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— Errata Movie Podcast —

The San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival and all of its syllables concluded late last week. I suppose it's not surprising that a city with such a large Asian population, and large cinephile population, would host such a great showcase for Asian film, but I was still in awe at the number of screenings that played to packed houses.

Out of the roughly 130 features and shorts, from 30-some-odd countries, I saw only about a dozen features. I'll write reviews for a few of these, but for now, here's a brief summary of the most interesting:

  • Hero — Zhang Yimou's elegant, star-studded sword-fighting epic ambitiously attempts to elevate the action tradition both aesthetically and thematically. It uses colorful digital technology to create a more painterly effect than The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, and it harnesses the escalating violence among assassins for its theme of pacifism. I especially like the clever middle section, before the lessons set in, poignant though they may be, because when the king and his assassin tell each other tales, the movie feels like a kind of storytellers' chess. Hero, by the way, is exhibit A in the "what's up with Miramax" file. It was a smash hit in China a few years ago, snatched up by Miramax for US distribution, cut by 20 or so minutes, and finally shelved. Supposedly it will see a release later this year, but the most often asked questions are: 1) will it really, or will the release date move again? and 2) how many of the people who want to see this have already seen the full version on DVD?
  • Shaolin Soccer — Exhibit B is Shaolin Soccer, which has had a similar distribution snafu, courtesy Miramax. Stephen Chow rounds up a bunch of down-on-their-luck kung fu masters and places them, along with their gravity-defying skills, on a soccer field as a ragtag team of underdogs who have to use their shaolin arts to defeat the (evil) champions. It's silly, and the special effects are primitively digital (digitally primitive?), but Shaolin Soccer so deliriously riffs on everything from break dancing to Jurassic Park, that it's hard not to get caught up in the goofy fun. I laughed throughout, and so did everyone else.
  • Purple Butterfly — Lou Ye's movie about Japanese-occupied China in the 1930s is extremely opaque. It's a romantic wartime spy thriller, of sorts. It moves around in time with few visual queues to keep you in sync, it's filled with dark, elaborate sequences shot with handheld cameras and shallow focus lenses, and it relies on an editing style so rapid at times that important pieces of information seem to be on the screen for only a couple of frames. You have to fight to get inside this story, and while I'm afraid I lost the battle, I'm astounded by a sequence late in the movie that involves dance partners at a club. What's astounding is how riveted I suddenly was, how close I suddenly felt to piecing together the puzzle. So close, but not quite close enough. I'll need to see this again before I can comment further, but it's no doubt a triumph of style. What I'm not sure of is whether Lou Ye let his style run away with his movie or intended to obscure his subject matter, and what he says by doing so.
  • Dolls — I seem to catch Takeshi Kitano when he's working against type. The only other of his movies that I've seen is Kikujiro. Dolls is far more melancholy, a nearly-abstract study of couples who have a fixed distance between them, doomed to be neither together nor apart. The symbolism is heavy in spots, but I thought it resonated deeply. It's both calm and ultimately tragic.
  • Shanghai Express and Piccadilly — To honor Anna May Wong, perhaps the first Asian-American star in Hollywood, the festival showed 4 of her movies. The two that I caught were real treats. Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express shows Wong holding her own with sassy Marlene Dietrich. Piccadilly, a British silent, is both a showcase of Wong's diverse talents and a surprising interracial romance ("Kiss me," her eyes say, but not on the hand. Here, on the lips. Her British beau leans in and the scene ends, missing the kiss by only a couple of frames, like it's a gunshot in Purple Butterfly). Wong commands the screen even in small roles, but she was underappreciated and remains little known.
  • A Good Lawyer's Wife — I wanted to see Im Sang-soo's melodrama from South Korea primarily because it stars Moon So-ri who gave a great performance as a woman with cerebral palsy in one of my favorite movies from last year, Oasis (though arguably hers was only the second best performance in that movie). The treatment of a marriage falling apart in A Good Lawyer's Wife is a bit too conventional for my tastes, but Moon is strong, once again. She's definitely one to watch.
  • S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine — I hope to write a capsule about this harrowing, bare-bones documentary about a Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh. A remarkably composed former inmate, jailed in the 1970s for reasons that were never explained to him, interviews former guards at the prison. Although the movie uses no footage of the period, the ample documentation and first-hand accounts paint a vivid enough image of the details of genocide. It's a deeply disturbing look at systematic madness running roughshod over human life, but it's also a beautiful example of how to look through a telescope into the past by picking through the remaining wreckage, both physical and mental.
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