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The 22nd San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Without fail, the first third of every year sees theaters saturated with films too modest to qualify as summer blockbusters, and too mindless to qualify as Oscar material. It is a difficult time for moviegoers. Fortunately, as residents of the greatest city in the United States (tied with New York), we have the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival to temporarily break the monotony. The festival, now 22 years old, continues to expand for one simple reason: even though it's already one of the best run festivals anywhere, it still continues to strive for improvement.

The festival opens with Zhang Yimou's (Raise the Red Lantern) sweeping martial arts epic Hero, which stars virtually every Asian cinematic superstar- Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi- working today. Culminating the festival is Ramona Diaz's documentary Imelda, which chronicles the rise and fall of controversial political figure Imelda Marcos. Justly rewarded at Sundance for excellence in cinematography, Diaz captures footage that both distills the essence of the fallen leader and showcases the lush countryside of the Philippines.

However, it is between these two features that we see the creativity of programming that NAATA incorporates into the event. Anna May Wong, who many consider to be the first Asian American movie star, is the focus of this year's spotlight. Four of her most representative films are screening this year, two of which, the newly restored Piccadilly and The Toll of the Sea, will feature live piano accompaniment. And just in case you need an additional excuse to go out and shake it while indulging in alcoholic revelry, Directions in Sound has returned for its fifth installment, once again armed with a sweeping cross-section of new Asian American music that runs the gamut from punk rock to hip hop.

As usual, there is too much to see in too little time.

Imelda - Closing Night Film
Most everyone knows one fact about former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos; she owned nearly 3000 pairs of shoes. To the people of her home country though, she was far more than a humorous anecdote. Despite numerous legal problems, some of which still persist, many of the people are still wowed by her mere presence. However, this honest, albeit sometimes unflattering, character study reveals a darker side of her personality as a figure so far removed from the plight of commoners that her thinking borders on the delusional.

Piccadilly - Centerpiece Presentation
While not the largest festival in the city (though it continues to grow), programming such as Piccadilly epitomizes the creative programming that has become characteristic of the festival. Anna May Wong appeared in over 50 films in a career that spanned four decades, and though she is both credited and criticized for establishing Asian stereotypes still prevalent today, no one questions that she played a prominent role in shaping the perception of Asian Americans. Piccadilly tells the story of a nightclub owner who turns to a dancing dishwasher named Sho Sho (Anna May Wong) when business starts to wane. Like so many other films of the silent era, the acting is gloriously embellished to much comedic effect. As a special bonus, attendees of the film will be treated to a live musical accompaniment by pianist Jon Jang, who composed an entirely new score for the show.

Bright Future - Spotlight Presentation
When reflecting on the events of this film, you are immediately surprised by how much transpires. By taking time to develop the story, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is able to seamlessly blend together a number of disparate themes. Simultaneously, this is a story about a father's guilt, a best friend's indebtedness and the angst of the young, who constantly question the significance and correctness of the path they have chosen. The performances of the lead characters are subtle, yet inspired, but film's real forte lies in its ability to move forward at a restrained pace, allowing the growth of its characters to happen so naturally it strikes you as genuine.

Travellers and Magicians - Spotlight Presentation
Khyentse Norbu's second feature film once again fills every role with non-professional actors, though you wouldn't know it unless told. In fact, the only clue that the actors are everyday people may be how well they seem to match their surroundings. Travellers is a charming tale of a man who longs to escape the mundane existence that is life in his native village. However, when he misses the only bus headed into town, he along with several others, including a monk that doubles as a raconteur, are forced to embark on a lengthy, and educational, trek to their destination. The first film to be shot in Bhutan, Travellers is framed by the breathtaking landscape of this largely undiscovered country.

Flavors - San Jose Opening Night Film
On the surface, Flavors appears to be some sort of Indian hybrid between Swingers and Office Space. However, while the film is primarily about the trials and tribulations of twenty-somethings, an additional layer of complexity is added to the characters by incorporating significant issues for Indian Americans, like interracial marriage and assimilation into American society. Many residents of the Bay Area will have no problem relating to the characters in the lighthearted Flavors, as it takes place in the wake of the dot-com massacre.

Purple Butterfly
This fourth feature from Lou Ye (Suzhou River), is the work of a director supremely confident in his abilities. Unafraid of long bouts of silence or a measured pace, Purple Butterfly unwinds a complex story of romance, revenge and unrest during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930's. The movie seems to reinvent itself several times, beginning as a romantic tale of two classmates before evolving into a tale of espionage and deception. But as soon as you begin to get comfortable with the pace of the film, it accelerates unexpectedly into a dizzying conclusion where the characters' true motives are revealed.

American Made and Lest We Forget
These two films, to be screened together at the festival, tell a side of the World Trade Center bombing that receives far too little notice. While most of the attention, and understandably so, focuses on those directly involved in the bombing, the victims of 9/11's backlash get largely overlooked. Lest We Forget illustrates the parallel between the current injustices performed under the guise of the Patriot Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Many of us are aware that violations have occurred due to the mistrust and anger generated by the events of Sept. 11, but this film shows the extreme nature of these abuses. American Made looks at the subtle effects of 9/11, even on those far removed from the tragedy. The Singh's appear to be a regular Indian family on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, but when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and several cars pass without offering help, they are forced to think about others' perception of them.

Masters of the Pillow and Yellocaust
For those of Asian descent, James Hou's documentary on the state of Asian American male sexuality is essential viewing. At the center of the documentary is Daryl Yamamoto, professor of Asian American studies at UC-Davis, who firmly believes that an Asian male porn star is paramount in reversing the emasculation of Asian men by a white-dominated media. With this in mind, Yamamoto directed the first pornographic film where an Asian American man is paired with a woman. However, the most interesting aspect of the film is actually the thoughtful interviews with filmmakers Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes) and Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow). Yamamoto's pornographic film follows the documentary.

My Ninja For Your Nun
Freaks and eccentrics are on display in this collection of shorts that knows not to take life, or itself, too seriously. Anyone with the misfortune of bad roommates will easily relate to the two living-situations-gone-bad in Caught! and A Ninja Pays Half My Rent. Dragon Of Love illustrates that sexual fantasies may sometimes be best left as just that, while Wine, Woman and a Song makes your current relationship surprisingly palatable. My personal favorite, Prix Fixe, looks into the isolation of a fugitive forced to reform his ways after losing his partner in crime.