Manila Heartbreakers, Nanking Horrors and a Predatory ‘Housemaid’: The Asian American Film Festival


The special tonight, March 11? It has to be the opening of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival -- now in its 28th incarnation and taking off with Today’s Special, David Kaplan’s rom-com with a Bollywood/foodie twist (Indian cooking icon Madhur Jaffrey plays the mother of a sous chef in search of the secret spice missing from his life).

Yet even if you can’t make opening night and the gala reception, there’s plenty more to catch at one of the best, and oldest, film festivals in the Bay Area. This year’s collection of films are marked by a focus on Filipino cinema -- with a retrospective honoring legendary director Lino Brocka -- as well as a clutch of films looking at the Nanking Massacre and the Japanese occupation of China. Here are a few must-sees:

In The Claws Of Lino Brocka

Moving agily between genres -- including melodrama, neo-realism, agitprop, and noir -- and aiming straight for the core of Filipino culture, the boldly political and openly gay filmmaker Lino Brocka gets his due at this year’s SFIAAFF as his country’s most noted auteur. Western audiences are likely familiar with his 1988 homoerotic dancing homage, Macho Dancer, which unfortunately doesn’t twirl onto the screen this time around. Nevertheless 1975’s allegorical Manila in the Claws of Neon, the tale of a country boy’s descent from innocence to decadence, is here, as is Brocka’s 1985 Marcos regime critique Bayan Ko (the director smuggled a print out of the Philippines to the Cannes Film Festival and had his citizenship revoked for his trouble) and the acclaimed 1976 masterwork Insiang, a tough melodrama of maternal sacrifice and rough life lessons set amid the Tondo slums sitting in the shadow of Smokey Mountain, the country’s notorious garbage heap. Bayan Ko screens March 18 at PFA, Insiang is March 13 at Kabuki, Manila in the Claws of Neon is March 20 at PFA, and You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting screens March 17 at Kabuki.


The Fall Revisited
The brutality of WWII’s Nanking Massacre and the subsequent Japanese occupation continues to leave its imprint on Chinese and Taiwanese filmmakers. Lauded as one of the finest films of last year, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death looks at the events of December 1937 in Nanking -- 300,000 Chinese people were killed by Japanese soldiers -- through diverse, street-level perspectives, based on those of real-life individuals: a teacher, an assistant to a Nazi merchant, and both Chinese and Japanese solders. James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen’s documentary, Lessons of the Blood, deconstructs Japanese revisionism and the nature of historical memory, while exposing Japan’s use of biological weapons and human experimentation in China during that time via archival materials, film clips and interviews with survivors. On the feature side of the aisle, Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu bring together Chinese stars -- including Li Bingbing of The Forbidden Kingdom and Zhou Xun of Suzhou River --  for a white-knuckle thriller based on a 2007 novel about WWII Chinese code-breakers in occupied Nanking. City of Life and Death screens March 12 at Kabuki and March 19 at PFA, Lessons of Blood happens March 14 at PFA and March 16 at Kabuki, and The Message screens March 12 at PFA, March 14 at Castro and March 21 at Camera.

Love, Sex And Food
In the mood for “Sex and the Asian City Slick?” Quentin Lee -- he of the influential indie Shopping for Fangs -- updates the sexy rom-com with a real sense of racial diversity: Karin Anna Cheung of Better Luck Tomorrow is looking for Mr. and Ms. Goodbar  in Lee's The People I’ve Slept With. I loved the Dilip Mehta’s documentary, The Forgotten Women, at last year’s film festival -- and this year’s 360 shift, made with Mehta’s sister Deepa, sounds like a comedy to savor: Cooking with Stella, a battle of wits between Canadian civil servants and their kitchen staff. Also displaying a knowing comic touch is Iranian American director Suzi Yoonessi’s feature debut, Dear Lemon Lima, a bon mot to awkward adolescence, as well as Native Alaskan survival skills. Dear Lemon Lima screens March 13 at Clay and March 15 at Kabuki, Cooking With Stella is March 14 at Clay and March 21 at Camera, and The People I’ve Slept With screens March 14 at Castro, March 16 at PFA, and March 20 at Camera.

Shock And Awe
Kim Ki-young’s wild 1960 domestic pot-boiler The Housemaid promises to grab you with its grand hysteria and mesmerizing melodrama. All is not well on the home front in this psychodrama, recently restored by the Korean Film Archive and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation: A girl begins to take private lessons from an uptight music teacher who denounces a student who wrote a heart-baring love letter. The teacher’s wife is too busy sewing up the family’s financial security to keep house, so a maid is hired -- who becomes a substitute homemaker in more ways than one. The Housemaid screens March 14 at Castro.

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