Now in its 22nd year, the Asian American International Film Festival feels a little smaller and shorter in comparison to installments past, but that doesn't make it any less a crucial part of New York's festival scene. Skipping from Pac-Rim blockbusters that aren't released stateside to smaller-scale efforts by Asian Americans that put rich histories and complex identities into lensed perspective, the programmers have brought an ecumenical enthusiasm to their work, putting together a slate that makes up in liveliness what it lacks in quantity.
Standing out among the many worthwhile docs and shorts is Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's Silence Broken. A wrenching and formally inventive look at the abuse and torture of Korean "comfort women" by Japanese soldiers during WW II, Silence crafts a complicated and impassioned historical document through interviews with survivors, dramatic re-creations of their stories, and the bald-faced denials of many Japanese leaders and veterans. Closer to home are Loc Do's Bastards, a gritty and deeply depressing feature about Amerasian street kids, set in L.A.'s Little Saigon, and Karma Local, a wry New York comedy from Darshan Bhagat about a deadpan but plucky Indian news vendor who runs afoul of the mob. Worth a look just as an object lesson in cross-cultural confusion, Tim Chey's Fakin' da Funk is a Booty Callish blaxploitation flick helmed by an Asian American directorit tells the story of a Chinese kid who grows up in "da hood" acting and talking black.
On the blockbuster side, the fest is offering three New York premieres from the top of the box office in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Korean director Kan Jegyu's high-tech espionage potboiler Shiri and Japanese director Shundo Ohkawa's paranoid street-crime freak-out Nobody are both expertly crafted thrillers, flicks that offer the kind of headlong "gun-fu" kicks associated with the John Woo glory days. Marilou Diaz-Abaya's José Rizal is a blockbuster in an altogether different mode, a hallucinatory historical epic that not only retells the life and times of the eponymous Philippine novelist, martyr, and national hero, but also beat Titanic's local box-office record.
Walking a gauzy zigzag from Soul Food to The Wedding Singer and back again, The Wood is a diverting but uneven nostalgia trip, a black malecentric hug fest culled from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's memories of late-'80s junior high days. The Wood (shorthand for Englewood, California) opens present-tense with two well-adjusted, grown-up buds, Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones), trying to get Roland (Taye Diggs) to the church on time. Cracking wise and overcoming a number of vomit- and tuxedo-related obstacles, the trio valiantly fight their way to the altar, all the while shaking their heads and knee-slapping each other over "the good old days."
All that shaking and slapping unlooses a string of flashbacks to the days of old-school hip hop and shell-top Adidas, when Mike (Fresh's Sean Nelson, who gives the film's most layered performance) was a clean-cut country boy from North Carolina, Slim (Duane Finely) was a Jheri Curlwearing wannabe ballplayer, and Roland (Trent Cameron) was, as he repeatedly assures everyone, just getting better looking every week. The Wood's kid stuff is suffused throughout with unexpected humor and intelligencefrom the ill- advised schoolyard ass grab that will forge the trio's bond, to Mike's near-apoplectic crisis over his first dance, to the technical difficulties with condoms that will attend their first lays. But, unfortunately, most of The Wood involves bickering and high jinks passing between Epps, et al. The Wood is a nice enough movie in its predictable, haphazard way, but it would have been much nicer to actually meet the men Famuyiwa's fondly remembered boys grew up to be.
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