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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/.

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March 8, 2017 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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