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Call it CAAMFest or SFIAAFF, it's a festival to behold

American-Vietnamese film "How to Fight in Six-Inch Heels" opens the 2014 CAAMFest
American-Vietnamese film "How to Fight in Six-Inch Heels" opens the 2014 CAAMFest
Studio courtesy

The little festival that could, has done it.

Always interesting and innovative, the (former) San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (more about that later) is getting ready for its 32th year, March 13-23. It is the largest, most diverse edition, and with unprecedented participation of directors, artists, and actors from Asia.

"This is my fourth year," says Festival Director Masashi Niwano (http://tinyurl.com/lh6jjvr), "and this is the most ambitious one. When programming, we always think about our very diverse audiences and what films will bring in new generations, but also please long- standing attendees.

"Also we reach out to new demographics and communities; with our amplified film and music programs, I'm hoping this creates new doors."

Given Niwano's preference for horror films and rock, I am not sure if there is really a balance for between old fans of the festival and young newcomers, but we all know which way is to the future. And, there is a goodly number of among the many offerings of features, documentaries, and live events that please grizzled veterans.

So, to the name. Awkward as SFIAAFF might have looked, it was easy to remember the AAFF part. Last year, the parent organization Center for Asian American Media renamed the festival as CAAMFest (http://caamfest.com/2014/). Whatever name it goes by, it has been dubbed "the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films."

The figures are impressive: 121 films and videos, eight programs of shorts, seven world and two North American premieres, 17 films new to San Francisco. (The last number is surprising: more than a hundred titles have been seen here already? Perhaps the reference is to feature films.)

Participating nations include Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.

CAAM, which has many activities besides the festival, is operating on a $2.5 million annual operating budget; the festival itself has a $500,000 budget, with an additional $100,000 of in-kind services.

Thanks to major support from Singapore Airlines, Busan Film Festival, Hong Kong Film Archive, and others, CAAMFest is able to bring some 30 filmmakers from Asia to San Francisco.

The opening night screening in the Castro Theater is the North American premiere of "How to Fight in Six-Inch Heels," a romantic comedy about a Vietnamese-American designer (Bay Area native Kathy Uyen) attempting to infiltrate Saigon's high-fashion world. The director is Ham Tran, known for "Journey from the Fall."

Closing night will mark the festival's extension to Oakland, with Marissa Aroy's documentary, "Delano Manongs," about Filipino and Chicano farmworkers' 1965 Delano Grape Strike, and the creation of the United Farm Workers Union.

Centerpiece presentations are "American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," honoring the 98-year-old activist, feminist, author and philosopher; and "Cold Eyes," a Korean remake of the 2007 Hong Kong crime thriller "Eye in the Sky."

Adding to the festival's history of more than 100 live musical acts, this year's program features hip-hop and rock beats from Korea, Vietnam and the Bay Area.

The festival features a retrospective of films by the late Run Run Shaw, who elevated kung fu to a global movie genre, and it has curatorial residence for Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, directors of the Dharamsala International Film Festival, in the Indian home to the Dalai Lama and the capital of the Tibetan community in exile.

The "Out of the Vaults" program will bring two films by the famed Chinese American producer Joseph Sunn Jue and his Grandview Film Company in San Francisco. During World War II, Jue made films about Cantonese opera actors living in San Francisco at the time. The films are "Black Market Couple" and "White Powder and Neon Lights."

This year's Narrative and Dcumentary Competition will have eight films vying for prizes, including "Awesome Asian Bad Guys," about Asian movie villains from the 1980s and 1990s; and "Innocent Blood," a thriller about a former police detective confronted by ghosts from his past.

Big names in CAAMFeast, an evening celebrating Asian American culinary achievement include chef Martin Yan (of PBS and M.Y. China restaurant) and chocolatier Wendy Lieu (Socola Chocolates).