Bitter Melons and Queens of Swords: CAAMFest Opens

With 119 films from 30 countries, CAAMFest36 is kicking off its festival of Asian-American culture, and our full preview will help you CAAM a lot.

Drawn Together

The festival previously known as San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival now goes by the snappier name CAAMFest, and its 36th annual celebration of Asian and Asian-American film, food, and music is already underway. From Thursday’s Opening Night at the Castro, to the latest film from the Colma: The Musical crew, to live music with Lyrics Born and more, SF Weekly reached out to the festival’s top film directors to figure out picks as our CAAM runneth over.

CAAMFest is an annual showcase for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), but which now includes a variety of food and music events and celebrity appearances in addition to its nearly 120 films. But the big change this year is that CAAMFest has moved from March to May, to better honor the Asian-American and Pacific Islander artists the festival salutes.

“We’ve moved our festival to May, to be part of [Asian Pacific American] Heritage Month,” festival director Masashi Niwano tells SF Weekly. “Whether its film, music, or food, or goal is to share culture and to share stories through all the different senses.

“We’re also taking over some restaurants like China Live and Black Cat, and we’re creating pop-up cinemas inside these local restaurants,” Niwano adds.

The can’t-miss CAAM spotlight event at China Live is a dinner conversation 71-year-old martial arts legend Pei-Pei Cheng, the first woman to become an international action film star and who you may know as the swordmaster-villain Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

“She’s been called ‘the Queen of Swords,’ and one of the first women martial artists seen on the big screen,” Niwano says. “Some of her early work, Come Drink with Me and others, really are the films that paved the way for Crouching Tiger. That was one of the reasons Ang Lee casted her, because she had that legacy.”

Cheng’s latest film is Meditation Park — a family drama with no swords, action, or killing — and it screens at CAAMFest along with her biggest martial-arts blockbusters, Come Drink with Me (1966) and its sequel Golden Swallow (1968).

But contemporary San Francisco film fans might also have a sweet spot for the world premiere of Bitter Melon, a locally filmed feature by Colma: The Musical writer and S.F. native H.P. Mendoza. Bitter Melon is a black comedy about a Filipino family who conspire to murder a sibling they all hate, and it’s also a story of the how the city we love is being killed off in its own way.

Bitter Melon will get San Francisco natives excited because it features the Excelsior District, and its famous La Grande Tank, in a way that keeps the story authentic by telling it through the lens of a Filipino-American family,” Mendoza tells SF Weekly. “It also has moments that speak to the racial dynamics in the Castro, the history of gentrification in the Mission and the rapidly growing number of skyscrapers downtown.”

The are some uplifting local stories too, particularly in the lineup of Asian-American pop stars who’ve made it big. A marathon food and live music event that CAAMFest calls its “most ambitious event to date” is the Heritage SF: Music & Food Festival at Dogpatch venue The Midway, combining a food-truck rally with a free show by Malaysian singer-songwriter YUNA and Bay Area rap superstar P-LO.

On the other side of the Bay, the live music showcase Directions in Sound at Oakland’s Starline Social Club puts local legend MC Lyrics Born up front, along with spoken word artist G Yamazawa and San Lorenzo Pinay rapper Ruby Ibarra.

Ibarra is the subject of the CAAMFest documentary Nothing On Us: Pinays Rising Behind the Scenes, which chronicles a flurry of logistical nightmares behind the locally shot video for her track “Us.”

“We didn’t actually have a venue to shoot the music video until a few days before the shoot,” Nothing On Us director Evelyn Obamos tells SF Weekly.

But the team nailed down Balboa High School as their set location for a video that incorporates modern-day lowriders with traditional Pinoy dance costumes for an unconventional mix.

“Several women brought their children, and we even had a lola [grandma] front and center,” Obamos says. “It’s not perfect. Things don’t go as planned, but we can look back at what we all accomplished together, move forward, and continue the conversation.”

More than 60 female artists and filmmakers get center-stage appearances at CAAMFest36, and one standout is Adele Pham’s nail salon documentary Nailed It. Pham traces the unlikely saga of 20 Vietnamese refugees who catapulted nail salons into an American strip-mall phenomenon and a $7 billion industry.

“Most viewers don’t know that almost every Asian nail salon outside of New York is owned and operated by a Vietnamese,” Pham tells SF Weekly. “Before 1975, when the first wave of Vietnamese refugees landed in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnamese nail salon did not exist.”

Nailed It highlights an infamous standup comedy routine by ex-Raiderette Anjelah Johnson, one of the first-ever viral videos whose punchline is a less-than-sensitive impersonation of a Vietnamese nail tech. Johnson appears in the film, giving her own account of the breakout act and how it may or may not have aged well.

A number of food films are featured at CAAMFest, notably the premiere of First Kitchen that will transform Little Saigon jazz club the Black Cat into a theater-restaurant. Other morsels include the tofu-centric Japanese thriller Jimami Tofu, a 15th-anniversary screening of the Daly City-based low-budget classic Lumpia, and a captivating chronicle of the “underdog of Asian food” Filipino cuisine in the new documentary Ulam: Main Dish.

“Filipino food is having its moment in the spotlight,” Ulam director and producer Alexandra Cuerdo tells SF Weekly. “It’s long overdue.”

Cuerdo follows six Filipino foodies on their trek from minimum-wage dishwashers to chefs who champion Filipino cuisine, all the while being told that Filipino food will never, ever catch on.

Locals will also love Drawn Together, a documentary about Asians and people of color in the comic book industry that features K Chronicles and (th)Ink cartoonist Keith Knight.

“Keith has a way of looking at things and then putting them in a form which makes you think, smile, and act at the same time,” says Drawn Together director Harleen Singh. “A lot of his cartoons provoke constructive civil dialogue but at the same time bring a smile to your face.”

You’ll probably smile at Sikhtoons founder Vishavjit Singh, who tromps around Times Square as a Punjabi version of Captain America in the film.

“We’re talking about the very serious subjects of racism and stereotyping,” Singh tells us. “I wanted to use a universal language, and the universal languages are sports, music, and cartoons.”

The universal languages of food, music, and film come together to make CAAMFest36 a spectacular spree of Asian American culture. San Francisco has always served as a gateway to better understanding the Asia-Pacific. But for the next 15 days, S.F. and Oakland will play an outsize role in that CAAMpaign.

CAAMFest36, May 10-24, at various Bay Area venues; caamfest.com

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