San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival back for its 30th year

From March 8 to 18, the Center for Asian American Media presents the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. This is one of many homegrown Bay Area fests that pays tribute to cineastes of difference who have otherwise been marginalized by the Hollywood machine. We cannot turn to the multiplex for representations of cultural plurality, and so, we have the film festival to thank.

Annually offering some 120 works to the Bay Area, SFIAAFF is the nation’s cornerstone of independent Asian American cinema. The name itself is a mouthful, but the overstuffed acronym is the perfect metaphor for how numinous and numerous are the voices here. SFIAAFF boasts narrative features, documentaries and shorts.

Some films on the docket take a political stance, while others just aim to entertain or move us. Encountering a cinema of difference doesn’t have to be work.

The fact that many entries in SFIAAFF, of this year and of seasons past, aren’t going to be acquired or distributed by major studios enables a rare artistic freedom. SFIAAFF has supported free-thinking filmmakers like Quentin Lee (director of this year’s opening night film “White Frog”) and H.P. Mendoza (the local filmmaker who helms “I am a Ghost”) since 1982, and will continue to do so as long as there is an audience. And in the Bay Area, there certainly is one.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.


“I am a Ghost” — Pacific Film Archive Theater, 3/10/12, 6:10 p.m. 

Local festival darling H.P. Mendoza’s latest genre-busting effort “I am a Ghost” is about a restless spirit whose repressed memories of murder are uncorked by a medium. “I had a terrible childhood,” Emily, who haunts a lavish Victorian mansion in some vacuum of time, tells the clairvoyant.

Every day, Emily relives the mundane routine of waking up in her lonely palace, psychotically frying eggs and then stabbing herself. Sometimes, she puts on a bonnet and picks sunflowers in the rain. Most of the time, she’s a shut-in.

“I am a Ghost” resembles a film-school-era David Lynch on the set of Jack Clayton’s 1961 “The Innocents,” yakking up haunted house tropes like creaky stairs, voices in the walls and doppelganger mischief.

Director of such fun, fizzy films as “Colma: The Musical” and “Fruitfly,” Mendoza stretches what is ostensibly a short film project to feature-length.

Though “Ghost” offers spooky visuals, especially striking when you consider the film’s meager Kickstarter-funded budget, it has no real spooks.

It doesn’t know if it wants to be a mock-horror movie or an actual one. The big reveal — I’ll give you a hint! It involves multiple personality disorder! — gets a halfhearted shrug from this horror freak.

But one scene involving a hysterical naked man and a bathroom door gives the film the jolt it needs. Still, H.P. Mendoza is no H.P. Lovecraft.

Ryan Lattanzio


“Bang Bang” — Pacific Film Archive Theater, 3/9/12, 8:50 p.m.

Byron Q, a University of California, San Diego graduate of film studies, makes his film debut with “Bang Bang,” a docufiction which peeks into the little-seen, gritty gang life of Asian American youth. “Bang Bang” stars Portland rapper Thai Ngo as Justin, a Vietnamese teen looking to make something of himself when the world has the opposite in mind.

The film confronts a myriad of issues. Byron Q examines the allure of the gang life for teens, as well as the Asian community’s diversity of experiences — class struggle, drug ubiquity and dysfunctional families all get screen time in this harrowing glimpse into the lives of youths seduced by consumerism and the promise of the good life. The movie is dialogue-heavy, but contains a healthy dose of action, with gang fights and gunshots aplenty.

“Bang Bang” suffers from a few drawbacks, namely the fact that the music occasionally overpowers the dialogue. Jump-cuts and stills are executed during the intense fight scenes — this cheapens their potential power. Low-budget issues aside, the movie boasts some authentic diction. When the characters spew profanity in the rough, urban vernacular that comes with the street life, we are reminded that the cast is largely unprofessional — many of the crew grew up surrounded by the gangs “Bang Bang” portrays. With an award for Best First Feature from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, “Bang Bang” is making waves and it’s sure to thrill.

— Natalie Reyes


“Salad Days” — SF Film Society Cinema at New People, 3/11/12, 5:00 p.m.

Follow three unemployed and inarticulate 20-somethings around the Bay Area. Add endless shots of social media sites. The molasses-paced outcome is “Salad Days,” the 74-minute long  offspring of writer/directors Hiram Chan, Jeff Mizushima and Emily Yoshida.

Ideally, “Salad Days” is meant to be a manifesto on the pronounced difficulties facing today’s youth in forging personal connections outside of a glowing screen. In reality, the film is a jumble of mumbled dialogue and a faulty plot. For example, in a dramatic moment of oversharing, a traumatized protagonist waxes on about having been “forced” to sleep on his girlfriend’s floor for four months, listening to the the sounds of her fucking another man nightly.

And though the film’s cinematography looks dangerously akin to having been shot on an iPhone, the original score by Jeff Mizushima is truly excellent.

Perhaps the only real joke in “Salad Days” — which is billed as “a comedy of tragic proportions” — is an inside joke, as even the actors in the film appear to laugh at the situations and dialogue being played out. The sad, neglected truth of the film is that even the greatest pieces of realistic voyeurism have to be slightly more artful than everyday drivel. Because ultimately, in the end, when all three stories meld together into one, when the salad has been tossed, we simply won’t care enough to take a bite, much less to digest it.

— Hannah Levy


“Return to Burma” — SF Film Society Cinema at New People, 3/10/12, 4:45 p.m.

Wang Xing-hong, the principal character in the film “Return to Burma,” is a good capitalist. He constantly assesses the prices of goods in the market, from rice cookers to peanut oil machines to Burmese women.  He compares the incomes of his family and friends.  He looks out for entrepreneurial opportunities.  He works nights to help corporations make profit.  Unfortunately, though his actions sustain capitalism, capitalism fails to sustain him.

Having grown up in Burma, Xing-hong moves to Taiwan to find work as a construction worker.  The film begins when he returns to Burma, and finds he must adjust to the lifestyle he left behind 12 years ago.  With shaky camera movements and documentary-style cinematography that captures the primitive beauty of the rural Burmese landscape, first time director Midi Z creates an undeniable sense of realism.

The film opens with a wide shot of an industrial landscape in Taiwan, large buildings under construction, long billboards hanging, money changing hands.  It closes with a shot of two men chopping wood in a lush, expansive forest, the repetitive thud of their axes like the steady heartbeat of nature.  The stark difference between the film’s opening and closing shots reflect its underlying theme, namely that a return to Burma, is a return to home, is a return to nature, is a return to a simpler, pre-capitalist sort of life.

— Kanwalroop Singh


“Ninja Kids” — Castro Theater, 3/11/12, 12:30 p.m.

Takashi Miike, master of ultra-brutal martial arts films such as “13 Assassins,” waters down his usual matrix back-bends and neck-snapping roundhouse kicks to a lukewarm PG in his new film “Ninja Kids.” In an attempt to combat the cliches, he tosses in inflated anime-inspired characters, creating a ludicrous children’s comedy.

Rontaro, the bright, wide-eyed cherub with a rust-colored mullet, is sent to train at the Ninja Academy. He and his precocious classmates fight off ridiculous villains like Captain Happosai, who has a massive butt chin and an engorged forehead that is too heavy for him to hold up.

Shot like a video game, the viewer aimlessly follows Rontaro and his friends around as they obliterate their enemies with bombs.

Miike’s satirical stabs at ninja culture are chuckle-worthy, with lines like, “Every ninja loves Ramen noodles,” and scenes with the Dean, who after awing the first-graders with his powers, jumps out the window for a dramatic exit only to cripple himself on the ground.

But the film dips into obscurity with characters like Ms. Shina, who switches between the bodies of an obese elderly women and a young vixen by farting. Mr. Saito, a hairdresser with Geisha drag-queen make-up, is even more disturbing, especially when the camera sits obtrusively close to his face while he spontaneously serenades the viewer.

Unless you are a ninja enthusiast or have an anime fetish, “Ninja Kids” is too absurd to endure.

— Allie Wallace


“The Front Line” — Castro Theater, 3/11/12, 9:00 p.m.

“The Front Line” tells the story of a platoon of South Korean soldiers, dubbed the Alligator Company, fighting for a disputed piece of land on the border between North and South Korea. The film attempts to depict the horrors of war by exploring different facets of these soldiers’ lives, as they hopelessly dream for a peaceful armistice that feels impossible.

Unfortunately, director Hun Jang adopts the same overused angle that many war films have taken. Jang continuously shows us horrific scenes of friendships torn apart, soldiers resorting to drug use to ameliorate their emotional pain, mutilated and orphaned children and drastic character transformations of soldiers turning into ruthless killing machines. The direction obsesses over cliched images of screaming troops and gory battles, where a quieter focus on the soldier’s internal warfare would have packed a more powerful punch.

What proves the most disappointing is that the movie never trusts itself to focus on a single narrative to engage its audience. Instead, it oscillates between a welter of subplots never explored to their full potential, thus downplaying the emotional impact it so desperately tries to achieve. With the melodrama upped to maximum volumes and the acting lowered to mawkish and amateurish levels, the film reduces itself to a forgettable soap opera, when it could have been an engaging commentary on the dehumanization of war.

— Braulio Ramirez


“Touch” — Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 3/11/12, 12:30

“Touch” is a movie that is unsurprisingly about, well, touch. The film follows Vietnamese nail salon worker, Tam, and Brendan, a white mechanic who goes to the salon to get his dirty fingers cleaned. The touch in the movie ranges from the professional, that between a nail salon worker and her client, to the intimate, Tam washing her disabled father. Then there’s the reoccurring flashback of a young Tam clinging to her mother’s legs- — the touch of dependency.

“Touch” is the first feature-length film from writer and director Minh Duc Nguyen, a UC Berkeley graduate. Nguyen presents a subtle story in some regards, in the way he explores these different aspects of human emotional and physical connections. Often, though, the narrative is stilted and awkward. It’s not apparent whether this is due to the acting or the script, but some of the interactions — between Tam and Brendan, Brendan and his wife, Tam and her father — are almost cringe-inducing. The two leads don’t speak much, at least not in the beginning, but whenever they do, they’re stating the obvious. “I feel like my marriage is falling apart,” Brendan announces bluntly.

For an Asian American-produced film, the white-male-Asian-female premise is disappointing and stale. The film’s lone Asian male who isn’t Tam’s father comes off as dull and uncompelling. However, Nguyen’s final product, despite rocky beginnings, ends on a surprisingly fresh and realistic high note.

— Michelle Ma


“No Look Pass” — SF Film Society Cinema at New People, 3/14/12, 9:00 p.m.

There is one lesbian Asian basketball player who plays for Harvard University. Her name is Emily Tay.  She is sometimes called a “ninja” by her teammates.  To say that she is interesting would be a gross understatement.

For a documentary filmmaker, a homosexual woman of color with exceptional athletic talent is someone who simply oozes good story material.  Melissa Johnson, the director of “No Look Pass,” recognized exactly this and chose Tay as the subject of her documentary.  She did the expected — included typical footage of her basketball games, narrated the story of her immigrant parents who achieved the American dream, explored the inner workings of her love life.  In short, this documentary is predictable.  It is about everything you thought it would be about.

Despite the fact that there were not many twists and turns, Jordan was able to forge an intimate bond with her subject.  The viewer can easily empathize with Tay and her quiet charm.

The spontaneous interactions between Tay and her best friend are the highlights of this film.  After making a joke about Tay, her best friend tells her defensively, “You make gay Asian jokes.”  Tay replies, “I’m allowed to, I am gay and Asian.”  The comment is a poignant, yet lighthearted reminder of the the subtleties and sensitivities of race and sexual orientation. There are some boundaries even best friends cannot cross.

— Kanwalroop Singh


“In the Family” — Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 3/9/12, 5:15 p.m.

“In the Family” demonstrates how a film can dwell in themes of sexuality, class and race without ever mentioning them explicitly. It is Patrick Wang’s labor of love, a film he self-distributed after it was rejected by every film festival imaginable. In detractors’ defense, its running time is unwieldy, clocking in at just less than three hours. But this gives us plenty of time to soak in what feels like a filmed play.

Set in present-day Tennessee, “In the Family” centers on Joey (Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John), a gay couple with a six-year-old son named Chip (Sebastian Banes). Joey is Asian American and Cody is white, but neither typifies the misrepresented homosexual we are used to seeing onscreen. An unexpected loss splinters the family, embroiling Joey in a custody battle with Cody’s surviving relatives and pitting him against the normative social structures that prohibit difference in America.

In dodging sensation and sentiment, the film doesn’t resemble art as much as it does life. Under Wang’s nimble direction, the performances are real and raw, and the dynamic between his fully rounded characters engenders the kind of naturalism we rarely see in films independent or otherwise. All the while, Wang indicts the exclusionary toll that conservative, straight culture can take on homosexuals and, for that matter, anyone who doesn’t embody convention. And the film, too, is anything but conventional, in spite of its hyper-relevant topic. Wang’s free-flowing form gives way to a new model of queer cinema, and perhaps of cinema entirely.

— Ryan Lattanzio


“The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” — SF Film Society Cinema at New People, 3/10/12, 12:00 p.m.

March 11, 2011 marked the day the cataclysmic Tohoku Earthquake, which birthed a tsunami of tremendous destructive power, devastating Japan. “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” a documentary by Lucy Walker, collects survivors’ stories a month after the disaster. Men who lost their dearest friends, children who were swept away by the oncoming ocean behemoth, people left powerless in the face of Japan’s most disastrous known earthquake — all these elements coalesce in this poignant Academy Award nominee to demonstrate the resilience of the human character in uniquely painful circumstances.

The cinematography is almost post-apocalyptic; it is as if a merciless giant has reached down and razed everything to the ground. The film juxtaposes images of wreckage with the budding sakura (Japanese for cherry blossom) — the ultimate symbol of rebirth and hope. The documentary, while short at 39 minutes, nevertheless captures the event in all its facets — for instance, Walker utilizes survivor-captured home footage to convey the destructive force of the tsunami and delves into the more controversial aftermath of the tragedy, like the nuclear plant meltdowns.

Though the documentary explores a heavy topic, the effect is not wearisome. Maybe it’s the sunlit cherry blossom imagery or the crisp execution of the scenes of wreckage. Whatever it may be, the film is not gloom-and-doom, but rather a well-lit rebirth, as if the sun were indeed rising over Japan. It’s moving and, in a sense, uplifting — it’s clear that these are survivors and not just the playthings of fate.

— Natalie Reyes


“Always” — Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 3/10/12, 1:00 p.m.

An operatic score. Tight close-ups of theatrical faces. An ex-con falling for a young and naive blind woman showing him what true love is. Cosmic forces working together to both unite and tear lovers apart. Originality –– or subtlety for that matter –– apparently does not exist in the “Always” dictionary, and Director Song Il-gon exploits every possible cliche to full effect, basically peppering his love story with telenovela ingredients.

“Always” tells the love story between Chul-min, a washed-up boxer, and Jung-hwa, a blind young woman working as a telemarketer. The film opens with their accidental meeting, as Jung-hwa awkwardly confuses Chul-min for her grandfather, who retired and has left his job as a parking-lot watchman to Chul-min. This awkward moment evolves into a cute pastime of sharing homemade food and watching Korean TV soaps. It’s a poignant opening scene that’s followed by every possible love story cliche you can imagine.

To the movie’s credit, the script at least never hesitates in cranking up the volumes of melodrama, tragedy and full-blown passion. It’s completely aware of its excess and it trusts its elements — the vapid writing, the blatantly histrionic acting and the inorganic plot devices — to move the viewer. But does it really move in the end? Well, if it doesn’t succeed in tugging at your heart strings than it at least services as an entertaining popcorn flick. You won’t get substance here, but there’s plenty of drama to drool over.

— Braulio Ramirez


“Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” — Pacific Film Archive Theater, 3/10/12, 4:00 p.m.

“Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” is a documentary that seems like it would be about racial politics. It opens up with a flurry of blunt voiceovers laying down the situation: Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, a Republican congressman elected in a historically black and overwhelmingly Democratic district of New Orleans. One voter puts it bluntly, “I think even as a Republican he might win, but he’s not black.”

Cao, however, does win, at least his first congressional campaign. As the film’s narrative unfolds though, it becomes clear that the overarching story is not so much one about race as it is one about the cynical reality of partisan politics. “Politics is quite brutal,” Cao says at the end of his second campaign, almost as if realizing it for the first time. The story we end up seeing is more about about an idealist, an honest, albeit naive man who got swept up in the wrong crowd than about a charismatic leader who blazed a trail for minority leaders everywhere (thought there are hints of that in Cao’s natural affability). Whether it’s due to the congressman’s inherent personality or skilled filmmaking, Cao comes off as incredibly empathetic and relatable. At one point during his campaign, a speaker makes a strongly stated racial slur, and the camera pans to Cao, sitting silently, his face blank. Director S. Leo Chiang has a steady hand, narrating silently through telling close-ups and choice television news clips that convey more than words often can.

— Michelle Ma