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Name Game: Grace Lee met hundreds of other Grace Lees, many smarter and more Christian than she.

Amazing Grace

'The Grace Lee Project' explores the individuals among the ubiquitous

By Todd Inoue

IN THE Asian American community, the name Grace Lee is as commonplace as John Smith. Growing up the only Korean-American for miles around in Columbia, Mo., Grace Lee thought she was something special until she moved to Los Angeles—where everyone knew a Grace Lee who fit a basic description: nice, Christian and smart.

Not content to be sentenced to stereotype, Lee's obsession with other Grace Lees living parallel lives led the filmmaker to set up a website (www.gracelee.net) and survey. A composite began to form: the typical Grace Lee was a young, single, second-generation Korean-American woman with 2.5 years of piano lessons and combination skin. But among the prototypes were a few doozies, and Lee spent three years documenting the lives of other Grace Lees around the world. The 52-minute film—The Grace Lee Project—receives its West Coast premiere March 19 during the San Jose stop, at Camera 12, of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Project is quirky, funny and interesting. Lee examines her own history and questions the scrutiny of being a reluctant inductee into a "sorority of super Asians." This opens the door to a wide range of Grace Lees whose common denominators are name and Asian heritage. There are sidebars about the popularity of Grace Kelly among first-generation parents and the ubiquity of the word "grace" in Korean culture.

"I always knew that this wasn't a conventional social-issue documentary, that it would be structured more like an essay or investigation," Lee writes, by email, from Korea, where she's working on a new movie, Smells Like Butter, starring Sandra Oh of Sideways. "I like films and media that take a very specific, seemingly banal item and then enlarge your perspective."

The film analyzes some standouts among the worldwide Grace Lee community: an 88-year-old community activist in Detroit, a 14-year-old from Cupertino who plays piano and paints dark pictures, a San Jose preacher's wife, a San Francisco student who tried to burn down her high school, a Honolulu television reporter, a lesbian rights activist in Seoul, a Koreatown car saleswoman and a Sacramento woman who helped a friend and her family escape domestic abuse. Much like This American Life, The Grace Lee Project moves with poignant, conversational, er, grace, focusing on the emotional story rather than the informational one, while always stopping for self-deprecating humor. It's a delicate balance that Lee accomplishes, considering the personal subject matter.

"The challenge of making a film called The Grace Lee Project when you are actually a Grace Lee yourself was quite eye-opening," Lee writes. "There's always the question of how much of yourself do you put in. Even though I am not in the film that much, I think the Grace Lees I chose either speak for me sometimes, or say something about who I am."

The Grace Lee Project, preceded by Top Woman Shooter, screens at 7:15pm on Saturday (March 19) at the Camera 12 Cinemas.

Festival Highlights

What's Wrong With Frank Chin? (Sat, 2:30pm)
Frank Chin—the irascible writer and playwright who helped define the Asian American literary genre in the early '70s—is revealed in full curmudgeonly, hell-raising and badass self. His contributions to Asian American militancy and thought are balanced by his foot-in-mouth repartee with Amy Tan, David Henry Hwang and Maxine Hong Kingston (the latter who famously dissed him in her novel Tripmaster Monkey) and a shocking family secret that is outed onscreen. The filmmaker also reveals Chin's lesser-known contributions—his fight for Japanese-American reparations and work behind Day of Remembrance—turning down the controversy a bit. Curtis Choy has found some startling footage: live readings, Chin's theatrical wedding, Chin smoking a joint while watching Flower Drum Song, chattering in his beat-up car and chewing out his UCLA students. The fully fleshed image of Chin slowly comes out, showing he's not that bad a guy after all.

And Thereafter (Sat, 12:15pm)
You got problems? Director Hosup Lee trains her lens on the sad life of a Korean war bride stuck on a pepper farm with a veteran husband and three grown, aimless, thankless children. The woman turns the camera into a confessional, talking about her frustrations and dark secrets that have haunted her for 40 years. There are scenes of stomach-churning misery in this movie—a silent Thanksgiving dinner, a frustrating exchange in a commissary store, a plea for money from a daughter. The only comfort comes from the pepper harvest. And Thereafter is a documentary that will break your heart.

Monkey Dance (Sun, 12:45pm)
Monkey Dance follows the lives of four Cambodian-Americans during their senior year in an Amherst, Mass., high school. The kids range from an overachieving gymnast to a young mentor involved in keeping Cambodian traditions alive. One travels to Cambodia for the first time, and we witness the bond that crosses oceans and jumps language barriers. Equal parts AKA Don Bonus and Hoop Dreams, Monkey Dance shows the persistence and passion of immigrants searching for and attaining the American dream.

Short Cuts

The road movie has taken many forms, but not quite like opening-night film Slow Jam King (Thu, 7pm). Steven E. Mallorca follows three friends from New York to Nashville. In The Year of the Yao (Sat, 5pm), James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo shadow Houston Rockets center Yao Ming during his rookie season, exploring the 7-footer's ascension into the NBA elite and trickier assimilation into Western culture. Veteran filmmaker John Esaki appears for an early (Sat, 10:30am) screening of Stand Up For Justice, a film about a Mexican-American teenager who in 1941 boarded a train for Manzanar to protest the Japanese-American internment.
Baytong (Sat, 5:30pm) is a comic drama from Thailand by the director of Nang Nak and Jan Dara. Music Video Asia (Sat, 9:30pm) is a collection of 23 rarely screened videos from artists including Lyrics Born, Black Eyed Peas, M.I.A., Polysics, Dealership, IQU and Scrabbel. Islamic terrorism in the Philippines provides the backdrop to Cavite (Sun, 2:30pm). Fishbowls and Silent Years (Sun, 4:45pm) and Third South Asian International Shorts 2005 (Sun, 7pm) presents a myriad of bite-size perspectives addressing youth culture and the South Asian community. The Green Hat (Sun, 5pm) and Oldboy (Sun, 9:30pm) are two stylish dramatic imports from China and South Korea, respectively.

The International Asian American Film Festival plays March 18-20 at the Camera 12, San Jose. (www.naatanet.org/festival)

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From the March 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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