Diverse stories take to the screen in CAAMFest's documentary competition
CAAMFEST The feel-good movie of last year's Center for Asian American Media film festival was The Cheer Ambassadors, a documentary charting the high-flying accomplishments of Bangkok University's cheerleading team. This year's The Road to Fame taps the same performance theme, but there's an undercurrent of melancholy that tugs at each of its peppy subjects. The setting is Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, where young adults envision careers like those of celebrity alums Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. The reality, of course, is that the majority of them will struggle to get any job after graduation, much less realize their show-biz fantasies.
Added pressure is applied by the kids' parents. Though Chinese youth may have adopted Western-style dreams of the spotlight, many in the older generation were denied the chance to go to college or experience any freedom of occupational choice. All of The Road to Fame's featured subjects are in the 19-to-21 age range, born in the era of China's one-child policy, so the incentive to succeed is particularly urgent, for both financial and emotional reasons. With two parents and four grandparents looking on, "There are six pairs of eyes on only one child," points out drama teacher Liu Hongmei, whose own martial-arts movie career was supplanted by her desire to work with students.
Given all of these factors, the choice of musical Fame — about a performing-arts school teeming with wannabe stars — as the kids' final showcase is wonderfully apt. As a bonus, American teachers with Broadway bona fides (the lead has a hint of Corky St. Clair flair) have come to China to work with the students, including standouts like charismatic Chen Lei, who comes from "a simple family" that expects her to take care of them, frustrating her desires to work abroad; and Wu Heng, a talented singer with luxuriant pop-star hair whose parents joke (or are they joking?) about him supporting them. Tension arises during casting, and the expected backstage drama ensues as "A" and "B" casts are chosen and the kids — already fearing the uncertainty of life post-graduation — start to get a sense of how difficult making it will be. On a side note, The Road to Fame is the latest from Chinese-born, US-educated blogger and filmmaker (2005's Beijing or Bust) Hao Wu, who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2006 while filming a documentary on Christian Chinese house churches. (Presumably, the government viewed musical theater as a more "appropriate" topic.)
Along with The Road to Fame, CAAMFest's documentary competition is composed almost entirely of urgently contemporary tales. In American Arab, Iraqi American filmmaker Usama Alshaibi takes a deeply personal look at what it's like to live in the US — specifically, small-town Iowa — post-9/11 with the first name "Usama." (The results are not entirely surprising.) More compelling is Dianne Fukami and Eli Olson's Stories From Tohoku, a sensitive study of Japanese still struggling to rebuild after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Interviews with survivors, as well as Japanese Americans (including Kristi Yamaguchi, who visits the region to lend support), illuminate the incredible resilience of people whose communities were completely flattened.
"My history has disappeared, so at this point, all I can do is enjoy my life," says one woman as she points out where her house used to stand. Though not everyone reacted with such calmness — a chef who volunteered at a relief center recalls becoming resentful amid increasing demand for his services — there's an overall sense that the culture's embrace of what Zen Buddhism terms "Gaman," or "enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity," helps Japanese recoup from tragedy, be it war, internment camps (in the case of Japanese Americans), or natural disaster.
Less elegantly crafted but no less searing is Duc Nguyen's Stateless, about the handful of Vietnamese people still holding out hope for resettlement after years or even decades of living as illegal aliens in the Philippines. Aided by a determined lawyer whose practice seems to be their only source of advice and hope, the refugees — unable to return home and live under a post-war regime that's marked them as troublemakers — struggle to get by, with the golden promise of asylum in the US shimmering just out of reach. It's a moving tale, but it's compressed into a 55-minute film that sometimes comes up short on context.
The sole film with experimental leanings in the documentary competition is Lordville, a quiet exploration of the nearly abandoned town of Lordville, NY. Though a few determined eccentrics have kept the population of the oft-flooded burg from dipping to zero, it's the past that filmmaker Rea Tajiri, a Lordville resident, is most interested in, thanks to her ownership of a home owned by one of the town's founders. Native American history, misty roads, broken-down houses, ever-present flowing water, and the musings of neighbors, a genealogist, and an environmental scientist fill in this portrait of a place where natural and human history are often at odds, and yet are inextricably bound.
The remaining films in the doc competition: Tenzin Tsetan Choklay's Bringing Tibet Home, about a Tibetan artist who smuggles soil out of his embattled homeland for an installation in India; Masahiro Sugano's Cambodian Son, about Cambodian American poet and activist Kosal Khiev; and Esy Casey's Jeepney, about the Philippines' iconic public-transport buses. *
March 13-23, most shows $12
Various SF and East Bay venues