SFIAAFF: Take one

A quick guide to some Asian American Fest features

>Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2007) Buddha marks the feature debut of Hana Makhmalbaf, one of acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's daughters (she made her first short, The Day My Aunt Was Ill (1997), when she was only 9 years old). It has already won eight awards at different international film festivals, a fact that becomes more impressive when one considers the filmmaker's age: she's 19. Reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema, her first feature is shot in a neorealist style in Bamian, Afghanistan, and features a 5-year-old girl named Baktay (the extraordinary Nikbakht Noruz) as its main character. In following the youngster during her struggles to attend school, the film becomes a stunning exploration of how Afghanistan's violent political history affects its youth. (Maria Komodore) March 15, 12:45 p.m., Castro; Tues/18, 8:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive.

>Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 2007) One of the most adept melodramatists working in South Korea, Hur casts an affectionate, gently comic glance on the see-sawing declines and resurrections of the hard-partying, handsomely weather-beaten Young-su (the talented Hwang Jung-min), an aging club kid with a raging case of cirrhosis. Luckily, the man is able to rub a few brain cells together and get himself to a rural health retreat that specializes in detoxifying worst-case-scenarios with clean living, herb gathering, fresh air, and outrageously light exercise. Young-su is also lucky enough to win over the clinic's sweet, fragile princess, Eun-hee (Lim Soo-jung), who suffers from lung disease and just might keel over if forced to break into anything more strenuous than a stroll. But can you keep the playboy down on the farm once his liver is back in business? (Kimberly Chun) March 15, 6 p.m., Castro; March 16, 5 p.m., PFA; March 22, 7 p.m., Camera.

Never Forever (Gina Kim, South Korea/USA, 2007) At first, it's purely business: as a last-resort response to her Korean American husband's infertility, Sophie (The Departed's Vera Farmiga, sporting an ice-blond 'do) lurks after a Korean immigrant (Jung-woo Ha) she spots at a fertility clinic. She pays him big bucks to have sex with her and possibly make a baby — therefore saving her husband (David L. McInnis) from depression and getting his intensely Christian family off their backs. Of course, things get complicated mighty fast. Farmiga is riveting in this deliberately quiet (save its melodramatic violin-heavy score) drama, a delicate exploration of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons — and grappling with the sudden realization that wrong and right are often not so easy to define. (Cheryl Eddy) March 15, 9:15 p.m., Clay; March 16, 7:50 p.m., PFA.

>Ping Pong Playa (Jessica Yu, USA, 2007) Energetic direction by Jessica Yu — best-known for docs like the Henry Darger portrait In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) and the Oscar-winning short Breathing Lessons (1996) — perfectly complements a star-making turn by Jimmy Tsai as Christopher "C-Dub" Wang, a slacker who discovers he's got talent as a ping-pong teacher and, eventually, competitor. Yu and Tsai cowrote the hip-hop flavored script, filled with rapid-fire dialogue and culturally targeted zingers (as when C-Dub assures an opponent, "I hope you're hungry, because I'm about to serve you some Chinese take-out!"). Winning from start to finish, Ping Pong Playa achieves the near-impossible: it makes infectious hilarity seem entirely effortless.

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