Woe to the festival that attempts to embody the cinematic output of an entire continent, especially if that continent is the constantly mutating culture-scape known as Asia. The annual Asian American International Film Festival has always suffered from an inevitable sprawl, dishing up a hodgepodge of East Asian offerings alongside the requisite (i.e., usually awful) entries from the diaspora. Miraculously, this year's lineup features strong contenders from all over the world. It also boasts significant star power in the form of Maggie Cheung, who will present the opening-night screening of Olivier Assayas's Clean. Jumping between languages and nationalities, Cheung's drug-addicted rock widow inhabits an eternal (and hellish) in-between state that is undeniably endemic to contemporary Asian-ness.
Clean's conventional rehab plot will disappoint hardcore Assayas fans, but the French director faithfully deploys his signature obsessionsstifling modernity, indie rock, Paris, lesbianism. Clean is as much a meditation on "Maggie Cheung" as Irma Vep was, only this time it's a merciless exfoliation. Cheung's character is a perpetual fuckup whose attempts to regain custody of her son are derailed by her frequent diva explosions. Torching her demure HK film persona, Cheung has clearly infused her character's deracination with a good measure of her own. Less starry but just as globally minded, Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet follows the romance between a Malay girl (Sharifah Amani) and a Chinese boy (Ng Choo-Seong). Speaking in Malay, Mandarin, and bad English, the disarmingly cute couple creates an amorous force field to deflect disapproving stares and slurs. It's shamelessly sentimental, but what's not to like about a movie in which the leads bond over Wong Kar-wai DVDs?
The festival's documentary section plunges even deeper into the swamp of identity miscegenation. Ellen Perry's The Fall of Fujimori traces the political arc of Peru's most unlikely and controversial president. A son of Japanese immigrants and an engineer by training, Alberto Fujimori took office in 1990 at a time when economic rot had consumed the country's political machinery. Promising fiscal reforms, Fujimori instead found his calling in the eradication of the Shining Path rebel group. This portrait of a folksy leader turned power-mad terrorist exterminator will seem sadly familiar, but the film harbors an empathy for its protagonist. A perpetual outsider in Peru as well as in Japan, where he now resides in exile, Fujimori remains fundamentally unknowable to the viewer and perhaps himself. A different sort of identity quest is at the heart of The Grace Lee Project, a video essay about the director's attempt to meet others who share her all too common name. The overabundant interviewees are less amusing than reassuring in their insistence that not all people named Grace Lee are polite, play the piano, and excel at math.
Perhaps the most audience-friendly film in the festival, Michael Kang's Sundance entry The Motel follows the sexual frustrations of an adolescent boy living in his mother's fleabag inn. A male Dawn Wiener, the protagonist silently withstands peer taunting and omnipresent reminders that he isn't getting laid. (The motel serves as a meeting spot for local hookers and their johns.) As the young hero, Jeffrey Chyau creates a convincingly muted portrait of stagnating adolescence. His life, as embodied by the motel itself, is an oppressive limbo from which any escape proves temporary at best.
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