Photo from Wo Ai Ni Mommy.
As usual, there seem to be lots of great documentaries to choose from in this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s lineup. I had the chance to review a few of them, all of which happen to be directed by Asian American women.
In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee
Directed by Deann Borshay Liem
From Deann Borshay Liem, we have In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, which will have its world premiere at the festival (Borshay Liem was also a longtime director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), the precursor to the Center for Asian American Media, which puts on the film festival each year). The film will screen in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose and it appears that Borshay Liem will be there in person at the screenings.
In the Matter is a deeply personal journey focusing on questions that Borshay Liem has been grappling with. At the age of eight, she was adopted from South Korea to Fremont, CA by white parents. Beneath the adoption narrative is a hidden story, where a deliberate mix-up, or several mix-ups, resulted in Borshay Liem’s adoption and not that of the "real" Cha Jung Hee. It’s a pretty fascinating look at a family and personal mystery and one adult adoptees’ quest to find the out who Cha Jung Hee really is.
What makes the film work — beyond a narcissistic quest — is the layering of information about South Korea's adoption industry, as well as the artful presentation of information. It’s a fascinating window into the world of international and transracial adoption that is still totally relevant today that completely shatters the “first world middle class parents save third world orphan child” narrative, leaving not so much a clear cut answer but at least a window into one family's adoption story.
There is surprising resolution in the end, whether it is a matter of the subject’s own will or real. Borshay Liem made the acclaimed PBS P.O.V. documentary First Person Plural 10 years ago, which is also personal and is about her adoption and finding her birth parents. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is an entirely different film with a different focus, but equally worthy. Also screening with the film is a 10-minute excerpt of Memory of Forgotten War about the legacy of the Korean War, Borshay Liem's latest project. —Momo Chang
Wo Ai Ni Mommy
Directed by Stephanie Wang-Breal
Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Wo Ai Ni Mommy, which focuses on an adopted Chinese girl’s first year and a half with her new family, the Sadowsky’s, Long Island home. According to the film, since 1992 when China opened up adoptions, Americans have adopted 70,000 Chinese babies or children.
The first moment viewers Sui Yong onscreen, when she is eight years old and being picked up by her new mom, is heartbreaking — the shock, sadness and shyness we see in her face and expressions. Like other adoptees’ stories, this one is more complex than simply a wealthy family in the US saves a third world baby. Sui Yong has foster parents in Guangzhou, China, who she doesn’t want to leave, and another foster sister who she is close to. The transition is more shocking for her perhaps because, like Borshay Liem, she wasn't a baby, but was eight years old when she was adopted.
Through the film, we see ways in which her life has dramatically change, from her struggle to adjust to a new life to learning English and dealing with her disability. While the parents are loving, there are some moments that make me cringe –- the total immersion experience where the new parents force her to learn English on flash cards. Interestingly, the filmmaker also serves as a translator between the parents and child.
Wo Ai Ni Mommy is a straightforward, traditional documentary that’s strength lies in capturing verite moments, with little reliance on bells and whistles like poetic gestures or fancy graphics. (It has a slightly MTV Real World feel to it). The film is also a PBS P.O.V. documentary that will screen this year. In short, Sui Yong’s transformation in such a short period is utterly shocking, and you won't be able to peel your eyes from the screen. Wang-Breal will also be at the screenings. —Momo Chang
Directed by Freida Lee Mock
Freida Lee Mock’s Lt. Watada, shortlisted for the Academy Awards this year. The film is a straightforward biographical story on Lt. Ehren Watada, the highest ranking army officer who refused to deploy to Iraq. Watada explains his decision and we see him through his court martial, we see his supporters, we see people who disagree with him. Watada has gained worldwide attention for his act, and I'm glad this film was made to save a piece of American history, where a young Asian American man happens to be the protagonist.
What we get out of the film is that Watada is a true hero and leader. Despite the hubbub around him — the military's pressures, his supporters, and people who don't like him — at the core of this we see a man who is deeply centered by his morals and conscience, and that is something admirable. We hear him speak eloquently to large crowds about the war in Iraq. There are no bells and whistles in this documentary either (think interviews where Watada is sitting on his couch) but the topic is timely. If I were a history or social studies teacher, I would use this in my classroom. Also very touching are his parents, Carol Ho and Bob Watada, who not only supported him but also have spoken out on behalf of his cause. It’s pretty touching to see supportive parents like that, even if they initially may not have agreed with his decision.
You may or may not have heard of Freida Lee Mock — she's probably most famous for making Maya Lin: A Strong Clear vision which garnered an Academy Award for best doc in 1994. But she may be the most prolific Asian American filmmaker you've never heard of. She's made tons of short docs like Lt. Watada on a range of subjects. Oh yeah, and may I add that she's married to documentary filmmaker Terry Sanders and their daughter is Jessica Sanders, who is also a filmmaker (Jessica made After Innocence, a documentary about exonerated inmates).
Lee Mock will also screen her latest documentary, Sing China! at the festival, about the Los Angeles Childrens' Chorus' tour in China, and will also be there in person at the screenings. —Momo Chang