Saturday, March 15



When writing up my preview piece for the SF International Asian American Film Festival, or SFIAAFF, which opened on Thursday and runs through March 23rd, I focused on the directors in the International Showcase section of the festival whose films I'd personally been exposed to at prior editions of the festival. I neglected to mention two repeat-SFIAAFF directors in the section because I hadn't seen their films at this particular festival. India's Buddageb Dasgupta, whose the Voyeurs plays Monday, Wednesday and next Sunday, has had his prior films Memories in the Mist and the Wrestlers at the festival in previous years, but I've always missed them. I was first exposed to Korea's Hur Jin-ho when another local festival played One Fine Spring Day, and caught up with Christmas in August on DVD. I didn't realize that it had played the SFIAAFF in 1999. I believe that his last film, April Snow, has still never graced a Frisco Bay screen, but his newest, Happiness, is here to make up for that fact and then some.

Happiness is my favorite Hur film yet. It's remarkable how similar the film is to another SFIAAFF film, Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Yamishita's follow-up to the wonderful Linda Linda Linda, at least in certain respects. Both Happiness and Yamashita's a Gentle Breeze in the Village adopt the "city mouse /country mouse" trope, their bucolic settings assisting the emphasis of character moods as reflected in the changes in weather and light accompanying seasons (this is something that runs through each of the Hur films I've watched). Both films track a developing romance between an urban male and a female more settled in her rural community. And both films are exquisitely crafted. But in other ways the two films are like yin and yang. Happiness is an adult melodrama showing the co-dependent romance of a couple who meet at a curative retreat; he's there to heal his pickled liver, she for her weak lungs. It doesn't work out so well for them (yin?). A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a far lighter piece illuminating the joys and anxieties of teenage youth (yang?).

Speaking of Yang (bu-dum-pum), I have now seen more than one Edward Yang film. I just got home from watching his 1986 award-winner the Terrorizer. It's the kind of rich, crescendo-ing film that I want to see again as soon as I've finished watching it. Which makes it all the more discouraging that the film has never been released on video or DVD with English subtitles. I'll hazard a guess why this may be so: the complications of rights clearance for the American pop music that appears on the soundtrack, not only the iconic "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" usage that Hou Hsiao-hsien surely was tributing in his Three Times, but also songs by the likes of Kool & the Gang and (correct me if I'm wrong on this identification) Grandmaster Flash. If the Terrorizer were playing the festival again I'd see it again, but since it's not, I'll have to content myself with the other two Yang screenings in the festival's tribute: a Brighter Summer Day on Wednesday, and a revisitation to his swan song Yi Yi: a One and a Two on Thursday.

I can recommend Rithy Panh's documentary on Phnom Penh prostitutes Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, (which I watched on a festival screener DVD at home) but only if you can brace yourself for something extremely heavy. It's hard to imagine that a director who has made a film about the Tuol Sleng prison might make a film that matches it in "downer" qualities. But Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers may even be more emotionally devastating than S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, if only because it illustrates a current devastation, not one cordoned off by history books. In fact, while S21 felt almost cathartic in the way it allowed former prisoners an opportunity to confront their tormentors, and allowed the latter a chance to harmlessly re-enact the crimes they committed in the name of the genocidal Pol Pot regime decades ago, the unsmiling women in Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers display often harmful re-enactments that seem habitual rather than cathartic. Caught in an utterly tragic loop of shame and desperation, they are shown grinding up methamphetamine pills known as "ma" to smoke through a makeshift plastic pipe, displaying their razor scars, and conversing with each other about their abusive johns, abortions, and contemplations of suicide. The final thought of the film comes from a young woman who reveals a disturbingly irrefutable perspective on her plight when she matter-of-factly states: "Poor people can only expect to be guilty."

There are a few schedule changes and added screenings to the festival, so make sure to check the website for details. One added screening I can recommend is tonight's free outdoor showing of Hayao Miyazaki's first feature film as a director, the Castle of Cagliostro at 8PM on JapanTown's Peace Plaza. The animation master hadn't yet let his fanciful style fully flower when making this 1979 release, but it's terrifically designed and drawn, and a very entertaining adventure story with a European setting reminiscent of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. And it's free!

Finally, I saw Never Forever and Yasukuni at last year's and this year's Sundance Film Festival, respectively, and wrote a few words on them here and here. Though as you'll see if you click the links, I had serious problems with each film, I think they're both good choices for this festival, as they both represent a breath of fresh air on the conceptual level, and deserve the kind of dialogue SFIAAFF audiences can help provide. It's the muddled execution that troubled me in each case, and I'd love to hear a convincing argument that I'm missing something. Any takers? Or other tales from the SFIAAFF so far?

I agree, Brian. I want to see The Terrorizer again.

By the way, I somehow overlooked the Rithy Panh film in the festival! I really liked S21. I'll have to see if Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers. And rats I had already planned to see Jessica Yu's new film on Monday. Hmm, wonder if I should switch.
Oops, forgot to delete my sentence fragment after checking the schedule...
Greetings Brian from Dunedin! I'd say I'm bummed about not catching many of the films you discussed, but, then again, I'm at The Edge of the World. Choices need to be made. (Although I have seen HAPPINESS and echo your thoughts.) But at least I can read your writing about it, which is the next best thing. Cheers from the Southern Hemisphere!
Greetings Adam down under! I'm jealous of your travels (I've always wanted to see constellations like the toucan and the peacock), but I'll console myself by watching some films. Today's schedule includes Foster Child and the Unseeable at SFIAAFF, and if I can figure out Golden Gate Transit, the 35mm print of Glauber Rocha's legendary Black God, White Devil in Tiburon.

Rob, I might switch- or try to do the mad dash if you think you can make it between cities. But then I haven't seen Ping Pong Playa, and I did really like Protagonist a lot (not so much In the Realms of the Unreal though, and considering Ping Pong Playa is Yu's first time doing the narrative feature thing, I really don't know what to expect from it.)
A late breaking correction: I'm not sure why I thought Ping Pong Playa was scheduled for the PFA, but it's actually at the KABUKI. No dash required.
Hi Brian. How was the rest of your festival? I saw you slip into the theater on Sunday, just before the start of FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON. That turned out to be only one of three extraordinary films I saw that day. Beforehand I caught I'M A CYBORG AND THAT'S OK at the Castro, which gets my vote for Most Wrongfully Maligned Film in Recent Memory. Wildly inventive and hysterically funny, I think I liked it even more than OLD BOY, my favorite Park Chan-wook to date. After RED BALLOON, it was back to the Castro for OM SHANTI OM. If there's such a thing as Too Much Fun, that screening was surprise that it won the Audience Award.
Thanks for asking, Michael. I've been wanting to post a "SFIAAFF So Good" follow-up to this post, but it seems I'm occupied with other things right now. Anyway, I caught several more films and all were well worth watching.

Since writing this, I first saw Whispering Sidewalks. It won't rank with the masterpieces of 1930s Japanese cinema I've seen by the likes of Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse, but it was definitely fun to see on the Castro screen. The music and cinematography were better than the acting, and I was intrigued to note that Sadao Yamanaka, presumably the same one who wrote and directed the very highly-regarded Humanity and Paper Balloons, was credited as cinematographer. However, the imdb lists a "Masao Yamanaka" behind the camera instead, and I have to wonder if the imdb, which is often wrong, is again in this case, or if there was a flub in translation of the subtitles. Times like this I wish I read Japanese!

On Sunday I saw, as you saw me see, the Flight of the Red Balloon. Lovely film with a terrific Juliette Binoche performance, and a fascinating glimpse into Chinese puppet theatre- I regret that the Puppetmaster is among the Hou films I have not yet watched, as I imagine having it under my belt would have made these scenes especially rich.

Wisit Sasanatieng's the Unseeable was a real hoot too, especially with the yelpers in the audience. More fun-house scary than genuinely creepy, I enjoyed it as yet another of Wisit's genre goofs. The only flaw I found in the film was its final-reel veering into far too much exposition and neat wrapping up of plot threads better left mysterious.

I took Monday off from the festival due to other commitments, but enjoyed Tuesday's "Directions in Sound" showcase with a diverse slate of music acts at the Rickshaw Stop niteclub. The Old Fashioned Way and Ming & Ping are about as far at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum as imaginable, but both provided terrific musical entertainment.

Wednesday I finally saw a Brighter Summer Day, which is clearly a masterpiece, though perhaps not one I'm as likely to take into my own heart as Yi Yi or even the Terrorizer. I had no idea it was based on a true story before watching it; learning that at the end of the film made the film all the more resonant.

That ended up being my last festival film (unfortunately I missed both Mendoza films, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK, and several others I wish I hadn't.) As much as I wanted to see Yi Yi at the PFA, I decided to save my BART money and catch the Eiga Tsubaraya double-bill at the Clay the next evening. I don't regret it, since finally I got to meet August Ragone, not to mention see Mothra and Battle in Outer Space (surely as much an influence on Star Wars as anything by Kurosawa) for the first time, in lustrous prints!
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