Festival spans spectrum of Asian cultures

Eclecticism defines this year’s San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. No one region dominates the cinematic collage of 81 films, although Japanese themes make a strong showing with a look at disappearing village lifestyles and underground films from American internment camps.

Local filmmakers, the core of the National Asian-American Telecommunications Association’s festival, come through once again with vibrant voices. Director Spencer Nakasako, winner of a 1995 Emmy for “A.K.A. Don Bonus” about an 18-year-old Cambodian refugee, returns to his documentary camcorder roots with “Kelly Loves Tony.” The 18-month video diary of two young lovers from the East Bay makes its world premiere at the opening gala.

Here’s a look at four movies in the festival’s lineup.

“Kelly Loves Tony.” (USA, 1998, 57 minutes, world premiere.) Show times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, gala premiere at the Palace of Fine Arts, 301 Lyon St., San Francisco, with director Nakasako and diarists Kelly Saeturn and Tony Saelio; 11 a.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Monday; 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The title hints at the focus of the relationship between Kelly Saeturn and Tony Saelio. Kelly, a high school honors graduate and Iu Mien refugee, wants to attend college. Pregnancy and cultural demands complicate her plans and the lovers’ lives. Kelly’s move to Tony’s East Oakland family home intensifies the pressure as she learns to be a mother, wife without a ring and daughter-in-law.

Although Tony constantly looks at “his lady” through the viewfinder, he can’t see her growing unhappiness. The high-school dropout doesn’t consider her education a priority. Instead, he wants to establish the traditional family life that he missed out on being in and out of jail.

The story is nothing new, but its universality resonates as the two try to negotiate a brave, realistic compromise between Asian family values and American aspirations.

“Fakin’ da Funk.” (USA, 1997, 89 minutes, San Francisco premiere.) Show times: 9:15 p.m. Tuesday with director Tim Chey; 5 p.m. Thursday.

A black family adopts a Chinese baby and Mom is Pam Grier how can you pass this up? Tim Chey’s debut feature film sparks some crossed cultural wires when the baby is mistakenly delivered to Joe and Annabelle Lee (Ernie Hudson and Grier). The Lees become a foursome with the birth of son Perry. After Joe dies of a heart attack, mom, Julian (Dante Basco) and Perry (Rashaan Nall) leave the ‘hoods of Atlanta for South Central Los Angeles.

“Fakin'” gets treacly when it meanders from truly funny double-takes and playing the dozens (duels of one-upmanship that might begin with “your mama is so …”) into “serious” issues. In a screeching subplot, comedian Margaret Cho pulls a Charlie Chan as a Mandarin foreign exchange student who accidentally lands in home of Nell Carter and John Witherspoon. “Fakin'” still has a lot of hilarious moments, a solid cast (Bo Jackson in a pulpit cameo and Tone-Loc as a drug dealer) and enough controversy to spur a lot of late-night discussions.

“My America Or Honk if You Love Buddha.” (USA, 1997, 87 minutes, San Francisco premiere.) Show times: 7:15 p.m. Friday with director Renee Tajima-Pena; 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Renee Tajima-Pena set a documentary milestone with her Oscar-nominated “Who Killed Vincent Chin” (1988). Her latest work, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road, ” is a humorous odyssey as she seeks Asian America and her own fluctuating identity.

Interjecting her personal history contributes to an uneven, emotional rhythm. Viewers may see this and the fact that she initially frames her journey with the whining “Will we every truly belong to America?” as self-serving. Still, others might see Tajima-Pea’s openness as an invitation to assess their own place.

Her surehandedness emerges with fascinating roadside profiles, among them a Cantonese New York entrepreneur who cranks out fortune cookies upstairs and sells fish downstairs, Filipino belles in New Orleans, Hmong refugees surviving in Duluth, Minn., civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama and two Korean brothers rapping in Seattle. The “flawed Buddha” is Victor Wong, a 70-year-old San Francisco resident. Wong, an actor (“Joy Luck Club, ” “The Last Emperor”) and Beat generation artist whom Jack Kerouac immortalized in “Big Sur” doesn’t quite work as an icon, but his story is intriguing.

“My Secret Cache.” (Japan, 1996, 83 minutes, West Coast premiere.) Show time: 7 p.m. March 12.

This black-and-white film gives the festival a rousing and hilarious black comedy finish. Supermodel Naomi Nishidi is the deadpan, yen-obsessed bank teller Sakiko who, when asked for a date, would rather have the money instead. One day, bank robbers steal 5 million yen and take her hostage. A car accident in the Aokigahara Jukai wilderness area kills the thieves and lands Sakiko in the hospital.

After her recovery, she learns the money has never been recovered and recalls a bright yellow suitcase that kept her aloft in the river before her rescue. Suddenly invigorated, Sakiko enrolls in the geology department to learn how to survey the area. She takes swimming, scuba diving, rock-climbing and driving lessons, all in a single-minded effort to uncover the suitcase. Director Shinobu Yaguchi penned this delightfully prickly screenplay of twisted feminist emergence in modern, money-possessed Japan.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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