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Very Necessary

[whitespace] Push! Push!
Film Imperative: Bang Eun-Jin (left) and Hwang Shin-Hye in 'Push! Push!'

S.F. International Asian American Film Festival provides glimpses of Asian and Asian American life

By Todd S. Inoue

At the press conference announcing the 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, a well-meaning reporter asked if the names in the program spelled out in all capital letters were last names and if the following names in lower-case letters were first names (example: WOO, John).

You are correct, said the festival representative. "Good," the reporter said, breathing a sigh of relief. "Whew. I'm so glad you do that. It's a great service for us Americans."

Americans? A bewildered hush fell over the proceedings. Then from the side door, a unit of immigration agents rushed in and demanded everyone's green card. Backpacks and purses were searched for contraband (microchips, SAT cheat sheets, ramen-seasoning packets). Spread-eagled on the floor, I thought, where's Chow Yun-Fat when we need him?

OK, so the reporter really did thank the festival on behalf of "us Americans." I've swallowed bigger, bitterer pills. And there's still a film festival to promote, and it's a pretty good one.

This year's function, to be held March 5-12 at San Francisco's Kabuki 8 cinemas and Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, differs from the previous 15 in that it is spilling over with contenders but boasts no clear champion. There are no entries on the level of Chungking Express or Double Happiness (both from 1995), Cyclo (1996) or Love and Duty (1997).

Nakasako's New Bonus

Strong 1998 offerings include director Renee Tajima-Peña (with her fine road documentary My America ... Or Honk If You Love Buddha), multimedia artist Valerie Soe (Beyond Asiaphilia), historian Loni Ding (Ancestors in America, Part 2) and Trac Minh Vu (the haunting requiem to a hate crime Letters to Thien)--all worth the trip to San Francisco for their enlightening approaches. Most likely, however, all four are destined for PBS broadcast and not the big screen.

The closest to a headliner is Spencer (A.K.A. Don Bonus) Nakasako's camcorder-verite tale Kelly Loves Tony. Nakasako doled out a camcorder to Kelly Saeteurn and Tony Saelio, a pair of Laotian immigrants living in San Francisco.

Like a refugee's version of Hoop Dreams, the camera is witness and confidante as Kelly and Tony juggle the real-life dramas of school, parenthood, family and Tony's pending deportation. It's another mind-blowing trip through reality just like A.K.A. Don Bonus, which stole the thunder from Picture Bride, the opening-night feature back in 1995.

Also look out for Fakin' Da Funk, a brash comedy about a Chinese baby adopted by a black couple in South Central. The movie stars Dante Brasco, Pam Grier, Ernie Hudson, Margaret Cho and Tone Loc--what a cast!

'Fawlty Towers' Meets 'The X-Files'

The international films are especially strong this year. Push! Push! is a stylized, comedic drama that tackles sexual mores in Korea. Set in a Korean women's clinic, Push! Push! juggles multiple story lines in a mixed-up episode of E.R., Fawlty Towers and The X-Files. Be warned, there are some gnarly scenes: four real-life births, two cesareans and a vasectomy.

The festival organizers are hyping up Buddha Bless America, a dark comedy from Taiwan that addresses the changing attitudes toward Westernization in a small village.

Also worth a try are the documentaries. Out of Phoenix Bridge and No. 16 Barkhor Street are eye-opening looks at the New Democracy Movement in China. Homemade History stitches together previously unreleased footage of the Japanese-American internment camps.

The 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival might lack the firepower of a major breakthrough film, but there is something here for everyone. Even non-Americans will agree.

The 16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival takes place March 5-12 at the Kabuki 8 Cinemas in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Schedule and ticket information is available through the festival Web site and through BASS. Call the festival hotline for the latest information: 415/255-4300.

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Web extra to the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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