Sociologically speaking, every ethnic or identity-oriented film festival provides a multifaceted reflection of its community. The lineup serves as a snapshot -- incrementally different every year -- of the audience's state of mind and place. It would be foolhardy to generalize from a program as geographically far-reaching as the 2008 S.F. International Asian American Film Festival, but it's safe to say this much: The tension between the past, represented by both family and history, and the kinetic, high-pressure present is as acute as ever.
The lavish feature-length documentary Wings of Defeat begins with chilling archival footage of Japanese Zeros dive-bombing U.S. battleships, accompanied by present-day recollections of sailors who survived. New York filmmaker Risa Morimoto informs us that she just found out that her uncle, a World War II vet now gone some 20 years, had been a kamikaze pilot. So she heads to Japan to interview her relatives, and to pierce the veil of myth and stigma that still surrounds what today would be called an infamous cult of suicide bombers.
Morimoto locates three men who flew kamikaze missions (and a fourth who was trained and set to go when Japan surrendered), and discovers that they were not single-minded super-patriots but young innocents sent to their doom by profoundly irresponsible leaders. (A military man devised the kamikaze strategy, believing it would jolt the emperor into realizing that the war was lost. Instead, Hirohito embraced it.)
Wings of Defeat (playing March 14 at the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki and Mar. 22 at the Camera 12 in San Jose) is an example of the kitchen-sink school of documentary. In addition to the archival footage and new interviews, we get maps, fancy graphics, an attention-drawing score and even an animated dogfight illustrating one pilot's miraculous survival. (Even with all the bells and whistles, the film doesn't sustain its 90-minute running time.) The filmmaker's direct connection to the subject is dispensed with pretty quickly, but she sticks around as an on-camera presence and narrator. Consequently, the documentary's point of view is continuously fluctuating between Morimoto, the Japanese pilots and the American sailors (who return late in the film), depriving it of a strong, sustained focus. The major benefit of the filmmaker's voice is that it links the present with the past, pointing out that war's effects resound generations after the last shot is fired.
Miromoto was born in New York, but she plainly feels a connection and some responsibility to the country her parents left. No such loyalties confound or confine the young, opportunistic protagonists of West 32nd, Michael Kang's neon-infused independent feature set in a particular corner of the Korean-American underworld. It's all about getting ahead, earning big bucks and bigger respect, by hook or by crook. The American Dream is alive and well, my friends, at least in the movies.
Assimilated Korean-American attorney John Kim (played by John Cho of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay) wins points with his firm's lead partners by lassoing a case with high PR value. He aims to clear a 14-year-old Korean-American kid charged with murder. So our ambitious and seemingly idealistic yuppie hero, who (in time-honored movie fashion) is neither as clever nor as street-smart as he thinks, begins sniffing around the Queens neighborhood where the crime occurred.
The clean-cut, baby-faced John eventually runs afoul of Mike (Jun Kim), a slick, brutal charmer who works for a mobster. They size each other up, they banter, they bond, they get bleary-eyed drunk. John revels in his adrenaline-infused taste of the criminal world. But he's out of his league, and self-interest and betrayal await him just around the corner.
West 32nd (playing March 16 at the Castro Theatre) is a good-looking movie, entertaining in a lightweight sort of way. Both leads are compelling, though they're ultimately undermined by a plot that succumbs to contrivances and gratuitous action. Never mind that -- what's fascinating about the movie is its resemblance to New York stories about aspiring immigrants and children of immigrants starring James Cagney, Paul Muni, John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson.
The pressures to make a living and to fit in, without denying one's parents or losing sight of one's origins, are the stuff of cliché, or fiction. To the contrary, the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival reminds us, in a variety of ways from a dozen directions, that's reality. Up to the minute, and at the same time the latest chapter in an unfolding history. Our collective history, I might add.
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 13-23, 2008 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. For tickets and information visit www.asianamericanmedia.org.