Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival 29, a crossroads of all things Asian, opens this Thursday and runs through March 20, 2011

Opening this Thursday and running through March 20, 2011, the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is screening 108 feature films, documentaries and videos from all points of the globe Asian—from Cambodia to India to Iran to Philippines to Mongolia to Vietnam and many more countries.  It also includes local films produced by or about Asian Americans in places as ordinary as San Francisco and as mysterious as North Korea.  The festival is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian and Asian American films and whatever your interest, it has something for you—horror, drama, documentaries, action, martial arts, musicals, shorts.  Stay tuned to ARThound for reviews.

Details:  Screenings are at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Viz Cinema, Landmark Clay Theatre, Japantown Peace Plaza, Castro Theatre and VIZ Cinema in San Francisco, and in San Jose at Camera 12 Cinemas and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive.  Tickets for most events are $10 to $12.  For details, call (415) 865-1588 or

March 8, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , | Leave a comment

It’s film festival time again– SFIAAFF 28 Opens on Thursday March 11, 2010


It’s film festival season again and this year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens its 10 day run on Thursday March 11, 2010, with a gala premiere at the Asian Art Museum of  David Kaplan’s food-centric romantic comedy “Today’s Special,” starring “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi and celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey.  This year’s festival offers a fantastic program, showcasing 109 of the very best new Asian and Asian American films and videos from around the globe, with 4 films mkaing their global premieres.  Thirteen films have special connections to our Bay Area.  I always attend SFIAFF because the films are wonderfully diverse with fantastic storylines and I love their “out of the vaults” selections of old classics like the 1960 South Korean black and white cult thriller, “The Housemaid” (“Hanyeo”) whose director Kim Ki-Young is South Korea’s Luis Buñuel.  This film was discovered in the West in 2003– 40 years after its debut in Korea and considered one of the top three Korean films ever made.  The story revolves around a music teacher and his live in help–rat poison, blackmail, abortion, suicide and murder—all contribute to a farfetched but engrossing story.    The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), in San Francisco, is actively involved in producing a lot of these films, so the screenings have a warm familial quality to them.  This year, there is a strong emphasis on Filipino and Filipino American media-making through retrospectives, exciting new films and a CAAM-produced mobile game. The festival takes place in San Francisco (Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Landmark’s Clay Theater, VIZ Cinema), Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas).  Most of these films sell out early, so buy your tickets online in advance, or you can try on the day of the event at the screening venue.  Here are ARThound’s top picks:

Catch a Lino Broca flick—This year’s SFIAAFF featured director is Filipino Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and if you aren’t familiar with his work, you need to be.  The festival offers a unique chance to see four of his rarest masterpieces, beloved classics that delve into the heart of being Filipino and melodramatically capture themes of marginalization, family life and honor.  His 1985 political commentary “Bayan Ko” (screens Thursday, March 18 at PFA) had to be smuggled into France to be shown at Cannes which led to his citizenship being revoked by an angry Marcos regime. But even Marcos could not stop him, and he and a few others made the 1970s and early 1980s a golden age for Tagalog films in a country whose people are still among the most avid filmgoers in the world.  “Insiang” (screens Saturday, March 13 at Kabuki) may be Broca’s greatest film ever– depicting motherhood turned on its head–offering a mother so selfish and treacherous that we can hardly believe the impact of her poor judgement and cruelty as it plays out on her daughter, Insiang, in the slums of Tondo.  

“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee(world premiere)  Berkeley director Deann Borshay Liem journeys back to Korea to explore her true identity  after living with the knowledge that the name on her adoption papers “Cha Jung Hee,” given to her at age 8, is not her true identity at all.  Liem was adopted at age 8 from the The Sun Duck orphanage in South Korea in the 1960’s and sent to America as “Cha Jung Hee” for her eager American adoptive family–Borshays.  Liem grew up as “Deann” in this very loving family and lived her life quite successfully.  She ultimately became the executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.  She essentially forgot who she was before she came to America.  Through dreams and events that jarred long-suppressed childhood memories, the urge to know her story became an obsession.  She began to believe that she was both victim and complicit in a complex hoax that altered the course of her life and the life of the real Cha Jung Hee, whose place she had taken in America.   The film captures her attempts to heal as she pieces together her identity with what facts she can find and people she meets along the way.  Masterful editing, blending scenes from the Korean war, with stills of the orphanage, with Liem’s home movies from the 1960’s, with Liem’s experiences in Korea  add to the dreamlike quality of this film.   This is a sequel to her Emmy award winning “First Person Plural” from 1999.   

“Tehran without Permission” is Sepideh Farsi’s intimate portrayal of contemporary life in this mysterious Persian capital city that was thrust to our attention last year with its notorious election scandal.  The film was shot entirely and discretely with a Nokia cell phone and captures the pulse of what’s happening in Tehran’s streets as well as within private residences—the only havens where people can literally let their hair down.  What’s amazing about this film is its testament to the human spirit—these courageous, stubborn and hopeful people have adapted to the bizarre restrictions imposed on them with a kind of national schizophrenia that allows them to lead one life on the streets and another behind closed doors.  (In Farsi with English subtitles.) 

“Agrarian Utopia” is Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s cinematically stunning acccount of the beauty and hardships of daily life in a traditional Thai farming community against the backdrop of globalization.  The film captures two tenant farmers and their families through a harrowing but typical rice crop season by focusing on their daily lives from dawn till dusk.  The pace is slow and unhurried and draws the viewer into the sublime experience of living in nature and being subject to its whims–floods, electrical storms, thick morning mists and spectacular sunsets.   Seductive were it not for the need to survive and the desire to offer a better life to your children.  They face crippling debts,  uncertain market prices, uncoopertive water buffalos, the forces of nature and a daily struggle for food.   Facing pressure from their wives, they refuse to abandon what they have and know for uncertain  factory jobs in an alienating urban environment.  They hold out against increasingly unsurmountable odds, hoping for a turn of events but distrustful of the electioneering politicians in distant Bangkok who are crying for reform and a return to farm subsidies with reasonable repayment rates.  We watch them trap and eat rats, snakes, dogs, worms, and honey-whatever they can find and–they remain genuinely thankful for daily survivial.   One neighboring farmer, divorced, and with no obligtaions, has embraced organic farming which requires more work initially but has long-term benefits.  Sadly, these families feel they do not have the luxury of time and chose to struggle on.  (In Thai with English subtitles.) 

“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4-5” The West Coast premiere of Shanghai conceptual artist Yang Fudong’s (born 1971, Beijing) five-part black and white cinematic extravaganza that explores the uncertainty facing China’s new generation of urban youth as they confront the disparities between their real and imagined lives set against the backdrop China’s new and rapid modernity.  The highly-acclaimed series made a splash at the Venice Biennial and recalls the black-and-white prewar films of the 1930s and 1940s China and postwar avant-garde film noir.  The title references the legendary Seven Sages, a group of 3rd century Chinese intellectuals who separated themselves from civil society to lead Daoist-inspired lives (fueled with heavy alcohol consumption) in the countryside.  Parts 4 and 5 complement the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  Part 4 covers incarnations of the seven intellectuals as fishermen and travelers in a new frontier isolated and alienated.  In Part 5, the seven intellectuals return to Shanghai, where they take up meaningless jobs. They are shown drinking and cavorting (full frontal nidity) in a banquet hall, and as the scenes take on an increasingly surrealistic tone, the nonsensical seems an analogy of contemporary urban life. 

The festival closes with a gala premiere of Bay Area-native Arvin Chen’s campy romance “Au Revoir Taipei,” set in Taipei’s markets, back alleys and karaoke bars.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Director H.P. Mendoza chats about “Fruit Fly”

March 13, 2009  San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Geneva Anderson and H.P. Mendoza at PFA, Berkeley

Geneva Anderson and H.P. Mendoza at PFA, Berkeley

 H.P. Mendoza, director of the 2006 indie hit “Colma: The Musical” is back with a new musical, “Fruit Fly,” which premiered on March 14 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.   The film was shot in HD in San Francisco’s Castro and Mission Districts over a three week period and brings back Colma cinematographer Richard Wong and leading lady-songstress L.A. Renigen.  Mendoza has outdone himself with 19 original songs that go down smooth but often pack a lyrical wallop.  The story tracks Bethesda (Renigen), a twenty something Filipina adoptee-performance artist who has just relocated to San Francisco and moved into a communal artists’ crash-pad in the Castro. She is searching for a venue for her next gig while flirting with searching for her birthmother.   As soon as Bethesda befriends gay roomie, Windham, and steps out into her new neighborhood, she is labeled a fag hag.  While she doesn’t take kindly to labels, she’s not really sure who she is, how she fits and where home is.  Her journey is one of gradual empowerment:  she gets a voice and learns what family really means with a few twists and turns along the way.  I had the opportunity to chat with H.D. Mendoza about his work just before the world premiere of “Fruit Fly” at the Castro Theatre on March 13, 2009.

G.A.:  What importance does the adoption theme play in the storyline and what inspired your decision to create Bethesda as an adoptee who is grappling with her identity?  Do you have any personal experience with adoption? 

H.D. Mendoza:   I not sure if it’s sign of where I grew up, or of the times, but for some reason, it turns out that a lot of my life-long friends found out they were adopted and went through all sorts of emotions and it’s something that I became very familiar with.  The film is based on my experience and that of L.A. Renigen, who plays Bethesda, who actually is a performance artist and who actually has two families, two sets of parents.   I won’t tell her story for her, but I will say that she deals with two families and lives that complexity.

I also based Bethesda off the many Korean adoptees I’ve met over the years.  I have a friend who I’ve never really asked about this, and I don’t know why, but he’s a Korean guy and his last name is German and I’ve never questioned it.  It might have come up as a joke one time but we never really addressed it in a serious way.  I think we assumed he was HAPA and that he was the only kid.  Then, we find out that he’s adopted and that he shares the same plight as all my other adoptee friends have. 

G.A.:  You mean longing for their true identity?

H.D. Mendoza:   Yes.  My friends were all told later in life that they were adopted and they all reacted differently. Some were angry that they hadn’t been told earlier and kind of lashed out like teenagers do -“Why would you tell me now?” that sort of thing.  They’re basically ok with it now though.    Others were ok with it from the get go. 

I asked one friend if she had any curiosity to find out who her biological parents were and she said no.   I asked her why not.  She said that there’s lots of information out there to be found but the truth is that she knows who her family is.

G.A.:    It seems to be an individual choice that needs to be respected.   Some people need to search and others don’t seem to need to.

H.D. Mendoza:      That’s one theme I wanted to really drive home.  I wanted Bethesda to actually utter the line, “I just want to know where home is.”   I also didn’t want make the glib point that “home is where you make it.”  That’s true enough, of course, but what if you are a person who is transient, like she is?  What if you are a performance artist who is going to end up living in different places all the time?  You are going to make family wherever you go.  Some people have it in them to keep these friendships they make along the way; others don’t.   When you have no living family that you are connected to, these connections become vital.

I actually met an adoptee who would do her one woman show but she would never talk about being adopted, never.  Instead, she only talked about who she dated and the abusive relationships she’d been in.  I asked her about that, about why wouldn’t she put adoption in her show because she is very likeable and people who go to her show would be fascinated by that aspect of her story.  She said there was no way to tackle an adoptee without becoming smaltzty.  That’s where I beg to differ.  I think you can handle an adoptee without looking and sounding like an after-school special.  That is what spurred me to write Bethesda as a flushed-out character, like I did.

G.A.:  You put a lot of detail into Bethesda’s personality…she is grappling but her awareness is growing throughout the film…It’s interesting that her art/her performance is alluded to throughout the film but only near the end do we get a glimpse of how she actually enacts this.  It was also inspirational to see how she rallied to help 17 year old runaway boy with his performance, his moment of self-actualization. It was a very moving gift she gave him. I think it’s very appropriate that you left her as a work in progress.  What options were you considering in terms of how much you revealed about her connection to her birthparents?

H.D. Mendoza:    In musicals, you often have the ingénue who doesn’t have anything in her head: she has been designed to sing and to be sought after by the musical hero.  I told L.A. Renigen that I wanted her to look like she might have been designed to be that but I also wanted it to look like the gears are turning.  I wanted her to be scrutinizing everything around her.  For a lot of the movie, it could seem like she just stands there while people talk.  L.A. Renigen nailed it and actually brought this sorrow to her performance that I wasn’t expecting to see.  There’s this scene where she’s talking about her performance art to Jacob the runaway and you see her drift off in her melancholy for a few seconds and you don’t know what she’s thinking and I think that’s great.

G.A.:  Plot-wise, Bethesda is dropped into a San Francisco artists’ residence filled with creative but struggling Asian twenty-somethings who are searching for meaning, belonging and connection.  Is this a rough period age-wise for young gay Asians?   How are young gay Asians typically depicted in film?

H.D. Mendoza:      I have more experience with young Asian lesbians than gay men.  My gay Asian male friends never spoke much about their wounding and I don’t know why.  I think a lot of that has to do with oppression and guilt in the gay community.  You go to the Castro and it’s great that we have a gay neighborhood but it is a gay white male town.  Gay Asians are often emasculated in the community, so we often have to stick together.  Lesbians going to the Castro have two knocks against them-they are female and Asian.

They’ve got it rough. 

I see Karen and Sharon, the two lesbian young women in the film, as the two who don’t have any issues with their identity at all but it required that house, that family, to get there.  The fag hags on the other hand, there’s a huge debate about what makes women, especially Asian women, fag hags.  I was talking with Jennifer Phang, who also has a film (“Half-Life”) in this festival about this.  We were talking about how when you have Asian women, or actually any women, growing up and criticizing themselves according to what the billboards say real women should be or should look like, and living in a man’s world, a lot times they get that instant affirmation from gay men.  Gay men are non-threatening, so the women feel they have nothing to prove.  The gay men don’t feel emasculated for not being able to get a woman because they don’t have to.  They come together and form this bond.  There is this certain misogyny that exists in gay culture where it’s ok for gay men to use pejoratives and make fun of female genitalia or to use names, for example, “bitch” about a woman they don’t even know.  Is that ever ok?  Not in my book.

G.A.:   That level of critical awareness is behind some of the graphic song lyrics too, right?   I was really moved, seduced, by the very soft almost Cole Porter-like melodies and then, sometimes, there would be these highly-provocative lyrics. You’re using music and lyric in a very interesting way.

H.D. Mendoza:  I’ve been criticized for this actually. At some early screenings, people actually walked out, saying it was filthy and potty-mouthed.

G.A.:    It goes down so easily and you’re left with this aftertaste of …wow…did I really hear that?  This is especially true of the song that the two men sing together but in all honestly, the words actually seemed to fit the situation very well.

H.D. Mendoza:    Well, yes, that is a song that has very graphic frank talk about sex. A lot of time, people cannot really relate unless they are frank.   If that exact kind of language were spoken between a man and a woman, that would make it into a PG-13 movie.  I am addressing that.  I am putting it right there and if you do need to walk out, then it’s probably not your type of movie.  I just saw “SuperBad,” which is a big blockbuster film, and I realized while watching it that this is 30 times raunchier than anything in “Fruit Fly” yet people are ok with it…my family, for example, loved it.  And it’s ok because it’s boys talking about teenage girls.  This is very interesting.

G.A.:    The element of provocation in “Fruit Fly” is very important as a side-theme that supports the main story and it was highly effective.   The way you use music and lyric is very unique as well.

H.D. Mendoza:  Thank you.  When you put it in a waltz it soothes you into a stupor and then when you hear the words, it kind of slaps you across the face. 

G.A.: Does the “fag hag” label tend to be a particularly burdensome for a young Asian woman?

H.D. Mendoza:     I will say that we can thank Margaret Cho for being the quintessential fag hag.  She calls herself one and does it in every show she does and she’s actually explained what that means to middle America, just in case they don’t know what that means.  And once her show was broadcast across the nation, it became a normal term, so the face of fag-hagdom belongs to Margaret Cho. 

The truth is that during Colma, we would all go to the parties and maybe 80 % of the parties we would go to, gay men would walk up to LA Renigen and tell her that she was like Marget Cho.  They would say, “Girl you are fierce,” that sort of thing.  And this is without her even opening her mouth.  After a while, it got to her.  When they would ask who she was with, she started answering that she was with the Colma crew and H.P.   They would say “Oh, you’re a fag hag.”   And she would say, “Actually, no. H.P.’s one of my three gay friends.  How can you assume that about me?”  

She would get a lot of  “oh, whatever girl, you know what you are; don’t be a coy bitch.”   And she would ask them how they could call her a fag hag and a bitch without even knowing her.

Unfortunately, that’s part of the “harmless misogyny” of the gay lifestyle which is why I am fighting for more feminist thought in the gay community. I think it’s a shame that it’s accepted to make these horribly sexist statements and that it’s ok because you are a gay man. 

G.A.:  I thought you handled that pretty well in the film through some of her comebacks.

H.D. Mendoza:     I really wanted to make sure that the lesbians got their say.  Whenever I see an example of that kind of behavior in a gay bar–where there’s one woman surrounded by all these gay men and they are calling her all these things, saying you’re this type of a cunt or this kind of a bitch and we love this and that…I am thinking that I just want her to say something back.  I want her to find her voice.

Most of the media out there make it seem like this is normal behavior for a gay man and you needn’t be so uptight.  And I am thinking, no, you should upset and, yes, you need to be more respectful.  I swear, if there were a bunch of straight men and they were surrounding one gay man and calling him a fag, it would not be tolerated.  In the best case scenario, I would love for a teenage girl out there to watch these scenes in “Fruit Fly” and realize that she can come up with her own comebacks too, as opposed to what the norm is–just excusing them and saying something like…oh you; you’re so crazy.  This is obnoxious.

G.A.: The song about the photograph is very moving–it is sung twice in the movie. It epitomizes how we as adoptees can romanticize connections, real or imagined, through photographs.    It also expresses that kind of longing that we who are searching for an unknown birth parent or sibling or child may feel.  We have the expectation that this illusive connection we so desperately seek is going to ground us and give us the direction we need.  What experiences did you draw on when you wrote that song?

 H.D. Mendoza:   It’s not about my specific personal remembrances, but all old photographs are remembrances.  My own experiences while writing that song—I often wonder where my father is.  I haven’t spoken with my father in 15 years and there’s kind of a trail off from “Colma the Musical” where you have the father who left and went away and now you have the song that addresses that.  I often do wonder where my father is and what he is doing.  Sometimes, when I would visit my mother, and my partner and I would be going through old albums, I’d find these pictures of my father and I’d get these strange nostalgic feelings.  Those feelings lingered and I often felt those feelings were my own until I went to a friend’s house and I started looking at his family albums and I thought how weird would it be if I found a picture of my father in his family album.  You know these things are ephemeral and who knows if these people are dead or alive.

G.A.:  You put a lot of thought into the development of Bethesda’s character, her personality.  There were so many moments in the film when she did things that were inspirational, for example, the ending, when she rallied to help Jacob with his performance, giving him this incredible gift.  The movie essentially closes with us not knowing what she will do with respect to her search.  What were you considering when you wrote her character and how much you would reveal to the audience about her intentions towards her birthparents and how far you’d take her story?

H.D. Mendoza:     I always know where I wanted her character to go.  How she went about getting there, from beginning to end, was a different story.  There are two camps really.  I would like for adoptees who are still searching to be able to watch this and relate to that ending which, in fact, says the journey is not over.  The film, as you might recall, starts with her landlord saying this sounds like quite a journey and she says it isn’t over yet.

There are also a lot of people who have been disappointed with the ending and are saying…who is her mother?   The truth is that it’s up to her whether she wants to keep going and to actually look for her.  There’s that.  Maybe she doesn’t have the will and the desire to do that, but the one thing that she did get out of the experience so far is the realization that, at this moment, she does have a family.  These people were doing everything in their power to support her and her performance art.  When she realizes that she is actually angering these people in the house, she decides to help out her fellow brother who essentially becomes her little brother. 

So, all of a sudden, she just clicks.  I wanted her to be in a song where she’s not the lead.  I wanted to have her organically fit with the others on stage… and everybody in the audience is also part of the song and at the very end, at the finale of the song, everyone can be seen and they are all in one pose…and that’s what she got out of it.  Where she goes from there is up to her.

 G.A.:   Can you explain how you came up with the title “Fruit Fly?  Is Bethesda the lure for these “fruity” guys who are behaving like fruit flies, swarming around her? 

 H.D. Mendoza:      I think there’s become this new awareness that “fag hag” is not such a nice term.    “Fruit Fly” is very new and it’s something that I’ve heard from a few people within the past two years.  When you look at the definition of a fag hag, there are all these negative connotations-that the woman who is too ugly to land a man so she hangs out with gay men and that she also has a sexual attraction to those gay men.  It makes the woman sound sinister.  “Fruit fly” sounds like there are these cute little bugs who just like to hover around fruit and that’s essentially where it comes from.  The other argument is that fruit flies hover over rotten or overly ripe fruit, but that’s for another movie. 

My point is that people will always try to pigeon hole you and to label you because it makes them more comfortable.   You may be offended by this, but there are dozens of other labels out there that you can consciously choose to adopt. Actually, I would love for someone to challenge “fruit fly” too because labels should always be challenged.  Labels are at the core of our identity. 

I have friends from college who are proud fag hags and I mean they are really proud of that…but no one actually knows their names.  They go to these bars and they can be a fag hag with big hair and just hide behind that.  I am not saying this is wrong because there are a lot of characters in the bar scene but to just be a character defined by a label is very limiting.   With the film title, I wanted to kind of draw people in and have them thinking this a film about a fag hag and, at the end, have them realize this is a film about identity and home.

G.A.:   Speaking of home…Bethesda has lost her adoptive parents and her only remaining connection to her adoptive family is through those telephone conversations between her and her Filipina aunt.  Those conversations were touching and very real.  As adoptees, we frequently have to manage relationships where people don’t fully understand what we are struggling with. 

H.D. Mendoza:     Yes, that was my way of tackling the idea of the villain, which tends to be written a certain way.  The villain is generally the older aunt or some older authority figure.  Why is this always black or white?  What would happen if the person who was the villain actually came to her senses?  It does happen you know.  Maybe some of these villains are ignorant and once they are educated, they do come to their senses. I wanted to have that sense of humanity to her.

G.A.:   Interesting… in therapeutic terms, the villain is that person who carries the negative projections.  What I’ve experienced as an adult adoptee is that you are always managing all these relationships with people (relatives or friends) where your adoption and their awareness and sensitivity and understanding is a factor.  This can be about your search or your emerging relationship or lack of relationship with a sibling or birth mother…sometime these relationships become triangulated and very complex.  You don’t see them necessarily as villains but you hope for compassion and for them to have empathy for how complex and draining it can be.   In the film, we know that Bethesda’s adoptive parents have both died and that this aunt in Manilla is her birthfather’s sister.  He is dead and her birthmother is missing, so this aunt is represents her blood family.  This is really important to an adoptee.

H.D. Mendoza:  Yes and this aunt, who is another time zone, is really trying to love her, along with annoying her.  It’s really very human. 

G.A.:  What’s your next project?

H.D. Mendoza:  Well, it’s not a musical.  And I’m probably not going to be doing another musical for quite some time.

G.A.:  Pigeon-holed?

H.D. Mendoza:   Yes.  There are other stories that I want to tell. I have this pile of scripts that I’m developing and I can see very clearly that the next musical is at the bottom of the stack, 5 scripts down. 

Right now, I’m working on a non-musical dark comedy about Prop 8, which is set after Prop 8 passes.  It’s about a playwright who was told that Prop 8 was never going to pass and, as soon as it passes, he goes wild with anger and writes this really angry play about Prop 8 and alienates his partner in the process.   It is a comedy and I know it sounds very heavy, but Prop 8 is very heavy.

March 15, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

27th San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival

SFIAAFF March 12-22, 2009


It’s film festival season again but in this new economy, the operative term is downsize. The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens today with a smaller than usual but exceptional program of 100+ new Asian American films. Fortunately, most of the financing was arranged last year before the crisis really kicked in, so most of the sponsorship was locked in.  Other festivals will not be so lucky.  I am particularly attached to SFIAFF because the programming is wonderfully diverse and the Center for Asian American Media (CAM) is actively involved in producing a lot of these films, so the screenings have a warm familial quality to them.  The festival takes place in San Francisco (Sundance Cinemas, Castro Theatre, and Landmark’s Clay Theater), Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas). Most of these films sell out early, so buy your tickets online in advance.  Here are ARThound’s picks:

The Festival opens with the world premiere of H.P. Mendoza’s exhilarating musical “Fruit Fly” which was shot in San Francisco.  Mendoza was the lead actor and director of “Colma: The Musical” which premiered at SFAAFF ’06.  “Fruit Fly” follows Bethesda, a Filipina performance artist-adoptee and “fag hag” as she navigates her own self discovery in song.  The term “Fruit Fly” is a softer, gentler interpretation of “fag hag” but Mendoza’s candid exploration of stereotyping and the impact of labels in the gay community is what gives this refreshing and candid musical its substance.  Mendoza wrote the 19 songs and brings Colma’s lead songtress, L.A. Renigen, in the lead role.

Tokyo Sonata”: Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s penetrating portrayal of the impact of economic downsizing on Ruhei Sasaki, a Japanese mid-career administrator and his family.  Initially, the shamed Ruhei hides that he lost his job from his family and suits up and pretends to go to work everyday.  Meanwhile, his idealistic teenage son decides to enlist in the U.S. military, while his younger son embarks on secret piano lessons going against his father’s will.  His lovely wife has her own crisis and suddenly, everything seems to unravel in the family as Ruhei’s sense of purpose and identity fade.

“The Chaser”: If you’re hungry for penetrating psychological horror, “The Chaser” by South Korean director Na Hong-jin will pre-occupy your thoughts and dreams for days.  The film is essentially a cat and mouse game between a former cop turned pimp whose call girl has gone missing and a serial killer with a fetish for hammers, chisels and religious iconography.  It turns triangular when the cops get involved.  Set late night in the back alleys of residential Seoul, the film’s plot is refreshingly unpredictable and skips special effects and high tech forensic crime scene analysis in lieu of a simple black satchel filled with killing implements, a jingling set of keys and lucky car crashes.

Ang Lee and “Lust, Caution”: Ang Lee will be talking with UC Berkeley’s resident sexologist Linda Williams about his new epic film at a special screening of “Lust, Caution” at UC Berkeley.  Set against the back-drop of a 1940’s Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, the film follows an assassination attempt against the imperious official Yee by Wong Chia Chi, a beguiling young actress in a resistance theatre troupe. Wong Chia Chi befriends Yee’s wife (Joan Chen), a mahjong mistress, so that she can seduce and entrap Yee.  A mesmerizing epic whose deeply passionate, consuming and at times violent sex scenes have slowed its mainstream release.       

“Project Kashmir:” Situated between India and Pakistan, breathtaking Kashmir is the destination for two American women, Geeta and Senain, who want to know what life is really like in this paradise turned blood bowl.  Shot by Academy-award winning filmmaker Ross Kauffman, “Project Kashmir” tracks the two women as they search for the truth through interviews with aid workers, journalists and activists and their friendship is put on the line when their beliefs differ.

March 12, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment