Snapshots

Quick takes on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
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City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 2009) There have been a number of recent works about the "rape of Nanking," but perhaps none tackles the brutal nature of Nanjing's fall with as much beauty as City of Life and Death. Shot in striking black and white, the film depicts the invasion of China's capital by Japanese forces from a number of points of view, including that of a Japanese soldier. It can be difficult at times to become emotionally attached to characters within such a restless narrative, but the structure goes a long way toward keeping the proceedings balanced. The stunningly elaborate sets and cinematography alone are worth the price of admission, and it's amazing that such detail was achieved with a budge of less than $12 million. But it is the unflinching catalog of the some 300,000 murders and rapes that took place between 1937 and 1938 in Nanjing that will remain with you long after watching. (Peter Galvin) Fri/12, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Sat/13, 8 p.m., PFA.

The Forbidden Door (Joko Anwar, Indonesia, 2009) This year's midnight screening at SFIAAFF is The Forbidden Door, a surreal genre throwback from Indonesia. It's hard to describe exactly what this film is about beyond basic character descriptions — it concerns Gambir, a sculptor of pregnant female figures and doormat for his friends and family. Less clear are matters like why Gambir inserts aborted babies into his sculptures, or the significance of his wife's secret room in the basement. As inorganic as some of the plot points feel initially, the tangential nature of the film is leading somewhere. Joko Anwar has succeeded in shaking the loose and shaggy nature that plagued his 2007 breakthrough Dead Time, and The Forbidden Door is a sturdy showcase for the director's ambition. His keen handle on the film's eerie Jakartan atmosphere and his follow-though in the riveting, bloody climax should be enough to secure The Forbidden Door a place in cult cinema. Still, it's ultimately apparent that the film's standout moments are a sign that Anwar's best work is yet to come. (Galvin) Fri/12, 11:59 p.m., Clay; March 19, 9:10 p.m., PFA; March 21, 7 p.m., Camera 12.

Aoki (Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, USA, 2009) This stirring, dynamic portrait of Black Panther Party founding member Richard Aoki makes use not only of historical footage from his rabble-rousing days, but also of blunt and hilarious speeches and interviews conducted during the last five years of his life (he died at last year at age 70). After being held in an internment camp during World War II, Aoki's family returned to the Bay Area; soon, as he recalls, the teenage Aoki "got the reputation as the baddest Oriental to come out of West Oakland." He enlisted in the Army at 17, but became disenchanted with the military due to the Vietnam War. He was already well on his way toward becoming a radical when he befriended Huey Newton and Bobby Seale at Merritt College; post-Panthers, he remained an activist and charismatic community leader. Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang do an admirable job condensing such a full life into 90 educational, entertaining, and enlightening minutes. (Cheryl Eddy) Sat/13, 3:30 p.m., Viz; March 17, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; March 20, 3 p.m., Camera 12.

A Moment in Time (Ruby Yang, USA, 2009) The decline of the filmgoing experience is one of the more depressing cinematic developments of the past decade. There was a time when going to the movies was a momentous event — and it is this era that A Moment in Time captures, from the unique perspective of the residents of San Francisco's Chinatown.

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