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Where EAST meets the Northwest


SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. Mukhsin is a tale of young love in rural Malaysia that offers a fascinating look into Malaysian culture. (Photo courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #21 (May 22, 2007), page 15.

SFIFF shows vitality, variety of Asian film

By Patrick Galloway

Special to The Asian Reporter

I recently attended the 50th annual San Francisco International Film Festival, a golden anniversary celebration of the best in new cinema from around the world. The SFIFF has been a great venue for Asian film since its debut in 1957 (it is the longest-running international film festival in the U.S.). This year’s Asian film selections hailed from China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Here are the standouts:

Hana (Japan, 2006)

Hana features a funny and charming story of slum dwellers and down-and-out samurai set in early 18th-century Japan. A young samurai on a mission to avenge his father’s death, yet lacking the skills and motivation to carry it out, is helped by a motley assortment of bums, con men, and ne’er-do-wells. Co-stars Tadanobu Asano and Rie Miyazawa.

After This Our Exile (Hong Kong/Malaysia, 2006)

Director Patrick Tam’s first film in seven years is a beautiful, harrowing tale of a Chinese father and son in rural Malaysia who turn to a life of crime when the mother leaves and the father is fired from his job. The father, a loser and hothead, puts his son through hell, yet his desperation is palpable and compelling. Aaron Kwok stars.

Vanaja (India, 2006)

Fifteen-year-old Vanaja just wants to dance. She wangles a job in the household of the local landlady and soon the old woman is training Vanaja in music and traditional Kuchipudi dance. But things get complicated when the landlady’s cad of a son shows up. Filmed in Andhra Pradesh with non-actors, the film is a joy and a triumph of independent filmmaking.

Ghost Train (Japan, 2006)

Director Takeshi Furusawa (former assistant director to chill-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa) delivers the J-horror goods and then some in this innovative shocker about — you guessed it — a haunted train station. Unnerving makeup and sound design, along with a little H.P. Lovecraft influence, reinvigorate the medium. Recommended.

Singapore Dreaming (Singapore, 2006)

By turns comical, bittersweet, and heartbreaking, Singapore Dreaming explores the hopes, dreams, and conflicts of an average working-class family and the changes that occur when the father wins the lottery. Social-climbing aspirations in modern Singapore are contrasted with simple human realities, offering up subtle social criticism with warmth and humor.

Mukhsin (Malaysia, 2006)

A tale of young love in rural Malaysia, this film offers a funny and affecting story with fully realized characters, as well as a fascinating look into Malaysian culture. Headstrong 10-year-old tomboy Orked doesn’t know quite how to handle the growing emotions of 12-year-old Mukhsin. Gentle, sad, and joyous, this is a deeply human story for all ages.

Paprika (Japan, 2006)

This psychedelic sci-fi anime was the packed-house Asian film event of the festival. Director Satoshi Kon brings new meaning to "sensory overload," weaving a tale of dream-exploration technology (à la Dreamscape and Brainstorm). Endlessly creative, visually dense, and just plain mindboggling, Paprika is brilliant and a must-see for anime fans.

All in This Tea (USA, 2006)

Renowned documentary filmmaker Les Blank profiles tea importer David Lee Hoffman as he travels across China in search of the perfect tea. Along the way we learn a great deal about the history, culture, and varieties of Chinese tea, as well as the efforts by an entrenched industry to keep Mr. Hoffman from buying directly from rural tea farmers. Fascinating.

Don’t look for any of these films in your local cineplex. Your best bet in the Portland area is the Northwest Film Center (which screened Paprika and Hana in early May) and Cinema 21 (Paprika is scheduled to June 22 through 28). Rental is also an option, as many of these titles should see a DVD release. But do try to see at least one of these films, as they showcase the vitality and originality for which Asian film is known.

Editor’s note: Patrick Galloway’s latest book is Asia Shock.