A look at ‘Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm’

Some documentaries get by largely on the strength of their subject matter. Jim Choi’s new documentary, “Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,” could have easily been such a film. Its subjects, the Masumoto family, are icons of the slow food movement. Their pioneering organic farm — run by husband and wife, David “Mas” and Marcy, with help from their children Nikiko and Korio — produces what are considered by many to be the best–tasting peaches and nectarines in California. (They supply the likes of Chez Panisse). And Mas and Nikiko are thoughtful and charismatic storytellers and advocates for socially just and environmentally responsible farming, making them naturally compelling on camera. As such, Choi could have made a film chronicling their past accomplishments and present position in the food world and it would have been great. Choi does, in fact, do all of that, but he also goes beyond. He makes the film as much about the Masumoto family’s future as it is about their past. And by doing so, he provokes questions about the future of California agriculture, the slow food movement and the Japanese American community.

The documentary follows the family for a year, a particularly pivotal one, it turns out, as they manage passing the farm from Mas’ to Nikiko’s hands. This unique circumstance makes the reflections on the past that are weaved throughout the film feel like a natural part of the subjects’ thought process, as opposed to a checkmark next to a box on a list of historical context one’s supposed to provide in a documentary (not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily).

The farm is, of course, a potent symbol for Nikkei. Many of us trace our roots to Issei who made their way to this country to work in California farmland, with hopes of one day owning a piece of it. In the film, we learn the story of how the Masumotos immigrated to the Fresno area from Western Japan to work in agriculture, and of their incarceration at the Gila River concentration camp — a pivotal event that helped shape the family’s social consciousness for generations. (Nikiko has a one-woman play about her family’s camp experience, and the film features a pilgrimage Mas and Nikiko take to the site where her grandparents and great grandparents were incarcerated).

Mas grew up on a farm and left to go to college, but his journey from there connected him to many aspects of the past. He traveled to Japan to study and eventually ended up living in his grandparents’ Kumamoto village and working on their rice farm. This experience, his burgeoning social conscious and his studies at the University of California, Berkeley and UC Davis, led him back to the family farm, as part of a nascent movement to redefine farming, which was rapidly industrializing, by respecting its ability to connect people to nature and one another.

In the film, the family reflects on how he was joined in this endeavor by Marcy, his now wife and mother to Nikiko and Korio, whose Caucasian Christian family was troubled by her marriage to a Japanese American Buddhist. Nikiko recounts her feelings of isolation growing up as a mixed-race Nikkei and thoughtfully explores her own evolving identity throughout the film, as a queer Japanese American farmer in rural California.

And at the end of the day, “Changing Season” is, of course, a story about human beings. Mas’ parents come alive in his vivid stories about them. We see Mas’ 60th birthday party and are witness to his family’s experience as he goes through heart surgery. We accompany Mas and Nikiko to lectures they give in academic settings and we watch them toil on the farm. We see their working and personal relationships between the Masumotos and the largely Latino crew on the farm, a bond that has gone back decades in some cases and is facilitated, in part, by Nikiko’s Spanish-speaking abilities. We see Nikiko navigate the tension between traditional farming practices and contemporary social norms, particularly around forming and maintaining a romantic relationship. And we see them share the farming process and experiences with others as part of their pioneering Adopt-a-Tree program, in which groups of people apply to take care of an individual tree and then care for and harvest it at several times throughout the year.

While the film provides unique insights into the current state of California agriculture and the many challenges and uncertainty for its future, as well as the Nikkei community, it makes these larger issues feel immediate and tangible by exploring them through the Masumotos’ eyes.

In one particularly poignant scene, Nikiko stands in her grandmother’s empty bedroom, at once reflecting on her relationship to her family and heritage, while at the same time getting to know a new home for much of the year. “Changing Season” pulls this thread — from the past to the future, from the personal to the political to the environmental — with grace and style. The camera captures the farm and the people who work it in all its splendor — the film is gorgeously shot without being overly romantic.

The presentation of the film at this year’s CAAMFest fits the subject matter, as well. Mas and Nikiko, as well as director Choi and editor Chihiro Wimbush, will be on hand for the Friday, March 20 screening at the Oakland Museum of California, which is located at 1000 Oak St., Oakland, Calif., at 7 p.m. as part of their Friday Nights @OMCA, which features half-off museum admission, Off the Grid food trucks, live music and family-friendly activities. The film will also show at the New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St., Oakland on Saturday, March 21 at 7 p.m. For tickets or information, visit http://caamfest.com/2015/films/changing-season-on-the-masumoto-family-farm.

‘Hollow’

Vietnamese American director Ham Tran has been a mainstay at CAAMFest, and each of his films has been a huge departure from his previous work. “Hollow” is no exception. The narrative feature, a Vietnamese horror film, is a big deal in a country where such works are actively discouraged. (It should be noted, though, that many in the cast and crew are Asian American). The film delivers the kinds of thrills you’d expect from the genre, delivering a persistent and nagging sense of dread throughout (which I’m partial to), as well as a series of gross-out moments and shock scares (which I’m not as partial to, but it’s done quite effectively here). Terrific performances from a hugely multi-generational cast, as well as some genuinely sad and disturbing human drama, elevate “Hollow” and keep it lingering in the mind long after you leave the screening.

‘Man Up’

Justin Chon probably set some sort of record at this year’s CAAMFest. In addition to appearing in “Seoul Searching,” a narrative film about Korean Americans returning to their ancestral home through a government-sponsored program, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in “Man Up,” which is probably the most fun of all the narrative films I was able to preview for this year’s fest. “Man Up” follows Martin (co-writer Kevin Wu) and Randall (Chon) as a pair of slackers who are suddenly forced to re-examine their lifestyle when Martin’s girlfriend reveals that she is pregnant and is breaking up with him because of his general lack of motivation and responsibility. Martin and Randall then set out on a mission to learn about child-rearing so that Martin can win back his ex.

Chon and Wu have great chemistry and plenty of charm, so it’s a lot of fun watching them on screen. And they’re supported by a great cast that includes Amy Hill (of “Enlightened” and a million other films and TV shows), Samantha Futerman (of “Kroll Show”), Dion Basco and Parvesh Cheena (“Arrested Development”).

The wacky characters are a big departure from the kinds of Asian Pacific Islander stereotypes that often occupy the big screen (sometimes even in films that we make ourselves), but as over-the-top as they can get in moments, they feel real, and often remind me of my own family or of other Asian Americans I grew up with.

“Man Up” isn’t perfect. Like most bromances, there’s a bit of gay panic fueling the humor and a couple of scenes that just don’t make a whole lot of sense (the duo go to a college party, where they’re accosted by a guy who hurls racial slurs at them and no one else gets mad, despite the fact that they’re in Hawai‘i and almost everyone else at the party is Asian).

However, the film is always engaging, frequently funny and, at times, even poignant. More than that, though, “Man Up” comes across as a real labor of love. In every frame, it feels like everyone involved is just having so much damn fun that it’s hard not to get swept up in its giddy energy.

Screens Saturday, March 21 at the New Parkway Theater at 5:30 p.m. Tickets: General $14; Students $13; http://caamfest.com/2015/films/man-up/

‘Off The Menu’

Grace Lee can essentially do no wrong in my eyes. Her latest, “Off The Menu,” might seem, on paper, like something that would make for good passive TV-viewing, but not a whole lot more. The documentary asks the question, “What is Asian American food?” and then takes us to meet people who have answered that question in one way or another. Lee’s storytelling abilities, though, captivate from the moment the film starts, taking this material, which is inherently interesting, and infusing it with a vibrancy and energy that makes it fun and addictive instead of merely informative.

Starting with the observation that Asian Americans seem to love to take pictures of food (guilty as charged here), she posits that food is somehow uniquely critical to Asian American identity. While the film doesn’t provide anything in the way of a concrete answer, she takes us on a journey that zips back and forth across the nation. She starts by looking at a commercial phenomenon, exploring how sushi became a Texas staple, by interviewing the Japanese American entrepreneur who tailored the food to local tastes and became the catering king for Asian food in the region. Gradually, the film gets more intimate, as its focus moves from people who make food for mass consumption to a high-end, niche restaurant with a menu deliberately inspired by Asian American identity, to eventually end with langar, a Sikh tradition in which volunteers cook food at the temple and make it available for free to anyone who wants it. This deliberate flow of samplings offer an array of insights into the ways in which food creates, reinforces, breaks down and complicates identity and community.

Note: Screenings of “Hollow” and “Off the Menu” have already passed.

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