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CAAMFest Refocuses on Film, Food and Fraternity

Gamelan fans rejoice!

Still from Royston Tan's 15, showing at PFA during this year's CAAMFest.

San Francisco's Asian American Film Festival has always been one those events that seems to beg (and reward) the application of a good metaphor, and there's an analogy to be made somewhere that speaks to the fact that as other festivals have begun to age out, the 31-year-old fest has managed to retain a youthful glow. The emergence of the newly christened CAAMFest won't seem sudden to those who've paid the slightest attention to evolution of the festival formerly known as San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which in the past three years has undergone substantial readjustment under the stewardship of youthful director Masashi Niwano and managing director Christine Kwon.

This year's relabeling seems not only designed to distinguish one of the Bay Area's busiest festival events from the competition, but indicates that the festival is wholeheartedly moving closer to their young audience, who, if recent news is to be believed, are steadily moving away from film and diving deeper into food, music, and tech. While other festivals often struggle to drive attendance to their out-of-category offerings, SFIAAFF always enjoyed great support for them, from their recurring New Directions in Sound program, which this year features LA-based Cambo-psych sextet Dengue Fever, to panel discussions, so the move makes sense. Despite external changes film remains the nexus of the CAAMFest experience, and this year's line-up earns plenty of bragging points.

The festival opens this evening with SF-bred director Evan Jackson Leong's documentary Linsanity, about NBA player Jeremy Lin. It would be hard to invent a more totemic figure for the AA community at the moment. For his part, Leong gives us a film few others would have been able to make–access is a precious commodity in Lin's world and comes with its own hard-fought tale. Of the festival's other gala screenings, Water director Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children, a much-anticipated adaptation of Salman Rushdie's magical realist novel of the same name, also stands out as a spectacle of both style and substance. Other big names grace the festival's Cinema Asia section, including Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest puzzler, Mekong Hotel, which will appeal to those familiar with his particular quirks in pacing and narrative, and Sion Sono's The Land of Hope, a surprisingly restrained and realist portrait of a Japanese family driven from their home by a fictional natural disaster that bears chilling resemblance to Japan's current ordeals.

True to CAAMFest's focus, this year's other narrative offerings rest largely in the hands of a younger generation of filmmakers, led by Ken Adachi's debut, the often-hilarious Dead Dad, a low-key but dead-on inspection of three siblings suddenly left to reconcile their existence after the death of their father. Hollywood grip-turned-director Ron Morales' second film, Graceland, plays out much like countryman Ian Gamazon's 2005 thriller Cavite, carving a plausible and electrifying thriller from a minuscule budget on the backstreets of balmy Manila. Yale-educated director Lee Issac Cheung is himself only 34, but his film, Abigail Harm, slants a bit older, situating the excellent but often hard-to-place Amanda Potter in a lightly-apocalyptic New York landscape, chasing a love half-remembered from a Korean fairy tale. Cheung's film can be difficult, but at its best, emits pleasant strains of the kind of elegiac wistfulness that often drifts about in the films of Thai auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe).

One of CAAMFest's most buried offerings, but perhaps its best, is a small retrospective of films of one-time Singaporean bad boy Royston Tan, appearing with his locational doc Old Romances at Berkeley's PFA. While his latest is an unfiltered but welcome blast of nostalgia, genre fans and the more eye-poppingly inclined won't want to miss his kitsch-saturated musical 881 or 15, a kinetic portrait of Singapore's lost youth made all the more impactful by its use of non-professional actors, teens and actual gang members.

CAAMFest begins today, and runs through March 24th.