BERKELEY -- With a new name, 19 new films and promising new insights into filmmaking from Singapore provocateur and director Royston Tan, the Center for Asian American Media 2013 film fest brings contemporary cinema from Asia and the Asian Diaspora to town from March 15 to 23.

Hosted in the East Bay by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the festival is an uber travelogue, with films from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and North Korea.

But it's also a cultural excavation; digging through time to reach ancient myths, or shooting cinematic missiles through modern day truths to reveal startling future lives.

The purpose of these contemporary filmmakers is to start a dialogue and to keep people talking long after their film's conclusion.

Three films and a post-screening conversation between Tan and multimedia artist and critic Valerie Soe will certainly loosen tongues. Or at least, Tan's controversial "15" will. The 2003 film had Singapore officials tearing their hair out -- and forcing Tan to tear out 27 scenes. Potential hot topics in the film will include censorship, gangs, body piercing, illegal drugs, suicide, morbidity and sexuality.

If that sounds too gritty, there's also the sweet softness of Tan's "Old Romances," an against-type 2012 cinematic love letter. Racing to capture iconic Singaporean locations, lifestyles and values, the 37-year-old filmmaker demonstrates an evolution; embracing modernism and antiquity with equal flare.


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Combined with "881," Tan's bombastic, contest songfest that's about as far from the meditative atmosphere of a Buddhist temple as one can imagine, CAAM's three selections show off his signature close-up, quick-cut style. Clever musical selections and striking color choices heighten each film's emotional content; evoking pathos, adding a gentle or hilarious touch, or deliberately irritating the soul.

In an email interview from his home in Singapore, Tan reflected on the arc of his career.

"I have come full circle in my creation," he said. "I have attempted many different things and the end of the journey marks the beginning of where I first started. Both '15' and 'Old Romances' are made at urgent, if not specific, times of Singapore. Both are trying to archive a phenomenon that is disappearing in the name of development."

Aware that even his childhood memories of temples and mom-and-pop shops are being usurped by mega malls and the online world, Tan admitted, he's "afraid to be honest" about Singapore's next iteration. "I love my country, but I love my people more. It's a strange relationship," he said.

His films, like others in the festival, address the underlying strain all people experience as society grapples with change and opposing desires.

The magic of an international film festival occurs when a film takes a universal theme, places you in a foreign setting or unfamiliar vantage point, tosses and tests your definitions of "them/us" and (hopefully) leaves you with an overriding appreciation for how we are all so very much alike.

"Invoking Justice" is director Deepa Dhanraj's documentation of the women's liberation movement sweeping South India. Breaking the mold of jamaat (the all-male councils applying their own kind of justice when interpreting Sharia laws and parsing punishments), founder Sharifa Khanam's organization today boasts 12,000 members.

"It lit a match," Khanam says of the Women's Jamaat. The resulting firestorm of activism, mirrored in the story of 17-year-old Noorful Basriya's death by burning (after "shaming" her family, being disowned and suffering torture at the hand of her in-laws), is both tragic and transformative. Operating like women suffragettes for the 21st century, Khanam admits, even educated women must be taught not to accept abuse as a man's privilege.

CAMM
For a complete list of CAAM films and related events at BAM/PFA, visit http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/filmseries/CAAM_2013.
For complete CAAMFest 2013 listings, go to http://caamedia.org/