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Arts + Culture Movies Hello Kitty to 'Happy Cleaners': Asian American film shines...

Hello Kitty to ‘Happy Cleaners’: Asian American film shines at CAAMFest

37th edition of the wide-ranging film festival showcases local stories like 'Chinatown Rising' and 100-year-old classic 'The Dragon Painter'

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From SF’s own Chinatown to the crisscrossing currents of transnational adoption, this year’s CAAMFest—formerly known as the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival—covers the globe as usual in its pursuit of subjects and talent from throughout the Asian diaspora. The 11-day event, now in its 37th year, takes place May 9-18 at venues throughout SF and Oakland.

The kickoff this Thursday at the Castro Theatre is Bay Area natives Harry and Josh Chuck’s world-premiere documentary Chinatown Rising. It draws on extensive archival materials and interviews with surviving participants to chart the neighborhood activism that finally pushed this large yet hitherto oft-ignored population into the mainstream of city politics, as well as a national struggle for Asian-American representation. The screening will be followed by an opening-night party at the Asian Art Museum.

The official closer at the Roxie is another new documentary by a local filmmaker. Geographies of Kinship focuses on the stories of several young Korean adoptees, but also looks at the big picture of adoption as a matter of global politics, commerce and controversy. CAAM will pay tribute to its director Deann Borshay Liem by also screening her twenty-year-old first feature First Person Plural, which told her own story of adoption and assimilation.

Similar themes of uprooting and culture shock run through numerous CAAM titles this year, from a revival of Wayne Wang’s beloved 1993 Amy Tan adaptation The Joy Luck Club to Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s Still Human (a seriocomedy about Filipina “guest workers” in Hong Kong), Alfred Sung’s world-premiere The Last Stitch (a documentary centering on Hong Kong emigres to Toronto), Andrea A. Walter’s Empty by Design (a drama in which two expats return to their native Philippines) and Emily Ting’s Go Back to China (a fictionalized spin on the director’s own experience of working at her immigrant parents’ factory).

There are a surprising number of musicals (though no Colma: The Musical again) this year. Centerpiece presentation Yellow Rose features the original Miss Saigon Lea Salonga in a tale of a teenage Filipina who dreams of country-music stardom in honky-tonk Texas. There will be a live score by singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura to accompany a 100th-anniversary screening of The Dragon Painter, a silent romance starring the great Sessue Hayakawa, whose globe-trotting screen career would continue for another half-century. U.S.-Cambodian coproduction In the Life of Music dramatizes how the “King of Khymer Music” Sinn Sisamuth’s signature song “Champa Battambang” runs though three generations of tumult before, during and after the genocidal Khymer Rouge regime.

Other highlights will include separate tributes to two recently deceased leading SF political figures: Mayor Ed Lee, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. The latter was also a documentary filmmaker whose works often showed at CAAM, and will be excerpted as part of the program. Another tributee is Valerie Soe, whose films and video installations have made her a prominent figure in Asian-American feminism, cultural self-examination and experimental cinema for decades.

Among additional feature films of interest are several notable U.S. independent works, like Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s world premiere family drama Happy Cleaners; Sam Friedlander’s more comedic domestic tale Babysplitters; Alister Grierson’s fact-inspired boxing tale Tiger; Justin Chon’s moody L.A.-set sibling reunion story Ms. Purple; and Jalena Keane-Lee’s activist documentary Period Girl.

From farther afield, there’s teenage angst in the Japanese Demolition Girl, about a student whose crap home situation forces her into fetish-video work to pay the bills; Chinese sci-fi drama Last Sunrise; Ten Years Thailand, in which four Thai directors (including Apichatpong Weerasetthakul) imagine a dystopian near-future; and B&W The Widowed Witch, for whom the present is already bleak enough—losing her house and husband, she is virtually homeless in China’s rural north.

There are also shorts programs, filmmaker panels and workshops, live performances (musical and otherwise), and more. For full program, locations and ticket info, click here.  

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