@ the 2010 Asian American Film Fest

by Kevin Langson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 9, 2010

Why is March so important on San Francisco's cine-calendar? Of course, because it is when the Center for Asian American Media treats San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose to the largest showcase for quality films from Asia and from Asian Americans working here.

This year there is a focus on Filipino and Filipino American film, including a retrospective of the beloved melodrama filmmaker Lino Brocka's work. Particularly strong documentaries on sometimes unexpected topics populate the festival. In Aoki, you can get to know the gutsy Japanese American Oaklander who helped found the Black Panther Party, and with Hana, Dul, Sed you can get a glimpse of the lives of North Korean female soccer players. Also, Agrarian Utopia, about the plight of farmers in Thailand, is an excellent choice for those seeking documentaries that are both rooted in a strong social consciousness and beautifully shot.


Aoki is both a look into a fascinating life and a different angle on the well-trod history of the civil rights era. Richard Aoki had been a militant and tireless opponent of racial discrimination before Asian- Americans cohered as a political force. Most notably, he was a founding member of the Black Panther Party - a staple in Oakland's vehement resistance to police brutality and white supremacy. It is hard to imagine a better rebuttal to the stereotype of Asian- Americans as the quiet and obeisant minority.

This documentary, shot during the final five years of his life, shows him as a fighter whose ferocity didn't fade with age. He may have become a bit more pragmatic and diplomatic as he adapted to academia, but he still spoke fondly of armed resistance and had a gleam in his eyes recalling the student strike at UC Berkeley and the Panthers' patrolling of the cops in their neighborhoods. There is an element of surprise when looking at photographs of a dark shades and mustache sporting Japanese- American guy amidst a mass of African Americans, but the novelty effect wears off quickly as we learn how devoted and integral he was to the movement. Filmmakers Ben Wang and Mike Cheng also interview Aoki's Black comrades in the movement to help contextualize his role and include incisive bits of archival interviews of Huey Newton, the famed articulate fighter who galvanized the struggle alongside Aoki.

A Village Called Versailles

Also a different angle on a well-documented struggle, A Village Called Versailles explores the travesties and triumphs of post-Katrina as endured by New Orleans's Vietnamese community. One vital function of the disaster was to highlight the way that poor neighborhoods of color are devalued and marginalized. S. Leo Chiang's collecting of frustrated and determined Vietnamese- American voices adds to the discourse and demonstrates how various non-white, non-affluent groups are still overlooked and shoved aside.

Like Aoki, this film reminds us that ethnic minorities in this country have a common struggle and tells its story succinctly and persuasively. Father Vien, who helped keep the community together in the aftermath, opens by saying the hurricane was a good thing because it galvanized the community. Throughout the film, he helps articulate the way an ordinarily quiet and unnoticed subpopulation mobilized to defend itself, especially when a huge landfill began operation dangerously close to the homes they were laboring to rebuild. The film also shows the pointed but surmountable generation gap in immigrant families and touches on the heartbreak of suffering through a second upheaval in one's life. The elders are escapees from a war-torn homeland who had fought hard to build a new home in New Orleans, so it is particularly devastating for them to live through another loss of home.

Make Yourself at Home

A curious hybrid between the fish out of water immigrant story and horror, Make Yourself at Home is a creepy tale that expands on the familiar narrative of acclimation (to America) to encompass an ominous imitation, then conquering. Sookhy (played by Song Hye-kyo) moves from Korea to a typical American town to be the bride of the thoroughly assimilated, pot-smoking Korean-American Peter (Rob Yang), a guy who lives contentedly with his domineering mother. At first, Sookhy - soon to become Julie - appears meek and eager to please her new co-inhabitants. "I've never met an American before", she offers as means of excusing her timidity in greeting the sociable blonde neighbors, John and Julie - from whom she snatches more than a name.

If it weren't for the foreshadowing glimpse of shamanism that opens the film, one could sort of settle into a rather predictable beginning. The new Julie's turn towards the obsessive - her sly transition from ingratiation to invasion - is much welcome because the cultural adjustment clichés could have worn thin otherwise. The shamanism background feels a bit disconnected from the narrative, but regardless of the reason for the new Julie's strange behavior, some pleasurably deranged moments arise from here encroachment on the contentment of her neighbors' bourgeois bohemia.

Hold the Sun

Hold the Sun is so Mission District (be assured this is strictly complimentary), replete with quiescent all-female cycling sequences, hipster aesthetics, recognizable locations, and, of course, counterculture queers- in this case all women. This is a reticent film that reflects a thoroughly urban, inspired solitude. Its characters are not all cohorts but are individuals who carry out their endeavors separately. Scenes are often constructed simply of a duty or performance of sorts. Fox Woman poses, in costume, on a box, remaining motionless but allowing herself to smile if passersby respond to her. Gwennie prepares a bat's body as she listens to taxidermist instructions. Because these characters aren't configured into a conventional narrative, the pleasure arises from getting a sense of their milieu and their psychology as they navigate it.

In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee

A curious true story, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee delves into a different sort of identity crisis. The filmmaker, a South Korean orphan who came to the US in 1966 to join her adoptive family, attempts to solve the mystery of who the real Cha Jung Hee is. Though that name appeared on her passport, she knows that she was in fact a last minute replacement for the girl her new parents had been sponsoring. Why was the switch made? What happened to the original adoptee-in-waiting? What were the circumstances that led to this confusion? In addition to these questions asked along a literal quest through numerous Cha Jung Hee's in Korea, Deam Borshay Liem considers the booming baby export industry whose grandiosity is a bit peculiar in light of Korea's affluence. The film strikes a rewarding balance between poetic self-reflection (related to memory, her "search for the exact moment I forgot who I really was") and straightforward detective work and sociology.

Lessons of the Blood

Lessons of the Blood is structured as eleven history lessons dealing with the Japanese occupation of China. The film opens with an academic explanation of historical revisionism, and James T. Hong's film is clearly a revisionist project, in the positive sense of the word, in that it labors against the deceptions and elisions that constitute Japan's official version of Sino-Japanese relations during World War II, as well as contextualizing the conflict so as to implicate the US. It is a pointed but fair-minded indictment that approaches the atrocities that occurred and the subsequent struggle for justice from various angles. 'Will Japan ever truly own up to what it did?' is the frustrated question that echoes throughout as we, for example, meet several Chinese survivors with rotten legs they have lived with for decades because they can't afford amputation. There is scant explanation of Japan's motivations, but the film excels at communicating the profound resentment that many Chinese feel towards the "Japanese devils" that wages biological warfare against them. Also, the detailing of events that unfolded at Unit 731 in Harbin, China is harrowing. We visit the site where human captives were used for all sorts of torturous experimentation, including the innovative use of germs to contaminate the population.

Hana, dul, sed

It is rare that we are given access to the insular, stridently anti-American terrain of North Korea; the fact that the subject matter of Hana, dul, sed is women's soccer rather than something overtly political or ideological makes it all the more rarefied (Daniel Gordon's A State of Mind being an exceptional precedent). Of course, ideology and antagonism are present but primarily as sentiments that are seamlessly presented as part of the women's plights. We witness both their athleticism and their nationalism, and it is entertaining to see how their competitive spirit arises out of both concurrently.

This also creates an interesting dynamic in the film because the former is conducive to relatability while the latter tends to spur divisiveness. One minute their resilience and slightly unconventional sisterhood inspires; the next their unfaltering resentment towards Japan and the US and their subservience to their Leader has the ability to alienate. Like women worldwide, they surmounted gender stereotypes about the strength of women relative to men (the opening juxtaposition between animated propaganda declaring women to be flowers and footage or their ferocity on the field is stupendous). Unlike other female athletes, during intense practice they took mandatory cooking lessons at intervals so that their sport didn't completely hinder them from fulfilling their duties as housekeeper. They purport having been motivated by the desire to please their leader and their people. It is interesting to see manifest the ambiguous relationship between the drive for individual achievement and the desire to be a selfless component of a nationalist whole.

Like You Know it All

The title of Hong Sangsoo's latest, Like You Know it All, perfectly encapsulates the backlash that artistic success may stir and suggests the perhaps deserved victimization of oblivious egoists such as KU Kyung-nam, this story's protagonist. He is an affable, passive independent filmmaker who has won acclaim abroad as well as in the local festival circuit. When he leaves Seoul to be a judge at a festival in a small city, a series of laughable disgraces ensues. KU is ruthlessly critical when his old friend's girlfriend indulges in longwinded, pseudo-spiritual self-praise, yet, throughout the story, he comes up against accusations of arrogance, excessive philosophizing, and lunacy, the former two of which seem to have merit.

At certain moments, the film seems to be an account of artsy pretensions, presented relatively tritely. KU endures mockery and misunderstanding that may or may not be deserved and seems innocently incredulous whenever he meets hostility. The dramatic events are alternately clever and borderline juvenile. However, there is an interesting ambiguity here in that the film could be taken either as a mildly self-deprecating whining about the tribulations of being an art film director, if we fully sympathize with KU, or as a mockery of his delusion of infallibility.

For more information about the Asian American Film Festival and for screening times for the films, visit the Asian American Film Festival website.