The marvelous thing about identity-oriented film festivals is they are perennially and intrinsically fresh. New films from all parts of the world provide a built-in mirror or window (depending on whether you identify with the core identity, or are outside looking in) into the various ways in which people see themselves within their countries, communities and families. CAAMFest, formerly called the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, necessarily encompasses a lot of territory, bridging borders, cultures and generations. In keeping with the themes of journeys and sight/image, we could call this preview a snapshot of a snapshot.
Television producer and documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe previously explored the suffering of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island in Carved in Silence and her family’s roots in China: Land of My Father. She continues digging into personal history in Chinese Couplets (Mar. 14 and 21), a heavily narrated piece in which Lowe reconciles her lifelong disappointment in her late mother’s inability to nurture her with the painful, and to some degree, shameful events that defined her mother’s own childhood and beyond. Chinese Couplets is a valuable reminder of the ways in which ordinary people are derailed and rerouted by larger forces, and the ongoing travails of refugees, but the film’s emotional impact is diluted by convoluted storytelling.
The slick, stylish and willfully disorienting Taiwanese drama Partners in Crime (Mar. 13 and 16) continues CAAMFest’s long track record of reaching out to twenty-something moviegoers. Chang Jung-Chi’s second feature opens with a scene of bullying, followed by the seemingly unrelated discovery of a high school student’s body in an alley in an apparent suicide. The boys who find her set about uncovering what happened, punishing those responsible and trying desperately to puncture and escape the bubble of loneliness, confusion and apathy that defines their experience of high school. Teenage wasteland never looked so green, so lush and so besieged by text messages.
Missouri-born, L.A.-based indie filmmaker Grace Lee, a regular presence at CAAMFest, continues her pulse-taking of the Asian-American experience with Off the Menu (Mar. 15). The one-hour documentary starts out as the kind of food-centric road trip that Anthony Bourdain and countless others have popularized, with Lee tracing the state of both assimilation and melting-pot cuisine through Texas’s Japanese-American sushi king (who cheerfully includes Chinese pot stickers in his product line) and a Chinese-American family business that offers tofu tamales alongside basic tofu cakes. But Lee digresses — to the Sikh temple in Wisconsin where a racist killed six members in 2012, and to father-daughter octopus harvesters in Hawaii — in ways that are interesting and rewarding (while broadening the definition of “Asian American” for those who live in less-diverse places than the Bay Area) but that also test the boundaries of the film’s ostensible focus. A coproduction of the festival’s parent, CAAM (Center for Asian American Media), and KQED, Off the Menu is part of CAAMFeast, a sidebar linking film and food.
Liao Jiekai’s As You Were (Mar. 15 and 19) is a languid and brooding tale of the end of a Singaporean affair in three enigmatic movements. Precisely photographed primarily on a largely unpopulated island, and rife with water metaphors, the film centers on a boy and girl who connect as children. The ephemeral bond between them is strong enough to draw them into romance as a couple decades later, but it’s not enough to sustain their relationship. The movie is curiously compelling, despite the consistently inexpressive acting and the director’s desire to pose a mystery and withhold clues.
Berkeley filmmaker Sara Dosa’s transporting debut documentary, The Last Season (Mar. 13 and 18), debuted a year ago at the S.F. International Film Festival. Immersing the viewer in an Oregon forest during a single matsutake mushroom season, the film gradually and patiently reveals one revelatory fact after another about its under-the-radar characters. Its inclusion in CAAMFest, ahead of a fall theatrical release, invites us to view it not only as a saga of migrant workers and casualties of war but as a tangible, wholly unexpected yet somehow inevitable example of the entwined legacies of Americans and Southeast Asians. At its core, identity is an individual thing.
CAAMFest runs March 12-22, 2015 in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. Details and more information here.