CAAMFest is the coolest film festival you've maybe never heard of. I've been intimately aware of CAAMFest since about 2016 or so. Like a lot of events requiring humans to be together in close proximity, CAAM was forced into a hiatus during the early years of COVID. The fact that the 10-day festival is back is testament to both where we are in the pandemic and the enduring spirit of this four-decade-old slate of movies showcasing AAPI filmmakers, crewmembers, actors, and writers. If you're saying "wow" right now, welcome to the club.
CAAMFest 2023 did everything but disappoint, at least as far as the events I was fortunate enough to attend. I joined Erin and Producer Char back in April at CAAM's launch party (side note: it was a total trip to be inside Victory Hall, the space formerly—and by "formerly," I mean at least 20 years ago—occupied by 330 Ritch and its "Pop Scene" weekly dance parties). At the launch party, I was immediately struck that night by the enthusiasm on display, mostly from CAAM Festival and Exhibitions Director Thúy Trần (get to know Thúy over on Bitch Talk Podcast) and Programs Associate Jess Ju. Thúy and Jess presented the list of 55+ film, music, and food events that comprised this year's CAAMFest, and I was hooked.
Here's a list of movies I signed up for as soon as I could:
Benkyodo: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town
Jeanette Lee vs.
Fanny: The Right to Rock
L-R: Q&A host Jess Ju of CAAM, Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, Sabrina Wu, and Ashley Park
Joy Ride showed at the Castro Theatre on CAAMFest's opening night, so I knew right off the bat that this festival was gonna be special. We arrived a few minutes before the program began and were stoked to see Castro Theatre organist David Hegarty tickling the ivories. Theaters, y'all.
Joy Ride is the story of childhood best friends Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola). Both Asian-Americans, Audrey was adopted by white Americans while Lolo grew up with her bio parents. With Audrey now an adult and about to embark on a work trip to Asia, Lolo convinces her friend to look for her birth mother while she's on the other side of the world. Their friends Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) join them for this journey.
It's one thing to lay out the plot. But that in no way does justice to how incredibly funny this movie is. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie since probably ... 2019's Booksmart. And the comedy doesn't take anything away from how well acted, scripted, and directed the movie is. Adele Lim conducts quite the cinematic symphony.
L-R: Q&A host Cecilia Lei of The Chronicle & Fifth and Mission podcast, Benkyodo owners Ricky and Bobby Okamura, Eryn Kimura, and filmmakers Akira Boch and Tadashi Nakamura
I signed up to see Bankyodo: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town mostly because of the local angle. I'm sure now that I've seen the long lines along Sutter Street in Japantown, but I probably dismissed this sight as just another trendy SF brunch spot. Boy was I wrong.
Bankyodo Company was open for more than 100 years in San Francisco, serving up mochi and manju to adoring fans from many generations and all backgrounds. When the most recent owners, brothers Bobby and Ricky Okamura, decided to close in 2021, filmmakers Akira Boch, Eryn Kimura, and Tadashi Nakamura knew they had to document this beloved corner spot's 115-year history. Their short doc is a true love letter to the Okamura family, who ran Benkyodo from Day 1.
L-R: Q&A host Jun Stinson, Jeanette Lee, and filmmaker Ursula Liang
Jeanette Lee, aka, Black Widow, is a bad-ass pool player. She came on the white/male-dominated billiards scene in the '90s and unapologetically kicked so much ass. The bio doc Jeanette Lee vs. tells the story of her life.
Growing up in The Bronx, Lee felt like an outcast in society and abandoned by her dad. She rediscovered herself by spending hours and hours playing pool. She got good enough to start competing, and later propelled women's billiards to the point where the league was getting more and more coverage, eventually helping launch ESPN-2 and making hers a household name. The doc chronicles her health struggles over the years, leading up to a recent cancer diagnosis. But Jeanette Lee epitomizes determination and perseverance, and Ursula Liang's doc is a beautiful portrait of Lee's indomitable spirit.
CAAMFest saved the best for last this year. First, we attended the showing of Fanny: The Right to Rock at SFMoMA. Then, the next day, we were treated to a live Fanny performance at Yerba Buena Gardens. If you're asking yourself, Who's Fanny? right now, that's kinda the point.
Like Jeanette Lee, Fanny burst onto a heavily white, heavily male rock scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This all-female, all-Asian, part-queer rock band held nothing back. David Bowie said of Fanny that "one of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace." They played with so many bands that did become household names, and we don't need to speculate as to why Fanny never rose to stardom. Doesn't matter.
The documentary beautifully captures the magic of Fanny, going all the way back to the Millington sisters' growing up in Sacramento and meeting drummer Brie Darling. Over the last 50 years, the band's lineup morphed and came back to the original trio. Members who joined them along the way are featured in the doc, as are other musicians, like Bonnie Raitt, Kathy Valentine (Go-Go's), Cherie Currie (The Runaways), and Kate Pierson (The B-52's). The movie basically begins and ends with Bowie's call to action: "Revivify Fanny."
You can currently find Fanny: The Right to Rock on PBS.
For us, the icing on the cake at this year's CAAMFest was Fanny's live performance at Yerba Buena Gardens. Emceeing and later performing that day was Bay Area hip-hop artist Ruby Ibarra. Ruby got the crowd hopping, as she's known to do, and introduced the opening act: Peaboo and the Catz. This teenage quartet was joined on stage by bassist/lead vocalist Presley Asuncion's dad, Paolo. Paolo is perhaps better known as part of the team that operates the TNT Traysikel. Can you feel the Bay Area Asian love?
Following Peaboo's energetic, heartfelt set was Ruby Ibarra, who had joined the opener for a mid-song rap. Ruby is hella Filipina proud and infuses her performances with that joy and love of her heritage. Her call-and-responses really got the audience feeling it, too.
Then it was time for Fanny. The lineup for this performance included founding members June and Jean Millington and Brie Darling. Joining them on stage were guitarist Patti Quatro, drummer Alyce de Buhr, and Jean's son, Lee. If, like me, you'd seen the movie or just happened to be one of those who already were familiar with the band, every song was singalong-able. I had goosebumps and wet eyes the entire set. The joy was palpable throughout the crowd. It was the perfect way to wrap up CAAMFest 2023.
For more on some of the CAAMFest events covered here, head over to Bitch Talk Podcast:
Ursula Liang and Jeanette Lee for Jeanette Lee vs.
Fanny: The Right to Rock director Bobbi Jo Hart