Thursday, March 9, 2017


CAAMFest 2017

We are in an unprecedented era characterized by the turmoil of alt-right movement, refugee crises, racial tension, widened inequality, terrorist threats, and environmental disasters around the world. Promoted by the disturbing Trump administration, the xenophobic and hateful "climate of fanaticism and nationalism" poses great threat to democracy, freedom, liberty, and even humanity. It's more urgent now than ever for us to learn lessons from history, to cherish our multi-culture heritage, to remember the struggles of immigrants, and to stand up and resist the outrageous conduct by the Trump administration against the underrepresented and underserved. It cannot be more relevant and timely to celebrate American history, Asian heritage and Asian immigrants, and participate in the most current edition of CAAMFest, to be held in San Francisco and Oakland March 9-19, 2017.

CAAMFest 2017

Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) has been a leading force in bringing Asian Americans' stories to light and conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience to the public. For the fifth year, or the thirty-fifth year if you count the festival's former name San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest 2017 once again offers eleven days of film, music, and food. While it looks back and screens a few milestone Asian American films, the festival continues to provide a platform that exhibits CAAM's productions, tells compelling Asian American stories, and showcases new works by both Asian American filmmakers and artists from Asia.

On March 9 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with Lena Khan's directorial debut "The Tiger Hunter" (USA 2016 | 94 min.), a comedy about an Indian immigrant who landed in Chicago back in 1970. Ten days later on March 19, the festival returns to the Castro Theater and closes with an informative documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" (USA 2017 | 130 min.) that chronicles the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act which echoes today's headlines.

In between, along with music and food, the festival screens 113 films and videos, including 22 feature narrative films, 26 feature documentaries, and 6 shorts programs.

Here are my reviews (or capsule review if they are under hold-review status) of a few films, mostly in my favorite CinemAsia section, in this year's program. 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:

  • Hang in There, Kids! (只要我長大 | Taiwan 2016 | in Mandarin/Atayal | 90 min.)

    Taiwanese writer-director Laha Mebow's (陳潔瑤) sophomore feature "Hang in There, Kids!" (只要我長大) is a pleasing charmer. It's probably the most delightful film you will see at this year's CAAMFest. It warms your heart, brings out your smile, and moistens your eyes. It's Taiwan's entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. With amiable lenses and an adoring tone, the film tells an arresting story surrounding three irresistible boys living in an indigenous tribe in a gorgeous mountain.

    Wadan (Buya Watan 陳宇) is the most naughty and cheerful one among the trio. He is the natural leader for any mischief or noble mission the three can come up with. He also has a big crush on his wheel-chair bound teacher La-wa (Albee Huang 小薰). Chen-hao (Watan Silan 林晨皓) is the kind and quiet one who has a big plan during his school field trip to Taipei. The third is the goofball Lin Shan (Suyan Pito 吳瀚業) who wishes his alcoholic musician father (Mudi 柯曉龍) could stop drinking.

    The three young boys often goof around and seem to be happily growing up in a picturesque mountain, but each of them struggles with their own emotional burden that is too heavy for an innocent mind to bear.

    Hang in There, Kids! Official Site

    The director Laha Mebow tells a touching and arresting story about life in an indigenous tribe, while creating three adorable young characters who begin to learn the complexity of growing up. She provokes our sympathy toward the boys without being sentimental. She takes us for a joy ride with the boys' carefree attitude, at least that's the mentality the young characters are trying to project. She terrifically captures the stunningly natural performances by the three young actors who effortless convey the emotions of their characters.

    This film will bring back fond memories of your childhood. But if you are as young as the characters in the film, the film probably resonates you even more.

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  • Harmonium (淵に立つ | Japan 2016 | in Japanese | 116 min.)

    Unlike his offbeat and hilarious comedy "Hospitalité" (歓待 2010), writer-director Koji Fukada's (深田晃司) captivating new drama "Harmonium" carries a dark and heavy tone about vengeance and atonement.

    Reticent Toshio (Kenji Yamauchi) has little to say to his wife Akié (Mariko Tsutsui) and his daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), but they nevertheless seem to get along alright with their quiet family life. But when Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano suddenly shows up at the door of Toshio's shop, Toshio breaks his silence and tells Akié that Yasaka will be a live-in employee to work in his shop.

    That's the beginning of a series of chain events that spin out of control when more and more secrets are revealed.

    Harmonium Official Site

    Despite the fact that a few plot twists are too coincidental to be convincing, the characters are finely crafted and superbly performed. The film unfolds a family tale with the gravity of a Greek tragedy.

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  • Plastic China (China 2016 | in Chinese | 82 min. | Documentary)

    When you make yourself feel better by recycling your daily plastic waste, do you know where those plastic eventually ends up? The opening scene of director Wang Jiuliang's (王久良) heart-wrenching documentary "Plastic China" shows you that they probably arrive in China which is the largest importer of plastic waste from Korean, Japan, and the United States. Plastic waste, even when "recycled," continues its legacy to further damage the environment and ruin people's lives.

    Upon arrival in China, the enormous amount of plastic waste is divided up and a small portion of it arrives at Kun's home in a village in Shandong Province. It seems every household in the village is doing the same kind of work—while polluting the air and water-way, they cruelly process plastic waste and turn it into reusable raw material to make a marginal profit. He works hard along with his wife and his mother hoping to provide a better future for his young son. Kun also hires a migrant worker Peng and Peng's pregnant wife with a minimal wage that Peng often spends on booze.

    Day after day, they work and live inside this disgusting pile of plastic waste while inhaling the toxic fume from plastic burning. However, they are not the only ones in this extremely hazardous environment. Kun's young son and Peng's three young children literally grow up among the dirty plastic. As soon as Peng's new born daughter arrives, her life is surrounded by plastic waste. Peng's eldest daughter dreams about going to school, but Peng refuses because he cannot afford it.

    Like the constantly arriving plastic waste, their misery appears to have no end in sight.

    Plastic China Official Site

    The director Wang Jiuliang takes us to a place that's usually invisible. He zooms in his camera to the two families that struggle to make a living on plastic waste that people discard every day without giving much thought. On a very micro level, this unflinching documentary tackles the devastating environmental problem due to massive usage of plastic that impacts the lives of future generations.

    On the surface, plastic waste seems to provide these families a livelihood. But in reality, plastic is destroying their lives, especially their health. If the plastic were not there, the two families could have been doing something else for a living, perhaps less harmful.

    The images of the film alone will make you sick to the stomach just by simply looking at them, not to mention the thought of those children living in that reality. That is precisely why this film is a must-see and it's too important to be missed at the festival.

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  • My Next Step (一個武生 | China/Hong Kong 2015 | in Mandarin | 66 min. | Documentary)

    Even though most millennials enjoy singing karaoke, probably none of them will choose to sing a tune in Kunqu (昆曲), one of the oldest form of traditional Chinese opera that is regarded as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In this modern day and age, it may be hard to imagine that a young man will pursue Kunqu as a life-long career. Understandably, 28-year-old Yang Yang faces a difficult dilemma about his future. He is the last Wusheng (a male performer specializing in martial arts characters) performer in China and the subject in Cheuk Cheung's (卓翔) documentary "My Next Step" (一個武生).

    If Yang Yang were born decades ago, being a Wusheng in a prominent Kunqu Opera company in China would have been a stable and glamorous job. But in today's rapidly changing China, Kunqu is losing its appeal to the newer generations. Only a handful of artists remain full-time professional performers of Kunqu that keep this ancient art form from being extinct. But these artists are struggling themselves. Yang Yang is no exception. The outlook of his career path seems grim. He begins to look for an opportunity to exit, despite that he is marked as the last Wesheng in today's China, a claim that deserves a fact check.

    Although not always eloquent, Yang Yang candidly talks about the future of Kunqu from his perspective and expresses his desire and ambition in making art. Eventually, he finds his own way in making the old art anew.

    My Next Step Official Site

    This is director Cheuk Cheung's second documentary after "My Way" (乾旦路 2012), a story about two male Dan (男旦 a male performer in a female role) actors in Cantonese Opera (粤剧). By making this documentary, he continues to shed light on traditional Chinese opera performers that are as intangible as the art itself. He effectively shows that without a systematic funding support from the government, it's simply unsustainable for these treasures to thrive when their artists can barely survive. Yang Yang is a vivid testimony to the urgency of saving Kunqu and other world cultural heritage. Hopefully this plea for awareness is not overshadowed by the fact that film itself could benefit from better writing and editing. (No Trailer is available.)

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  • The Chinese Exclusion Act (USA 2017 | 130 min. | Documentary)

    Some of the recent shenanigans from the Trump administration strikingly resemble a singularly notorious law in US history that bared immigration from a specific ethnic group—the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although it was repealed in 1943, 61 years after being signed into law, its lasting impact remains significant today and it becomes more relevant than ever. Directors Ric Burns and Yu Li-Shin's new documentary "The Chinese Exclusion Act" offers us a timely history lesson and reflects on how this outrageous law shapes today's America.

    Through thoughtful and enlightening interviews of historians and scholars, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the Chinese Exclusion Act, analyzes the social and economical background behind the anti-Chinese sentiment when the law was introduced, and explains the legacy of the fights for justice by Chinese immigrants. Accompanied by historic political cartoon and archived footage, the film vividly brings us back to more than a century ago when the political atmosphere was remarkably similar to today's political struggle.

    The Chinese Exclusion Act Official Site

    As if sitting through an important lecture, you will gain a great amount of knowledge about the Chinese Exclusion Act if you pay attention. However, the visual aid could be improved to make the lecture more captivating. It is no surprise how difficult it is to obtain historic film footage, but the slow-moving camera gliding over photos (sometimes even on the same photo) becomes tiresome and distracting quickly. The large amount of interviews also could have been further organized to be more coherent and compelling.

    Despite these imperfections, the film delivers its core message loud and clear—history has taught us that discriminating and marginalizing people according to their ethnicity is downright wrong. It's against the fundamental value upon which this nation was founded. It's un-American.

    This film should be a requirement in every school's curriculum, and a required lesson for every one currently in the White House.

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  • The Family (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.)

    If you can win over your patience and sit through almost five hours of film, you will learn a great deal about today's China through the lenses of Liu Shumin (刘庶民) in his directorial debut "The Family" (家 | Australia/China 2015 | in Chinese | 280 min.). This slow-burn film focuses on an elderly couple and follows their visit to their adult children, and takes a long exposure shot of life in modern China.

    The soft-spoken elderly couple are the constantly cooking Deng Shoufang and her husband Liu Liu Lijie, both in their 70s. In a shabby apartment in Jiangxi Province, they live with their eldest daughter Liqin Huang Liqin, a single mother with a teenage son Pengpeng (Liao Zepeng).

    Like many Chinese families in China, they plan to move to a new apartment Liqin has just bought in the outskirt of the city. Before they move in, they need to finish the interior construction which needs more money. Living on modest pensions, the couple decides to seek other family members for help. They take a trip to visit their two other children whom they make connections with infrequently—the younger daughter Xiaomin (Liu Xiaomin) in Fuzhou and their son Xujun (Liu Xujun) in Shanghai.

    The couple's journey serves as a thin thread that barely holds the family together.

    The Family Official Site

    The film's plot has been compared to the story line in Ozu Yasujirō's (小津 安二郎) masterpiece "Tokyo Story" (東京物語 1953), but the storytelling style reminds us of auteur Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) who frequently uses extremely long takes. Sometimes you wonder if a camera was left on by mistake, but that's precisely how the cinematographer-turned-director Liu Shumin wants you to experience his story. For some, it might be unbearable; but for others, it might be embraced with enthusiasm.

    Remarkably realistic, the film cuts deep into the family dilemma and reflects the complex relationships among generations in modern China. You may argue that same result could be achieved within a typical running time of less than two hours. Obviously, the writer-director has his own vision and insists on showing the entirety of what his camera is capturing.

    While the non-professional cast gives a reasonable performance, the characters they play appear to be difficult to be related to. The voyeur camera often keeps us as on-lookers from a distance or behind obstructions, while challenging our patience.

    Nevertheless, the film will probably inspire you to watch "Tokyo Story" again, and remind you what a timeless masterpiece that movie was.

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