I caught a screening of Eric Byler's Americanese last night at the Opening Night of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Byler had previously directed the underrated Charlotte Sometimes (2003), which was savaged by users on IMDb, partly due to its matter-of-fact attitude toward a mixed-race love story. I approached Byler's previous film with a certain amount of trepidation; here was yet another young filmmaker attempting to break into the movie business (using digital video no less) and probably tripping over a dozen others doing the same thing. But Byler had a unique touch, a palpable texture of the ebb and flow of life. Characters could pause and do nothing and they would still hold our interest.

From the first textured shot of Americanese, Byler establishes himself as the real thing. Based on the novel American Knees by Shawn Wong, the film is essentially a soap opera, a melodrama about break-ups, tentative new loves and family troubles, complete with a bit of a message about shaded levels of racism - not my usual cup of tea. But Byler handles it all with such grace and delicate humanity that it flows like air through wind chimes.

The very dashing Gregory Peck lookalike Chris Tashima (an Oscar winner for his 1997 short film Visas and Virtue) stars as Raymond, a professor who can't quite grasp the elusive ways of women. He has just broken up with his much younger live-in lover Aurora (Allison Sie). He allows her to stay in their apartment, so long as he can sneak in - unbeknownst to her - during the day and bask in her essence. But life soon beckons him away; his widowed father (Sab Shimono) begins to think about remarrying, and Raymond himself begins dating a fellow teacher, the pretty but disturbed Betty (Joan Chen, in a devastating performance). Meanwhile, Aurora begins a new (Caucasian) love affair of her own, and returns home for her mixed-race parents' retirement party, only to encounter a more subtle form of racism. Hollywood comic book movie hottie Kelly Hu (The Scorpion King, X2) is also on hand, in a "best friend" supporting role, but one with fire and pizzazz.

Byler understands the language of film, using close-ups and two-shots as dramatic elements rather than as aesthetic choices. He also understands how to balance the melodrama with moments of rest and warm humor; he never tires you out. But the most impressive thing about Americanese is the obvious traps it manages to avoid. When a medical emergency comes up, it avoids the typical hospital scene, and when another character has a mental breakdown, it avoids the predictable shaky-cam treatment.

There is a tendency to overrate films seen in a festival environment, especially when the filmmaker and actors are on hand to dazzle us at the film's end, but - although Joan Chen is some kind of majestic human being - I'm not easily swayed by such things. I'm convinced that Byler is a talent to watch; he displays a skill that could someday put him on a level with John Stahl or Douglas Sirk.

Americanese does not yet have a distributor, but having won two awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Cast and the Audience Award for Narrative Feature, it shouldn't be too long now.