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CAAMFest 2013 Preview

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Formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest (organized by the Center for Asian American Media) has become an important launching pad for many up-and-coming Asian and Asian-American filmmakers. Every March for the past 30 years, the festival has showcased hundreds of films, proving to be the country’s most vital source for Asian cinema. This year the festival seems to offer a healthy balance of documentaries, shorts and narratives. Our picks include two Asian-themed documentaries — including “Invoking Justice,” which looks at gender justice in India, and “Seeking Asian Female,” which tells of the struggles of a cross-national marriage — and several narrative features, including an experimental film by the Cannes award-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Braulio Ramirez

‘Mekong Hotel’
An empty, silent hotel terrace overlooks the Mekong River in Thailand. A placid young man and woman absorb this scenery as they mourn the death of the man’s dog. “Its entrails have been eaten,” he tells her, “like in a Temple Fair movie.” He’s certain it was the Pob, a female ghost that lingers on this side of the river; so he’s laid a monk-blessed pot near the dog’s tomb to catch the Pob. Not too long after this, the woman lingers in a dim hotel room with her mother, a petite woman with a humdrum voice confessing she’s a ghost with some semblance of humanity.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Palm d’Or-winning director of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” steadies all of these scenes with a soothing soundtrack of an acoustic guitar that lends the entire narrative — if one can even call this a narrative film — a melancholic dreaminess. This adds a very strange tonal dichotomy to the film, because Weerasethakul scores even the most disturbing scenes with the blues. Just imagine watching a rabid old woman crouched over a corpse and devouring its guts while the blues play in the background. The music evokes a soft serenity that’s much more likely to conjure a picture of two lovers strolling barefoot on the beach than a cannibalistic dinner. Weerasethakul does not make a horror film with “Mekong Hotel,” however. But it’s also hard to pinpoint what he does try to make. Weerasethakul’s odd execution inevitably elicits a growing sense of impatience.
When: March 15, 4 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
Braulio Ramirez

Sunset Stories
At the center of “Sunset Stories” is May, an overwrought nurse sent to Los Angeles to pick up bone marrow for a transplant. We learn L.A. is the last place on earth she wants to go to. There lives JP, the guy she left behind a few years ago and whom she’s been trying to erase from her life ever since. During her reluctant visit, May happens to simultaneously bump into JP and misplace the cooler where the bone marrow is being transported. Her high-strung nature requires JP’s insouciant casualness to help her retrieve the cooler. For the next 24 hours, the two are forced to face the prickly past they share as they try to beat the clock and find the cooler.

The script’s cliched, formulaic premise already sets some tonal and stylistic obstacles for the film. Directors Ernesto Foronda and Silas Howard don’t do anything to freshen up this hackneyed story by filming it in such a contrived and rudimentary way. It’s almost insulting that they expect the viewer to believe May and JP have the perfect combination of detective savviness and luck to successfully follow the cooler’s tracks within such an untidy and overpopulated city. What’s even more disappointing is how implausible May and JP read as a former couple and how inauthentic their interactions feel — and the flat performances don’t help. By the time we reach the last third, there’s really nothing that can redeem this unimaginative story.
When: March 15, 9:10 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
Braulio Ramirez

‘Seeking Asian Female’
In “Seeking Asian Female,” director and narrator Debbie Lum documents the love life of Steven, a 60-year-old American Asiaphile who wants nothing more than to fall in love with and marry an Asian woman. Steven pours through actual binders full of women and scours the Internet in search of his perfect “sunshine girl,” an idealized Asian bride. After connecting through email, he flies Sandy, a young Chinese woman with dreams of a life in America, out to San Francisco to become his wife. As unsettling as it is touching, the film’s love story initially appears to be genuine, but as the wedding approaches, both Steven and Sandy quickly realize the danger of falling in love with a fantasy.

“The film is primarily about learning and unlearning stereotypes. It’s also a love story, as uncomfortable as it is at times,” Lum told The Daily Californian. “Western men have this fantasy about Asian women that they’re going to be submissive, traditional, docile, catering … It’s very much related to this post-feminist backlash.”
Steven’s cheerful demeanor saves the situation from being exploitative, but it also makes his earnest search for love all the more heartbreaking to watch. Tension radiates from many scenes as cultural clashes, financial problems and romantic disappointment work together to pull the veil of fantasy off the odd couple’s eyes. The indie documentary’s exploration of “yellow fever” and Lum’s own entanglement in the lives of her subjects offer a uniquely informative and emotional, albeit uncomfortable, experience.
When: March 15, 7 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
— Grace Lovio

‘Postcards from the Zoo’
“Postcards from the Zoo” feels like a postcard itself, sent straight from the Surrealist imagination of director Edwin from the story’s fictionalized zoo in Indonesia. This film marks Edwin’s sophomore feature debut and premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012.

Lush, intimate shots of the zoo’s jungle-like atmosphere perpetually engross the viewer and set the scene for Lana, a young girl who is abandoned by her parents at the animal park. We find years after she was raised by a humble giraffe trainer on the grounds and observe the effect that a life spent entirely within the confines of a zoo has had on her. She meets a stoic magician who travels around doing stage shows and develops a crush that is based mostly on his exoticism and experiences beyond the zoo walls. Upon following him out into the city, her naivete is harshly curbed when she and the magician find work performing at a spa that doubles as a brothel.

“Postcards from the Zoo” is nuanced in its ambiguity, often making unceremonious jumps in time. What happens off-screen is told only by the fading light in Lana’s eyes while she is away from home. Interesting parallels are drawn between the animals Lana loves in the zoo and women put on display in the brothel. Overall, Edwin’s harsh adult fairy tale is filled with magic — some fake, some real. While intelligent, the film is perhaps a little heavy-handed in its thematic message on the loss of innocence.
When: March 22, 8:45 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
— Ryan Koehn

‘Invoking Justice’
The institution of sharia law has certainly garnered a bad reputation regarding women’s rights and sexual equality. In “Invoking Justice,” director Deepa Dhanraj explores the challenges this system poses for the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat, a forum-style court responsible for handling familial disputes. While sharia is usually enacted under a patriarchal interpretation, the women leading this group strive to spread a more balanced reading of the Qur’an throughout their South Indian state.

The film focuses on a few particularly emotional cases. In one, a woman complains of her husband’s abusive tendencies. The local jamaat would likely turn a blind eye to his behavior and deny her any form of divorce, but the Women’s Jamaat gives her the social support and individual strength to pursue a divorce for the sake of her daughter’s future. In another, an investigator named Humsoon seeks the truth behind the death of Noorul Basriya, a girl forced into marriage after an affair with her neighbor. While police insist her fatal wounds were self-inflicted, Humsoon knows enough about the power of honor and money within her society to believe this death was anything but murder.

The ebbs and flows of action in the film reflect the slow but often rewarding processes these women face in their quest for justice. Moments of quiet frustration erupt into impassioned disputes. The sociopolitical issues portrayed in “Invoking Justice” — corruption, blackmail and female subjugation — run very deep. However, the efforts of the Women’s Jamaat provide hope that these obstacles may someday be transcended.
When: March 22, 7 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
— Erik Weiner

‘Beautiful 2012’
Capture, achieve, obtain. Whatever we do with beauty, defining it is difficult. But the four short films that comprise “Beautiful 2012,” made collaboratively by the Hong Kong Intenationl Film Festival and Internet TV company Youku, accomplish this.

The plot of South Korean director Kim Tae-yong’s “You Are More Than Beautiful” is not unheard of: A man hires a fiancee to meet his dying father. But a sense of nostalgic innocence renders the characters beautiful — the climax, for example, is an amateur Korean opera recital by the naive actress posing as the protagonist’s fiancee.

In “Walker,” director Tsai Ming-liang follows a monk, arms out in offering, as he walks Hong Kong at a snail’s pace. The stark contrast between the gray city, all noise and movement, and the red-clad monk’s quietude has an almost therapeutic effect.

Third is Gu Changwei’s “Long Tou,” a faux documentary featuring a dialogue between Chinese citizens on birth, death and the uncertainty accompanying each. Raw and impressionistic images punctuate their conversation: a child blowing bubbles and a cat atop an air-conditioning unit, among others.

Finally, Ann Hui breaks our hearts with “My Way,” her portrait of a transsexual woman whose struggle is more stunning than her physical transformation. Whether stifling tears behind a pot of noodles or waking with joy in the women’s recovery ward after her sex-change operation, the protagonist aches from a beauty that has survived the odds.

Through these four shorts, “Beautiful 2012” reminds us that the human struggle is beauty itself.
When: March 17, 4 p.m.
Where: Pacific Film Archive Theatre
— Josephine Yang

Braulio Ramirez covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Contact Ryan Koehn at [email protected]. Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected]. Contact Grace Lovio at [email protected]. Contact Josephine Yang at [email protected].

MARCH 11, 2013

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