At age 30, Rod Pulido has already accomplished some firsts. His freshman film, “The Flip Side,” debuted at Sundance this year the first time a Filipino-American film has made it to the festival.
Tonight, his feature launches 10 days of American and world theater at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres in San Francisco. While “The Flip Side” opens the 19th annual San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, the closing gala March 15 showcases another Filipino-American film, “The Debut.”
To bookend the festival with these two movies, says “Flip Side” writer and director Pulido, is “unprecedented. To have just one Filipino-American film is rare; two at the same time in the same film festival, it’s a really monumental moment in our community.”
Exhibition and festival director Chi-hui Yang describes the two screenings as the luck of the draw. Their emergence reflects “just so much stuff happening in the Filipino-American community: dance, R&B, turn-tablism,” Yang says. “Both of them are a cumulation of that creativity.”
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While very different in their style and sensibilities, the two films are parallel in their focus on family and cultural heritage. The closing-night film by co-writer and director Gene Cajayon is more of an earnest, coming-of-age family drama. Eight years in the making, the movie stars renowned Filipino actors (Eddie Garcia, Gina Alajar, Tirso Cruz III) as well as the Basco brothers Dant, Darion, Dion and Derek. The foursome grew up in Pittsburg before moving to Los Angeles.
Yang describes Cajayon’s work as a polished crowd-pleaser. Pulido’s grittier “Flip Side” “kicks you. It’s so punchy. It’s a great way to start the festival.” Both, however, fit within the festival’s themes of emerging Asian-American filmmakers as part of the overall independent tradition. “Really, they’re American films,” Yang says. “They’re American stories.”
Both directors will be on hand at their respective off-site gala receptions following the 7 p.m. showings.
The play on words in Pulido’s title alone clues viewers that “The Flip Side” undertakes a comic approach toward the Filipino-American family. Pulido wanted to avoid making a “preachy” movie while still focusing on the “serious issues” of Filipino kids who take their role models not from their own community but rather from black or white mainstream culture. “A lot of them don’t really know their own heritage and culture,” says the Los Angeles-based director.
“The Flip Side” revolves around the farcical clashes that emerge after Darius Delacruz (Verwin Gatpandan) returns to the family homestead after his first year at college. A “reborn” Filipino, Delacruz dons a tribal loincloth and sets to reconvert his family to reclaim their language and ancestry. That includes hip hop-obsessed brother Davis (Jose Saenz), whose goal is to take his 5-foot-5-inch frame and dunk a basketball, and his sister Marivic (Ronalee Par), a self-hating Filipina who goes undercover as Hawaiian.
The somewhat “militant” Darius, though, is the crux of the comedy. “We poke fun at his political correctness, his mentality that everything Filipino is superior when that’s not the case either,” Pulido says. “By no means does he escape my wrath.”
Although Pulido based the characters on people he knew growing up, the two brothers actually stem from his own experiences at different times in his life. He does want to make clear, as does his sister, that Marivic is “not based on her at all.”
Pulido’s job as a Los Angeles substitute teacher lent his script an authenticity. Hanging around high-school students helped him to write the dialogue and to reinforce the premise of his movie. “Nothing has really changed,” he observes. “The sad fact is, ever since I was growing up all the way into now, Filipinos haven’t had any identity. Every generation has this identity crisis.”
Like many filmmakers intent on focusing upon the Filipino-American experience, the Cal State Long Beach film school graduate knew he would have to go the independent route outside the Hollywood system. He saved up his paychecks, shot inside the house he grew up in and won grants along the way. The shooting budget came in under $10,000, but post-production took much longer as he scrimped and did more grant writing. One of the organizations that helped him was the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, the festival organizers.
“The Flip Side,” which has already inspired a fan Web site by a group of Sundance viewers (www.pinoylife.com/flipside), will also start off this year’s Chicago Asian Showcase. Meanwhile, Pulido has finished a second script, “Hip Hop Don’t Stop,” which documents the rise and fall of break dancing in the ’80s. Naturally, it’s a comedy about the “posers and wannabes in the suburbs” and, naturally, it features a diverse cast.
Pulido urges aspiring filmmakers to learn their craft and persevere. “My story completely says it all. If I can finance a film by substitute teaching and get it into Sundance, there isn’t any excuse why someone else out there can’t do it.”
* What: San Francisco Asian American Film Festival
* Where: AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post St., S.F.; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley; Camera 3 Cinemas, 288 Second St., San Jose
* When: Today through March 18 in San Francisco; Friday and Saturday and Tuesday and Wednesday in Berkeley; March 17-18 in San Jose
* How much: Movies are $5.50-$8.50 each. Special events are $1-$15. The opening-night screening is $20, $40 with the reception. The closing-night screening is $15, $35 with the reception.
* GALAS: “The Flip Side,” 7 p.m. today, Kabuki. Reception 9:30 p.m., Diego Rivera Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, S.F. “The Debut,” 7 p.m. March 15, Kabuki. Reception 9:30 p.m., Fort Mason Center Landmark Building A, S.F. Screening repeats March 18, Camera 3 Cinemas, San Jose.
* Call: 415-255-4299, www.naatanet.org/festival. Tickets are also available through Tickets.com and the AMC Kabuki 8 Festival box office, 415-931-9800.