San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival -- A How-to Guide (Part one of two)
I confess: I am a film festival junkie. I'm going to use "FF" for said drug for the remainder of this review, since I'm also admittedly lazy, which adds to my neurosis -- how many lazy nearly-obsessive-compulsives do you know? No need to answer. But back to FFs, if you live in the San Francisco Bay area, there is practically a different film festival each and every week to get your fix.
I've managed to keep my habit in check by being selective as to which FFs I will devote time to, since it got so bad at one point that it interfered with that daily obligation called a "job." So now, when a FF I deem worthy rolls into town, I rush out to get the catalog no matter how harrowing the MUNI trek may be, since viewing the program online just isn't good enough for me -- and yes, that's coming from someone who works on the world wide interweb for a living.
Once I have the prized possession and have given it a good sniff (I told you that I had a problem), I peruse the festival catalog with Post-Its handy to mark all the films I hope to see. After that, I go through the program a second time, weeding out the films I might have been overzealous in selecting on the first go round. By this time the list is usually still not manageable due to the above-mentioned job, so my next step is making a spreadsheet prioritizing films that I can actually see. This is where it all starts to get a bit hairy...
My general rule of thumb is to narrow my "must-see" list down to the amount of days of the actual FF, unless it's just a weekend film festival in which case, the sky's the limit, since I'm not averse to camping out at a theater all weekend. And I don't put a limit on the "maybe" list, but that is prioritized too.
I'll try to explain my system, but it's mostly just pure gut reaction, which is not always reliable. First, I tend to consider all sorts of questions like: Am I a big fan of a particular director or actor? Do I want the bragging rights of being one of first people to see a film if it's a premiere? Premieres move up the list, as do opening and closing night films because of their glam-wannabe factor.
If I know that the film will be distributed in theaters after a FF, then it moves to the bottom. The same goes if I don't tend to agree with the person who has written the film description for the catalog. If you go to enough film festivals, you notice that there are a limited number of folks who preview the films and write the blurbs. Like with local critics, you tend to get to know their taste over time and can develop a system based on how often you agree with them. Then there is schedule. For instance, if the film is #25 on my list, and it's screening at midnight on a Monday, it pretty much gets moved to the "maybe, if I got free tickets" category.
One of my favorite FFs is the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAFF). This March, they celebrate their 25th anniversary. I won't go into detail about how bad my habit is, but I should divulge here that I actually worked for the organization that presents this particular FF (Center for Asian American Media, formerly known as NAATA) at one particularly low point in my life, which lasted four years.
It's a very exciting year for SFIAAFF. There's much too much to cover with 125 films and videos of which 41 are feature narratives, 14 feature documentaries and 68 shorts. So I've started a couple of lists (also see part two), based on the trends I noticed in this year's program, to get the inner-film geek going -- feel free to complete these lists on your own time: first, there are many directors who have had films screened at previous SFIAAFFs; and secondly, there seem to be a decent amount of actors appearing in more than one film in the festival.
What does this say about Asian American film? Was it planned or just coincidental? I have no idea. I'm not a film scholar -- oh, I guess I should have mentioned that before you read this far. Oh well, but if I were to wager a guess, I would say that although it might seem like there is a dearth of Asian American actors, there isn't. Baby, a narrative feature in this FF, boasts casting more than 200 Asian and Asian American actors. I think that the multiple roles indicate that the stable of AA (Asian American) actors has become solid.
Think about it. If you were to ask people to name an AA actor 20 years ago, you might have gotten a blank stare and then maybe "Joan Chen," based on her FOB (Fresh of the Boat) character "Josie" from the TV series Twin Peaks or the guy who played Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, another FOB. Ask today and the list is pretty darn long -- OK, maybe not exhaustively long, but it's definitely got some substance and range. Lucy Lui, Ming-Na, Daniel Dae Kim, Kelly Hu, John Cho, Bobby Lee (who has a cameo in Undoing, playing March 16 at 6:45pm at AMC Van Ness Theatres and March 19 at 9:30pm at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema), and Sandra Oh (who is technically Asian Canadian) are just a few that maybe even the average middle-American can name.
On that note, here are some of the actors appearing in more than one feature-length film in SFIAAFF '07:
• Aishwarya Rai -- Mistress of Spices and Umrao Jaan
• James Hong -- Shanghai Kiss and Big Trouble in Little China (yes, you read right. They are reviving this -- what may be now considered kitsch -- film from 1986 -- maybe?)
• Kelly Hu -- Shanghai Kiss and Undoing
• Ken Leung -- Shanghai Kiss and Year of the Fish
• Byron Mann -- Shanghai Kiss and Dragon Boys
• Roger Fan -- Finishing the Game and The Trouble with Romance
• Sung Kang -- Finishing the Game and The Undoing
• Tsai Chin -- Year of the Fish, Hollywood Chinese, and Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (note: there is a free screening on March 17 at 12:15pm at AMC Van Ness Theatres)
• Tzi Ma -- Baby and Dragon Boys
• Leonardo Nam -- American Pastime, Undoing, and Finishing the Game. That's 3 feature films in this FF alone. Nam is the one to watch.
My list this year was even more complicated by the fact that I got a few preview screeners for this review and, most importantly, the usual SFIAAFF home base (Kabuki Theater) is different this year. Sundance recently bought the theater and is doing renovations. So the new festival hub will be at AMC 1000, with a few screenings at Opera Plaza and bigger ones at the Castro Theater. During busier hours, there will be shuttles from the Castro to Japantown for those who just can't let go.
From the screeners that I received, the one gem was Air Guitar Nation (which screens on March 18 at 7:15pm at AMC Van Ness Theatres and March 24 at 7:15pm at San Jose's Camera 12 Cinemas). If you don't get a chance to see any other film in this festival, you have to see this documentary. It's a comedy that Christopher Guest would have made if the World Air Guitar Championship weren't real, but it is. Seriously.
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 15-25, 2007 with screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Go get your own festival program (at asianamericanfilmfestival.org) and come back tomorrow, Tuesday, March 12 to compare notes.
Continued Tomorrow: Marie K. Lee's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival: What to See (part two of two).