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Now in its 25th year, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival continues to be the biggest, baddest festival of its kind.
In my preview for last year's VC Film Fest, I wrote that the creation of an Asian American festival circuit is radically changing the function of Asian American film festivals around the country. With the rise of smaller festivals in the U.S. and Canada, the emphasis has shifted from hosting premieres to playing the "high-profile" Asian American films made visible by websites and blogs such as Angry Asian Man and others.
But the circuit and the buzz have to begin somewhere. For the luckiest Asian American filmmakers, the journey begins at Sundance. For everyone else, the place where aspiring auteurs get made and dreams become reality is the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival -- the Cannes Film Festival of the Asian American festival circuit. The Asian Cinevision festival in New York may be older (let's call it Asian America's Venice Film Festival), but the scene's center of mass draws audiences, journalists, and filmmakers to the Bay Area for one of the most important mid-sized film festivals in the United States.
As a former Bay Area resident, I remember the sold-out lines, the glitzy premieres, and, most importantly, the high quality of Asian and Asian American films you can't see commercially. SFIAAFF is also one of the more successful festivals to program thematically. Last year saw an emphasis on Asian male sexuality. This year, there seems to be a predilection for the hip, perhaps in an attempt to resurrect the monumental 1997 edition of the festival. On the SFIAAFF blog, critic/scholar Oliver Wang recalls the year when the tide of Asian American cinema turned away from the usual inter-generational assimilation tales in favor of depictions of everyday youth. What he calls "The Class of 1997" included Shopping for Fangs (Quentin Lee and Justin Lin), Strawberry Fields (Rea Tajiri), Sunsets (Michael Idemoto and Eric Nakamura), and Yellow (Chris Chan Lee).
Ten years later, Justin Lin and Chris Chan Lee appropriately make major returns to the Asian American festival scene. Lin, whose Better Luck Tomorrow was the opening night film in 2002, is opening this year's festival again with his first Asian American film, Finishing the Game, since making a pair of Hollywood features. Lee's Undoing is his first feature in nearly ten years. Other young, hip Asian American filmmakers are making SFIAAFF returns: Grace Lee follows-up her popular Grace Lee Project with a film about zombies, Gene Rhee is back with the romantic comedy The Trouble with Romance, and Eric Byler -- whose Americanese opened the festival last year -- brings to town his love triangle romance Tre. And in another major return (not that he ever really went away), is activist, teacher, and producer Spencer Nakasako, whose video projects like a.k.a. Don Bonus controversially challenged traditional modes of production and became one of the landmark American documentaries of its generation. Nakasako will participate in a conversation with Justin Lin on March 17. Finally, there's the panel discussion with the "Bad Boys" of Asian American cinema: Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, and Jon Moritsugu.
However, for my money, the most essential events of this year's festival are the local premieres of two films that provide perspectives on the past. One is the very first Chinese American film, Marion Wong's 1916 The Curse of Quon Gwon, which survives as recently discovered fragments were recently chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board. The second is a documentary which covers the 90 years after that. For years, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong has worked on Hollywood Chinese, a feature documentary about the representations and roles of Chinese in mainstream American film, with a special affection paid to the plights of actors like Anna May Wong and creative artists like James Wong Howe and Ang Lee. The Curse of Quon Gwon will likely go back into the vaults after this screening, while Dong's documentary will surely become the seminal film on the topic of Chinese Americans in Hollywood.
As usual, SFIAAFF excels in its programming of films from Asia. At the center is a comprehensive retrospective of the singular Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, whose seven features to date are among the most beloved in the international film festival scene. For the uninitiated, I strongly recommend Turning Gate, Hong's beautifully-constructed, unexpectedly-charming diptych on his usual themes: humiliation, rejection, sex.
Other must-sees from Asia include films from Asia's top auteurs -- Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century, Lou Ye's Summer Palace, Johnnie To's Exiled -- but also local premieres of features from Asia's emerging new wave -- Ato Bautista's Blackout, Cheng Yu-Chieh's Do Over, Yoo Ha's A Dirty Carnival, Lee Jun-ik's King and the Clown.
Finally, there are So Yong Kim's In Between Days and the festival-closer Dark Matter by iconoclast Chen Shi-zheng. Both films reside uneasily between such categories as "Asian" and "Asian American" cinema, the former film because of its appropriation of Asian-cosmopolitan art-film aesthetics for Asian American content, the latter for its casting of mainland Chinese star Liu Ye as a Chinese international student living in the United States. More than ever, the frontier of Asian American cinema seems to lie somewhere between Asia and the U.S., between art and commerce, and between the historical and the hip. It goes without saying that the fault line travels right through San Francisco.
For film schedules, check out the official SFIAAFF website.
For APA's past coverage of SFIAAFF, click here.
Past Asia Pacific Arts coverage of SIFAAFF films:
Click here for APA's capsule reviews of Summer Palace and King and the Clown from the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
APA's interview with Cheng Yu-Chieh and a review of his film Do Over from the Taipei International Film Festival.
APA's review of In Between Days and Undoing, as well as a conversation with Undoing stars Sung Kang and Russell Wong
APA on the DVD for Yellow
APA on the films of Hong Sang-soo
APA's capsule reviews of Woman on the Beach and Blackout from the American Film Market
Date Posted: 3/16/2007