Asian American cinematic bests: CAAMFest 2021's screenings, panels online

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 11, 2021
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'Happy Together,' 'Amy Tan:Unintended Memoir," and 'Club Quarantine' at CAAMFest 2021.
'Happy Together,' 'Amy Tan:Unintended Memoir," and 'Club Quarantine' at CAAMFest 2021.

CAAMFest, the nation's largest festival of Asian American and Asian film, food, and music presents a dynamic program from May 13 to 23. The festival will feature virtual screenings, panels and performances, as well as an opening weekend with drive-in programs at Fort Mason Flix.

Following in last year's footsteps, CAAMFest, taking place during Asian Pacific American Heritage month, will showcase its diverse innovative program virtually, celebrating the Asian American community in a year rocked by the pandemic and anti-Asian racial discrimination.

"The violent attacks and hateful rhetoric have made the past year difficult for the Asian American community," says Stephen Gong, executive director of CAAM, "making it essential that we continue to produce CAAMFest as a place to come together around stories that show the breadth of the Asian American experience and our interconnectedness with other communities."

CAAM festival and exhibitions director Masashi Niwano, views the 11-day extravaganza as honoring Asian American creativity.

"Whether it's virtually or in a socially-distanced way, these films and experiences lift our spirits and help us to see our community at its best. The world may have paused due to the pandemic, but our filmmakers didn't. The vibrancy and energy of this year's programming is unmatched with our filmmakers bravely telling their unique and vital stories."

'Happy Together'  

CAAMFest will include a few LGBTQ films in its lineup, capturing the breadth of the diverse multi-variant queer Asian Pacific experience. The festival hosts a screening, just in time for its upcoming 25th anniversary, of the now restored (by Criterion) seminal searing romance Happy Together, directed by Hong Kong's auteur Wong Kar Wei.

We are reintroduced to the gay lovers Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), who fight to keep their relationship together despite being caught in a vicious cycle of infatuation and jealousy, as they travel through Argentina. The brief graphic nudity, the gorgeous innovative cinematography (shifting between monochrome and saturated color) by Christopher Doyle, and the raw emotional yet empathic complexity of Cheung's and Leung's performances, have established the film as one of the cornerstones of the New Queer Cinema.

See you shortly
Another second queer narrative film, unfortunately not available to the press for review screening, is See You Then, directed by Mari Walker in her debut feature.

At a dinner reunion of two former college lovers we meet Naomi, an artist, since married unhappily to a man, now mother of two children with an unfulfilling career, and Kris, who in the past year has transitioned to a woman. Having garnered excellent notices at previous festivals, See is an engaging talkfest in the spirit of Before Sunset, as the two characters reflect on the different paths their lives have taken and whether they may or may not have any future together.

Out/Here, the queer shorts program, has been a staple of CAAMFest for more than a decade. Duet has a sensual, dreamlike quality about a reunion of a high school music teacher and an old colleague performing together for the first time in a piano duet. They once had a romance but have since drifted apart. The music duet with the camera centered on how their hands interact at the piano as telling the story of their relationship, is marvelously rendered.

Will Zang, a San Francisco-based producer and cinematographer, has directed his first short, The Leaf, an encapsulated autobio on his emigration from China, as he faces racism here against immigrants, while he applies for a video editor position. Meanwhile, family members are urging him to return to China because the pandemic is so bad in the U.S., but he wonders if he can be his true self as a gay man, if he moves back there. Frustrated because he can't make the films he wants to create here, he struggles to make a decision. One can only hope he opts to stay in San Francisco and put down roots so he can continue to create quality films like this affecting four-minute work.

Driving with the Top Down, directed by Edward Gunawan, is a touching intimate tour de force personal video essay about a queer Chinese Indonesian man, who —due to prejudice in his home country not only against LGBTQ people but for being Chinese— relocates to Oakland. In a skillful use of photos and archival footage, Gunawan wishes he wasn't so different, yet starts crying uncontrollably out of joy when he marries his partner Jake, and that two men in love can drive with the top down and openly show affection for each other.

Out/Here Shorts series  

An outstanding featurette, Love X Bites from Singapore, chronicles two women who must quarantine together sharing a room at a hotel. Sexual tensions ignite and they find themselves in a passionate affair. But a dark secret may ruin their happiness. Noirish, with a sense of betrayal leading to a shattering conclusion, this tense film is definitely not for those looking for an inspirational COVID moment.

Summer Winter Summer also possesses a noirish bent. Directed by the Vietnamese Thy Tran, it deals with Duy coping with his lover Martin's disappearance by resorting to anonymous hook-ups to escape his emptiness. However, this 14-minute movie, primarily charts the history of their relationship, complicated by Martin's desire to marry a woman and have a baby. The theme, "actions don't always reveal intentions and intentions tell you most about a person," will come to haunt Duy; atmospheric and wistful.

In a combined panel and screening, May 16's programs will include a talk with Margaret Cho, and a screening of her short film, Koreatown Ghost Story.

My favorite in this collection, a seven-minute delight produced by The New York Times, is Club Quarantine. Every night during the pandemic, hundreds of people from around the world gather in a virtual massive queer dance party to showcase their diversity but also their need to find community as they move from isolation to joy. The film is guaranteed to raise your spirits and probably get your feet moving to the pulsating music.

More movies
Additional queer shorts outside Out/Here are also worth seeking out. Swingin' from Taiwan follows stepfather Howard, a flamboyant jazz trumpet player ("a sissy without a pussy") who must confront his own nightmare of childhood bullying so he can help his 6th-grader son Qui, who's persecuted in school for having two gay dads. Beautifully scored, the film non-threateningly and insightfully questions gender roles and the most effective ways to deal with bullying.

'How To Die Young in Manila'  

How To Die Young in Manila is an 11-minute dream-like meditation about a teenage boy who follows a group of young hustlers, thinking one of them might be the anonymous hook-up he's arranged to meet; an evocative journey into an underworld few get to explore.

Synchronized is a local experimental short as five women of color reflect about their experiences living in an ever-changing Oakland. Skillful interweaving of voices, natural landscape sounds, and unconventional Oakland imagery reveal how the personal and environmental can coexist and thrive together. It won't appeal to everyone, but at five minutes it effectively shows the challenges of being a POC immigrant in a city undergoing a white influx and perhaps not as welcoming as it might have been in the past.

F1-100, directed by Emory Chao Johnson, from Malaysia, uses graphic illustrations, art, animation, and archival footage to trace the evolution of becoming a trans man, as one's voice changes on T (testosterone) through weeks and months, and the particular difficulties living with these changes during a pandemic. F1-100 is the class admission as the protagonist tries to emigrate to the U.S, but will have universal appeal as he "hangs onto whatever is true for me whatever form it takes."

Two documentaries, though not LGBTQ-related, have a local connection and should definitely be streamed. The first is Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, directed by James Redford (son of actor Robert Redford) in his final film before his death last November.

In an extended interview with the Asian-American San Franciscan author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, Tan scans through a recently discovered box of old photos as she reviews her life and work, health difficulties (Lyme disease, depression, epilepsy, diabetes), dealing with success, writer's block, and as a backup singer for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a literary garage band (along with Stephen King).

The film focuses on Tan's complicated ultimately forgiving relationship with her depressed —and at times suicidal controlling— mother, who told her stories about life in China before she emigrated to the U.S. This material that became the basis for her bestselling novels.

Part of PBS's outstanding American Masters series (and similar to the very recent Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It), Tan recalls the discrimination she faced as the first bestselling Asian-American author. She was criticized for her depiction of Chinese culture as using stereotypical images pandering to Western popular notions of Chinese people, and also as an errant representative media mouthpiece for Asian-American identity. An absolute must, the film reveals the cost of pursuing your own groundbreaking creative vision but whose coolness, introspection, and '60s-type rebelliousness have produced a riveting, boundary-breaking artist.

The piece de resistance of the festival is the documentary Try Harder, a bird's eye view of students at Lowell ("looks like a prison"), the #1 public high school in San Francisco, most of whom are Asian American and want to attend Stanford, though very few will actually get accepted there.

'Try Harder'  

The pressure at home and at the school to achieve academic success is almost unbearable. One can't help but wonder how that might impact them as adults decades years from now, as many seem destined to revisit these grueling school days on a therapist's couch.

The film follows five students in their senior year as they apply to colleges (some as many as 26!) and see where they are accepted despite having to deal with Asian-American discrimination that's both internalized and embedded in the application process itself.

What makes this doc so heartbreaking is the students' admission that they are constantly competing against each other and lack any self-confidence, since they are forced to compare themselves to others and always feel they come up short.

As one student muses, "you have to get good grades so you get into a great college, so you can find a good job that pays lots of money, but this whole scenario leaves out happiness."

Try Harder brilliantly questions how we define success and the huge emotional cost we pay for following such ambitious goals. This doc will be shown later this year on PBS's Independent Lens series.

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