Saturday, April 7, 2012

2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) ran from March 8 to 18.

Last year I saw 31½ programs at SFIAAFF and 20 programs at Cinequest. 51½ programs between the two festivals which overlapped one weekend. I essentially reversed the numbers this year. I saw 14 programs at SFIAAFF and 36 programs at Cinequest or 50 programs between the two festivals which again coincided for one weekend.

Of the 14 programs, I saw 3 at the Kabuki, 2 at the Viz, 2 at the PFA and 7 at the Camera 3.

The feature programs I saw:

Always starring So Ji-Sub and Han Hyo-Joo; directed by Song Il-Gon; Korean with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Bang Bang starring Thai Ngo & David Huynh; directed by Byron Q; (2010) - Official Website
Night Market Hero starring Blue Lan; directed by Yeh Tien-Lun; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
The Catch; directed by Rithy Panh; English & Khmer with subtitles; (2011)
The Crumbles starring Katie Hipol & Teresa Michelle Lee; directed by Akira Boch; (2012) - Official Website
Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! starring Kim Whan-Young & Joo Hae-Ri; directed by Kim Sung-Hoon; Korean with subtitles; (2011)
11 Flowers starring Lu Wenqing, Wang Jingchun & Yan Ni; directed by Wang Xiaoshuai; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
My Wedding and Other Secrets starring Michelle Ang & Matt Whelan; directed by Roseanne Liang; (2011) - Official Website
Surrogate Valentine 2 starring Goh Nakamura & Yea-Ming Chen; with Michael Aki & Lynn Chen; directed by Dave Boyle; (2012) - Official Website
Yes, We're Open starring Perry Shen & Lynn Chen; with Sheetal Sheth & Kerry McCrohan; directed by Richard Wong; (2012) - Official Website
Give Up Tomorrow; documentary; directed by Michael Collins; English, Tagalog & Spanish with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website
Viette starring Mye Hoang; directed by Mye Hoang; English & Vietnamese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Front Line starring Shin Ha-Kyun & Ko Soo; directed by Jang Hoon; Korean with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website

Nice Girls Crew consisted of five, stand alone, ~10 minute episodes starring the same trio

Nice Girls Crew starring Lynn Chen, Michelle Krusiec & Sheetal Sheth; directed by Tanuj Chopra; (2012)


Surrogate Valentine 2 has the alternate title of Daylight Savings.

The Catch is listed on IMDB as Gibier d'élevage

I counted no less than four programs with Lynn Chen credited. In addition to the three listed above, the festival had a Joan Chen retrospective. They screened Saving Face (2004) in which Lynn Chen played the lesbian love interest of Michelle Krusiec's character...two of the co-stars in Nice Girls Crew.

Many films had cross pollination with SFIAAFF serving the role of the bumblebee.

Director Dave Boyle and actor/singer Goh Nakamura(Surrogate Valentine 2) appeared in small roles in Yes, We're Open. Boyle was also credited by director Mye Hoang for helping to edit her film (Viette). Long-time SFIAAFF collaborators Richard Wong (Colma) and H.P. Mendoza (Fruit Fly) directed and wrote Yes, We're Open, respectively. Yes, We're Open and Nice Girls Crew were both funded by SFIAAFF or its parent organization CAAM.


Over the past few years, two SFIAAFF traditions appeared to have been phased out.

The festival used to screen one from the archives - an older, classic film. Past films include The Housemaid (1960) and Diamond Head (1963). I looked forward to those screenings because they were usually held in the Castro Theater and I have a fondness for old films. I haven't seen a film which fits that description on the lineup for a couple of years now.

SFIAAFF also screened a big Bollywood musical at the Castro. At first on the first Saturday night, later on Sunday night, this year not at all.

I wish both of these programs will return in future years.


I thought the 2012 festival had fewer programs than 2011. I didn't count so that is just my impression from perusing the program. I also found fewer film synopses which interested me. I could have seen another four or five films at this year's festival but fatigue from Cinequest and lack of appealing choices dissuaded me.

Two similar films about boys growing up under a repressive government top my list of 2012 SFIAAFF films.

11 Flowers was about a boy growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) is 11 years old and has been selected for the prestigious post of school exercise leader. He is the boy that gets up on the platform and leads the students through their daily calisthenics set to the patriotic music of the Great Revolution. The school administrators brow beat him and his mother into getting a new white shirt to wear during calisthenics which is quite an expense for the family.

Wang and his three school friends go swimming by the river one day. As young boys are apt to do, he bends at the waist and peers through his legs at his friends. This awkward position causes him to lose consciousness but his friends pull him from the river. When he comes to, his prized shirt is missing. The shirt is seen on the river, caught against some low hanging tree branches. Having alienated his friends with accusations of theft and carelessness, Wang is left to wade into the river to retrieve his shirt. Then, he has to strip and hang the clothes to allow them to dry.

While waiting alone for his clothes to dry, Wang hears a commotion in the woods above him. Jueqiang (Wang Ziyi), the older brother of one of Wang's classmates, runs by with a stomach wound. Jueqiang grabs Wang's white shirt off the branch and runs into the woods. Knowing the trouble he'll be in if his mother discovers his shirt is missing, Wang follows him into the woods. Eventually, he finds the wounded man who has used the shirt as a bandage. Jueqiang threatens Wang and his family with death if Wang reveals his whereabouts. He forces Wang to return home with the promise of keeping his location and the fate of the white shirt a secret. In return Jueqiang promises to send Wang a white shirt in the future.

Jueqiang has killed the man who raped and impregnated his younger sister and is wanted for murder. His wound is the result of having escaped from police custody. The incident is on everyone's tongues in the small town. Predictably, Wang keeps Jueqiang's secret and his mother is furious. Ostracized by his friends for his behavior at the river, Wang tries to make amends by sharing his secret...which of course, results in one of the boys going to the authorities. This eventually leads to Jueqiang's capture.

The film reminded me a little of Stand By Me and various other films where children are forced to keep a secret. 11 Flowers has the added benefit of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as its backdrop. Wang and Jueqiang are educated men who have been sent to this industrial backwater for re-education. Bored and chafing at their imposed restriction, the men share a common bond but Jueqiang's crime and her sister's pregnancy create an awkwardness which cannot be bridged even when Wang and his father take shelter in Jueqiang's father's house during a rainstorm.

11 Flowers has a poignancy which grows throughout the film and mirrors Wang's maturation. A young boy whining about a shirt at the beginning of the film, he is deeply affected by Jueqiang's plight and ultimate fate.

True to his word, Jueqiang has his family procure a white shirt for him which he mails to Wang. Wang's parents, concerned that a convicted murderer is in contact with their son, visit the prison to speak to the officials. They assure the couple and Wang that there is no danger. In a brillant scene, they are informed that Jueqiang's father & sister are outside waiting to see the prisoner. Wang's father, embarrassed to see the family, asks if he and his family can exit though an alternate door. Wang sees the pair through the window and feels sympathy for them.

The story of a boy growing up and losing his innocence is a staple of cinema. It's interesting to see the genre through the lens of filmmakers from different societies.

Similar to 11 Flowers, Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! follow Jong-Soo a young boy living in a small village in North Korea. Undersized and unpopular, Jong-Soo has to endure the indignities of life such as being excluded from a school trip to Pyongyang due to his size. However, Jong-Soo's biggest concern is the illness of his younger brother which is mother cannot afford to properly treat. Despondent over his lot in life, Jong-Soo happens upon a Christmas gift sent via hot air balloon by children in South Korea. The present he happens upon is a remote controlled robot.

Returning with the toy, Jong-Soo becomes the most popular boy in town as he rations time with the robot to the other children. This brings about the envy of the son of the local Communist Party boss which shows that privileged children can be brats under any sociopolitical structure.

The rest of the film deals with Jong-Soo's downfall. His brother's conditions worsens and some of the children covet the robot. The final scene is a sad, dysfunctional take on Santa coming down the chimney in the middle of summer for the benefit of Jong-Soo's fatally ill younger brother.

Both 11 Flowers and Ryang-Kang-Do skillfully mixed bittersweet comedy and childhood perspectives with pointed commentary about the government regimes in their respective countries and stood out from the pack.


Two other films also covered similar ground to each other although in this case, it was Asian parents with traditional views of not allowing their Westernized daughters to date white guys. Artificial barriers preventing Asian girls and white guys from dating doesn't seem prevalent enough to merit a film (much less two in the same festival) but both films were well made and captivating.

My Wedding and Other Secrets was a New Zealand comedy about Emily Chu (Michelle Ang), a film geek whose strict parents demand she study medicine at university. She takes a film class as an elective where she gets the opportunity to make her dream film - a vampire flick full of martial arts and special effect.

Meanwhle, Emily meets James at her intramural fencing club. They hit it off immediately but mindful of her father's ban on non-Chinese boyfriends for her older sisters, Emily keeps her relationship with James on the down low.

Unable to fund the film she wants to make, Emily marries James to get the married student stipend which she funnels to her film project. Eric, Emily's pretentious and pompous classmate from the film course, becomes aware of Emily personal life and is convinced it would make a great documentary which he takes on as his semester project.

The stress of living a lie and apart from his wife is too much for James who starts taking Chinese language classes so he can formally ask for Emily's father for his daughter's hand in marriage...despite the fact that the two are already secretly married. When he finally asks Mr. Chu, it turns out that Mrs. Chu has stronger feelings about the ethncity of her daughter's husband. This lead to tremendous conflict for Emily which is captured by Eric for his documentary.

Eventually, Emily becomes estranged from her mother and divorces James, while Eric's film about her life is accepted for and acclaimed at a prestigious film festival. Predictably, Emily personal nadir occurs simultaneous with her professional zenith but it leads her to reassess what is important in her life. A rapprochement with her mother and ex-husband culminates in the feel-good ending.

Sweet natured and quirky, My Wedding rides Michelle Ang's solid comedic performance to success with solid support from prolific HK verteran Kenneth Tsang and 1960s HK martial arts film legend Pei Pei Cheng as Emily's father and mother. Crowd pleasing, cheefful and spirited, My Wedding and Other Secrets is a satisfying comedy.

Given the plot, I wonder how much of My Wedding and Other Secrets was based on director & screenwriter Roseanne Liang's life.

Tellling a similar story but with tragic overtones, Viette follows the title character (Mye Hoang) over several years of her life. Starting while she is in high school, Vietnamese American Vi starts dating Caucasian Matt (Sean McBride). In this case, I believe her parents were against her dating anyone but especially a white guy.

Attending a high performing school with classmates who aspire to major universities, Vi decides to attend the local college to comply with her parents demand that she stay nearby. She does get them to agree for her to stay in a dorm during the week which serves as a hideaway and love nest for her and Matt.

For at least five years, Vi and Matt keep their relationship a secret from her family. The strain of the secret as well as Matt's increasingly frequent bi-polar outbursts push the relationship to the breaking point. Matt confronts Vi's parents which results in the police escorting Vi from the house and begins her cohabitation with Matt.

Matt's illness, Vi's estrangement from her family and sudden diagnosis an ovarian cyst or something to that affect, piles onto Vi's troubles. I thought the film would have benefitted from dialing down Vi's troubles.

During the Q&A, director, screenwriter & star, Mye Hoang revealed much of the story was based on her life and that the original version ran much longer.

Viette is one of these instances which can only occur at a film festival. Viewed objectively, Viette suffers from a plot that is too jam packed and some nudity and sexuality which did not seem integral to the story. When Hoang started answering questions, it was clear the film was deeply personal; even more personal than the typical film festival director because of its autobiographical content. Its making was likely a catharsis for her. Additionally, Hoang seemed to have sacrificed so much to live the life which she depicted and again to make the film. Mye Hoang seems like the hard luck kid because she revealed she had been laid off from her job recently.

Is my opinion of Viette colored by Hoang's personal backstory? Perhaps but I can only write about the film within the context of how I saw it. I was aware that the story was based on Hoang's life prior to the screening. I was suitably impressed with the film before Hoang's Q&A session. Afterwards, I felt I had seen a person reveal her inner self to a courageous (or embarrassing) extent. The reader can factor that into my opinion of Viette.

Chi Pham's performance as Vi's father deserves mention for its frightening intensity.


Always was a Korean romance film between a MMA figher and a blind woman. Unrepentantly melodramatic, the crowd pleasing, tear jerking, hearstring tugging film was well crafted to touch all the bases - handsome leading man looking for redemption, upbeat and beautiful blind woman, cute puppy, lecherous boss, treacherous gangsters, Thai steel cage death matches and contrived coincidences galore. With a plot reminiscent of Chaplin's City Lights (1931), Always was halfway home before they ever cast the roles. So Ji-Sub and Han Hyo-Joo as the couple are adequate. So Ji-Sub's role as the subdued boxer limits his range but that provides more room for Han Hyo-Joo to shine as the blind woman.

The Crumbles won the audience award for best feature narrative. Katie Hipol and Teresa Michelle Lee play an odd couple who start rock-n-roll band. Darla (Hipol) is the more responsible one while Elisa (Lee) is always short of money and roaming from friend to friend to sleep on their couches.

The pair are part of a larger group of friends. I think they went to college together but that's not important. The film captures the modern day slacker vibe in LA but it is set apart by a nice soundtrack of original songs; most notably Everyday Girl.

Surrogate Valentine was one of my favorite films the 2011 SFIAAFF. The same creative team (director Dave Boyle and actor/singer Goh Nakamura) returns for Surrogate Valentine 2 but they don't quite recapture the fire. A lot of the energy from the first film came from Nakamura's interaction with costars Lynn Chen and Chadd Stoops. There is only one major scene between Chen & Nakamura which sort establishes her character as Goh's unattainable woman. Circumstances will not allow Goh and Rachel (Chen) to get together. The first Surrogate Valentine had a buddy film/road vibe between Nakamura and Stoops who is completely absent from Daylight Savings.

Subbing for them is fellow musician Yea-Ming Chen as the object Goh's romantic intentions and Michael Aki as his cousin and road trip partner. The second film covers much of the same ground as the first one except Goh seems subdued and in need of some lithium.

As crafted by Boyle and Nakumura, the film version of Goh Nakamura cannot achieve contentment as it would fundamentally undermine the concept of the films they are making. Keeping poor Goh down on his luck requires more creativity than having him repeat the same set of circumstances, each time a little less energetic than before.

Still, there is a certain appeal to this Goh Nakamura character who keeps plugging away in life and romance. At the end of the film, the credit read something like "the journey continues." I hope Boyle & Nakamura can come up with something new for SV3.


Give Up Tomorrow is a fascinating exploration of the seemingly false conviction of Paco Larrañaga. By many accounts, Larrañaga was on a different island in the Philippines when the Chong sisters went missing. Suspicious criminal ties to the young women's father, bizarre behavior (and later alleged suicide) of the criminal court judge, the dubious testimony of a man whom Larrañaga claims to have never met and more facts cast doubt as to whether Larrañaga is guilty.

The film exposes, what would appear to be, a monumental miscarriage of justice. Still imprisoned, although transferred to Spanish custody, Larrañaga is scheduled to be released in 2038.


The Catch is retelling of Kenzaburo Oe's story which Nagisa Oshima adapted for the screen in 1961. Rithy Panh's adaption moves the events from WWII Japan to Vietnam War era Cambodia. A bigger change to the story is to leave the capture and detention of the prisoner in the hands of children as a result of the Khmer Rouge use of child warriors and/or their decimation of adults. This backstory of the rise of the Khmer Rouge gives the "American" pilot's plight a politcal aspect which I don't recall from Oshima's version. The African American pilot spoke with a French accent which also was distracting.

All things considered, I preferred Oshima's version of The Catch.


Yes, We're Open and Nice Girls Crew fell short in my opinion.

The basic premise of Yes, We're Open is that there are "modern" couples who feel the need to adhere to certain principles to show bona fides. One of these a casual attitude towards sex or fidelity. Perry Shen and Lynn Chen play a self-congratulating couple who has their beliefs called into question when fall into the orbit of swingin' couple. Their respective infidelities affect them more deeply than they would have believed.

I found premise a bit of stretch or contrived so the humor never really registered with me. Dave Boyle as the taciturn third wheel and Sheetal Sheth as the female half of the wife swapping couple stood out.

I fully embraced the concept behind Nice Girls Crew. Three women (Lynn Chen, Sheetal Sheth & Michelle Krusiec) form a book club which is just an excuse to rag on each other and act raunchy. The concept and execution was fine. Each 10 minute episode was largely self-contained although there was some cumulative plot development. My only complaint was that I wish the humor had more of a bite to it...less silliness and more bitchiness would have better suited my tastes.

My least favorite films were Bang Bang and Night Market Hero. Bang Bang was a tedious and confusing tale of some Aian gangbangers. Night Market Hero was an interminable comedy about the efforts to close a food market made up of small restaurants and stores.

The Front Line disappointed me as well but had some interesting moments. Set amidst South Korean soldier during the Korean War, the explores the horrors of war through an interesting plot device. A hill is taken and retaken repeatedly by both sides. Each time, the temporary occupants leave some items in a bunker which the other side digs up. The items are alcohol, food, cigarettes and personal correspondence. A North Korean female sniper and South Korean infantry officer even have a king of epistolary romance. At 2 hours, 15 minutes, the film dragged a little. I'm not recommending it but the film had its moments.

No comments: