Sunday, February 27, 2011


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

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) offers unique opportunity for accessing great Asian films that you will not be able to see on the big screen in the US otherwise. Sometimes, small independent films do not have a distributor even in Asia.

For example, an acclaimed Chinese film "Grain in Ear" (芒种 | China 2005) was only released in South Korea, but we had the luxury to see it at the 24th SFIAAFF in 2006.


The following is my selection of not-to-be-missed narrative features at this year's festival. As always, any title or film image is linked to the festival Web site that contains showtime and ticket information.

  • Bi, Don't Be Afraid! (Bi, đừng sợ! | Vietnam/France/Germany 2010 | in Vietnamese | 90 min.)

    Vietnamese director Dang Di Phan's award-winning directorial debut "Bi, Don't Be Afraid!" is a beautiful, gentle, and poetic film.

    Through 6-year-old Bi's observant and curious eyes, the story unfolds in Bi's home that hosts three generations. Like a restless and aimlessly little butterfly, Bi drifts freely and connects other family members—from his ailing grandfather, to his absent and adultery father, and to his unrequited love bearing aunt.

    With engrossing characters, lyrical style, terrific performance, and aesthetic cinematography, "Bi, Don't Be Afraid!" promise to be one of the most memorable films at this year's festival.

    Bi (Thanh Minh Phan) blows bubbles in Phan Dang Di's drama BI, DON'T BE AFRAID

  • Dance Town (댄스타운 | South Korea 2010 | in Korean | 95 min.)

    Korean director Jeon Kyu-hwan's final installment of his "Town Trilogy" is "Dance Town," an unflinching honest look at the poignant reality for many "invisible" people in a town.

    Ra Mi-ran gives a brilliant performance as Ri Jeong-rim, who defects from North Korea leaving her husband and mother behind. Ri Jeong-rim must build a new life in South Korea, but that proves to be almost as difficult as she crosses the border of North and South Korea.

    Would she be better off if she had stayed in the North? You can draw your own conclusion after watching the film.

    Ri Jeong-rim (Ra Mi-ran) leaves for South Korea in Jeon Kyu-hwan's DANCE TOWN

  • The Piano in a Factory (钢的琴 | China 2010 | in Chinese | 107 min.)

    Chinese director Zhang Meng's (张猛) new comedy "The Piano in a Factory" is a delightfully entertaining comedy, especially for those who enjoy the Northeast Chinese dialect, which is frequently used for the comic effect—that is what China's most famous comedian Zhao Benshan (赵本山) speaks.

    Chen Guilin (Wang Qian-Yuan) is an ex steel worker turning into a street musician after the steel factory is closed down in Anshan. When his daughter announces that she would live whoever has a piano during Guilin's divorce, he is determined to keep her daughter—he gathers his pals and builds a piano in the abandoned steel factory from scratch, with scrap materials they can find laying around. They end up a piano with a steel body as you can see in the trailer. Hence, the direct translation of film's Chinese title 钢的琴 would be "A Steel Instrument."

    The film blends well with its often hilarious comic moments and not always convincing story line, and brilliantly inserts exhilarating surreal dancing routines and constantly amusing Russian (Soviet Union to be exact) songs. However, I am afraid that some of the jokes might be lost in the translation if you do not speak the language.

    Chen (Wang Qian-yuan) and his band of factory workers perform in Zhang Meng's THE PIANO IN A FACTORY

The following is a few films that I have not seen yet (for some, on purpose), but I am looking forward to at the festival.

  • Dooman River (두만강 | China 2010 | in Korean | 89 min.)

    Besides "Dance Town," another film about crossing the North Korean border is "Dooman River," by Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu (张律). This time, it's the border of North Korea and China—Tumen River (图们江), director's hometown. The film is about the friendship of two boys from North and South Korea respectively, on the backdrop of waves of the North Korean refugees coming to China.

    Zhang Lu's previous films "Grain in Ear" (SFIAAFF '06) and "Desert Dream" (SFIAAFF '08) makes me believe that this is a film I cannot afford to miss on the big screen at this year's festival. A must see.

    Dooman River

  • The Man from Nowhere (아저씨 | South Korea 2010 | in Korean | 119 min.)

    Get ready for some action! Award-winning South Korea's blockbuster "The Man from Nowhere" is coming to Castro Theater at this year's festival.

    This is the annual so-called "surprise screening" at the festival, which means you will not find this film in the festival catalog and the selection is almost always a crowd pleasing Asian box office hit. And with huge Asian super stars, of course. This year, the star is the one and the only: Won Bin (원빈).

    Won Bin in The Man from Nowhere

  • The Fourth Portrait (第四張畫 | Taiwan 2010 | in Chinese | 102 min.)

    Winning multiple awards at Taiwan's Golden Horse Award in 2010 and traveling among film festivals, "The Fourth Portrait" tells a story about ten-year-old boy's broken family. This film promises to be a treat that is character driving with powerful performance.

    The Fourth Portrait

  • When Love Comes (當愛來的時候 | Taiwan 2010 | in Chinese | 109 min.)

    Another big winner, including best picture and best cinematography, at Taiwan's Golden Horse Award in 2010 is a family drama "When Love Comes" that touches the core of the meaning of family in Taiwan today.

    When Love Comes


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