First up, a comedic drama about death and family, DEAD DAD. Russell Sawtelle is a struggling drummer living in L.A. and taking care of his dad, until he finds him dead. So he calls his sibling back to help take care of the funeral arrangements. Sister Jane (aka, Chainsaw--get it, Jane Sawtelle becomes Chainsaw) and adopted Asian brother Alex (although they don't get to the adoption until much later, leaving me wondering for a while if their dad had a previous marriage to an Asian lady and he's really a half-brother.) They all had issues with dad, who became something of an asshole for the last decade after their mother passed away. Jane had gone away to school in San Diego, and I know from personal experience how easy it can be to convince yourself not to come up and visit family in L.A. when you're living in San Diego, even though it's just a few hours away. Alex, meanwhile, had traveled the world and settled in the east coast, ostensibly for his career but there was clearly a 'get away from dad' aspect to this. In any case, when they get together they fight, they joke, they love each other, they're frustrated, they fight, they try to deal with dad's ashes (which was his wish, despite the fact that there is a plot waiting for him to be buried with his wife.)
Y'know, fuck it. I can't continue thinking about this movie. It had just the right balance of comedy, drama, and pathos, despite some details being off (e.g., cremated ashes aren't that fine, and aren't given in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. Even if you don't get an urn, they put it in a more sturdy canister.) But mostly it just reminded me of my grandfather's funeral last year, and the whole family getting together. I'm one of six kids, scattered across the country (well, up and down the western part of the country) and I'm happy to say that we know we're always there for each other. We might not be as tragically funny as the siblings in this movie, but we got each other's back (and, in my humble opinion, we're pretty funny, too.)
Then from one tragedy to another, I saw the documentary WHEN HARI GOT MARRIED. Just kidding, it's not really a tragedy, but there is quite a bit of trepidation involved. Hari is a taxi driver on the Indian side of the Himalayas. He has seen his bride-to-be, Suman, only once, but has talked to her on the phone every day for months. Hari is a fun, chatty, gregarious character. He loves talking about his work, his taxi, the people he meets, his hopes for a family, his fear, his excitement, anything. Suman, on the other hand, is very shy, and only says a few things about her fear and her excitement. I kind of wish they had more balance showing her point of view, but as the title says it's his story, and honestly I suspect if they had started out trying to show both points of view, Hari is just a more camera-ready personality so the narrative would naturally gravitate to him. I will confess that exhaustion got the better of me and I slipped in and out of consciousness a bit in the middle. But it was still interesting to watch the intersection of traditional customs and modern technology. And [SPOILER ALERT!] It was nice to see the epilogue, showing 9 months later when they have a beautiful newborn baby girl and they are obviously happy with their marriage and love each other. I think this marriage will last. [END SPOILER.]
Then the closing gala was a mixed-media presentation of MEMORIES TO LIGHT. This is a new project by CAAM to showcase a particular time in Asian American history (and perhaps eventually all ethnicities of American history) through the use of home movies. More information will be available here. This was sort of the kick-off event, explaining the project (e.g., they're only looking for home movies on film, VHS and later would just be too much and also was a little too easy to use and so has a different feeling than the more deliberate action of loading a super-8 camera, shooting film, sending it to the lab to be processed, threading the returned film through a projector, etc.) And the kickoff featured a selection assembled and narrated live by filmmaker Mark Decena, which he called THE WAR WITHIN. He used his family's home movies as well as others that were donated to tell his family's story. How his Filipino father and Japanese mother met, how despite the horrific WWII history between the two countries they fell in love and got married, leading to good times, bad times, divorce, confusion, animosity. Decena choked up a few times during the presentation, which although kind of awkward it added to the power of the presentation. It was a pretty remarkable project, and I'm excited to see what comes out of it next.
And finally, while most everyone else left for the closing night after party, I stayed for one last movie, the documentary XMAS WITHOUT CHINA. Chinese-American filmmaker Tom Xia explores the recent spate of paranoia surrounding unsafe products from China (lead in toys, etc.) He looks for anyone who is willing to spend most of the month--from December 1 through December 25, without using any product from China (including, of course, not buying any Christmas presents that were made in China.) Of course, this could get a little tricky as even "Made in the U.S.A." products might have Chinese components. But the standard is if China shows up anywhere on the label, it's not legal. So he finds a willing couple--The Joneses, a good, red-blooded American family with a son and daughter--and out go most of their lamps, their toaster, their coffee maker, all their light bulbs. They're making toast in the oven and reading by candlelight. And, of course, checking the labels on everything they buy. One of the most extreme things they do is when they decide they absolutely need a string of Christmas lights but can't find any that aren't made in China. So the father decides to make his own. He finds little bulbs made in Mexico, gets wire and all the necessary tools, and makes one string of Christmas lights--final cost (excluding labor) is around $160. Contrasting all of this is Tom's own family, Chinese Americans in southern California who have "made it"--they're wealthy enough to own a two-story house, and they want to decorate like crazy and celebrate the heck out of Christmas (even though they aren't actually Christians.) So while the Joneses struggle with making one string of lights the Xia's are struggling with the logistics of hanging many strings of lights from their ~100 foot tall tree in their front yard (and, of course, hiring a Latino worker to do it. There's something oddly American about seeing an Chinese man hire a Mexican to do difficult and dangerous manual labor.) They whole project is pretty funny, and while it could've dug deeper into the issues of international industry and commerce it still made it's point pretty well. In fact, the best line came from the Joneses, who said they didn't blame China for dangerous products, they blamed the greedy international (often America) companies who move manufacturing there and then don't monitor the safety at their plants. That got a bit of an applause from the San Francisco audience.
Total Running Time: 243 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,189