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The 23rd Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

A Little Something For Everyone

Although only two months into the new year, 2005 already has the makings of a watershed year for Asian Americans in cinema. NAATA, the organization behind the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and one of the most important sponsors of media for the Asian community, has reached its silver anniversary. And for the first time, the festival has found a presenting sponsor. That sponsor is Asia Street, whose debut on the International Channel, is slated for March 28. Devoted to Asian American programming, Asia Street promises to be a vital medium for the community's growing legion of filmmakers.

Appropriately, the bookends of this year's festival are both Asian American films. Alice Wu's lighthearted comedy Saving Face opens the festivities, while Quentin Lee's exploration of a seedier segment of the population, The Motel, functions as the festival's closing act. But while there is certainly an increased focus on Asian American cinema, a slew of thoughtful films from both Asia and Europe still dot the catalog. Below are just a handful of selections from the worthwhile entertainment that will be screening at the Kabuki and Castro Theaters March 10-20.

After a four year hiatus, Joan Chen returns to the big screen in Saving Face, a lightweight romantic comedy that explores the relationship between a traditional Chinese mother and her Americanized daughter. Desperate to find a husband for her daughter Wil (Michelle Krusiec) in order to maintain status within her clique of gossipy, Chinese wives, Chen continually drags her daughter -- a closet lesbian -- to community dances. However, when Chen shows up on her daughter's doorstep with a secret of her own, she finds the roles reversed, and she becomes the one bringing shame to her family. The film generally glosses over issues that deserve a more thorough treatment, but Chen's onscreen charisma and Krusiec's convincing take as the uncomfortable, slightly neurotic daughter allow us to forgive the tidy, saccharine conclusion.

Once again, the horror movie finds itself in fashion. Unfortunately though for supporters of the genre, the slew of recent offerings that have made cameos at the local megaplexes range from tiresome to tolerable. The good news for the jaded fans of horror flicks is that Fruit Chan's Dumplings provides a welcome dose of originality. Bai Ling stars as the eccentric Mei, who sells youth-restoring dumplings with a secret ingredient out of the living room of her shoddy apartment. Chan foregoes the gore and cheap thrills in favor of slowly building tension through a series of visits to Mei by a retired soap opera star desperate to stave off old age in order to reclaim the affections of her philandering husband. The best news for the film's fans though is that Chan's picture is one part of the "Extremes" trilogy, a set of horror films from Chan, Takashi Miike and Chan-wook Park.

For those who would like an introduction to Chan-wook, Oldboy is a fine place to start. Even the opening credits are stylized in Chan-wook's engrossing and violent second chapter of his "Revenge" (separate from "Extremes") trilogy. The follow-up to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance follows Oh-Dae Su as he tries to unravel the mystery behind his mysterious and inhumane incarceration. Veteran Korean actor Choi-min Sik's deadpan delivery works perfectly beside his wild physical maneuverings and lends a bit of humor to some of his numerous gruesome acts. Reminiscent of both Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill and David Fincher's The Game, Chan-wook's latest picture is an exhibition of both visual mastery and hypnotic storytelling.

The auspicious directorial debut of Beijing-based director Liu Fen Dou, The Green Hat, begins with an explanation of an ancient Chinese custom in which a man disgraced by his wife dons a green hat. The film is comprised of two men's stories, an eccentric youth en route to America to reunite with his girlfriend and a husband desperate to find a way to satisfy his wife of 13 years. Their paths only intersect for a moment, but they share in the common experience of being disgraced by their respective lovers. Even with the screen time divided between the two primary characters, Liu finds a way to show both their heroic and tragic qualities and how together they condemn them to their destructive paths. Though the film meanders slightly at the close, it's certainly one of the finest films thus far this year.

Initially, it seems surprising that Yasmin sprung from the pen of Simon Beaufoy, writer of The Full Monty. This tale of a nave, English-born Pakistani girl forced to confront the bigotry caused by the World Trade Center bombing doesn't match our recollection of that film. However, while we recall that five working class men shed their garments for the delight of middle-aged women, we forget the backdrop is unemployed steel workers forced to strip for lack of other job options. Beaufoy's latest work employs a more serious approach, but some of the same humor that characterized his previous effort is present here. The film skirts plausibility with the conclusions it draws, but Archie Panjabi's convincing turn as Yasmin ultimately makes the time spent worthwhile.