2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Photo: Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words
CENTER FOR ASIAN AMERICAN MEDIA/Courtesy
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words

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Histeria

This Malaysian monster-slasher flick is so by-the-numbers it's almost endearing. When the principal of a girls' school announces that six prank-pulling students will be subject to a three-day detention, there's no attempt to mask the simple set-up for carnage. "So that they can all die, you know," he seems to be saying. In the world of "Histeria," this is the inevitable and only solution, because obviously, when you make light mischief, the outcome is always demon-inflicted evisceration.

And so, our six heroines (except not really, because they're mostly really mean), along with a too-perfect younger girl, one teacher and the suspiciously silent gardener, are left to their own devices during term break, with instructions to clean up the campus. An evil spirit, summoned as part of their original prank, manifests to wreak head-smashing chaos upon everyone. The movie has practically zero psychological depth and weirdly irritating editing, and the average episode of "Buffy" probably has better jump-scares, but somehow it is hard to fault such an unpretentious little genre package. If you caught this on TV at two in the morning, you'd be hard-pressed to change the channel.

-Sam Stander

Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded

"Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded," written and directed by Professor Elaine H. Kim of U.C. Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies, is a documentary that examines the representation of Asian women in popular Western culture. Through film clips, interviews and voice-over narration, Kim explores how Asian women are portrayed as superhuman or defenseless (see: Lucy Liu in "Kill Bill" and Freida Pinto in "Slumdog Millionaire," respectively), leaving little room for relatable female characters.

She also briefly explains how these stereotypes arise, pointing to the Western-centric belief that women from other cultures should be "saved" from their oppressive societies. By the film's end, Kim addresses how these trends might be changing as a result of the rising popularity of less mainstream productions, or through video-sharing sites like YouTube, in which anyone can write, star or direct. At only 30-minutes long, "Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded" doesn't exhaust any of the issues it brings up, but instead provides a welcome foundation to begin thinking about representations of race and gender in popular culture.

-Jordan Woolsey

Living in Seduced Circumstances

Six years after he won the Special Jury Award at the Asian American Film Festival for his debut movie, "Cavite," writer/director Ian Gamazon returns with the torture film, "Living in Seduced Circumstances." The movie centers on Minh, a young pregnant woman out to punish an elderly man who wronged her. As she puts him through torture in a deserted forest, her motives are slowly revealed.

Violence appears sparingly throughout the film. Rather, Gamazon moves away from a scene before the actual act can be shown, attempting to create a sense of tension. Although the technique proves useful through the first 20 minutes , suspense fails to build once it becomes all too predictable.

This is a movie with only two characters, one location and a one-man crew. Gamazon acts as writer, director, editor and cinematographer. With his heavy use of a handheld camera and lengthy segments of animation, "Living in Seduced Circumstances" illustrates why filmmaking should be a collaborative process. Otherwise, a filmmaker may be liable to overindulge in a stylistic manner that leaves the audience confused and frustrated.

-Jawad Qadir

Affliction

Richard Somes' "Affliction" (originally titled "Yanggaw") blends tropes from "The Exorcist" and American werewolf pictures with Filipino folklore to forge a proficient shocker superimposed onto a family drama. The stubborn patriarch of an extended family, Junior (Ronnie Lazaro) spends time playing with his grandchild and bickering with his son Toto. When his daughter Amor (Aleera Montalla) returns to the family home stricken with an unidentified illness, the tensions between Junior and his son are forced out into the open.

Amor's titular affliction, punctuated by blood-drenched nighttime excursions, comes to a head when a local healer diagnoses her as an Aswang monster, a sinister creature from Filipino popular myth. The family is wracked with fear as well as external strife - Junior's vendettas against members of the community only complicate matters - and though there are a few bloody tableaux, much of the violence and intensity onscreen is emotional rather than supernatural. Which is not to say it is the best of family dramas - the overwrought melodrama was enough to make audience members mutter about "corniness" as they left the screening. However, the presence of that emotional framework and the strength of Lazaro's performance hold together an otherwise fairly typical effort.

-Sam Stander

Abraxas

Abraxas" centers on the life of Jonen, a monk who used to be the frontman of a thrash rock band. Having turned to Zen Buddhism after hitting rock bottom in his days as a musician, Jonen doubts his purpose in life, torn between his love for music and his reverence for his spiritualism.

He finds solace in music - ironically the medium of expression that was once caused his destructive behavior, indulged his alcoholism and inspired him to perform senseless stunts on stage (with a hankering to take off his clothes). With the blessing of the chief monk and his wife, Jonen sets out to put on a live show in his town. He risks losing the support of his family, friends and temple by doing so, but his hope that music and religion will be able to co-exist within himself and lead him to a new level of enlightenment far outweighs the chances of failure.

Director Naoki Kato beautifully shapes Jonen's life, with a measured pace in each shot that allows the audience to immerse themselves in the narrative. Combining tradition with novelty, the tension between two social constructs within one man makes for a very interesting and moving piece of work.

-Dominique Brillon

Bi, Don't Be Afraid

There are many images which linger in the frame of Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di's latest film, "Bi, Don't Be Afraid!" The pained grimaces of an aging man, the drunken dejection of a middle-aged husband, the exuberant adventures of a six-year-old boy - these are the portraits that Phan's film paints. It is a story of man at his most crucial stages of life - beginning, middle and end. Only, there's nothing crucial about these people's lives. Though detailed in its depiction of a contemporary Vietnamese family, no plot, connection or character develops.

Through a series of brief, unconnected and silent scenes, the audience bears witness to the mundane episodes of this family's life. The young boy, Bi, explores an ice factory. He finds a maple leaf. His grandfather dies. Food is made. Nothing truly remarkable happens and yet, the film and the family continue on. Bi's father attempts to rape a woman. His aunt settles for a loveless relationship. More food is made. At times painfully dull to watch, the film remains merely a series of stills on loop, where nothing is resolved or revealed.

-Jessica Pena

Piano In A Factory

Zhang Meng's "The Piano in a Factory" takes a whimsical approach to what otherwise would have been a dull story. Set in industrial northern China, "Piano" focuses on Guilin, a lazy ex-steel factory worker whose world revolves around two things - music and his daughter. Just as his financial instability limits his cultivation of music, it also threatens to take away his child. Caught in the midst of a fierce custody battle, the girl decides to side with the parent who can cough up a piano. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Guilin begs, borrows and steals before resorting to the brilliant idea of constructing the instrument from scratch.

With its fair share of hardships, the story could have easily fallen victim to the melodramatic. Director Zhang, however, skillfully works in moments of light-hearted humor, further highlighted by the interesting amalgamation of music, from drunken warbles vocalized in the back of a butcher's truck to strains of Russian pop. Highly romanticized, "Piano" is in no way a realistic representation of China's working class, but manages to spin an endearing tale of a love for music, family and community.

-Cynthia Kang

I Wish I Knew

One can only imagine the pitch meeting that must have taken place between renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke and the state bureau in charge of commissioning "I Wish I Knew." Some official must have said, "Hey, Jia Zhangke, we need a film for the 2010 World Expo that gracefully addresses a century of Shanghainese history. And could you keep it under three hours?"

And Jia was probably like, "Consider it done, fellas."

While his project was clearly daunting, the result is far from tedious. It is a sprawling documentary-art film hybrid, featuring interviews from the wryly humorous to heartbreaking, while the cinematography showcases the city in all its gray and silver glory without being flashy.

The only caveat for foreign viewers is that the subtler narrative connections between interviews might be hard to grasp. But that's fine. You don't have to understand the nuances of the Cultural Revolution to see the inter-generational continuity. Or to be moved by the story of an evolving metropolis, told through shots that peek through barely-open doors and sweep across Shanghai's towering skyline.

-Jill Cowan

Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words

Anna May Wong broke the mold for Chinese-American actors today, even though they may seem largely absent from the silver screen. Born in 1905, Wong began her acting career amidst the rising tide of 1920s silent films and continued well into the '40s with over 58 films to her credit. And yet, one rarely hears of her. Thankfully, director Yunah Hong's new documentary, "Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words," provides an informative introduction to the many trials of the first Chinese-American superstar.

Elegant and extraordinarily talented, Anna May Wong's charms are immediately conveyed with the use of archival footage and excerpts from her own personal letters and diaries. Interviews with scholars, actors and family friends only further enhance the feeling that history and Hollywood have overlooked - as one executive calls her - "one hell of a gal." However, though the film manages to touch on Wong's life and impact with a detailed and delicate hand, the sad fact still remains that the movie is only 57 minutes long. Too short and often disjointed, Hong's documentary only acts as a primer for what should've been a feature-length showcase for a woman who never received the spotlight in her own time.

-Jessica Pena

M/F Remix

An earnest attempt to mix a modern narrative with a French New Wave twist, "M/F Remix" lacks the quirkiness and endearing quality of the 1960s film style. Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculin Feminin" and set in the near past of 2004, the film focuses on two roommates (Mimi and Philip) trying to form their own identities.

The film imitates the non-linear narrative of cinema verite, yet falls short in capturing the essence of honesty imperative to the style. The two actors have few charming moments with one another, and deliver stilted performances that possess few subtle realities.

Following in the footsteps of Godard, Jy-Ah Min constructs her piece with hand-held shots and attempts to capture realistic interactions between the roommates with abstract editing. Godard's classically filmic black-and-white images coexist with Min's digitally captured shots.

Min's endeavor to capture the struggle of youth's identity in the 21st century does not go unnoticed, yet it does not ultimately succeed. The viewer may be left wondering whether this is a professional piece of work or a film student's final class project.

-Dominique Brillon

Break Up Club

A satirical commentary on our unhealthy relationship with technology, Barbara Wong's "Break Up Club" follows the trials and tribulations of a fresh-faced couple, Joe and Flora. During one of their many rough patches, Joe (Jaycee Chan) resorts to stalking a strange site that magically fixes his love life, though it results in the destruction of another relationship. But not even a miracle can completely wash away their problems, as Joe's lack of ambition and Flora's (Fiona Sit) high-maintenance attitude threaten to make a permanent dent in their relationship.

Despite its creative subject matter, the film certainly doesn't relay anything new. The triteness is echoed in Chan and Sit, who attempt to convey an honest portrayal of love but only end up delivering scenes that are either nauseatingly cutesy or uncomfortably annoying. The film's only saving grace is its unexpected mockumentary style that adds a tasteful touch of reality, resulting in a ending that is refreshingly deviant from typical chick flick conclusions. "Break Up Club" barely touches the surface of what love is, choosing to express an already hackneyed story in an easily forgettable way.

-Cynthia Kang

Tags: SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL






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