Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Gay gaze at the SF International Asian American Film Festival


From Kathy Huang's Tales of the Waria .
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The 29th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, opening tonight (March 10) at the Castro Theatre with the premiere of British director Andy de Emmony's coming-of-age story West Is West, runs through Sunday, March 20 at the Castro, the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and the Viz in San Francisco, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive (PFA) and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose. This year the festival, catering to both fractured attention spans and an explosion of digital filmmaking, offers more new media, an emphasis on South Asian filmmakers, expanded panels, cutting-edge Asian American pop music groups, and an array of short films for all persuasions.

Dog Sweat Hossein Keshavarz's provocative and secretly filmed portrait of young hip Iranians flying under the Mullahs' radar opens with buddies cracking wise about the execution of a notorious liquor dealer and simultaneous shortage of Johnny Walker Black Label. It's quickly apparent that keeping up with the Facebook crowd while avoiding the religious Gestapo can drive the most devout to drink, or worse, humiliating social compromises.

Queer lovers Hooshang (Rahim Zamani) and Hooman (Bagher Forohar) seemingly have their very discreet affair in a Tehran comfort zone, until Hooman bows to his mom's nagging about getting into an arranged marriage. There's a poignant moment when the now-defunct male couple shamefully bump into each other in a public cruise park, and Hooshang screws up the courage to walk away from the relationship with at least his pride intact. (Kabuki, 3/12; Viz, 3/16)

Tales of the Waria Kathy Huang's intimate doc explores a vibrant Muslim society's surprising tolerance for biological men who conduct their daily lives as women – including having de facto marriages with straight men – while expressing no desire to have surgery. Suharni, an HIV-positive, former sex worker, has a solid relationship, but feels a need to leave the nest to make extra cash in the tourist haunts of Bali. The aging Mami Ria gets a nip-and-tuck in a desperate attempt to hold onto her status as #2 wife of a cop. The youthful Agus, who abandoned cross-dressing for a traditional marriage, has lately felt more of a need to hang with his old waria friends. Beauty pageant trainer Tiara considers her female ways to be part of god's plan. It's clear that while these "lady men" have avoided the deadly perils of a queer identity in a Muslim society, the aging process produces new challenges for which there are few comfortable answers. (Viz, 3/13; Kabuki, 3/15)

The Taqwacores Eyad Zahra's subversive youth comedy opens as a clean-cut college kid, Yusef (ruggedly handsome Bobby Naden), enters what he expects to be a proper Muslim frat house. All bets are off as Yusef discovers that his new housemates are each following their own inner Koran: a burqa-wearing punk feminist who literally crosses out offending passages (like the one commanding a husband to physically punish a wife), a half-naked punk who works at the local liquor bar, a Mohawked musician who considers Johnny Cash to be his ultimate higher authority, and a fem boy from San Francisco whose strict parents have sent him to this East Coast wasteland to extract him from a hyper-gay scene. Based on a popular novel that has inspired a fledgling Muslim punk scene, The Taqwacores climaxes in a punk-music bash where there just might be a fatwah in each house member's future. (Clay, 3/12; PFA, 3/18)

From Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat.

Tainted Love This erotically charged shorts program includes the San Francisco-born Bus Pass, Narissa Lee's depiction of how girls meet on public transport. (Viz, 3/12; Kabuki, 3/17)

Surrogate Valentine Dave Boyle's slapdash road comedy (SF's closing-night feature) has an Asian-American folk rocker struggling to adjust to having a white-bread soap opera actor riding shotgun to his gigs so that the actor can learn to impersonate him for a low-budget biopic. (Kabuki, 3/17; Camera, 3/20)

Clash A slickly made, Vietnamese-based martial arts thriller with a male/female fighting team. (Centerpiece film, Castro, 3/13)

One Voice A heartfelt examination of the lives of ethnically Hawaiian high school students who are preparing for an island-wide choral competition. A nice moment has young parents hoping their kid gets a chance to affirm their Hawaiian roots in a way that was denied them in their day. (Clay, 3/13; Kabuki, 3/16; Camera, 3/20)

One Kine Day Chuck Mitsui shows us his downwardly mobile working-class slice of Hawaii through the eyes of a teen slacker boy, Ralsto (lanky, doe-eyed hottie Ryan Greer). Beginning with what this sublimely un-ambitious punk hopes will be just another day at his favorite skate park, Mitsui sets up a low-key but pitiless series of pratfalls: his girlfriend's pregnant, mom's nagging him to work for the post office, his friends are parasite losers or worse. They put this most passive of protagonists to the test. (Kabuki, 3/11; Viz, 3/14)

The Festival's double-header Spotlight on British auteur Gurinder Chadha kicks off with her 2002 soccer-girl classic Bend It Like Beckham. Combining a look at the cultural pressures a sports-loving, non-traditional daughter can place on the mores, wedding plans and sanity of a traditional, English-based Indian clan, with a scintillating look at how women athletes are changing the face of the world's most popular team sport, Beckham provides breathtaking action, a witty script and perhaps the most sympathetic nice-guy role ever essayed by the ferociously beautiful Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Clay, 3/13; PFA, 3/19)

From Centerpiece film Clash.

It's a Wonderful Afterlife Chadra's latest is an English-language murder-mystery/comedy that finds residents of a once-calm suburb dropping dead at the hands of a cunning culinary killer. It features the talented Jimi Mistry. (Clay, 3/12; Camera, 3/20)

M/F Remix Jy-Ah Min reboots Goddard's mid-60s classic Masculine-Feminine, incorporating substantial gulps of Jean-Pierre Leaud and Chantal Goya debating the sexual rules of the road, circa 1966, mashed up against male and female roommates figuring out what has changed. The new segments have their charm but are sometimes labored, pointing out that it's hard to improve on a masterpiece. (Viz, 3/12; Kabuki, 3/15; PFA, 3/16)

Resident Alien Ross Tuttle demonstrates the painful limbo experienced by hundreds of Cambodian young people who once enjoyed U.S. residency. Particularly moving is the story of the muscular, tattooed former gangbanger KK, who, deported from his Long Beach, California home (and separated from his elderly parents and young son), now finds himself teaching break-dancing to a houseful of Cambodian street orphans. (Kabuki, 3/12; Viz, 3/15)

Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words Yunah Hong surveys the 58-film career of this once-popular Chinese American actress and chanteuse. The filmmaker dramatizes Wong's letters to demonstrate how her attempt to break through Hollywood's color bar casts new light on a turbulent and shameful chapter of this country's entertainment history. (Kabuki, 3/12, 16; PFA, 3/13)

Made in India When an infertile Texas couple decide to take the plunge and seek a lower-cost Indian sexual surrogate to bear their desperately desired first child, they have no idea that their plan could run seriously amok and they might not be allowed to take their baby (or babies) home to San Antonio. Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha provide a blow-by-blow account of the long and winding road that takes Lisa and Brian Switzer to a Mumbai delivery room – with a detour for a shot on Oprah – exploring the uncharted legal and financial morass that can make both parents and surrogates subject to the greed of unscrupulous surrogacy middle-men, as well as the shifting debate on the morality and ethics of the surrogate process. (Kabuki, 3/13, 16; Camera, 3/19)


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