Gangbangers, sex robots, and babydykes, oh my!
Now in its 19th year, the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has become an increasingly plush and rather important venue for showcasing recent cinema from countries as disparate as Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, China, and Hong Kong, and the Asian diaspora scattered throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. It’s the largest event of its kind in North America.
This year’s fest, based on a sampling of a dozen or so features, docs, and shorts compilations, runs the gamut from the tired to the transcendent, stopping at all points in between. Some of the higher-profile entries are surprisingly disappointing, but there are plenty of gems hidden in the less heralded films.
Opening night’s The Flip Side, a U.S./Philippine production directed by Rod Pulido, mines familiar territory in a too-familiar way to be very effective. Hunky Darius Delacruz (Verwin Gatpandan) returns from college obsessed with reintroducing his family to traditional Filipino culture – no easy task with a sister who’s an Americanized mallrat, a brother who copies the local gangstas, and parents who are caught between the old world and the new. Director Pulido writes some good laughs, and there are a few arresting images – some viewers will appreciate Gatpandan’s red-hot “Filipino jockstrap” scenes – but there’s little that’s new here.
A more interesting film, also centering on Filipino-Americans, closes the fest. Gene Cajayon’s The Debut is in some ways akin to an old Hollywood musical. This well-acted but sometimes shaky melodrama wisely backgrounds the narrative to scenes of traditional Filipino entertainment, with a dynamic “bamboo dance” being especially entrancing. As in The Flip Side, the film locates the hopes for repairing a dislocated culture in a vital but willful young man, here Ben Mercado (Dante Basco), whose decision to forsake a medical career for cartooning almost destroys his family. Cajayon milks the melodrama in gangbanging scenes but redeems the film in sudden encounters that spring to life, particularly those between Ben and his oppressive father, well played by 1970s Filipino heartthrob Tirso Cruz III. The Debut is most delightful in the stunning dance sequences, performed by two noted Filipino-American dance troupes.
Even more colorful but ultimately less satisfying is Shu Lea Cheang’s I.K.U., from Japan. This is typical of Cheang’s work, a vertiginous multimedia attack on the senses that leaves viewers alternately enthralled and gasping for air. A millennial “sex head movie,” this digital video production posits a dystopia in which the “Genom Corporation” advances the sexual revolution by creating “Gen-XXX I.K.U.” automatons. These insatiable sex robots cavort through a vivid nightmare of tech-noir a little too close to Blade Runner for comfort. Unlike the beloved replicants of that film, though, this happy little gang engage in all manner of explicit encounters from cocksucking to clit-gnawing to fucking in a car. As welcome as all this hardcore sex is, the film has the polish of an ultra-slick ad campaign, which finally makes all the high jinks exhausting. Go see it anyway for its state-of-the-art digital effects and loads of nudity, including hard-ons.
Closer to home is John Lee’s The Cut Runs Deep, a gritty neo-noir shot in New York and taking full advantage, even when the plot begins to pale, of the location. Korean-American Lee exploits themes of biracialism and cultural identity in the story of 16-year-old pizza boy Ben’s ascension into the ranks of a highly dysfunctional Korean mafia group. There’s a heavy homo subtext here, with androgynous leader “J.D.” mooning over young Ben (Alex Manning) as the irresistible essence of lost innocence. A successful early air of mystery eventually devolves into urban gangsta clichés, but the film remains intriguing to the (bitter) end. Director Lee might have thought twice, though, before casting Manning; he has to be the oldest-looking sixteen-year-old on the planet. Ramin Serry’s Maryam is another New York-based (well, mostly suburban New Jersey) story, this one about an Iranian-American family’s grim experiences during the Iran hostage crisis, when Middle Easterners were all painted with the same broad brush of “terrorist.” Newcomer Mariam Parris stands out as Maryam, the conflicted young cousin of Ali Armin (David Ackert), who gives a strong but somewhat hysterical performance as a revolutionary who comes to America to assassinate the Shah of Iran.
Among the fest’s oddities is South Korea’s Happy Funeral Director, by Moon-Il Chang. The director describes the subject of the film as “laughter and tears” but that hardly captures what goes on here. The story concerns four people: an aging patriarch (Oh Hyun-kyung) who wants his grandson Jae-hyun (Lim Chang-Jung) to take over his funeral business; and two strange young men, Chul-gu (Kim Chang-wan) and Dae-shik (Chung Eun-Pyo), who are ready to join the business. Unfortunately, nobody in the village dies, which leaves much time for the four to philosophize, fend off the sometimes obnoxious locals (“You just want to see my naked body after I die, right?” taunts an old lady), and play, as they cavort in the baths, wrestle, and generally fool around. The director says he did not instruct his actors on how to act, which may account for the engagingly ragged feel of the film.
There are plenty of solid documentaries this go-round, but one of the best is Kim-Chi Tyler’s Chac. The director, who works at CNN, was determined to discover what happened between her Vietnamese parents that caused her mother to escape with her children to America with an American man. The journey takes her to Vietnam, where she confronts – sometimes cruelly – her Vietnamese family. The film has the heft of a psychodrama as Tyler bitterly probes her relatives – particularly her real father, whose anguish at his daughter’s interrogation is painful to watch – to find a “truth” that’s elusive at best. What begins as an unretrievable past and an unbridgeable gulf between cultures becomes a study in personal exposure and, perhaps, healing of both Tyler and her two families. The film doubles as a fine ethnography, casually delineating the nuances of daily life in present-day Vietnam.
Another festival standout, and a queer one at that, is Kaze Shindo’s Love/Juice from Japan. Shindo’s name will be familiar to cinephiles; she’s the granddaughter of the great Kaneto Shindo (director of Onibaba, among others). Maybe it’s in the blood, because this is an amazingly mature work for a 24-year-old. Kyoko, straight, and Chinatsu, dyke, are roommates and best friends. Kyoko is a free spirit, doing whatever – and whomever – she pleases, while Chinatsu is a quiet artist who records her own life and the events around her in photographs. Chinatsu inevitably falls for Kyoko, who accommodates her or not as whim dictates. The relationship becomes increasingly problematic as Chinatsu’s love grows while Kyoko is luring them off to be “bunnies” at a nightclub or trying to fuck the local pet-store boy. Director Shindo uses a lyrical tone throughout, even when the girls are getting down (“If you love me, I’ll let you eat me,” Kyoko says), and the film is shot in shimmering pastels that provide an unnervingly polished surface for all kinds of cruelties that simmer below. The casualness of the sexuality (Kyoko: “I want to see you come!” Chinatsu: “I only finger my teats and box!”) recalls that other recent babydyke classic Show Me Love, but this one has such formal beauty and powerful suppressed emotions that it eclipses its predecessor. Love/Juice shows that Shindo is already a talent to be reckoned with.
Unscreened but undoubtedly of interest is Yongyooth Thongkonthun’s The Iron Ladies, a Thai comedy described as “the inexorable march of a volleyball team composed mostly of transsexuals, transvestites, and some rather effeminate gay guys to the Thai male national championships in 1996.” Sounds pretty inexorable all right.
More queer fun can be found in the Homo Knock Knock program, devoted to the boys (a corresponding program, Grrrls, Uninterrupted, was not screened). These mini-movies are irresistible, and satisfying in a way that features can’t be – if you don’t like the one you’re watching, a new one will shortly take its place. Not that they’re all great, or even good. Greg Pak’s Po Mo Knock Knock is a silly postmodernist joke that even had the temerity to generate a brief documentary about itself, Po Mo Love Doc. Wayne Yung’s Field Guide to Western Flowers lovingly honors boys kissing boys, with giant magnolias and other flowers superimposed over the giddy tongue-swapping. More serious and satisfying is Richard Fung’s Sea in the Blood, a complex dual biography of the filmmaker and his treasured sister, who died of a rare blood disease. Fung conflates that disease and AIDS in visualizations of a mysteriously seductive realm of death – shots of swimmers moving slowly through a sea tinted with red. These images are powerful poetry indeed, and typify the provocative pleasures of this enduring fest.