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CAAMFest 2017 review: In Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul,” five Korean adult adoptees journey to Seoul to meet their birth families and to explore the intersection of adoption with their identities

Alt rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Mathews (Dan aka Dan) visits Korea with four other Korean adoptees in the summer of 2016 in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Mathews reconnects with his biological family, including his identical twin brother who remained with his birth family in Korea, while Mathews was relinquished and adopted by an American family. Mathews will be in attendance at both screenings as will Min Matson, of San Francisco, who also appears in the film. Image: courtesy CAAM

Exploration of identity has always been a complex challenge for adoptees and it’s particularly true for those raised in adoptive families of a different race and culture. Jon Maxwell’s new documentary AKA Seoul (70 min, 2016), screening twice at the upcoming CAAMFest, impressively encapsulates a range of experiences shared by five Korean twenty-something adoptees who journey to Korea in the summer of 2016 to find themselves as they connect with their birth families and their native Korea.

The film is a sequel to the documentary series AKA DAN, which chronicled the 2013 journey of alternative rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Matthews as he met his biological Korean family, including an identical twin brother he never knew about. AKA Seoul picks up three years later as Matthews and four other Korean adoptees—Chelsea Katsaros, Siri Szemenkar, Min Matson, and Peter Boskey—get together in Seoul in various restaurants, bars and tattoo parlors to unpack various aspects of their identity as Koreans, as adoptees and as adults.  Since they are all in the immediate throws of searching and reuniting and each experience is unique, what results is a very fluid and candid snapshot of adoption.

Siri Szemenkar, a Korean adoptee raised in Sweden visits Korea, meets her birthmother, and reflects on experiencing Korean culture for the first time in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Image: courtesy CAAM

  • Dan Mathews introduces his adoptive mom, Lynn Mathews, from Camarillo CA, to his Korean birthmother while continuing to process that he has an identical twin brother who remained in Korea with his birth family while he was adopted out.  His brother is learning English to strengthen their bond and to facilitate communication for the entire birth family while Mathews is trying to figure out how much interaction he actually wants.
  • Siri Szemenkar, who was raised in Sweden with virtually no contact with Asians, meets with adoption agency officials in Seoul to get information about her birthmother.  After being stonewalled, she is told that her birthmother wants to meet her. Her hopes are dashed when the birthmother cancels and then elevated when she changes her mind.
  • Min Matson shares his story as a transgender Korean adoptee and what it’s like to experience Seoul and Korean LGBT culture for the first time as a male. Min’s adoptive mother was Dutch and his adoptive dad was Norwegian and, while he felt really loved by his parents, he had strong feelings that he was boy in a girl’s body even before he started elementary school. He shares his isolation and his adoptive family’s struggle with his search to find his identity, which included a suicide attempt. When he first went to Korean as a masculine looking woman, it was hard for him to fit in with Korean women and to identify with the culture. When he returns, on this trip, to embrace Seoul as a Korean male, with a sense of body security, he feels different, as if he really fits in.
  • Chelsea Katsaros, a 28 year old genetics student at University of Minnesota, was raised by adoptive parents of Norwegian and Greek ancestry in Minnesota and grew up around surrounded by people who didn’t look like her. She admits that pressure of being Asian in a white family and culture, was stressful. When she realized as a teenager that she was gay, and came out at age 19, she felt even more pressure because her adoptive family was deeply religious and would not accept her, ultimately leading her to sever communication with them altogether.  Holding an orphan in her arms on a visit to Seoul’s Eastern Social Welfare Society, she laments that she will never be able to adopt a Korean baby herself because she is gay and Korean policy only allows for heterosexual adoptions.
  • As free-spirited poet and textile artist, Peter Boskey, meanders through the back alleys and shops of Seoul collecting fabric and mementos for his art, he discusses his creative life and the influence of adoption on his artwork. Not only is his artwork a deep expression of who he is, it has been profoundly healing.

What makes AKA Seoul so relevant is the lens feels very fresh.  The five adoptees, aside from being very creatively inclined, represent a broad spectrum in terms of their life interests, sexual orientation (two are gay, one is transsexual), and levels of self-awareness.  The common thread is that many of them were raised by white adoptive parents and grew up in communities where they had little contact with other Asians, much less Koreans.  As a result, they often ended up feeling isolated within their families and communities, despite feeling that they very loved. The mere sensation of seeing people who look like them and feeling a kind of completeness within themselves is one of their most special take-aways from Korea.

Peter Boskey is a textile artist and poet who was raised in the suburbs of Boston with two adopted siblings. He first visited Seoul in 2009. On this 2016 visit, he mines the vibrant shops and stalls of Korea, the country of his birth, for artifacts that he can incorporate into his artworks that will express aspects of his experience as a Korean American adoptee. Image: courtesy CAAM

Another is the natural comradery, empathy, and bonding that develops between the five as they eat and drink together, get special tattoos, and unpack their adoptee experiences.  They form a pack and we sense that they will be there to support each other long after they leave Korea.  As many of these adoptees confide, they’ve walked a tight rope all their lives trying to please their adoptive parents and to fit in.  This became increasingly difficult as they went through adolescence and into adulthood.  In AKA Seoul, we experience their personal healing and see their complex identities emerge out of their interactions with each other and with their native culture.  Albeit, they are all at various stages of processing their experiences and this impacts their coherency but this makes it feel real.  Seeing this documentary at CAAMFest, where it will be followed up with a live discussion with at least two of the adoptees from the film, Dan Mathews and Min Matson, should be a very enriching experience.

More about CAAMFest 35:

CAAMFest celebrates its 35th year in 2017 with a ten day festival—March 9-19— in San Francisco and Oakland that explores the shifting tides of Asian American culture. Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest expanded in 2013 beyond film to also include music and food from locales touched by Asian culture.  A presentation of the non-profit media organization, CAAM (Center for Asian American Media), CAAMFest’s film offerings include cutting-edge dramas, unflinching documentaries and innovative short films. Throughout CAAM’s history, the organization has supported documentary films and filmmakers by both funding and co-producing films.

This year’s festival will include 113 films and video— 22 feature narratives, 26 documentaries, 65 short films and videos. There will be 10 world premieres, 4 North American premieres, 3 US premieres, 14 West Coast premieres, 36 Bay Area premieres, and 1 special sneak preview.

Celebrating CAAMFest’s 35th anniversary, this year’s Special Presentations will include a diverse lineup of local and international spotlights, interactive works, anniversary screenings that revisit films from the 1980’s and 90’s, a Pacific Islander showcase, community screenings and touching documentaries on the legacy of Japanese American Internment.

Details: AKA Seoul screens at CAAMFest 35—Friday, March 10 (6:30 PM, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) and Saturday, March 18 (8:20PM, New Parkway Theater, Oakland).  Purchase $14 tickets in advance online here.   The Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission is located at 2550 Mission Street, San Francisco (There will be a special food and drink menu exclusive to CAAMFest festival screenings.) The New Parkway Theater is located at 474 24th Street, Oakland)

To buy $20 tickets to Directions in Sound Friday, March 10, 9:30 PM at Gray Area (5 min walk from Alamo Drafthouse), featuring Dan Mathews (Dan AKA dan) and 4 other performers, click here.

For information about CAAMFest 35, visit http://caamfest.com/2017/.

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAAMFest—Asian American film, food, music and comradery kicks off Thursday, March 12, and runs for 11 days in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland

Nikiko, Korio, Marci and David “Mas” Masumoto have an 80 acre farm in Del Ray, south of Fresno, where they grow several varieties of prized heirloom peaches and nectarines.  They are the subject of the CAAM-produced documentary “Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,” which lyrically recounts the daughter Nikiko’s decision to take over the reins of the family’s peach business from her father, Mas, the celebrated peach farmer and author.  In their lifelong search for the perfect peach, the Masumotos till much more than the soil; they embrace the soul of farming which is an intimate act of bravely nurturing which life throws at you.  The Masumotos are being honored at CAAMFest 2015 with a CAAMFeast Award and a special evening at the Oakland Museum of California where the film will have its world premiere.  Image: CAAMFest

Nikiko, Korio, Marci and David “Mas” Masumoto have an 80 acre farm in Del Ray, south of Fresno, where they grow several varieties of prized heirloom peaches and nectarines. They are the subject of the CAAM-produced documentary “Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,” which lyrically recounts the daughter Nikiko’s decision to take over the reins of the family’s peach business from her father, Mas, the celebrated peach farmer and author. In their lifelong search for the perfect peach, the Masumotos till much more than the soil; they embrace the soul of farming which is an intimate act of bravely nurturing what life throws at you. The Masumotos are being honored at CAAMFest 2015 with a CAAMFeast Award and a special evening at the Oakland Museum of California where the film will have its world premiere. Image: CAAMFest

The Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMfest turns 33 this year and continues its morph from a pure film festival into a series of festive happenings that fuse cutting edge independent film with music and food—all with an Asian American twist.  CAAMFest takes place over the next 11 days in venues all around the Bay Area including the Asian Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California, which add their enticing exhibits to the mix.  Formerly the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest 2015 offers more than 100 movies and videos focused on the discovery of new talents, voices and visions. It’s by far the largest festival of Asian American movies in North America. Under the leadership of Masashi Niwano, now in his fifth year as festival & exhibitions director, the event has become one of the country’s major platforms for conveying the richness and diversity of the Asian American multicultural experience.  ARThound loves this festival because it’s so excellently curated, delivering rich and unusual stories from around the globe that stay with you for years.

This year, you’ll see Asian American broadly defined too.  Iranian director Rakshan Banietemad’s new film, Tales, which picked up the award for Best Screenplay at Venice, caught the CAAMFest programmers’ eyes, not just because it’s a great film but because the director, working under dior conditions in Iran, creatively stitched together a series of shorts, stories from her previous films, to create a full length film.  In so doing, she managed to navigate the bureaucracy of the Iranian cultural ministry which requires a license for a feature but not for shorts.  Bravo!   There are also stories involving the Asian diaspora.   Juan Martín Hsu’s La Salada is set in Argentina’s bustling discount market, La Salada, just outside of Buenos Aires, and involves an ensemble cast of Korean, Taiwanese, and Bolivian immigrants whose experiences all converge at the market.  It’s thus no surprise that “travel” is this year’s theme.  Opportunities for armchair travel abound and over 200 guests will be flying in CAAMFest.

BIG NIGHTS:

Opening Night:  The festival kicks off at the historic Castro Theatre on Thursday evening (March 12), with Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (2015), his new feature film which garnered quite a buzz when it premiered at Sundance in January.  A tribute to the 1980’s teen movies of John Hughes, but infused with a Korean sensibility and Lee’s own experiences, this dramedy is set in a state run summer camp in Korea that brings together Korean teens from all over the globe for the purpose of teaching them about their culture. Lee uses the teen’s stories, and their unexpected twists, to explore the Korean diaspora. Lee’s Planet B-Boy, about break-dancers in an international competition, won best documentary and the audience award at CAAMfest in 2008. Lee and several cast members will attend.

Opening Gala:  After the screening, there’s an opening night gala at the Asian Art Museum, with a 1980’s dance party with cocktails and fine food amidst the Seduction exhibit of Edo-period Japan. The exhibition has over 60 works of art and features Japanese artist Hishikawa Moronobu’s (1618-1694) spectacular 58 foot long painted silk handscroll, A Visit to the Yoshiwara, which is shown completely unfurled for the first time. The masterpiece, on loan from the John C. Weber, depicts daily life in the entertainment district in the 17th century.

Kalki Koechlin plays Laila in Shonali Bose’s second feature film, “Margarita with a Straw” (2014), CAAMFest’s Centerpiece film, the first Indian film that introduces a character with cerebral palsy.  Image: CAAMFest

Kalki Koechlin plays Laila in Shonali Bose’s second feature film, “Margarita with a Straw” (2014), CAAMFest’s Centerpiece film, the first Indian film that introduces a character with cerebral palsy. Image: CAAMFest

CAAMfest’s Centerpiece movie:  Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) screens at Castro on Sunday, March 15th and represents the powerful storytelling and moments of palpable intimacy that CAAMFest is famous for.  Kalki Koechlin plays Laila, a young woman from Delhi who is determined not to let her cerebral palsy interfere with her life —she writes lyrics for a rock band, flirts wildly with her classmates and dreams of going to New York to participate in NYU’s prestigious creative writing program to which she’s been admitted. Set in Delhi and New York, the film is a brave and glorious homage to that old adage—“follow your heart.”

Closing Night:  The festival’s closes with Bruce Seidel’s Lucky Chow, a six-part PBS series which will be showcased over the course of two days—Saturday and Sunday, March 21 and 22—at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater.  The series features Danielle Chang (LUCKYRICE culinary festival founder) as she travel across America, taking in the Asian food landscape.  Accompanying the film will be an Asian-inspired curated menu from the New Parkway kitchen.  Other food-related films are Grace Lee’s Off the Menu: Asian America and Edmond Wong’s Supper Club exploring Bay Area restaurants.

As part of a Spotlight on San Francisco documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, CAAMFest presents the world premiere of his documentary “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” chronicling the period of the Khmer Rouge’s tyrannical stronghold over Cambodia.  The story is told through the eyes of the late Dr. Haing S. Ngor, arguably the most recognizable survivor of the Cambodian genocide.  Ngor fled to the U.S. and became a worldwide ambassador for justice, recreating his experience in the film “The Killing Fields” (1984), for which he won an Academy Award in 1984, only to be murdered in a Los Angeles Chinatown alley in 1996.  Using animation and rare archival material, anchored by Ngor's richly layered autobiography, this remarkable story brings you face to face with a man who embodied the harsh duality of danger and opportunity.   Image: CAAMFest

As part of a Spotlight on San Francisco documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, CAAMFest presents the world premiere of his documentary “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor” chronicling the period of the Khmer Rouge’s tyrannical stronghold over Cambodia. The story is told through the eyes of the late Dr. Haing S. Ngor, arguably the most recognizable survivor of the Cambodian genocide. Ngor fled to the U.S. and became a worldwide ambassador for justice, recreating his experience in the film “The Killing Fields” (1984), for which he won an Academy Award in 1984, only to be murdered in a Los Angeles Chinatown alley in 1996. Using animation and rare archival material, anchored by Ngor’s richly layered autobiography, this remarkable story brings you face to face with a man who embodied the harsh duality of danger and opportunity. Image: CAAMFest

Honoring the 40th anniversary of Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge: Lest we not forget the tragic moments that also define cultures, CAAMfest is presenting a collection of powerful stories of survival and resiliency from Cambodia’s tragic Khmer Rouge period. As part of the Spotlight feature on acclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong, his new documentary, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, chronicles the years encapsulating the Khmer Rouge’s tyranny through the eyes of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who escaped to America and recreated his experience in the film The Killing Fields, for which he won an Academy Award in 1984.  Dong will be in conversation with film critic and author B. Ruby Rich on Friday, March 20 at New People Cinema.

Perfectly Peachy:  The festival is also honoring the Masumoto Family, fourth generation peach California peach farmers, with a CAAMFeast Award and a special evening of storytelling at the OMCA (Oakland Museum of California) on Friday, March 20, where the CAAM-produced documentary, Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm, will have its world premiere. The entire family— Mas, Marcy, Nikiko and Korio Masumoto—will be in attendance. The Masumotos, who have an 80 acre farm south of Fresno, are famous for their highly-prized heirloom Sun Crest peaches and tenacious adherence to sustainable practices as well as their lyrical writing on farming and food.  When was the last time you visited the Oakland Museum?  CAAMFest provides a perfect opportunity to combine film with art.   Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (ends April 12) is an exciting collaboration between SFMOMA and OMCA that explores California artists, many of them Bay Area artists. Marion Gray: Within the Light (ends June 21) is a riveting exploration of San Francisco-based photographer Marion Gray’s work over the past 40 years documenting Bay Area artists and art happenings. Bees: Tiny Insects, Big Impact (ends September 20) will educate and entertain the entire family.

In Albert Shin’s second feature “In Her Place,” (2014), Yoon Da-Kyung stars as a wealthy Seoul woman who is desperate to have a child.  She arrives at an isolated farm where a struggling widow (Hae-yeon Kil) is hoping to capitalize on her teen daughter’s pregnancy.  The woman moves in with the family to wait for the birth, telling her friends at home that she’s decided to have her baby in the U.S.  Ahn Ji Hye’s raw performance as the conflicted teen anchors this heart wrenching drama of secret pregnancy.  Toronto based director stumbled upon the story while eavesdropping in a café in South Korea.  In Korea, adopted children are still stigmatized and the act of adoption is a shameful one.  Screens twice at CAAMFest 2015.  Image: CAAMFest

In Albert Shin’s second feature “In Her Place,” (2014), Yoon Da-Kyung stars as a wealthy Seoul woman who is desperate to have a child. She arrives at an isolated farm where a struggling widow (Hae-yeon Kil) is hoping to capitalize on her teen daughter’s pregnancy. The woman moves in with the family to wait for the birth, telling her friends at home that she’s decided to have her baby in the U.S. Ahn Ji Hye’s raw performance as the conflicted teen anchors this heart wrenching drama of secret pregnancy. Toronto based director stumbled upon the story while eavesdropping in a café in South Korea. In Korea, adopted children are still stigmatized and the act of adoption is a shameful one. Screens twice at CAAMFest 2015. Image: CAAMFest

Music:  In addition to the movies, Korean musicians have a strong presence at CAAMFest with performances from Awkwafina (Chinese Korean American rapper Nora Lum from Queens) and Suboi, the Vietnamese “Queen of Hip Hop” and a host of other party rockers who will keep things lively before and after the movies.

Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with the Masumotos about all things peachy.

CAAMFEST Details:

When/Where: CAAMfest 2015 runs March 12-22, 2014 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland and as well as select museums, bars and music halls.

Tickets: This popular festival sells outs, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended for most films and events.  Regular screenings are $14 with $1 to $2 discounts for students, seniors, disabled and current CAAM members.  Special screenings, programs and social events are more.  Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $75 (6 screenings for price of 5). All access passes are $450 for CAAM members and $500 for general.  Click here for ticket purchases online.  Tickets may also be purchased in person and various venue box offices open one hour before the first festival screening of the day.  Rush Tickets:  If a screening or event has sold all of its available tickets, there is still a chance to get in by waiting in the Rush line. The Rush line will form outside of the venue around 45 minutes before the screening is set to begin.  Cash only and one rush ticket per person and there are no guarantees.

Unpacking the festival: Click here to see full schedule in day by day calendar format with hyperlinks for film and event descriptions and for ticket purchase.  The official website— CAAMFest 2015

 

 

March 11, 2015 Posted by | Asian Art Museum, Film, Food, Gardening, Oakland Museum of California | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sonoma County Museum and Santa Rosa High School’s documentary short screens at CAAMfest 2014 on Saturday, March 15

Santa Rosa High School students, Lilia Kilmartin and Maneesha Moua will debut their documentary short debut on March 15 at CAAMfest 2014  as part of the festival’s special Young Historians, Living Histories project.   The Sonoma County Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, sponsored the student film program as part of Sonoma Stories initiative that records the oral histories of people living and working in the community.  Image: SCM

Santa Rosa High School students, Lilia Kilmartin and Maneesha Moua will debut their documentary at CAAMfest 2014 as part of the festival’s special Young Historians, Living Histories project. The Sonoma County Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, sponsored the student film program that enabled their participation. Image: SCM

Local Santa Rosa High School students, Lilia Kilmartin and Maneesha Moua, will have their documentary short debut on Saturday, March 15, at CAAMfest 2014 at 12:10 PM as part of the festival’s special Young Historians, Living Histories project.  The program will debut the work of several young Asian Pacific American (APA) student filmmakers from nine Smithsonian Affiliate organizations around the country and several of the young filmmakers will attend.

Our own Sonoma Country Museum (SCM) had a hand in sponsoring the Santa Rosa students as the museum recently completed a new storytelling series serving local APA youth and their families. Working with Santa Rosa High School’s ArtQuest Video Lab and video and digital instructor Jim Helmer, SCM enabled Kilmartin, Moua and other students to learn about the documentary process and to create a short film telling a relative’s story.  This student program is a continuation of SCM’s Sonoma Stories initiative that records the oral histories of people living and working in the community.  SCM was able to sponsor the young filmmakers because it was one of nine Smithsonian Affiliate organizations nationwide selected for the national Young Historians, Living Histories project.  This program mentors APA students in multimedia skills and storytelling with the goal of deepening their understanding and appreciation of their history.  Young Historians, Living Histories involves the collaboration of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Smithsonian Affiliations and CAAM (Center for Asian American Media).

CAAM’s Hardeep Jandu just interviewed Konrad Ng, Director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific Program, about the film shorts and importance of mentoring young filmmakers.  Read the interview here.

Details:  CAAMfest’s special presentation, “Young Historian, Living Histories,” is Saturday, March, 2014 at 12:10 PM at New People Cinema.  A reception with the student filmmakers will follow the screening at Pa’ina Lounge.  Tickets are $12.  Click here to purchase.

Read ARThound’s coverage of CAAMFest 2014 here.

CAAMFest 2014 is March 13th through March  23th  2014, in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland at eight screening venues well as select museums, galleries, bars and music halls. The 10 day festival is screening over 121 films and videos, along with cutting edge music and gourmet food events.  The 32 year-old festival is named after its sponsor, CAAM , San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media. Click here to see full schedule in day by day calendar format with hyperlinks for film and event descriptions and for ticket purchase.  The official website— CAAMFest 2014.

The Sonoma County Museum is located at 425 Seventh Street in downtown Santa Rosa.  Hours: Tues-Sun 11 AM to 5 PM.  General Admission : $7.   Camellia Has Fallen runs through May 4, 2014  and is the first U.S. art exhibition created in response to the Jeju April 3 Uprising, a major historical event leading up to the Korean War in which the United States played a critical role. The exhibition focuses on issues of memory, reconciliation and healing.

March 14, 2014 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not just film, CAAMFest, has super-sized into an Asian American cultural extravaganza—it starts Wednesday, March 13, and runs for 10 days in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland

New York artist Tenzing Rigdol’s poignant installation is the focus of Tenzi Tsetan Choklay’s feature documentary, “Bringing Tibet Home,” screening at CAAMFest 2014, March 13-23, 2014.   Following the death of his father, a Tibetan refugee, Rigdol embarks on a journey to bring 20,000 kilos of native Tibetan soil from Nepal to India. The smuggled soil is laid out on a platform in Dharamsala, the Himalayan hill town where the Dali Lama and many Tibetan refugees are based.  For many, this is a reunion; for some, this the first time that they set foot on their native soil; and for a few, this is probably the last time that they ever see anything of their lost nation.  A powerful portrait of artistic determination that explores homeland, exile and the transgressive power of art.  Image: courtesy CAAM

New York artist Tenzing Rigdol’s poignant installation is the focus of Tenzi Tsetan Choklay’s feature documentary, “Bringing Tibet Home,” screening at CAAMFest 2014, March 13-23, 2014. Following the death of his father, a Tibetan refugee, Rigdol embarks on a journey to bring 20,000 kilos of native Tibetan soil from Nepal to India. The smuggled soil is laid out on a platform in Dharamsala, the Himalayan hill town where the Dali Lama and many Tibetan refugees are based. For many, this is a reunion; for some, this the first time that they set foot on their native soil; and for a few, this is probably the last time that they ever see anything of their lost nation. A powerful portrait of artistic determination that explores homeland, exile and the transgressive power of art. Filmmaker will attend. Image: courtesy CAAM

CAAMFest is 32 this year and no longer just about great film.  The 10 day festival, which takes place between March 13th and 23th , in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, has long showcased the best and newest in Asian American film.  It got restless when it turned 30 though:  it changed its name from SFIAFF (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival ) to the shorter CAAMFest , named after its sponsor, CAAM , San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media.  Under the guidance of Festival Director Masashi Niwano, now in his fourth year at the helm, it also responded to changing times by tweaking its programming.  And growing.  And growing.  It now bills itself as the nation’s “largest showcase for new Asian and Asian American film.”

Music and Food:  In addition to its 121 films and videos, and stellar presentations and tributes, CAAMFest 2014 includes cutting edge musicians and the fusion of great food and film line-up.  Korean and Vietnamese hip hop and rock music, and leading female performers are the focus of the two “Directions in Sound” evenings. On March 22, 23-year-old rapper, singer and songwriter, Suboi (Hàng Lâm Trang Anh), tagged Vietnam’s Queen of Hiphop, will have her U.S. debut at 111 Minna Gallery.

Suboi, the first female rapper to make it big in Vietnam, makes her U.S. debut at CAAMFest.

Suboi, the first female rapper to make it big in Vietnam, makes her U.S. debut at CAAMFest.

Culinary artists like superstar Chef Martin Yan (of PBS and M.Y. China) and award-winning Chocolatier Windy Lieu of Sôcôla Chocolates are the focus of CAAMfeast,” a high-end tasting party/fundraiser, while three fabulous food films celebrate storytelling around Asian food.

CAAMFEST expands into artsy Oakland:  Promising to engage all the senses is “Super Awesome Launch,” an evening at the Oakland Museum of California (Friday, March 7) that includes a sneak preview of its highly anticipated upcoming spring exhibition, SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot, along with the chance to meet arts visionary and Eric Nakamura, who curated the exhibition.   What? Never heard of Nakamura? Then you’re WAY WAY behind the times and need a serious CAAMFEST infusion. Twenty years ago, in 1994, Nakamura founded Giant Robot, Los Angeles’ Little Osaka based store, magazine, art gallery that became an uber-destination for Asian and Asian American popular culture and art.  You can meet Eric Nakamura and experience the art in person at OMCA, which has become quite the hopping venue on Friday nights. The evening also includes high energy bands from Taiwan, a caravan of food trucks, and a screening of Patrick Epino and Stephen Dypiangco’s Awesome Asian Bad Guys (2013) starring Tamlyn Tomita and Dante Basco.  Easy to see why they call it “Super Awesome Launch.”   And, this year CAAMFEST has its closing night party in Oakland as well (see below), marking what promises to be a sweet partnership with the community’s vibrant arts organizations and galleries.

Big Nights of Film

Opening Night: The festival kicks off this Wednesday, March 13 with the US premiere of Vietnamese American director Ham Tran’s (Journey from the Fall, 2006) romantic comedy, How to Fight in Six Inch Heels, at the historic Castro Theater.  The film was Vietnam’s top box office draw for 2013 and features San Jose native Kathy Uyen as a New York fashion designer who infiltrates Saigon’s high-fashion world to test her fiancé’s fidelity. After the premiere, CAAMFest heads over to the Asian Art Museum for its Opening Night Gala, which features food from local chefs and restaurants, a special presentation by fashion stylists Retrofit Republic, dancing to beats spun by local DJ’s and the Asian’s amazing new exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

How To Fight In Six Inch Heels (Âm Mưu Giày Gót Nhọn)  

Select Special Presentations:  Each year, CAAMFest highlights the works of significant media makers and their contributions to modern cinema.  In Conversation with Grace Lee: Award-winning documentary filmmaker Grace Lee will be in conversation at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, March 16, discussing her new documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2013), profiling the extraordinary life of activist and feminist Grace Lee Boggs which screens right after the conversation.  Lee’s narrative feature comedy, American Zombie (2006), screens on Friday, March 14.

American Revolutionary:  The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

Tribute: Run Run Shaw:  CAAMFest offers a three film tribute to the legendary movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw, who over the course of nine decades fostered some of the greatest filmmaking talent in Hong Kong, and produced some American classics such as Blade Runner (1982).  The films—The Kingdom and the Beauty; King Boxer (The Five Fingers of Death); and my personal favorite, Come Drink With Me, will all screen at the Chinatown’s Great Star Theater on March 15th..  The Great Star, refurbished in 2010, hosts both Chinese-language film and Chinese opera.

Set in imperial China, Chinese director Li Han-hsiang’s dazzling musical drama “The Kingdom and the Beauty” (1959) consolidated the Chinese operetta’s popularity in Hong Kong.  When  restless Chinese emperor (Chao Lei) disguises himself as a commoner and takes a stroll, he falls in love with a country peasant (movie queen Lin Dai) and promises to marry her after spending one night together—only for their budding romance to be abruptly curtailed. The film is part of a three film tribute at Chinatown’s Great Star Theater to Hong Kong entertainment and media mogul Run Run Shaw.

Set in imperial China, Chinese director Li Han-hsiang’s dazzling musical drama “The Kingdom and the Beauty” (1959) consolidated the Chinese operetta’s popularity in Hong Kong. When restless Chinese emperor (Chao Lei) disguises himself as a commoner and takes a stroll, he falls in love with a country peasant (movie queen Lin Dai) and promises to marry her after spending one night together—only for their budding romance to be abruptly curtailed. The film is part of a three film tribute at Chinatown’s Great Star Theater to Hong Kong entertainment and media mogul Run Run Shaw.

Closing Night: The Closing Night Gala, Sunday, March 23, marks the festival’s expansion to downtown Oakland’s arts district.  The evening starts off at the New Parkway Theater with a screening of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marissa Aroy’s documentary, Delano Manongs (2013).  A prescient chronicle of the life of Filipino activist Larry Itliong (1913-77), who organized the 1965 Delano Grape Strike and helped launch the United Farm Workers, the documentary explores the vital contribution of Filipinos to the American Farm labor movement.  Following this screening, the Gala moves one block to Vessel Gallery for a closing party that takes place amongst the art exhibition “Periphery: New Works by Cyrus Tilton and Paintings by Tim Rice.”

CAAMFEST expands into Oakland:

Stay-tuned to ARThound for detailed film picks, which will include:

Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) Winner of the Caméra d”Or at Cannes this May, a mesmerizing portrait of a middle class Indonesian family in crisis that sprang out of the director’s childhood in the Singapore and his nurturing relationship with his Filipina nanny who worked as a domestic helper for his family for 8 years from 1988 to 1997.  (Screens March 15 at 6:30 PM at Pacific Film Archive and March 17 at 6 PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.)

Director Yuya Ishii’s The Great Passage (2013), Japan’s 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film about a shy, eccentric young man, who joins the Dictionary Editorial Department of a big Tokyo publishing house to help compile a new dictionary, “The Great Passage” and over the course of years is transformed.  (Screens: March 15 at 2:30 PM at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and March 16 at 3:30 PM at Pacific Film Archive.)

Tenzi Tsetan Choklay’s feature documentary, Bringing Tibet Home (2013). Following the death of his father, a Tibetan refugee, Rigdol embarks on a remarkable journey to bring 20,000 kilos of native Tibetan soil from Nepal to India. The smuggled soil is laid out on a platform in Dharamsala, the Himalayan hill town where the Dali Lama and many Tibetan refugees are based.  For many, this is a reunion; for some, this the first time that they set foot on their native soil; and for a few, this is probably the last time that they ever see anything of their lost nation. (Screens: March 14 at 5 PM at New People Cinemas and March 19 at 7 PM at Pacific Film Archive.)

CAAMFEST Details:

When/Where: CAAMfest 2014 runs March 13-23, 2014 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland and as well as select museums, galleries, bars and music halls.

Tickets: This popular festival sells outs, so advance ticket purchase is highly recommended for most films and events.  Regular screenings are $12 with $1 to $2 discounts for students, seniors, disabled and current CAAM members.  Special screenings, programs and social events are more.  Festival 6-pack passes are also available for $60 (6 screenings for price of 5). All access passes are $450 for CAAM members and $500 for general.  Click here for ticket purchases online.  Tickets may also be purchased in person and various venue box offices open one hour before the first festival screening of the day.

Unpacking the festival: Click here to see full schedule in day by day calendar format with hyperlinks for film and event descriptions and for ticket purchase.  The official website— CAAMFest 2014.

March 9, 2014 Posted by | Dance, Film, Food, Oakland Museum of California | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s film festival time again—SFIAAFF 30 Opens on Thursday, March 8, 2012

The 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens its ten day run in Bay Area Theatres this Thursday.   This year’s festival showcases 102 of the very best new Asian American and Asian films and videos from around the globe, with 10 films making their global premieres.   The festival, a presentation of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM,) is the largest of its kind in North America and offers many new sights and sounds, including cutting edge dramas, unflinching documentaries, innovative short films and videos, and special retrospective and revival programs.  Stay tuned to ARThound for festival coverage.

Festival Ticket Information:  Excluding special events, panels, galas and special screenings, advanced general admission tickets are $12. Students, seniors (65+) and disabled adults are $11 (Limit 1 per program with ID Only!). Tickets for Center for Asian American Media members are $10 (Limit 2 per program per ID). There is a $1.50 service charge for all tickets purchased online.

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , | Leave a comment

review: SFIAAFF 29 “Made in India” a new documentary screening this weekend shows that outsourcing your pregnancy to India is cheap but delivers a heavy bundle of issues

As “Made in India “ opens, 40 year old Lisa Switzer tells us that she, like many women, defines herself by her ability to have children.  Sadly, she and her husband, Brian, have tried all the latest technologies but she cannot carry a baby in her uterus due to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and complex endometrial hyperplasia.  Desperate for a child, they have put up their home and are going to gamble it all on having a baby through a surrogate in India.  Infertile American couples on average pay $110,000 for a domestic surrogacy while the cost in India is roughly $25,000 including clinic charges, lawyer’s bills, travel and lodging and the surrogate’s fee.  Surrogacy outsourced to India has become such an attractive option to couples unable to have their own children that it has spawned an entire industry in procreative or reproductive tourism, valued at more than $450 million in India. And that industry has a bundle of ethical, legal, moral/human rights attached to, making it all the more attractive to filmmakers who have the mettle to really dig into it.

In "Made in India," a documentary about procreative tourism, 40 year old Liza Switzer has tried to get pregnant for 7 years run out of options and decides to outsource her pregnacy to a surrogate in India who will be implanted with embryos created from her own eggs fertilized by her husbands sperm. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

Enter Rebecca Haimowitz (American) and Vaishali Sinha (Indian), two accomplished and determined women, whose feature-length documentary Made in India is of the best explorations of the subject to date.  Made in India film follows the white and middle-class Switzers, who live in the suburbs in Texas on a journey that leads them to India and to Aasia, the Indian surrogate who will gestate their baby to term.  

As the editor of many articles on adoption, I wondered why the Switzers, who had exhausted practically all their options, would not consider adoption.  Lisa Switzer answers straight out that they feel they need a child that carries their own genetic imprint and will settle for nothing less. Still, after 7 years of trying to conceive and carry a child, there is nothing to show for their emotional heartache and depleted finances.  Lisa’s desperation is palpable and her husband’s desire to fulfill her non-negotiable wish has been taxing and he speaks candidly about what they have gone through.  

After searching the Internet, Lisa finds Planet Hospital, a Los Angeles-based organization that serves as a third-party facilitator, outsourcing medical practices abroad to 38 hospitals in 13 countries.  She speaks with CEO, Rudy Rupak, who operates out of what appears to be an office he rents on a daily basis and learns that she and her husband will pay about $25,000 by using an Indian surrogate.  They will not be able to choose or to meet the surrogate and will have to travel to Mumbai to the Rotunda Clinic for egg extraction which is also cheaper and expedited.  Rudy explains that in the interest of efficiency, Lisa will arrive in Mumbai when she is at the appropriate time in her cycle and she will be matched with an Indian surrogate who is ready to accept the embryo for imlantation.  Later, they will return to pick up their baby.  Listening to Rupak speak, you get the immediate sense that the Switzers, like many couples, represent a business opportunity to be seized and mined.

In "Made in India," Assia, who is married with two children of her own, becomes a surrogate for Americans Brian and Liza Switzer. They are told she will receive $7,000 and she is told she will receive $2,000. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

Haimowitz and Sinha act as fly-on-the wall documentarians, capturing the moment by moment complexities of organizing this from Lisa’s perspective and from the perspective of Aasia, the surrogate.  Aasia is a poor, illiterate young woman who is married and already has two young children of her own.  She and her husband live in the slums of Mumbai and his work as a mechanic has been threatened by all the new cars on the market.   Her motivation for this is purely financial.  When her sister-in-law tells her about this opportunity, she too jumps on it and speaks of what it will mean to be able to save some money to better the lives of her children, especially her daughter.  

The film unfolds in real time and does an excellent job of covering the emotional roller-coaster of surrogacy for the parents as well as for the surrogate, who must agree to relinquish the baby at birth, and her family.  Aasia must also convince her husband to sign papers that agree to the surrogacy, no easy task in a society where a women’s value is largely derived from her purity.  At first, the Indian couple is not even aware that conception can occur via embryo implantation and that intercourse is not necessary.  Aasia explains the procedure to her husband but not risking his refusal, doesn’t explain fully the papers he is signing.  As her pregnancy becomes visible, she concocts a cover story for the neighborhood—she is doing this for her sister (fabricated) who is unable to conceive and will give the baby to her.  

"Made in India" explores the cost efficiency of surrogacy in India and the booming reproductive tourism industry. Here, at the Rotunda Lab, in Mumbai, a technician is preparing Lisa Switzers freshly harvested eggs for fertilization and implantation into the Aasia, the Indian surrogate who will Lisa and Brian Switzers baby to term. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

While there are many opportunities for the filmmakers to insert strong bias unto this film, Haimowitz and Sinha do an excellent job of remaining as editorially neutral as possible recognizing that the Switzers are desperate for a child, Aasia is desperate for money, Planet Hospital is doing this for profit and in India every single person along the way is expecting slice of the action.  As might be expected, the “truth” about who gets paid what is muddled and it becomes apparent very early that the Switzers are being told that the surrogate will get $7,000 while Aasia is told she will get $2,000.   The filmmakers, who know what is happening to both parties, do an excellent, and what must have been ethically grueling, job of letting the story unfold.   

Made in India also explores the complex ethical issues involved in international surrogacy through brief conversations with well-versed experts.  In all, the film sensitively explores the emotional and financial desperation that is driving this industry in India and some measures that are currently under consideration in India to regulate surrogacy and offer some protection to both surrogates and foreign couples.  The most immediate and glaring risk is the medical risk to the surrogate which in this case seems responsibly minimalized through regular medical check-ups, the opportunity to live in a maternity home with other surrgoates, a hopsital delivery, and post-natal attention.  This is not always the case and all sorts of disasters have been reported in the media.   We are left to imagine what might happen if she miscarries–is she compensated at all?  or if the pregnancy or delivery results in some permanent impairment, how is she cared for long-term?  

The film also makes it very clear that the risk is not all born by the surrogate.  The parents can face hurdles with obtaining birth certificates that name them as the parents, as well when medical complications arise before, during and after birth.  In the end though, for families like the Switzers, having a baby made in India has been an unexpected but worthwhile path to parenthood.  And for the surrogate, the money earned even from a grossly unbalanced exchange, is a windfall that would not otherwise be available.   This film is a must-see for those contemplating international surrogacy.    

Made in India: (2010, 97 minutes)  Directors/ Producers: Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha, Cinematographers: Adri Thakur, Basia Winograd, Rebecca Haimowitz, and Vaishali Sinha, Editor: Myles Kane, Music: Amrtha Vaz. Made in India was supported in part by Chicken & Egg Pictures, Center for Asian American Media, The Fledgling Fund, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, New York State Council on the Arts, The Playboy Foundation and other generous donors/foundations.   

Details:  Made in India is part of the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), San Francisco.   Screens— SUN 3.13 (6 PM, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco), WED 3.16 (6:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco), SAT 3.19 (6 PM, Camera 12 Cinemas, San Jose).  General Admission Tickets: $12 available online at and in person on day of show for cash at the venue before the screening.  Advance sales tickets are available in person only at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas until March 17.   A limited number of rush tickets will be available for each screening after advance sales tickets are sold out.  The line for rush tickets will form about one hour before show time outside the theatre.  No rush tickets for PFA screenings.

 

March 11, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Welcome to Adoption—in “Wo Ai Ni Mommy,” a Jewish family in Long Island gets a new member from China and everyone has to adapt

8 year old Sui Yong (3rd from left), a Chinese orphan meets with her foster family for the last time before she is adopted by the Sadowsky family of Long Island in Stephanie Wang-Breal's "Wo Ai Ni Mommy." Photo CAAM

How do you adapt to a brand new family member from a different culture?  Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s first feature film film “Wo Ai Ni Mommy”  (“I Love You Mommy”) breaks important ground as she travels to Guangzhou, China with adoptive mother Donna Sadowsky of Long, Island, New York, to meet her 8 year-old daughter, orphan Sui Yong (“Faith”) for the first time.  

Wang-Breal acts as a fly-on-the wall documentarian, capturing the moment by moment complexities of forging a loving and healthy bond with an older child from another culture.  While over 70,000 children have been adopted from China into the U.S. since 1992 and everyone’s experience is different, this story is unique.  It is told in real time and captures the child’s perspective, often in her own voice.  Most adoption documentaries are told from the perspective of the adult adoptee looking back in time or the adoptive parents’ experience or even the relinquishing birthmother’s point of view.  This one is straight from the psyche of an 8-year-old who was abandoned as a 2-year-old and has been living at the orphanage and in foster care.  She has never seen a Caucasian before but has been told by a kindly Chinese social worker named Leila that she is going to have a good life in a place called America. 

As the film unfolds, nothing is held back.  We first meet the Sadowsky family in Long Island.  Jeff and Donna have two teenage sons and a 3-year-old Chinese daughter, Dara, who was adopted at age 14 months.  The decision to adopt another child was agreed upon by all family members and everyone’s view seems to have been respected.  The action then moves to China with Donna in her hotel room, a few hours before she is going to meet her new daughter, Sui Yong.   Her elderly father has made the journey with her.  Her husband Jeff made the difficult decision to stay at home and care for the rest of their children so that Donna could devote her full attention to Faith.  Donna is anxiously preparing stacks of hundred dollar bills and organizing gifts for the orphanage. Sui Yong’s care for 6 years has been subsidized by the Chinese government and Donna is paying $3,000,  a pittance compared to costs in the US. 

At the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Office, the first meeting between mother and daughter unfolds in the chaos of what appears to be a dozen similar introductions taking place all at once.   The tension is palpable.  A social worker carefully handles the introduction and Sui Yong is asked what she thinks of the name “Faith.”  She is then told that she will now be called Faith and she should call Donna “Mommy.”   She is told many times that Donna loves her and that she will come to love her Mommy too.   As Donna gives her daughter her first hug and pulls her into her arms, Faith is stoic, shell-shocked.  When given the chance to ask Donna questions, she asks only one—does the Sadowsky family eat fish.  To which Donna answers yes, “We like fish.”   A smile emerges.

What follows is a linear narrative—tracking moments of happiness, ambivalence, sheer fright and acting out, an unexpected meeting with Faith’s Chinese foster family, traveling back to Long Island where Faith meets the rest of her new family, and her subsequent struggles to integrate into family life in America.   Language, food, habits—everything Faith has known as young Chinese girl vanish as she struggles to adapt to boisterous Jewish family life.  Donna is a no-nonsense mom and establishes boundaries and expectations right away–Faith must learn English to communicate and she needs to learn to share what’s going on inside so that her family can understand her needs.  Dad Jeff is a very loving father who is keenly aware of the impact of his smallest gestures of affection or discipline and is very careful to treat all his children equally and with sensitivity.  

Over the course of 17 months, we gradually witness Faith’s transformation into a lively, outspoken American child.  Rapid immersion has had a remarkable impact– there is a noticeable set of cultural gains and losses and actual shifts in her personality and identity.  She moves differently, has different expressions and attitudes and now identifies herself as American.  Sadly, she has nearly forgotten her native Cantonese language but wants desperately to communicate by Skype with her beloved foster sister in China.   Of particular interest is the rare footage of adoptive mother Donna meeting Faith’s Chinese foster mother and family in China.  (In China, the law prohibits foster parents from adopting.)  We are poignantly aware throughout the film that this foster family nurtured Faith for several years in China.  This loving bond, her most significant source of attachment and love after her birthmother abandoned her, has been a healing anchor for Faith.  The Sadowskys recognize that and welcome the foster family into their lives as well.

In all, we marvel at the courage of the Sadowsky family to allow a camera to roll uncensored through this intimate and often raw experience.  Some very difficult moments are captured and this is actually what gives this film its real force.  When Faith does not get her way, she pitches a fit and says she wants to leave and return to China.  When she struggles with carrying her books due to her impairment, she doesn’t ask for help and is scolded when they drop to the ground.  At one point she blurts out to Donna “You are a white person and I am Chinese.”  Adoptive mom Donna Sadowsky has a strong parenting style.  She doesn’t always achieve immediate success but she is consistent, respectful and always listens to her children.   We never doubt her love for Faith.  As the film progresses, we witness the entire family trying to strengthen their bond with Faith and to protect her.  In all, what emerges is a very realistic account of the hard work, self awareness and love it takes to pull adoption off on a daily basis.  This is a deeply moving and intelligent film that probes the very heart of what family means while exploring issues of identity, cultural assimilation and bonding.  

 “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” is part of the year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, March 11-21, 2010, sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)San Francisco.  It has also been selected for the prestigious PBS award-winning series Point of View 

Screens— SUN 3.14 (3:30 PM, Kabuki, San Francisco), WED 3.17 (7:00 PM, Kabuki San Francisco).

March 13, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s film festival time again– SFIAAFF 28 Opens on Thursday March 11, 2010

 

It’s film festival season again and this year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival opens its 10 day run on Thursday March 11, 2010, with a gala premiere at the Asian Art Museum of  David Kaplan’s food-centric romantic comedy “Today’s Special,” starring “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi and celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey.  This year’s festival offers a fantastic program, showcasing 109 of the very best new Asian and Asian American films and videos from around the globe, with 4 films mkaing their global premieres.  Thirteen films have special connections to our Bay Area.  I always attend SFIAFF because the films are wonderfully diverse with fantastic storylines and I love their “out of the vaults” selections of old classics like the 1960 South Korean black and white cult thriller, “The Housemaid” (“Hanyeo”) whose director Kim Ki-Young is South Korea’s Luis Buñuel.  This film was discovered in the West in 2003– 40 years after its debut in Korea and considered one of the top three Korean films ever made.  The story revolves around a music teacher and his live in help–rat poison, blackmail, abortion, suicide and murder—all contribute to a farfetched but engrossing story.    The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), in San Francisco, is actively involved in producing a lot of these films, so the screenings have a warm familial quality to them.  This year, there is a strong emphasis on Filipino and Filipino American media-making through retrospectives, exciting new films and a CAAM-produced mobile game. The festival takes place in San Francisco (Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Landmark’s Clay Theater, VIZ Cinema), Berkeley (Pacific Film Archive) and San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas).  Most of these films sell out early, so buy your tickets online in advance, or you can try on the day of the event at the screening venue.  Here are ARThound’s top picks:

Catch a Lino Broca flick—This year’s SFIAAFF featured director is Filipino Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and if you aren’t familiar with his work, you need to be.  The festival offers a unique chance to see four of his rarest masterpieces, beloved classics that delve into the heart of being Filipino and melodramatically capture themes of marginalization, family life and honor.  His 1985 political commentary “Bayan Ko” (screens Thursday, March 18 at PFA) had to be smuggled into France to be shown at Cannes which led to his citizenship being revoked by an angry Marcos regime. But even Marcos could not stop him, and he and a few others made the 1970s and early 1980s a golden age for Tagalog films in a country whose people are still among the most avid filmgoers in the world.  “Insiang” (screens Saturday, March 13 at Kabuki) may be Broca’s greatest film ever– depicting motherhood turned on its head–offering a mother so selfish and treacherous that we can hardly believe the impact of her poor judgement and cruelty as it plays out on her daughter, Insiang, in the slums of Tondo.  

“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee(world premiere)  Berkeley director Deann Borshay Liem journeys back to Korea to explore her true identity  after living with the knowledge that the name on her adoption papers “Cha Jung Hee,” given to her at age 8, is not her true identity at all.  Liem was adopted at age 8 from the The Sun Duck orphanage in South Korea in the 1960’s and sent to America as “Cha Jung Hee” for her eager American adoptive family–Borshays.  Liem grew up as “Deann” in this very loving family and lived her life quite successfully.  She ultimately became the executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.  She essentially forgot who she was before she came to America.  Through dreams and events that jarred long-suppressed childhood memories, the urge to know her story became an obsession.  She began to believe that she was both victim and complicit in a complex hoax that altered the course of her life and the life of the real Cha Jung Hee, whose place she had taken in America.   The film captures her attempts to heal as she pieces together her identity with what facts she can find and people she meets along the way.  Masterful editing, blending scenes from the Korean war, with stills of the orphanage, with Liem’s home movies from the 1960’s, with Liem’s experiences in Korea  add to the dreamlike quality of this film.   This is a sequel to her Emmy award winning “First Person Plural” from 1999.   

“Tehran without Permission” is Sepideh Farsi’s intimate portrayal of contemporary life in this mysterious Persian capital city that was thrust to our attention last year with its notorious election scandal.  The film was shot entirely and discretely with a Nokia cell phone and captures the pulse of what’s happening in Tehran’s streets as well as within private residences—the only havens where people can literally let their hair down.  What’s amazing about this film is its testament to the human spirit—these courageous, stubborn and hopeful people have adapted to the bizarre restrictions imposed on them with a kind of national schizophrenia that allows them to lead one life on the streets and another behind closed doors.  (In Farsi with English subtitles.) 

“Agrarian Utopia” is Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s cinematically stunning acccount of the beauty and hardships of daily life in a traditional Thai farming community against the backdrop of globalization.  The film captures two tenant farmers and their families through a harrowing but typical rice crop season by focusing on their daily lives from dawn till dusk.  The pace is slow and unhurried and draws the viewer into the sublime experience of living in nature and being subject to its whims–floods, electrical storms, thick morning mists and spectacular sunsets.   Seductive were it not for the need to survive and the desire to offer a better life to your children.  They face crippling debts,  uncertain market prices, uncoopertive water buffalos, the forces of nature and a daily struggle for food.   Facing pressure from their wives, they refuse to abandon what they have and know for uncertain  factory jobs in an alienating urban environment.  They hold out against increasingly unsurmountable odds, hoping for a turn of events but distrustful of the electioneering politicians in distant Bangkok who are crying for reform and a return to farm subsidies with reasonable repayment rates.  We watch them trap and eat rats, snakes, dogs, worms, and honey-whatever they can find and–they remain genuinely thankful for daily survivial.   One neighboring farmer, divorced, and with no obligtaions, has embraced organic farming which requires more work initially but has long-term benefits.  Sadly, these families feel they do not have the luxury of time and chose to struggle on.  (In Thai with English subtitles.) 

“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, Part 4-5” The West Coast premiere of Shanghai conceptual artist Yang Fudong’s (born 1971, Beijing) five-part black and white cinematic extravaganza that explores the uncertainty facing China’s new generation of urban youth as they confront the disparities between their real and imagined lives set against the backdrop China’s new and rapid modernity.  The highly-acclaimed series made a splash at the Venice Biennial and recalls the black-and-white prewar films of the 1930s and 1940s China and postwar avant-garde film noir.  The title references the legendary Seven Sages, a group of 3rd century Chinese intellectuals who separated themselves from civil society to lead Daoist-inspired lives (fueled with heavy alcohol consumption) in the countryside.  Parts 4 and 5 complement the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  Part 4 covers incarnations of the seven intellectuals as fishermen and travelers in a new frontier isolated and alienated.  In Part 5, the seven intellectuals return to Shanghai, where they take up meaningless jobs. They are shown drinking and cavorting (full frontal nidity) in a banquet hall, and as the scenes take on an increasingly surrealistic tone, the nonsensical seems an analogy of contemporary urban life. 

The festival closes with a gala premiere of Bay Area-native Arvin Chen’s campy romance “Au Revoir Taipei,” set in Taipei’s markets, back alleys and karaoke bars.

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment