When no one was looking, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival reinvented itself as CAAMFest, essentially adding musical and other programs to the Center for Asian American Media's annual exhibition of movies from Asia and the US.
The good news: The festival's lineup of films appears to be as challenging and thoughtfully selected as ever. The bad news is that CAAM's "broadening" of the festival to include more non-film events is further indication that those entertainment-business feature stories we've been reading may indeed be true — that the young audiences CAAM is chasing aren't all that much in love with film, at least as presented by traditional film festivals. Pop-music concerts, culinary workshops, and social networking apparently appeal just as much to CAAMFest audiences as the latest Pacific Rim narratives and docs, and CAAMFest's "culture fair" offerings reflect that.
But the film crowd has not yet been completely banished. Take Mekong Hotel, for instance. The 2012 short feature (61 minutes) from Thai international helmer Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady) indulges the writer-director's taste for near-catatonic pacing combined with supernatural comings and goings. The scene is a beautiful but apparently deserted hotel overlooking the title river on the Thailand side of the Thai-Lao border, where a man named Tong (Sakda Kaewattana) spends most of his time — when his soul isn't possessed by the ghost of his mother, who feeds on her victims' innards — chatting with Phon (Maiyatan Techaparn), the woman next door, and listening to a second man, composer Chai Bhatana, playing acoustic guitar. Commonplaces and horrors both happen at the same dreamlike tropical speed. Mekong Hotel screens at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, March 16, at 4 p.m.
Another winner from the PFA's slice of CAAMFest is Harana, a charming documentary by Benito Bautista that investigates the lost Filipino art of young men serenading their girlfriends outside their windows with acoustic instruments. Our guide, Fil-Am classical guitarist Florante Aguilar, meets several old-timer harana artists, hears their romantic, Spanish-tinged love songs, and accompanies them on their rounds, helping a shy young man serenade his sweetheart. This nostalgic travelogue, a Filipino Buena Vista Social Club, plays Saturday at 5:50 p.m. at the PFA. The Pacific Film Archive hosts seven days of CAAMFest programs, including movies from China, North Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan, and the US, from March 15 through 23, in coordination with CAAMFest's San Francisco schedule. For up-to-date info, visit CAAMedia.org.