Pass the Remote: Asian American film fest spans the Bay

Berkeley director Deann Borshay Liem's "Crossings" follows Women Cross DMZ as they advocate for peace in Korea. (Courtesy of CAAMFest)

From a raucous opening-night feature to a dance-filled finale, this year’s CAAMFest is ready to party. 

The annual Center for Asian American Media film festival returns May 11-21 for an eclectic, electric in-person program of film, food and music with events in San Francisco and Oakland. 

CAAMFest 2023 kicked off 6:30 p.m. May 11 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco with “Joy Ride,” the raunchy and hilarious R-rated feature debut from Adele Lim about the adventures of four feisty female friends who get into all sorts of trouble while in China and South Korea. Stars Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu will join Lim onstage for a conversation after the screening. It was followed by a gala at the Asian Art Museum. 

Festivities wrap up May 21 in Oakland with a Juicy Fruity Party from 8-11 p.m. at 7th West. The collaboration with Soulovely spotlights Oakland’s queer and trans-BIPOC communities with queer DJs spinning tunes and craft drinks and tasty food service. 

Also, there will be panels, numerous shorts and films with Bay Area connections; musical performances (including a free show at 1 p.m. May 20 in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens featuring Fanny, the pioneering Filipina rock band); a sneak peek at the upcoming stage show “Larry the Musical” based on the life of workers’ rights activist Larry Itliong (6 p.m. May 14 at Great Star Theatre in San Francisco); and foodie events, such as executive chef Tara Monsod of Animae and chef-owner Francis Ang of Abacá discussing ‘Futuristic Flavors” and serving culinary delights. (Seatings are at 5 and 7:30 p.m. May 16 at Abacá in S.F. at $135 per person.)

Keeping to the food theme, here’s a sampler’s plate of CAAMFest recommendations to satisfy your cinematic palate. 

“Liquor Store Dreams”: The centerpiece documentary asks hard questions and looks at generational challenges and changes two Korean American families experience with their Southern California liquor store businesses. Self-described “liquor store baby” and filmmaker So Yun Um offers a personal and candid take on the topic. (Noon May 13, Castro) 

“The Accidental Getaway Driver”: What starts out like a standard crime thriller – an older Vietnamese driver (an extraordinary Hiệp Tran Nghĩa) picks up three Orange County jail escapees who then take him hostage – transforms into a rich character study of two lonely, haunted men: the driver Long and passenger-kidnapper Tây (Dustin Nguyen). It’s the centerpiece narrative feature and promising feature debut of filmmaker Sing J Lee. (6 p.m. May 12, Castro) 

“Last Summer of Nathan Lee”: With high school graduations coming up very soon, the timing couldn’t be more ideal to see director Quentin Lee’s young adult heartbreaker about 18-year-old high school senior Nathan (Harrison Xu) dealing with a terminal diagnosis while trying to get as much sex in before he goes. The director, a University of California, Berkeley alum, filmed this LGBTQ-friendly dramedy on an IPhone 12 Pro. Matthew Mitchell Espinosa is a scene stealer as Nathan’s gay friend who wants to become a documentary filmmaker. “Last Summer of Nathan Lee” receives a world premiere at 6:30 p.m. May 14 at the Castro.  

Nathan Lee (Harrison Xu, right) does something special for his gay best friend Dash (Matthew Mitchell Espinosa) in “Last Summer of Nathan Lee,” a world premiere from Quentin Lee, a UC Berkeley alum. (Courtesy of CAAMFest)

Retrospective Spotlight on Rea Tajiri: The unconventional Chicago-born filmmaker and artist reflects on memories, history and aging in her film and visual artwork. Three of her films will be screened. In the latest “Wisdom Gone Wild” (2:30 p.m. May 14, Castro) she explores her changing connection to her mother, who has dementia. The 1997 narrative feature “Strawberry Fields” (12:15 p.m. May 13, Roxie in S.F.) follows a 16-year-old Japanese American whose revelatory road trip in 1971 sets her on a path on which she learns about her family’s history. The 1991 short film “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige” (Noon May 20, SF Museum of Modern Art’s Phyllis Wattis Theater) describes memories of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps.  

“Big Fight in Little Chinatown”: Director Karen Cho’s documentary explores challenges facing Chinatowns across North America tied to the pandemic and increase in anti-Asian racism. (2:30 p.m. May 13, Great Star Theatre) 

“Crossings”: Berkeley filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem follows Women Cross DMZ as they organize, plan and call for peace by traveling across the demilitarized section between North Korea and South Korea. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem lends her support and participates. (5:30 p.m. May 13, Great Star Theatre) 

“Jeanette Lee Vs.”: Sink this one in the corner pocket. Oakland director Ursula Liang takes viewers into pool halls of yesterday where Jeanette Lee defined the game and was called the Black Widow. Less than an hour, this enlightening documentary brings to light what Lee contended with along her way to becoming a star. She’ll join Liang onstage for a conversation after the film. (Noon May 14, Great Star Theatre)  

Oakland director Ursula Liang takes a candid look at pool player Jeanette Lee, also known as the Black Widow, in “Jeanette Lee Vs.” (Courtesy of CAAMFest)

“Nurse Unseen”: Filipino nurses and their families talk about the critical and role they played, and dangers they dealt with, in the COVID-19 pandemic. Director Michele Josue’s documentary also features Catherine Ceniza Choy, a UC Berkeley professor of ethnic studies and author. (7:15 p.m. May 12, Great Star Theatre)

“Unconditional”: San Francisco documentary maker and journalist Richard Lui takes a much-needed look at issues pertaining to mental and physical well-being. He explores the important themes from the perspective of three families, including his own, in a picture that was filmed over the course of seven years. (2 p.m. May 13, Main Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.) 

“Fanny: The Right to Rock”: Director Bobbi Jo Hart’s eye-opening documentary covers not just the careers but the hardships and obstacles that members of what some regard as the first all-female rock band ran into, in addition to the making of their reunion album. (5:30 p.m. May 19, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SF Museum of Modern Art) 

For tickets and the schedule, visit

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