Thursday, February 24, 2011


Documentaries at the 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has a great track record on showing superb documentaries that can be thought provoking, socially conscious, often educational, and surely unforgettable. There is no exception in this year's documentary selections.


These are my picks of documentaries at this year's festival. Any title or film image is linked to the festival Web site that contains showtime and ticket information.

  • One Voice (USA 2009 | 84 min.)

    Is it possible that you are moved into tears when watching a documentary about high school chorus and when listening to their beautiful songs? Absolutely, if you are watching "One Voice," directed by Lisette Marie Flanary whose "Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula" rocks the audience at the 25th SFIAAFF.

    This deeply touching film follows a few leaders of the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest which involves thousands of the students enrolled in Kamehameha Schools in Hawaiʻi. These students embrace the Hawaiian heritage, cherish the Hawaiian culture, discover the Hawaiian identity, and realize older generations' Hawaiian dream by singing in Hawaiian language in the annual song contest.

    This enchanting film is not just about a song contest, it is about Hawaiʻi. It is a must-see at this year's festival.

  • The House of Suh (USA 2010 | 90 min.)

    A hard-working Korean immigrant family in Chicago falls apart after the father passed away, the mother is murdered, and the son, Andrew Suh, kills his sister's boyfriend. What happened? Why? Iris Shim's directorial feature debut "The House of Suh" is a solid work that brings this tragic high profile case to the audience. Most importantly, it allows us to know who Andrew Suh really is and why he pulled the trigger on September 25, 1993, when he was only 19 years old.

    It is a heartbroken and tragic story for all parties involved. However, behind the headlines, there is a deeper story to be told about the articulate Andrew Suh whose potential is cut short by the event. This film impressively unfolds that unforgettable tale with honesty and intelligence.

    Andrew Suh looks out through the barred windows of the Pontiac Correctional Facility in Iris Shim's HOUSE OF SUH

  • Summer Pasture (USA/China 2010 | in Tibetan | 85 min.)

    In China, if there is still a piece of sky that is blue all the time, not gray because of pollution, that sky must be above Tibet. However, the lives under that piece of blue sky might be as primitive as hundreds of years ago. A fascinating documentary "Summer Pasture" intimately observes the nomadic life on this breathtakingly beautiful yet uncompromisingly harsh land.

    The film follows Locho and his wife Yama who live with their infant daughter in Dzachukha, regarded as the highest, coldest, poorest, largest, and most remote area China. They live in an extremely difficult environment, work hard in a very traditional nomad way, and cope with the fast moving modern world. Yet, their lives are also filled with love, humor, happiness, and hope.

    This is truly an eye opener about lives in Tibet against the backdrop of Tibet's splendid landscape.

    Yama collects dung in the morning in nomad doc SUMMER PASTURE

  • I Wish I Knew (海上传奇 | China 2010 | in Chinese | 125 min.)

    Although in general people are fond of their hometowns, people coming from Shanghai are passionately affectionate about this beautiful city. Therefore, it is only fitting to let Shanghainese tell Shanghai's history in first person for the occasion of World Expo 2010 Shanghai China. Composed of interviews from all walks of life in Shanghai, "I Wish I Knew" is a beautifully photographed genuine love letter to this arresting city. However, it is a surprise that this love letter is directed by the Jia Zhangke, who is regarded as the leading voice of the "sixth generation directors" in China.

    If you love Shanghai, you will be delighted by this poetic film. If you love Jia's cinema language, you will be entertained by Jia's reinvention of himself. Nevertheless, you will learn about Shanghai's past, present, and the future through Jia's lenses.

    I Wish I Knew

  • Open Season (USA 2011 | 57 min.)

    One documentary I have not seen but looking forward to at the festival is "Open Season" by directors Lu Lippold and Mark Tang. The film is based on a high profile tragic hunting incident on November 21, 2004 in Birchwood, Wisconsin. A Hmong immigrant Chai Vang had a dispute with white landowner. In the end, six people were dead and two were wounded. Chai Vang is sentenced to six consecutive life terms plus seventy years.

    As explained in this NPR interview last year, the filmmakers re-examine the case in the scope of culture clash and racial relationship.

    open season


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