March 21-27, 2007

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'Woman on the Beach'

Triangles: A film director pursues two love triangles in Hong Sang-soo's 'Woman on the Beach.'

Eastern Basket

The San Francisco Asian American Film Festival sets up camp in San Jose for three days of screenings

By Richard von Busack

EVER SINCE Asian American indie hope Justin Lin directed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the question of what makes a distinctly Asian or even an American film is up for grabs. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival comes to Camera 12 in San Jose for a three-day weekend. The directors and stars in this year's assortment are sometimes neither Asian nor Asian American; the identity politics in the title of the fest keeps on dissolving as the melting pot keeps on bubbling.

The best of the films I previewed include Woman on the Beach (March 25; 6:30pm), which is part of the festival's tribute to Korea's Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man). In the film, which could be titled Someone to Walk Over Me, we witness the tangled love life of a well-known film director. On a working vacation at a slightly depressing Korean beach resort—high prices, rude service, uncertain sunshine—this conflicted filmmaker (Kim Seung-woo) first poaches than drops the girlfriend of a young colleague.

While watching it on DVD, I was distracted; when I resumed, I was startled to realize that the subtitled conversations made as much sense backward as they did forward. The characters, caught in their emotional loops, blurt out little bits about themselves and then clam up. Booze, that universal solvent, makes them confess first and regret later.

Making its local premiere is Bolinao 52 (March 24, 2:30pm), Duc Nguyen's documentary about one badly fated boat of Vietnamese refugees. Nguyen, a boat person himself, interviews Tung Trinh, one survivor willing to speak out. Today an elegant matron in her middle years, in 1988 she was aboard a sea craft that lost more than half of its 110 passengers during a month-long ordeal. We also meet William Cloonan, a sailor aboard the USS Dubuque. The ship encountered the refugee boat at sea; the Navy gave them a little food but failed to intervene otherwise. Cloonan's own guilt worsened when stories of cannibalism came out in the news. Having survived the horror, Trinh says what she always says to the typical morbid idiot's question: "When I came here, people asked me, 'Did it taste good?' How could I taste it? How could I? I could only swallow."

Nguyen weaves the film out of still photos, images of roiling waters and a trip to the Philippine island of Bolinao, where the local fisher people are shown to have the kind of common humanity the skipper of the Dubuque somehow lost along his way. And Cloonan, Trinh and her son, Lan Pham, have a bittersweet reunion.

On a lighter note, the South Asian Shorts Program (March 25, 2:15pm) features Mini Sitayana, three invigorating episodes from former Santa Cruzan Nina Paley's animated version of the Ramayana. (The entire work, Sita Sings the Blues, is set for an '08 finish.) The goddess Sita seeks her husband, Rama. Sita seems to be played by Betty Bhoop, the Hindi cousin of the animated siren. Just like the stateside Betty, she sings vintage jazz.

Of the other shorts, the standout is Angad Bhalla and Siddhartha Luther's Writings on the Wall about Indian murals of many kinds. The directors investigate sacred graphics of the Warlis nation, whose people have had their work ripped off for tourist boutiques. Movie-poster man "Azad" is officially homeless, but from his studio he creates giant Bombay movie posters with a terrific graphic punch. Even more jaw-dropping are the street posters observed in Madras City, which will make lovers of Third World art foam with desire.

In declining order of interest: Mistress of Spices (March 24, 4:45pm), the Paul M. Berges/Gurinda Chadha adaptation of local author Chitra Divakaruni's novel. The magical-realist romance needs to be taken in like a Michael Powell film, with plot to be ignored and image to be celebrated. It stars the celebrated Aishwarya Rai, who never looked better.

In the documentary Air Guitar Nation (March 24, 7:15pm). "The axes are invisible, but the chops are real." At the World Air Guitar championships in Oulu, Finland, the most game-faced contestant is the plump but pugnacious Korean-American actor David "C-Diddy" Jung, pantomiming the most pointlessly ornate Steve Vai-style arpeggios.

The American Pastime (March 25, 6:45pm)—which is not about air guitar—is Desmond (White Man's Burden) Nakano's feature about the growing understanding between white Americans and American-Japanese prisoners in the Topaz Camp in the early 1940s. Gary Cole stars as a AAA baseball player.

Juwan Chung's Baby offers the same old badly acted indie-gangster movie everyone's been making since Laws of Gravity, only this time with soy sauce on it. Tre is Eric Byler's follow-up to the celebrated Charlotte Sometimes. This angry-young-man drama stars Daniel Cariaga (like Vin Diesel, dreaming that he's Vincent D'Onofrio) as the kind of blunt dropped-out truth-teller who makes it his duty to clear out other people's bullshit. If only he wasn't pitching so much of his own.

While Tre's paradigms are similar to those of Woman on the Beach, Byler seems to endorse the same cock chauvinism that Korea's Hong is trying so desperately to escape.

Movie Times San Francisco Asian American Film Festival screens March 23-25 at Camera 12 in San Jose. (See for details.)

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