I’m sure we’ll all be lining up for Constance Wu and Crazy Rich Asians when they hit the big screen, but no CAAMFest would be complete without Crazy Poor Asians. You’ll pass through Hellapur, Veripur and Mostlipur on your way to the Jaipur mall and the Taj Mahal. Heck, in San Francisco, we make that trip on the way through the Powell Street BART station. The eight richest people have more wealth than the bottom 50% of humanity. The story of the slum is the story of us all. We must not turn our eyes.
BLANKA, a narrative feature directed by Japanese documentarian Kohki Hasei, reminded me of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 20 years ago. In BLANKA as in Mistry’s novel, a happenstance family forms on brutal streets. An abandoned 11-year old girl (played by YouTube sensation Cydel Gabutero) scrapes a living as a beggar and thief in the Manila dust, hiding her take under a dilapidated statue of the Virgin Mary. She falls in with a kind-hearted, aging blind singer (Peter Millari), and they set off on an adventure that takes them to a height of popularity and then near-tragedy, saved only by another young beggar. None of this is as dark as Brilliante Mendoza’s “miserablist” style, or nearly as dark as Mistry’s ravaging work. The “fine balance” of hope and despair tilts happily towards hope, and tearful and satisfying reunion. Still: “Why are some rich while some are poor?” a beggar child asks of Blanka. “I have no idea,” she replies. “Oh, you don’t know either.” Whatever fate shoots our souls into the world, the odds are better we’ll end up Blanka than Gaga. We must not turn our eyes.
PLASTIC CHINA and HANG IN THERE, KIDS also showcase happenstance, makeshift families forming in difficult circumstances, the latter in the mountains of Taiwan, the former in mountains of plastic. In both, there is ample touch and tender emotion – that’s perhaps the only form of prosperity within reach. Jiu-Liang Wang’s film about a pair of families at the receiving end of the world’s blue plastic bins surfeits the senses with the consequences of our wealthy, consumerist, materialist, throw-away ways. Goats eat plastic, humans burn, breathe and think plastic, and live on it as well, recycling it into pellets to be turned into more plastic bottles, and also into hope in the form of school tuition for one of the many children of the plastic camp. Here is the “great future in plastics” Dustin Hoffman heard about. It’s not pretty, but we must not turn our eyes.
Laha Mebow’s HANG IN THERE, KIDS offers morsels of the sweet innocence of childhood against the backdrop of suffering and shattered hopes: an alcoholic, abusive husband who also loves his son; a paraplegic teacher whose once dreamt of pop stardom; health care expenses; run ins with the law. Resilience is possible, but only when you hang in there, with each other.
GUANGZHOU DREAM FACTORY like PLASTIC CHINA tells a tale of globalization, where Guangzhou is the new Gam Saan for African migrants. Just like the earliest Chinese immigrants to America, they are promised a better life, and often as not, sold a bill of goods in addition to fake visas and jobs. A few strike it rich, but most struggle. Some end up as sex workers, and one ends up as a clothing King, running his own factories shipping container after container to Cameroon. Meanwhile, manufacturers in Africa go out of business under the surfeit of cheap imported goods. A path forward is hard to discern. Director Christiane Badgley comes in strong on the personal stories, but light on the expert perspectives. The answer seems to lie in Making Africa Great Again, but the movie ends without specifics on how that is to be done, or if in fact it is being done. Again, though, we cannot turn our eyes.
ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL is riveting, one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen this year. All immigrants and immigrant communities are by nature happenstance families with their own peculiar customs. In Chinatown, many live a cash existence: how then to get credit, buy houses, move forward? Lawyer Thomas Sung founded Abacus Bank in New York’s Chinatown to help his community. Three decades later, the bank is targeted by NYC DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. It is the only bank to face criminal charges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – though its mortgage default rate was one of the lowest in the nation. There is wrongdoing, to be sure, but the case hinges on an indictment of the happenstance ways of community banking, built on intimate knowledge of immigrant lives, and trust. How do you know someone can repay their loan? You walk by their restaurant and see it’s full, says Sung. ABACUS is a must-see documentary, for its portrayal of legal scapegoating, cross-cultural misunderstandings and the Sung family’s inspiring devotion to each other and the truth.
The hospital is the improvised family with which I’m most familiar. THE PEOPLE’S HOSPITAL by Jim Choi and Chihiro Wimbush is a heartwarming look at San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital’s 100+ year history and recent revitalization. Rose Pak championed the hospital when it was threatened by seemingly discriminatory or at least poorly applied fire code “violations” in the 1970s, and she’s here in her last interview. We see elders dropping dollar bills into donation boxes, ultimately leading to patients being wheeled into rooms in a new, modern, high tech wing. All that and we didn’t have to name it after Facebook. Willie Brown says that at the end of his life, he’d want to be treated at the Chinese Hospital, the city’s last independent hospital, for good reason. Culturally competent care is good medicine, and good medicine is good for us all.
Probably the most statistically improbable family of all is that of bone marrow donor and recipient. Jeff Chiba Stearns’ MIXED MATCH is the biggest tear-jerker of the festival so far for me. By now, hopefully we’ve all seen pleas to get registered via cheek swab for possible matches. Multiracial people are less represented in the registries, so finding a match is that much harder. Stearns takes us to meet people on both sides of the match, and explains the biology and science with delightful animation. His film is an important gift to the registry movement. Each of us has the potential to save a life. Register now at Be The Match, if you haven’t already.
One of my most powerful and moving cinematic experiences last year was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s five-hour long HAPPY HOUR, which I saw twice, never once looking at my watch mid-screening. I plan on repeating this feat of stamina for THE FAMILY, Shumin Liu’s praised feature about a couple rekindling their connection to their children. THE FAMILY calls to mind Ozu’s TOKYO STORY, and promises to open viewers to the power of relational experience. May we all find tenderness.
The hard-luck tailor Om says in A Fine Balance “If time were a bolt of cloth, I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I could wear it like a coat, always live happily.”
CAAMFest is the closest thing we have to Om’s Technicolor dreamcoat. Let’s stitch all our memories together this week, even the hard ones of difficult times, throw this quilt around us, and live happily. We are a happenstance, improbable family. Let’s come home.
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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.