Fly, high: A rapt crowd stays on at the Castro for the Q&A after H.P. Mendoza's "Fruit Fly."

Connecting Here and There at the 27th SFIAAFF

Matt Sussman March 20, 2009

The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was atwitter with talk of interactivity. Center for Asian American Media Executive Director Stephen Gong was shooting the opening night crowd at the Castro with his Flip video camera, encouraging festival-goers to participate in the Best Fest digital photo and video competitions, before he even started in on his welcoming remarks. It was funny to routinely hear plugs throughout the festival for participating in up-to-the-minute virtual attendance in the same breath that audience members were reminded to not text during the screening. To some extent all the Web 2.0 hype seemed to point to the interesting crossroads SFIAFF finds itself at.

This year, SFIAFF feels like it has truly arrived as an internationally recognized platform for cross-Pacific cinematic exchange, thanks to the curatorial savvy and risk-taking of Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and new Assistant Director Vicci Ho, taking the baton from the irreplaceable Taro Goto. Each component of the Festival’s name felt like it had been given equal weight. In addition to feting local talent, and having the pleasure of getting to hear such established directors as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Ang Lee talk about their work, there were some smart re-envisioning of Asian American life that presented new takes on old identity politics. Film festivals are always a mixed bag, but SFIAAFF27 seemed especially attuned to the points of resonance, as well as dissonance, in its disparate cross-section of films from home, abroad and places in between.

At the same time, SFIAAFF—like many film festivals—has to contend with a changing film marketplace, which is slowly being de-centered by new channels of distribution and exhibition, such as streaming media. I’m not sure if the Festival’s stabs at digital DIY are necessarily going to address the larger issues presented by this shift. Then again, I’m reminded of web critic Clay Shirky’s recent salient point about media sea changes: "The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen."

Whatever the near future holds, it seems there will always be a soft spot for minor key romantic comedies; at least on opening nights. Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy was safe and sleepy considering some of the livelier—and perhaps no less crowd-pleasing—films in the festival’s line-up. By the fourth quarter, I had stopped caring if the two exes at its center ever fully kissed and made up, but would light up anytime female lead Jeon Do-yeon focused her kohl-rimmed eyes into a perfect expression of exasperation.

The big ticket on Friday was Tokyo Sonata, the latest film by Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who also received a mid-career retrospective. My observation on this site last week that Kurosawa’s studies of people in trouble are good medicine for tough times, seemed born out upon re-watching the remarkable final shot of Sonata with an equally breathless audience. Although, I’m not sure if my theory holds water when applied to the revenge diptych Serpent’s Path and Eye of the Spider, which a handful of Kurosawa devotees soldiered through at the Castro late into the night. Even the director jokingly admitted in his gracious prefatory remarks that those coming from the earlier Tokyo screening were in for a "rude awakening." The same could be said of the experimental short films of elder statesman Takahiko Iimura, which delivered a wonderful jolt of energy, absurd humor, and conceptual clarity on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.

Iimura’s precise, short shocks made for a interesting contrast with Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, Harry Kim’s exhaustive and exhausting decade in the making sprawling portrait of street artist and all around enfant terrible David Choe. Kim’s cut-a-minute editing barely manages to keep up with his subject’s stream-of-consciousness oversharing and ADD-addled globe trotting, which is part of the film’s appeal, even if there were a few editorial calls that erred on the side of Vice magazine rather than sound judgment. But I don’t think the heavily tattooed and edgily coiffed capacity crowd cared too much.

After the heavy-handedness and mixed results of Heaven on Earth, Deepa Mehta’s magical realist tale of a Punjabi woman’s struggles with married life in Toronto, and Kanchivaram, South Indian director Priyadarshan’s noir-ish tale of one silk weaver’s political awakening, local polymath H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly was practically rejuvenating. Making its world premier on Sunday night to a Castro packed with the film’s cast, crew and friends (and many folks who could claim all three titles), the CAAM funded film was a raucous and raunchy love letter to SF in the form of an extended music video. Although Fruit Fly felt less realized, in some respects, compared to Colma: The Musical, the Mendoza and Richard Wong collaboration that was the toast of SFIAFF ’06—Mendoza packs so much enthusiasm, ingenuity and flawlessly catchy music into his directorial debut so as to reduce any sustained attempts at criticism to mere quibbling.

Although Mendoza was only joking in the post-screening Q&A when he cited his "half-Asian, half gay" mixed identity as the inspiration for Fruit Fly, hybrid identities—specifically in regards to multiracial Asian Americans— was one of the more interesting and noticeable threads running through the festival. The most ambitious of the Festival’s interactive initiatives is the launch of, a multimedia online community for multiracial Asian Americans to share their stories. Several films also addressed the experiences of Asians with mixed race backgrounds.

Among these, Diamond Head (1963), the festival’s "Out of the Vaults" rep pick, and local filmmaker Jennifer Phang’s ambitious and beguiling Half-Life, made for interesting bookends to our country’s long history of tongue-tied ineloquence and repressive silence in regards to mixed race identity. It’s easy to laugh off Charlton Heston’s racist pineapple tycoon—apoplectic over the impending marriage of his kid sister to a native Hawaiian—as camp. But the one-drop paranoia of the Mad Men-era isn’t that far removed from the conflicted and often specious commentary about Barack Obama’s background that dogged the Hawaiian native son during his campaign.

The dystopic, near-future America depicted in Half-Life carries the faint whiff of another Bush régime, yet the film still speaks to the seductive and dangerous fiction of a "post-racial" America that many see (literally) embodied in the current administration. The Wu family is splitting apart faster than Kurosawa’s Sasaki clan in Tokyo Sonata, and the suburban bubble of the Diablo Valley is as much a prison as a shelter from a planet on the brink of collapse. Phang borrows from (Donnie Darko, American Beauty) and tries out (animated sequences, genre-bending) a lot of things in Half-Life — at times, too many things. But her writing is sharp enough, and her lead actors (many of whom are happa) talented enough, to touch on multi-hyphenated identity politics in a way that’s smart and never preachy or reductive. At this moment, it might be difficult for programmers to be able to see the forest for the trees amidst a changing media landscape. I don’t know about Twitter accounts, but continuing to present films such as Half-Life seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

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