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'Linsanity': Jeremy Lin film highlights revamped CAAMFest

Posted by JLin

By Tony Hicks

Two years ago, before Jeremy Lin became a household name, the Bay Area native was an NBA rookie languishing as a reserve on the Golden State Warriors. But a group of filmmakers were already experiencing their own form of "Linsanity" and were pushing to make a documentary about him. 

The only trouble, recalls Lin's cousin Allen Lu, was Lin didn't seem to want any part of it.

"He said, 'These people have been bugging me for years now, and we don't know what to do with them,' " says Lu, a Mountain View resident. "He was like 'Hey, do you want to help me?' "

Lu -- who was working in e-commerce -- met with producers Christopher Chen, Brian Yang and director Evan Jackson Leong. The trio had pursued Lin to be the subject of a documentary since the days he had played at Harvard (2007-10), where Yang first met Lin when he interviewed him for his basketball blog. But Lin, who is reportedly quiet and likes to focus on basketball, wasn't interested. That is, until after his cousin met with the filmmakers.

"I went back (to Lin) and said, 'You can't replace the moments we have now,' " Lu says. —‰'Why not just flip on the cameras and see what happens?' Jeremy didn't care. So he said, 'We'll turn on the cameras and see what happens.

A star is born

What happened was "Linsanity," the 88-minute film that almost didn't happen but which met with raves at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

And today, the movie will make its Bay Area debut as the opening night attraction and a star centerpiece of CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) with a screening at 7 p.m. at the Castro Theatre (tickets are still available, but can only be bought at the theater).

The film's arrival couldn't come at a better time for the organizers at CAAMFest (Center for Asian American Media Fest), which, in its 31st year, has undergone a name change and an ambitious rebranding and which now bills itself as an 11-day celebration of Asian-American culture. The festival is offering a broader array of concerts, culinary events and interactive media events and features a homegrown Web comedy series ("The Nice Girls Crew"), appearances by pop group Dengue Fever and a sneak peak at a new PBS cooking show, "Asian Chops."

Beside "Linsanity," some of the high-profile films featured are "Midnight's Children," director Deepa Mehta's adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel of the same name, and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," a 9/11-themed drama directed by Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay!") and starring Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland.

But the biggest draw will likely be "Linsanity."

Festival director Masashi Niwano says when organizers heard about the Lin documentary, they knew it would be a natural at the San Francisco event, especially since he was aware of Leong's skills as a filmmaker.

"We were like 'Whoa, that would be exciting,' " Niwano says. "We saw a rough cut in December and fell in love with it

Career turnaround

In case you've been living under a rock, Lin's story is one that was practically made for the big screen. Receiving no major college scholarship offers after leading Palo Alto High to a state championship in 2006, Lin and his 4.2 grade-point average made the Harvard basketball squad as a walk-on (meaning he was offered no scholarship) and had a stellar career, but wasn't selected in the NBA draft. He did get an invite to the Las Vegas Summer League, where he made an impression and was signed by the Warriors.

After a disappointing stint of little playing time and multiple trips down to the developmental league, the Warriors cut Lin at the beginning of the 2011 training camp. He went to camp with the Houston Rockets, got cut, and found himself on the bench with the New York Knicks last year, on the verge of getting cut again. The filmmakers were considering downgrading their documentary into a Web series.

Then it happened.

On Feb. 4, 2012, the Knicks had injuries and weren't playing well against the New Jersey Nets. And Lin got his chance, making the most of it with 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds, leading the Knicks to a comeback win. He kept playing, the Knicks kept winning, and Linsanity was born. Of course, it didn't hurt that all this was going on in one of the biggest media markets in the world.

"I was in L.A.," says producer Yang, who grew up in Cupertino and San Jose. "I was at the gym and suddenly started getting text messages from people saying, 'Are you watching this?' Everyone was like, 'Holy crap, what's going on?' We were calling and texting each other with every bucket he made, having our own case of Linsanity.

"I always said if he got more minutes in the right system, he could be a good player," Yang continues. "He spoke to Asian-Americans, he spoke to underdogs, whether you were Asian or not. Even among nonbasketball fans. Like Jeremy, our world changed overnight. You couldn't ask for a better chapter in your documentary."

His magical season continued, and afterward, Lin signed a three-year, $25 million contract to go back to the Rockets, where he is compiling a strong year as a starting point guard.

"Nobody knew this could happen, including Jeremy himself," says Lu.

A new film

What started out as a film documenting the life of an Asian-American basketball star in college became a valuable commodity.

"Jeremy grew up with the same dreams that any American kid could have," says director Leong, who grew up in San Francisco. "His story is very different (than Yao Ming's, who came from China to become an NBA star). I think his success goes beyond just Asians. Black people, white people, Latinos, Christians, everyone can get with his success because his story is so universal."

Niwano says that while the film's main attraction is Lin, another key attraction is the film's director.

"With Evan, you trust him," he says. "He shows you all the highs and lows (of Lin's journey so far). You get the feeling that it's honest. He captures him as a struggling human being."

What's next?

Niwano says the film uses interviews and media clips to capture the reaction to Linsanity, which is a large part of the story. "If you're not a basketball fan, you'll still like it."

What's next for "Linsanity?" The filmmakers say they're considering how to distribute the film. It could have a limited release in theaters in places it would do well, like the Bay Area and Houston, for example. There's also likely a big market for it in Asia, where Lu says there is "tons" of interest.

"Like any filmmaker, I want as many people as possible to see this," Leong says.

"You do the work, so you can share the work. I just hope it gets out there in theaters, TV, everything. It's an incredible story."

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