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CAAMFest Turns 40!

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For its 40th CAAMFest, the Center for Asian American Media has brought some intriguing films for this milestone film festival.  This year’s festival, which runs from May 12-22, 2022, will offer among other films: a SXSW Award-winning documentary set in the middle of red America; a horror comedy set in an insane housing market; and the recounting of a notorious San Francisco homicide case affected by racial stereotyping.  The 40th CAAMFest will be a hybrid festival, with both online screenings and in-person events at such venues as the New Parkway Theater, the Asian Art Museum, and the Great Star Theater.  

Kicking off the 40th CAAMFest is Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee.”  The titular Korean immigrant wound up being convicted of a San Francisco Chinatown gangland killing.  The trouble was the Caucasian tourists who fingered this self-proclaimed street punk as the killer operated under the racist assumption that “all Asians look alike.”  Lee’s imprisonment would spur an unexpected political coalition to work for his freedom.  But how would the imprisoned man deal with being a cause célèbre?  The Opening Night screening will be of particular interest to Broke-Ass readers as it’s a free screening at the Castro Theatre.  However, attending CAAMFest 40’s Opening Night Gala still requires buying a ticket.


Free Chol Soo Lee

Also of local interest is My-Linh Le’s Oakland-set “Mud Water.”  Oakland is the city where turfing was born.  In this combination musical/documentary/drama, two storylines gradually intersect.  Turfers are trying to win a dance battle.  And a man who lost his shadow seeks to recover it.

In Erica Eng’s short drama “Americanized,” Eng is a Chinese-American high school sophomore and basketball player growing up in Oakland’s hip-hop culture.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to fit into the world around her.  Between her hyphenated identity and the lack of social acceptance, where’s the place where she can comfortably belong?

Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, viewers can follow actor Alaudin Ullah as he takes a different personal trip through New York City’s neighborhoods.  “In Search Of Bengali Harlem,” the documentary Ullah co-directed with Vivek Bald, follows Ullah’s journeys to the NYC places where his parents grew up.  His trip’s motivated by guilt from his realizing he saw himself as a typical New Yorker and his parents as living stereotypes of Bangladeshi Muslim parents.  But what Ullah will discover is a forgotten history of a community forged by Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and South Asian Muslims.

In Search Of Bengali Harlem

Fai, the protagonist of Jun Li’s drama “Drifting,” wishes his government wouldn’t treat him as somebody to forget.  He’s a homeless ex-con junkie living in one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts.  The city’s government doesn’t care how he got into that situation nor does it feel obligated to even apologize for clearing out his belongings and those of other homeless people like him.  Based on an unfortunately true story.

Guaranteed to further give the finger to the Chinese government and its repressive impulses is Chan Tze Woon’s documentary/narrative hybrid “Blue Island.”  The 2019 protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government’s notorious extradition bill isn’t a historical aberration.  Long before the “Revolution Of Our Times,” Hong Kong had a long history of being home to political protest.  That history gets recounted through the stories of three men from three different generations: Chen Hak-Chi, who fled the 1970s Cultural Revolution by swimming to Hong Kong; Kenneth Lam, a student leader who survived the Tiananmen Square Massacre; and Raymond Yeung, a businessman who incited the 1966–67 anti-British colonial protests.

Centerpiece Documentary “Bad Axe” takes viewers to filmmaker David Siev’s titular rural Michigan hometown.  His Cambodian-Mexican family long ago became part of the community and joined in the common pursuit of the American Dream.  However, thanks to the onset of the COVID pandemic and way too many white Americans openly flying their racist flags, the Siev family’s efforts to make it through 2020 just became more difficult by a factor of 10.  Winner of both the 2022 SXSW Audience Award For Documentary Feature and a Special Jury Recognition For Documentary Feature.

Bad Axe

If you thought “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was confusing, then you haven’t seen the Centerpiece Narrative “Leonor Will Never Die.”  Martika Ramirez Escobar’s film begins simply enough, with an aging filmmaker knocked into a coma by an encounter with a television.  In that coma, the filmmaker becomes the heroine of her own unfinished script.  Her resulting adventures involve nods to Filipino action films of the 1970s and 1980s, Filipino culture, and film as an art form.  This genre-mangling tale earned a Special Jury Prize For Innovative Spirit at the Sundance Film Festival.    

TT Takemoto’s experimental short “Ever Wanting (For Margaret Chung)” recounts the life of the first female Chinese-American doctor…who was also a lesbian.   Complex problems of career struggles, personal identity, and sexual desire in the heated years of World War II would eventually lead to Chung’s developing a drug abuse problem.  But she became determined to survive her tribulations and emerge stronger.   

A longer bit of historical mind-blowing can be found in Crystal Kwok’s personal documentary “Blurring The Color Line.”  When the average person thinks of life in the Jim Crow-era South, they usually envision relations between Black people and white.  Where did Asians fit into the scheme of the region’s racial politics?  Kwok’s grandmother and her family experienced the answers to this question first-hand after they opened a Chinese grocery store in the segregated South.


In the personal documentary short “My Chinatown, With Aloha,” director and Fourth Generation Chinese-American Kimberlee Bassford examines her family’s relationship to Honolulu’s Chinatown.  Also providing perspective are the effects on the neighborhood of two public health crises: the present-day challenges of COVID and the 1899–1900 bubonic plague outbreak that hit Hawai’i.

Unemployed construction worker Anela struggles to avoid eviction in Bradley Tangonan’s dramatic short “River Of Small Gods.”  Possible salvation comes from a sculptor’s ad promising to pay well to whoever can gather stones from a particular place.  But what happens when the place in question turns out to be a sacred riverbed?

Think the San Francisco housing market is bad?  Then you haven’t seen Hong Kong’s astronomically high housing prices.  In such circumstances, the best thing to do might be to laugh.  Noted Hong Kong film director Fruit Chan’s new film “Coffin Homes” treats the city’s insane housing market as the basis for a horror comedy.  It’s a collection of tales involving a real estate agent, a wealthy family, and a landlord.  These worthies are about to find out what’s worse: the stratospheric cost of a place to live in Hong Kong…or the ghosts that haunt their homes.

Vietnam’s first science fiction film, “Maika,” promises to deliver family-friendly feels.  Ham Tran’s tale concerns eight-year-old Hung, who’s lost his support network.  His best friend’s moved away, his mom’s just died, and his dad’s off working and grieving his wife’s death on his own.  Fortunately, into the lonely boy’s life comes a girl with purple hair who’s actually a super-powered alien. Hung’s life will soon take a turn for the better.  

Every Day In Kaimuki

Closing Night Film “Every Day In Kaimuki” takes another familiar story and tells it with a shoegaze music soundtrack.  Naz is a college radio DJ and skateboarder in the small Hawaiian town of Kaimuki.  Supposedly, he’s jumping on the opportunity to leave Kaimuki for the big lights of New York City with his girlfriend Sloane and his grey tabby cat.  But doubts about whether New York City will ever feel like home to him or even whether Sloane’s on board with the idea of leaving their hometown soon bring into question Naz’ resolution to follow through on his plans.   

There’s no guarantee viewers will discover the next Jon Chu or Michelle Yeoh at CAAMFest 40.  But it is certain that interested viewers will be exposed to Asian and Asian-American creative voices they haven’t seen or heard elsewhere.

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.