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.com (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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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



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