It’s time once again for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and, as in previous years, Pacific Film Archive will be flying the Festival’s flag in the East Bay. Now in its 29th year, the Festival runs from Thursday, March 10, through Sunday, March 20, and for the next two weeks I’ll be focusing on some festival highlights screening at PFA.
The Festival’s East Bay program begins at 7:00pm Friday, March 11 with an unusual drama examining the intangible relationship between spirituality and music. Directed by Naoki Kato, Abraxas (Aburakurasu no matsuri) stars indie rocker Suneohair (born Kenji Watanabe) as Jonen, a Zen Buddhist monk whose punk rock past is proving difficult to leave behind.
After embarrassing himself and his temple at a high school career day, our hero decides he must confront his demons head on because “if we become one with the noise, the noise disappears”. Jonen sets out to prove his point by performing at a local karaoke bar.
Needless to say, not everyone thinks this is such a great idea — including wife Tae (Rie Tomasaka), who begs him not perform his trademark striptease while on stage. Though stymied by an unhappy local matriarch, Jonen moves his show to the temple, where he proceeds to wow the locals with his lusty singing, guitar pyrotechnics, and (alas) penchant for taking his shirt off. This gentle, deliberately paced, wryly humorous, and periodically LOUD film will appeal to admirers of both Buddhist ritual and the noisier side of New York rockers Sonic Youth.
Ian Gamazon’s Cavite was one of the nicest surprises of 2005: a taut, low-budget thriller about a young Filipino-American trying to track down his kidnapped relatives in the shantytowns of Manila. After a lengthy hiatus, Gamazon is back with Living in Seduced Circumstances (screening Saturday, March 12 at 9:00pm), a deeply disturbing tale of revenge that will leave audiences divided and uncomfortable.
Cavite co-star Quynn Ton plays Minh, a pregnant woman turning the tables on Tranh (Long Nguyen), a man against whom she holds an intense grudge. Minh has drugged Tranh, bound him in a wheelchair, and taken him deep into the woods, where she plays a series of games with him, the ultimate goal of which is to visit upon him some of the terror she presumably suffered at his hands.
Though the film reflects the influence of Chan-wook Park, it’s even less easy to take than much of the South Korean bad boy’s oeuvre. Gamazon dispenses with narrative arc altogether: it’s left entirely to the audience to determine what has precipitated Minh’s thirst for revenge, and by the end of the film you’ll be wondering who (if anyone) is the good guy and who the not-so-good. Rotoscoping, jump cuts, tinted filters, and hand-held camerawork render Living in Seduced Circumstances even heavier going. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Fans of Golden Age Hollywood will want to make time for Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, a new documentary screening Sunday, March 13 at 3:30pm. While the Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa had been popular with stateside audiences since the nineteen-teens, Anna May Wong was the first major American-born film star of Asian descent.
Yunah Hong’s film blends priceless archival footage with interviews with family friends, scholars, and colleagues, including Paramount producer A.C. Lyles and the late Jack Cardiff, who worked with Wong as a 16-year camera operator on the tragically lost early musical The Flame of Youth. Dramatizations of Wong’s life acted by Doan Ly are a bit of a distraction, but this is a worthy tribute to the actress Look Magazine contemporaneously described as “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl.”
I’ll be back next week with more on PFA’s continuing SFIAAFF programming.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.