What to Watch at the SF International Asian American Film Festival


There is quite a lineup at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the Nichi Bei Weekly has been busy watching films to bring you an overview of the diverse works showcased this year.

“Today’s Special” kicks off the festival on March 11 at Castro Theatre. Aasif Mandiv (“The Daily Show”) plays Samir, an up-and-coming sous chef, who must take over his family’s dwindling Indian restaurant. The formulaic plot is saved by great performances by Mandiv, Madhur Jaffrey (who plays his mother) and Harish Patel (who plays his father). Famed actor Nasiruddin Shah adds depth to his charming guru character. Kevin Corrigan and Dean Winters provide comic relief.

The centerpiece film, “The People I’ve Slept With,” a sex comedy starring Karin Anna Chueng and Archie Kao, manages to hit all the genre bases (raunchy humor, charming and wacky characters, gross-out moments, and traditional rom-com sentimentality) but avoids the genre’s pitfalls (sexism and reinforcement of status quo morality). Quentin Lee’s film has it both ways, giving the audience a lot of escapist fun but maintaining a progressive message about gender and sexuality. Perhaps the most fun you can have at the fest this year, the film screens March 14 at Castro, March 16 at PFA and March 20 at Camera.

There is genuine suspense in “The Message,” an Agatha Christie-like Chinese mystery set during Japan’s WWII imperial occupation. While the torture scenes are hard to stomach, there are some subtler scenes that perversely combine cordiality and cruelty, the elegant and the grotesque. While not a great or even enjoyable film, “The Message” (March 13 at PFA, March 14 at Clay and March 20 at Camera) is a fascinating piece of propaganda-sploitation.

Festivalgoers in search of suspense might instead try “About Elly” (March 15 at Kabuki and March 20 at PFA). This narrative Iranian film starts as a light drama about a group of vacationing friend but turns into a mystery so organically that there are no clues as to its resolution. The excellent cast gives the story emotional resonance, and the film raises many ethical and philosophical questions. One of the fest’s best, it’s not to be missed.

In Miwa Nakashima’s “Dear Doctor,” Tsurube Shofukutei (“Tiger & Dragon”) plays Ino, a fraudulent small-town doctor whose incompetence goes either unnoticed or unexposed by those around him. When an idealistic med student comes from the city to study under him, his ruse is threatened. Ino is complexly portrayed as at once deplorable, pitiable, admirable and ultimately sympathetic, which makes for another festival highlight (March 14 at PFA, March 17 at Viz and March 20 at Camera).

For complex portraits of real people, the fest offers three great candidates, “Lt. Watada” and “Manillatown Is in the Heart,” as well as “Aoki,” the documentary about Richard Aoki (reviewed in the Feb.-25 Nichi Bei Weekly). Freida Lee Mock’s film (March 14 at Clay) is a well-crafted portrait of Lt. Ehren Watada, the Nikkei officer who refused to deploy to Iraq. And Curtis Choy’s “Manillatown” offers a remarkable look at the late poet and activist Al Robles. More a biographical poem than a straightforward bio-doc, Choy takes old and new footage of Manong Al and masterfully weaves it with the causes and people he cared for. Playing double-featured with “The Oak Park Story,” about the struggle of a Latino and Cambodian American community in Oakland, the two combine to form one of the fest’s strongest programs (March 14 and 15 at Kabuki).

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