For 30 years, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival was saddled with an unwieldy moniker and an un-catchy acronym, SFIAAFF (pronounced SFEE-ahf). At some point, friends and I just started calling it "The Asian." Now, for what would have been its 31st edition, SFIAAFF has rebranded itself CAAMFest and expanded its focus as a "world class festival of contemporary Asian American creative expression in film, music and food." (CAAM, for those just tuning in, is the Center for Asian American Media, parent organization of the festival.) While we at film-415 appreciate music and food as much as the next movie-goer, our interest in this year's fest remains squarely on new works by emerging and established Asian auteurs.
This year I'm very pleased about the return of what was once a regular feature of this festival – a noted Asian director accompanying a mini-retrospective of their work. Singaporean filmmaker Royston Tan will be at the Pacific Film Archive for a screening of 15, his poignant and punky feature debut about desperate Singapore youth, which screened at SFIAAFF in 2004 (and made my Top Ten that year.) The 15 screening will be followed by a conversation between Tan and critic/artist/filmmaker Valerie Soe. The retrospective also includes 881, a fun but ultimately exhausting camp musical comedy SFIAAFF played in 2008, and his latest work, Old Romances. This tranquil and bittersweet documentary about dozens of extant Singapore enterprises is stylistically removed from the director's earlier works. Lovingly photographed images of everything from old beauty salons and bookstores to a crocodile farm and Japanese cemetery are accompanied by off-screen reminiscences by customers, proprietors and unidentified observers. These voiceovers have the tinny quality of phone conversations, supplementing the movie's old-timey vibe. All of the film's spoken English is thankfully subtitled and the generic music track is an occasionally unwanted distraction.
The other six films I chose to preview – by DVD screener or on-line streaming – all come from CAAMFest's CinemAsia sidebar. The best of the bunch is Beautiful 2012. This portmanteau of four shorts produced by Youku (China's YouTube), includes a gorgeous new 27-minute work from Tsai Ming-liang called Walker. A new Tsai film is especially welcome considering his last feature, Face, never appeared in the Bay Area or got a Region 1 DVD release. In Walker, the director's enduring muse, actor/director Lee Kang-sheng, plays a barefoot monk whom we observe walking – at a barely discernible pace – through a series of bustling Hong Kong cityscapes. Except for one quick sequence, Tsai's camera never moves and some of his compositions are enough to make one gasp in pleasure. The viewer is invited to focus on the monk's glacial progress, or take in the many diversions that populate the frame (including a few curious passers-by who look back at us through the camera). Antithetical humor comes into view as the monk crosses paths with a gaudy ice cream truck, and in another sequence, a men's underwear billboard. Pay close attention for the sweet shout-out to 2001's What Time is It There?. While Walker probably won't win the Taiwanese filmmaker new fans, abiding enthusiasts should consider this required viewing.
Fortunately, there's a lot to more admire in Beautiful 2012. The program begins with You Are More Than Beautiful from South Korean director Kim Tae-Yong, best known for the schoolgirl ghost movie, Memento Mori. In this playful and moving narrative, a spunky actress is hired to portray an irritable young man's fiancé. He brings her to a hospital to meet his dying father, but they arrive too late. Or do they? Tsai's Walker appears second and is followed by Gu Changwei's Long Tou. Gu is a renowned cinematographer who shot films for China's top directors (Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum, Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep). His short is the most disjointed and enigmatic of the bunch, a cryptic condemnation of China's past, present and, in the film's final shot, an apocalyptic future. Beautiful 2012 draws to a close with Ann Hui's My Way, an interesting enough portrait of a MTF transgender's travails starring famous Hong Kong actor Francis Ng.
Elsewhere in the CinemAsia sidebar, adherents of experimental Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won't want to miss Mekong Hotel, a languorous 57-minute featurette full of the filmmaker's trademark themes (reincarnation, troubled ghosts) and stylistic devices (the film ends with a static, 6-minute shot of Mekong River jet-skiers observed from a great distance). While I enjoyed Mekong Hotel, I'm not aching to see it again – something I couldn't say about Weerasethakul's previous works. South Korean director Meul O's debut film Jiseul tells of a little known incident in which the army – at the instigation of the U.S. – massacres an entire island village wrongly suspected of being communist sympathizers. Jiseul's narrative makes regular switchbacks between the occupied village, where several soldiers are tortured or killed for refusing to obey orders, and the villagers hiding in forest caves. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance, is a bit murky in conveying historical and political context (awkward subtitles don't help), but the stunning wide-screen B&W cinematography is not to be missed. Then in Sion Sono's The Land of Hope, we witness the calamitous effects that a fictional, Fukushima-like nuclear disaster has upon one family. It's an effective, straightforward and heartfelt drama that can't help but seem lame when held up to the outlandish creativity of Sono's previous work (Exte: Hair Extensions, Love Exposure, Cold Fish.)
Two remaining CinemAsia films I previewed offer unflattering views of life in contemporary China. Sixth Generation director Zhang Yuan hit the scene 20 years ago with the scrappy Beijing Bastards and is considered China's first "indie" filmmaker. In his more accomplished recent work Beijing Flickers, a suicidal young man and his circle of quirky, societal misfits struggle to find a place in an unkind world. The film possesses a wanna-be Wong Kar-wai vibe of handsome photography and rambling voiceover. It also starts to feel pointless and interminable toward the end of its 96 minutes. The thing zips by, however, compared to Ying Liang's austere, 70-minute docu-drama When Night Falls. I'm at a loss to explain the heap of critical praise this film has received, as I was when Liang's ham-fisted feminist polemic The Other Half screened at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival in 2007.
When Night Falls is based on a famous case in which a young man murdered six Shanghai policemen as retribution for alleged maltreatment during an arrest for unregistered bicycle possession. The real scandal is that his mother was promptly abducted by officials and held in a mental hospital for 143 days and it is her story upon which the film focuses. Following release, her efforts to visit her son and assemble a case in his defense are repeatedly thwarted, and media attention becomes an unwelcome distraction. Then one day she learns that he has been summarily executed without notice. The film attempts to re-enact her story and it should have made for an intensely compelling drama, but for whatever reason Liang focuses mainly on extraneous non-events, such as the mother's efforts to regain entry to her apartment after locking herself out, her search for a store with a functioning copy machine, filling out post office forms and other inanities. Critics have called the film a heart wrenching indictment of China's criminal justice system. When Night Falls is also cold, plodding, butt ugly and it completely failed to move me. There's a stunningly powerful image in the final scene that arrives much too late. Non-pro actor Nai An won a Best Actress prize at last year's Locarno Film Festival, as did Liang for Best Director. In his write-up for The New Yorker, Richard Brody explains why he considers this film – and Liang's The Other Half – to be masterpieces. See and judge for yourself.
Here's a brief rundown of a few other possible CAAMFest 2013 highlights:
The premiere edition of CAAMFest kicks off on Thursday, March 14 at the Castro Theatre. The opening night film is Evan Jackson Leong's documentary Linsanity, which profiles Jeremy Lin, the Asian American NBA basketball star and Palo Alto native. I missed the press screening, but friends who care about sports even less than I say it's terrific. If you don't already have tickets, you're out of luck as the film has gone to rush. As is customary, the Opening Night Gala takes place at the Asian Art Museum, where revelers will have the opportunity to see the China's Terracotta Warriors exhibit.
The festival returns to the Castro on Sunday, March 17 for a full day of screenings, including Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children, based on and adapted by Salman Rushdie from his acclaimed novel. It's this year's Centerpiece Film and actors Satya Bhabha and Samrat Chakrabarti are expected to attend. Earlier in the day, there's a Special Presentation of Mira Nair's latest, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Liev Schreiber. In between these two programs there's an LGBT shorts collection called Queer Convergence, one of six shorts programs at CAAMFest.
CAAMFest shines a Spotlight on the one and only Astro Boy, currently celebrating his 60th anniversary, with an exhibit at the Superfrog gallery and a screening of David Bowers' 2009 animated movie, Astro Boy (with voices by Nicolas Cage and Charlize Theron).
Memories to Light: Asian American Home Movies is a new CAAM initiative that seeks to "recover and make accessible a moving image record of the Asian American experience through home movies." The first official program of the series will be presented by acclaimed local filmmaker Mark Decena.
After taking last year off, the festival's Out of the Vaults presentation returns with a screening of The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven, which has gone through a frame-by-frame restoration and 3-D rendering. This film from the early 60's is generally considered China's greatest work of animation and was released shortly before the Cultural Revolution shut down China's film industry