CAAMFest films explore the complexities of the Asian-American experience

One movie looks at a man unjustly accused of murder; another examines a restaurant in Michigan contending with COVID-19 and racism.

Dawning. Credit: Larsen Associates

With this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival in the rearview mirror, it’s time for CAAMFest, the Bay Area’s annual celebration of Asian and Asian-American cinema. Now in its 40th year, CAAMFest can’t quite match the programming breadth and depth of its predecessor but always features some worthwhile films.

Young Min Kim’s Dawning (available for streaming throughout the festival) is an unusual hybrid of family drama and psychological horror. The film marks Kim’s freshman effort as a writer-director after years spent toiling in the visual effects mines of Hollywood blockbusters such as The Batman (2022) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), as well as smaller scale but still noteworthy productions like Midsommar (2019).

The story revolves around Haejin (Kim Ellis) and Soojin (Veronica Kim), sisters raised by Korean immigrant parents in a windswept Quonset hut somewhere in southern California. The ambitious Haejin manages to escape to New York where she becomes a successful psychoanalyst, while Soojin is left behind to take care of the homestead – and her mother – after the death of their father. When Haejin returns to the southland to spend a weekend with the family, simmering family tensions soon resurface: Soojin resents being left behind and forgotten by her sister, while Haejin tries to control her anxiety and survivor’s guilt with a steady diet of pills.

Its neatly constructed narrative revolving around buried family secrets, recurring visual motifs and things that go bump in the night, Dawning features a superb discordant score by composer Alex Winkler. Clocking in at a brisk 74 minutes, Kim’s film is a unique blend of hard-hitting drama and restrained chills that conceals its hand until the very end.

Free Chol Soo Lee. Credit: CAAMFest

There’s a local angle to Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre at 6:30 p.m. tonight. A Korean immigrant living in San Francisco, Lee was railroaded by racist police and found guilty of the 1973 murder of Chinatown gangster Yip Yee Tak – even though he wasn’t involved with the city’s Chinese-American criminal underground.

Though Lee would eventually win exoneration, the time he spent in jail marked him for life. Charged with the killing of an Aryan Brotherhood inmate and addicted to drugs, Lee spent the balance of his life trying to come to terms with the bad hand dealt him by the American justice system. While the film doesn’t have a happy ending, it’s no downer: Lee spent his final years confronting his demons as an inspirational speaker.

Bad Axe. Credit: CAAMFest

With a title like Bad Axe, you might anticipate a rockumentary about a crummy heavy metal band; instead, it’s the story of a Cambodian-Mexican family operating a restaurant in the overwhelmingly white town of Bad Axe, Michigan. The Siev family studiously avoided engaging with their conservative white customers about race or politics, but things took a turn for the worse after May 2020’s George Floyd protests.

Matters were further complicated by the pandemic; with the Sievs’ enforcement of masking and social distancing rules rankling their neighbors, Bad Axe details the erosion of the town’s already fragile relationship with their resident “outsiders.” An inspiring depiction of the challenges faced by a multi-racial family living in the middle of white America, Bad Axe screens at San Francisco’s Great Star Theater at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 15.

Check out the schedule for the festival.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.