Gay themes in
Asian American lives
San Francisco International Asian American Film Fest highlights
by David Lamble
The San Francisco Asian American Film Festival turns 30 with five solid queer features: a game-changing heartland family custody drama, a touching coming-of-age tale in which an Asperger's-diagnosed teen's life is up-ended by the death of a beloved older brother, the revival of a pregnant mom/lesbian daughter comedy, a provocative spin on the horror genre, and an absorbing sports doc focused on a lesbian Jeremy Lin.
In the Family For three hours, freshman filmmaker Patrick Wang earns his grip on our emotions. There's a leisurely fade-in at the bedside of a lovable six-year-old who resists his cuddly nickname: "There ain't no Chipmunk here!" Chip enjoys a Capra-corn childhood with his not-necessarily gay-identified Tennessee dads. One of those dads, Joey (Wang), numbs out when tragedy strikes, and buried emotional landmines surface during a meeting between Joey and his dead lover's sister over the fate of Chip and everything this Asian American "Bubba" holds dear.
"You're not going to believe this, but I didn't find the will. Instead there's this fill-in-the-blank deal. He got as far as his name. Isn't that hysterical!"
"Cody had a will. Joey, the house is in my name now. So that means there's a mortgage in my name, too. Cody left all his assets in my name so that he could see that Chip was taken care of, by me."
"Ilene, this is from 2002. Chip was just a baby!"
"It's his will, Joey, he had six years to change it, and he didn't. It says, 'Last Will and Testament.' It's not, 'Fill in the blank.' He knew what he wanted. And you don't have to worry about Chip."
"Of course I need to worry about Chip. I'm his father."
"It's what my brother wanted, Joey, could you have a little respect for that?"
"I'm Chip's dad!"
Wang keeps Joey in a low gear, surrendering the spotlight to his ensemble. Observe Sebastian Brodziak's Chip nurture Dad, pouring out a Coke while uncapping Joey's beer as Dad sits lost in grief. Brian Murray burns warmly as a courtly old-school lawyer who cuts to the heart of the case, a turn reminiscent of Joseph Welch's cracker-barrel shrewd judge in Anatomy of a Murder. (Kabuki, 3/9, 13; PFA, 3/17)
White Frog Hovering in a metaphorical zone shared with coming-of-age gems like My Life as a Dog and The Squid and the Whale, Hong Kong-born, Canadian-raised director Quentin Lee's fourth queer-content feature centers on the turmoil injected into the life of a young Asperger's-afflicted Chinese American teen, Nick (The Twilight Saga's Booboo Stewart), upon the death of his older brother/minder, Chaz (Glee 's Harry Shum Jr.). Suddenly Nick must navigate the boisterous pecking order of his bro's old poker buddies; the disorienting chaos of Chaz's secret project, a controversial teen drop-in center; and the gravity-defying uncertainties of sexual orientation in a socially conservative Christian family.
Lee, who has carved a singular niche among out gay directors with the genre-challenging works Drift and Ethan Mao, fashions a credible portrait of an Asperger's kid rudely pulled out of his comfort zone by tragedy and a desperate need to achieve a degree of social autonomy. Lee praises his 17-year-old lead for allowing audiences to identify with Nick.
"Booboo came in with an audition that was a little more autistic, so I directed him towards an interpretation that was more Asperger's, from which he found a very convincing character. It so happens that my little sister was diagnosed with Asperger's just two weeks into our production. My family in Hong Kong was unaware of the movie, so you can see a kind of cultural zeitgeist at work. Ultimately the message of the movie (written by sisters Ellie and Fabienme Wen) was one of acceptance." (Castro, 3/8 opening night, followed by Gala at SF Asian Art Museum)
A two-film spotlight on the work of the Chinese-born star Joan Chen (Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, Stanley Kwan's Red Rose) revives a 2005 lesbian comedy, Alice Wu's Saving Face. A young Chinese American woman, caught between a suffocating Queens ethnic enclave and the fast-paced Manhattan world of lesbian love, spends a whole movie swiping her Metro Pass while juggling the needy women in her life. Wu shows how hard it is to keep a girlfriend in a world awash with clueless older relatives. Wil is settling in for a hot girl affair when her still very attractive mother (Chen) shows up on her doorstep unmarried, pregnant and very much in disgrace. Wu says the core of Saving Face is a delicate daughter/mother dance around how the daughter's homosexuality is going to affect and possibly free them both. (SFFS, 3/12)
Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl Chen's own remarkable 1999 directing debut (banned at the time in China) depicts the pitiless fate of a young girl taken in by a kindly Tibetan horse-trader after being banished for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. (Kabuki, 3/9)
I am a Ghost Hitchcock knew that sheer terror is best incubated in a banal setting, like kids harmed at recess (The Birds), Cary Grant attacked at a rural bus stop (North by Northwest), or Janet Leigh's fatal relaxing shower (Psycho). In Bay Area queer director H.P. Mendoza's domestically situated horror, a young woman (Anna Ishida) uncovers a most unsettling family secret while having her eggs sunny-side up. Alone in her family's impeccably furnished Victorian, Emily finds the joint to be haunted, and alas, she's the spirit. Mendoza up-ends some classic tropes – the ghostbuster remains invisible – while playing chilling mind games in cinema's sunniest haunted mansion. Kudos for the full frontal nudity of a well-hung demon. (SFFS, 3/9; PFA, 3/10)
No Look Pass Melissa Johnson dips into a feel-good zone with this true-life tale of an unlikely lesbian heroine who busts taboos to earn respect in a provincial German basketball league where Americans must either win or go home. Johnson's cameras provide a rare look at several sheltered worlds. A Burmese immigrant mom insists that her still-closeted daughter submit to an arranged marriage, and a Harvard female coach gives profanity-laced pep talks that meet the Bobby Knight gold standard. (Kabuki, 3/11; SFFS, 3/14)
Raymond The pick of the litter among five queer-themed shorts is Mark V. Reyes' moving portrayal of a young man (Francis Lansang) who must overcome old animosities and disclose a terrible secret to his fractious family and to an alienated ex-boyfriend who's already moved on. From the Where We Live program (Kabuki, 3/11; Camera 3, 3/17). This program includes Andrew Ahn's Sundance-screened short First Birthday .
XXX shorts program features three lighter films: The Arrival, Fortune Cookie Magic Tricks and Looking for Jiro. (SFFS, 3/11; Kabuki, 3/14)