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Now Playing! CAAMFest Brings Grit, Wit and Guts

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Shuya Chang as Siste Tse in Evan Jackson Leong's 'Snakehead.' (CAAMFest)

In China, a “snakehead” is a human smuggler whose clients pay a lot of money to be transported illegally to the West. Sister Tse, the single-minded protagonist of Evan Jackson Leong’s pretty/gritty debut feature, Snakehead, doesn’t have any cash, so her only way of getting to New York is to sell herself: She’ll work off the debt—to a Chinatown crime family. You can guess what job they have in mind.

But Sister Tse (the wiry Shuya Chang) is both tougher and smarter than the rest, and escapes the brothel to win the respect and trust of ruthless Godmother Dai Mah (Jade Wu). Garnering more responsibility and bigger paydays (including a harrowing outing as a snakehead), Sister Tse keeps one eye on her balance owed and the other on her deep-secret raison d’être: The daughter she gave up years earlier, an innocent seedling in the foul Big Apple.

Snakehead, an implausible (though enjoyable) neon-and-crimson blend of lurid underworld saga, wishful maternal drama and arthouse postcard, is hardly the Hallmark card version of the Asian American experience. Its inclusion in CAAMFest (formerly the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival), as a gala presentation, no less, would have been controversial once upon a time. Not that that would have deterred the programmers; one of CAAMFest’s breakthrough—and continuing—accomplishments is demolishing the notion that an identity festival should only show positive representations. Or to put it another way, that culture (even pop) and art should function as public relations.

The risk always remains that portraits of flawed, complicated characters might be used to perpetuate stereotypes, I suppose. But if the last White House’s coining of “kung flu” and “Wuhan flu” told us anything, it’s that con men and bigots will use any pretense to manipulate their marks.


So CAAMFest, which runs online May 13–23 along with three drive-in programs at Fort Mason (including a Hong Kong double bill of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and the Bay Area premiere of Adam Wong’s The Way We Keep Dancing on May 15), stays the course, maintaining its inclusivity along with its fearlessness. And that inclusivity extends to free screenings (the documentaries Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, The Donut King and Ricochet) and panels (including a May 22 interview with Evan Jackson Leong prior to Snakehead).

Still from David Seok Hoon Boo’s ‘Junho.’ (CAAMFest)

San Francisco, whose screen persona seems to be evolving with the city itself, takes a twirl in the spotlight in another debut feature, David Seok Hoon Boo’s Junho. The titular character, a young acolyte in a South Korean acting company that operates like a hierarchy for hazing as much as a venue for theater, jets away to the Bay when a scandalous violation rocks the troupe.

Junho (Wonjun Jo) wasn’t the perpetrator, but he’s tormented by guilt and gutlessness. San Francisco has long represented in movies the possibility of reinvention, if not transformation, but the filmmaker (who did his graduate work at SFAI and is a cofounder of the Bay Area Film Collective) casts the city as hideout rather than catalyst. Junho drinks and rages, his nights spent working in a taco truck and his days flashing back to the young woman he befriended but didn’t protect.

Counterintuitively, the meandering interior journey of Junho entails more screen time than the globe-spanning saga of Snakehead. Eventually it sinks in for Junho, by way of the shimmering but chilly views from the Embarcadero and the unwelcoming streets of recently developed SoMa: You can run but you can’t hide—from yourself.

CAAMFest 2021 runs May 13–23 with online and drive-in screenings. Details here.

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