2004: Bests of the Fests

by Eleanor M. Farrell

Most of the highlights for me in 2004 were theatrical offerings showcased during the many Asian film festivals in and around San Francisco. So many films, but here are my favorites:

2003, Ryuhei Kitamura (Aragami) and Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2LDK)
SF Independent Film Festival (February 8)
The 2004 SF Indie Fest really came through this year, with films such as 9 Souls and Gozu, but the highlight for me was seeing both parts of the “Duel Project” -- Aragami and 2LDK -- as a double feature. Even better, Aragami director Ryuhei Kitamura was there to introduce the films (his co-conspirator Yukihiko Tsutsumi was also scheduled to attend but had to cancel due to back problems) and do a Q&A session. Audience members who stayed for both films got to vote for their favorite; 2LDK won by a single vote but the real winners were the films’ viewers.

2002, Zhang Yimou
SF International Asian American Film Festival (March 4)
This year’s SFIAAFF managed to wrest a print of Hero from the sweaty grip of Miramax executives, and even at the steep opening night price tag, it was well worth waiting (I bought the DVD over a year ago) to see Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous foray into martial arts on the big screen. I also got to meet and hang out with fellow Mobian Simon Booth at the post-screening party, held at the lovely San Francisco Asian Art Museum. I was, happily, able to see the film again later in the year, during its lengthy theatrical run in the Bay Area.

1937, Robert Florey
SFIAAFF (March 6)
Another special treat from SFIAAFF was part of a special Anna May Wong retrospective, the1937 film Daughter of Shanghai. Here Wong gets to play Nancy Drew, travelling South of the Border in disguise as a sultry dancer to discover her father’s killer. Not only does Wong’s character survive the movie (a rarity for the actress), she also gets the guy: a San Francisco cop, played by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who helps her solve the case.

2003, Yudai Yamaguchi
SF Horrorfest (March 24)
Based solely on the film’s description as a zombie kung fu baseball musical, this was one of my “wish list” top choices for 2004. Yes, it’s highly flawed and quite ridiculous, but still hard to resist. The movie got a second San Francisco festival spot during the 4 Star’s 8th Annual Asian Film Festival, double-featured with a Shaw classic featuring local favorite Jimmy Wang Yu, The One-Armed Swordsman.

2003, Bong Joon-ho
SF International Film Festival (April 19)
This South Korean policier was my favorite film from this year’s SFIFF. Based on a real case that was never solved, two disparate detectives join forces to search for a serial killer. There are plenty of thriller aspects but the real focus of the story is the psychological toll the case takes on its police protagonists. I also enjoyed screenings of Last Life in the Universe (2003, Pen-ek Ratanaruang) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003, Tsai Ming-liang) during this fest (although seeing both of these within a few days of each other mainly whetted my appetite for WKW’s Days of Being Wild).

2002, Yoji Yamada
Theatrical run (May 16)
The best film of 2004! Japan’s entry for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar got its U.S. theatrical release in the spring of ’04. A quietly affecting look at the conflicting obligations of a struggling single father to just happens to be pretty good with a sword. (I also caught this as a double feature with Kill Bill, Vol. 2, an interesting pairing.)

1934, Wu Yonggang
SF Silent Film Festival (July 11)
The July weekend Silent Film fest offered two real gems this year. The Dragon Painter (1919, William Worthington) featuring then-matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa, was screened with live traditional acted narration by master benshi artist Midori Sawato, to recreate the experience of seeing a silent film in Japan. This was extremely cool. Even cooler, we were treated to one of legendary actress Ruan Lingyu’s most famous films, Shennü (The Goddess), featuring Ruan’s heartbreaking performance as a single mother whose only hope for supporting her son is to submit to a life of prostitution. (Scenes from this film are shown and recreated in Stanley Kwan’s film biography of Ruan, Centre Stage.)

1992, Ronnie Yu
4 Star Midnites for Maniacs (July 24)
I never pass up a chance to see this favorite, even when it’s past my bedtime. With 5 additional viewings on DVD, Bride was my most-watched film of the year.

2003, Ryuhei Kitamura / 2002, Sabu
The 8th Annual Asian Film Festival, 4 Star Theatre (August 18)
Another outstanding (and exhausting) collection of classic and new Asian films, ranging from classic Chinese opera musicals to the U.S. premiere of Wong Jing’s take on Sex in the City. I managed to see 14 of the 27 films in the program, with Azumi and Drive probably my two favorites. You can’t get much farther apart on the cult-o-meter: Kitamura’s manga-inspired exercise in “extreme sword-training” vs. Sabu’s wry look at a carload of clueless criminals and the already stressed-out salesman whose car they highjack. Well, OK, vengeance is a motivator in both movies.

2004, Prachya Pinkaew
NAATA Fall Asian Film Showcase (October 26)
More testosterone in this screening room than I’ve smelled since..... well, probably Versus. Lead actor/martial artist Tony Jaa demonstrates an agility and grace that elevate a well-worn plot to a very entertaining level. Rumors of a pairing with Jackie Chan for an possible Drunken Master series entry are very exciting!

1961, Ishiro Honda + 2003, Masaaki Tazuka
Godzillafest (November 20)
I managed to catch 12 of the 20 films shown during Godzillafest, many of which were U.S. premieres in Japanese with English subtitles. My favorite double feature was 1961’s Mothra followed by 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, which features the return of the giant moth. An extra-special treat, Mothra cast members Jerry Ito, Ed Keane and Hiroshi Koizumi (who played Dr. Shinichi Chujo, the ally of Mothra’s tiny fairy friends in both films) and current Godzilla suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa (who gave Godzillafest attendees an on-stage sneak preview of some of the Big G’s moves in the upcoming new film, Godzilla: Final Wars) were present at the screenings, and related their filmmaking memories.

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