If world journey is a theme of the festival, time travel was the motif of this weekend at the SFIAAFF. WHISPERING SIDEWALKS and WEST 32nd were spiritual cousins and bookends of a remarkable three days, separated by 70 years but linked in celluloid and exuberant attitude. They are both transcontinental joint ventures, involving both Asians and Asian Americans in production or casting, which is a common theme of several films this year (PING PONG PLAYA, A THOUSAND YEARS OF GOOD PRAYERS, NEVER FOREVER, BLOOD BROTHERS and others). I missed the panel discussion on that very topic, but it’s clear that this is an area of vast future promise. All we have to do is make sure these films find an audience on both shores.
WHISPERING SIDEWALKS (Japan, 1936) starred Betty Inada, an aspiring entertainer from Sacramento who boldly went to Tokyo to find her fortune, much like her character in the movie. Jazzman George Yoshida described her as “a flapper, who wore short skirts, indulged in cigarettes, and raised many an eyebrow…she was fired with the ambition to become a pop star.” Inada, who died in 2001 at the age of 88 in Los Angeles, said of her early career, “I was treated like a beggar who lives in a dried-out riverbed.” One can only imagine the hard times and difficulty she must have encountered as a Japanese American woman, both here and in Japan circa-World War II. Does anyone know of biographies of this interesting and important figure in Asian American entertainment history? Mona Nagai also introduced the film, and she described the equally harrowing history of the film print – it was essentially rescued from a fireplace (celluloid makes a great fire, apparently) and restored for this special screening at the Castro. WHISPERING SIDEWALKS was a fun look at the jazz-inflected entertainment world of pre-war Tokyo, on the cusp of suppression by the government, I imagine. I found myself wondering whether African American jazz musicians were prominent in pre-War Japan as well.
Fast forward 70 years to WEST 32nd, Michael Kang’s second feature (THE MOTEL, Closing Night SFIAAFF 2005, which won the Narrative Jury Award that year). Set in K-town, NYC, Kang’s film explored a much darker side of Korean American life than THE MOTEL. If there’s a thread that links the two films, it’s the exploration of masculinity. Kang said as much during the Q and A, admitting his film might be seen as more of a guy’s film, with its focus on violence and the underworld (the women I spoke with enjoyed the film, too, though). I thought the acting and direction were extremely compelling – there wasn’t an off note in the entire movie, and was clearly an example of these artists perfecting their craft. Kang brought the house down when he described how getting support for this film was different from his first feature. “Usually, a pitch is in a corporate boardroom. For this film, we were flown to Korea where we were made to sing Arirang for two weeks straight, at the end of which we had a deal.” Maybe his next film will be a musical…John Cho, Lanny Yoon, Hans Kim and Chil Kong, kind of the Korean American rat pack of the movie, were also on hand for a lively Q and A.
If WEST 32nd is the dark side, NEVER FOREVER is the deep side, and PING PONG PLAYA is the silly side. Jessica Yu goes cuh-razy funny, appealing to the 8 year old funny bone inside each of us with her off-the-hook narrative feature debut centered on C-Dub Wang (Jimmy Tsai). I understand that Jimmy Tsai originated the C-Dub character himself. He’s clearly got some creative chops – take a look at his website www.opiumpandamonium.com, his comic about gun-toting Pandas.
Actor Lim Soo-Jong starred in two wildly different films from Korea this weekend, HAPPINESS and I’M A CYBORG, BUT THAT’S OKAY. She clearly has an incredible range, and both films were interesting psychologically, both asking about the meaning of existence in disparate ways. HAPPINESS was…really sad, actually, but a story that’s all too familiar, of wounded souls coming close to redemption but falling short. I’M A CYBORG was nearly perfect – a kind of Benny and Joon meet Monty Python sendup of a mental institution and its inhabitants, all of them lovable and very human despite their eccentricities (which we recognize as variants of our own).
The Philippines is also well represented this year. Mark Reyes had an unforgettable debut short, GOD ONLY KNOWS, about the underside of adoption in the Philippines. A mother, living in grittily portrayed squalor of a Manila shantytown, agrees to give up her young boy for cash, in hopes for a better future for him. She delivers him to a stubbled old Caucasian man, who seems to have nefarious purposes. This film makes an excellent companion to Brilliante Mendoza’s FOSTER CHILD, which also screened this weekend. That film focused on the emotions of a foster mother, who envelopes the little John John with love and attention, only to have to give him up to a wealthy, nice, and normal American family who will undoubtedly provide for better material circumstances, but it’s undeniable that something is lost in the transaction. Adoption of sorts also plays a role in Ron Morales’ feature debut SANTA MESA (screening next in San Jose), a well-received narrative. I met two women who saw the film and said there were tears all around the theater. There’s something very visually appealing about the busy streets and alleys of the Philippines, and all these filmmakers make good use of them. I’ve never been there, but they reminded me of India, where it seemed a movie could have been shot on any streetcorner.
Tonight, I’m looking forward to A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE and DESERT DREAM, and tomorrow I see Brilliante Mendoza’s second feature in the festival, SLINGSHOT as well as LONG STORY SHORT/ANNA MAY WONG. I would highly recommend Rithy Panh’s PAPER CANNOT WRAP UP EMBERS and the sing-along COLMA, as well as BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME and THREE DAYS TO FOREVER, which I saw last weekend.
Tomorrow, I’ll be at my halfway point in the festival…I can feel my midlife crisis coming on!
Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco.