Thursday, May 2, 2019

 

CAAMFest 2019

It's the second year that CAAMFest, the showcase of Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), is taking place in May in alignment with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Since the festival re-branded itself as CAAMFest from San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival seven years ago, it has steadily built its new identity and created its own voice. Despite the changes in name, time, and format, CAAMFest continues to provide a platform to tell stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences.

During May 9-19, this year's festival presents over a hundred films and programs in San Francisco and Oakland. Among the films in this edition, there are 15 feature narratives, 20 feature documentaries, and eight short programs. (Click on each still image for screening information of each corresponding film or event.)

CAAMFest 2019

Same as last year, 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 9 at the Castro Theater, the festival opens with a documentary "Chinatown Rising" (USA 2019 | 112 min. | Documentary) about Chinese community's struggle for social justice in the '60s in San Francisco Chinatown. The film is directed by the Bay-area father-son team Harry Chuck and Josh Chuck.

Eleven days later on May 19, the festival closes with Deann Borshay Liem's documentary "Geographies of Kinship" (USA 2019 | 80 min. | Documentary) about the history of the Korean adoption model which has a profound lasting impact.

Chinatown Rising Geographies of Kinship

There are two centerpiece presentations. One is the director Diane Paragas's musical "Yellow Rose" (USA 2019 | in English/Tagalog | 90 minutes) about a 17-year-old Filipino transgender girl who dreams to be a country singer. The other is Jason DaSilva's documentary "When We Walk" (Canada 2019 | 78 min. | Documentary). As part of his trilogy that depicts his struggle with multiple sclerosis, this film focuses on the inequality faced by parents with disabilities.

Yellow Rose When We Walk

The festival also shines spotlight on two woman filmmakers Deann Borshay Liem and Valerie Soe, celebrates the 25th anniversary of "The Joy Luck Club" (USA/China 1993 | in Mandarin/English | 139 min.) with a free screening at Waverly Place, and pays tribute to the centennial anniversary of the silent film "The Dragon Painter" (USA 1919 | 53 min.) with a screening accompanied by live music score performance from Japanese American singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura.

Deann Borshay Liem Valerie Soe The Joy Luck Club The Dragon Painter

Here are my reviews (or capsule reviews if they are under hold-review status) of a few films. In random order:

  • Bei Bei (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 | in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary)
  • Go Back to China (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 96 min.)
  • The Widowed Witch (北方一片苍茫 | China 2017 | in Mandarin | 120 min.)
  • Happy Cleaners (USA 2019 | in Korean/English | 98 min.)
  • Demolition Girl (JKエレジー | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 88 min.)


  • Bei Bei (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 | in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary)

    If a pregnant woman tries to commit suicide, does her action constitute a murder against the fetus? The State of Indiana thinks so. A legal fight for the murder charge is at the center of the engrossing documentary "Bei Bei" (State v. Shuai | USA 2018 | in English/Mandarin | 90 min. | Documentary), directed by Marion Lipshutz and Rose Rosenblatt.

    The film opens with a suicide note written in Chinese by Shuai Bei Bei (帅贝贝), an 8-month-pregnant immigrant from Shanghai, China working in a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis, IN. In the letter, she expresses her despair after her much older boyfriend left her. She wants to leave this world with her unborn child. Even though her suicide attempt fails, her premature baby dies three days after. Based on a new state law in Indiana, Bei Bei is charged for first-degree murder and put in jail without bond for more than a year and half. Upon release from jail on bond, Bei Bei's uphill legal battle begins, supported by the legal team led by Linda Pence, a fierce and passionate lawyer for women's right.

    Bei Bei screenings

    The film's superb storytelling builds multiple suspenseful episodes while clearly explaining the legal matters as well as the political and moral dilemma. It goes beyond the case and explores Bei Bei's Chinese cultural background which had a significant effect on her suicide attempt. It shows how much more complex it is for an immigrant to navigate the American legal system which wants to make an example of her for other pregnant women. Bei Bei is extremely lucky to have Linda Pence as her lawyer, but many others, especially the poor women and women of color, are facing similar charges in many states and do not have competent legal representation.

    This timely film captures the bitter culture war that shapes the political landscape day by day and dramatically impacts people's lives.

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  • Go Back to China (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 96 min.)

    The poorly chosen title "Go Back to China" (USA 2019 | in English/Mandarin | 96 min.) might give people the impression that this film is about immigration or racial issues. No, it's none of those. This film, from the director Emily Ting, tells her fictionalized personal experience of going back to China to work in her family's toy factory after living in Los Angeles most of her life. Like those toys the protagonist designs and produces, the film looks cute with ably performances, but it lacks substance with its unconvincing characters and overflowing cliches.

    Go Back to China screenings

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  • The Widowed Witch (北方一片苍茫 | China 2017 | in Mandarin | 120 min.)

    The Chinese director Cai Chengjie's (蔡成杰) impressive directorial debut "The Widowed Witch" tells a mesmerizing story about a widow's eccentric survival in China's rural Northeastern region.

    The film's protagonist is Erhao (Tian Tian) who is considered a curse by other villagers, because she has already lost three husbands at her young age. After her latest husband died in an explosion at their family fireworks factory, she gets cold shoulders from others when she tries to survive with her late husband's mute teenage brother Shitou (Wen Xinyu). When she turns a couple of things around in the village for the better, superstitious villagers begin to regard her as a shaman and ask her to bring good luck to them. Erhao certainly knows how to use that perception for her advantage. She travels from village to village and makes a living by offering her blessing service. However, whether she truly has the superpower to change her fate remains to be seen.

    The Widowed Witch screenings

    Does Erhao really possess superpower? Or is it all pure illusion? As if the story is not intriguing enough, the film is almost entirely shot in black and white and in an Academy aspect ratio. Once in a while, a little color sneaks into the frame, often only on a specific object such as fire. The effect is both enigmatic and alluring.

    The relationships between Erhao and the villagers are both dynamic and fascinating. Perhaps the true superpower Erhao has is the humanity and kindness in her heart, despite the mistreatments and suffering she endures.

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  • Happy Cleaners (USA 2019 | in Korean/English | 98 min.)

    Although generational gaps and conflicts are common in every race, community, and family, they are more prominent for Asian immigrants living in the US with unique characteristics. Superbly directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, "Happy Cleaners" tells an authentic and heartfelt story about a Korean family that deals with such conflicts while strengthening the family bond. The terrific ensemble cast impeccably creates these arresting characters that most Asian immigrants can easily resonate with.

    Mr. Choi (Charles Ryu) and Mrs. Choi (Hyang-hwa Lim) have been running their family dry-cleaning business Happy Cleaners in Flushing, NY for seventeen years. They don't approve of their daughter Hyunny's (Yeena Sung) relationship with her boyfriend and they are even more furious about their son Kevin's (Yun Jeong) idea of moving to Los Angeles to run a food truck. Their goal is to hold onto their dry-cleaning business so their children can take on better professional careers without having to repeat their hardships as the first generation of Korean immigrants. But when the cleaner's lease is in limbo, everyone's plans and dreams are shattered. Despite the drama, their solution to the challenge comes naturally—embrace the family bond and cherish the love for each other.

    Happy Cleaners screenings

    It is unequivocal that each scene in the film comes from real life experience and it is as authentic as Kevin's mom's mouth-watering home cooking. The story pays homage to every hard-working Asian immigrant family's struggle. Even though the story is about a Korean family's dry-cleaning business, it can also be about a Vietnamese salon or a Chinese restaurant. The film strikingly depicts the core values held by these Asian immigrant families and genially shares their stories.

    Capturing the mindset and experience of the first generation immigrants is only half of the achievement of this remarkable film. It also eloquently expresses the second generation's perspective on growing up in the US while not necessarily sharing the traditional values of their Asian parents. No matter which generation you belong to, the film speaks your voice and touches your heart.

    This is one of the best films at the festival, hands down.

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  • Demolition Girl (JKエレジー | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 88 min.)

    Japan's sexual fetish scenes have their fair share of reputation and hardly anything is regarded as shocking. Smashing empty cans by a school girl certainly has its own followers in the Japanese society. But the director Genta Matsugami's (松上元太) directorial debut "Demolition Girl" is not a film that explores this fetish, rather, it tells a coming-of-age tale of an intelligent girl pursuing her dreams and trying to break away from poverty.

    That girl is a senior high school student Cocoa (Aya Kitai) who is stomping on cans and bottles in the opening scene while her friend Kazuo (Hiroki Ino) is filming. The sale of the video keeps her afloat because after her mom's death seven years ago, his gambling-addicted dad Shigeru (Yota Kawase) has not worked at all, and her useless older brother spends all his time watching TV and playing video games.

    Cocoa hopes to attend university and leave her deplorable family. When she learns that she can get a student loan to pursue higher education, her dream seems one step closer to becoming reality. But when the school discovers the "crush-video" she has made, her loan application is revoked and her dream is crushed, no pun intended.

    Demolition Girl screenings

    Unlike tranquil and peaceful middle class lives shown in many Japanese films, this is a film that turns its lenses on to people living in poverty. Cocoa's experience is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Despite being intelligent, determined, and hard-working, she seems unable to escape the trap she is boxed in and to shake off the heavy burden that she shoulders at a very young age.

    Cocoa's motion of crushing empty cans in the film isn't much different from those of scavengers on the streets in San Francisco cashing in on recyclable cans. They all serve one single purpose—surviving. That's the real tragedy, and there is nothing sexy about it.

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