Shopping for films: David Kaplan's Today s Special, which stars first-time scenarist (and Daily Show regular) Aasif Mandvi as a sous chef at a starry Manhattan French restaurant, opens the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival.

28th SF Int'l Asian American Film Festival

Dennis Harvey March 10, 2010

This year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival observes an organizational milestone: 2010 marks the beginning of a fourth decade for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), hitherto known (until 2005) as the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA).

CAAM’s and NAATA’s achievements over the last 30 years are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that an organization originally founded to nurture Asian American filmmakers (an effort given further muscle by strong support from the Center for Public Broadcasting) as well as counter ethnic stereotypes still prevailing in popular media (perhaps peaking with the protests against mid-late ’80s thrillers Year of the Dragon and Black Rain) has long since accomplished all that and more. Today’s CAAM can look back on helping to foster such important high-profile voices as Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, while stoking both present and future makers via its distribution, PBS presentation and funding arms.

The festival itself began in 1981 in partnership with New York City’s Asian Cinevision, presenting a West Coast version of that organization’s 1978-launched Asian American Film Fest. But when Cinevision was forced to postpone 1985’s event, NAATA decided to stage its own fully independent one starting the next year. SFIAAFF has long since become the largest of its kind in the U.S., its programming trickling down during ensuing calendar months to a network of similarly focused festivals around the country.

The 2010 edition doesn’t look backward any more than usual. There’s a “Classic Filipino American Shorts” program, and a retrospective of works by the late Lino Brocka, still the Philippines’ most famous director. While American (and particularly San Francisco) audiences may remember him most for 1988’s Macho Dancer, the homoerotic male-stripper melodrama that launched a thousand home-turf imitations, the four earlier works being revived encompass quasi-documentary realism, implicit critique of the Marcos regime, lush stylistics and more. Regrettably, many titles from the filmmaker’s relatively short but highly prolific career (1970-91) are for all practical purposes “lost”–available only in ragged 35mm prints, third-rate video dupes or not at all–so these screenings offer a rare chance to see his works as they were meant to be seen.

But the emphasis here is on new work, bookended by two comedies: March 11’s opening night kicks things off with David Kaplan’s Today’s Special, which stars first-time scenarist (and Daily Show regular) Aasif Mandvi as a sous chef at a starry Manhattan French restaurant who’s forced to take over his ailing father’s lowly Jackson Heights Tandoori joint. It’s a modest, pleasant if predictable tale of personal re-enculturation. Arvin Chen’s U.S.-Taiwan coproduction Au Revoir Taipei, the official SF closer on March 18, is a playful romantic caper that sends its protagonists chasing all over the titular city in pursuit of danger, intrigue and each other.

In between, the Castro Theatre Centerpiece presentation on March 15 is festival regular Quentin Lee’s (Shopping for Fangs) latest. The People I’ve Slept With is an often raunchy exercise that has Karina Anna Cheung as a free-loving Los Angelean trying to figure out who among recent conquests is her unplanned-baby daddy, with the sometimes hindering “help” of gay best friend Wilson Cruz.

Four “Special Presentations” run a gamut from more lightweight fun (Dilip Mehta’s Canadian Cooking With Stella, an Upstairs/Downstairs comedy set behind the scenes of New Delhi’s diplomatic corps) to the personal (Deann Borshay Liem’s In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, a sequel to her fine 1999 autobiographical inquiry First Person Plural) to the experimental (two feature-length parts from Chinese multi-media artist Yang Fudong’s quintet Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest). There’s also a “Spotlight” program of two very different new documentaries by SF-born Freida Lee Mock, the Oscar-winning director of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

In the Narrative Competition category, features by emerging U.S. artists include two quirky portraits of unconventional adolescent girlhoods (Dear Lemon Lima, Raspberry Magic), brooding art cinema (the Hong Kong-set Fog, SF-shot Hold the Sun), ensemble comedy (God is D_ad, by Abraham Lim of 2006’s excellent The Achievers), non-professional-cast docudrama (The Mountain Thief, about life in a rural Philippines landfill town), and psychological suspense (Make Yourself at Home, whose immigrant Korean wife does that with a vengeance).

Competing and non-competing U.S. documentaries encompass subjects from the only founding Asian American member of the Black Panthers (Aoki) and the Philippines’ great reformer (Ninoy Aquino & the Rise of People Power) to Hawaii’s very mixed-blessing statehood (State of Aloha), crosscultural adoption (Wo Ai Ni Mommy), post-Katrina activism in New Orleans’ Vietnamese community (A Village Called Versailles) and S.F. Chinatown’s great defunct movie palaces (A Moment in Time).

International nonfiction entries illustrate the impact of globalization on traditional farming (Thai Agrarian Utopia), and rare unvarnished glimpses of life in North Korea (Hana, Dul, Sed…, about its national women’s soccer team) and Iran (Tehran Without Permission, which stealthily records events leading up to last year’s contested elections).

The international narrative category ranges from the splashy (Zhou Xun and Li Binbing in lavish 1930s Chinese espionage drama The Message, Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone as two sets of lovers in two distinct eras) to the near-abstract (meticulous Filipina tribute to retro Hollywood jungle “exotica” Independencia, lyrical Thai drama Mundane History). There are also new features from Malaysia (Yasmin Ahmad’s final film Talentime), Taiwan/Hong Kong (Yon Fan’s historical fiction Prince of Tears and South Korean Hong Sang-soo’s ironic portrait-of-a-self-pitying-film-artist Like You Know It All).

Two specially presented features are of particular interest, one new and grim, the other old and giddy. The first is Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, a brutal, large-scale vision of the 1937 “Rape of Nanking” at the hands of invading Japanese forces. Strikingly shot in black-and-white, it’s an unconventional war epic in that the protagonists we’re occasionally allowed to pick out from hordes of variably panicked or heroic citizens, cruel, appalled or merely indifferent military are quite as likely to suffer a sudden violent death as any falling extra in the background. While it’s racked up acclaim on the fest circuit, it’s also been yanked from scheduled showings for political reasons by the Chinese government. So queue up and keep your fingers crossed.

The loony oldie is The Housemaid, South Korean Kim Ki-young’s 1960 anticipation of Fatal Attraction. In this crazed cautionary tale, an arrogant music teacher’s insensitivity toward some of his crush-prone female students leads to disaster—especially once he hires an seriously unstable young woman as servant to his delicate wife and two bratty children. The myriad crises that follow include but aren’t limited to episodes of seduction, hysteria, poisoning, strangling, blackmail, murder/suicide threats, D.I.Y. abortion (via the throw-oneself-down-the-stairs method pioneered by Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven) and horrible piano playing. As if all this weren’t more than enough, there a direct-audience-address postscript sure to leave your jaw permanently dropped.

The 2010 SF Asian American Fest also features live entertainment and social events, special online components, a new venue (Japantown’s VIZ Cinema) added to familiar SF, Berkeley and San Jose ones, plus yet more things we can’t be expected to remember in one sitting. Go to for the full scoop.

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