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


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


Thursday, February 17, 2011


The 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF)

CAAM With a new logo (see right), a new tagline ("Stories to Light"), a new trailer, a new festival director (Masashi Niwano), and a new Web site, the 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) reveals its new identity March 10-20 in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose.

Despite the freshness of this year's festival, one focus remains the same: "present stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience" and to bring the largest Asian cinema showcase in North America to the audience.


This year's SFIAAFF presents 108 films (including 31 feature narratives and 16 feature documentaries) and 58 programs during its 10 day run.

The opening night film "West Is West" (UK 2009 | 102 min.) is a comedy about a Pakistani immigrant family living in London.

West is West

The closing night film "Surrogate Valentine" (USA 2011 | 75 min.) is a docudrama style comedy about local indie musician Goh Nakamura, directed by Bay area director Dave Boyle.

Surrogate Valentine

This year's centerpiece presentation is a Vietnamese film "Clash" (Bẫy Rồng | Vietnam 2009 | in Vietnamese | 100 min.). The film is like a marriage between a Hong Kong martial art flick and a Hollywood violent action blockbuster. It tells a story about cracking down a gangster's operation, and it has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, for a change.


Besides these big nights, the festival presents a wide spectrum of recent Asian cinema as well as a few retrospective programs that certainly enchant the sophisticated and diverse cinema lovers around the Bay.

I will write more about those films in the near future.

Let's bring the stories to light. But first, turn off the light and watch some great movies at the 29th SFIAAFF.

My picks of some must-see films at this year's SFIAAFF:


Friday, February 4, 2011



Sanctum By now, anybody who has even just heard about the movie "127 Hours" probably already gets the message—bring a sharp knife when you go explore in a never never land (or the lack of). Some cave divers indeed bring a sharp knife with them. However, that does not seem enough to save their fate during their adventure in director Alister Grierson's 3-D thriller "Sanctum" (USA/Australia 2010 | 109 min.). Nor will it save the film from sinking into the deep cave.

Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) leads a National Geographic team inside South Pacific's underwater Esa-ala Caves that is regarded as "the mother of all caves." His resentful 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) comes for a visit, joined by an uppity financier Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd) and his equally arrogant girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson). After they reach inside the cave, a heavy storm causes a flash flooding and cuts off the route for getting out of the cave. They must find a new way to escape the sanctum with limited resources, supplies, and few options, if any at all. During the struggle for survival, all hell breaks loose gruesomely, both in natural and in human.

Although we are expecting danger when a parachute is needed for falling into the cave, the film is still a hair-raising experience. It reminds us that we should leave the nature alone sometimes. Occasionally, the film displays great visual of underwater and inside the cave. The film might have been fascinating if it were a documentary about surviving on National Geographic Channel.

Unfortunately, no. The film wants to create some human drama. Actually, lots of them. Although it is produced by the creator of "Avatar," James Cameron"the king of the world," but this film has a different writing team. Yet, this film's cheesy dialogues are just as laughable as in "Avatar," if not worse. As for the 3-D, when it is all dark in a cave, why is it matter if it is 3-D or 2-D? Unless, the film crew turn on the superb lighting.

Rhys Wakefield and Richard Roxburgh SANCTUM

Most of the characters are stubborn and ego driving. Whenever they escape from a terrifying episode in the extreme condition, they shout at each other, quarrel with each other, when they are not trying to kill each other. Here is my advice for them: next time when you dive into that mother of all caves, you should learn from James Franco in "127 Hours,", go by yourself, and do not tell anybody where you are going, but do bring a sharp knife, just in case.

"Sanctum" opens on Friday, February 4, 2011 at Bay Area theaters.

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