FESTIVAL: Asian American Film Fest Celebrates 20 Years, Still Waiting For A Smash
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 03.20.02) — Twenty years after its inception, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival once again feels that the time is now for Asian American film. Maybe this time it’ll take with the American public. Maybe this time it’ll take with the American public. “I’m so excited by what’s happened in the last five years,” said Laura Kim, a senior vice president of mPRm Public Relations in Los Angeles. “[But] we’ve been waiting for the film like ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ ” In other words, this community is still waiting for the breakout film that spurs the Asian-American renaissance, in the way that Spike Lee‘s landmark 1986 effort did for independent African-American cinema.
At an engaging seminar on Asian American feature film strategies for success, Kim and her peers expressed hope that they have such a candidate in the festival’s opening night film, Justin Lin‘s “Better Luck Tomorrow,” an engrossing and entertaining movie about honor roll Asian students in an L.A.-area high school who turn to dishonorable activities to pass the time until college. It was picked up by MTV Films shortly after its appearance in this year’s Sundance Film Festival — the first acquisition by the company that has produced “Election,” “200 Cigarettes” and the recent “Crossroads.”
When the San Francisco Asian fest began two decades ago, its founders might have envisioned a different legacy. Shortly before the festival’s beginnings, and four years before “She’s Gotta Have It,” Wayne Wang made his directorial debut with a black and white 16mm film, the now-legendary “Chan is Missing.” The $20,000 movie, about two cab drivers in San Francisco’s Chinatown who search for a partner who has absconded with their money, was part of the early ’80s independent revolution — along with John Sayles‘ “Return of the Secaucus 7” and Jim Jarmusch‘s “Stranger Than Paradise,” as well as “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“Chan”‘s revival at this festival served as a reminder that, indeed, Asian cinema has yet to fully flower, despite some jumps and starts. But as Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing pointed out at the seminar, the unheralded mega-success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has laid the groundwork for more homegrown success.
“The thing about Justin’s film is that it could have been anybody. It has strong storytelling, amazing cinematography,” Hu said, turning to Lin. “Your film looks great. You might have wanted to shoot it in digital, but the fact you shot in 35mm makes a difference.”
Lin had been to this fest before, having co-directed “Shopping for Fangs” with Quentin Lee. That was a fun movie, but “Better Luck Tomorrow” has more going on beneath the surface, while remaining highly accessible. It’s tests of friendship and loyalty in the midst of illegal activities has drawn comparisons to Scorsese. Lin, however, whined at the panel about not being able to get funding because of its Asian presence, but Kim and Hu upbraided him, pointing out they did not know about his film or that he was looking for money.
Lesson learned: Gotta get the word out. “Aside from people coming in to help us out [later], it was a credit card movie,” Lin said. “Obviously, I’m learning as I’m going.”
The closing night film, Timothy Linh Bui‘s “Green Dragon,” also shows promise, though it’s apparently a tougher sell than his brother Tony Bui’s 1999 Sundance winner, “Three Seasons.” Frankly, “Green Dragon,” which played at Sundance in 2001, has better character development and a more complex and engaging story. Possibly it’s closed-in feel — it was shot completely at California’s dreary Camp Pendleton, while “Three Seasons” has the advantage of beautiful Vietnam vistas — is causing Silver Nitrate Releasing to open it tentatively: A May 1 opening in Los Angeles will gauge interest.
“Green Dragon” is set in 1975 in a temporary relocation camp for Vietnamese refugees who were flown out by the U.S. armed forces before the fall of Saigon. It stars Patrick Swayze and Forest Whitaker as Americans who try to empathize with the refugees while dealing with their own personal demons; “Three Seasons” star Don Duong, who also has a major role in Randall Wallace‘s current “We Were Soldiers,” is excellent as the camp manager, and Hiep Thi Le, star of Oliver Stone‘s “Heaven and Earth,” is memorable as a general’s daughter struggling with single motherhood.
In addition to strong attendance (setting a record of 16,000 due in part to broadening its foray into San Jose), the 20th SFIAAF boasted a strong program — much more than just these two fine films. Also worth a look was “Harmful Insect,” a haunting, complex and completely absorbing story of a 13-year-old girl in Japan navigating her way through the cruel world — her father left the family and her mother attempted suicide. It well portrays an innocence peeled away in layers, as the girl is gradually exposed to raw danger. Director Akihiko Shiota, a former assistant under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, could be a major new international discovery. His minimalist style shapes a portrait of Japanese youth piece by piece — if he were a painter, he’d be a pointilist.
Also worthy of cult status is a Korean science fiction film, “Nabi — The Butterfly,” properly weird and dripping with atmosphere, shot in DV on a miniscule budget. Korean films have been gaining in momentum internationally, raising their profile both domestically and at festivals such as Rotterdam, Berlin, and Cannes. This sometimes sluggish tale of a woman searching for a virus that makes you forget that the past in acid rain-ridden Seoul is typical of the inventiveness in genre filmmaking that has characterized recent Korean filmmaking.
The Sundance documentary winner “Daughter from Danang” played to enthusiastic crowds, as did Nonzee Nimibutr‘s erotic film set in 1930s Thailand, “Jan Dara,” making its American premiere after an international debut in Rotterdam. Nimibutr is a director who knows how to tell a story — witness his creepy “Nang Nak.” But “Jan Dara” is less successful. Based on a legendary Thai novel, filled with lush cinematography and period detail, and boasting of the first nude appearance of Hong Kong starlet Christy Chung, Nimibutr gives us Cinemax sex without a larger meaning. It feels like “Emmanuelle” all dressed up for the arthouse.
Others with an impact: Lin Cheng-shen‘s “Betelnut Beauty,” co-starring “Crouching Tiger”‘s Chang Chen, debuted at Berlin last year, but the Taiwanese film still only has a French distributor. Emily Tang‘s “Conjugation” is challenging, though the Chinese film is a tougher sell in terms of potential distribution.
One potentially salable item, especially in these times, is the accomplished independent
“America So Beautiful.” Iranian American filmmaker Babak Shokrian gets the period detail right in a story of a young Iranian immigrant striving to go from grocery clerk to disco owner in 1979 Los Angeles. Because of the hostage crisis dominating the news, anti-Iranian sentiment is at a fever pitch, so the advice he lives by: “Just tell them you’re Italian.”
Of course, the theme of this festival could be “Just tell them you’re Asian.” The festival is encouraging filmmakers to take lessons from the past — and not just “Chan Is Missing.” One highlight of the festival was a revival of the first Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast. The screening of “Flower Drum Song,” a sprite Technicolor Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, was attended by star Nancy Kwan, co-star James Shigeta, and playwright David Henry Hwang, who is adapting the musical for Broadway. Henry Koster‘s 1961 movie is quite fun, but horribly dated as you might imagine. Interestingly, it’s depiction of intergenerational conflict and cultural assimilation is still the subject of many Asian movies today.
The great thing for Lin and Bui and other Asian filmmakers is that a rich foundation has been laid, but there’s plenty of room to make their own history.