Keeping their cool

Pub date March 11, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Did Asian American hipsters arrive with the cinematic appearance of Mr. Miyagi or Gregg Araki? The moment Hipster Bingo included an "über-hot Asian hipster (female)" square? Face it, we are everywhere — bubbling up from every microniche to make zines, play in bands, draw comics, and chafe against those model-minority, math-geek stereotypes, ready to rage against the Man’s machine.

According to You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, it all started with the star of Flower Drum Song (1961) and late-1970s TV series Barney Miller. Oakland-raised Goro Suzuki got his start as the life of the Tanforan and Topaz internment camps, evolving into a popular crooner-comedian in the Midwest where he attempted to sidestep prejudice by shortening Suzuki to the more Chinese Soo. He hit the Hollywood big time with his scene-stealing nightclub owner Sammy Fong and his beloved Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana, a role showcasing an understated wit that seems to define Asian cool. Alas, The Slanted Screen (2006) director Jeff Adachi concentrates so hard on Soo’s hipster cred, reinforced by pals like George Takei, that the drumbeat gets a bit deafening in this valuable if flawed doc, which fails to truly reveal the man behind the parts.

That’s the flip side of cool — the more you stress on it, the more elusive it is. On the opposite side of the spectrum: the 1990s-ish iconoclastic, workaholic breed of Asian hip obsessively worked by David Choe in Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe. Exhaustively documenting the Los Angeles-born artist for eight years as he matures before our eyes, director Harry Kim charts the growth spurts: from mischievous tot to shoplifter and graf artist to porn illustrator to street-art superstar to spiritual penitent after a stint in a Tokyo jail. The filmmaker doesn’t seem to know quite when to stop, but then neither does his subject: an obviously intelligent, playful talent who specializes in compulsively analyzing himself and pushing himself to the limits of the law, his work, and his own (r)evolution as a human being. So driven in his pursuit of edge-skating experiences that he comes off as less hipster than haunted, Choe and his Bukowskian tendencies, Vice aesthetics, and "deep" thoughts rivet long after the bodily fluids and sensory overload murals congeal.


Sun/15, 2:30 p.m., and March 18, 7 p.m., Kabuki


Sat/14, 9:30 p.m., Castro

Tues/17, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at For this week’s schedule, see film listings.