Wrap-up Reviews From CAAMFest 35

by on March 21, 2017

Tanuj Chopra’s Palo Alto-set comedy/drama “Chee and T” is a funny slacker buddy film with Southeast Asian American leads.  Viewers will laugh at hilarious drug abuse, sexy women, and cringeworthy sexual innuendo.  Homophobia is fortunately treated seriously.

Spectacular 20-ish underachievers Chee (Sunkrish Bala) and T (Dominic Rains) do odd jobs including being landlord/tycoon Uncle Rob’s rent collecting muscle.  A new job seems embarrassingly straightforward: get Uncle Rob’s nephew Mayunk (Asif Ali) a presentable suit and haircut in time for the boy’s engagement party that evening.  However, Mayunk loves illicit drugs.  His loud player-wannabe patter includes tons of publicly inappropriate sexual innuendos.  The simple job soon devolves into public urination and a disastrous drug deal fail.

“Chee and T” delivers more than in-your-face physical humor (e.g. projectile vomit).  Both lead characters are comedic gut punches to the Asian-American male overachievement stereotype.  Female leads Shana and Monie prove far more successful than the lead characters.  For Chee and T, it’s an achievement to save money in shoeboxes or even still breathe.  Mayunk is both a funny murder-worthy annoyance and a tragic character.

The two lead buddies’ relationship successfully ties Chopra’s film together.  T may be more quiet and deliberative than Chee, but that’s relative to other people.  One of the big questions lingering throughout the film is whether T needs Chee to look good by comparison or if they’re really there for each other.  The film answers that question in an understated but touching way.

Chee and T may not have accomplished much materially.  But their ultimate honesty makes them more successful than more accomplished characters.


“Who Is Arthur Chu?” is a double entendre film title.  Fans of the game show “Jeopardy” will identify Chu as an 11-time champion player.  Scott Drucker and Yu Gu’s documentary expands the inquiry into examining the character of the man himself.

Unnerving and “aggressive category-hopping” best describes Chu’s “Jeopardy” game play.  This successful product of studying past “Jeopardy” games and game theory quietly unnerved fellow contestants left in Chu’s mental dust.  Was the online opprobrium outrage at violating “Jeopardy” tradition, resentment of lost white privilege, or both?  As someone who grew up as a continual outsider, perhaps Chu didn’t care.

Rootlessness from being a class’ only Asian kid was a product of Chu’s father’s moving his family to follow his job.  The other formative influence on Chu was cultural isolation thanks to a parental ban on any exposure to Western culture.

An immersion in Western culture initiated Chu’s rebellion against his parents.  But Drucker and Gu show Chu had several reasons for maintaining that antagonism towards his father into his adult life.  In one devastating sequence, a polite father-son dinner devolves into prolonged strained silence.

Chu’s discomfort towards his father finds different expression in other parts of his life.  He constantly worries about being a worthy husband to wife and former classmate Eliza Blair.  His post- “Jeopardy” public commentaries tackle controversies ranging from the Ferguson unrest to Gamergate.

Ironically, the filmmakers do not give a definitive answer to their titular question.  But their journey to illuminate this emotional work in progress does provide a partial answer.


16mm home movies are the heart of Ali Kazimi’s documentary “Random Acts of Legacy.”  These films offer glimpses smeared by time of the lower-middle to eventual upper-middle class life in 1930s to 1950s Chicago led by Silas and Edythe Fung’s family.

Admittedly, every silent recorded scene, from a child’s birthday party to a definitely not conservative day at the beach, is staged.  But those set-ups reflect Silas Fung’s day job as a commercial artist for such companies as Sears Roebuck.

While the filmed scenes may have been staged, interviews with the surviving Fung children and historians provide the context behind these images.  Seeing both Chinese and white children together at a birthday party was the product of the Fung parents overcoming white residents’ initial opposition to having Chinese-American neighbors.  The lifestyle that made a period all Chinese-American tennis party possible was thanks to Edythe Fung’s being a top saleswoman for Sun Life Insurance Company.  In fact, Edythe was the one who bankrolled Silas’ very expensive hobbies.

Haziri definitely deserves props for his efforts in restoring these badly deteriorated and tantalizing glimpses of a decades-lost lifestyle.  Yet his documentary never transcends its curiosity value.


Craft is not the reason watching CAAMFest 35’s Closing Night Film “The Chinese Exclusion Act” proves uncomfortable.  Directors Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu mix and satisfactorily blend talking head commentary, period racist cartoons, and period photographs.  The film’s presentation of the historical context and events that led to the racist act’s passage is also beyond reproach.

This viewer’s discomfort comes from seeing how the Exclusion Act’s legacy stretched from the 19th century to the present day.  The separate but equal public facilities concept was first applied to prevent white and Chinese children from mingling.  Pulling off a Muslim woman’s hijab feels like a modern iteration of the earlier deliberate shearing of a Chinese man’s queue.  Most damningly, how the supposedly temporary Chinese Exclusion Act became something that lasted for six decades should give pause to those who think a Muslim ban would also be short-lived.

Despite the oppressive realities chronicled by Burns and Yu, “The Chinese Exclusion Act” ultimately avoids being a catalog of racial victimhood.  The court system offered the Chinese an important avenue for fighting back and occasionally succeeding against racist oppression. The birthright citizenship concept was the product of one such fight.  But it was Chinese determination to make the credo “all men are created equal” more than empty words that should make all Americans humble.

A lack of present-day references doesn’t prevent “The Chinese Exclusion Act” from being a contemporary cautionary tale.  When open bigotry is socially and politically normalized, it eventually becomes easy to steal the rights of the oppressed.

(“Chee And T” has been picked up for eventual Netflix streaming.  “The Chinese Exclusion Act” will eventually be broadcast on PBS’ “The American Experience.”)

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