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[whitespace] 'Happy Funeral Director'
Uneasy Rider: Undertaker Lim Chang-Jung races against time in the offbeat Korean comedy 'Happy Funeral Director,' featured in the San Jose portion of the 19th SF Asian American Film Festival.

In the Mood for Crossover

The SF Asian American Film Festival brings works by up-and-coming directors to San Jose

By Jim Aquino

ALL THIS TALK about the current Asian cinema crossover spearheaded by financially successful, critically acclaimed imports like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and In the Mood for Love is supposed to make me feel more optimistic about Asians breaking through Hollywood's glass ceiling and showing more clout, but it doesn't. Where are all the films about the Asian American experience? For me, real progress will begin the day Asian American filmmakers are taken as seriously by the mainstream as Spike Lee and John Singleton were at the height of the '90s "new black cinema" movement.

Asian Americans may have a long way to go before reaching crossover success, but I guess the 19th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival represents a minor yet significant victory. In recent years, this festival has started showing more of an emphasis on feature films by up-and-coming Asian filmmakers, particularly from America. For its final two days, the festival will present screenings in San Jose for the first time (March 17-18 at San Jose's Camera 3).

This year's edition of the 11-day festival (which is organized by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association [NAATA]) is a breakthrough one for Filipino-American filmmakers because past editions have emphasized the works of East Asians. The opening-night selection was Filipino-American director Rod Pulido's low-budget, black-and-white feature debut, The Flip Side, a comedy about a SoCal college kid who tries to get his "white-washed" sister and "black-washed," b'ball-obsessed brother to embrace Filipino culture.

The San Jose portion of the festival will include two other major Filipino-American selections: first-time director Gene Cajayon's The Debut, and the animated made-for-cable serial The Pink Palace, created and written by author Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters, The Gangster of Love).

Also featured in the San Jose portion are Happy Funeral Director, an offbeat, if uneven, 1999 Korean comedy-drama about undertakers at a funeral home in a small town where no one has died for a year; the "Sins and Daughters" short film showcase, which focuses on works by Asian American female directors; and the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" program of shorts about Asian American youth.

ONE OF THE FESTIVAL'S most eagerly awaited features (because of the fact that movies about Filipino-American life are so rare to come by), The Debut centers on a pivotal night in the life of high-school senior Ben Mercado (Bay Area native Dante Basco, from Hook and But I'm a Cheerleader), who attends his sister's "debut," the Filipino high-society equivalent of a Mexican quinceaera, and falls for Rose (Joy Bisco), a dancer at the party who helps him rediscover his Filipino heritage.

At the same time, Ben has to deal with both Rose's jealous thug boyfriend, Augusto (Darion Basco, Dante's brother), and his own pushy father (Tirso Cruz III), who, like so many conservative Filipino dads, wants Ben to attend medical school, while Ben would rather pursue his dream of becoming a comic-book artist.

The film's melodramatic moments, especially the arguments between father and son, sometimes play like a Pinoy version of "The Proud Pattersons," a great old Saturday Night Live sketch about a black family with a tendency to overemote like the actors in third-rate productions of Raisin' in the Sun.

Where The Debut works best is in its scenes between Basco and Bisco--they have a nice easygoing chemistry--and in comic moments like a bit involving a figure I recognize all too well from my UC-Santa Cruz days: the white upper-class culture-vulture know-it-all. Augusto's white stepfather, clad in a barong tagalog (a see-through dress shirt from the old country), is seen correcting a Filipino couple about the use of the term "Oriental" ("You're not supposed to say 'Oriental' anymore. It's now 'Asian.' "). The Filipino husband's irked reaction is priceless.

Both The Debut and The Flip Side, a brasher, quirkier take on the former's themes of assimilation and Filipino-American identity, have their share of rough spots, like moments of stilted acting. But I would rather have the Filipino-American cinema movement be jumpstarted by these two flawed yet honest indie efforts than by watered-down, middlebrow, Asian male-bashing tripe like Wayne Wang's 1993 box-office hit, The Joy Luck Club.

Of the festival's three major Filipino-American selections, Jessica Hagedorn's The Pink Palace, a series of striking and insightful animated shorts produced for the troubled women's cable channel Oxygen, is the most satisfying.

Animated with panache by John Woo (not the Hong Kong action director but a New York-based graphic artist/animator), this serial (which will be shown as part of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" showcase) follows the adventures of Baby Cruz, a 16-year-old Filipina from the Oaktown projects, and her immigrant single mother Queenie, an artist who idolizes Frida Kahlo. If that day of crossover success never comes, maybe we have a future in animation.

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival plays March 17-18 at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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