Addendum: Asian American Film Festival

I don’t usually send out a newsletter on Sunday, but next Friday will be too late to talk about the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I caught two Festival events Saturday at the Castro, both very much worth talking about.

As part of its tribute to actor James Shigeta, the Festival screened Sam Fuller’s 1959 murder mystery The Crimson Kimono. Shigeta just may be the only Asian-American male to achieve Hollywood romantic leading man status. That he did this at a time when the civil rights movement was just beginning to alter America’s consciousness, and when World War II was still a recent memory, is all the more amazing.

The Crimson Kimono was his first film, and although he received third billing after two white newcomers, he had as much screen time as anyone, played the most complex character, and got the girl in the end. A white girl, at that.

This is a Sam Fuller movie, which means that it’s a low-budget, semi-exploitation melodrama with all the subtlety of a freight train at a dinner party. But that also means that it’s gutsy, takes on important issues, and is immensely entertaining.

After the movie, James Shigeta himself came onstage to be interviewed by filmmaker Arthur Dong. Shigeta appeared happy and relaxed, frequently joking. When Dong called him a “sex symbol,” Shigeta shot back laughing with “A what?”

He also seemed surprised when Dong described his big, interracial kiss with Victoria Shaw as daring in 1959. “Maybe the acting community is different. I didn’t see kissing a white girl [as a big deal]. When the director says action, you do it.”

Speaking of more recent films, Shigeta has strong opinions of Memoirs of a Geisha‘s casting controversy. He didn’t object, as many have, to using Chinese actresses instead of Japanese ones. “Why didn’t they use our people [Asian Americans]? We have beautiful people.” He didn’t like the broken English used in the film, and would have preferred actresses who were native English speakers. “I didn’t mind that they were Chinese girls playing Japanese. I objected that they were poorly directed.”

But the interview ended with a disappointment: They took no questions from the audience.

After an hour’s dinner break, I returned to the Castro to see Dreaming Lhasa, a small wonder of a film about Tibetan refuges. The principle setting is Dharamsala, a “little Tibet” in the Indian Himalayas; a place for refugees from China’s oppressive policies. The plot, concerning a Tibetan-American documentary filmmaker helping an ex-monk return a charm box to its original owner, is little more than an excuse to explore a culture in exile. The Tibetan world explored here is one of contrasts, of soothsayers and hermit monks, torture victims, and rock ‘n’ roll. Warning: This film contains positive references to the CIA.

After the screening, filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam came on stage to answer questions. Primarily documentary filmmakers (like their protagonist), this was their first experiment with narrative fiction. They “wanted to make a different Tibetan movie.” One that would show a modern, international culture where people listen to “use music heard everywhere.” They’re goal was to “remind younger Tibetans not to forget their past.”

As of Saturday, no American distributor has picked up Dreaming Lhasa. It’s showing this Wednesday at the Pacific Film Archive; after that, who knows when you’ll get another chance to see it.