The ABC Network’s new series “Fresh Off the Boat” has done the impossible. It has me actually wishing I had a TV so I could watch the program. It has been over 20 years since a mainstream TV series has focused on an Asian American family. And it is important to note how such an event didn’t come out of thin air. In a recent roundtable moderated by Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Yang, (father of the actor Hudson Yang, who plays the show’s oldest son), Jeff Yang noted the influential Asian American players in ABC’s corporate offices who assisted in encouraging an atmosphere where the realization of such a show could happen.
But along with corporate players, there is the long tireless history of an institution such as the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) which has long helped fund, train, and mentor Asian American media artists and production workers. Since 1982, the gem of CAAM’s projects has been their film festival, which since 2013 has been called CAAMFest. CAAMFest has been a forum to nurture Asian American directors, actors, screenwriters, producers and other roles, the kind of forum one can pull from when a show like FOTB finally gets launched. CAAMFest provides yearly opportunities (and CAAM provides opportunities throughout the year) for Asian Americans to tell their own stories well aware that the mainstream media often ignores them or typecasts them into cliched, stereotypical roles.
When we look at past CAAMFest programs, we can see how actors and writers involved in the production of “Fresh Off the Boat” (FOTB) were provided opportunities to hone their crafts at previous festivals. Randall Park plays the father in FOTB. He was featured in last year’s festival in Stephen Dypiangco and Patrick Epino’s Awesome Asian Bad Guys (2014) and Park was part of the Centerpiece Presentation at the 2010 edition of the festival, The People I Slept With (Quentin Lee, 2009). Constance Wu plays the mother on FOTB and appeared in festival screenings of Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013) in 2013 (in the San Jose version of the festival) and Year of the Fish (David Kaplan) in 2007. The writer of the second episode of FOTB, Kourtney Kang, was a past mentor of CAAM’s Fellowship program to help future Asian American media artists develop their work. And the tradition continues, for Hudson Yang is in one of the films featured at this year’s festival, The Sisterhood of Night (Caryn Waechter, 2014).
This trip down the archives demonstrates why CAAMFest is a wonderful opportunity to see what the future of American media holds. If you are in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley the week of March 12-22, you don’t want to miss one of the best film festivals the Bay Area has to offer.
The festival features music and food as well. (The awesome MC Awkwafina headlines the Directions in Sound presentation hosted by Chops of the Mountain Brothers) And a selection of Asian features and documentaries are also on the schedule. But in honor of FOTB, I am going to focus my recommendations on some of the Asian American (and one Canadian) feature films and documentaries I’m most intrigued to check out.
Seoul Searching (Benson Lee, USA/South Korea, 2015) – If you saw the exhilarating Planet B-Boy (2007), you know director Benson Lee can make a great documentary. Buzz on this film hints that he can make a decent feature as well. I love how Festival & Exhibitions Director Masashi Niwano spoke of this film as a revision of Asian America in the 80’s. Thanks to John Hughes’ infamous Long Duck Dong character from Sixteen Candles (1984), a revision has been desperately needed to address the great harm that role caused many an Asian American kid in the lunchrooms of American primary and secondary schools. This is the Opening Night Gala of CAAMFest this year, something I don’t normally attend because I have to work early the next day. But I will definitely be attending this one. Sleep be damned.
Man-Up! (Justin Chon, USA, 2014) – Director Justin Chon is getting a two-fer at CAAMFest this year. He is an actor in Seoul Seraching and his debut, Man-Up!, is screening as well. This is a story about the friendship between two NEET (Neither in Education, Employment, nor Training) young men and how they respond to one of them finding out his girlfriend is pregnant. Precarious employment and the NEET status of young adults in America is a foreboding trend. I am curious to see how Chon taps into the Zeitgeist.
In Her Place (Albert Shin, Canada/South Korea, 2014) – If you love South Korean television dramas and you love Canada, what’s not to love about this film? As someone who loves Canada but doesn’t tend to love South Korean TV dramas, I am heartened how the program alludes to Shin’s ‘beautiful restraint and subtlety’ of the genre.
Two Sports Documentaries –
9-Man (Ursula Liang, USA 2014) – I know nothing about the Chinese streetball game of 9-Man. I just know that the drummer of one of my wife’s bands worked on this film and he raves about it. This documentary will have it’s first screening at the old Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown and a local 9-Man team will be in attendance at the screening.
Top Spin (Sara Newens & Mina T. Son) – This documentary follows three US table tennis contenders on their journey to represent the U.S.A. in the London 2012 Summer Olympics. I may have donated to this film’s Kickstarter. I honestly can’t remember but it will be confirmed whether or not I did If I see my name in the credits. I did an interview for the now defunct SF360 website with co-director Mina T. Son regarding a short she made about Deaf Koreans, a short I really enjoyed so I have high expectations for this film. I am also a fan of the London 2012 Olympics Silver Medalist ISHIKAWA Kasumi because she is from my wife’s hometown of Yamaguchi City, Japan and I had hopes she might appear in this film. Unfortunately, co-director Son informed me she didn’t make the cut. But I am still definitely going to check this one out anyway.