SFIAAFF As the mainstream movie industry undergoes a senior moment and tips toward grandfatherly nostalgia, this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival seems to be in the throes of a youth movement. You can trace the growth spurt from Eduardo W. Roy Jr.'s reproduction production line Baby Factory and the childhood Xmas fantasy of Kim Sung-Hoon's Ryang-Kang-Do: Merry Christmas, North! to Wang Xiaoshuai's coming-of-age snapshot 11 Flowers and the teen gang wars of Byron Q's Bang Bang. A closer look at three — Christopher Woon's Hmong hip-hopper doc Among B-Boys, Akira Boch's girl-band indie The Crumbles, and Takashi Miike's tot action farce Ninja Kids — finds the disparate troika taking aim at shared themes of bonding and identity.
Among B-Boys gives outsiders an hour-long, respectful immersion in the lives of Hmong breakdancers, here "getting lost" in their impressively athletic moves and speaking for themselves, away from the flinty-eyed filter of Gran Torino (2008). In his quest to follow the Velocity/Soul Rivals and Underground Flow crews, Woon takes his camera from Oklahoma to Left Coast exurbia where the kids are attempting to dream with acrobatic handstands, freezes, and crazy-fancy footwork — and finding their efforts rewarded with trophies.
Their triumphs in gritty gyms and community centers are made that much more poignant in the context of their parents' memories of war, displacement, and poverty. The elders' stealth contributions to the CIA's shadowy adventures in Laos casts a pool of lingering darkness on these hip-hoppers, who are striving to carve out a life for themselves while coping with the unique challenges that the Hmong have encountered in the states. As Joua Xiong, the rare B-girl in the Soul Rivals Crew, explains, "Hmong mean 'the Free,' and that's basically what we are: we don't have a certain country, but we don't really know our original customs because we're so mixed up. We have a lot of Thai, Lao, Chinese in us, and we've been running away so much from people trying to destroy our customs and make us conform with them."
Cast away in a semi-rural Merced, Fresno, and Sacto, these kids appear to be finding another kind of freedom. "It's not just breaking," says Soul Rivals' Kyle Vong. "It's the culture of hip-hop — it's about teaching yourself to understand life in general and expressing yourself."
The awkward slackers and damaged hipsters of The Crumbles seem to be worlds away from the humble, proud B-boys of the Central Valley: theirs is a sun-strafed, paved-over Los Angeles habitat of coffee shops, taco trucks, bookstores, budding filmmakers, and living room-bound band practice. Darla (Katie Hipol) is slouching nowhere fast when her zany, charismatic cool-girl chum Elisa (Teresa Michelle Lee) enters the picture, looking for a place to crash.
Elisa's wacky, erratic, and unreliable, but she's also capable of generating real excitement — and a mean little keytar hook — and the girls' band, the Crumbles, gets off the couch and threatens to get all involved to bust out of their shells. Though director Boch never quite dips into the deep background of his characters' various dysfunctions — the threatened readings of Darla and Elisa's psychic friend never quite sheds light — the first-time feature filmmaker has a real feel for the drifting, up-for-anything quality of Cali 20-somethings and an appreciation for their highs and lows that makes this familiar, loving, lets-put-on-show-kids update compelling.