The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival starts tonight and runs through March 21, 2010 at various Bay Area locations (See Jonathan Kiefer's overview). When faced with the massive amount of films to choose from, including a huge range of genres, from Animation to Documentary, Family-friendly to Sci Fi, I decided to take a close look at four of the festival's 29 narrative features.
Writer-director Kit Hui's feature debut, Fog, is a fine, subdued film about a man who has lost his memory, and therefore his past and identity. The best thing about the movie is that it's not a remake of Memento, nor is its approach akin to a melodramatic soap opera. Instead, there's a refreshing amount of disorientation that we share with the main character, Wai, and a surprising lack of information as to what caused his memory to disappear. The emphasis, rather, is on the protagonist's mental fuzziness: what was Wai like before, and what will he become now that he's been given a clean slate? There are moving passages between Wai and people from his past. The pace, at times, halts and stalls, but you quickly figure out that this is Wai's pace in the world, as he slowly rebuilds his consciousness, one moment at a time.
Make Yourself at Home
Make Yourself at Home is set in a gorgeous suburb of upstate New York. The basic plot sounds promising: Sookhy, a Korean woman moves to the U.S. for an arranged marriage with a Korean American lawyer. How will she adjust to her new life and culture, and a demanding mother-in-law? Sounds like an interesting premise, yes? Unfortunately, this film, whose alternate title is Fetish, suffers from an undercooked sense of menace that reads as a sullen and unintended pretentiousness. Uprooted and entirely misplaced in her new home and country, Sookhy suddenly has no morals or conscience to guide her behavior. There is a back story about her ancestry that has something to do with shamanism, but this explanation detracts even further from her inability to make practical decisions. Instead, she becomes enmeshed with an overprivileged couple, neighbors from up the street who spend endless hours undressed in their swimming pool, which is filled with as much ennui as chlorinated water. The director clearly believed that the beauty of the lead actress, Song Hye-Kyo, would carry this aimless, plodding film. It doesn't.
The People I've Slept With
Quentin Lee returns to the film festival this year with The People I've Slept With, a racy sitcom writ large for the big screen, just not large enough. Of course, LGBT cinema needs to have more diversity on screen than white folks dancing the night away in NYC and LA, but is this the kind of movie that queer Asian Americans have been waiting for? The movie is a one trick pony that rides around in circles, exhausting itself within minutes. Angela, played by the wry Karin Anna Cheung, immediately defines herself as a "slut," and Lee creates an agonizing montage of Angela and her many partners in various stages of mutual pleasuring. (Yes, the scene is as awful as that euphemism sounds.) Turns out, she gets pregnant (!) and has to figure out who the father is. With the help of her gay Latino best friend, who has commitment problems of his own (shocker!), they set out on a quest for... adulthood, maturity, morality? Who knows? Those concepts have lost their meaning in Lee's fictional world. Many repetitive scenes show this delightful duo partying to excess, which is supposed to account for their louche bedroom behavior. Instead, the movie depicts this cross-section of twentysomethings as a self-absorbed, spoiled, self-gratifying generation. It was even more troubling to reach the ending, the moral of the story: only please yourself and you're good. Movies about the apocalypse don't inspire in me this much dread about the future of our civilization.
Like You Know It All
Last, and absolutely not least on my list, Like You Know it All, a delightful, breezy film from South Korea's Hong Sang-soo. Ku is a successful, young director who has been invited to be a judge at a film festival. We watch Ku from a reality camera's distance a la Parks and Recreation. The camera is always centered on Ku, but also lovingly encompasses the other characters, the setting, including houses and buildings, and the movement of trees and tall grasses. In addition, there are small asides that only the lens appears to notice, like a chartreuse caterpillar inching along a gravel path. The film is suffused with light and sunshine, which is a perfect complement to the overall tone. It's one of those summery movies that makes you feel nostalgic for a holiday by the beach, and for absent friends and lovers from the past.
Ku is a solitary journeyman but is surrounded by people who want to accompany him, at least for a time. This film is surprisingly reminiscent of Eric Rohmer's films: the documentary feel of eavesdropping on real conversations, the natural lighting and sound design, the accumulation of emotion from scene to scene, and an appropriate catharsis to end the story. There are just as many hangovers pounding inside the heads of Hong Sang-soo's characters as Quentin Lee's, the difference is they become acutely aware of the consequences and still hold some capacity for grace.
The 28th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 11-21, 2010, at multiple venues in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. For tickets and information visit asianamericanmedia.org.