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A world worth of perspective at CAAMFest

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MARCH 17, 2014

Every year, the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival provides a splash of culture and perspective in the Bay Area film scene. This year, the festival runs from March 13 to 23 in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, including submissions from all over the world. Boasting offerings for “every taste,” the films at the 2014 CAAMFest are as diverse and out-of-the-box as ever.

‘The Great Passage’

“Can you define the word ‘right?’ ” This sounds like a straightforward question. But what about specifically defining the direction “right,” without using hand gestures or the word itself? Suddenly, the task seems a bit more confusing.

Enter Mitsuya Majime, a man so diligent that his name literally translates as such. In fact, his orderliness is damaging to his interactions with others. There’s a subjective element to social communication, both verbal and nonverbal, so Majime’s ultra logical style of thinking renders him severely introverted and unable to function socially. That is, until he is approached by Kouhei Araki, a dictionary editor seeking an apprentice.

The dictionary he wants to write is not normal by mid-’90s Japanese standards. Instead, it must be “living,” adaptive and changing, much like the real language it will represent. This tome could serve as a means of spanning the rifts between the manifold meanings of words as perceived by different people, making language more easily understood and connecting all who use it — regardless of how they do so. With effort, even Majime may someday come to interact with others as a normal, social human.

“The Great Passage” is essentially a love letter from director Yuya Ishii to the Japanese language, even vaguely approving of the oft-resented linguistic upheaval caused by the technological boom of last century’s end. Hence, pieces of the film’s point may be lost in translation to English-speaking audiences. All the same, this 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission’s quirky take on linguistics is worth a viewing.

— Erik Weiner

‘Pee Mak’

While the opening scene may fool American viewers into thinking that “Pee Mak” is just another frightening horror film from an Asian country a la “The Audition” or “The Ring,” the rest of the film quickly establishes a refreshing, humorous tone. “Pee Mak” is a horror-comedy, from Thai director Banjong Pisanthanakun (who has completed his fair share in the strictly horror category). It is about five dim-witted friends who return home from war and whose leader, Mak (Mario Maurer), cannot wait to be reunited with his wife and newborn baby. Something isn’t quite right on the home front, however, as everyone in the village is superstitious that his kind-faced wife Nak (Davika Hoorne) is actually a dead spirit. Mak’s friends Ter (Nattapong Chartpong), Puak (Pongsatorn Jongwilak), Shin (Wiwat Kongrasri) and Aey (Kantapat Permpoonpatcharasuk) soon discover for themselves that the superstitions might be more real than Mak wants to admit.

Here the story takes a route akin to “Saving Silverman” (if produced by Guillermo del Toro), as the gang tries their hardest to show Mak the truth without angering his supernatural spouse. Physical comedy runs rampant as they trip, tip-toe and holler their way around Nak’s ever-looming presence.

The film has been doing very well in its native Thailand and has been haunting its way around the globe. While a few of the more complicated jokes might be lost a bit in translation, overall, “Pee Mak” succeeds in following its creepiest moments with its biggest laughs.

— Ryan Koehn

‘Dreaming Lhasa’

In this 2005 feature wistfully entitled “Dreaming Lhasa,” the married production team of Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin explores the merger of cultural influences upon life in the Tibetan diaspora, as well as the difficulties faced by those displaced by the region’s occupation. The film may get a little sidetracked at times in its attempts to weave in possibly semi-autobiographical details of love and conflict through its occasionally heavy-handed performances. Regardless, the themes of self-discovery, imported values and identity preservation resonate powerfully against the handsomely vibrant Himalayan backdrop.

“Dreaming Lhasa” begins with Karma, a young Tibetan American woman who has come to Dharamsala with the goal of making a documentary on the lives of the Tibetan political refugees who now live in northern India.

As the base of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government, this particular city happens to be a hub of exiled Tibetan culture. It is here that she meets Dhondup, a former monk who asks her to help him find an old Tibetan soldier in order to deliver to him a mysterious relic of unknown meaning. She soon learns more than she could have expected of her ancestral home, as the land yields its oldest, most interesting secrets.

The missions of Karma and Dhondup may drive the story onward, but it is the music and people they encounter along the way that really make this movie as distinctive as it is. Politics aside, it does a decent job of highlighting the unique resilience of Tibet.

— Erik Weiner

‘Ilo Ilo’

In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a Singaporean family goes through both economic and familial changes as its equity starts to dwindle and when it hires a Filipina maid named Teresa (Angeli Bayani). Teresa takes care of Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), an impulsive and mischievous 10-year-old boy who rashly lashes out against his mother and maid. As an immigrant, Teresa simply has to endure these new circumstances in order to send money back home for her child. Her role becomes clearly delineated as simply the nanny when the mother, Hwee Leng, takes her passport away and immediately tells her to start with the house chores.

Teresa, however, becomes closer with Jiale, forming a unique bond that makes the mother jealous and suspicious. Director Anthony Chen organically builds this relationship, showing Teresa standing up for herself when Jiale tries to bully her and gaining his affection by buying sweets from the market. With financial troubles mounting, the father, Teck, tries to figure out new business opportunities after losing his job.

The film isn’t concerned with creating heroes and villains but is rather focused on weaving together difficult and uncomfortable moments for a family in crisis. The convergence of the family members’ individual hardships in the film reminds us of the internal ruptures and complicated situations that occur during recessions that can potentially divide families apart. Winner of the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Chen captures intimate portraits of a Singaporean family confronting and adjusting to newfound realities in their lives.

— Fan Huang

‘Farah Goes Bang’

Farah Mahtab (Nikohl Boosheri), a 20-something Iranian American girl, goes on a road trip with her two girlfriends campaigning for John Kerry’s 2004 election. She also hopes to finally lose her virginity, as her friends tease her, “We need to get your bush out of office.” Together, the girls make a stop to campaign in Texas against the advice of the campaign manager. “There are red states and blue states,” he tells them. “The only states worth campaigning are the purple ones.”

This cautionary statement serves as only a challenge for these ambitious and passionate girls. Their idealistic goals are quickly rebuffed when they discover adamant Bush supporters and deep racism in the post-9/11 climate.

With the 2004 election as the backdrop with heightened promises from candidates and a degree of uncertainty, the film has its share of eccentric right-wing caricatures but also has more nuanced portraits of moderate voters.

Farah’s campaigning parallels her ambivalence in the direction of her life. Director Meera Menon juxtaposes the three friends to not only show their bond, but also show Farah’s lack of self-confidence and anxiety regarding her virginity. In her first feature film, Menon creates a natural dynamic between the girls that touches on themes of race, femininity and identity. “Farah Goes Bang” is a charming comedy that frames a coming-of-age story about Farah’s process of sexual discovery under the umbrella of her two close friends.

— Fan Huang 

CAAMFest runs in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland until March 23.

Contact Ryan Koehn at 


MARCH 19, 2014

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