by Peter Wong on March 14, 2013

The film festival formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival rebrands itself this year as CAAMFest in honor of sponsoring organization the Center for Asian American Media. Despite the name change, the festival remains committed to showcasing edgy and unusual work.

This year’s program includes a trio of films from Singapore’s controversial 30-ish auteur Royston Tan. Documentary “Old Romances” is the most recent of these films. The titular romances are with such mundane Singapore places as an old eyeglass store, a community taxi stand, and a puppet show. What links these places is their cumulative picture of ordinary life in old Singapore.

The spots depicted in Tan’s documentary will never have memorial plaques mounted in their honor. Yet Tan suggests the memorials already exist in the form of interviewee anecdotes describing their personal links to the sometimes visually unprepossessing places seen onscreen. These links differ from the faux personal experiences offered as selling points by large commercial franchises to potential customers. One cannot fake the experience of turning a train station restaurant into a regular meeting place.

The poppy music frequently heard on “Old Romances”’ soundtrack can’t completely conceal the film’s underlying sense of melancholy. Places like the music shop which stocks out of print cassettes of old time singers may thrive on nostalgia and rarity. But what will happen to the places shown in Tan’s film when their current custodians age out or current fashion overrides the appeal of the past?
The film’s opening and closing sequences provide a probable answer. The places depicted in the film exist in a bubble of suspended time. But eventually, the bubble’s barriers must lift and life continues uninterrupted.


“Mekong Hotel” is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow-up to his Cannes award-winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Weerasethakul turns his languorous setting of a hotel overlooking some gorgeous vistas of the Mekong River into a metaphor for life’s inclusion of the ghosts of history and the hopes of present-day existence. The extended shot that ends the film turns the classic Romantic despair of living a life written in water into embracing the present’s pleasures.


In the West, bloggers have been derided in the professional media as faux journalists. But in Stephen Maing’s documentary “High Tech, Low Life,” bloggers become a voice of journalistic freedom in China.

The film alternately follows two bloggers from different generations. 20-ish Zola is a country vegetable seller who dreams of using his blogging to develop his journalistic chops. Cultural Revolution survivor Tiger Temple uses his muckraking blogging to bring about social change. Can either man continue to publish news that the Chinese government would prefer to see repressed without suffering repercussions?

Given the effectiveness of China’s government in stifling criticism from its citizens, it’s darkly funny seeing the dodges used by Zola and Tiger to get the word out about governmental misdeeds. Zola publicly says he’s filming for his blog as a citizen, not a reporter. Tiger puts a new spin on catblogging by having his cat Mongolia talk about politics. Any temptation to humorously regard the two Chinese bloggers work quickly vanishes when the viewer sees that their reporting covers such subjects as a cover-up of a schoolgirl’s rape and murder, or the removal of Beijing’s homeless from the eyes of foreign Olympics visitors.

The Chinese government certainly isn’t laughing at these bloggers’ work. Alleged last minute “paperwork problems” torpedoes Zola’s planned trip to an European blogger conference. Tiger finds he’s being tailed while on a reporting trip.

Viewers should look past Maing’s conventional structure for this film and appreciate this rare look at the China which is far from a prosperous paradise.


Despite its austere visuals, Ying Liang’s drama “When Night Falls” chills the viewer with its account of a state beyond the control of its citizens.

Wang Jingmei (Nai An) learns that her son has been arrested for allegedly killing several cops. But rather than being allowed to see her son, the elderly parent gets locked up in a mental hospital for nearly five months under an assumed name. While her son gets tried and sentenced to death, Wang tries to save her son’s life. Yet China’s bureaucratic justice system makes that task all but impossible.

Ying’s film is based on a notorious 2008 case. However, this fictional re-telling avoids the stereotypical unraveling of the crime. The viewer never sees for themselves the occurrence of the murders. Any information about the homicides depends on what the Public Security Bureau chooses to disclose. Viewer feelings of suspecting important, possibly exonerating, information is being withheld by the Chinese government is not paranoia. It’s actually an awareness of Wang’s impotence in the face of state-sanctioned injustice.

An’s restrained performance as Wang shows her character balancing her desire to save her son’s life with fear that China’s criminal bureaucratic machinery is unstoppable. The long takes used in “When Night Falls” may admittedly try some viewers’ patience. Yet they work to suggest that patience may not be enough to stop an unjust system determined to take a loved one’s life.

(“Old Romances” screens at 6:00 PM on March 17, 2013 at the Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft, Berkeley) and 6:00 PM on March 19, 2013 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). “Mekong Hotel” screens with the short “Advantageous” at 4:00 PM on March 16, 2013 at the Pacific Film Archive and 2:10 PM on March 17, 2013 at the New People Cinema (1746 Post, SF). “High Tech, Low Life” screens at 7:30 PM on March 16, 2013 and also at 8:20 PM on March 19, 2013 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, as well as 9:00 PM on March 17, 2013 at the New People Cinema. “When Night Falls” screens at 5:20 PM on March 16, 2013 and at 3:00 PM on March 17, 2013, both at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. For tickets and further information, go to )

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