Thursday, April 11, 2013

2013 CAAMFest

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has rebranded itself as CAAMFest.  What is behind the renaming?  It seems they want to expand the scope of the festival.  "Film. Music. Food" is their new tagline.  CAAM stands for the Center for Asian American Media.  I doubt the typical festival attendee is aware of that acronym.

As I mentioned before, CAAMFest rescheduled itself so as not to conflict with the final weekend of Cinequest.  In addition, CAAMFest dropped San Jose from the lineup.  Typically, the final 3 or 4 days of the festival were held at Camera Cinemas in San Jose.  There were no San Jose screenings this year.  Festival director Masashi Niwano mentioned they were going to have screenings in San Jose later in the year but did not say anything more specific.

I saw 18 programs - one at the Castro, three at the Great Star, six at the Viz and eight at the Kabuki.  The 2013 CAAMFest marked the first time I had been in the Great Star Theater on Jackson St.

The Cheer Ambassadors; documentary; directed by Luke Cassady-Dorion; Thai & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Graceland starring Arnold Reyes; directed by Ron Morales; Tagalog with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
High Tech, Low Life; documentary; directed by Stephen Maing; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Land of Hope starring Isao Natsuyagi, Naoko Ohtani, Jun Murakami & Megumi Kagurazaka; directed by Sion Sono; Japanese with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
When Night Falls starring Nai An; directed by Ying Liang; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
Sunset Stories starring Monique Gabriela Curnen & Sung Kang; directed by Ernesto Foronda & Silas Howard; (2012) - Official Website
Abigail Harm starring Amanda Plummer & Tetsuo Kuramochi; with Will Patton & Burt Young; directed by Lee Issac Chung; (2012) - Official Website
Dead Dad starring Kyle Arrington, Jenni Melear & Lucas Kwan Peterson; directed by Ken J. Adachi; (2012) - Official Website
Jiseul starring Sung Min-chul & Yang Jung-Won; directed by Muel O.; Korean with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook
15 starring Melvin Chen, Erick Chun & Melvin Lee; directed by Royston Tan; Hokkien & Mandarin with subtitles; (2003) - Official Website
When the Bough Breaks; documentary; directed by Ji Dan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011)
Nice Girls Crew 2 starring Lynn Chen, Michelle Krusiec & Sheetal Sheth; directed by Tanuj Chopra; (2013) - Official Facebook
Beijing Flickers starring Duan Bowen, Li Xinyun & Shi Shi; directed by Zhang Yuan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
Someone I Used to Know starring West Liang, Brian Yang & Eddie Mui; directed by Nadine Truong; (2012) - Official Website
Comrade Kim Goes Flying starring Han Jong Sim; directed by Kim Gwang Hun, Nicholas Bonner & Anja Daelemans; Korean with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Xmas Without China; documentary; directed by Alicia Dwyer & Tom Xia; English & Mandarin with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website

Beijing Flickers was preceded by Shanghai Strangers.

Shanghai Strangers starring Yiyan Jiang; directed by Joan Chen; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)

A program titled Beautiful 2012 consisted of three short films.

You Are More Than Beautiful starring Gong Hyo-jin & Lee Kang-Sheng; directed by Kim Tae-yong; Korean with subtitles; (2012)
Walker starring Yan Lianke; directed by Tsai Ming-Liang; (2012)
My Way starring Francis Ng; directed by Ann Hui; Cantonese with subtitles; (2012)

I saw one short films program titled A Wrench in the Works which consisted of:

The Anti-Versary starring Colin Foo, Greg Chan, Jasmine Dring & Phillip Tsui; directed by Aaron Au; Cantonese & English with subtitles; 6 minutes; (2011)
Banzai Rising; documentary; directed by Pedro Gomez; Mandarin & English with subtitles; 15 minutes; (2013)
Born to Dance This Way starring Russell Argenal; directed by Jerell Rosales; 12 minutes; (2012) - Official Website
Dawn starring Scott Manuel Johnson, Warren Burke & Jeff Manabat; directed by Leon Le; 11 minutes; (2012)
Footsteps starring Jinho Kim, Taek-Hyeon Jeong, Ji-sung Kim & Suk-Joon Hyun; directed by Thomas Hyungkyun Kim; Korean with subtitles; 23 minutes; (2012)
Little Mao starring Kevin Wang; directed by Allen Tong; 7 minutes; (2012)
Shaya starring Laikh Tewari; directed by Amir Noorani; Urdu & English with subtitles; 18 minutes; (2013) - Official Website


My favorite film of the festival was Graceland, a US/Filipino film, which is being released by Drafthouse Films.  According to the film's official website, it will play at the Roxie from April 26 to May 1.  Graceland reminded me of a film I saw at YBCA a couple years ago called Kinatay by the prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza.

Graceland features Arnold Reyes as Marlon, the driver to Changho (Menggie Cobarrubias) a pedophile politician.  Part of his duties include paying off the girls and driving them home.  It takes a heavy toll on Marlon but no more than the health of his wife who is in need of an organ transplant.  Marlon & Chango's daughters have become friends despite objections.  While driving the two girls home, Marlon is stopped by a police officer who kills the Changho girl and kidnaps Marlon's daughter. The two girls had switched school uniforms earlier in the day.  The Changho receive a ransom demand for their daughter but are unaware that the girl being held is Marlon's daughter.

This leads to a tense situation where Marlon must navigate between the kidnappers, the police & Changho.  Director Ron Morales skillfully navigates the plot while showing the desperation of Marlon's situation and Changho's corruption.  Dido De La Paz as the tough cop suspicious of Marlon, Leon Miguel as the vicious kidnapper and Ella Guevara as Marlon's daughter round out a strong cast.  Violence against children, depictions of slums and disturbing scene involving a child prostitute elevate Graceland to the grittiest of crime dramas.


With The Land of Hope, I have now seen three Sion Sono films.  The other two films being Love Exposure and Cold Fish.  Sono does not seem to edit his films to achieve a certain length.  Love Exposure was nearly 4 hours, Cold Fish almost 2.5 hours and The Land of Hope clocked in at 2 hours, 15 minutes.  I am beginning to see  that Sono can keep the audience's interest for extended periods.

Set in Japan in the near future with the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster mentioned multiple times throughout the film, The Land of Hope repeats a nuclear reactor leak with the focus on one family.  The Ono family are dairy farmers.  Yasuhiko (Isao Natsuyagi) is the patriarch.  Chieko (Naoko Ohtani) is his wife whose dementia or senility progresses throughout the film.  Their son Yoichi (Jun Murakami) and his wife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) live with his parents and work on the farm.

When the nuclear reactor accident occurs, a 50 KM evacuation radius is established.  The boundary happens to fall between the Ono's farm and the rest of the town with the Ono's outside the evacuation zone.  Barricades are set up and the Onos find themselves isolated as everyone else evacuates.  The absurdity of the situation is apparent to all.

Yasuhiko urges his son and daughter-in-law to evacuate while he and his wife will stay.  Throughout the film, he stubbornly refuses to leave his home.  Reluctantly, the younger couple agree to leave on a temporary basis.  This sets up dual story lines as Yoichi and Izumi's temporary relocation appears to be permanent and Yasuhiko clings to his farm while his wife's condition worsens.  I'm not sure if The Land of Hope is a comedy with dramatic moments or a drama with comedic moments.

The four lead actors are excellent with Ohtani having the juciest role given her character's erratic behavior.  Izumi becomes obsessed with nuclear radiation and begins constantly wearing a full hazmat suit.  Chieko thinks she is young girl and dances in a kimono with the blighted and abandoned townscape behind her.  Sono has an eye for visually memorable scenes.  Unlike his other two films that I have seen, there are no religious cults, perverts and yakuza gangsters in Sono's latest offering.  The absurdity in The Land of Hope is rooted in the reality the Japanese government's response to Fukushima and the lingering psychological and societal responses to a nuclear disaster.  Funny, thought provoking and emotionally touching, The Land of Hope is a tremendous film.


Speaking of long films, When the Bough Breaks is a 2.5 hour Chinese documentary.  However, it kept my attention throughout.  The film follows a real family who live in a shanty in what appears to be a Beijing junkyard.  The father could very well be mentally unstable.  The two daughters, Xia & Ling, and a son, Gang, go to school on a scholarship or exemptions of sorts.  They don't have Beijing residency permits so are not allowed to go to public school.  I didn't the full details of their schooling but the daughters (particularly Xia) want desperately to educate themselves to live a better life.  The son is more lackadaisical about his studies.

As their enrollment becomes threatened, the two girls put all their efforts (and dreams) into Gang's education to both Gang & their father's disapproval.  Gang doesn't want to be the receptacle of all his sisters' hopes & dream.  He predicts they will come to resent him.  The father doesn't seem to concerned about his children's education and would prefer them all to live in the junkyard.  The film culminates in a tense & explosive New Year's Eve celebration in which acrimonious words are exchanged.

Inspiring, intense, raw, heartbreaking & infuriating are some words which come to mind when describing the film.  One of the CAAMFest programmers read a note from the director who mentioned her original intent was to document the fate of the third and eldest daughter who has gone missing and likely sold into sexual slavery.  Her absence and missing status casts a pall over the family even if it is only mentioned in passing.  Although a documentary, there is enough narrative lines to be worthy of Dickens novel.  The drunken father's self-delusions makes him and his family miserable.  The kindly benefactor offers to pay for the girls schooling except he wants to have sex with them.  The grinding poverty is destroying the family.  When the Bough Breaks is one of the most powerful documentaries I have seen in a long time.


Graceland, The Land of Hope & When the Bough Breaks are the only films from the festival I can enthusiastically recommend.  There were a number of other films which, while enjoyable, did not rise to the level those three films.

The Cheer Ambassadors - light hearted documentary about the Bangkok University cheerleading squad and their preparation for the 2011 World Cheerleading Championships.

Sunset Stories - Monique Gabriela Curnen is a Boston nurse visiting LA, her hometown, to courier a cooler with an organ transplant.  The cooler is stolen and she enlist her ex-boyfriend (Sung Kang) to help her get it back.  The two travel through LA and encounter many different people as they track down the cooler.  Nice ensemble cast.

Dead Dad - three estranged siblings gather for the funeral of their father.  The reunion and mourning bring up family tensions.  It's a modest film that exceeded my expectations.

15 - the 2013 CAAMFest had a 3 film Royston Tan retrospective.  I had seen Tan's 881 a few years ago so I was interested in seeming more.  My expectations were high since Tan was called the "bad boy of Singporean cinema" in the festival guide.  15 featured teenage nonactors playing, presumably, exaggerated versions of themselves.  It reminded me of low-budget, juvenile delinquent version of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Beijing Flickers - some down and out young people in Beijing from a friendship they navigate through life.  Han Wenwen turns in a nice performance as the band singer who is kicked out of the band when they get a recording contract.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying - I could not have imagined a film about a North Korean coal miner dreaming of being a trapeze artist would have been so enjoyable.  Han Jong Sim is appealing as the winsome heroine of the film.  Pyongyang never looked so beautiful.


I had much better luck with the short films.

Beautiful 2012, a Hong Kong International Film Festival production, consisted of three short films; each one approximately 30 minutes.

You Are More Than Beautiful was my favorite short film of the festival.  A man hires an actress (was she a porn actress?) to pretend to be his wife for his dying father's benefit.  It turns out the man is comatose when she arrives but she continues to pretend in case he can still understand.  The film is funny & touching with nice performances from the two lead actors (Gong Hyo-jin & Lee Kang-Sheng).

Ann Hui's My Way gives a complex portrait of a man (Francis Ng) about to undergo a sex change operation.

Tsai Ming-Liang's Walker features a monk navigating Hong Kong at a glacial pace.  It put me to sleep after 10 minutes.

A Wrench in the Works had two outstanding short films.

Born to Dance This Way follows Joo-Si (pronounced Juicy), an overweight dancer as he defies the odds and becomes the fourth member of an all-girl band.  This short film was on the program of SF Indiefest and had one of the best trailers.  Russell Argenal delivers an over-the-top performance in a hilarious short film.

Shaya is a Pakistani boy who immigrates to Los Angeles.  He discovers he has left one war zone for another as he, his mother and younger sister encounter culture shock, gangbangas & immigrants who still hold a grudge from the old country.

There three other short films which were quite good in the Wrench program.

Down - racial stereotypes of blacks and Asians are confirmed and refuted.

Footsteps - a simple minded North Korean peasant boy become a tragic pawn between the two countries when he ventures into the DMZ.

Little Mao - a ball to the head of Little Leaguer inspires him to apply Chairman Mao's principles to the baseball diamond.

Joan Chen's Shanghai Strangers preceded Beijing Flickers and seemed to be her love letter to her native Shanghai.  Some of the exterior shots of the Shanghai skyline and the old parts of the city were spectacular.  I wonder if they were stock footage?  The film tells two stories - a Chinese woman admitting to a marital affair to a complete stranger (and foreigner) at that and a flashback to the actual affair.  It was a well made film.  Chen took questions form the Great Star stage after both films had screened.  She looked fantastic.  I wish she would make more films (as an actress or director) in the US.  My impartiality may be questioned.  I have to admit that I had a huge Joan Chen crush when The Last Emperor came out in 1987 so she reminds me of my youth.


I wasn't a huge fan of Nice Girls Crew at last year's festival so I wasn't sure about Nice Girls Crew 2.  For the uninitated, NGC follows three "frenemies" who form a book club - Sophie (Lynn Chen), Geraldine (Michelle Krusiec) & Lina (Sheetal Sheth).  NGC consisted of five 10 minute episodes as does NGC2.  The book club plot device is dispensed with and the girls engage in more slapstick comedy in NGC2 as opposed to one-line zingers in NGC.  Although moderately amusing, I thought the actresses' talents were largely wasted.  Considering I chose this screening over Luc Besson's The Professional, I was doubly disappointed.

Xmas Without China was a documentary about the Jones family who accept the challenge of trying to not use or buy any products made in China during the month leading up to Christmas.  It's a contrived but intriguing idea.  Not only is the Caucasian Jones family documented but the Chinese family of the filmmaker also receives considerable screen time.  Co-director Tom Xia's family and his own ambivalence about his Chinese citizenship distracted from the more Spurlockesque aspects of the film.

I did not enjoy any of the other 2013 CAAMFest films I have not previously mentioned in this post.  Given the relentless pace and size of the blog entries so far this month, I see no reason to document the reasons why I didn't like them.

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