Aside from one upbeat depiction of Hawaii's only all-male hula school (Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula), the nominees in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival's documentary competition are nearly as similar in execution as they are in theme. Immigration tales, filmed in high-definition video from a first-person perspective, abound. Though homelands (Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea) differ, there's remarkable commonality among the subjects, who display the kind of internal scars only great suffering can inflict. The need for closure is undeniable; the journey is, of course, captured by a lens that has no qualms about getting way up close and personal. On more than one occasion, the filmmaker wielding the ever-present camera is an immediate family member.
The strongest pair happen to be the two that are the most alike: Doan Hoang's Oh, Saigon and Socheata Poeuv's New Year Baby. Hoang was only three years old on April 30, 1975, the day her family scrambled aboard the last civilian helicopter out of Vietnam at the end of the war. She remembers only her middle-class life in Kentucky, but her family including an older half sister who was left behind amid the chaos of their escape remains very much affected by the past. Two return trips to Saigon open old wounds even as they strengthen bonds weakened by decades of resentment and estrangement. "I had not understood what he lost when we left Vietnam," Hoang reflects when her father explains that his "true home" no longer exists. Oh, Saigon is greatly elevated by her insightful narration as well as the film's graceful editing.
New Year Baby, about Texas-raised filmmaker Poeuv's Cambodian family, exactly parallels some of Oh, Saigon's threads of painful secrets, including arranged marriages and siblings torn apart by politics. In addition, it features a group trip back to Cambodia complete with tearful reunions and probing questions raised by a constantly filming daughter. Animated interludes stand in where archival footage can't, such as when Poeuv's sisters remember what life was like under the Khmer Rouge. It's a sensitive, emotional film that like Oh, Saigon makes one family's journey symbolic of what war can do to the innocent, both those who remain amid the conflict and those who attempt to reestablish their lives elsewhere.
Without a daughter behind the camera shooting The Cats of Mirikitani (by Linda Hattendorf), And Thereafter II (by Hosup Lee), or Bolinao 52 (by Duc Nguyen), you'd think these docs would play out on a less intimate level. Instead they're just as harrowing Lee's film often uncomfortably so. With self-referential asides (including his fear that he's exploiting his subject), Lee follows Ajuma, a Korean woman who describes herself as an "exAmerican whore" who met her husband (an American soldier, now deceased) "in the fuck business." She's lonely and friendless and speaks very little English, even after decades in the States. Lee isn't quite sure what to do with her except capture her hard-earned bitterness on tape.
By contrast, Hattendorf basically adopts the focus of her film 85-year-old Japanese American Jimmy Mirikitani after Sept. 11. Homeless, he moves into her New York City apartment and grudgingly accepts her help (getting a Social Security check, finding housing, contacting relatives, etc.), never ceasing to skillfully draw landscapes, flowers, and animals, as well as scenes from his memories. In return, he allows her to uncover his life story, which includes a childhood in Hiroshima and a young adulthood spent in a California internment camp.