The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) kicks off its 26th year with the return of celebrated director Wayne Wang.
Best known for bringing audiences, the Asian American family drama The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s best selling book, Wang has in recent years made big-budget Hollywood comedies such as Maid in Manhattan, starring Jennifer Lopez, and Last Holiday with Queen Latifah.
But this year, Wang marks his return to the 2008 SFIAAFF with two new independent films, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska.
“Both works delve into Wang’s fascination with how the idea of “China’ is lived by those who reside outside of it, and how closely tied but yet far apart homes and homelands are,” said Festival Director, Chi-hui Yang.
In 1982, Wang’s first film Chan is Missing was screened at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) inaugural three-day film festival held at the Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus.
At the time, CAAM was known as the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), and Wang’s Chan is Missing was considered a landmark film in the 80’s independent film movement.
Twenty-six years later, CAAM presents us with a full ten-day festival from March 13 to 23 at several venues in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki Theaters, Landmark Clay Theatre, Casto Theatre, Berkely’s Pacific Film Archive and San Jose Camera 12 Cinemas.
Folks have often asked what the “international’ means in the Festival’s (long!) name, whether it is redundant or contradictory, or how it qualifies “Asian American’. It’s a great question, and the answer lies in the complex relationship that Asian America has with Asia, and how culture, ideas and financing flow back and forth, allowing the two to define each other.
Highlighting the festival will be an opening night screening of Wang’s latest film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, based on San Francisco Bay Area author Yiyun Li’s book, as well as a screening of The Princess of Nebraska, which is a companion film for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
“Wang has told me that, in his experience trying to show these films together, he’s found that they attract very different audiences,” states Franko Loden, a lecturer in film studies, women’s studies and ethnic studies, who serves on the selection committee for SFIAAFF. “But for him they express simply different facts of a familiar insider-outsider experience that constantly resurfaces in his life and his filmmaking career.”
Additionally, there will be a special screening of Wang’s films The Joy Luck Club and Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive. Wang will also appear in person for “An Afternoon with Wayne Wang in conversation with New York Time/ex-Village Voice film critic Dennis Lim” on March 15th.
Wang will speak about his influences such as the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer, along with a discussion on how can we define or understand what an Asian or Asian American aesthetic is. And how film language has developed to express the particular sensibilities and styles of Asian artists.
This year’s festival will include over 120 feature and short films with a major theme being the relationship between Asian American filmmakers and Asia.
“Folks have often asked what the “international’ means in the Festival’s (long!) name, whether it is redundant or contradictory, or how it qualifies “Asian American,’ Yang points out. “It’s a great question, and the answer lies in the complex relationship that Asian America has with Asia, and how culture, ideas and financing flow back and forth, allowing the two to define each other.”
Exploring that global dynamic is the festival’s centerpiece presentation of director Michael Kang’s West 32nd, a Korean-financed film made in the United States starring both Korean and Korean-American actors.
The film tells the story young lawyer who gets mixed up with Korean gangsters in New York City when he tries to help a young client.
“Stylistically, the film pays homage to classic 1970’s films like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon,” states Kang. “With the changing landscape of New York over the past two decades, I felt that the gritty urban experience that made those films so rich only truly still exists in the outer boroughs and specifically Flushing, Oueens. In addition, the emergence of new Korean cinema with films like Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life has inspired a bold aesthetic angle in capturing the New York Korean community. My goal is that this film can act as bridge between Korean and American cinema.”
Closing the festival this year is Chinese-Australian Tony Ayres’ second feature film, The Home Song Stories, a family drama starring San Francisco Bay Area actress Joan Chen.
“Ayres has created a sumptuous and moving film,” Yang states. “And at its center is the radiant Chen, who confirms herself as the actress of her generation. She gives a career performance as Rose, a woman who cannot control herself or protect her family despite her best attempts, a woman for whom sexuality is her only resource for survival.”
Among the many films in this year’s narrative competition is Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu’s first feature, Ping Pong Playa, a family comedy about a wannabe NBA basketball player named Christopher “C-Dub” Wang, who must defend the family’s honor by winning the National Golden Cock Ping Pong Tournament.
The film stars writer/actor/producer Jimmy Tsai as C-Dub, a character he originally invented for a series of mock web commercials for Venom, his fledgling sportswear company. Tsai also produced a documentary screening at the festival, The Killing of a Chinese Cookie.
“Jimmy and I both saw in C-Dub the chance for some healthy self-mockery in our generation’s navigation of the ethnic American experience. The over sensitivity of the politicized to perceived racist slights. The impulse to dismiss ethnic stereotyping, while simultaneously mocking those who fit the stereotypes,” Yu stated. “At the same time we were happy to celebrate our pride in being Asian American and our awareness of our roots – “ in a way that hopefully doesn’t hit everyone over the head. From the start we have wanted this to be purely fun.”
Another provocative film at this year’s festival is director Gina Kim’s Never Forever, which world premiered at Sundance this year.
Never Forever tells the love story between a Korean immigrant and a Caucasian housewife married to a successful Asian American lawyer.
Vera Farmiga, who also starred in The Departed, gives a powerful performance as Sophie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed wife of a devoutly Christian Korean American husband, who is infertile and becomes suicidal.
In a desperate attempt to get pregnant, Sophie pays Korean illegal immigrant Jihah, played by Jung-woo Ha, to impregnate her by having sex with her, but eventually falls in love with him.
“I envision Never Forever to be a bold portrayal of one woman’s desire,” Kim states. “Films like The Piano, Blue and Belle De Jour inspired me greatly. A dynamic yet sensitive camera conveys the subtle psychological and emotional transformation of Sophie in search of her true self.”
Among the world premieres at the festival is veteran documentary filmmaker Christine Choy’s new documentary Long Story Short, a poignant portrait of the Long family, a Chinese husband-and-wife nightclub act of the 40’s and 50’s, and the racism they encountered in the entertainment industry.
Wings of Defeat, a new documentary tracing the history of the kamikaze pilots of WWII, explaining how and why the practice played such a compelling part of the war, will also make its world premiere.
Among the more dynamic documentary presentations is Planet B-Boy, an explosive globetrotting film that highlights the shared love and sacrifice of competitive breakdancers as they battle to become the world’s best.
Award-winning director Benson Lee traveled to Japan, Korea, France and Germany to capture some of the most amazing footage of breakdancers, or “b-boys,” ever caught on film, including the “human jump rope,” and the “breakdancing grandma.”
The festival will also feature several panel discussions and talks with filmmakers, including screenwriter Iris Yamashita, who was nominated for an Academy Award last year for Best Original Screenplay for her work on Letters from Iwo Jima.
Other featured presentations at this year’s festival include a special screening of the John Cho and Kal Penn comedy sequel Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, a sing-along version of 2006 SFIAAFF hit, Colma: The Musical, and a free family screening of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, a new Nickelodeon Animated series created by Chinese American animator Karen Chau.
For more information about this year’s SFIAAF, please visit the website at: www.asianamericanmedia.org
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