I don’t program film festivals. I let film festivals program me. My identity is a collective effort. For CAAMFest season, I unfurl my synaptic sails, and let filmmakers, stories, and actors carry me where they will. In internet speak, my neural DM’s are open. I’m a by-the-wind sailor, trusting the environment we’re creating together, but gently tethered to my experience and life. I’m ready for inspiration, change, and transformation, and I’m never disappointed.
Again this year, I started with shorts, to seed my mind with tiny, polished gems of effort from around the world. CAAMFest films, short and full-length, are pillars for the giant tent of our collective consciousness. The stories I watched amused, informed, and expanded me. This year, I only pre-screened about half the shorts in this year’s fest, wanting to save the other half for a premium theater viewing. Honor yourself and our artists by seeing as many of these as you can. (Full list of shorts programs here, in addition to the many shorts-preceding-features.)
Hao Wu, director of last year’s extraordinary documentary PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE (now available on multiple streaming platforms), returns with ALL IN MY FAMILY, part of OUT/THERE shorts. In just 40 minutes, Wu brings us into the heart of a fraught family dynamic complicated by his parent’s struggle to accept his gay identity, marriage, and now, journey to create a family with his Chinese American husband. His father proclaims “worry is a great tradition for us Chinese,” his mother says she will only relax when she is sure he’ll have a comfortable death, far in the future, and his sister says the truth “won’t work in China.” Wu still struggles with coming out; his desire to affirm his truth struggling with his wish to preserve his family’s feelings, particularly his 90+ year old grandfather. His family’s resistance is part and parcel of societal resistance to his truth and needs, an oppression that can only be overturned with a return to heart, founded on relationship and compassion. Wu’s camera becomes a fascinating fly on the wall of his family’s inner process, and I really felt I got to know them directly, and experience both tension and love, as Wu is at one point at odds with them, and then walks arm-in-arm with his mother. Yup, that’s the way it is – but it sometimes is much, much worse. Wu’s film is an important messenger for all Asian and Asian American society, furthering the deep change that’s so necessary. I’ll hopefully have an interview with him during fest week.
I saw plenty of shorts that made me think and feel – and then there are the shorts that bring the zany. Robert Karimi’s LUMPIA CAMPESINA in the FLIP THE SCRIPT Filipinx shorts program gave me a solid case of the giggles. I was lolling as he and his costars showcased lumpia as a metaphor for community empowerment, from conscious rappers to conscious wrappers. I know Robert from our slam poetry days, when he carried an online handle of ‘kaoticgood.’ His film is definitely kaoticgood: madcap, delicious, and wholesome. It will leave you craving lumpia, community, and maybe even a handlebar mustache.
Another familiar face was veteran actor Kiều Chinh, who has a long list of credits and whom I last saw in Ham Tran’s epic JOURNEY FROM THE FALL (CAAMFest Closing Night 2006). She anchors Maegan Houang’s psychological thriller about grief and mourning, IN FULL BLOOM, part of the ALTERED STATES shorts.
My funny bone was also tickled by Kevin Yee’s wittily self-conscious ABOUT A SHORT FILM, part of OUT/HERE, which not only showcased his many talents from directing to acting to singing, but also planted tongue-firmly-in-cheek as it commented on the trials of being a gay Asian musical-comedian from Canada. Yee is a real catcher in the wry, not naïve in the slightest, but retaining a fresh joy of performance.
I’m still a sucker for sentiment, and one of the first films I saw this year really got me in the won’t-you-be-my-neighbor. Those of you who saw the Mr. Rogers doc will know what I mean. David Scala’s ENGAGED, also in OUT/HERE, follows an anxious and insecure young man with unresolved feelings about his sexuality (Daniel K. Isaac) as he edges closer to proposing to his boyfriend (Ryan Jamaal Swain). The payoff is sublime.
DÉTOURNING ASIA/AMERICA WITH VALERIE SOE wowed me with complex, entertaining visuals and an intriguing conversation between Soe and fellow director/professor Mila Zuo. Zuo plays with images and film clips arranged on a computer display as she and Soe deconstruct the distorting Western gaze on Asians and Asian women in particular. It’s a message beamed from a Highly Advanced Intelligence that made me want to call for the mothership to take us all home. Détournement means rerouting or hijacking in French, and refers to a kind of subversive critique of cultural forms such as film. Catch this short at the ASIAN ART MUSEUM EVENT WITH VALERIE SOE AND KRISTINA WONG, where you’ll also catch Wong’s subversive “Radical Cram School” and groundbreaking earlier films by Soe.
COMING HOME: THE 990 PACIFIC RELOCATION STORY (preceding FINDING THE VIRGO, along with Dean Ishida’s FLO’S BUS, about a long-running bento-fueled community gambling jaunt from LA to Vegas) tells the story of several residents of this iconic low-income housing complex in Chinatown during its renovation and their return, facilitated by the Chinatown Community Development Center. I was struck by the exceptional cinematographic portraits of the residents throughout this story, which in some cases were as every bit as good as photographs I’ve seen hanging in the DeYoung. Emma Marie Chiang elevates what might have been a routine web info-video into a nuanced, intimate look at the lives of people the broader public is rarely aware of. Plus I got to see my friends Diana Pang and Reverend Norman Fong onscreen, doing their everyday astounding good deeds!
Other shorts-preceding-features tell stories that could be features in their own right. PERIOD GIRL by Jalena Keane-Lee (preceding BEI BEI) will amaze you with the resilience of 20-year-old Harvard sophomore Nadya Okomoto, who overcomes personal trauma and listens to the needs of homeless women to found the non-profit period.org, which provides menstrual supplies to those in need. Megumi Nishikura’s MINIDOKA (preceding ALTERNATIVE FACTS: THE LIES OF EXECUTIVE ORDER 9066) creates a poignant, reflective mood as Joseph, a young Seattle activist, explores his family’s history of incarceration (including an actual Uncle Sam), set against his Japanese American community’s solidarity with today’s threatened Muslim Americans, and shocking recent language from state representatives justifying EO 9066. Megan Eleanor Clark’s cinematography and editing, and a haunting, heartstring-plucking score deserve special recognition. And WINNER OF PEACE by Marisa Kelly (preceding A WOMAN’S WORK) made the struggles and triumphs of Australian Sikh spoken word poet Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa seem familiar. She’s a friend-on-another-continent, grappling with identity, and finding expression and belonging through artistic creation.
As the Thai t-shirt says, “same same but different.”
See you soon!
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.