Friday, March 13, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Opening Night

Yesterday was the beginning of the 2009 edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (abbreviated SFIAAFF, pronounced "Asianfest"). Always a big party, so here we go.

The night started with a good size crowd at the Castro. Nice to see that movies are still more or less recession-proof (I heard a theory that as times get tough, people give up "extravagant" entertainment in favor of a more modest ~$10 ticket to see a movie. So far this year, I think that's held up). After a few obligatory opening remarks (congratulations, thanks, sponsors, what else you should see in the festival) we settled in for the opening night movie.

That movie was a Korean anti-romantic comedy, My Dear Enemy, by director Lee Yoon-ki. Hee-su (Jeon Do-yeon, winner of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival best actress award for Secret Sunshine) is a young woman who goes to her ex-boyfriend Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo, who also stars in The Chaser which I'll end the fest with down in San Jose) to collect on an IOU for $35,000. Byeong-woon is a scamp, a rascal, a happy-go-lucky guy who never gets down, even when he's broke--like he is now. She finds him in a racetrack, broke (the assumption is he gambled away the money, but he swears he didn't). He's also very popular with the ladies, flirting with some who work there before heading out with Hee-su to find her money. Although he doesn't have any money to his name, he has plenty of friends he can call on, turning that single $35,000 IOU into several IOU's of a few hundred to a few thousand each. At first he seems appalling, an irresponsible leech. But as the day winds on, and he collects more an more, we (and Hee-su) learn that maybe's he's not such a bad guy. People are willing to help him out for a reason, and apparently in his better days he was very generous to his friends. It's a subtle, nuanced performance with some sly humor and well rounded characters.

So it's a good movie, maybe even a great movie, but...it didn't feel like an 'Opening Night' movie. I'm going to try to make that distinction here, and I think film festival maniacs will already know what I mean. Festivals are full of smart, independent, challenging movies, but they almost always start off with a less challenging, more fun-with-a-capital-F movie. The idea is that the opening night gala should make me excited to see more films. The laughs should be easier, and maybe not challenge the audience so much--after all, many of us had a drink or two before the film (for the record, I waited for the after party to drink). Opening night films rarely win the audience award. I'd bet they typically get a lot of 4's but very few 5's (on a scale of 5), meaning people enjoy them as solid light entertainment, but are rarely wowed by them. At least, that's the sense I get. I guess what I'm driving at is My Dear Enemy felt like something I'd expect to see in the middle of a festival, not opening night, and that's not an insult. Maybe I've just gone to too many festivals if I'm noticing these things. But for the record, a lot of people I talked to at the after party said the same thing, and there were some rumors that this movie wasn't the original choice for opening night (but I can neither confirm nor deny that).

Anyway, afterwards I hopped a free Zip Car shuttle (sponsored by the festival and Toyota) to the Asian Art Museum for the after party. It was a pretty good party, and always attracts bigwigs from other local festivals (I saw Cinequest people and SF International people there). It did seem a little toned down from the last few years (maybe the economy is hitting their catering budget a bit), but was still a fun, crowded time. Best part, the Maker's Mark bartender who just assumed if you asked for a Manhattan, you meant a Perfect Manhattan (i.e., sweet and dry vermouth).

And that's opening night of Asianfest. Tonight I have a Kyoshi Kurosawa night--Tokyo Sonata plus a double feature of Serpent's Path and Eye of the Spider.

Oh yeah, and follow my tweets with the hash-tag #SFIAAFF09 to follow all my instant reaction to the festival. And remember, I'm an award winning Twit from Cinequest.
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