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. (Cheryl Eddy) March 14, 6:45 p.m., Clay; March 17, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; March 22, 2:15 p.m., Camera.
Santa Mesa (Ron Morales, USA/Philippines, 2008) Ron Morales's first feature focuses on 12-year-old Hector (Jacob Kiron Shalov) and his efforts to fit in when he's forced to leave the United States (where he was born and raised) to be with his grandmother Lita (celebrated Filipino actor Angie Ferro) in Manila, Philippines, after his mother's death. Despite Shalov's awkward performance and some uneasy sentimental scenes, Mesa's yellow-hued cinematography attractively portrays the colorful, throbbing city, and the young boy's eagerness to internalize his surroundings without knowing how to speak Tagalog is brave and touching. (Komodore) March 15, 7 p.m., Clay; March 22, 4:30 p.m., Camera.
>3 Days to Forever (Riri Raza, Indonesia, 2007) After a night of partying makes Ambar (Adinia Wirasti) miss a flight to her sister's wedding, she hitches along with cousin Yusuf (Nicholas Saputra), who's in charge of driving a set of delicate dishes to the event. Drugs, detours planned and accidental, and frank talk about what it's like to be a rebellious teen in Indonesia (Ambar's sister is getting married because her parents caught her having sex) and an uncertain teen, period color this road movie. 3 Days to Forever echoes 2001's Y tu mamá también's racy tone and the-journey-is-the-life-lesson message, and boasts similarly photogenic young leads. Bonus for armchair travelers: it also makes Indonesia look like the most magical place on earth. (Cheryl Eddy) March 14, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; March 18, 9:30 p.m., Clay; March 23, 2:15 p.m., Castro.
Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara (Koji Sakebe, Japan, 2007) Punk's not dead! And neither are the wide-eyed little girls, drowsy dogs, and the other indelibly etched creatures that populate Yoshitomo Nara's oeuvre: they're alive and evolving in Nara's studio. Koji Sakabe and his crew tail the artist as he travels to public appearances at museums and radio stations where he's treated like a rock star; as he creates a massive village installation in his hometown of Hirosaki, Japan; and then follow Nara back to his studio, where he conjures his avatars of cuteness all by his lonesome. That's where things get interesting: watching the bashful yet driven enigma study his own paintings, one hand on his camouflage-encased hip, and then home in with a brush on a fillip in a wide-eyed tot's 'do. (Kimberly Chun) March 16, 12:30 p.m., Clay; March 23, 2 p.m., Camera.
The Unseeable (Wisit Sasanatieng, Thailand, 2006) For those whose eyes are still adjusting from the ultraviolet palette of Wisit Sasanatieng's stunning debut, the genre-bending 1999 western Tears of the Black Tiger, the clammy greens and dusky grays that hang over The Unseeable feel like so much dust on the lens that can't be wiped off. Unfortunately, you can still see everything coming from a mile away in this ghost tale of a country mouse trapped in (where else?) a decaying mansion. At least the magical touches of 2005's Citizen Dog seem like genuine quirks in the fabric of reality. Here, the supernatural is an excuse to trot out tired new Asian horror staples like the crazy old lady or spooky child, and the multiple twists of the Shining-aping finale only work to make an already shaky premise all the more hamstrung. (Matt Sussman) March 16, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki; March 21, 9:15 p.m., PFA; March 23, 4:45 p.m., Camera.