By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood March 27, 2014 at 10:30AM
Between its two weekends, CAAMFest adheres to a civilized program of evening screenings that begin at 6 pm or later and encourage you to see one or two movies an evening -- civilized, except for the fact that driving over the bridge from the East Bay in order to arrive in Japantown by showtime required an hour. I planned to leave earlier in order to savor a bowl of freshly-made noodles at the delightful Suzu Noodle House right next door to the Kabuki, as well as cut down on the actual drive time, but that never happened. I was lucky enough to grab a package of gyoza from the takeout area of the excellent Nijiya Market, halfway in-between the Kabuki and the New People Cinema.
And I needed it for Monday's first film, Ang Lee's 1994 "Eat Drink Man Woman," charmingly introduced by Ted Hope -- erstwhile Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, current CEO of Fandor and producer of many Ang Lee movies, including "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet," and "The Ice Storm." Hope said that when he first saw Lee's short films at NYU, he thought that he was Italian, and that "Ang Lee" was his street graffiti name, a riff on "angle." When he and James Schamus started their production company, Good Machine, Lee's agent continually blew them off, saying "You're just low-budget producers, he's due for bigger things." But Lee showed up in their offices and said "If I don't make a film soon, I'll probably die." Lee is "one of the most thoughtful directors I've ever encountered." He "has an incredibly unique gift to understand the emotional effect of camera placement and focal length." Hope said that if you want to tell a story that's universal, get incredibly specific. Ang Lee, he continued, gave him his biggest compliment, which makes him feel two inches taller: when asked whether he was an American or Chinese director, he said "No, I'm a Ted Hope-trained director."
About "Eat Drink Man Woman," Hope said that Martha Stewart told him that it helped her plan her kitchen, and Momofuku's David Chang cooks multi-course meals based on it. Also, he noted, look out for his wife Vanessa Hope's Chinese-American documentary, "All Eyes and Ears," coming out next year.
It didn't feel like twenty years since I'd seen "Eat Drink Man Woman." And it probably wasn't; I'd probably caught it once during those years. It was almost as enjoyable as it was on first viewing, and just as hunger-inducing, even when the joke -- that the chef cooking these elaborate and exquisite-looking dishes has lost his sense of taste -- is revealed. "Eat Drink Man Woman" has to appear on any list of food movies.
At its end I rushed down the street and just made the opening credits of Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated (Best Foreign Language Film) "The Missing Picture," which had won the Un Certain Regard award at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Even without reading reviews, I knew that it was about the horrible atrocities perpetrated in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, re-enacted for Panh's camera by doll-sized clay figurines. It was powerful and disturbing. I learned, afterwards, that an English-narrated version had also made the festival rounds. I felt lucky that I'd heard the French narration of the film, especially because Panh now lives and teaches in Paris (where he went to film school).
On Tuesday I returned to the 1925-vintage Great Star Theater in Chinatown, where I enjoyed a perfect double bill: the extraordinarily interesting "Golden Gate Girls," 2013, directed by Louisa Wei, about Esther Eng, the first Chinese-American woman director in both California and in China, whose filmography encompassed 11 Cantonese-language features before she decamped for NY and a life as a celebrity restaurateur; followed by the Technicolor-drenched 1947 "White Powder and Neon Lights," part of the rediscovered collection of films of the San Francisco-based Grandview.
Both films had almost-unbelievable origin stories. For "Golden Gate Girls," Louisa Wei's point-of-entry was a box of 600 family photos of Esther Eng, mysteriously discovered in 2009 in a dumpster described alternately as "near SFO" or "in Colma," which (further conundrum) turns out to be Esther Eng's final resting place, since 1970. A generous collector, James Wong allowed Wei to scan all of the photos before he donated them to the Hong Kong Film Archive. In the documentary, Wei traverses the globe, finding Eng's surviving sister Sally -- among others willing to recall Eng for her camera -- as well as lots of bi-continental press about this pioneering woman filmmaker (compared with Hollywood's Dorothy Arzner) and intriguing bits and pieces of Eng's films. Eng was a charismatic out lesbian who had no qualms about dressing in mannish (and becoming) trousers, and continued to exercise her charms in her last years as a well-known restaurant owner who catered to a showbiz clientele in New York's Chinatown.
"White Powder and Neon Lights" was fortuitously discovered in a cache of films that local archivists knew were stored in the basement of an Oakland Chinese restaurant, the Golden Bowl, when phone calls in January 1999 suggested that reels of film were resting in a dumpster outside the restaurant. Stephen Gong, Executive Director of CAAM, was then working at the Pacific Film Archive and called two friends, who drove over with a dolly and pulled the films out. Without actually knowing what the films were, they gave them to the Hong Kong Film Archive. It took a decade to determine they were productions of the Grandview Film Company, a legendary Cantonese studio begun by Joseph Sunn Jue in San Francisco in 1933, continued in Hong Kong in 1939, and then re-established in San Francisco for the duration of WWII.
The title, "White Powder and Neon Lights," refers to its Chinese opera milieu in San Francisco. A fabulous star, Miss Ha, is imported, and she falls for the blandishments of a rich local, who encourages her to carouse at nightclubs and causes her art to suffer. The acting is quite good, the sets and costumes lush and bright. I was especially taken by one scene when Miss Ha shows up in matching, intense red coat, hat, and patent-leather purse to a red-decorated living room reminiscent of Diana Vreeland's Billy-Baldwin-decorated-"garden in hell" -- and the occasional glimpses of 40s SF shot in Technicolor are delightful indeed. It was especially powerful to watch the film in an old Chinese opera house in Chinatown, with two of Sunn Jue's daughters in the audience.