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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

SFIAFF runs the gamut, from start to finish

At the San Francisco International Asian American Festival Film Festival you could see something like "The Art of Woo" (Asian-American yuppette poses as an heiress to snag the brightest and richest) and then hop over to "My Journey, My Islam" (exploring the meaning of Islam in both the Eastern and Western worlds) and then listen to filmmaker Robert Nakamura talk about his childhood in the Manzanar internment camp after the screening of "Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Gray," about a Japanese photographer who shot 7,000 photos of the camp. Phew.

The festival program -- spanning feature films, documentaries, experimental and short films, as well as music videos and industry-related seminars -- was as diverse as the history and experiences of Asians in America.

Of course, there were plenty of standouts among the 134 films shown, but here are three whose tickets sold out days in advance and had lines spiraling outside the theater (causing one person to remark: "To get in, you need some miraculous personal connections. What if I dated the director's sister?").

"Better Luck Tomorrow" (Opening Film)

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A scene from Justin Lin's "Better Luck Tomorrow"

Justin Lin's controversial film about a group of Asian high-schoolers in a California suburb shows a world that's neither Asian nor politically correct. The protagonist is Ben (Parry Shen), a straight-A student whose goal is a passport to an Ivy League college. For this, he plays basketball, studies like a monk and puts in long hours of community service. So far, so Asian-American. But Ben is also plagued by the rage and boredom that often define suburban teen life, and to ward off the blues, he gets involved in scams (cheat sheets, drugs, etc.) with friends Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Han (Sung Kang). Ben's excuse: "We're in suburbia. What else is there to do?"

Ben is roused from his ennui when he becomes lab partners with popular Asian princess Stephanie (Karin Anna Chueng). But she's going out with the cool but sleazy Steve (John Cho). Ben burns with resentment for this rival who is two-timing Stephanie and plotting scams against his own family.

One night, Ben's emotions swerve into violence when plans for a robbery turn into murder. Atypical of American teen cinema, "Better Luck Tomorrow" ends with neither moralizing nor tragedy -- Ben refuses to let this incident destroy "everything I worked for" and continues to post applications to top-notch universities. He personifies the suburban philosophy: No matter what, life goes on.

"The Floating World: Masami Teraoka and His Art" (World Premiere Documentary)

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"The Floating World: Masami Teraoka and His Art"

It took five years for Louise Lo to make this documentary, but the idea dates back more than two decades when she first discovered the work of Japanese immigrant artist Masami Teraoka. A native of Kobe, Teraoka spent his postwar boyhood years as the "Sketch Boy" for American GIs -- drawing detailed portraits of their girlfriends back home. The experience resulted in Teraoka escaping Kobe for Los Angeles' Venice Beach, where he became free to hone his skills as a modern ukiyo-e artist.

Teraoka's work caught Lo's imagination as a fascinating integration of Asian traditional art and modern American themes: The women in Teraoka's prints are depicted in familiar ukiyo-e settings but clutch dripping ice-cream cones, bite into Big Macs and stare with undisguised envy at bikini-clad, glamorous American babes on the beach.

Sexuality is also a big issue for Teraoka, who says in the movie that Japanese women never held any allure for him, and the Japanese admiration/desire for the American (or Caucasian) female physique has been a favorite theme. Interestingly, Teraoka has since moved from the ukiyo-e genre to establish his own style -- 35 years after immigrating to the States, his Japanese identity is no longer important enough to define or influence his work.

"Green Dragon" (Closing Film)

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Trung Nguyen and Forest Whitaker in "Green Dragon"

Touted as the most important Asian-American movie of the year, "Green Dragon" is directed by Timothy Bui, one of the Bui Brothers, whose "Three Seasons" won an award at Sundance three years back. This time, Bui's take on his Vietnamese roots is about the little-known experience of refugees who fled the war, survived the trip to the U.S., then were shuffled into hastily constructed U.S. military base camps where they were expected to immediately "become American," whether or not they were ready or willing. Camp Pendleton is the backdrop to this tale of solidarity, soul-searching and readjustment, with a cast that includes Forest Whitaker and Patrick Swayze.

The Vietnamese experience is different from that of other Asian-Americans, being so clearly marked by the war and its consequences. Bui's narrative is melodramatic at times, but never overly optimistic. Not once does the film depict life in the camp as a launchpad for the American Dream. For the characters, relocation was a personal and communal purgatory that they had to struggle throughand come to terms with before finding any amount of happiness.

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