Monday, March 23, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Closing Night

Finally, the last day of the festival, and I'm only blogging it 3 days after the fact. I'm exhausted.

First up was ADELA, a tearjerker from the slums of the Philippines. The title character is an old widow, well known and loved in her poor community, but still essentially alone. It follows her travels through the trash dump of a community (literally, trash piled everywhere) on her 80th birthday party. She helps birth a child, she sings with some friends at a bar (a combination celebration for the newborn and her 80th birthday). She watches corrupt politicians hustle for votes, young thieves hustle for money, and generally a world of decay and degradation. She watches over it as sort of a respected but ignored elder statesman, and the world is so pitiful and cruel you can almost see her begging for the sweet release of death with every long gaze. A deeply moving look at a deeply impoverished world.

Mix Tape 4: The MSG Addict
LOBSTER SCHMOBSTER: Hilarious sketch animation of a lobster caught in a trap and escaping a kitchen.
GOOD NIGHT: Cool Psychological sci-fi thriller of a man who had his ability to sleep surgically removed to get ahead.
SON OF GOLEM: Post-apocalyptic zombie just won't shut the fuck up.
SELF-ABSORBED: A vain woman puts on a necklace and turns into a giant blue mop. That's her super power.
PARTY HATS ON, PLEASE: An escalation of schoolkid violence, at a little girl's birthday party.
LITTLE PHOENIX AND THE REIGN OF FISTS: Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Awesome!
STILL FOR NOW: Never buy a house if the previous owner, Gregor Samsa, is nowhere to be found. He might just be inside the walls.
SYNCHRONICITY SERIES: Cool stop motion animation of real people. Damn lab coats can do anything.
GOOD LUCK COUNTING SHEEP: Dolly the cloned sheep in a coffee shop, giving away Celine Dion tickets?
THE OTHERS: Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Awesome!

Next up was the jury winner for best documentary, MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN: ISLAM AND FEMINISM IN WEST VIRGINIA. Asra Nomani is a respected journalist, a Wall Street Journal correspondent who reported from Pakistan shortly after 9/11 (incidentally, she was a good friend of Daniel Pearl, and currently leads the Pearl Project at Georgetown University). Upon returning to her childhood hometown of Morgantown, WV, she discovers that the only mosque in town is run by what she considers an extremist old boys club. So she sets out to change that, making headlines in 2003 by insisting on walking through the front door and praying in the main hall (instead of the segregated room or balcony where the women pray). The movie walks a fine line being hero worship/advocacy and balance. Director Brittany Huckabee is definitely on Nomani's side, but there's really no story without an explanation of the other side. At the extreme, there are people who believe that Islam decrees women to be subservient to men. A little more moderate are those who simply point out that the way Muslims bow in prayer sticks their butts up in the air, and it's not that good for women's modesty to mix them in with men. Others completely agree with Nomani, but think her tactics are too in-your-face, and that she should be more patient and work to change things slowly (basically that her problem isn't what she wants, but how quickly she wants it. Also that she is too demanding and doesn't work within community channels). It could be the influence of the movie, or it could by my good old liberal white male guilt, but I'm completely on her side. The most interesting part was just how difficult (impossible) it is to put together an active (to say nothing of activist) moderate movement. We are left, even here in America, with a mosque populated by moderates but run by extremists, because moderates can't come together and work for a common goal. Fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

Then from a dramatic documentary we moved on to a romantic comedy with KARMA CALLING. Opening with the voice of Tony Sirico as the Hindu god Ganesha (aka "G"), we know this is going to be something different. G quickly introduces us (in an animated opening sequence) to the main characters. The Raj family are Americans, living in Hoboken (so it makes sense their god is voiced by Tony Sirico). Dad Ram drives a taxi, but is falling deeper in debt every day. His wife Bebe keeps everything together while working in a lingerie store (appropriately named the Busy Lady). Their eldest son Shyam thinks he's a gangsta rapper, their eldest daughter Sonal is a college grad now working a lousy job in a company that makes artificial plants. And their youngest daughter Jamuna just wants a Bat Mitzvah like all her friends (Jews, represent!) Then we throw in some more characters. Mausi (I think Ram's mother) moves in and immediately tells them all they're doing wrong (like eating meat, being wasteful, being too American and not Indian enough). Radha is a young lady who is arranged to marry a dollar store manager who's a total zero. She needs a hero, like...Shyam? The Hindu gangsta rapper who wrote "Hapa means weed in Japanese"? Yeah, that's perfect for her. Meanwhile Sonal is carrying on a romance with a call center operator who she thinks is in Connecticut, but really "Rob Roy" is in India. If this sounds like a setup for wacky hijinx...you're right. If you think it's too complicated to pull it all together, don't worry so much. Sit back, enjoy the jokes, and trust that G will work it all out in his own way. Maybe giving him a little milk wouldn't hurt, though.

My only regret is that I couldn't stay for the Q&A because I had to rush out to catch the final film of the night, the brutal Korean action flick, THE CHASER. A cat and mouse game with an ex-cop turned pimp and the serial killer (played by Jung-woo Ha of MY DEAR ENEMY, the opening night film) who is taking his girls. At first the pimp (Kim Jung-ho, played by Yun-seok Kim) thinks his girls are either running away or are being stolen and sold by a rival. When he sends one of his girls, single mother Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-hie Seo) to a number that he belatedly recognizes as the last number all his missing girls went to, the chase is on. And I can't say anything else, because I don't want to spoil anything. Police get involved, but poo flung at the mayor of Seoul becomes a huge distraction. It's a tight, tense, brutal thriller that I could throw any number of cliches at ("edge of my seat", etc.) But I'll just end by saying it kept me surprised and a little shocked all through to the end.

And so ends the 2009 edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Awesome, now I'll go get some sleep.
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