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Beauty and the East 

A critical guide to the 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
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Ancestors in the Americas, Part II (U.S.A., 1998)
The men who left China to come to California in the mid-19th century were called "gold mountain men" by the wives they left behind. But their lives were far from the idyllic existence promised by the handbills, according to Loni Ding's fascinating documentary. The Chinese were the architects of California's economy, introducing strawberries and other important crops, reclaiming vast amounts of swampland, and of course building the railroads to transport people, merchandise, water, and gold across the growing nation. Their thanks for these efforts came in the form of state-sanctioned exploitation, discrimination, and murder. Typical of her people, though, says Ding, was their ability to create small communities in spite of their difficulties and, in the case of the 1874 "Temple in the Forest of Clouds," to build a source of spiritual solace in a land that offered them none. (G.M.) Kabuki, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Buddha Bless America (Taiwan, 1996)
The arrival of Americans for military maneuvers circa 1967 brings the world of rock 'n' roll, girlie bars, and drunk GIs to a small Taiwanese farming village in this sensational culture-clash comedy. Writer/director Wu Nien-jen (A Borrowed Life) cast fellow film director Lin Cheng-sheng (whose fantastic Murmur of Youth will play at the S.F. Film Fest in May) as a shambling village intellectual nicknamed "Brain," whose hangdog presence sets the film's wry, low-key tone. Terrifically funny and unsentimental but quite tender, it's the surprise delight of the festival for me. (T.B.) PFA, Friday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Saturday, 8 p.m.

Fakin' Da Funk (U.S.A., 1997)
Tim Chey's too-well-named neo-blaxploitation film would seem to be more evidence of a Pam Grier revival. But Grier is sadly just a glamorous fixture here, registering only briefly as the mother of two boys trying to survive in the slums of L.A. The real stars are Margaret Cho, playing a nerdy Chinese exchange student who's accidentally assigned to a black ghetto family; and Dante Basco, as a Chinese kid who's been adopted by Grier and her husband and raised as black. Predictable laughs are milked to the limit (Cho, in the equivalent of a 1950s China Doll characterization, teaches the "ghetto folk" tai chi), but the dramatic potential is barely touched in this slick, superficial, "life-affirming" production. Best moment is the great Rudy Ray Moore's thrillingly nasty dish about a dog, a cat, and "yo mama." (G.M.) Kabuki, Tuesday, 9:15 p.m., and Thursday, 5 p.m.

Frozen (China, 1997)
This is a gloomy but fascinating film about a loose community of young artists in Beijing, kids seething with ambition and ideas but so suffocated by life in China and haunted by Tiananmen that their art emerges in intensely nihilistic and self-destructive (as well as pretentious and self-absorbed) ways. Qi Lei (Jia Hongshen) is a particularly moody painter and performance artist who plans to literally die for his art by melting a block of ice with his own body and freezing to death. An intriguing, though rather humorless, portrait of life as a Chinese art student punk. (T.B.) PFA, Saturday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Monday, 7 p.m.

Kelly Loves Tony (U.S.A., 1998)
Producer/director Spencer Nakasako gave two Laotian teen-agers -- Kelly, a smart, ambitious honor student, and her ex-con, dropout boyfriend Tony -- a video camera to document themselves for a year. Reeling back and forth between joy and despair, the two kids lay their lives out in nakedly honest detail, creating a remarkable, heartbreaking portrait of themselves and the tensions between their traditional Laotian culture, the crime-ridden, economically depressed streets of East Oakland, and their American Dreams of success and transcendence. (T.B.) Opening night film, Palace of Fine Arts, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Kabuki, Saturday, 11 a.m.; PFA, Monday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Wednesday (March 11), 1:30 p.m.

Mahjong (Taiwan, 1996)
Edward Yang's audacious Mahjong is almost epic in its blackly comic screwball sensibility, as it digs into some deep, dark stuff about Chinese fathers and sons, the Westernization of the East, and the steely greed of seemingly everyone in Taipei. A huge cast of characters, from Taiwanese teen-age gangsters to British interior designers, bounces off one another in a million Altman-esque ways. It's a brashly cynical, kaleidoscopic look at modern Taipei by one of Taiwan's filmmaking masters, though you'll need to overlook some of the wincingly awful performances by the English-speaking actors. (T.B.) PFA, Saturday, 9:15 p.m.

My America (... or Honk if You Love Buddha) (U.S.A., 1997)
Documentarian Renee Tajima-Pena cites Kerouac's On the Road as her inspiration for this tour of some of the landmarks and enclaves of Asian America, but her subjects bring their own quite individual stories to this look at lives of "the invisible minority." In Seattle, we meet two Korean rappers ("I'm like Ken-tuck-y fried chick-en/ I'm fin-ga-lick-in'!"); in Louisiana, a group of eighth-generation Filipina women who've intermarried and are now "honorary whites"; in Chicago, a Laotian family who try to maintain their dignity in the face of unrelenting racism and poverty. Tajima-Pena injects the political into the everyday not by polemic but by the simple truths of people explaining their lives. The film is textured with the director's cutting wit, typified in her description of a New York fortune-cookie entrepreneur as "Horatio Alger on amphetamines." (G.M.) Kabuki, Friday, 7:15 p.m., and Monday, 4:30 p.m.

My Secret Cache (Japan, 1996)
My Secret Cache is a one-joke, manga-y mess, with nothing more on its mind than being cutely goofy. Sakiko (homely fashion model Nishida Naomi) grows up with one obsession -- money. When she discovers that a gang of bank robbers has lost millions of yen in the dense wilderness at the foot of Mount Fuji, she dedicates her formerly lazy life to mastering skills like rock climbing, geology, and scuba diving, which will allow her to locate the loot. A winning performance by occasional film director Riju Go and some funny, preposterously low-rent special effects barely raise this above the tedious. (T.B.) Kabuki, Thursday, 7 p.m.

Out of Phoenix Bridge (China, 1997)
China's New Documentary Movement is the product of a "sixth generation" of filmmakers whose work, unseen in China, contradicts official portrayals of a cohesive, progressive society. Li Hong's entry is one of two in this year's festival, and an unqualified must-see for its methodical, wrenching look at the cramped lives of four young women forced by rural poverty to seek menial work in Beijing. The director's objective camera lets her subjects tell their own stories, but ultimately focuses on 24-year-old Xiazi, who shuttles back and forth between the city and country as fate and her family continually present opportunities for escape -- only to withdraw them. For a woman like Xiazi, the only hope is to find a man to marry her, but her earlier rejection of an unwanted suitor -- "He paid my father 800 yuan; I was worth more than that" -- seems to seal her fate as a useless commodity. Xiazi keeps a picture of Tiananmen Square under her bed, but it's an ironic symbol; the forces that hold her down are more powerful than tanks. (G.M.) PFA, Sunday, 5:30 p.m.; Kabuki, Monday, 3:30 p.m.

Push! Push! (South Korea, 1997)
At least one critic has noted the similarity of this raucously funny medical "dramedy" to ER, but Push! Push! makes the TV show's theatrics look tame. Director Park Chul Soo seamlessly melds seemingly incompatible genres -- hospital drama, problem picture, social satire, and farce -- into a witty assault on Korean sexual mores. The film takes place entirely in a frantic women's clinic, where we meet a panorama of refreshingly lowbrow comic types: a couple who take a breather from their violent assault on each other to bow to and thank the doctors watching them, an aging housewife who begs for "cutie surgery" and hymen reconstruction, and a man who's humiliated into donating his two shots' worth to the clinic's dwindling sperm supply. Where Push! Push! does resemble -- and surpasses -- ER is in its graphic depiction of medical matters, not only in the bracing shots of real-life delivery but most startlingly in what is surely a film first: a point-of-view shot of a gawking doctor from inside the womb. (G.M.) Kabuki, Friday, 10 p.m., and Saturday, 2:45 p.m.

Suzaku (Japan, 1997)
If you liked Kore-eda Hirokazu's magnificent, mournful 1996 film Maboroshi, you'll probably like this; Suzaku writer/director Kawase Naomi released an 8mm "correspondence" with Kore-eda in 1996, and is obviously influenced by him. With cinematography so beautiful it will make your eyes hurt, Suzaku charts the slow disintegration of a rural village, as the modern world, just on the other side of the mountains, passes it by. The film is only slightly marred by the director's deliberate obscurity about a couple of plot points; otherwise, it's an exquisitely restrained procession of sad goodbyes. (T.B.) PFA, Friday, 7 p.m.; Kabuki, Saturday, 8 p.m.

Without Memory (Japan, 1996)
A devastating documentary about a man named Sekine Hiroshi, who enters a hospital for a routine stomach ailment and accidentally has his memory wiped clean due to an administrative fuck-up. Called Wernicke's encephalopathy, the condition causes his memory to last at most about an hour, and then evaporate completely. He doesn't even remember that he can't remember. Filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu (Mabarosi) follows Sekine and his family for a couple of years, during which Sekine doesn't even recall that a movie is being made about him. Don't miss this one -- no pun intended, this is a film you won't soon forget. (T.B.) Kabuki, Friday, 4:15 p.m., and Saturday, 5 p.m.

"Yellow Kitty"
This 84-minute package of shorts offers an intriguing metaphorical map of modern queer life. The cast covers a wide geography, from the mysterious Filipino-American "killer queen" Andrew Cunanan (in Stuart Gaffney's Cunanan's Conundrum) to the amusingly vain "waterfairies" of the Indian-American drag world (Julpari) to the "50 million Indian men" who "had sex with other men," according to Riyad Wadia's poetic Bomgay. There are a few disappointments here. Ming-Yuen S. Ma's Sniff, which is five minutes of a naked guy on a bed licking the sheet, makes the viewer long to push him off. But brief, conceptually rich works like Ho Tam's Season of the Boys, with its fleeting shots of the fleeting flesh of some young basketball players; Lynne Chan's enchanting Untitled (My Mama), which slings the dish with elan; and Young Chung's highly educational Teething, which demonstrates via a grainy loop how to give the perfect blow job, show it's possible to pack a punch in mere minutes. (G.M.) Kabuki, Saturday, 10:15 p.m., and Wednesday (March 11), 9:45 p.m.

NAATA
The festival is presented by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA). All screenings are at the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post (at Fillmore), except as noted.

Ancillary screening sites include the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley; and the Palace of Fine Arts, at 3301 Lyon (at Bay).

Tickets are $8, $5.50 for weekday shows beginning before 5 p.m. There are discounts for seniors, students, and the disabled. Opening- and closing-night events are more expensive. Advance tickets are available at the Kabuki box office and through BASS, at 776-1999 or (510) 762-2277.

Information online is available at www.naatanet.org. Or call 255-4300.

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