The 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival wraps up this coming weekend at the Festival’s East Bay flagship, Pacific Film Archive. If you enjoyed the eclectic blend of films on offer during the fest’s first week, you’ll be pleased to know that more is on the way.
Should you only have time for one film this week, make it Dance Town, a new South Korean drama screening Thursday, March 17, at 7:00pm. Apparently the third in a series of films about newcomers adapting to life in the big city of Seoul, Dance Town examines the difficulties faced by Jung-nim Rhee (newcomer Mi-ran Rha), a middle-aged North Korean housewife who flees Pyongyang for the South at the behest of her husband, a businessman whose travels have allowed him to establish connections beyond The Hermit Kingdom’s borders.Jung-nim makes it to Seoul with relative ease, but difficulties begin immediately upon her arrival. After enduring a grilling by South Korean intelligence agents intent on winnowing out Northern spies from genuine refugees, she’s granted citizenship and lodged in an apartment equipped, ironically, with spy cameras and a tapped telephone. No longer financially supported by her beloved husband, she’s forced to take a job at a laundry and gets noticed by a policeman whose intentions are less than honorable.
Produced after South Korea’s conservative government ended the country’s Sunshine Policy, which allowed for some business and cultural relationships between the two Koreas, Dance Town insistently suggests that, though there are differences between North and South, they’re not irreconcilable — and don’t always redound to the South’s favor. It’s definitely a film that falls at the inclusive, ‘liberal’ end of the spectrum: as one of Ms. Rhee’s laundry colleagues suggests, “kimchee is kimchee”, no matter on which side of border it’s made.
Though slowly paced, the film is never less than engrossing, and Rha is utterly convincing as the stranger in a strange — yet strangely familiar — land. Dance Town is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2011, but be aware that it features a surprising amount of quite graphic sexual content, not all of it consensual.
The Taqwacores (screening on Friday, March 18, at 8:45pm) is, at heart, a fairly typical indie ensemble piece, but with enough new wrinkles to earn it a thumbs-up from yours truly. Based on Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel of the same name, it’s the story of a group of Buffalo-based Muslim punk rockers rebelling against the strictures of their religion. (There really is a Muslim punk scene, but the bands in the film — Osama’s Tunnel Diggers, Bilal’s Boulder, and Boxcutter Surprise — are fictional).
The film is crudely made, the screenplay a tad stodgy and predictable, and there’s not enough music, but the characters — including Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), the burka-clad ‘riot girl’ who crosses out the bits of the Qu’ran that she finds misogynistic, and wide-eyed innocent Yusuf (Bobby Naderi), who stumbles into the scene while apartment-hunting — are endearing enough to keep you watching.
Finally, Malaysia’s first and probably only lesbian-positive horror film, Histeria, screens on Saturday, March 19, at 8:00pm. Though clearly influenced by the American ‘teenagers in peril’ genre, Histeria remains deeply rooted in South-Asian culture, and is blessed with the scariest ‘man in a rubber suit’ monster the big screen has seen in years. The film has more in common with the gory and outrageous horror films of Indonesia than it does with the atmospheric ghost stories of North Asia, and is definitely not for the squeamish. If, however, you aren’t averse to the occasional blood squib, you’ll be well satisfied.
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.