The SF Bay Area's venerable Asian American Film Festival rebranded itself several years ago as the snappier (if somewhat more opaque) CAAMFest, referencing both its parent organization, the Center for Asian American Media, and its expansion to include music, art, and food-oriented events, as well as movies.
The opening weekend was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. Opening night films are always problematic, and this year's was no exception: "How to Fight in Six Inch Heels" may have topped the Vietnamese box office last year, but it's the kind of far-fetched rom-com that I try to avoid in real life. The stereotypical characters included an overachieving young Asian woman whose doubts about her relationship send her into a tizzy and over to Vietnam to spy on her fiance, a haughty, capricious French fashion designer who threw tantrums in all his scenes, and not one but two gay best friends (one for each continent). I must admit that the costume designs did provide amusing distractions, up to and including the dazzling avant-garde outfits worn by the two young women (the director's wife and sister) who designed the film's clothes and joined eight of their colleagues onstage for a Q&A after the film.
The story of "How to Fight in Six Inch Heels"'s co-writer, co-producer and star, Kathy Uyen, as told in a six-minute short part of the "Employed Identity" web series funded by CAAM was more compelling. A San Jose native, Uyen found herself too Asian for Hollywood, and too American in the Vietnamese film industry, so she wrote and produced this film to star herself.
I also must admit that the film pleased the vocal capacity crowd at San Francisco's beautifully preserved 1922 Castro Theatre, who also enjoyed seeing Stephen Gong, CAAM's executive director, receive a proclamation onstage from the City and County of San Francisco, which named March 13th CAAMFest Day. "That never gets old," Gong said. The proclamation was presented by David Chiu, first Asian-American president of the Board of Supervisors, who also mentioned that there are currently five Asian-American supervisors on the 11-member board, as well as Edward M. Lee, the first Asian-American mayor of San Francisco, and Jean Quan, the first Asian-American mayor of Oakland. Lusty cheers all around.
Less than 24 hours later, I was worlds away aesthetically, just across town in Japantown, at "Framed Works," a program of experimental and documentary shorts curated by Chi-hui Yang, a former director of CAAMFest. I was put in a good mood immediately by Nobu Adilman's "A+," a witty deconstruction of a cinephile's movie calendar, assigning letter grades to the many films he sees -- Godard gets Ds! Antonioni gets A+! I was alternately soothed and diverted by the other half-dozen films in the elegant 75-minute program, especially "Night Falls on Glass," a "Rear Window"-ish meditation on the skyscraper canyons of Vancouver by Norbert Shieh, featuring an amazing shot of three men preparing dinner in three identical kitchens on three different floors of one anonymous tower. Experimental can often mean off-putting and pretentious, especially in a festival setting, but not this time.
Again another aesthetic, directly afterwards: television on the big screen, as I saw "Family Ingredients," a pilot for a PBS Hawaiian-set food/genealogy/travel series, following Hawaiian chef Alan Wong, of Chinese and Japanese descent, as he and host Ed Kenney travel to Japan to seek out the history of the deceptively simple ingredients -- rice, tofu, eggs -- used in a couple of Wong's favorite dishes. Exceptionally gorgeous food porn: the audience groaned with recognition at yet another visit to the sushi temple of Jiro Ono, familiar from 2012 hit doc "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Painful, knowing I'll probably never get there, or afford it if I do. The films' directors mentioned that even they didn't get a taste, standing inches away from where their stars were consuming $440 worth of sushi each (18 pieces in 45 minutes). Until then I was quite happy with my takeout sushi and karaage (fried chicken) from the bustling Nijiya Market just up the street.
And finally, a third compelling aesthetic to finish off the day, and remind us of why we go to film festivals: the fascinating "Karaoke Girl," which combined documentary footage of a young Thai sex worker with staged narrative interludes to good effect. The Q&A with young Bangkok-raised, American-resident director Visra Vichit Vadakan, again, revealed a compelling backstory. It took Vadakan five months of visiting Bangkok bars and interviewing sex workers to find her star, Sa Sittijun, and convince her to take part in the film. The sequences of visiting her family in the country, who think she's working in a factory in the city, was all documentary footage, shot on digital; the Bangkok scenes were partly documentary, partly fiction, and shot on film.
Since shooting the film, the energetic Sa has quit sex work, gone back to school, worked as a DJ and a model booker, planned a juice business, and auditioned for other roles. Although the camera loves her, she has a "northeastern country girl look," and the Western city girl look is more popular in the industry. Her family hasn't seen the movie, and Vadakan even offered not to release the film in Thailand, to save Sa's face. But she was willing.