In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee
dir: Deann Borshay Liem
In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is Deann Borshay Liem's follow-up to her landmark documentary First Person Plural. In contrast to her experiences as an international adoptee, Liem's second documentary shows her tracking the story of her adoption in South Korea by her American parents, which took place forty years earlier in 1966. Originally, Liem was told her name was Cha Jung Hee, but later found out her name was Kim Ok Jin. Liem’s name was changed at the last minute by the adoption agency. Liem’s journey begins with the question: who is the real Cha Jung Hee? In addition to following Liem’s search for the truth of her past (including meeting with countless Cha Jung Hee’s), the documentary reveals the process of international adoption through interviews and archival footage. Questions arise: how do we regain histories that are lost in this process? What happens when we take the identity of another child and are then renamed again in a new land? Liem’s journey to regain this lost past is disheartening, but at the same time, raises key questions that we continue to confront. --Kanara Ty
A Moment in Time
dir: Ruby Yang
Ruby Yang’s documentary takes us back to San Francisco Chinatown in the 1930s, when Chinatown movie theatres were “a place where everybody knew everybody.” The Great Star Theatre, The Grand View, The World Theatre, The Mandarin Theatre, and The Bella Union all closed by 1994. In their heyday, the movie theatres were not just for entertainment. They were a connection to the homeland, a social gathering space, and even a sort of babysitter. For 25 cents, you got the whole family in for the day. The Chinatown old timers interviewed in the documentary still have vivid memories of the movies they saw and the food they ate (chicken wings in the theatre!). An octogenarian’s eyes light up and his smile becomes boyish as he lists the titles he saw and who starred in them. The Chinatown movie theatres showed Cantonese opera, animated films, patriotic movies with Chinese heroes, and modern movies with fashionably hip clothing and dancing. I wish the documentary lingered longer in this “moment in time.” Who owned the movie theatres and how did they get the idea to build them? How did they select the features? These questions remain unanswered. Instead, the documentary travels through the subsequent decades, informing us that in the 1950s, West Side Story made a big impression on Chinatown gang culture; the 1960s brought ethnic awakening and kung-fu movies; the 1970s gave us Bruce Lee. The latter half of the documentary is a decade-by-decade summary of what movie-watching means to Asian Americans, which is surely educational but not as much as an untold story as the Chinatown movie theatres, the early pioneers of Asian American entertainment. --Lisa Leong
Wo Ai Ni Mommy
dir: Stephanie Wang-Breal
In 2007, there were 5,453 adoptions from China to the U.S. That same year, little Fang Sui Yong from Guangzhou became part of that statistic when she was adopted by Donna Sadowsky of Long Island, New York. A one-woman crew, director Stephanie Wang-Breal provides a moving portrayal of an American family going through the Chinese adoption process in Wo Ai Ni Mommy. Particularly unique to this documentary is the rare access it provides into the entire adoption process, including showering local government and orphanage officials with gifts, the visit to a Chinese orphanage, the signing of the paperwork, and the adoption medical exams.
But the real story takes places when Donna Sadowsky returns to Long Island and introduces Fang Sui (now Faith Sadowsky) to her entire family. Whether it is Faith's temper tantrums, her homesick moments, or Donna gingerly reprimanding her daughter, it makes for a gushy but honest look into the lives of this family. Interestingly, because there was a language barrier when Faith first arrived in America, the director acted not only as camerawoman but also as translator. As the documentary progresses, Ms. Breal adopts the role of jiejie (older sister) to Faith and becomes another member of the Sadowsky family, which explains why she is able capture those honest heartbreaking moments. Because the documentary is about adoption, identity issues abound. In one memorable scene, Faith is teleconferencing with her foster family back in China. At this point, the realization sets in that she has completely settled in America because of her impeccable English, has nearly completely lost her Cantonese, and has adopted her family's Jewish heritage.
There was however one missed opportunity in the film: the issue of adopting a foreign religion. Without seeing any evidence to the contrary, it's fair to assume Faith converted after she was adopted by the Sadowskys. The bar mitzvah scene or Faith talking about Hanukkah during the teleconference only briefly touched on the issue of religion. It would have been interesting to see how the dynamics of adopting a new religion alongside language and identity would have played a role for Faith and Donna in the film. Regardless, Wo Ai Ni Mommy is a well made, tender documentary that should not be missed. --Jaime Mendoza
A Village Called Versailles
dir: S. Leo Chiang
Here's a compelling story that has been off the mainstream media's radar. An established Vietnamese community in the area of East New Orleans that was greatly affected by the travesties of Hurricane Katrina quickly pulls together to rebuild their community. A Village Called Versailles touches on the history of a community and how it has always been a marginalized, unspoken voice in New Orleans. An emphasis on the church, and specifically Father Vien Ngyuen, in focusing the community’s energy and morale throughout the film is really telling of the spirit of the Versailles community. The film follows a few different personalities to tell the multiple perspectives of the community: the youth, the elders, the church leadership, other Vietnamese communities, and judicial support. Immediately following the disaster, many members of the community returned to their homes, not just to “look and leave,” but rather to take grassroots action in rebuilding their homes.
The film flows smoothly and organically in reaching the community’s pinnacle conflict. The Versailles community was left “off the map” in the rebuilding of the city. Scenes of community members attending the city’s meetings to make their voices heard are extremely compelling. The injustices continued as the city voted to place a landfill -- including all toxic debris Katrina created -- two miles outside of the Versailles community. Footage of protests and Mayor Nagin’s blatant dismissal of the community’s uproar are convincingly portrayed to show the battle the community faced in trying to protect the future of their homes. The film concludes on a beautiful note, giving an impression that the community has solidified its identity and place in New Orleans for future generations. It is a powerful commentary on the human bond that can be created when both the physical and ideal of home are threatened by destruction. --Tiffany Vlaanderen
Hana Dul Sed...
dir: Brigitte Weich
Easily one of the favorite documentaries of the festival, Hana, Dul, Sed..., chronicles the story of the North Korean women's soccer team, focusing on the lives of four women in particular. Throughout the film, little "slice of life" moments give Western audiences a taste of what it's like to live in North Korea. One sees firsthand the dancing celebrations, the inside of a women's beauty salon, North Korean day care centers, and even the rationing of food at the grocery store. While the former players are treated better before retirement because of their status, post-soccer they go through the same problems that all women in North Korea do. This runs the gamut of making career choices, finding a suitable mate, and potentially starting a family. For the uninitiated, the film is both educational and a delight to watch. For example, it may come as a surprise to most that the women's team actually clinched the 2003 Women's Asian Cup, the highlight of the film. The low point, unfortunately, was the team failing to qualify for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and then being forced to retire from the game. It's no secret that global sporting events are nationalistic, and to some extent, political. And because the film is about North Korea, politics enter the picture and soccer becomes a means to one-up the enemies of the state in the stadium. But the film is at its core a soccer film about the impact the game has had on the four team members and the foundation they lay for future women athletes. --Jaime Mendoza
Lessons of the Blood
dir: James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen
Lessons of the Blood literally screams bloody murder to the audience. In the Q&A session following the film, director James T. Hong makes no secret that his film is propaganda. In his mind, propaganda can be truthful. It can also be a legitimate method of combating similar types of propaganda such as the ones he explores in the film. Presented in chapter format with each more gruesome than the last, co-directors Hong and Yin-Ju Chen explore the meaning of propaganda and war from the perspective of the U.S., Japan, and China. At the heart of the exploration is the history of Japanese biological warfare against Chinese citizens during World War II. Because the film is by nature propaganda, the directors utilize an in-your-face visual style. With archival footage, dreadful music, expert testimony, and interviews with victims, there's no escaping the collateral damage caused by warfare. To this day, Chinese victims of Japanese war crimes are still suffering the side effects of such biological attacks and are only beginning to realize the source of their health problems. Best case scenario, victims suffer mild to severe scarring of the leg. At worst, their entire bodies rot puss and blood to the point they're rendered immobile. The directors do finger-point Japan for its refusal to acknowledge its past war crimes. But they also take shots at both China and the U.S. for peddling their own versions of the historical record when it's politically convenient for them to do so. By no means is the film's ending conclusive, as the directors show one final shot of Japanese revisionist history that is perhaps the most distasteful part of the film. Yet, audiences can see this film as a case study for what happens when governments refuse to own up to their actions. --Jaime Mendoza