Traditionally reliant on Hong Kong pop pyrotechnics for its biggest crowd pleasers, this year’s Asian American International Film Festival opens with Park Chan-Wook’s buffed, brawny military thriller, J.S.A. (Joint Security Area), the highest-grossing movie in Korean history. A fatal gunfight breaks out in the demilitarized zone that bisects the Korean peninsula, and Park’s flashback-cluttered narrative circles around the fateful night while etching an improbably tender portrait of the friendship among a group of soldiers from both sides of the border. As ever, the AAIFF devotes equal time to choice imports and the far scrappier local entries—an unfortunate number of which are all too content to streamline thorny identity and assimilation conflicts into bullet-point tracts. The Flip Side, Rod Pulido’s schematic closing-night offering, is essentially a domestic sitcom in which a college freshman, newly in touch with his Filipino roots, returns home for a summer of amiable but feeble comic episodes involving his wannabe-homeboy brother and valley-girl-in-training sister. In Abraham Lim’s Roads and Bridges, a moody young Asian drifter (played by the director) hesitantly bonds with a black coworker on a road-sign crew deep in redneck country. Lim, who’s edited features for Robert Altman (the film’s executive producer), is a confident visual storyteller, but he’s thwarted by his own script, a morass of ungainly dialogue and sledgehammer symbolism.
Gender issues are tackled more confrontationally than racial ones—and nowhere more flamboyantly than in The Iron Ladies, perhaps the strangest sports-underdog inspirational ever made. Based on the true story of a Thai volleyball team of transsexuals and limp-wristed homosexuals, Yongyoot Thonkongtoon’s one-joke movie wears thin long before the come-from-behind triumph and prejudice-vanquishing group hugs. Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s bawdy period farce, Wu Yen, lacks the baroque dazzle of the directors’ recent films (and even the comic-book pulpiness of To’s previous action-diva summit, Heroic Trio) but compensates with a pileup of brazen gender convolutions. This retelling of a folk tale stars Sammi Cheng as a female warrior, Cecilia Cheung as a devious fairy enchantress who assumes both male and female form, and the great Anita Mui as a swaggering male emperor. One of the most conceptually satisfying entries, Queen’s Cantonese literalizes the remedial impulse underlying so many of the films in the fest. Wayne Yung’s short folds bathhouse etiquette, cruising terminology, and a few surprisingly subtle ideas about otherness and exoticism into the flat, soothing tones of an instructional video.