Thursday, March 7, 2013


CAAMFest 2013

After thirty years, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has a new identity. It becomes CAAMFest. The new name effectively promotes the institution behind the festival—Center for Asian America Media (CAAM).

The festival also has a new tagline: "Film. Music. Food."

CAAMFest 2013

For thirty years, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has been the largest showcase in North America for Asian American independent filmmaking and current Asian cinema. However, starting from last year's SFIAAFF 30, the festival's programming has shifted to a new direction to embrace the emerging new media. One noticeable change is the reduction of the presence of contemporary Asian cinema as well as the total number of films in the programming, and the increase of CAAM's in-house productions.

This year, while continuing this trend, the festival makes even more drastic changes, besides giving itself a new name. The festival eliminates the San Jose location altogether and runs the entire ten days, March 14-24, in San Francisco and Berkeley (which I think it's a smart move). It also adds quite a few musical programs (does SXSW come to your mind?) and live-cooking events to the festival. And, for the first time, the festival presents a 3-D film—the fantastic "The Monkey King: Uproar in the Heaven" (大闹天宫 | China 2011 | in Chinese | 92 min.).

It's evident that the festival has evolved itself to be a primary platform for CAAM's productions and interactive programs that involve music and food. The changing of the festival's name seems inevitable and actually quite fitting to reflect the festival's new identity.

I love film, music, as well as food. However, I would like to focus on film aspect of the festival here. This year, the film's portion of the festival is downsizing to 21 narrative features and 19 documentary features, and many of these documentaries last less than an hour, perhaps they are tailored for PBS.

One prominent focus at this year's festival is China. Quite a few films tell heartbreaking stories about the lives of ordinary Chinese people who are left behind by the economic boom. These films bring the widening chasm between rich and poor and escalating political unrest in China to light, and understandably, none of them are upbeat.

Here are my picks in this year's program. As always, each film title is linked to the festival program, where you can find more details about the film including showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available.

The CAAMFest 2013 takes place March 14-24, 2013 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, SF Film Society Cinema, Castro Theater, and Great Star Theater, and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.

  • Linsanity (USA 2013 | 88 min.)

    In February 2012, Chinese-American NBA star Jeremy Lin's (林書豪) magical performances generated a storm called "Linsanity" that swept through the entire nation and around the world. Bay area filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong's exhilarating documentary "Linsanity" brings back that excitement to the big screen. With unprecedented access, the film eloquently depicts the high points and low bottoms in Jeremy Lin's professional basketball career. It sharply criticizes the racial and cultural bias toward Asians in professional basketball. The film presents us a talented, humble, charismatic, driven, religious, and lovable Jeremy Lin who is the center of a "Linsanity" storm.

    With Jeremy Lin's incredible energy and irresistible charm, this uplifting and inspiring documentary will surely bring down the house at the Castro Theater when the film opens the festival on March 14.

    Get ready for Linsanity, round two.


  • Jiseul (지슬 | South Korea 2012 | in Korean | 108 min.)

    Beautifully shot in black and white, South Korean director O Meul's (오멸) award-winning war drama "Jiseul" tells an unforgettable story about Jeju Massacre in 1948.

    During the Korean War, the US military orders the South Korea ally to treat anybody they find in Jeju as a communist from the North and execute the person on the spot. Enduring the cold and hunger, 120 villages hide in a cave hoping to escape the soldiers' slaughter. The film masterfully unfolds their incredible and shocking ordeal with its elegant lenses.

    This sometimes hard-to-watch film reminds us the cruelty of war that destroys both humanity and lives. It is one of the best films at this year's festival.


  • Beautiful 2012 (China/South Korea/Malaysia/Hong Kong 2012 | in Chinese/Korean | 90 min.)

    Serving as China's Youtube, Youku teams up with Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and assembles a short program from four acclaimed Asian directors.

    South Korean director Kim Tae-yong's (김태용) quirky "You Are More Than Beautiful" tells a simple story about a young man's visit to his dying father, along with a hired young woman pretending to be his fiancée. The unexpected turn of the plot is both funny and touching.

    Malaysia director Tsai Ming-liang's meditating "Walker" (行者) casts Tsai's career-long collaborator Lee Kang-sheng (李康生) as a bare foot monk walking around Hong Kong in his red robe. Contrary to the non-stop fast moving surroundings, the monk's movement is almost frozen in time and in motion. It's strikingly beautiful yet provokingly intriguing.

    Chinese director Gu Chang-wei's (顾长卫) philosophical "Long Tou" (龙头) follows a candid discussion among a writer, an artist, and a young woman about life, death, and reproduction, while Gu's never resting camera peeks out the window to capture mesmerizing images of a scavenger.

    Hong Kong director Ann Hui's (許鞍華) sensible "My Way" (我的路) tells a story about a middle-aged transgender woman, terrifically played by Francis Ng (吳鎮宇), who lives in Hong Kong and decides to undergo a sex change operation to pursue her true happiness. Unfortunately, this segment seems to be overshadowed by other pieces in this short program.

    A scene from Walker

  • When the Bough Breaks (危巢 | China 2011 | in Chinese | 147 min.)

    Despite the glamorous outlook of the booming economy in China, millions migrant workers struggle to survive, while clinging on their hope for a better future. In a fly-on-the-wall style, Chinese director Ji Dan's (季丹) extraordinary documentary "When the Bough Breaks" tells a poignant story of such a family living in a slum in the outskirts of Beijing.

    Over the period of several months, the film follows a migrant family from Anhui Province, living in a temporary self-made (surely looked illegal) structure inside piles of garbage with new high-rise apartment buildings in the not far away background. The father collects garbage to make a living and drinks too much sometimes. He and his wife, and their two daughters Xia and Ling, all live in this tiny garbage hole which they call home, while supporting their son Gang to attend school.

    Facing a controlling and uneducated father, even at a very young age, the stubborn elder sister Xia takes on the responsibility and is determined to send Gang to pass the exams for high school and college. She firmly believes in education and sees Gang's attending college is the only way to turn their lives around. The sisters make the ultimate sacrifice and take on the heavy burden on their fragile shoulders. Xia and Ling both quit school in order to save money for Gang, but the skyrocketing cost for Gang's education is still out of reach for the family. What to do?

    It's remarkable how director Ji Dan is able to intimately capture the daily life of this family and their complex emotions. Although the family's living condition and the challenges they face are tough and difficult to watch, the filmmaker's compassion and empathy can be felt throughout the film. We become deeply attached to the siblings and concerned about their future.

    When The Bough Breaks

  • The Mosuo Sisters (摩梭姊妹 | USA/China 2012 | in Chinese/Mosuo | 80 min.)

    In Southern China, Mosuo (摩梭) is an ethnic minority which uniquely practices a matriarchal tradition called "walking marriage." But sisters Juma and Latso, the protagonists of director Marlo Poras 's captivating documentary "The Mosuo Sisters," try to break away from this tradition and have the ambition to live a new modern life—They leave their family's farm and sing in Beijing's night clubs.

    But the recent global economic downturn crushes their dreams. They lose their jobs in Beijing and reluctantly return to their family farm in the foothills of the Himalayas. Determined to better support the family, Juma leaves home again for Chengdu to sing in night clubs, while Latso has to give up her education and work on the family's farm. While they take on separate paths for their future, the family tie continues to bond the sisters together.

    In this fascinating documentary, we experience the impact of rapid changes in China from these two sisters' dramatic ups and downs in their daily life.

    The Mosuo Sisters

  • Touch of the Light (逆光飛翔 | Taiwan/Hong Kong/China 2012 | in Chinese | 110 min.)

    Twenty six years ago, Huang Yu-Siang (黃裕翔) was born blind in a rural area of Taiwan. But that doesn't stop him from developing his extraordinary talent and becoming an outstanding pianist. After turning Huang's story into an award-winning short film "The End of the Tunnel" (天黑), two years later, with the support from Wong Kar Wai (王家衛), director Chang Rong-ji (張榮吉) expands the story into this award-winning feature debut "Touch of the Light." The film is selected as Taiwan's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.

    In the film, Huang Yu-Siang plays himself as a blind pianist. He meets a beautiful girl Jie (Sandrine Pinna) who sells cold drinks while dreaming to become a dancer. They turn to each other for support and inspiration in pursuing their dreams.

    This is one of the films I have yet to see at the festival and I am looking forward to.

    Touch of the Light

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