Nine of us DC’ers traveled to the West Coast last weekend to attend the 25th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
The festival this year offered a bounty (100+ films) of narrative features, shorts programs, documentaries, panel discussions and of course, the opportunity to meet the industry’s latest directors and actors, as well as up-and-coming and emerging voices in Asian American cinema.
Luckily there were enough of us in our group to catch simultaneous screenings over the course of the weekend although that sometimes meant seeing three, even four films in a row. By the end of the day, high on film, we stumbled out of the theater and into the night, but even then, our nights would be long from over.
Most screenings were followed by Q&A sessions with the film’s cast and crew. The brutal tale of Asian gang life, Baby, drew nearly 20 cast members from Los Angeles, who stood in the front of the theater at movie's end to sustained cheers and applause.
Justin Lin’s opening night film, Finishing the Game, a hilarious mockumentary set in the 1970’s about the casting search for the perfect “Bruce Lee”, brought out the likes of actors such as Sung Kang, Roger Fan, Dustin Nguyen, and former rapper MC Hammer on stage at the historic, ornate Castro Theater.
The shorts programs, broken down by various themes, produced some excellent pieces and meditations on the state of our current society, including the tensions brewing as a result of the war in Iraq, or the lives of street mural painters in India.
The SF festival attracts many of the who's who in Asian American cinema today, and this year was no exception. Filmmaker Eric Byler was on hand to introduce his latest work, Tre, an absorbing character drama set in the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains which also just picked up this year’s Special Jury Award. Quirky documentarian Grace Lee ventured into L.A.'s zombie subculture in her newest film American Zombie.
Gene Rhee’s Trouble with Romance weaved together both lighthearted and intimate vignettes involving love’s lost and lonely over the course of a night in a Los Angeles hotel.
Other films that we watched included Na Kamalei: Men of Hula (winner of the Audience Doc Favorite), Shanghai Kiss, The American Pastime (Audience Narrative Favorite winner), Owl and the Sparrow, and the highly-touted Asian-Canadian film, the minimalist indie flick In Between Days.
Our screeners also praised the Hong Sang-soo retrospective, which showcased all works of the contemporary Korean filmmaker (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Woman is the Future of Man) known for his dissection of relationships between the sexes.
For many of us it was a rather sleepless four nights, due to the substantial after-partying and subsequent 4 am diner visits that wrapped each day. The lavish opening night reception was held at the spacious Asian Art Museum, spread out across multiple floors in the gallery’s high-ceilinged halls. The drink flowed generously, as promised, thanks to tailored drink stations set up around the museum. Who knew lychee and vodka would make such an incredible combination? And what would a trip to San Francisco be without its famous dim sum? Even the St. Patrick's Day Parade that snarled downtown traffic could not get in the way between us and our dim sum fix on Saturday morning.
It was easy to be a little--ok, fine, very--starstruck at the festival, what with the likes of Survivor winner Yul Kwon serving as MC during opening night, and Jacqueline Kim, of Charlotte Sometimes fame, sitting on the jury panel.
Even though there were more films I wish I caught over the course of the week, as I'm sure with the others, it was a most satisfying experience for the four days there. Back home now, and with the SF festival having just wrapped yesterday in San Jose, our programming board is excited to be soon considering our own lineup for our festival now less than seventh months away.
We only hope we'll soon be bringing some of these works, and more, to a theater near you.