Quick takes on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
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. Accompanied by great period footage and rare film clips, the doc features interviews with a number of local figures who were raised in a Chinatown that at one time had as many as five movie theaters. What began as a source of pride in the 1930s soon proved to have far-reaching effects in shaping the identities of those who grew up in the neighborhood. It's appropriate that A Moment in Time (directed by Ruby Yang, who won an Oscar for her 2006 short doc, The Blood of Yingzhou District) is showing at a festival, perhaps the last of the true film-going experiences. (Galvin) Sat/13, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Tues/16, 5 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
The Oak Park Story (Valerie Soe, USA, 2010) The Oak Park Story is a nice piece of local interest, a document of the struggle by an Oakland apartment community to improve their living conditions. As a piece of film, Valerie Soe's short film is a little rough around the edges, but it feels like such a deeply personal undertaking that it's easy to get caught up in the lives of its deeply-bonded residents. At a scant 22 minutes, The Oak Park Story is the perfect length, and the gamut of emotions the filmmakers are able elicit in such a short amount of time is impressive. But should you find yourself interested in hearing more, just ask, since director Soe is expected to appear in person. The film screens with the feature-length Manilatown is in the Heart: Time Travels With Al Robles. (Galvin) Sun/14, 2 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Mon/15, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Lessons of the Blood (James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen, USA, 2010) The latest experimental work from sometimes San Francisco resident James T. Hong is his first feature-length documentary. It's also his most accessible film to date, which is not to say that Hong's unconventional style, bold opinions, and fascination with controversial subject matter have been dulled in the slightest. Codirected by Hong's frequent collaborator (and wife) Yin-Ju Chen, Lessons of the Blood uses archival clips, old educational films, current interviews, and not a small amount of hidden-camera footage to explore the topic of revisionist history, specifically as it relates to Japanese cruelty in China circa World War II. Stark, artful visuals plus a grim travelogue's worth of shots taken at significant sites, including Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin (once occupied by the Japanese), and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial contrast with a curious, furious tone. Lessons' lessons are harrowing, and unforgettable. (Eddy) Sun/14, 3 p.m., PFA; Tues/16, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. *
The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 1121 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org .