Thursday, April 26, 2018


CAAMFest 2018

Besides its colorful spring blossom, May is also celebrated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Therefore, it's a brilliant move for the annual CAAMFest to be held in May in alignment with the celebration of the rich Asian cultural heritage in addition to public programming sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a leading force in bringing Asian Americans' stories to light and conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience to the public.

Despite the shift in time, the festival continues to provide a platform for exhibiting CAAM's productions, new works by Asian American filmmakers, and contemporary Asian cinema. Now in its sixth year after evolving from its predecessor, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest has become more mature than ever in catering a 15-day long indulgence of film, music, food, and digital media. Taking place May 10-24, 2018 in San Francisco and Oakland, this year's festival has a fitting tag-line: "CULTURE, IN EVERY SENSE."

CAAMFest 2018

Compared to the past, not only has the festival extended its duration by a few more days, but it has also dramatically increased the number of participating venues across San Francisco and Oakland. These changes both increase the visibility of the festival throughout the Bay area and infuse more excitement to the festival. They provide more opportunities to expand the music and food aspects of the festival as well.

For Asian cinema lovers, this year's film screenings mainly take place in San Francisco at AMC Kabuki 8 and New People Cinema in Japantown, as well as the Roxie Theater in the Mission, and in Oakland at the Piedmont Theater.

On Thursday, May 10 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with Dianne Fukami's documentary "An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy" (USA 2018 | 60 min.), about the life and career of Japanese-American politician Norman Mineta from San Jose.

Two weeks later on May 24, the festival closes with a live performance "Aunt Lily's Flower Book: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism" at the historic Herbst Theatre.

An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy Aunt Lily's Flower Book: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism

In between, along with music and food, the festival screens 119 films and videos, including 17 feature narrative films, 14 feature documentaries, and 8 shorts programs, as well as other CAAMunity Screenings.

Here are my reviews (or capsule review if they are under hold-review status) of a few films. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order:

  • Dead Pigs (海上浮城 | China 2018 | in Mandarin/English | 130 min.)

    Dead Pigs Winning the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the writer-director Cathy Yan's (阎羽茜) engrossing feature directorial debut "Dead Pigs" provides a vivid snapshot of lives in today's China where the inequality has become more evident than ever. Using the 2013 incident of 16,000 floating dead pigs in Shanghai's Huangpu River as the backdrop, the film seamlessly connects a handful of colorful characters across the economic spectrum.

    One of the farmers who dump dead pigs into the river is Old Wang (Yang Haoyu), who raises pigs in the outskirt of Shanghai, and is also a victim in a fraudulent housing development investment scheme. Meanwhile his sister Candy (the terrific Vivian Wu, who is also credited as the co-producer), a salon owner, stalls a development project by refusing to sell her house that stands alone in the middle of a rubble of demolished houses. Candy insists that her motivation for standing her ground is not for money, but to preserve her cultural heritage and the pride of her identity.

    Old Wang's son Zhen (Mason Lee) works as a waiter in a luxury restaurant in Shanghai where affluent young crowds frequently visit. At work, he meets a rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng) and falls hard for her. Xia Xia treats Zhen as a muse at first, but after they become closer following her hospitalization due to a traffic accident, she begins to realize that the class gap between them is impossible to bridge.

    Desperately needing cash to pay off the loan shark, Old Wang asks Candy to sell the doomed house they co-owned, but Candy firmly refuses. Running out of options, Zhen goes to the extremes in order to help his father get out of the crisis.

    After the pigs are fished out of the river, life seems to go on as if that never happened. Will these people be able to say the same after what they have gone through?

    Dead Pigs

    The writer-director Cathy Yan impressively crafts her story, at the same time injecting sharp social commentaries. She convincingly weaves several stranger than fiction phenomena into the plot and delivers them with dark humor and deep empathy. She reveals the struggle by those have-nots underneath the grand achievements shown daily on TV and in the news media.

    That focus and undertone come with no surprise when Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) is on board as the film's executive producer, but the film has a distinctive voice that belongs to Cathy Yan. Both her sense of humor and her heartfelt empathy toward her characters are rendered frame by frame.

    The film also gives the audience a refreshing look at daily life in China. For example, the motivation exercise in front of Candy's salon is indeed a very common scene no matter how funny and ridiculous it might look on screen. And the story surrounding Zhen strikingly reflects millions of young people's lives in modern China. That makes this film resonate with them because it speaks volume for those many who have little to no voice.

    Go back to the list of titles

  • People's Republic of Desire (China/USA 2018 | in Mandarin | 94 min. | Documentary)

    After the intimate portrait of a group of students at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in "The Road to Fame" (成名之路 | China 2013), the molecular biologist-turned-documentarian Hao Wu returns to the festival with "People's Republic of Desire," capturing the phenomenon represented by another group of fame seekers in the digital age—attempting to become live streaming superstars on (YY语音).

    People's Republic of Desire Official Site

    Winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary at this year's SXSW Film Festival, the film follows a few YY super-stars and their faithful followers and captures these characters' mental and physical beings. It's both shocking and thought provoking to see how the social media technology is able to produce super rich celebrity without the necessary of possessing any talent, to provide cheap entertainment for the new generation, to transcend crowds similar to spectators of sporting events into virtual reality voyeurs, and to disconnect people in real life and rejoin them online.

    Go back to the list of titles

  • A Little Wisdom (China/Canada/USA 2017 | in Nepali | 92 min. | Documentary)

    You must have heard of stories about orphans growing up in Christian ministries, but what about orphans in a Buddhist monastery? Director Kang Yuqi's (康宇琪) closely observed documentary "A Little Wisdom" will give a rare and heartbreaking look inside those colorful walls where children are abandoned with little adult supervision.

    A Little Wisdom Official Site

    Hopakuli is one of these abandoned children. At the age of two, he was left at a monastery in Lumbini to live with his older brother Chorten and 20 other young children. The film follows the now five-year-old Hopakuli around the isolated monastery and the deserted harsh surrounding where they play, sleep, eat, read, and poignantly seek love and affection, which, like other commodities such as food, are hard to find.

    Go back to the list of titles

  • Looking For? (你找什麼? | Taiwan 2017 | 61 min. | in Mandarin | Documentary)

    Looking For? Official Site Can you imagine what it would be like to have a Stonewall Uprising in today's digital age since gay bars are no longer the primary hang-outs for the gay community? People have been glued to their smart phones for years, and it's no exception for the marginalized-but-becoming-mainstream gay population, especially when it comes to dating and cruising. The social media dating apps have gained tremendous popularity and become the go-to "place" for most LGBTQ people to connect, explore, and unite nowadays.

    Taiwanese director Chou Tung-yen's (周東彥) timely documentary "Looking For?" takes a closer look at the impact of these dating apps on the lives of new generations of gay men, and get some perspectives from those who experienced the era of Stonewall Uprising.

    The director Chou Tung-yen turns his camera towards dozens of gay men (mostly Asian and Caucasian) in seven big cities around the world and lets them candidly share their experience of using dating apps. Some of their stories are touching, some of them shocking, and some of them simply resonate with anyone who has ever opened one of these apps on their phones.

    While the film doesn't shed any more insight than what we already know about the usage of gay dating apps in terms of motivation or frequency, it does provide a few statistics that may give you pause and you think about how these apps have empowered the newer generations to liberate their sexuality, compared to the resources that were available to the older generations.

    Looking For? Official Site

    Most of the people interviewed in the film are ordinary gay dating app users, except for Geng Le, the founder of a Chinese gay dating app. It seems to be a missed opportunity that the film did not involve any academic scholars or experts to further study the social and psychological effects of these apps on the gay community at a higher level. Perhaps because of the large number of people interviewed during the merely one hour running time, the film also comes up short in digging deeper about any of its subjects. The end result resembles the experience of browsing profiles on a gay dating app—Surely there are a few eye catchers along the way, but you may only know each of them skin-deep with just a few tag lines and a mug shot.

    Nevertheless, this is the first of its kind film that tells a story which is often neglected. For better or worse, these apps have become an integral part of gay life and gay identity in the digital age. The film's effort in telling these gay men's stories in association with these apps is admirable.

    Go back to the list of titles

Friday, March 30, 2018


SFFILM Festival 2018

This is the second year in which the longest running film festival in America, the San Francisco International Film Festival, is operating under its new name SFFILM Festival. For 61 years, this beloved festival has been an iconic fixture in the city's film culture. It continues to thrive and attract the best talent around the world. It embraces, enriches, and celebrates the creativity and excellence in cinema art both in the Bay Area and around the globe.

From April 4-17, 2018, the festival will showcase 183 films, including 57 narrative features, 37 documentary features, and 83 shorts, in 46 languages representing 45 countries and regions.

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival

This edition of the festival opens on Wednesday, April 4 with director Silas Howard's timely drama "A Kid Like Jake" (USA 2018 | 92 min.), about a family's dilemma on their young son Jack's school choice when Jack starts to express transgender tendencies.

A week into the festival, on Thursday, April 12, the festival's centerpiece presentation features Bay Area filmmaker Boots Riley's social critique comedy "Sorry to Bother You" (USA 2018 | 105 min.), about a telemarketer's story in a socially unjust environment.

Although the festival runs through April 17, its closing night presentation, writer-director Gus Van Sant's new film "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot" (USA 2018 | 113 min.) is scheduled for Sunday, April 15. It tells the extraordinary story of the quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix).

Opening Night: A Kid Like Jake Centerpiece: Sorry to Bother You Closing Night: Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Accompanied by the screening of director Jason Reitman's "Tully" (USA 2018 | 96 min.), the festival pays tribute to the Academy-award winner actress Charlize Theron who plays an exhausted mother welcoming a nanny home.

Renowned Asian-American writer-director Wayne Wong is the other tribute recipient at the festival with the screening of "Smoke" (USA 1995 | 112 min.), about happenings centering at a cigar shop in Brooklyn.

A Tribute to Charlize Theron A Tribute to Wayne Wang

Besides these Big Nights, the festival classifies its films into the following sections:

  • Marquee Presentations includes 14 narratives and 8 documentaries that have recently captured the headlines or populated the social media sphere of independent filmmaking.

    Chloé Zhao's award winning drama "The Rider" (USA 2017 | 104 min.) beautifully portrays a cowboy who continues to pursue his rodeo dream after a terrible accident, terrifically played by local residents.

    The documentary "RBJ" (USA 2018 | 97 min.) takes a look at the fascinating Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    Aneesh Chaganty's feature directorial debut "Searching" (USA 2018 | 101 min.) unfolds a father's search of his missing daughter entirely on a computer screen.

    The Rider RBJ Searching

  • Masters consists of 7 narratives from a few influential filmmakers around the world.

    Unlike his usual feel-good and life-affirming family drama, the renowned Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和) tells a much darker tale in his latest gripping crime drama "The Third Murder" (三度目の殺人 | Japan 2017 | in Japanese | 125 min.). It shakes the moral authority of justice while unfolding its twisted plot.

    Like it or not, the prolific festival darling writer-director Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) comes back with yet another talking soap "Claire's Camera" (클레어의 카메라 | France/South Korea 2018 | in Korean/English | 69 min.). This time it's set in Cannes where his characters constantly run into each other on the streets and then they sit down to talk about art, career, or nothing significant.

    The Hong Kong director John Woo (吳宇森) also returns to the festival with his latest action thriller "Manhunt" (追捕 | Hong Kong/China 2017 | in Mandarin/English/Japanese | 111 min.). It's a remake of the Japanese movie "Manhunt" (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ | Japan 1976) that made Ken Takakura (高倉 健) a household name in China decades ago.

    The Third Murder Claire's Camera Manhunt

  • Global Visions assembles 14 narratives and 14 documentaries that give us a taste of the most contemporary world cinema.

    In light of the recent revelation about data harvesting from Facebook, it can't be more timely for directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck's insightful documentary "The Cleaners" (Germany/Brazil/Netherlands/Italy/USA 2018 | in English/Tagalog 88 min.), which investigates how the social media companies hire workers in the Philippines as the content police. It is mind boggling to witness the devastating global impact these social media platforms fail to foresee.

    Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand's (وحید جلیلوند ‎‎) sophomore feature "No Date, No Signature" (بدون تاریخ بدون امضا | Iran 2017 | in Persian | 104 min.) constructs a captivating drama centered on a doctor's moral consciousness.

    Chinese writer-director Vivian Qu (文晏) comes back to this year's festival with her arresting and poignant drama "Angels Wear White" (嘉年华 | China/France 2017 | in Mandarin | 107 min.) about an undocumented motel employee who witnesses the government corruption and abuse of school girls. Her confident work earned her the Golden Horse Award for best director.

    The Cleaners No Date, No Signature Angels Wear White

  • Golden Gate Award (GGA) Competition nominates 10 narratives and 10 documentary features, as well as a handful of short films in six shorts programs for the generous cash prizes totaling nearly $40,000. Many emerging filmmakers around the world tell compelling stories in this category.

    Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó's documentary "The Next Guardian" (ཤུལ་ལས་བདག་འཛིན་འབད་མི། | Hungary/Netherlands 2017 | in Dzongkha | 74 min.) intimately observes the generational conflicts in the digital age in Bhutan. While the father hopes that his son will carry on the family tradition as the care-taker of a family monastery, the teenaged boy is more interested in connecting to the Internet, playing soccer with his tomboy sister, and checking out girls.

    The Russian director Elizaveta Stishova's (Елизавета Стишова) impressive feature directorial debut "Suleiman Mountain" (Сулейман гора | Kyrgyzstan/Russia 2017 | in Kyrgyz | 103 min.) unfolds a captivating story in the titular UNESCO World Heritage Site about a boy who is taken out of the orphanage abruptly as the long-lost child of a couple of con-artists.

    Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont's poignant documentary "The Distant Barking of Dogs" (Denmark/Sweden/Finland 2017 | in Ukrainian | 90 min.) depicts life near the front line of the Russia-Ukraine conflicts. Through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy Oleg who lives with his grandmother and his cousin, the film reveals the dire reality and the devastating trauma caused by the war.

    The Next Guardian Suleiman Mountain The Distant Barking of Dogs

  • Dark Wave has 4 films that continue to feed the appetite of midnight horror and sick pleasure seekers.
  • Vanguard shows 4 experimental films and one shorts program that break the norm in watching a film and challenge your brain either in connecting the dots in the filmmakers' storytelling, or in finding those dots in some cases.

Throughout the festival, besides film screenings, there are also awards presentations, live & on stage performances, as well as three Master Classes.

The SFFILM Festival takes place April 4 - April 17, 2018 in San Francisco (at the Castro Theater in the Castro; the Dolby Cinema, SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater, the YBCA Screening Room, and the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum around the downtown area; the Roxie Theater, and the Victoria Theatre in the Mission neighborhood), Berkeley (at Pacific Film Archive), Oakland (at Grand Lake Theater), and other locations around the Bay Area.

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Ready Player One

Ready Player One official site The legendary writer-director Steven Spielberg has made many films in the past which became significant fixtures in American pop culture. From "Jaws" (1975) to "E.T." (1982), from "Schindler's List" (1993) to "The Post" (2017), his films range from delightful entertainments to thought-provoking intellectuals pieces. With virtual reality (VR) gaining popularity in recent years, he dives into the fun of VR games through the bulky eye-wear in "Ready Player One" (USA 2018 | 140 min.). He playfully takes us into a colorful virtual reality world while nodding to various pop-culture icons in the '70s and '80s, including many characters in his own films.

The film is set in a dystopian Columbus, Ohio in 2045. Giving up their lives in reality, almost everyone is wearing a VR eye-wear and appears to be an avatar in a virtual reality world called OASIS, created by the late gifted game-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Although he is already dead, his legacy lives on in OASIS. Before his death, he hid an Easter Egg in OASIS and the gamers need to find three keys in order to find the egg. Whoever gets the egg will also inherit Halliday's fortune. The game of egg is on.

One of the egg-hunting contenders is a teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who sleeps on top of a washing machine and slides in between piles of junk cars to get out of his trailer into a van. Once he gets into the van and puts on his VR wear, he becomes an aviator Parzival in OASIS, driving a DeLorean from "Back to the Future" (1985). During an exhilarating car racing scene involving King Kong and dinosaurs from Jurassic Park (1993), he befriends an aviator on motorcycle Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) whose real-life name is Samantha. With the help from another giant iron-man aviator Aech (Lena Waithe), they make some progress in searching for those mysterious keys, and they are joined later by Daito (Win Morisaki) and 11-year-old Sho (Philip Zhao).

But of course, they are not the only ones in the pursuit of the egg. The villain in the game is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of a gaming corporation called Innovative Online Industries (IOI) who wants to control OASIS. The VR game battle among the rivals is intensely played out on the giant IMAX screen in 3D, while the human drama in real life unfolds as a side plot monitored by drones.

Ready Player One Official Site

Even if you are not a big computer gamer, you will appreciate the immersive experience that Steven Spielberg creates in the film. You might gain some understanding about why so many people are addicted to the computer games, especially when they are played in a VR environment. You can truly be anyone you want in a fantasy world and completely escape from reality.

Obviously, Steven Spielberg is having as much fun as the viewers watching the film. Among the numerous pop culture references in to music and cinema, the most amusing moment takes place when the aviators revisit the sets in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), including the haunted Room 237. You definitely should get a refresher on "The Shining" before watching this film.

Compared to some other films by Steven Spielberg, "Ready Player One" is a much lighter-weight project without compromising its dazzling visuals. The storyline may be easily forgotten, but its appeal of drawing more youngsters to a gaming world might linger much longer.

"Ready Player One," opens on Thursday, March 29, 2018.

Friday, March 23, 2018


Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs official site Over a year ago, when the National Park Service proposed a new rule to restrict dog access to some parts of the beaches in San Francisco, it ignited an uproar of oppositions from dog owners which ended up killing the proposal. But that's nothing compared to the scenario in the acclaimed writer-director Wes Anderson's ninth feature "Isle of Dogs" (Germany/USA 2018 | 101 min.), a stop-motion animation film set in Japan where dogs are banned and exiled to a trash island to be exterminated. Luckily, this imaginative and entertaining puppet show renders a similar result that delights dog lovers.

Set in 20 years in the future in (fictional) Megasaki City of Japan, the spread of dog flu triggers the action by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to ban all dogs, domestic or stray. Announced at a campaign rally by a live-interpreter (Frances McDormand), the mayor exiles all dogs to Trash Island, including his own pet Spots (Liev Schreiber), adored by his 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin).

The action is fiercely opposed by a team of scientists led by Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and an American exchange student and activist Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who have developed a drug to cure the disease. But they don't seem to be winning.

Although the Japanese characters don't speak English in the film, the dogs do, which makes this film perfect for children. On uninhabitable Trash Island, five colorful dogs with distinctive personalities take the center stage: the decisive Rex (Edward Norton), former mascot of a baseball team Boss (Bill Murray), former spokes-dog King (Bob Balaban), gossiper Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Their daily survival routine is disrupted when Atari crash lands on Trash Island to look for Spots. They team up with the brave young boy on a mission to find Spots and return to Megasaki City.

Isle of Dogs Official Site

Fans of eccentric Wes Anderson will most certainly be delighted by this terrific looking film. The impeccable details of each frame deserve to be printed into a comic book to be fully appreciated. The filmmakers' imagination is both impressive and charming. Those lovely dogs vividly come to life and make you shake off any remaining doubt that they are men's (and women's) best friends.

By making the film a children's fairy tale, Wes Anderson clearly is not interested in making everything in the film convincing or logical. Unlike films such as "Inside Out" (2015), this film is a light weight in terms of carrying any message. But it serves as an excellent and entertaining bedtime story.

Why does the movie have to go through the trouble of being set in Japan and creating an extra language barrier even though it allows dogs to speak in English? That's because Wes Anderson wants to pay tribute to Japanese filmmakers such as Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎), Akira Kurosawa (黒沢 明), and Seijun Suzuki (鈴木 清順). Therefore, it's fair to say that this film is a personal homage to Japanese cinema for him. Otherwise he might have set the location in the dog friendly San Francisco where tail-wagers might speak a different language to rise against the National Park Service.

"Isle of Dogs," opens on Friday, March 23, 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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