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APA film critics Brian Hu and Chi Tung chew the fat over authenticity, community, and Asian male sexuality at the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Brian: Chi, let's do something a little different this time. Since we saw different films at this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, we can't focus on specific films. Instead, let's consider some of the main themes that arose from the film selections and the way they were presented by the festival. The obvious one will probably be the issue of Asian-American male sexuality, which was the subject of several films. Another issue I'd like to address is the state of Asian-American films between the arthouse and mainstream; we both interviewed major filmmakers straddling those two worlds, so let's compare notes on our findings. I'm sure more themes will emerge after we've exchanged a few more of these e-mails.
But first, I'd like to hear your reactions to the festival, which in my opinion is nothing like what we're normally used to in Los Angeles. (Our readers should know that Ada Tseng -- our lovely multimedia editor -- and the two of us made a weekend roadtrip north to catch as many of the films as possible. Our coverage is by no means comprehensive.) This was my fourth year covering the festival, so it was something of a homecoming for me to be back on my old stomping grounds like the Kabuki and Castro Theatres. Most pleasing were the reliably big crowds and the "sold out" stickers posted all over the giant schedule hanging outside the theater. If Asian American cinema is on the rise, San Francisco is surely its mecca.
Chi: It may have been a homecoming for you, but for me, the SFIAAFF was like stepping into a stranger's home and being absolutely, utterly besotted with it. No bourgeoise entitlement to be had here; everyone was a spectator, and a regular one at that. (The absence of press passes ensured prompt arrival, not to mention the underrated joy of actually having to stand in line for a hotly anticipated film, something which gets lost on those of us too cool for school -- and Hollywood.) Everyone always talks about film festival "buzz"; this was probably the first time I witnessed it with my own eyes. That's mostly due to the fact that San Francisco, for such a big, metropolitan sprawl of a city, is curiously intimate. During a screening of Frank Lin's American Fusion, one of my fellow audience members (and an old acquaintance) jokingly warned me not to date your first two years in the city, her reasoning being that long after the ride has ended, you'll be sure to keep bumping into that person time and time again. And every cast member -- the filmmaker, the actors, the extras, you name it -- was greeted by a bevy of catcalls and triumphant whooping.
I wish that I had more to report on this; unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was only able to catch two films: the aforementioned American Fusion and Julia Kwan's Sundance sensation Eve and the Fire Horse. Audience reception to both were overwhelmingly rabid, and it's not hard to understand why, for reasons that I'll get into later. First though, I'd like to hear some of your findings, since you experienced a wider sampling of styles and voices.
Brian: It's hard not to be a flaneur in San Francisco; with your eyes and ears open, the city and its inhabitants come alive with startling intimacy. It helps too that the film festivals and their devotees can rely on accessible public transportation. For any multi-venue film festival, the practical element of accessibility plays such an enormous part in the event's success; that's perhaps why festivals in LA are either annoyingly glitzy (valet or public parking for all!) or hopelessly indie (nobody shows up). The physical and practical sense of intimacy changes the entire dynamic of the festival. It's funny you mention that joke about bumping into old acquaintances; I in fact did run into an old classmate at the screening of Sam Fuller's James Shigeta classic The Crimson Kimono, and we had dinner down the block from the theater. Cinephilia is airborne and the city keeps its infected filmgoers bumping into each other.
That sense of community was definitely on display at Confessions of Longing, the festival's gay and lesbian shorts program. During the Q/A after the screening, the filmmakers addressed the audience as an in-crowd, whether that be defined as Asian-American, LGBT, or indie filmmaker. It helped too that the film was screened at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco's most famous gay and lesbian district. That casualness and sense of inclusion in fact opened up the scene to valuable questions, for example concerning the state of exhibition, distribution, and financing for LGBT and/or Asian-American cinema. The emphasis was on the word "our" -- as in "our cinema" -- and that sense of communal identity showed that something was at stake and "we" weren't going to take it anymore. Of course that sense of self-identity could potentially marginalize those who don't feel part of the said "we," but I feel that the ambiguity of the word -- as well as the hybrid nature of the Confessions of Longing program -- kept everyone feeling involved, if not as an Asian-American, gay, lesbian, or filmmaker, then at least as a filmgoer who appreciates Asian-American LGBT cinema.
Chi: More so than any other film festival I've attended, the SFIAAFF emphasizes inclusion over stubborn collectivism. Nowhere was this more evident than at the screening of American Fusion, when Esai Morsales, the male lead (also of NYPD Blue-fame), spoke quite stirringly about love conquering all -- even race. Esai, of course, is an outsider, but the message was quite clear: we can't always all get along, and there's nothing wrong with that. Too bad the film itself went on to perpetuate stock images of Asian cultural traditions and Asian-American angst with a little too much self-consciousness and too little insight. The audience though didn't seem to mind, hooting and hollering their way through every social faux-pas, bad grammar, and big, bad grams talkin dirty. And that's ok; after all, the SFIAAFF isn't for stuffy critics like you or me, trying to advance the artform into Hou or Tsai territory. It should, however, keep in mind that merely producing Asian-American films with cursory Asian-American themes these days isn't good enough; there's always more new ground to be blazed, more issues to be explored. Which is why a film like American Fusion, despite its rudimentary pleasures, can't be unequivocally lauded, simply for the reason that it continues to breed the Asian-Am status quo. And why we need more films like Eve and the Fire Horse, which is more brazen with its foray into spirituality.
Brian: One of those new grounds that you speak of is definitely Asian-American male sexuality, although as the James Shigeta retrospective proves, it's not as new as we may think. We're simply victims of Hollywood's persistence in painting its classical period pearly white; with this retrospective, SFIAAFF attempts to shake us out of our collective amnesia. Seeing Shigeta in Fuller's The Crimson Kimono was one of the most eye-opening experiences I've ever had at a movie theater. There's a scene where Shigeta's character starts twittling the keys of a piano before slipping out a gentle melody from a Japanese folk song. Fuller frames Shigeta in the foreground and in the back is Victoria Shaw's character, doe-eyed and enraptured by Shigeta's music. She tells him to play it again; he does. She asks him about his music, his life, his family, and he responds, trying not to offend, but certainly without betraying his obvious passion for her. The unspoken sexuality of the scene is brutally hot, and it made me that much more embarassed for Hollywood, which since Shigeta has not had another Asian American male romantic lead.
This topic certainly cast a shadow throughout many other films at the festival. During the Q/A for Red Doors, for example, one audience member questioned the filmmakers' decision to cast white males opposite all of the Asian female characters. Producers Jane Chen and Mia Tiverton and director Georgia Lee had a satisfactory answer -- the role originally went to Asian-Americans who ultimately had other commitments, and no Asian male actors showed up for the second audition -- but they also acknowledged that it was because of the persistant discourse surrounding Asian male sexuality in Asian-American critical culture that they felt compelled to give the whole story. In other words, it's because Asian-Americans are no longer afraid of critiquing their own images -- and in fact have a venue to do so -- that we're starting to have a better image of what constitutes Asian-American cinema.
Chi: I wish that one of us were able to catch Eric Byler's Americanese, which from what I've been told, is one of the few examples of high-profile Asian-Am filmmaking revelling in Asian male sexuality. Still, I imagine it pales in comparison to the smoldering presence James Shigeta must've been in The Crimson Kimono. There seems to be a disturbing parallel between what you said about Hollywood's snubbing of Asian male leads and authenticity as a whole; even to this day, big-budget Hollywood productions like Memoirs of a Geisha are mangling ethnicities and culture beyond recognition with little consequence.
Actually, I find the notion of authenticity a perpetual quagmire, even in today's Asian-Am films, which, due to big-studio expectations don't have the luxury of fussing over the complexities of cultural details. This, for me, was the biggest difference between a film like American Fusion and Eve and the Fire Horse; the former, with its more household names like Sylvia Chang and Esai Morales, wanted to be nothing more than a crowd-pleaser, which came at the cost of sophisticated, multi-layered characters and multicultural awareness while the latter seemed unafraid of alienating its audience with a steady diet of subtitles and ancillary details. When I spoke to Julia Kwan about this, she admitted that if it were entirely up to her, the children would've continued speaking to their parents in the mother tongue, and not just in the film's earlier scenes. It may sound like nitpicking, but as an Asian-American still in search of an Asian-American film that speaks in the language of my experience without pulling any punches, I believe it an important distinction. And one which ultimately may say more about the moviegoing public than the filmmakers themselves.
Brian: I'm glad you bring up the question of language and authenticity. You're right that it's exciting to see a film which reflects the way we perceive it in our everyday lives as second-generation Asian-Americans. The first -- and to some extent the only -- time I saw a film where Chinese-American characters speak the kind of hybrid Mandarin/English that I'm accustomed to is, ironically, in the Taiwanese production The Wedding Banquet. I'd imagine second-generation Indians in America get the same feeling hearing "Hinglish" in Bollywood films set in the United States. Of course, not all Chinese-Americans or South-Asian-Americans speak the same balance of Chinese/English or Hindi/English, so this question of "authenticity" obviously depends on who is claiming it. But I want to connect this with another problem: the market. Like most Asian-American movies about Chinese-American families, Red Doors features some combination of Chinese and English spoken by the entire clan: children, parents, grandparents. I did feel that having the parents speak so much English was somehow "inauthentic," at least compared with my experience. You say you had the same feeling about Eve and the Fire Horse. But I don't think it's nitpicking, nor do I think it's the fault of the directors. Instead, I see market forces at play: too much Chinese would make this a "foreign" film in many viewers' eyes and that's box office poison. Further, Asian-American films have a hard enough time not being placed in the foreign sections of video store even when they're in English. In our interview, Georgia Lee told me that this issue of language also has an international dimension: Asian-American films are marked as "American" in international markets precisely because they're in English. What I'm suggesting is that the decision to balance English and Asian languages goes beyond authenticity: it should also be seen as a way for Asian-American filmmakers to negotiate mainstream markets, domestic and international.
Chi: Julia Kwan made the same exact point you just did about Asian-American films being categorized as "foreign films," which, due to the impatience of the moviegoing public, can often be seen by distributors as the kiss of death. Obviously this has to change in order for widespread acceptance of films like Red Doors and Eve and the Fire Horse. But I'm not trying to suggest some sort of paradigm shift that needs to take place from a filmmaking standpoint; if anything, directors like Julia Kwan and Georgia Lee are being more savvy and more open-minded by adopting the "universal cinema" stance. In reading your interview with Georgia, and in my own correspondence with Julia, a common sentiment seemed to emerge: that by broadening the themes and experiences within their films, they're actually making the films more accessible, more relatable, more average Joe. Because at the end of the day, art, and especially cinema, is still meant for mass consumption, and the less people you alienate, the better chance you'll have a memorable film on your hands. That having been said, I don't think it's the sole responsibility of these filmmakers to streamline their films according to marketing strategies or distributors' preferences or even the Zeitgeist. Some compromises are necessary in order to push a work out into the public consciousness; others just reek of desperation or a quick buck. I think the majority of Asian-American filmmakers are well aware of the extraordinary odds they face in trying to reflect the tastes, experiences, and ideologies of an audience that at best, is fleeting and indefinable, and at worst, is nonexistent. Call me an optimist, but I think we're finally starting to move past the direction of the former, and who knows -- perhaps ten or five or even one SFIAAFF's from now, we'll have a bonafide hit on our hands.
Date Posted: 3/30/2006