Big Screen Berkeley: CAAMFest 2017 highlights films from Asia and the Asian diaspora

Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott in Finding Kukan showing at the New Parkway in Oakland

Film festivals are cornucopias (or, if you prefer a Nordic metaphor, smorgasbords) for cinéastes. There are so many choices – and so many opportunities for gluttony – that it’s hard to know what to select. You can’t see everything, and a festival guide can only tell you so much.

Formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, CAAMFest highlights films from Asia and the Asian diaspora. Programming the festival is surely a daunting task: how can you provide a representative selection of (for example) Korean or Vietnamese cinema, never mind that of an entire continent?

This is my long-winded way of excusing what will surely be some significant oversights in my CAAMFest 2017 coverage. I encourage readers to visit the festival’s online schedule and discover their own hidden gems – these are merely the ones I found!

Beyond its general historical interest, Finding Kukan (screening at Oakland’s New Parkway at 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, March 18) will appeal to film preservation and restoration enthusiasts. The story of Li Ling Ai, the Chinese-American woman responsible for producing 1941’s Kukan (the very first Academy Award-winning Best Documentary), Finding Kukan documents director Robin Lung’s efforts to locate a complete and watchable print of the film, the only Oscar-winning doc not to exist in the Academy’s archives.


Lung counterbalances the story of her search with that of her efforts to discover information confirming Ai’s status as the film’s producer. With early ’40s America only tentatively starting to edge away from anti-Chinese racism, Hollywood was not eager to highlight her association with the film, instead crediting her as a ‘technical advisor’ while emphasizing the (by no means inconsiderable) contributions of cinematographer Rey Scott.

The Chinese Exclusion Act screens at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco

Dealing exclusively with anti-Chinese racism, The Chinese Exclusion Act (screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 18) offers an exhaustive history of America’s decades-long legislative efforts to keep Chinese immigrants out of the country and prevent those already here from re-entering it should they travel abroad.

The two-and-a-half hour cut I screened will reportedly lose about 20 minutes of footage, hopefully resulting in a tighter but no less impactful film. For those unfamiliar with the Act, it will prove to be an eye-opener — and a timely warning about the nativism once again dominating the national political scene.

Plastic China is at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco

Plastic China (screening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 11) artfully documents the travails of a Tsingdao family who own and operate a ‘factory’ recycling imported-from-the-West plastic refuse into pellets (the utility of which isn’t made clear). Home to thousands of similar businesses, Tsingdao’s streets are literally lined with mountains of plastic detritus, but Plastic China’s protagonists remain surprisingly upbeat in the face of unrelenting ugliness. I guess they don’t have a choice.

Bitcoin Heist is at the New Parkway on Saturday March 18

If you’re looking for something a little less weighty, Vietnam’s Bitcoin Heist (screening at the New Parkway at 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 18) is an enjoyable and colorful action comedy heavily indebted to recent Hong Kong crime films. Set in 2020, the film envisions a near future where the titular ‘digital currency’ has become the medium of choice among cyber criminals. Bring popcorn.


’95 And 6 To Go is at the New People Cinema in San Francisco on March 19

Finally, 95 And 6 To Go (screening at San Francisco’s New People Cinema at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Marrch 19) is an odd duck indeed. Starring director Kimi Takesue’s nonagenarian grandfather, it’s a personal essay on love and mortality that I found only momentarily engaging. It’s by no means bad, but will appeal to a relatively small sub-set of festival-goers.