“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” quoth an intertitle in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), before the trial for the shooting of a Burmese aristocrat ensconced in Gatsby-land. The 25th Asian American International Film Festival, to its credit, couldn’t care less about such distinctions. The fest kicks off with the obliquely topical Bagong Buwan (New Moon), in which beleaguered Muslims in the Philippines, under attack by bandits and the military, vow to preserve their faith by any means necessary. The film shows their peripatetic grief without adequately illustrating the roots of the conflict; it’s less a drama than a stultifying cycle of speeches and firefights, with a young Catholic interloper on hand to hammer home the people-are-people message. Screening on closing night is the disquieting Indian feature Maya, a tale of childhood’s end so drowsy one is doubly shocked by the harrowing puberty ritual, in which priests rape a girl after first menses.
The Korean entries are Chinese-obsessed this year: Musa the Warrior‘s 14th-century love triangle finds a general and a slave in a doomed Korean envoy exchanging grimaces over a Ming princess (Crouching Tiger‘s Zhang Ziyi) they are escorting across the eastern wastes. Crammed with incident and oaths, it nevertheless falls short of epic grandeur. Failan‘s titular Chinese laundress (Cecilia Cheung) is stranded in modern Korea, submitting to a paper marriage to a veteran gangster (Shiri‘s Choi Min-Shik). The first half is a grim troll through the Inchon gutterworld; the last, a protracted howl, finally relieved in an amazing conjunction of resurrection and violence.
Failan‘s achievement makes Fulltime Killer‘s violence without tears look terminally irrelevant. An actioner of the standard HK male-bonding-enemies variety, its energetic shtick wears thin once the dopey backstory surfaces—something about epileptic attacks at a marksmanship tournament. Speaking of which: Sports fans should skip Japan’s Waterboys (SNL‘s male synchronized swimming skit drained of laughs) and catch Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, a kicky bit of truth in advertising that might be the perfect cure for lingering World Cup hangovers.
The AAIFF’s stateside offerings are more miss than hit: Blue Fire is a hair-raising mix of incredible line readings (“You feel the heat all over your body, don’t you?”) and the unmotivated lust between lovesick Chinatown dogsbody and thong-wearing tart. The slightly less surly protagonist of Not a Day Goes By (directed by Joe G.M. Chan, the pyrotechnic houseboy in Boogie Nights) gets chased at the start by a well-meaning shopkeeper who wants to give him a free chicken in honor of his late mother; the film’s deadpan dialogue is often equally hilarious. Unfortunately, Chan dwells on the sort of identity soul-searching that sounds better on paper.
The ethnocentric festival’s best film isn’t even by a member of any of the tribes in question. DeMille’s The Cheat stars Sessue Hayakawa as Arakau Haka, a wealthy ivory merchant who throws parties for the smart set at his Long Island estate. When Edith (Fannie Ward), wife of a struggling stockbroker, loses her ladies’ group charity funds in speculation, she secretly accepts Arakau’s financial aid—and his one delicate condition. When she tries to stop the liaison, he savagely brands her with his signet. Though the premise of a flesh-marking foreigner is textbook xenophobic, Hayakawa (a University of Chicago graduate) brings a refreshing elegance to the role—tails and pocket watch instead of demonic facial hair—while conveying repressed desire in a style subtle for the silent era. The film is a marvel of narrative economy and indelible scenes: the brutal branding, a silhouetted Arakau slumping down a rice-paper screen, the courtroom surging in outrage after Edith’s hysterical revelation. “That means it belongs to me,” Arakau explains to Edith, upon first showing her his mark. That the AAIFF can embrace a charged masterpiece like The Cheat is no cheat at all.