Little noticed in the ever-escalating chaos of recent history was that before losing his re-election—yes, I realize that is a matter of contention amongst the unstable—Trump managed to achieve an Unholy Trinity. Of course he drastically worsened US racial relations for both Black and Latinx people, but then COVID handed him an excuse to direct his fanbase’s bile at Asian Americans, too. It has been dismaying to discover our ostensible liberal bubble is no better than anywhere else in this regard: Even (or particularly) in SF, hate crimes against that demographic have skyrocketed.
Ergo it’s an especially vivid moment for the return of CAAM Fest (Thurs/13-Sun/23), formerly known as the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, a community event that this year will inevitably feel more an outwardly-directed statement of resilience than usual. As the city finally begins to emerge from shutdown in earnest, the fest will provide a mix of online and in-person events, the latter including an opening weekend of programs at the temporary drive-in venue Fort Mason Flix.
That’s where you can take in the opening night selection, Debbie Lum’s new documentary Try Harder!, which will have two shows this Thurs/13. It’s a look at Lowell High School, SF’s own #1 ranked public h.s., where students admit their number is intimidatingly full of “geniuses” and “superhumans,” while outsiders call it things like “Tiger Mom Central” (yeesh) and “an Asian excellency school.”
“The pressure is kind of insurmountable at times,” one kid says. If you remember your own teenage days mostly for their goofing off and social aspects, that doesn’t seem to be even possible for these intensely competitive not-quite-adults. The strain they themselves and their parents exert to get high scores and grades (how is a 4.7 GPA even possible?) in order to be accepted by top universities appears to leave very little time for fun.
What’s more, almost no amount of excelling can actually guarantee that end result: For starters, Stanford (the dream choice for many here) has an acceptance rate under 5%, and is said to generally disdain Lowell for churning out applicants who are interchangeable high achievers. (There’s a big surprise at the end of Try Harder! in terms of who does actually get a “yes” from that institution.) Such endless grindage for disappointing rewards triggers more than a few deflated graduates, making them “very cynical about the colleges they end up going to.” Nonetheless, one hopes finally gaining physical-psychological distance from their parents’ expectations will work its time-tested magic in shaping more self-assured, self-directed adults.
There’s some drama here, as when a beloved science teacher is sidelined by cancer, or one disadvantaged student loses his home over a father’s drug habit. But most of Try Harder! is about the push, push, push for desirable college entry—one protagonist here applies to twenty-six schools. This documentary is too fast-paced and engaging to be a downer, but on the other hand you don’t really envy the pressure its likable young subjects are under.
CAAM honors three luminaries this year with “Spotlight” programs. Documentarian Evan Jackson Leong, a Richmond District native, will be feted with the presentation of his first narrative feature, the human-smuggling period piece Snakehead, as well as a reprise of his 2013 Linsanity. That portrait of Palo Alto-raised hoops star Jeremy Lin at the start of his NBA career was one of the festival’s most popular opening nighters ever, and remains an ingratiating glimpse at the mold-breaking player whose motto is “God first, family second, basketball third.”
Another honoree is popular actor (especially in voice-only roles on TV and in video games) Dante Basco, from Pittsburgh across the Bay. His performance chops will be showcased via 2000’s groundbreaking feature The Debut, which featured several other members of the Basco family. Ditto his brand-new directorial debut, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, a somewhat sitcomish and uneven but nonetheless crowdpleasing family comedy with his own siblings and other relatives. The third Spotlight celebrity is none other than fellow local hero and stand-up legend Margaret Cho, who’ll participate in a live conversation in conjunction with the new short she’s produced and stars in, Koreatown Ghost Story.
Other big events include Centerpiece Presentation Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, Ann Kaneko’s documentary about environmental activism, and the closing night selection of Iman Zawahry’s comedy Americanish, a rare US narrative feature to center on Muslim women’s experience.
The bulk of the CAAM program encompasses fiction/nonfiction features and shorts in three geographically distinct “showcases”: Hong Kong (including a Fort Mason Flix show of Wong Kar-wei’s restored 1997 masterpiece Happy Together), Pacific, and Taiwanese Cinema. There’s also the broader categories of Documentaries (one about author Amy Tan, three about COVID-related subjects) and Narratives. There are several themed shorts programs, panel discussions, and live performances (albeit on CAAMFest.com) from both H.P. Mendoza and Dan Lee.
This year’s CAAM runs Thurs/13-Sun/23. While some special events are time-specific, most actual films in the festival are available on-demand throughout its schedule. For full program and ticketing information, go to www.caamfest.com/2021