SF Int’l Asian American Film Festival 2009: Reviews

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Film Fest 09

The 27th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) takes place Mar. 12 to 22. Presented by the Center for Asian America Media, the festival is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films annually, presenting approximately 120 works in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose.  Since 1982, the SFIAAFF has been an important launching point for Asian American independent filmmakers as well as a vital source for new Asian cinema. Here is a look at this year’s highlights.

White on Rice

White on Rice

If I had to describe White On Rice with one word, that would be: cute.  Being cute is not a negative when it comes to romantic comedies and that quality counts for a lot in director/co-writer Dave Boyle’s follow-up to his feature debut Big Dreams Little Tokyo.

White On Rice is a genial, mostly charming romantic comedy (co-written with Joel Clark) about Jimmy, a recent Japanese divorcee who moves in with his sister and her family and has no real prospects for a career, love or a future of any sort.

Played by Hiroshi Watanabe, Jimmy is a modern-day Candide, eternally optimistic as he flits from one misadventure to another, never losing his bright outlook even when faced with depressing situations.
One reason for his cheerful attitude is the arrival of Ramona (Lynn Chen), the niece of his brother-in-law who also moves in to stay with the family.  Jimmy goes to great lengths to impress her, sometimes doing things bordering on the psychotic (Ramona refers to him as a stalker but neither she nor the filmmakers seem to mind).   But Jimmy has a rival in the handsome Tim (Heroes’ James Kyson Lee), Ramona’s ex-boyfriend who comes back into the picture.

Overall, the film is enjoyable and the filmmakers show some solid comedic chops.  The writing in certain scenes is as crisp and funny as anything in the best of the recent crop of Hollywood comedies (a dinner scene where Jimmy is set up with a tall Japanese date hits every comedic beat with surgical precision).  But like many cute things, White On Rice eventually wears out its welcome.  Watanabe’s Jimmy is a strange and endearing creation but would have been more effective as a supporting character who didn’t have to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders.  Even Candide ultimately changes and shakes off his optimism for something else.  Jimmy remains one note and while it’s an entertaining note, it’s not enough to successfully encompass the almost ninety minute running time.

The other actors are uniformly excellent.  Chen, who I found a bit hesitant in Saving Face, really finds her voice here.  Like Jessica Lange in Tootsie, she takes what could have been the underwritten “girl” role and makes us understand why Jimmy would fall head over heels for her.  Other stand-outs include Nae and Mio Takada who, respectively, play Jimmy’s sister and brother-in-law and provide the movie with its much needed heart, and Joy Osmanski who steals what few scenes she has with a gung-ho, fearless performance that completely works when it could’ve bombed in lesser hands.

White On Rice does have its share of problems including a major tonal shift near the film’s end that almost destroys the accumulated goodwill (it involves a knife and lots of blood and belongs in a different movie), but what’s most heartening about the film is the discovery of a promising comedic voice in Boyle.  If given the right opportunities, in ten years, he could be the next Judd Apatow.

The Chaser

chaser

Those going into The Chaser expecting two hours of mindless and entertaining action will be in for quite a surprise. While the 2008 film, which was a huge hit in South Korea does have its share of slick action set pieces, it is so dark and disturbing that it makes a movie like the recent hit Taken look like a Disney family film.

The first sign that we’re not in for a typical genre outing is the introduction of our protagonist Jung-Ho (Kim Yoon-suk) who happens to be a pimp.  The prostitutes who work for him keep disappearing and he fears that a rival outfit is kidnapping and selling them off for profit.  When one of his girls, Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee), goes off with a customer who may be the kidnapper (Never Forever’s Ha Jung-woo), Jung-Ho follows their trail.  But the kidnapper is actually a serial killer and Jung-Ho must race the clock to find Mi-Jin before she becomes the next victim while dealing with an ineffective bureaucracy that stands in his way.
The Chaser has been compared to David Fincher’s serial killer thriller Se7en and though many found that film’s violence to be extreme, The Chaser raises the bar even higher.  For all its disturbing imagery, Fincher never shows you the bloody murders, only the aftermath.  So while you knew Gwyneth Paltrow’s head had been chopped off by Kevin Spacey, the audience was spared the gruesome details.  Not here.  You get not one, but two brutal scenes where the serial killer has his way with his female victim.   Coming at a time when the media is inundating us with the shocking details concerning the alleged beating Chris Brown gave Rhianna, it’s hard to shake the misogynistic subtext bubbling just below the surface and see this as just entertainment.

But what’s more difficult to reconcile is that writer/director Na Hong-jin has made a very good film and a big part of what makes The Chaser so effective is that it is disturbing in a way that Hollywood films so rarely are.  Na creates a chilling portrait of a modern society where people on the margins exist in a purgatory state; cut off from each other and any hope of a better life.  This is an unflinching look at a society that has grown so apathetic and mired in incompetent bureaucracy that a serial killer can easily thrive as long as his targets remain women who have been discarded by the mainstream.

Yes, The Chaser is relentlessly bleak.  But it’s also the work of a talented filmmaker with  a fully-formed and vital vision of the modern world.  That makes it worth seeing but you may still need to take a long shower afterwards.

Children of Invention

childrenofinvention_filmstill1

Writer/director Tze Chun’s debut feature Children of Invention will probably be the most timely work at this year’s festival.  The film, which had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Elaine Cheng (Lady in the Water’s Cindy Cheung), a Hong Kong immigrant and single mother, trying to build a life for her two young children (played by Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu) in a suburb outside of Boston.  Their home has been foreclosed, they are illegally squatting in an apartment building still under construction and the only prospect for a real job is a questionable pyramid scheme operation.  But when their mother doesn’t return home from work one night, the children think they have been abandoned and put a plan into motion to make a million dollars so they can buy back their old house.

Chun may have started work on Children of Invention before the collapse of the real estate market and the ensuing financial crisis, but his film comes at a time when the events depicted on screen may feel very real for audiences. This proves to be the film’s great strength and weakness.

At a time when escapist fare like Taken and Paul Blart: Mall Cop are surprise box office hits, a film like Children of Invention may not be the easiest thing to sit through.  It’s difficult to give yourself over to the movie when everything you’re seeing reminds you how bleak our lives have become.

This is no fault of the filmmaker but this situation isn’t helped by the movie’s two main plot points that feel more like mechanisms to move the story into deeper levels of conflict. Yes, these characters are in desperate straits but they are also intelligent and self-aware enough that I didn’t buy that 1) The mother would so easily be sucked into the pyramid scheme when it will be clear to anyone watching that it’s clearly a scam, and 2) her son’s decision to go to a bank in Boston to withdraw his $500 so he can make and sell his inventions feels far-fetched (and why is the only ATM that he can access this money from so far away?).  These characters are too smart for this.

But where the film shines is in the performances and Chun’s naturalistic direction.  Cheung gives a richly textured performance as a woman at the end of the rope who refuses to give up for the sake of her children.  The child actors acquit themselves nicely in roles that could have easily played too “cute.” Chun’s directing never calls attention to itself and, along with his director of photography Chris Teague, he creates a real world with none of the fake Hollywood trappings and brings to mind the best of the Italian Neo-Realists’ work.  Perhaps it’s no accident that Children of Invention most vividly recalls the classic The Bicycle Thief, which was also about a parent and a child in a desperate financial bind.   Like that film did for those in a post-war Italy struggling to rebuild and survive, Children of Invention puts a human face on those in a different time and place but facing the same grim struggle.  And that is a worthy artistic accomplishment.

For a complete look at this year’s 27th Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival visit http://festival.asianamericanmedia.org/2009/.

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