Reviews From CAAMFest 2024

by on May 6, 2024

CAAMFest’s Closing Night Film happens to be Ramona S. Diaz’ moving “And So It Begins.”  It’s her chronicle of the 2022 race for the Philippine presidency.  For those whose definition of “paying attention to the headlines” includes having some awareness of events occurring outside the United States’ borders, Diaz’ new film will bring on plenty of heartbreak and an understandable loss of faith in fellow humans.  Yet her documentary also finds optimism and even hope for what would otherwise be a dire political situation.

As the viewer learns in the opening titles, the Philippines elects its presidents for a single six-year term.  Current president Rodrigo Duterte is nearing the end of a presidency marked by democratic backsliding, political corruption, and extra-judicial killings of the poor.  Unsurprisingly, Duterte has only positive things to say about Hitler.  His replacement might provide an opportunity to turn the country around democratically.

Two major candidates vie to replace the outgoing president.  Leni Robredo may have been Duterte’s V.P.  But to the controversial President, she had a couple of big strikes against her.  First, Robredo wasn’t from Duterte’s party (something allowed under the Philippine electoral system).  Second and more importantly, her background as a woman who used to be an NGO attorney who worked with the marginalized made her someone who must be kept out of Duterte’s male-oriented political frat house.  Despite five and a half years of frequent sexist political hazing, her desire to remedy the abuses of Duterte’s presidency wasn’t extinguished.

Opposing Robredo is “Bong Bong” Marcos aka Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.  Yes, his father was deposed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the man who used martial law to arrest and torture something like 50,000 political opponents and critics.  His mother is Imelda Marcos, whose time as First Lady saw her amass 3000 pairs of shoes, 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, and a bulletproof bra.  And when the Marcos family fled to Hawaii back in 1986, the country’s treasury had been lightened by them to the tune of about $30 billion in today’s dollars.

A just universe would be one where Bong Bong or anyone from the Marcos family would be permanently 86’d from further involvement in Philippine politics.  At the very least, the Marcos clan would be popularly known as a political crime family.  In this universe, though, Bong Bong Marcos may have previously lost to Obredo but now has an Orange Skull vs. Nikki Haley-like 30-point poll lead over her.

An underfunded campaign is part of the reason why Obredo’s name is less well known than Marcos’.  But as the viewer learns from digital journalism site Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa, the Marcos family has been successfully waging a years-long campaign to rehabilitate the former dictator’s name in the eyes of the next Filipino generation.  This includes everything from Marcos museums glorifying the dictator’s reign to elementary school writing lessons praising Marcos’ greatness.  The end result has been people on social media believing Marcos’ imposition of martial law brought about a Golden Age for the Philippines, or that Bong Bong Marcos is supposedly intending to use 6,000 to 7,000 tons of gold to benefit the Philippine people.

Ressa and her journalists at Rappler struggle to preserve the integrity of facts through their reporting in hopes of ensuring the fairness of this presidential election.  That struggle forms one of the stories followed in Diaz’ film.  The Rappler team’s “tell the truth” approach is noble and laudable.  But viewers familiar with the unfortunate success of Faux News and its political mouth breathing ilk will understandably envision an upcoming electoral disaster.  After all, Rappler had first reported on the Marcos family’s public disinformation campaign six years before the events of the film, yet that warning has failed to penetrate the public consciousness.

Adrian Johns’ The Nature Of The Book: Print And Knowledge In The Making suggests one possible reason for this phenomenon.   The innate superiority of the information provided by the likes of Rappler turns out to be only one piece in building an aura of reliability around an information source.  As the struggle between Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed over whose astronomical ideas would prevail shows, the ability to manipulate patronage and the press prove equally important factors in determining whose worldview triumphs.  In the case of the election at the center of Diaz’ film, the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth helped bankroll an army of paid Internet trolls.  And what is one of the powers of social media but the ability to turn ordinary people into mini-publishers?

Yet “And So It Begins” delivers more than just a gloomy chronicle of a disaster for democracy.  A good chunk of its running time is devoted to capturing the hope and happiness the Obredo campaign brought out in its many volunteers.  Even with setbacks such as poll numbers stubbornly showing Obredo’s lack of political headway, Diaz’ camera captures the ways big and small Obredo’s followers continued to display their support.  Whether it’s a volunteer social media person fighting a 4-hour window to refute a pro-Marcos troll’s lie or the enormous crowds who show up for Obredo’s public birthday celebration, the support these people display is simply something that can’t be just purchased.

Part way through the film, a group of Obredo supporters turn The Beatles’ classic “Let It Be” into the pro-Obredo song “Leni Be.”  Perhaps in view of how the Obredo vs. Marcos election eventually turns out (and in keeping with the spirit of Diaz’ film), it might be time to remember this excerpt from Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”:

Hey now, hey now

Don’t dream it’s over

Hey now, hey now

When the world comes in

They come, they come

To build a wall between us

You know they won’t win

…Don’t let them win (Hey now, hey now)

***

Vicky Du has certainly chosen an emotionally powerful subject for her personal documentary “Light Of The Setting Sun.”  To her credit, she does capture several affecting emotional moments.  On the other hand, it also feels as if her film would have benefited from the traditional advice to “kill your darlings” with an extra pass or two at the editing table.

The family dynamic may be the ideal setting for passing along the stories of previous generations of one’s family.  But what happens when the stories in question concern a traumatizing event from the family’s past?  For filmmaker Vicky Du, that question is epitomized when she looks through the Du family book, which records information about the 900 years (so far) of Du family history.  For the section devoted to her parents’ generation, the information is deliberately left blank.  Historically, this was the period when her parents’ generation endured the Communist takeover of China.  Yet neither of Du’s parents wish to speak about what happened then.  Where can Du find answers?  How did the holding of this secret affect the lives of Du and her brother Andrew?

Du does not lead her film with the family book moment because she lacks the materials tell a straight detective story.  Aside from an old letter seen in the opening minutes of the film, there are no clues lying around waiting to be discovered or remembered.  Personal memories may be the key sources of information of this history, yet the people possessing these memories may either suppress them or lose them to senility.  Silence is the defining quality of her family’s history, Du notes ruefully, which means some pieces of the family story are likely to remain permanently lost.

What can’t be consciously hidden are the fear and the sadness left by living through the events of that time.  An uncle still remembers a childhood of constant starvation living in Taiwan’s military villages.  A grandmother remembers the accepted sexism of Hakka Chinese, where girls and women were socially regarded as worthless.  Even going to college in America could not put enough distance from the dark emotions stirred up by memories of those times.

It is an admitted tough lift for a filmmaker trying to turn such raw material into a film that’s more than talking head recollections.  But it can be safely said Du’s approach of including footage from Taiwan’s city streets or having an extensive sequence devoted to cousin Dupi’s wedding don’t seem to advance “Light of the Setting Sun”’s overarching thesis.

Du’s film does touch the heart in a couple of spots.  Brother Andrew’s description of his deep depression and his parents’ non-supportive reaction rightly feels like a shattering betrayal.   Du’s mother’s visit to Du’s grandmother’s remains after a decades-long gap results in a release of quietly pent-up emotion.

The meaning behind the film’s title does bring a much-needed sense of poetry to Du’s film.  Too bad Du couldn’t work more poetic magic into the rest of her film.

***

Em Yue’s experimental animated memoir “Hao Hao Wan Wan” recounts the experiences of two kids trying to occupy themselves while left alone at home all day.  The older of the two kids is drawn to possibly resemble a broccoli stalk; the younger child resembles a Pac-Man.  The film’s title comes from the Chinese words for good (“hao”) and play (“wan”).

Necessity plays a role in creating this situation for the two child protagonists.  Presumably both parents spend long hours working at a Chinese restaurant, possibly the China Forest Cafe seen in the end credits.

The film is dialogue-free, as Yue focuses on capturing the mood of being a poor kid with lots of time but not necessarily money to do things.  That sense comes through quickly in the moment the two kids watch a video game terminal’s resting animation on repeat as they don’t have the money to actually play the game.  To compensate, things already in the house get repurposed for improvised amusement.  A chair becomes a sort of cart while a cabinet becomes a small cave.

This film’s hermetic world employs several animation techniques.  The young protagonists are rendered via cel animation.  Tiny miniatures recreate everything from the remains of a late night card game to a restaurant’s soft drinks dispenser.

But the ultimate emotion left by the film is that of contentment.  Eating microwaved pizza in front of the TV may not be satisfyingly extravagant.  But for these two siblings, simple satisfaction is just enough.

***

Marc Marcos, the colorful subject of Hao Zhou’s short documentary “Wouldn’t Make It Any Other Way,” lives an intriguing existence.  She’s a highly skilled transgender costume seamstress and designer who makes her home in what she calls the small blue dot in the deeply red state of Iowa (e.g. the state governor’s tried to push a law having transgender peoples’ driver’s licenses state both their current gender and their birth gender).  When a school asks the costume maker to create 30 costumes for the 8-14 years old students taking part in the school play, finishing the job means going back to Guam.  Yet that visit also means dealing with her parents, who haven’t exactly welcomed her transition with open arms.

Given this setup, the film pretty much proceeds along two very predictable lines.  One thread follows Marcos’ efforts to complete the job on time.  Big surprise: she finishes her work and delivers everything promised.

The other film thread follows Marcos’ wavering between staying in Iowa or moving back to Guam.  Her life in Iowa mainly seems to be consumed by work.  Given the high rate of unemployment in the transgender community, being regularly employed is something Marc cherishes.  Marcos’ frequent Lolita look doesn’t appear to spur negative comments.  On the other hand, Marcos doesn’t appear to have many social ties in the U.S.  Also, as mentioned before, Iowa is unfortunately one of those states surfing the transphobic panic wave.  By comparison, Marc’s friends would welcome her back if she made a permanent return. The wishes of Marc’s mother for her daughter to return, on the other hand, don’t feel compatible with whatever plans her daughter has.  Marc’s father also doesn’t appear welcoming, given his angry silence when Marc is less than a foot away from him.

Even though Marc’s ultimate choice of residency provides one of the short film’s themes, her decision appears to arrive via inertia rather than conscious choice.  The end result is to regard this film as a “meh,” not terrible but not really significant.

***

27-year-old Dilber faces pressure to get married from two different sides in Mukaddas Mijit and Bastien Ehouzan’s drama “Nikah (Marriage).”  Other community members loudly note she should be married by now.  Meanwhile, the Chinese government treats single Xinjiang Uyghur women such as Dilber as qualifying her for forced marriage to a Han Chinese, as part of its campaign to destroy the Uyghur culture.  Dilber’s Paris-based friend Gulnur offers a long-shot salvation, but is it already too late for her?

***

Jacqueline Chan’s short “Chan Is Fishing” playfully melds the title of Wayne Wang’s Asian-American cinema classic “Chan Is Missing” with Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”  The unnamed protagonist of Chan’s film may be obsessed with achieving his goal like Melville’s notorious Captain Ahab.  Yet unlike Melville’s fanatical whaling man, Chan’s fisherman is more ruminative in his quest.

As the viewer slowly learns, the fisherman has immigrated from Hong Kong.  What’s brought him to the San Bernardino area is a postcard from a friend talking about the great fishing trip he’s had.  The unnamed protagonist is determined to try his luck fishing in the same spot mentioned by the friend: the Salton Sea.

The viewer is told in the film that the protagonist’s friend is fond of playing practical jokes.  Once the fisherman’s destination is revealed, the viewer’s expectation is that the fisherman will get angry at being tricked into making a pointless trip.  Indeed, his interactions at a motel or two and a cheap bar seem to represent his further alienation from the new country he calls home.

Yet what stops the fisherman’s slide into negativity are a couple of memories.  One is repeated shots of the Kowloon area of Hong Kong and its almost suffocating congestion.  The other is a Cantopop song about appreciating the beauty in front of a person’s feet.

The end result does not suddenly break with the mundane look of the earlier parts of the film.  What he does may be at odds with the physical reality of his situation, but mentally he’s found his goal.

(“And So It Begins” screens at 6:30 PM on May 18, 2024 at the SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater (151 3rd Street, SF).

(“Light Of The Setting Sun” screens at 3:30 PM on May 12, 2024 at the Great Star Theater (636 Jackson Street, SF)

(“Hao Hao Wan Wan” screens as part of the “Animontage” shorts program at 11:00 AM on May 18, 2024.  “Wouldn’t Make It Any Other Way” screens as part of the “Out/There” shorts program screening at 2:35 PM on May 12, 2024.  Both of these screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117 16th Street, SF)

(“Nikah” screens at 12:30 PM on May 19, 2024.  “Chan Is Fishing” screens as part of the “Matters Of Belief” shorts program screening at 12:00 PM on May 19, 2024.  Both of these screenings take place at the New Parkway Theater (474 24th Street, Oakland).

(For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go here.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment