Coming of age tales spark at San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL What's the matter with kids today? Young people wrestle with issues that many adults would find beyond their ken at this year's SFIAAFF. Coming of age is a hazard in a Vietnam where street gangs grapple with injustice, under highly emotional — and entertaining — circumstances; in Iran, where oppressive fundamentalism colors even the most carefree youth; and in Hawaii, where the endless party of skate-rat slackitude hits the skids of very adult responsibilities.
The young folks of Le Tranh Son's Clash (2009) are desperate — and alas, all too used to it. The doe-like, fiery-eyed, and formidable fighter Trinh (actress-vocalist Ngo Thanh Van), a.k.a. Phoenix, has plenty to scowl about. Kidnapped at a tender age to serve as a prostitute, she was plucked from the brothel by crime king pin Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc) — an opera-loving, white-suited baddie that John Woo would love — to be groomed as one of his highly skilled soldiers. Now on a mission to steal a briefcase of codes for Vietnam's first satellite, Trinh assembles a crew that Son films like the suavest thugs in the slum, set to a chest-thumping arena-rock and hip-hop soundtrack. The most handy-in-a-corner hottie of the bunch is Quan (Johnny Tri Nguyen), a.k.a. White Tiger.
Contrary to initial impressions, "we're not in some cheesy Hong Kong action movie," as one character declares when Trinh attempts to wield an iron fist of intimidation over her charges — although Nguyen and Ngo's stunningly rapid-fire martial arts skills (and chemistry: the two are a real-life couple) make this flick a must-see for fight fans. Clash was the highest-grossing movie in 2009 in its homeland; though the film strives to please with its visceral, full-throttle fight scenes, it seems haunted by a colonial past as well as recent terrors. Life is a constant struggle for Clash's young people. They're fully capable of working their conflicts out with bare knuckles, but what really breaks through their defenses are the injustices that befall family dear to them.
The ties that bind the handful of 20-something Iranians are tested in Hossein Keshavarz's Dog Sweat (2010) — though not in ways one would immediately expect. The lo-fi, handheld camerawork can be distractingly shaky, especially since Dog Sweat was shot without the proper permissions and permits. But the director's eye for telling detail is sure, at times humorous, and other moments poetically penetrating. Bedroom rock is the only way to go: behind closed doors, a trio of men booze it up on so-called Dog Sweat moonshine while dancing and flipping on and off the light switch for a homemade strobe effect — they're dreaming of Western-style intoxicants and freedoms and wondering why America doesn't come and "save us from this nightmare."
In another bedroom, girls gossip ("There were some hot guys at the demonstration!") while shimmying with themselves in the mirror. Keshavarz captures the propaganda-embellished concrete and the parks for men searching for other lonely men, and the double standards that apply to the music-loving woman who yearns to sing but must hide from the recording studio owner, and the rebellious girl who acts out by donning a scarlet hijab and romancing her cousin's husband. A rough snapshot of a generation that crosses class lines, conceived during Ahmadinejad's crackdown on artists and dissidents, Keshavarz succeeds in conveying the palpable hopes, humor, anxieties, and fears of young people in resistance, primed to explode.