Saturday, March 15, 2008



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When writing up my preview piece for the SF International Asian American Film Festival, or SFIAAFF, which opened on Thursday and runs through March 23rd, I focused on the directors in the International Showcase section of the festival whose films I'd personally been exposed to at prior editions of the festival. I neglected to mention two repeat-SFIAAFF directors in the section because I hadn't seen their films at this particular festival. India's Buddageb Dasgupta, whose the Voyeurs plays Monday, Wednesday and next Sunday, has had his prior films Memories in the Mist and the Wrestlers at the festival in previous years, but I've always missed them. I was first exposed to Korea's Hur Jin-ho when another local festival played One Fine Spring Day, and caught up with Christmas in August on DVD. I didn't realize that it had played the SFIAAFF in 1999. I believe that his last film, April Snow, has still never graced a Frisco Bay screen, but his newest, Happiness, is here to make up for that fact and then some.

Happiness is my favorite Hur film yet. It's remarkable how similar the film is to another SFIAAFF film, Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Yamishita's follow-up to the wonderful Linda Linda Linda, at least in certain respects. Both Happiness and Yamashita's a Gentle Breeze in the Village adopt the "city mouse /country mouse" trope, their bucolic settings assisting the emphasis of character moods as reflected in the changes in weather and light accompanying seasons (this is something that runs through each of the Hur films I've watched). Both films track a developing romance between an urban male and a female more settled in her rural community. And both films are exquisitely crafted. But in other ways the two films are like yin and yang. Happiness is an adult melodrama showing the co-dependent romance of a couple who meet at a curative retreat; he's there to heal his pickled liver, she for her weak lungs. It doesn't work out so well for them (yin?). A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a far lighter piece illuminating the joys and anxieties of teenage youth (yang?).

Speaking of Yang (bu-dum-pum), I have now seen more than one Edward Yang film. I just got home from watching his 1986 award-winner the Terrorizer. It's the kind of rich, crescendo-ing film that I want to see again as soon as I've finished watching it. Which makes it all the more discouraging that the film has never been released on video or DVD with English subtitles. I'll hazard a guess why this may be so: the complications of rights clearance for the American pop music that appears on the soundtrack, not only the iconic "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" usage that Hou Hsiao-hsien surely was tributing in his Three Times, but also songs by the likes of Kool & the Gang and (correct me if I'm wrong on this identification) Grandmaster Flash. If the Terrorizer were playing the festival again I'd see it again, but since it's not, I'll have to content myself with the other two Yang screenings in the festival's tribute: a Brighter Summer Day on Wednesday, and a revisitation to his swan song Yi Yi: a One and a Two on Thursday.

I can recommend Rithy Panh's documentary on Phnom Penh prostitutes Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, (which I watched on a festival screener DVD at home) but only if you can brace yourself for something extremely heavy. It's hard to imagine that a director who has made a film about the Tuol Sleng prison might make a film that matches it in "downer" qualities. But Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers may even be more emotionally devastating than S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, if only because it illustrates a current devastation, not one cordoned off by history books. In fact, while S21 felt almost cathartic in the way it allowed former prisoners an opportunity to confront their tormentors, and allowed the latter a chance to harmlessly re-enact the crimes they committed in the name of the genocidal Pol Pot regime decades ago, the unsmiling women in Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers display often harmful re-enactments that seem habitual rather than cathartic. Caught in an utterly tragic loop of shame and desperation, they are shown grinding up methamphetamine pills known as "ma" to smoke through a makeshift plastic pipe, displaying their razor scars, and conversing with each other about their abusive johns, abortions, and contemplations of suicide. The final thought of the film comes from a young woman who reveals a disturbingly irrefutable perspective on her plight when she matter-of-factly states: "Poor people can only expect to be guilty."

There are a few schedule changes and added screenings to the festival, so make sure to check the website for details. One added screening I can recommend is tonight's free outdoor showing of Hayao Miyazaki's first feature film as a director, the Castle of Cagliostro at 8PM on JapanTown's Peace Plaza. The animation master hadn't yet let his fanciful style fully flower when making this 1979 release, but it's terrifically designed and drawn, and a very entertaining adventure story with a European setting reminiscent of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. And it's free!

Finally, I saw Never Forever and Yasukuni at last year's and this year's Sundance Film Festival, respectively, and wrote a few words on them here and here. Though as you'll see if you click the links, I had serious problems with each film, I think they're both good choices for this festival, as they both represent a breath of fresh air on the conceptual level, and deserve the kind of dialogue SFIAAFF audiences can help provide. It's the muddled execution that troubled me in each case, and I'd love to hear a convincing argument that I'm missing something. Any takers? Or other tales from the SFIAAFF so far?

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