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SFIAAFF 2008: Asian films, capsule reviews

SFIAAFF 2008: Asian films, capsule reviews

The 26th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival isn't over yet, but here's our report on some of the Asian titles screened thus far.

By APA Staff

Gentle Breeze in a Village
dir: Nobuhiro Yamishita

At a fork in a road, a class of grade- and middle-schoolers are faced with a critical choice: one path gets to the destination faster, the other has a better view. As cinema, Nobuhiro Yamashita's aptly-titled Gentle Breeze in the Village chooses the latter. Its storytelling is far from the tight structures and narrative expediency of most mainstream cinema; the film prioritizes not efficiency but an unhurried portrait of life's tender pleasures: the warm rumblings of the mountain air, a dragon dance at a village festival, a Valentine's Day chocolate. As in Yamashita's Linda, Linda, Linda, A Gentle Breeze in the Village has a keen eye for everyday behaviors at their most fanciful. Every time the plot seems to take a melodramatic turn, Yamashita steers us back into the slow lane so we can check out the scenery. His is a utopian cinema -- one that believes that rock ‘n roll or teen love transcends all, be it separation, inter-generational conflict, ethnic difference, or class distinction. But his films are also teenpics of the highest caliber, constructing sentiment out of the most mundane little moments of everyday life and delivering cuteness without offending the audience. Yamashita doesn't just take the scenic route, he lets us see it with fresh eyes. A Gentle Breeze in the Village is a marvel: a film about teen love that subtly examines Japan's urban-rural anxieties without compromising the gentle pleasures of being young.  --Brian Hu


I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK
dir: Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook latest film interestingly juxtaposes the heavy themes of death, insanity, and hopelessness with vibrant, eye catching colors that imbues the romantic comedy with an almost fairy tale quality. I'm a Cyborg, but That's Ok is a deliriously macabre romance between Young-goon, a wide eyed girl who believes she's a homicidal cyborg, and Il-sun (played by Rain), a kleptomaniac who in a literal and figurative sense helps Young-goon regain her humanity. Park's Oldboy astonished film goers with its outrageous level of violence back in 2003. What Park did with violence in his bloody masterpiece, he does for insanity with I'm a Cyborg. He irreverently broaches various mental illnesses in an off kilter, yet strangely entertaining, way.  The few scenes of bloody violence are absurdly amusing, buoyed by bouncy waltz music. Ironically (and appropriately) enough, the relationship between Young-goon and Il-sun is disappointingly mechanical. After the film inundates you with its creepy humor and trippy visual effects, you'll be hard pressed to remember why exactly Il-sun is sympathetic towards the ever spaced-out Young-goon in the first place. The constant barrage of bizarre delusions is ultimately more entertaining than the actual relationship between the two. --William Hong


dir: Brillante Mendoza

Brillante Mendoza's Slingshot has three things going for it. First, it is an uncompromising depiction of tactile bodies. The film intersections multiple narratives in the underground drug and crime culture in a Filipino city. Mendoza provides a palpable sense of what it's like to be cramped, slapped, grabbed, and dragged through the streets and sewers. When we see ears getting pierced or dentures fall into sewage, we feel the grime on our skin and in our mouths. Second, Mendoza has a gift for elaborate crowd scenes using non-professional actors. Case in point is the impressive opening drug raid, in which we see a number of shirtless men rounded up by the police. Mendoza's striking use of the digital camera in cramped spaces allows him to look at crowds with a texture and angle that we don't often see in similar films. Finally, and most successfully, Slingshot has an ironic sense of humor, juxtaposing the ridiculousness of local politics with the ridiculousness of petty crime (a pissed-off thief returns a necklace found to be fake, for instance). The over-the-top humor depicts this world as having a logic beyond rationality and control: it's become a grotesque living organism of its own. The film's fault is that Mendoza is often too preoccupied with piling on the gunk, force-feeding us the ghastly urban filth, that emotional or narrative focus is discarded. But as a stylistic exercise, it raises Mendoza's cinematic résumé tremendously.  --Brian Hu


Battle of Wits
dir: Jacob Cheung

Jacob Cheung's latest film is an opulent period piece set during China's tumultuous warring states period. Andy Lau aptly plays Ge Li, a brilliant Mozi tactician who takes it upon himself to save the beleaguered city of Liang from the massive Zhao army. In contrast to other period pieces, A Battle of Wits is a decidedly grounded affair with no wire-fu in sight. Instead of high flying martial artistry, Ge Li repels the hapless Zhao army with terrifying efficiency, with one brilliant stratagem after another. The elaborately staged battles are excitingly tense and extremely gratifying to watch. There are a few technical hiccups that detract from the suspense: several overacted death sequences where the solders actually looked like they were dancing drew a few unintended laughs from the audience. The second half of the film falters a bit, straying away from the film's strengths (seeing Ge Li outsmart the Zhao) for predictable plot twists, a contrived romantic subplot, and irrational character developments. The Smart of War would be an apt title, as Ge Li begins to agonize over how effectively he's laying waste to the Zhao. His sudden pacifist reservation over the morality of war brings to question why he even committed himself to the fight in the first place. With all the anti-war posturing, it feels like Cheung is using his film as a vehicle for Mohism, which stresses universal love, by delivering a heavy handed message that war is hell. --William Hong


Traveling with Yoshimoto Nara
dir: Koji Sakabe

Isolation. Punk rock. Childhood nostalgia. International Japanese pop artist, Yoshitomo Nara personifies such descriptions with his deceptively simplistic and imaginative artwork recognizable by an audience largely composed of a generation of young girl admirers. Indeed, Nara's artwork has not escaped artistic criticism, but what about his personal life? For 240 days, director Koji Sakabe physically travels with the introvert Nara in Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara as Nara commits to his most personal journey ever -- an extensive collaboration with the Japanese design team GRAF to produce the "A to Z" imaginary town spanning international boundaries. Accompanied by the feminine child-like voice of a faceless narrator, images of Yoshitomo Nara's artworks are shown through steady camera zooms which have been compared to "taking one of Alice's trips through Wonderland." Meanwhile, beautiful trip-hop and J-rock illuminate the random moments of Nara's lonely life, from New York, London, Seoul, Bangkok, and Osaka. --LiAnn Ishizuka


For previous APA coverage of Asian films playing at this year's SFIAAFF, see:

881 (dir: Royston Tan)
Blood Brothers (dir: Alexi Tan)
Flight of the Red Balloon (dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Om Shanti Om (dir: Farah Khan)
The Unseeable (dir: Wisit Sasanatieng)


SFIAFF 2008: capsule reviews, Asian American films


Asia Pacific Arts