San Francisco CAAMFEST 2014 Highs and Lows, from Food Porn to Mock Docs and More

San Francisco CAAMFEST 2014 Highs and Lows, from Food Porn to Mock Docs and More

The SF Bay Area’s venerable Asian American Film Festival rebranded itself several years ago as the snappier (if somewhat more opaque) CAAMFest, referencing both its parent organization, the Center for Asian American Media, and its expansion to include music, art, and food-oriented events, as well as movies.
The opening weekend was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows.  Opening night films are always problematic, and this year’s was no exception: “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels” may have topped the Vietnamese box office last year, but it’s the kind of far-fetched rom-com that I try to avoid in real life. The stereotypical characters included an overachieving young Asian woman whose doubts about her relationship send her into a tizzy and over to Vietnam to spy on her fiance, a haughty, capricious French fashion designer who threw tantrums in all his scenes, and not one but two gay best friends (one for each continent). I must admit that the costume designs did provide amusing distractions, up to and including the dazzling avant-garde outfits worn by the two young women (the director’s wife and sister) who designed the film’s clothes and joined eight of their colleagues onstage for a Q&A after the film. 
The story of “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels”‘s co-writer, co-producer and star, Kathy Uyen, as told in a six-minute short part of the “Employed Identity” web series funded by CAAM was more compelling. A San Jose native, Uyen found herself too Asian for Hollywood, and too American in the Vietnamese film industry, so she wrote and produced this film to star herself.

I also must admit that the film pleased the vocal capacity crowd at San Francisco’s beautifully preserved 1922 Castro Theatre, who also enjoyed seeing Stephen Gong, CAAM’s executive director, receive a proclamation onstage from the City and County of San Francisco, which named March 13th CAAMFest Day. “That never gets old,” Gong said.  The proclamation was presented by David Chiu, first Asian-American president of the Board of Supervisors, who also mentioned that there are currently five Asian-American supervisors on the 11-member board, as well as Edward M. Lee, the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco, and Jean Quan, the first Asian-American mayor of Oakland.  Lusty cheers all around.
Less than 24 hours later, I was worlds away aesthetically, just across town in Japantown, at “Framed Works,” a program of experimental and documentary shorts curated by Chi-hui Yang, a former director of CAAMFest.  I was put in a good mood immediately by Nobu Adilman‘s “A+,” a witty deconstruction of a cinephile’s movie calendar, assigning letter grades to the many films he sees — Godard gets Ds!  Antonioni gets A+!  I was alternately soothed and diverted by the other half-dozen films in the elegant 75-minute program, especially “Night Falls on Glass,” a “Rear Window”-ish meditation on the skyscraper canyons of Vancouver by Norbert Shieh, featuring an amazing shot of three men preparing dinner in three identical kitchens on three different floors of one anonymous tower. Experimental can often mean off-putting and pretentious, especially in a festival setting, but not this time.

Again another aesthetic, directly afterwards: television on the big screen, as I saw “Family Ingredients,” a pilot for a PBS Hawaiian-set food/genealogy/travel series, following Hawaiian chef Alan Wong, of Chinese and Japanese descent, as he and host Ed Kenney travel to Japan to seek out the history of the deceptively simple ingredients — rice, tofu, eggs — used in a couple of Wong’s favorite dishes.  Exceptionally gorgeous food porn: the audience groaned with recognition at yet another visit to the sushi temple of Jiro Ono, familiar from 2012 hit doc “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”  Painful, knowing I’ll probably never get there, or afford it if I do. The films’ directors mentioned that even they didn’t get a taste, standing inches away from where their stars were consuming $440 worth of sushi each (18 pieces in 45 minutes).  Until then I was quite happy with my takeout sushi and karaage (fried chicken) from the bustling Nijiya Market just up the street.
And finally, a third compelling aesthetic to finish off the day, and remind us of why we go to film festivals: the fascinating “Karaoke Girl,” which combined documentary footage of a young Thai sex worker with staged narrative interludes to good effect.  The Q&A with young Bangkok-raised, American-resident director Visra Vichit Vadakan, again, revealed a compelling backstory. It took Vadakan five months of visiting Bangkok bars and interviewing sex workers to find her star, Sa Sittijun, and convince her to take part in the film.  The sequences of visiting her family in the country, who think she’s working in a factory in the city, was all documentary footage, shot on digital; the Bangkok scenes were partly documentary, partly fiction, and shot on film.  
Since shooting the film, the energetic Sa has quit sex work, gone back to school, worked as a DJ and a model booker, planned a juice business, and auditioned for other roles.  Although the camera loves her, she has a “northeastern country girl look,” and the Western city girl look is more popular in the industry. Her family hasn’t seen the movie, and Vadakan even offered not to release the film in Thailand, to save Sa’s face. But she was willing.
Saturday’s three-film tribute to Sir Run Run Shaw, the prolific Hong Kong mogul who died in January at the age of 106 (having retired in 2011 at the age of 104) was a total thrill. Its setting, the 1925 vintage Great Star Theater in the heart of Chinatown once owned by the Shaw Brothers, where Chinese opera productions alternated with Shaw genre pics, was perfect.  Its programming, thanks to Hong Kong International Film Festival director Roger Garcia, was also perfection. 
There was one film from each of three decades: “The Kingdom and the Beauty,” a hotly-colored musical drama from 1959 and set in Imperial China, about an emperor falling in love with a country girl, featuring glorious costumes and sets and a kind of singing that became wildly popular in subsequent Hong Kong movies; “Come Drink with Me,” a female-driven martial arts wushu epic, directed in 1966 by King Hu — seen as a comic actor in “The Kingdom and the Beauty” and a favorite of Tarantino and Tsiang Ming-Liang — with lots of wire work, starring Cheng Pei-pei, later cast in Ang Lee‘s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as an homage to her earlier work; and “King Boxer,” aka “Five Fingers of Death” (1972), one of the seventies’ films that ignited the world’s love affair with kung fu movies.  
The ebullient Stephen Gong pointed out that Bruce Lee’s father had starred in Chinese operas on the Great Star stage, and that Bruce himself, raised in the neighborhood, hung out in the alley just next door. I also appreciated that the Great Star was a block away from the divine Golden Gate Bakery, home to the Bay Area’s best don tat (custard tarts), and also close to a number of enticing dumpling houses and North Beach coffee joints.  I look forward to the Tuesday and Wednesday night programs honoring the 30s and 40s-era local Chinese-American film company Grandview Films in this sadly underused theater. I also wish that a philanthropic and visionary billionaire such as David Packard, who restored the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, would undertake a restoration of the Great Star.
Sunday, however, was wildly uneven. I loved the wide-ranging, charming conversation with Festival Spotlight director Grace Lee, conducted by Chi-Hui Yang, who touched on her diverse filmography, from documentaries (“American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” showing later that day) and mockumentaries (“American Zombie,” which played on Friday) to fiction films (including “Janeane from Des Moines”). Clips were shown,including one from a documentary, supported by CAAM and PBS, called “Off the Menu,” about four different Asian-American communities as seen through food. My favorite Grace Lee quote that summed up her alternating film choices: “One of the frustrating things about documentary is that you can’t control what people say.” 
Supported by the Hong Kong Film Festival, the “Beautiful 2013” program of short films intrigued with such marquee names as Kiyoshi Kurosawa. But ultimately its collection of shaggy-dog stories left me feeling unsatisfied. Especially when I learned that I’d chosen it over road trip sex comedy “Farah Goes Bang,” which was playing at the same time and eventually received the Comcast Narrative Award, thereby continuing my long tradition of missing virtually every eventual prizewinner during a festival.  
The CAAMFest awards were announced before the Festival’s centerpiece film, Grace Lee’s ten-years-in-the-making documentary about famed activist Grace Lee Boggs.  Other winners included the Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen for “Ilo Ilo,” which also won the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and was Singapore’s foreign language Oscar submission. It was chosen for the Remy Martin Filmmaker Award, while “Cambodian Son” won the Documentary Award.  The Audience Awards will be announced at the end of the Festival.
The rousing reaction to “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” felt like a combination of a come-to-Jesus revival meeting and a political convention that sends its members into the streets, fomenting rebellion.  The still-articulate 98-year-old Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American woman long identified with the African-American civil rights movement, especially in her hometown of Detroit, brought the sellout Castro Theatre audience to its feet.
Almost anything after that would have felt anticlimactic, and the slick “Cold Eyes,” a multi-awarded and extremely box-office-successful Korean remake of the 2007 Hong Kong film “Eye in the Sky,” indeed did. Still, its kinetic and well-shot story of one of those impossibly big and computerized police teams — devoting dozens of people to tracking down one rather opaque super criminal — had its own pleasures, even if it felt formulaic, including photogenic actors and car crashes (equally photogenic).  The biggest suspense was whether my companion would last through the movie — he didn’t.  And somehow I allowed my attention to wander during a crucial ten-second juncture — I swear, not more than that! — when the surveillance went from tracking one guy to unveiling the entire plot to take down the Korean Stock Market, unleashing destruction everywhere.  
I took my cold eyes home.  There’s another week of CAAMFest to go.

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