About two-thirds of the films at CAAMFest are shorts. Some of the most astounding, creative and moving works are in the shorts program this year, one of the strongest overall years in memory. I’ve seen all of them that were available for preview. If you have never seen a film festival shorts program, this is the year to break your fast. Probably the most important possibility of film is to make you feel something. I’m in a long-term relationship with CAAMFest, and “tender” has been way more important than Tinder to me. These shorts will bring you to tender faster than any medication I’m allowed to prescribe.
One of our festival favorites, Ruby Yang (who was part of the very first CAAMFest, then known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), is back with another great short film, which is actually just shy of feature length. She won the Oscar for BLOOD OF YINGZHOU DISTRICT in 2007, and has a slew of other awards and nominations. Her latest CAAMFest short, IN SEARCH OF PERFECT CONSONANCE, is a heartwarming and engaging look at the Asian Youth Orchestra, bringing together aspiring young musicians from all over Asia. The San Francisco Chronicle described the AYO as one of the finest youth orchestras in the world. If the seeds of peace could lie in notes on a staff, this film would be their symphony. [Editor’s Note: The film plays as a part of its own program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco].
IMMEDIATE FAMILY – SHORTS blew me away. SIT by Yoko Okumura packed cross-cultural and cross-generational conflicts with stirring Buddhist meditations by her Zen priest father. I’ll have an interview with Okumura later this week. Brian George (a regular on Seinfeld, and Raj Koothrapali’s father on Big Bang Theory) does a fun turn as an overzealous father in FANNY PACK. Julian Kim’s CALL TAXI features a more somber and painful take on a father-son relationship, as does Andrew Stephen Lee’s THE SOUNDS OF COIN HITTING BRASS. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite as poignant a look at gambling addiction, other than Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny. Arpita Kumar’s OUR TIME takes on domestic violence and separation from the eyes of a couple’s young daughter. Children are the innocents in all these films, their families their womb as well as their first wounds (a theme I reflect on in my free e-book on Asian American Anger).
Outstanding performances, writing and direction mark nearly all the shorts, but especially the OUT/HERE – SHORTS program. Sara Yang’s THE BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING takes us inside a dying woman’s world and mind, and the tender cares of her daughter. Based on a play, this short marries cosmic existentialism with life in peril. PRIA features a star performance by Chicco Kurniawan, directed by Yudho Aditya. Filmed in Bogor, Indonesia, PRIA is a touching story of a young gay teen struggling with questions of identity and culture. ESCAPING AGRA (dir. Pallavi Somusetty) is the only doc short in this program, and features transgender student Naveen Bhat’s story of extraordinary conflict with their conservative parents. This film should be required viewing for policy makers and constituents who are, shall we say, information-deprived on issues facing transgendered people.
I was only able to preview a few of the films in FOR THE FAINT OF HEART – SHORTS, but what I saw was fun and entertaining. This program is all about breaking free. CATCH ME by Hyunwoo Lee has great fight choreography with a humorous twist ending, kind of a kick to the gut that turns into a tickle. TAG is Patrick Green’s fast paced head-cam-filmed day in the life of a graffiti artist, played by Christina Masterson. AND SO WE PUT GOLDFISH IN THE POOL is the existential dreamscape of four bored adolescent Japanese girls, a kind of Sartre in Sayama.
DIS/SPACE/MENT – SHORTS will inspire meditations on wandering, home, and ultimately, belonging. THE LOOKOUT by Brian Redondo is a grounding (literally and figuratively) doc that brings us to the coast of Lesbos, Greece, as humanitarians aid incoming refugees on rubber dinghies, the story of our age. Zenas Cao illustrates the aching expanses of sorrow in THIS WAY TO WONDERLAND. Every step of a depressed young man’s life beseeches the universe to care, as he lingers on the brink of the void. Anthony Lu portrays wounded desperation with haunting presence. I was especially impressed by FEAR by Dawn Dreyer and Andrea Love, which animates Dr. Zenglo Chen’s heartbreaking childhood in China during the cultural revolution, leading to struggles with depression and abandonment, and solace in spirituality.
If one definition of feeling American (or even human) is seeing yourself reflected onscreen, CENTER STAGE – SHORTS puts us up in lights. The incredible twinkle-toed Dorothy Toy is the subject of Rick Quan’s outstanding documentary DANCING THROUGH LIFE: THE DOROTHY TOY STORY. Near-centenarian Toy danced screen and stage from the 1930s through the 1970s, and until recently, taught dance in San Francisco (in fact, she taught Dr. Ken’s Krista Marie Yu, who makes a cameo here). And how could I resist the other Superfan in the festival, Cliff Hiyashi! CLIFF: SUPERFAN, dir. by Diane Quon, takes us inside the life of a Stanford sports superfan who also is an amateur historian of Japanese American Internment. Janet S. Kim wrote, co-produced and stars in SPEAK CHINGLISH (dir. Lila Yomtoob), portraying a still-too-real audition rife with stereotyping. I don’t think Meryl Streep has had as many accents in 3 minutes!
A few years ago, I was saddened when the love-themed shorts program had a meager turnout. How could this happen, on a weekend night in the City of Hearts? Don’t disappoint me, CAAMFest fans! IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE…MAYBE knows you’re ambivalent…but let’s take the plunge together. Naomi Iwamoto’s BEST BUDS (starring Michelle Farrah Huang and Ronak Gandhi) is low on star-crossed lovers, but high on everything else, shall we say. “Yes, we can still be friends…if we go to Taco Bell right now.” Cathy Yan’s ACCORDING TO MY MOTHER stars Daniel Isaac (who also co-wrote with Yan) as a young gay man beset by all-too-familiar odd warnings and misunderstandings of his mother (Alexis Rhee). It’s an odd love indeed. Chang Guo’s AT NIGHT, THE OCEAN… (starring Lizi Liu and Chen Chen) leaves his protagonist forlorn and alone… but reminds us we look for an oceanic feeling with each other.
I wish I could say that we, as a society, were more comfortable with love in the form of justice – but this too is a story of ambivalence and let down. Filmmaker Jeff Adachi’s latest is THE RIDE, and portrays a day in the life of his actual job as San Francisco’s Public Defender. (THE RIDE plays before Steve James’ riveting documentary ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, about the Sung family in New York City.) If you have no rights when the police stop you, then what are your standing civil rights anyway? Adachi tells us 60-70% of his defendants are people of color; “law and order” becomes an instrument of racism and brutality. His defendant in this case is acquitted, but the prisons are filled with reminders of our inequity. Surely the bipartisan work started in Congress over the last few years could pay off…
But I’m a prisoner of hope. And that, unfortunately, remains a long art.
+ + +
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. When you sign up, you can get his free e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.