Friday, February 13, 2009

27th SFIAAFF Planning Guide

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival schedule is now available on line, complete with a few important changes from the printed schedule. The festival runs March 12-22 in venues all over Frisco Bay, and tickets can be purchased Monday by non-members (member tickets are already on sale). This year's festival is somewhat scaled-down in some respects but it still looks extremely robust, with a strong mix of new works by Asian-American filmmakers and Asian auteurs, and a diverse selection of retrospective screenings.

The latter category includes Diamond Head, a 1962 film about interracial romance in Hawai'i featuring a cast including Charlton Heston, France Nuyen, Yvette Mimieux, George Chakiris, and Philip Ahn. It was directed by Guy Green, who got his start as cinematographer for David Lean's early films. Ang Lee will be at the festival to screen and talk about his 2007 film Lust, Caution on March 17th. SF Cinematheque is co-presenting two programs of 16mm and video work by Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Iimura, including 1962's Ai, featuring a soundtrack by Yoko Ono. And the tradition of spotlighting the filmography of a recent film festival powerhouse from East Asia (after 2007's Hong Sang-soo retrospective and 2008's 3-film Edward Yang tribute) continues with a 7-film spotlight on Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kurosawa is expected to attend the festival himself. Five rarely-seen works from his fertile 1997-1998 period will screen- this period produced Cure, which was the first of the director's films to be widely seen in the West. Cure will not screen, but his perhaps most chilling hit Pulse will. Pulse premiered at festivals in 2001 but was buried for being too prescient of September 11, and unearthed with less fanfare than it deserved. It played in Frisco cinemas a few years ago but I'm sure many missed it and caught up with it on video if at all. Suffice to say its visual frights are more effective in a communal screening environment.

Kurosawa's latest film Tokyo Sonata will screen as part of the series as well. Though his two prior features, Retributionand Loft have still never shown in Frisco Bay cinemas (and I can't pretend I don't wish the SFIAAFF had been able to squeeze them into the festival to catch us up, even while I appreciate the opportunity for immersion in the early films), Tokyo Sonata is stopping that streak in a big way. Not only is it playing the SFIAAFF, but it has two screenings at Cinequest in San Jose, and is planned for a late-March theatrical release in the area. It certainly deserves it. Tokyo Sonata takes Kurosawa's work squarely outside the territory of supernatural horror he's known for inhabiting, by mining the dramatic and comic potential of Japanese family constructions deconstructed. A father clings to his authority when his position is outsourced, by hiding the development behind his salaryman routine, even though he now is standing in unemployment and food lines. His wife is locked into a submissive 'pleaser' role, while their two sons rebel in very disparate ways. The set-up is masterful, and in the final reel or two events breathlessly unravel. A second (perhaps third) viewing is certainly in order. SFIAAFF provides two chances, March 13th and 14th.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing several other new feature films on the program. The closing night film, Treeless Mountain is So Yong Kim's follow-up to the lovely low-budget In Between Days, and like that film is a U.S./ South Korean co-production. The opening night film is a U.S. premiere, also from Korea: My Dear Enemy, which joins director Lee Yoon-ki (of Ad Lib Night) with actress Jeon Do-yeon (of Secret Sunshine) in their first collaboration. The Centerpiece film is the directorial debut of Colma: the Musical actor/songwriter H.P. Mendoza. It's another indie musical shot in Frisco called Fruit Fly, and it plays at the Castro Sunday March 15th, followed by the SFIAAFF's annual Bollywood extravaganza; following last year's audience-award-winning presentation of Om Shanti Om, heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan is back in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Bong Joon-ho of the Host fame contributes to a portmanteau film with Frenchmen Leos Carax and Michel Gondry entitled Tokyo! And one of the biggest commercial hits of recent Thai cinema, a gay teen romance called The Love of Siam is on hand to represent mainland South-East Asia (there are no features from Vietnam, Malaysia, or Cambodia in this year's program.)

It's going to be hard to fit all of this and everything else intriguing into a workable viewing schedule so picking and choosing is mandatory. But I certainly don't want to miss 24 City, the latest from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-Ke, who was the subject of a complete retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive last autumn. The PFA is an SFIAAFF venue from March 13-21, and will play 24 City on Saturday afternoon, March 14th - opposite the only screenings of Kurosawa's License to Live, the Love of Siam, one of the two unique Iimura programs, and a conversation with my elementary school-mate Alex Tse (now a successful Hollywood screenwriter with Sucker Free City and Watchmen on his list of credits). Yikes! That's going to be a tough time slot to navigate! Luckily 24 City is also playing at the Kabuki on Sunday March 15th.

Of course I couldn't cover it all here tonight- there's also two competitive sections, one for narrative features and one for documentaries, that I haven't touched on at all. The International Showcase includes many titles I'm wholly unfamiliar with in addition to the ones mentioned above. There's always copious shorts programs, panels and parties as well. Better not make other plans for March 12-22!

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