Monday, May 14, 2012

Film Documents First Vietnamese American Congressman's Stint in D.C.

To listen to our Subversity Online interview with filmmaker S. Leo Chiang, click on: .
S. Leo Chiang's latest documentary, Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, follows the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, Joseph Cao, as he faces a daunting re-election bid. But Joe Cao is no Jimmy Stewart character (as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Instead, while as idealistic and reform oriented as the Stewart character, he faces a political reality that, in the end, blocks his re-election.

Congressman Cao with short-lived friend Obama

Chiang is an unobtrusive documentary filmmaker, staying out of sight and sound in his movies, preferring to let the subjects he films, or presents from TV or C-SPAN footage, speak for themselves. Thus we do not get investigative reporting out of this documentary of this Republican Congressman who was initially the only Republican to vote with the Democrats on a draft Obama-care health bill.

In our Subversity Online interview, Chiang is blunt that his politics differ from Mr. Cao's, who is strongly so-called "pro-life". Commissioned by the Center for Asian American Media to film his subject, Chiang had gained the future Congressman's trust with his earlier film, A Village Called Versailles. Hear and read about our earlier interview with the filmmaker.

If Cao, representing a poverty-stricken Black district in Louisiana, at time sounds more Democrat than Republican, this may be attributed to his Jesuit background. Cao is presented at times even name dropping, telling Black audiences that Obama is his friend. But the long-sought endorsement of Cao's re-election of course came to naught, after Obama endorsed the opponent, a Democrat. This was despite the National Journal calling him the "most liberal" House Republican in 2011. According to Wikipedia, Cao was also one of 15 Republicans voting to repeal - in December 2010 - the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" anti-gay policy in the U.S. military.

Cao seems upset that Obama is sticking by his party (after all, Obama is titular head of the Democrats), and that the sitting President discusses class. This revelation, coming at the end of Chiang's close up of this extraordinarily lucky politician (he was elected from a heavily Democratic district against all odds) shows why Cao failed to win re-election, because race, class and party remain at the center of American politics.

Unlike his earlier film, on the devastation after Hurricane Katrina faced by the Vietnamese American enclave in Versailles, Louisiana, this film focuses not on Mr. Cao's ties to his Vietnamese American constituents, but on Mr. Cao trying to develop ties to the larger Black community. Left out of this film was footage Chiang tells us he did shoot, of a fundraising event in San Jose among the city's Vietnamese American citizens. The director, he tells us, consciously decided to focus not on Cao's roots as a refugee leaving Vietnam nor on the Asian American or Vietnamese American financial support of his re-election. That's a pity: It might have made a more fleshed out profile of this Jesuit turned politician.

The 72-minute film screens tomorrow, May 15, 2012, at 7 p.m. at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, at CGV Cinemas, 621 S. Western (between 6th and Wilshire), Los Angeles (parking via Manhattan Street entrance). - Daniel C. Tsang, KUCI Subversity Online Show host.

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