. It captures the heartwarming spirit of a certain type of Japanese film which I mentioned when writing about Abraxas.

The credits said Dirty Bitch was inspired by Clare Denis' Nénette et Boni gets an honorable mention. The film was striking but disjointed. However, it was compelling enough to get me to the PFA a week after the festival ended to see Nénette et Boni as part of their Claire Denis retrospective.


I wrote that the 2011 Cinequest was the best film festival I've been to in terms of programming. Coming on the heels of Cinequest and the San Francisco Chronicle article, I was leery of the 2011 SFIAAFF.

When all was said and done, I think SFIAAFF topped Cinequest. I have to give the staff at SFIAAFF a huge compliment on the quality of the programming at the festival. Since I'm a glass-half-empty type of guy, I will complain that the volunteers could use a little more training. They were always friendly but too frequently not very helpful. This has been the case for several years.

I also want to thank Shelly Kim of the CAAM staff who handled a number of inquiries from me over the past year regarding tax deductible amounts, incorrect addresses and late tickets. She solved all my problems in a professional and timely manner.

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