The first big weekend kicks off, and I started it by revisiting a classic, EAT A BOWL OF TEA. Actually, "revisiting" is the wrong word, since I had never actually seen this 1989 Wayne Wang film, although I'm familiar with some of Wang's work through previous festivals (back when it was SFIAFF, not CAAMFest. For the record, my favorite was LIFE IS CHEAP, BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE.)
Anyway, EAT A BOWL OF TEA starts with a brief explanation of the Chinese Exclusion Act (CAAM produced an excellent documentary about it, which I saw on closing night last yer.) The Act was lifted after WWII, when we had fought alongside the Chinese, and when many brave Chinese American soldiers served with valor. One of those soldiers is Ben Loy (Russell Wong, in a very early role) whose father Wah Gay (the always excellent Victor Wong) pressures him to get married. So he goes back to China, visits his mother for the first time since he was little, finds a beautiful girl (Cora Miao, wife of Wayne Wang,) and brings her back with him to New York. They've got a life set up for them, but the pressures of immigrant life, family expectations, and Ben's new job managing a restaurant...it all leaves him with not enough energy to fulfill his father's next request--give him a grandchild. Oh yeah, this is a story of impotence, as a metaphor for the struggles of an outsider in America and the struggles of a son trying to live up to his father's expectations. The title refers to the bitterness of the experience, but also to a traditional herbal remedy for the condition. Very funny, if the acting is a bit uneven in places. All in all, I'm very glad to have seen it. And in the Q&A, Wang talked about changes he had made since the initial release (because he sees flaws in all of his films.) In particular, apparently the originally ending was unambiguously happy, instead of the hopeful but uncertain ending presented in this version. I think it's one worth revisiting, so maybe when I have time I'll seek out the original version.
Next up was a pretty surprising documentary, NAILED IT. I normally wouldn't be too interested in a documentary about nail salons, but it fit into my schedule well, and ended up really impressing me. The stereotype of the Asian nail salon is pretty true. The majority of nail salons in the U.S. are actually not just owned by Asian Americans, but specifically by Vietnamese Americans. And why that is...well that's pretty interesting. It was definitely a post Vietnam War thing, as Vietnamese refugees flooded into the U.S. But why did they go into nail salons in particular? That wasn't a big business in Vietnam, it wasn't something they knew already. It's something that's pretty easy to learn and run as a small cash business, so it's a good way to make money. But the reason they chose that really comes down to two words--Tippi Hedren. Yeah, the star of THE BIRDS was also a humanitarian who took an interest in the Vietnamese refugees, visited them in Northern California, and helped send 20 of them to beauty school. And then that absolutely took off, because it's also the story of how nail salons became a thing not just in trendy upscale spas, but in the inner cities. Because that's where they could afford space, and they could partner with the local community and become a part of it. It's also a story of how it became a glutted market, and how the cost pressure from competition pushed to some unsanitary practices and gave Asian nail salons a bad reputation. That has been cleaned up, but now the big fight is on safe conditions for the workers. The chemicals in a lot of these products are pretty toxic. Not bad once they dry, and not bad for the short time a customer is in there, but really, really bad for the workers (which I know I had seen in another documentary, I just can't remember where or when.) So now safe salons are the things to look for. Obviously it makes no difference where I never get my nails done. But the next time you're looking for a salon, please check with the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.
Well, if that documentary surprised me, the next one blew my freakin' mind. THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE is all about Chinese streaming video stars. Particularly on the platform YY, These are people with a webcam who do shows. Sing, talk, rant, whatever. All very PG rated, but nonetheless the world is totally creepy. See, beneath all the technology is a society that is broken and lonely, and they're trying to find some bit of comfort in the world, but the only people who are profiting in the long run are the ones running the platform. So there's the streamers, competing for popularity. Often playing up their common "poor loser" backgrounds. Then there are their fans, most of whom are poor losers themselves, but who nonetheless pay for "gifts" to the performers--virtual trinkets that aren't important, but some of the money goes to the streamers (60% to YY, 40% to the streamers...and their agency. More on that later.) So some streamers get legitimately rich. Then there are the patrons--rich people, often newly rich, and stereotypically without great taste. They're the ones who pay top thousands of dollars to become a duke or a king and get special access to the performers. But they also have the throng of fans wanting to talk to them. Again, they're lonely people, just lonely and rich, so they can conspicuously spend for fame and attention. Well, once a year there's a competition for the most popular streamers, and you better win that competition if you don't want to lose all your fans. And that's where the agencies come in. Patrons with enough money will start an agency. Agencies will promote streamers--for a cut of their 40%. But that's what it takes to win. And if you really want to win, streamers will pour their own profits back into buying "votes" (it's a literally cash-based competition.) So while streamers can make money for a while, they can also spend millions trying to win the competition, and end up losing anyway. It's a ruthless, lonely world, with all the misogyny and vileness of the Internet, and someone's making a shitload of money off of it. Fans might think it's the streamers, and that might be true for a while, but it's not true in the long run.
Well, I've done my best to try to explain the system of streaming. What I haven't told you about is the personalities themselves. We follow a couple of streamers--Big Li and Shen Man. To really get to know them you'll have to watch the documentary, I can't do them justice. What I found remarkable is they don't seem to have any great talent. Shen Man sings, Big Li talks. And mostly they just talk to their fans asking them to spend, spend, spend. It's utterly bizarre.
And then I ended the night with the Disoriented Comedy Show. Yeah, live stand-up comedy, taking a bit of a break from movies. Atsuko Okatsuka, Jenny Yang, and D'Lo are very funny, and...I just realize I have no idea how to review a stand-up comedy show (you may argue I don't know how to review movies, either.) I will say I laughed a lot, live comedy looks really fucking hard, and apparently stand-up comedians needs to check in frequently to make sure the audience knows what she or he means (know what I mean?) And I'll say that while the comedy is from a different perspective than we're used to--female, trans, Asian-American, etc.--it's inclusive. It's about the truths that bring us together. As one of the few white dudes in the audience, I can say I never felt attacked or ridiculed. And as a mediocre white man, I want them to have all the chances they need to be successful. So check them out...wherever they're playing next.
Total Running Time: 239 minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,709