San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

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"City of Life and Death"

Shells fly, walls crumble and bodies fall in the first 25 minutes of "City of Life and Death," Lu Chuan's monumental account of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing in 1937.

Shot in stately black-and-white, the sequence recalls the scope of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica." Chaos reigns as a city falls victim to its abductors. Whirling in and out of ruined buildings, Lu's wide-angle compositions capture Nanjing in its final hours of resistance with uncompromising veracity.

The rest is history. After quelling the final regiment of Chinese freedom fighters, the Japanese soldiers engage in a six-week period of wanton debauchery that would take hundreds of thousands of lives. Civilians are ordered to dig their own graves, women are enlisted into makeshift brothels and protests for peace fall on hollow ears. It's a descent into madness heartbreakingly orchestrated by Lu, one of China's most gifted young filmmakers.

We observe the monstrosities through a wealth of colorful if muted characters, among them a brooding fighter, a headstrong schoolteacher and a pensive Japanese soldier. Others are historical figures: John Rabe, a German businessman and Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary. Their motives and means of survival are ostensibly different, but Lu frames them as one entity regardless of background or ethnicity. Through their eyes, a city ravaged by massacre eventually transforms into a stronghold of national resilience.

72 years later, the horror remains indelible. It's a measure of Lu Chuan's ability to spin provocative images that truly elevates "City of Life and Death," a film that discovers beauty in the darkest depths of the human condition.

"In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee"

Haunting and personal, Deann Borshay Liem's "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee" affirms the role of war in reshaping individual destinies.

Filming in an autobiographical documentary format, Borshay Liem crafts a compelling tale of misplaced identities based on her childhood adoption by an American couple in the aftermath of the Korean War.

Official documents indicate her original birth name as Cha Jung Hee, a mistake that Borshay Liem uncovers through inconsistencies in photographs and personal details. Somehow, a series of mix-ups had resulted in Borshay Liem being sent to America in place of the real Cha Jung Hee, a conundrum that haunts the protagonist throughout her formative and adult years. "My sense of who I am has been held captive by her identity," narrates Borshay Liem in a voiceover, haunted by a missing past that only grows in scope with each subsequent investigative breakthrough.

Borshay Liem's understanding of the societal and cultural forces that shaped her personal odyssey keeps the film from falling into narcissistic territory.

As she voyages to her homeland in hopes of determining the identity of both her original family and the real Cha Jung Hee, we follow her quest through phone conversations, visits to police stations and inquiries into registry files.

Borshay Liem's voiceover provides additional resonance throughout, capturing a strong-willed woman's determination to reconcile the beautiful vistas of both rural and urban South Korea with her own uncertain past.

"What We Talk About When We…"

A set of dazzling shorts by four of Asia's finest modern filmmakers highlighted the "What We Talk About When We…" portion of the festival, which ran Friday, March 19 at the Pacific Film Archive.

Although not expressly created for a specific film project, the pieces conveyed the unique aesthetic flourishes of their respective directors as they touched on the common themes of love and remembrance.

The venue opened with Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee." Two unseen narrators impersonate the director by reading a personal letter to Uncle Boonmee, a fictional hero with the ability to recall his past lives.

Apichatpong's camera slowly pans across the interior of a deserted house before venturing into the lush forests of rural northeastern Thailand, creating an environment that brims with primitive rapture.

South Korean director Hong Sang-soo's "Lost in the Mountains" followed, chronicling the mishaps of a young writer as she visits a friend in Jeonju.

Things go awry when she rekindles a romance with a former lover, and Hong's trademark wry humanism kicks in with hilarious results. By contrast, Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang's "Madam Butterfly" offers an opaque interpretation of the Puccini opera, following a woman as she struggles to exit a figurative purgatory in the form of a chaotic Malaysian train station.

The strongest moment in the series occurred in the third act, with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's "Cry Me a River." Four college friends-and former lovers-congregate in a rural township for a 10-year reunion, their conversations framed by Jia with beautiful restraint.

As a contemporary update of Fei Mu's 1947 "Spring in a Small Town," Jia's short pays lovely homage to one of Asian cinema's undisputed classics revolving around love and lost memories.

"Like You Know It All"

Following a decade of international festival hits such as "Woman on the Beach" and "Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors," South Korean director Hong Sang-soo paints a portrait of the artist as a repulsive man.

Unfolding like an inebriated character study of sorts, his latest film-coyly titled "Like You Know It All"-addresses human foibles in self-deprecating fashion, bringing out the funny and morose in a story that seems to intentionally lead nowhere.

The meandering plot follows several weeks in the life of Ku (Kim Tae-woo), a middle-aged director famous in South Korea for his arthouse films.

Asked to join the jury for the upcoming Jecheon International Music and Film Festival, Ku arrives in a hurry and nose dives into a sea of complications. He falls asleep at film screenings, quickly forgets his promises and lusts after old friends' wives.

Alcohol-fueled interactions pave the way for hilariously awkward revelations, provided by a tapestry of characters who each possess their own fickle intentions.

Trapping his characters in a constant battle of wits and sexes, Hong orchestrates the circus with a touch all his own.

Tensions built through long shots are often negated by quick, random zooms and pans that lend additional weight to individual follies. Ku's character fluctuates constantly between egotism and self-hatred, a trait that echoes the troubled alter egos of Woody Allen.

Like the director's earlier works, "Like You Know It All" feels entirely instinctual, as if Hong himself had decided to draw from his own life experiences and commit them to celluloid. At its best, it marks another small triumph by one of contemporary cinema's most original voices.


David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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