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San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Festival Season Kicks Off

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) returns to the Bay Area for its 27th year (March 12-22) with more than 100 films and 75 shorts and videos from Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Led by festival director Chi-hui Yang and assistant director Vicci Ho, the SFIAAFF’s programmers selected films both on artistic merit and contemporary relevance (i.e., the global economic crisis).

The twenty-seventh SFIAAFF opens with My Dear Enemy, Yoon-ki Lee’s anti-romantic comedy and closes with Treeless Mountain, a spare coming-of-age tale directed by So Yong Kim. This year, the SFIAAFF will honor filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known to Western audiences as the filmmaker behind Pulse (among other “J-Horror” films that include Retribution, Loft, and Cure) with a seven-film retrospective.

Here’s a list of ten must-see films from this year’s SFIAAFF:

1. The Chaser: Brutal, relentless, visceral, South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin's thriller, The Chaser, isn’t for the faint of stomach or the weak of heart. With nods to Chan-wook Park’s revenge trilogy (No Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder, and David Fincher’s Se7en, this film's switchback-heavy, revenge-fueled storyline, stylish direction, and graphic violence will remain with you days after you leave the movie theater.

2. Diamond Head: This year’s “Out of the Vaults” pick, Diamond Head stars Charlton Heston (yes, the one and only) as Richard “King” Howland, a virulently bigoted Hawaiian pineapple farmer forced to confront (and possibly overcome) his bigotry when his sister, Sloan (Yvette Mimieux), announces her engagement to a Native Hawaiian, Paul Kahana (James Darren). Directed by Guy Green (A Patch of Blue) with minimal subtlety and maximum melodrama (in oversaturated Eastmancolor no less), Diamond Head is fascinating for the glimpses it provides into social and cultural mores, circa 1963.

3. My Dear Enemy: An anti-romantic comedy directed by Yoon-ki Lee, My Dear Enemy centers on former lovers, Hee-su Kim (Do-yeon Jeon) and Byeong-woon Jo (Jung-woo Ha), over the course of a day in Seoul after Hee-su Kim appears unexpectedly in Byeong-woon Jo’s life, demanding the money he borrowed a year earlier when they were still dating. A wry, sardonic, often insightful examination of why some romantic relationships fail (or persist, despite rational reasons to the contrary). Jung-woo Ha, a rising star in Korea’s film industry, proves adept at light comedy and emotion-driven drama (Jung-woo Ha also appears as the serial killer in The Chaser.)

4. The Equation of Life and Death: In Cao Baoping’s feature-length debut, Li Mi (Zhou Xun), a chain-smoking cab driver with boundary issues, searches high and low for an ex-lover. Her questions leave most of her passengers eager to pay their fare and depart her taxi until one day when she meets two equally desperate men eager to meet a contact and return home. What follows is part road trip, part suspense-thriller, part farce, and ultimately, a surprisingly effective character drama centered on pitch-perfect performances by Xun and Wang Baoqiang as an inadvertent criminal.

5. Fruit Fly: Two years ago, filmmaker H.P. Mendoza’s first film, Colma: The Musical, became a surprise festival and art house hit. His second film, Fruit Fly, is poised to do the same at this year’s festival. A comedy-drama-musical modeled after Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (most of the dialogue is sung), Fruit Fly follows a twenty-something Filipina-American, Bethesda (L. A. Renigen), as she experiences living in a typically overcrowded San Francisco flat with several roommates and their significant others, explores San Francisco’s often overlapping, sometimes conflicting sub-cultures, and tries to find a venue for her one-woman show.

6. High Noon: Twenty-four year old filmmaker Heiward Mak’s surprisingly self-assured debut, High Noon, takes a refreshingly unjaded, sympathetic look at a group of male high schoolers, pranksters, and friends as they struggle with familiar rites-of-passage (e.g., sex, drugs, parents, teachers, etc.). That Mak succeeds in giving her characters inner lives, thus raising them above the usual stereotypes, is all the more credit to her talent as a writer. Along with an eye for arresting, emotionally resonant images, Mak is definitely a talent to watch.

7. Tokyo!: This trippy triptych of films directed Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Joon-ho Bong, is as bizarre and surreal as anything they have directed in the past. In Michel Gondry’s Interior Design, a recent arrival in Tokyo struggles to find meaning and self-worth as the girlfriend of an ambitious, if pretentious, filmmaker. In Leon Carax’s Merde (French for “shit”), Tokyo reacts in horror to the repeated appearances and attacks by a disheveled, incoherent, red-bearded, green suit-wearing foreigner. In Bong’s short, film a hikkomori (a shut-in) discovers the unexpected urge to venture outdoors when he meets the pizza delivery girl of his dreams.

8. Treeless Mountain: A poignant coming-of-age tale underscored with contemporary relevance, So Yong Kim’s second film (after In Between Days), Treeless Mountain is set in a South Korea where disappearing economic opportunities displace a woman and her two preteen daughters from their apartment in Seoul. Almost immediately, the woman leaves her daughters with their alcoholic aunt outside Seoul. Kim’s spare, Bressonian approach pays dividends through the almost claustrophobic focus on the older of the two girls, Jin (Hee-yeon Kim), as she struggles to adapt to her new environment while protecting her younger sister, Bin (Song-yee Kim), from the vicissitudes of the real world. Hee-yeon Kim gives an impressively naturalistic performance.

9. Tokyo Sonata: At least superficially, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film, the Ozu-inspired Tokyo Sonata marks a departure from his “J-Horror” oeuvre. Look more deeply, however, and you’ll find a thematic connection to his earlier work. This film follows a middle-aged, newly unemployed salaryman, his wife and two sons -- a rebel without a clue, and a child prodigy -- as they face unpromising, limited future where each character faces their own “existential horror.” Tokyo Sonata won the Jury Prize in the “Un Certain Regard” section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

10. 24 City: Jia Zhangke’s latest film, the lyrical, shot-on-DV 24 City, interweaves documentary and narrative techniques to explore the modern history of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. Once the home of a munitions plant and an aircraft engine repair factory, Chengdu has undergone massive economic, social, and cultural change over the last fifty years, including the closure of the factory and its replacement by an apartment complex. Zhangke, however, isn’t interested in dry voiceovers over montages of Chengdu through the decades, but in capturing the deeply personal, often ambivalent recollections of the factory workers (many of whom relocated to Chengdu at the direction of the Chinese government).