City of Life and Death is a horrifying, epic account of the notorious Rape of Nanjing. The People I've Slept With, on the other hand, is a bawdy sex comedy about a self-consciously promiscuous young woman in contemporary Los Angeles. They both fit into the purview of 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival — and that's what makes it, and other wide-ranging fests, so special. Special, but also occasionally exasperating.
The SFIAAF and its parent organization, the Center for Asian American Media, deliberately cast a wide net. Throughout the eleven days of the festival, the adventurous moviegoer can zip back and forth from a South Korean filmmaker's comic predicament (Like You Know It All) to a tragic Iranian family outing (About Elly) to the slums of Manila in the 1970s (the films of director Lino Brocka) to the rice paddies of Thailand (Agrarian Utopia) and a Japanese mountain village (Dear Doctor), without missing a beat. The only commonality is the vast panorama of Asian and Asian-American experience, but otherwise the field is open. The Asian American Film Festival covers this far-flung cinematic empire with style. For the spectator, the hardest task is picking and choosing which corner of the Asia-Pacific universe to visit first. That's where we come in.
The history behind Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death is already well-known, thanks to the late Iris Chang's 1997 book The Rape of Nanking and the controversy it provoked. But this 2009 Chinese-produced drama (original title: Nanjing! Nanjing!), written for the screen by director Lu and based on diaries and eyewitness accounts, takes the grim war story a few steps further.
Lu boldly chooses to follow the progress of a single Japanese soldier, Sergeant Kadokawa (played by Hideo Nakaizumi), as he and his men enter the city of Nanjing in 1937. Chinese forces are in full rout, and as the retreating Chinese troops throw away their uniforms and attempt to blend in with the city's population, the victorious Imperial Army descends into barbarity, in one of modern history's most outrageous instances of military crimes against civilians. Wholesale massacres, victims drowned in the river or buried alive, corpses hanged from lampposts, thousands of women and girls brutally raped, etc. The depictions are shocking but not one bit more graphic than they need to be. Kadokawa recoils from the carnage. The effect is to at least slightly humanize the "Japanese devils," to show that in some cases they, too, can be seen as ordinary people.
Meanwhile, Nanjing's resident non-combatants are destined to die, or at least to suffer terribly, in and around the ironically labeled International Safety Zone. These include kind-faced Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), assistant to the German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley); the aristocratic lady Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye); a prostitute named Xiao Jiang (Jiang Yiyan); and the missionary teacher Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a character evidently based, anachronistically, on author Iris Chang. Lu and his cinematographer Cao Yu shot the film entirely in handheld black and white for the wide screen, with a legitimate cast of thousands. It's a stunning, sobering experience, and certainly one of the most narratively and visually sophisticated films to come out of China in recent years. City of Life and Death screens at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, March 13.
Following closely on the heels of Lu's epic is Lessons of the Blood, a documentary that seeks to ferret out the truth about China's WWII experience from amongst competing Chinese, Japanese, and American accounts. Filmmakers James T. Hong and Yin-ju Chen have an axe to grind with both the Japanese — whose history books gloss over Japan's war crimes and whose officials apparently still glorify militarism — and the US. The film reports that at American request in the aftermath of the war, Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek relinquished the country's rights to reparations payments by Japan, because such payments would be a "burden" on that country. The putative real reason was that Japan was America's new ally against the Soviet Union, while China was in the process of going Communist. The screen fills with testimony from Chinese victims of Japanese wartime "experiments," Nanjing survivors, and people whose legs are shown rotting from poison gas attacks. Better skip the popcorn with this movie. Lessons of the Blood gets its world premiere on Saturday, March 14 at the PFA.
The exciting Thai film industry just keeps cranking them out. Once we get past its mocking title, filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad's documentary Agrarian Utopia is one of the most sensuous films in the festival, alive with gorgeous HD images of rice planting and other scenes of farm life in up-country Thailand. But don't let the peaceful rhythms lull you to sleep — while the farmers are busy gleaning such delicacies as snake salad and stray-dog stew from the land and trying to figure out how to pay off their debts, their brethren are carrying on noisy demonstrations in Bangkok, protesting the ouster of ex-prime minister Thaksin, who was deposed by a military coup. Are these hard-working country folks victims of globalization? Make up your own mind when Agrarian Utopia shows at the PFA on Wednesday, March 17.
Green rice paddies in Miwa Nishikawa's Dear Doctor form the backdrop to one of those warm, quiet, closely observed, tear-jerking dramas that are a staple of Japanese cinema. There's a whisper of Yasujiro Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda in Ms. Nishikawa's tale, adapted from her novel, of a middle-aged country physician named Ino (comedian Tsurube Shôfukutei) and his patients. When Soma, a young intern played by the actor Eita, arrives in his red sports car, he discovers that the villagers indeed love their doctor, even though Dr. Ino seems to have doubts about himself. Kimiko Yo, from the recent Okuribito (aka Departures) and Tokyo Rhapsody, portrays another smiley medical assistant, this time named Akemi Ohtake. It screens on Sunday, March 14, at the PFA.
In a more sardonic scenario, Angela Yang, heroine of Quentin Lee's The People I've Slept With, would be a slut in a comic character part limited to one scene only. Here, she's the star of the show. Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) is a modern, lusty Angeleno who sleeps with a maximum of guys and creates her own set of baseball cards on them with their stats, including penis size. But she yearns to settle down with Mr. Right, natch, even if he happens to be Gabriel, a budding politician (Wilson Cruz). Angela's decision is nudged along by the fact that she's pregnant. Didn't any of these people hear about condoms? Lee and screenwriter Koji Steven Sakai's gags are right on the surface, in easy reach, and all the actors look like they're hoping to land sitcom roles on TV. See it if you must, at the PFA on Tuesday, March 16.
Mike Cheng and Ben Wang's entertaining documentary Aoki profiles a true local legend: the late Richard Aoki, a West Oakland native who joined the Black Panther Party in the Sixties for a number of reasons. For one, Aoki became radicalized after he and his family were sent to a concentration camp in Utah when he was a boy during WWII. Another reason is that the gregarious, charming Aoki grew up alongside Panther Huey Newton, so becoming a revolutionary seemed the right thing to do. "He created a whole bunch of militant Asians," recalls one witness admiringly. Aoki plays the Viz Cinema in San Francisco's Japantown on Saturday, March 13. Also worth watching: the Iranian social drama About Elly by director Asghar Farhadi, all about social taboos in a theocracy (Saturday, March 20; PFA); and Hong Sangsoo's wry Korean comedy Like You Know It All, in which a nerdy film director semi-successfully navigates a personal appearance at an arts festival (Saturday, March 13; PFA).
Filipino writer-director Lino Brocka was killed in an auto accident in 1991, so it's about time for a serious revival of the socially conscious filmmaker's work. The prolific Brocka made 65 films in his 21-year career and became a favorite of international festival programmers for his gritty — some might say pulpy and melodramatic — stories of the Filipino underclass. The SFIAAFF has selected four of Brocka's features to be part of its "Focus on Filipino and Filipino-American Cinema" — not nearly enough, but a good start. Early Brocka film You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (1974) jams a spoiled young man (Christopher De Leon) and his womanizing father (Eddie Garcia) together with the local "crazy woman" (actor Lolita Rodriguez) and a lonely outcast (Mario O'Hara) for a triple-pronged tale of horniness and hypocrisy. It plays the Kabuki in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 17. Insiang (1976), starring Hilda Koronel as a Tondeña slum dweller simultaneously menaced by her mother and Mom's randy boyfriend, screens on Saturday, March 13, also at the Kabuki. Also on tap in the Filipino mini-fest: Tom Coffman's informative documentary, Ninoy Aquino & the Rise of People Power (Saturday, March 13; Kabuki) and Independencia, a rather labored art film by Raya Martin (Friday, March 12; PFA). For a full schedule and updates, go to AsianAmericanMedia.org.