By way of serendipity and effort, the programming at the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (March 12-22), remains resilient to the star-studded vehicles that herald every other festival's existence in town, promoting instead an exquisite array of films that confront our uncertain (economic) future with equal amounts of tenderness and indifference. The festival, one of the larger productions among the Bay Area's own film circuit, has grown noticeably throughout the years, catering to its core Asian American community, while expanding its reach to a broader demographic. This last weekend's slew of sold-out shows had only confirmed the rising attendance rate.
Even though the official "theme" of the festival draws considerable attention to works featuring mixed race identities, colloquially called hapas, its unconscious focus on intimate 'petri-dish' dramas of ordinary folks striving to make ends' meet felt more relevant and palpable. Setting this melancholic tone was the opening night Korean film, "My Dear Enemy," directed by Yoon-ki Lee, which established the converging difficulties between acquiring affection and acquiring money, a recurring motif that haunts the lineup. The centerpiece jewel of the festival and its parent organization, Center for Asian American Media, was intended to boost up morale, but the World premiere of "Fruit Fly," the directorial debut of H.P. Mendoza, the composer responsible for the indie sensation "Colma: The Musical" only left audiences wondering if our gay-too-friendly heroine was going to loiter after the credits without a job, without a home, and God forbid, without love. Critics' darling "Treeless Mountain," by Korean-American So Yong Kim, brought the festival to a full circle as its Closing Night bookend. Part fiction, part autobiography, the film shared surprising coincidences with its competing Narrative Feature brethren, inviting the viewer to empathize with the strikingly self-sufficient 'abandoned' kids--stubborn, naive, and all too nostalgic of their rapidly fading youth--who must resort to guerilla entrepreneurship in the face of impending poverty. Small businesses unite: sell toys, sell grasshoppers, everything must go!
Speaking of the competitive spirit, Sundance's favorites like local filmmaker Jennifer Phang's surreal "Half Life" and Tze Chun's neorealist (down to its dream sequences) "Children of Invention," received their Bay Area premieres, with both directors embracing the current en vogue model of simultaneous exhibition. Phang is currently pursuing all three outlets: theatrical, online, and VOD, while Chun takes an even more radical approach towards self-distribution, in the form of DVD sales after each festival screening, which for him, already acts as a theatrical arm. And since the film will be rolling out at other major metropolitan festivals, the short-circuiting of the conventional delay between the silver screen and the video screen may become a far more practical solution in preserving its word of mouth. Even Dave Boyle, the director of the charming slacker comedy, "White on Rice," plans to bypass the middleman altogether, booking local theaters for short term release, all of which depends on the film's measured reception at each of its festival run.
One of the strongest attractions for cinephiles to return each year is the festival's dedication to holding auteur retrospectives and special discussion panels. This year, the celebrated honoree was the Japanese master of systemic dread, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose most recent foray, "Tokyo Sonata," should be required viewing for future AIG hearings, along with his revered cult horror, Pulse, for the utopia-disposed network of tweets and twitters. Revisiting his earlier works on the yakuza genre, Kurosawa was amused and gracious when responding to a room full of faces expressing both puzzlement and praise. Other spotlights were aimed at the prolific and controversial Indian-Canadian filmmaker, Deepa Mehta and her new film, "Heaven on Earth," in addition to her renowned international photographer-brother Dilip Mehta's debut feature, "The Forgotten Woman."
However, the most highly anticipated events belonged to two consecutive sessions with the Jack-of-All-Trades himself, Ang Lee, one unaffiliated, the other organized by the festival. The first at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, with his frequent collaborator and BFF, James Schamus delighted the crowd with a hysterical clip reel to Mr. Lee, centered around the scintillating sex scenes from "Lust, Caution," intercut with snippets culled from "Sense and Sensibility" to "Hulk," with each character aroused and/or shocked by the ars erotica. The partners-in-crime also paid lip service to Focus Features, previewing two clips from the upcoming summer of love period piece, "Taking Woodstock," a seemingly giddy departure from his serious fare, jokily announced by Lee. In short, be prepared for Liev Schreiber's drag queen turn. The following night could be summed as an illuminating dialogue between theory and practice, again, revolving around Lee's domestic flop and therapy session-via-cinema, "Lust, Caution." Simmering under Lee's confession of female sexuality as a terrifying force was his unspoken desire to keep the trauma at bay, so to speak, by tackling the project and maintaining a postmodern "ironic" distance to his subjects even as he sneaks up to their fatal pas de deux. Of the two evenings, the best remembered words occurred during an informal Q&A, at a quiet moment when Lee advised his fellow Asian American filmmakers to write their own scripts, and to produce movies that extend beyond their restricting experiences, a contradictory mantra not many filmmakers can realized on both fronts, critically and commercially, at least for those who wish to imitate Lee's shape-shifting career.
If the festival is defined by and defining the future of Asian American talents and identities to come, it should be conceived less as a experimental playpen for the kids to mature into mainstream prominence, but for the alumni to return, inspire, and sometimes shake up those received notions of what this festival has always stood for.
SFIAAFF finishes its run at San Jose and Berkeley this upcoming weekend. Visit the festival's website for more information.