New director brings Pan-Asian films to the Bay 

Calling a Japanese-American “Sushi” might sound deleterious, but Masashi Niwano does not mind.

The new director of the San Francisco International Asian American International Film Festival — which comes to various theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose next month — picked up the nickname at a young age, helping out at his family’s wholesale fish business in Campbell.

Niwano used to truck fish from The City to Campbell for processing, and he still remembers the day a decade ago when the truck was stolen.

Few other mishaps have befallen Niwano since. He graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in film production, worked for SFIAAFF in theater operations, then moved to Texas, where he ran the Austin Asian American Film Festival with distinction for five years.

When the San Francisco festival’s Chi-hui Yang left — at the top of his game, but wanting a change — Niwano took over to run the event. At 29, he is the same age as the festival.

“I wanted to be like Chi-hui and to have his job. As festival director, you have the opportunity to influence the next generation of Asian-Americans,” Niwano says.

His official title is festival and exhibitions director, working for the Center for Asian American Media, the festival’s parent organization. Running on a $500,000 budget, the festival is a more thrifty operation than that of similar organizations.

A film director himself, Niwano’s “Falling Stars,” about coming out to his best friend in college, was screened at the festival here five years ago. Also, he is a musician, playing guitar, and an expert cook, with a preference for Italian-Japanese fusion.

Offerings in the festival of some 120 films from various Asian countries and the U.S. include avant-garde, horror and experimental movies, in addition to features and documentaries of a wide range.

Asked to choose among “his children,” Niwano suggests a few that represent his own interests:

Hoku Uchiyama’s “Upaj,” U.S./India: The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of India Jazz Suites, a dance collaboration between local Indian Kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith. [7 p.m. March 18, Montgomery Theatre, San Jose]

Nonzee Nimibutr’s “Nang Nak,” Thailand: The movie is based on a traditional Thai folk legend about a woman whose eternal love for her family binds her to Earth even in death. [9:30 p.m. March 12, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, S.F.]

David Boyle’s “Surrogate Valentine,” U.S.: The world premiere stars the multitalented local favorite Goh Nakamura as a musician who toils in the indie-music scene. [7 p.m. March 17, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, S.F.]

James Lee’s “Histeria,” Malaysia: Described as both playful and gruesome, the film follows six precocious schoolgirls as they pretend to be “possessed” at school. In the process, they accidentally conjure up murderous forces intent on killing them. [11:30 p.m. March 11, Landmark Clay Theatre, S.F.]

Jeon Kyu-hwan’s “Dance Town,” South Korea: The North American premiere of the final installment in a trilogy is a dark political allegory about a North Korean professional table tennis player, and her new life in the South. [6:45 p.m. March 13 and 9:15 p.m. March 16, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, S.F.]


Asian American Film Festival

Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Landmark Clay Theatre, Castro Theatre, VIZ Cinema, all in S.F.
When: March 10-20
Tickets: $10 to $12; on sale beginning Monday
Contact: (415) 863-0814,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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