CAAMFest Online: Heritage At Home–Reviews

by on May 19, 2020

"Mother Tonque"

It particularly hurts that the Coronavirus outbreak has forced the closure of this year’s CAAMFest.  San Francisco’s annual film festival showcase for API-themed films would have celebrated its 40th edition this year.

Fortunately, the Center for Asian-American Media (CAAM) came up with a way to both honor Asian Pacific American Heritage Month while meeting social distancing concerns.  From May 13-22, 2020, CAAM is currently presenting “Heritage At Home.”  This online festival offers panel discussions as well as virtual cinema screenings and even a watch party.

Several of the CAAMFest online offerings were screened for review.

CAAMFest At Home opened with Lynn Chen’s endearing romantic tale “I Will Make You Mine.”  It’s a semi-sequel to the films “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings,” as the four main characters in this film collectively appeared in the previous films.  However, the previous films don’t need to be seen to appreciate the new film.

In contemporary Los Angeles, university professor Erika (Ayako Fujitani) has returned from Madison, Wisconsin to arrange her father’s funeral and possibly sell his house.  Her relationship with Goh (Goh Nakamura), struggling singer/songwriter turned customer service representative, has fizzled out despite their producing a daughter named Sachiko.  Goh, who’s also in town for his father-in-law’s funeral, accidentally encounters his former girlfriend Yea-Ming (Yea-Ming Chen).  She’s a singer-songwriter who’s now having doubts about the struggling musician thing.  Also facing doubts about her life is rich wife Rachel (Lynn Chen).  Her current unhappiness with her marriage nudges her to reconsider whether she made a mistake passing on Goh all those years ago.  These four characters’ lives will cross and even re-cross in sometimes unexpected ways as they each re-assess their lives and consider paths forward..

In a way, Chen’s film inverts the approach of the earlier films.  In both “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings,” the main focus was on Goh while Rachel became “the one who got away” and Yea-Ming was “the rebound relationship.”  In “I Will Make You Mine,” the power relationships among the four characters becomes a lot more balanced.  The three women may have a prior relationship with Goh in common.  Yet all four of them are equal in their desires to question the current directions of their lives.

That desire rests in the very human impulse to second-guess then reasonable decisions that now appear to be a mistake.  Erika had left Los Angeles for Madison because Goh went there.  But is there a reason to return to Madison given the collapse of their relationship?  Rachel’s waiting for Goh to make the first move ironically pushed them apart.  Lack of commercial success and providing for Sachiko convinced Goh to give up his music career.  Yet doing so also meant for Goh giving up something he truly loved.

Near the film’s beginning, flashbacks to Goh’s earlier relationships with these three women provide moments of sweet melancholy.  They’re shot to create a sense of nostalgic wistfulness for emotional innocence lost to the hard vagaries of life.

The songs performed by Goh Nakamura and Yea-Ming Chen provide a nice counterpoint to these characters’ individual second-guessing.  These are not songs of people who aggressively know what they want from life.  Rather, they create a feel of people looking for answers and the hope that the process of muddling through will lead to the answers sought.

Erika’s, Rachel’s, Yea-Ming’s, and Goh’s quests for answers get complicated by their own emotional hang ups.  These four characters have such problems as depression, a case of romantic FOMO, residual jealousy contending with age differences, and fears of having a creative spark that’s permanently gone out.

Chen’s love for these characters allows her to dodge the familiar traps of unnecessarily making a character a villain or pinning the film’s resolution on Goh’s winding up with one of these three women.  Instead, the peace of mind the members of this quartet needs has to come from within themselves.

***

Also in search of peace of mind is Drama Del Rosario, the director and subject of the personal autobiographical documentary “I’m Okay (And Neither Are You).”  The film opens with a conundrum.  How did Del Rosario go from a playful evening in drag to being taken by the police to a Los Angeles city psychiatric unit for observation?   The answer involves the consequences of a traumatic event in the director’s recent past.

Del Rosario’s film reveals the answer in a semi-linear fashion.  In one thread, the viewer follows the director’s struggles with using therapy to address the traumatic event.  Another thread, which also explains how Del Rosario wound up in the Psych Ward, focuses on the director’s increasingly strained relationship with his lover Chris.  The final thread recounts the incident itself as well as the personal baggage that was created by that event.

These narrative threads might be what a viewer would expect given the nature of the subject matter.  Yet what distinguishes this short film is the degree of frequently uncomfortable candor the director brings to recounting this months-long healing process.  Displaying unreasonable expectations for therapy proves to be one problem.  But the bigger problem revealed by Del Rosario’s honest confrontation with his past is admitting that he was raped while being unfaithful to Chris.

Del Rosario’s lover, it’s revealed, teetered on the knife edge of ending their relationship.  The erratic behavior Drama began displaying strained Chris’ own mental well being.  Del Rosario’s mention of having suicidal thoughts, for example, prompted Chris to reluctantly call the police and make a sudden return to Los Angeles from overseas to be with his lover at Christmastime.  It’s definitely encouraging to learn later that Chris’ prior experiences with having a mentally ill family member gave him the edge needed to stick with his lover.

Viewers who dismiss the director’s central trauma as complaining of having sex in a bathhouse are missing the point.  Yes, bathhouses are venues for sex.  But for Del Rosario, there was neither consent nor pleasure in that fateful encounter.  His reaction was more akin to a shocked inability to process what had just happened to him.

It can be conceded that this short could be called part of the director’s therapeutic healing process.  After all, he finally talks about the traumatic incident to important people in his life.  Luigi, the friend who was with Drama when the rape occurred, has a chance to talk about his inaction in a neutral setting.

However, even that concession doesn’t subtract from the film’s central power.  If art is to mean anything, it is to display an unblinking courage to observe the unsavory parts of human behavior and find wisdom in them.  “I’m Okay (And Neither Are You)” may be too lo-fi to possess much visual eloquence.  But its emotional eloquence comes through quite clearly.

***

Leena Pendharkar’s short film “Awaken” movingly considers the painful choices a child must make in obtaining care for a mother who’s developed Alzheimer’s.  Rakhi Singh’s plan to transition her mother Uma into a care facility is hampered by the Alzheimer patient’s disoriented disruptions.  However, increasing Uma’s drug dosages to eliminate such disruptions holds little appeal for Rakhi.  The answer to Rakhi’s dilemma ironically winds up coming from Uma.

Pendharkar inventively uses allusion to flesh out this simple plot.  A shot of Uma’s face captured while the background is out of focus suggests the inner mental world the older woman resides in.  The smooth departure of Rakhi’s husband and their son when Uma’s brought back for the night to the family apartment hints at old friction between Rakhi and her husband regarding handling the declining Uma.  Most significantly, the solution at the end never feels like the prelude to a happily ever after future for Uma.  Instead, it comes across as the first of many challenges that Rakhi will face regarding Uma’s care

That melancholy feeling comes after knowing some details of Rakhi’s backstory.  Thanks to a reminiscence by Uma, the viewer learns that Rakhi comes from a family where its members were expected to help pick each other up when one member encountered difficulties in life.  However, the Singhs’ mutual family aid is no longer possible.  Father Sunil has been dead for three years.  Sister Rina is continually unavailable.  Uma can’t provide much self-help.  Putting all the responsibility for Uma on Rakhi’s head feels like a burden that the film’s heroine must carry alone to the end.

***

The protagonist of Eris Qian’s short “Mother Tongue” faces equally wrenching emotions resulting from a mother who’s developed Alzheimer’s.  Lisa Lin is an American Born Chinese who does not speak a word of Mandarin.  When Alzheimer’s causes Lisa’s mother to lose her ability to speak English, a language barrier goes up between mother and daughter.  Lin’s preparations for her own pregnancy starts making her aware of how much she’s in danger of losing.

Loss and its inevitability casts a long shadow over Qian’s short.  Lin is introduced to the viewer performing traditional Chinese mourning rites for her now dead mother.  The mostly untranslated Chinese dialogue symbolizes the permanent severing of the bond that once existed between mother and daughter.  As Lisa and her husband convert her mother’s bedroom into a space for the child they’re expecting, the process feels like a methodical erasure of the old woman’s presence.  Even the eventual death of Lin’s mother feels like a consequence of the disruption of the mother-daughter bond.

Yet while “Mother Tongue” acknowledges the existence of loss, it also shows that reclamation can be part of life’s cycle too.  Lisa’s dream of her younger self suggests that if she and her mother are no longer bound by language itself, they’re still bound by what the language signifies and the culture the language comes from.  This realization provides some comfort to Lisa after her discovery of the symbolic “Mother-daughter” English language card among her mother’s effects.

***

Faux News bloviator Bill O’Reilly appears early in the Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia television documentary “And She Could Be Next.”  A clip shows O’Reilly announcing the prospect of America’s current white majority eventually becoming another American minority.  He delivers this demographic factoid in the same way you tell someone they have cancer.  But as Lee and Safinia’s film shows, the progressive women of color candidates who ran in the 2018 midterm elections would bring to the halls of American political power perspectives and experiences currently ignored by the mostly white male power structure.

“And She Could Be Next” is actually a two-part television documentary.  CAAMFest screened only the first episode at its online festival.  To be fair, though, the first episode does end at a good moment.  Also, the outcomes of some of the more high-profile races chronicled here are generally well known.

The subjects of Lee and Safinia’s film are half a dozen women of color across the country who ran for public office in 2018.  These women are Rashida Tlaib, Stacey Abrams, Lucy Mc Bath, Bushra Amiwala, Maria Elena Durazo, and Veronica Escobar.  They’re running for offices ranging from a County Commissioner spot in Skokie, Illinois all the way to Governor of Georgia.

It goes without saying that not all the subjects portrayed in the film will succeed in their political runs.  But a subject’s personal failure winds up being outweighed by the inspirational value of their contests.  Showing that a 19-year-old Pakistani-Muslim woman can mount a credible political challenge can inspire the demographics she embodies.

And indeed, the other subjects of “And She Could Be Next” definitely don’t hail from the political class.  One subject comes from a Mexican farmworker family while another used to be a Delta Airlines stewardess.  But as AOC’s cameo appearance reminds the viewer, not rising through the political class ranks isn’t necessarily a barrier to becoming an elected official.

Yet unlike the Orange Skull, the film’s women of color subjects possess talents making them better suited for public office than the former reality television host and failed businessman currently squatting in the White House.  Escobar was an El Paso judge who publicly challenged the right-wing shibboleth of a supposed crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Amiwala won a Harvard University debate tournament.

One galling truth that the film’s subjects repeatedly run into is the valuation the political establishment places on voters of color.  Basically, they’re welcomed as warm bodies which can increase the party’s power.  What’s not welcomed are their personal experiences and the hard-won wisdom that comes with it.  Even acceptance of their physical presence in spaces “where they’re not expected to be” feels grudging at best.

Yet as the viewer learns the personal stories of these candidates, they show themselves to have richer lives than the millionaires who typically manage to buy their way into public office.  Abrams’ formative political moment came when a white guard refused her entrance to the Governor’s mansion despite her being a valedictorian like the white ones already admitted inside.  Mc Bath constantly has to deal with the fallout of losing a son to gun violence.  One such problem is others too uncomfortable to acknowledge Mc Bath as a mother despite her personal loss.

Lee and Safinia are honest enough to admit that often a candidate’s interesting personal story can be buried under political dirty trickery.  It could be highly partisan Republican gerrymandering or the Republican Secretary of State’s closing of voting precincts in heavily minority neighborhoods under the bogus claim of failure to be ADA compliant.  It could be the county’s Democratic political party commission using their information resources to deny name recognition to a challenger competing with their anointed candidate.  It could even be the public leaking of personal information about a candidate’s credit card and student loan debt to imply that this candidate would be a disaster handling the state’s finances.

Despite these sometimes overwhelming obstacles, the viewer still winds up hoping most of the women profiled succeed in their political contests.  White people are not the only persons capable of representing the diversity of America.  Rashida Tlaib’s brother shows in his golf cart canvassing that it is indeed possible to harness the political power of a minority vote that had been previously written off.

If Lee and Safinia’s film inspires more women of color to run for office, it will already have accomplished far more than political parties’ “diversity outreach” efforts.

(“I Will Make You Mine” will be released on Blu-Ray and VOD on May 26.  “And She Could Be Next” will eventually screen on PBS.  “I’m Okay (And Neither Are You)” screens at 2:00 PM on May 20, 2020.  “Awake” and “Mother Tongue” screen in the “With My Mother Shorts Program” at 2:00 PM on May 22, 2020.  The remaining festival screenings take place on the CAAMFest Site.  For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to https://caamfest.com/2020/all-films-events/ .)

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