FESTIVALS: The Flipsides of Asian America; Highlights from 19th SFIAAFF
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 03.14.01) -- You have to admire the pluck of NAATA, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association. Gazing out from the window of the organization's San Francisco office, you can practically see tech stocks jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. And didn't anyone tell them there's a Republican in the White House, a fact that usually makes any arts organization start clipping coupons from the Sunday paper?
But judging from last Thursday's opening of NAATA's flagship event, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, it's clear that for the 20-year-old beacon of calm and encouragement for Asian artists it's Morning in America all over again. Far from announcing mass layoffs, the 19th edition of the nation's largest Asian festival has gone in for a little Silicon enhancement, expanding to San Jose for the first time. Executive director Eddie Wong said he's searching for new, bigger digs, as the Ninth Street office has become a bit too cramped. And after a lavish, 50-minute-long live program before the opening night movie at the Kabuki and a swanky soiree afterward at the San Francisco Art Institute -- a converted mission near Lombard Street -- well, it's enough to make anyone feel Bushed.
Within a framework like this, it's no wonder Rob Pulido and Gene Cajayon were having the time of their lives. They're the lynchpins of the festival's focus on Filipino American cinema, which is having an awfully good year. Pulido's opening night shot of adrenaline, "The Flip Side,'' and Cajayon's colorfully entertaining "The Debut," which closes the festival Thursday, are both optimistic underdogs that are fun, as well as incisive about Filipino American culture, which even in Asian American cultural events has been underrepresented (Filipinos are now the third-largest Asian culture in the United States).
Their films are two of seven Asian American-made features, the most ever at this festival, which is screening 97 total films (including shorts), including 20 features, 21 world premieres and 13 U.S. premieres and 55 total screenings at the Kabuki as well as Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive and Camera 3 in San Jose.
"Filipino kids have a hard time finding themselves," Pulido said. "All that's portrayed in the media is black and white. I just wanted to show how hard it is for these kids to find themselves. I call it 'The Flip Side' not just because it's about Filipinos, but the flip side (of a record) is the 'B' side, the side you never hear."
"The Flip Side" is an 80-minute shot of adrenaline, often side-splittingly hilarious, about a young man, Darius (Verwin Gatpandan) who comes home from college to spend the summer. While away, he has been awakened to his Filipino roots, and plasters his room at home with maps of the Philippines and posters of the country's heroes, like Jose Rizal. While he takes to lounging around the house in a tribal loincloth ("nice jock strap," his sister smirks), he becomes frustrated at his sister Marivic's desire to be assimilated into white culture -- Marivic (Ronalee Par) lets her white boyfriend think she's Hawaiian -- and his brother Davis' assimilation into black culture. Davis (Jose Saenz) talks like his black friends and spends the entire movie trying to dunk a basketball. Meanwhile, his parents fall into the trap of remaining contained within their own immigrant culture without exposing the children to their heritage or giving them a sense of direction.
Pulido's camera never moves, but it's never boring either. Tightly framed, tightly edited and in a smooth black and white, "The Flip Side" has energy, wit aplenty and originality (Yo! rep houses! Wake up!).
Walking out of the opening screening, Cajayon was handing out postcards for his closing night feature. "The Debut" is different from "The Flip Side" -- its budget is much bigger, though still under a million; it's in color with nice cinematography (Hisham Abed) and it is filmed more traditionally, with ambitious set pieces. But make no mistake about its grass roots; as the postcards suggest, Cajayon is willing to do anything to get his film some attention, and is beginning by four-walling the movie at the Kabuki for a week, beginning the day after the festival closes on Friday.
"This film is my own personal awakening," said Cajayon, who went to Loyola Marymount film school and spent eight years getting "The Debut" made. "We're hoping that by busting our humps in San Francisco, and other cities across the country that will establish the fact that there is an economic market. Just the Filipino community in the (Bay Area) is 400,000."
"The Debut" is sort of an opposite "Flip Side" -- in this one, the amiable young man in the lead is trying to deny his Filipino culture, even while his family embraces it. Ben (Dante Basco) wants to be a comic book illustrator, and wants to take his immense talent to Cal Arts. His father (Tirso Cruz III) wants him to go to UCLA to become a doctor. In a wild night surrounding the debut ball of his sister Rose (Bernadette Balagtos), all the characters try to reconcile their own desires with others. "The Debut" at times smacks of cliche -- we've seen this story before in other forms -- but its winning personality and engaging characters are impossible to resist, whether you're Filipino or not.
By comparison, the movies from the motherland seem rather mundane. In "Dog Food," Carlos Siguion-Reyna weaves a touching yet strange relationship between an old mutt poacher and a high school girl suffering from incest. "Anak" has a mother returning to her children after years of sending money home from Hong Kong.
Other highlights in this festival:
If Pulido's "Flip Side" can be taken as a textbook for indie filmmakers working on budgetary constraints, so can Kaze Shindo's "Love/Juice," an assured directorial debut that screened in Berlin last month from the 21-year-old granddaughter of the great Kaneto Shindo ("Onibaba"). Made dirt cheap, it's a very grainy (Super-16?) and a very engaging tale of two young women living together in Tokyo -- one a lesbian, the other straight. Even when the story lags, Shindo's camera does not: She keeps things moving and interesting, and appears to have many good films ahead of her.
It's an up-and-down year at the festival for Korean films. Up: Song Neung-han's super-fun "Segimal: A Century's End," a trilogy of short stories that tie together and reflect on Korea in the year 2000 (from the point of view of a procrastinating screenwriter, an egocentric professor and a young woman immersed in drugs and sex). Down: the loopy but illogical and ultimately ludicrous "Happy Funeral Director," directed by Chang Moon-il, in which workers at a funeral home pass their days waiting for someone in their small town to die.
Vivian Chang has assisted Sylvia Chang (no relation) and Tsai Ming-liang; she has learned her lessons well with "Hidden Whisper," which like many Taiwanese art films are very, very interesting, features great cinematography, good acting and is very, very sloooowww. Also a trilogy of stories, "Hidden Whisper" can be read as three meditations on mother-daughter relationships, or as the same mother-daughter over a 30-year period. The beautiful and extremely talented Shu Qi, a Taiwanese native who made her rep in Hong Kong, anchors the strong third segment. She also stars in Johnny To's "Help!!!," which fills the festival's usual Wednesday night Hong Kong slot.
"The Wrestlers" is developing a cult following on the festival circuit, and Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Indian independent film is an engaging and colorful story of two men in a small town who while away the days wrestling with each other. One takes a wife, thus threatening to end the perfect friendship. It's getting great buzz at this festival as well -- but is it just me, or is it a little too calculating in its simplistic art-house charm?
Unscreened by this writer but generating positive buzz here are "Roads and Bridges," Abraham Lim's Robert Altman-backed debut feature about an Asian man and a African American man sentenced to work on a Kansas road crew; Ann Hu's " Shadow Magic" which begins its national release shortly; and "Maryam," Ramin Serry's look at an Iranian American teenager in 1979 New Jersey when the Iran hostage crisis breaks.
The festival also spotlights the 30-year career of Loni Ding, a Bay Area filmmaker and teacher (PBS' "Ancestors in the Americas").
For schedule and more information for the festival, log on to NAATA's Web site at www.naatanet.org/festival.