CAAMFest 2013: Movie Preview Guide

AstroBoy_StillThere’s a lot going on at this year’s CAAMFest, formally known as the Asian American Film Festival.  With so much live music events, tasty food showcases (including one with KQED), and parties, one might almost forget that there’s actual movies taking place.  Almost.  As enticing as these extracurricular cinematic activities will no doubt be, my primary purpose for attending CAAMFest is for the cinema!  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I won’t be exploring the many auditory and taste offerings taking place throughout the 10 days, but first things first – movies, movies, movies.

Each year at this festival I have discovered at least one movie of exceptional quality, and this year, judging from the small selection of movies I have been fortunate enough to preview, looks to be no different.  After the jump are my capsule reviews (all 10 of them) of CAAMFest movies I’ve seen thus far.  Some good, some great, and some not so much.  With so many movies to choose from this year, hopefully this guide will help you make a more informed decision, or at least spark discussion.  CAAMFest runs from March 14th -24th.

Linsanity

Linsanity_Still2four-stars4Racism, humility, and a likability factor that is off the charts infuse Evan Leong‘s finely tuned intimate glance at Jeremy Lin, the first Asian-American and Bay Area local to not only make it to the NBA but to play on an all-star level as well.  This is an underdog story for the ages that everyone, even those who don’t follow or even much care for Basketball – like myself – can’t help but get swept up in.

Showtimes for Linsanity: Thursday, March 14th – 7:00pm (Castro Theatre)

Graceland

Gracelandthree-stars15Director Ron Morales‘ tautly intense look at karma at its most punishing follows Marlon, a loyal lower-class driver who has just been laid off by his employer, an upper-class Senator involved in scandalous activity with a 14-year-old.  From there, a string of even more unlawful actions find Marlon, leaving him left to do everything in his power to get back the people in his life who matter most.

Aside from one questionable shot involving the stripping of an underage sex slave (Call me Mr. Prude, but couldn’t a scene like this have the same, if not stronger impact, if it was intensely implied?) I was still able to find myself involved in this story from start to finish, which is all I ask for in a good kidnapping thriller.

Showtimes for Graceland: Friday, March 15th – 7:30pm (Kabuki)

Tuesday, March 19th – 8:30pm (Kabuki)

Jiseul

Jiseul_Still2three-stars15A meditative drama told from that of the predator and the prey’s vantage point during the 1948 Jeju Massacre, where Koreans were ordered to kill villagers who lived within a certain radius and who were deemed to be communists.

For such a strong subject matter, I was surprised at how much I found myself laughing.  While there is nothing funny about the event this movie’s depicting, some of the situations, and most of the small-talk conversations that transpired had me laughing more than I think one should when it comes to a massacre focused drama such as this.  Whether this was the filmmaker’s intention or not; I do not know.  I just can’t figure out why it is that this comedic element even exists.  Clearly its not from the orchestral score, as the music throughout is sparse and used at all the appropriate times.  Nor could I blame the keen eye of the cinematographer, who see-saws us to and from the intimacy of these people’s ordeal by perfectly lighting the many beautiful distant shots as well as the impressive shadowy claustrophobic ones.  Maybe the reason was to show how ridiculous war is in the first place.  Yeah, I think I’ll go with that for now.  For sure, I’m looking forward from hearing how others perceive this one.

Showtimes for Jiseul: Friday, March 15th – 7:30pm (Kabuki)

                                       Tuesday, March 19th – 8:30pm (Kabuki)

Turn It Up to 11 Part 2: Wild Days

TurnItUp_Still2three-stars15First off, don’t let the “Part 2″ in this movie’s title stop you from potentially seeing a fun movie, albeit not a very cinematic one, of a rock band of energetic Koreans and their entourage embark on a Texas road trip.

Dubbed the “Korean Kings of rock and roll” this ultra high energy trio, Galaxy Express, along with their manager, merchandise guy and camera crew give a somewhat honest portrayal of what life on the road could be like for a touring band on the indie circuit, and, if nothing else, does a fine job adding a strong feel-good sentiment to the theme of our planet’s universal language – music.

Showtimes for Turn It Up to 11 Part 2: Wild Days: Sunday, March 17th – 9:40pm (Kabuki)

Thursday, March 21st – 7:00pm (PFA – Berkeley)

Xmas Without China

XMASWOCHINAtwo-stars1If someone were to challenge you to rid your house of everything that was made in China, could you do it?  That’s one of two challenges being posed in Alicia Dwyer‘s duel narrative documentary which tackles the uneasy definitions of both dependence and independence for those with seemingly vast cultural and historical differences.

The other question is aimed at Tom Xia, the film’s pro or antagonist, depending on your view.  He is the one imposing the all-things-made-in-China-must-go ban on the “typical” middle-class white family.  By “typical” I mean a plumpy couple with two kids, one dog, one cat and one mid-sized suburban home straight off the cover over a Better Homes and Gardens magazine.  Essentially, the American dream.  His challenge lies in coming to terms with where he stands as a Chinese-American who has not become a legal citizen.

Though this high conceptual Super Size Me approach to making a statement was at times entertaining, the predictable conclusions fell right in place with the filmmaker’s esthetics, which were too contrived and made-for-TVish to have any real lasting impact.

Showtimes for Xmas Without China: Friday, March 15th – 9:10pm (Kabuki)

Monday, March 18th – 6:30pm (New People)

Sunday, March 24th – 7:30pm (New People)

Postcards From the Zoo

PostcardsFromTheZoo_Still2three-stars15In blending documentary esthetics with that of ethereal fantasy the director simply known as Edwin delivers a mystical character study movie unlike any other.

This is the story of Lana, who as a kid was abandoned at the Zoo, which means that naturally she was raised by Zookeepers, the stragglers living in the Zoo, and of course, the animals, particularly Giraffes.  Aside from reiterating what I already know about magic – that it’s fucking cool! – and learning a slew of facts about an animal my Girlfriend says I resemble most – the Giraffe – I walked away from this movie feeling fully satisfied in not only seeing something different, but something unconventionally good as well.

Showtimes for Postcards From the Zoo: Sunday, March 17th – 4:15pm (New People)

Friday, March 22nd – 8:45pm (PFA – Berkeley)

Beautiful 2012

Beautiful2012_Walker_Stilltwo-stars1From Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Korea comes four roughly 20 minute films that surely can’t be representative of the best Asia has to currently offer in the realm of short form cinema.  This is made most clear with Ming-liang Tsai‘s entry, The Walker, whose existence might very well be to show where the state of Asian pretentious art installations masquerading as movies currently stand.

In keeping with this posts’ theme of keeping the reviews at a brief length, rather than give a rundown on all four films I’ll just say a sentence or two about the worst and the best of the bunch.

The Worst – The Walker: A purposefully inflicted grueling exercise in tedium from a director who probably hates anybody who likes being even remotely entertained. This juxtaposition of city life mixing with that of the temperament of a Buddhist Monk with an extremely slowed walking pace would make a legless Sloth look like a Cheetah on speed.  20 minutes rarely feel this painfully long.

The Best – My Way: In terms of story, direction, and acting, hands down, Ann Hui‘s film about a woman born into a man’s body was noticeably better than anything else this omnibus had to offer, and shows that, when done correctly, short films can be every bit as powerful as their more popular feature-length siblings.

Showtimes for Beautiful 2012: Saturday, March 16th – 12:40pm (Kabuki)

Sunday, March 17th – 4:00pm (PFA – Berkeley)

Beijing Flickers

BeijingFlickers_Still2one-star2If I wanted to watch a bunch of despicable moody drunks narrate their self loathing poetry whilst rendering their best impression of what “cool” looks like, then yes, this cheap imitation of a Wong Kar Wai film would be for me.  But believe it or not, I don’t enjoy cheap imitations of anything, especially my cinema, or the art of Wong Kar Wai, for that matter.

I know there’s a crowd out there for this type of “swagger first, make sense later” type of movie, probably the same crowd that drools over The Boondock Saints and Mr. Nobody (generalizing, I know), but I guess I just have to come to terms with knowing that I won’t be a part of it.  My loss, I’m sure.

Showtimes for Beijing Flickers: Saturday, March 16th – 8:20pm (PFA – Berkeley)

Thursday, March 21st – 9:45pm (New People)

Saturday, March 23rd – 4:00pm (Grand Star Theatre)

Seeking Asian Female

SeekingAsianFemale_Stillthree-stars15Why is it certain people are attracted to others based solely on their race?  Through remarkable candid access to Steve, a Northern California man with seemingly no shame or apologies for who he is, filmmaker Debbie Lum seems to have found the perfect test subject for her thesis on the condition slangily referred to as “Yellow Fever”.

Though Lum’s movie is uncinematic and simple in structure, it’s still shot well enough to successfully convey themes such as love, happiness, ulterior motives, loneliness, societal perceptions, and self-reflection without feeling you’re watching someone’s first attempt at a full length documentary feature.  In other words, it’s accomplished, as is evident in the message I’ve taken away from this movie. That message – love is complex, and deserves to be found by everyone from every walk of life.

Showtimes for Seeking Asian Female: Friday, March 15th – 7:00pm (PFA – Berkeley)

Wednesday, March 20th – 6:30pm (Kabuki)

Saturday, March 23rd – 5:00 (New People)

High Tech Low Life

high-tech-low-life-zhou-shuguang-aka-zolafour-stars4The blogger as a modern day warrior?  You bet.

With blogging being such a readily accessible form of expression for anyone with access to a computer, it’s easy to brush off the impact that bloggers have, especially those with no formal schooling in media.  But take it from me, as I am living proof that one “ordinary citizen” with a passion for blogging (in my case, cinema) can have an impact – however small – on the cinephile community, even if that impact is something so simple as someone telling me they saw a film based solely on one of my reviews.

Now imagine being a blogger in China, a country whose Government’s oppressive rule goes so far as banning Facebook, and setting up secret organizations to monitor the blogosphere for any sign of anti establishment sentiment.  This is the climate that two Chinese bloggers, Tiger Temple and Zola (not their real names by the way) must blog under as they report on social issues that the national and local news would never even think about reporting.

Even though I have some questions (minor nitpicks, I know) regarding the staging of quite a few shots, particularly the subjects on their bikes, I have no question in the authenticity being projected on screen of both Tiger and Temple’s moral fortitude as blogging activists.  Nor do I have any question as to the scrutiny those who publicly go against the grain in China must live under.  Ah, the price of freedom.

Showtimes for High Tech Low Life: Saturday, March 16th – 7:30pm (Kabuki)

Sunday, March 17th – 9:00pm (New People)

Tuesday, March 19th – 8:20pm (Kabuki)

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