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For viewers of Asian American film, 2006 was a notable year. It was the year that many first-time feature filmmakers debuted their projects to critical acclaim not only in the Asian American community but also in the greater indie film scenes. However, while quality and quantity were there, acquiring distribution was another hurdle in itself.
"Let me take a moment to pull out the pipe and light the fire and tell you about the good old days of Asian American cinema, my boy..."
At the youthful age of 36, The Motel director Michael Kang takes us down memory lane, all the way back to the year 1997: Bill Clinton was starting his second term in office, Hong Kong was handed back to China, um... George Clooney was People's Sexiest Man Alive, and oh yes, a new wave of Asian American film was beginning.
"In that period, we had some real pioneers just starting out," says Kang. "Justin Lin and Quentin Lee did Shopping For Fangs, Eric Koyanagi did Hundred Percent, Rea Tajiri had Strawberry Fields, Wonsuk Chin made Too Tired To Die, Francisco Aliwalas made Disoriented, and Chris Chan Lee, who I consider the grandfather of Korean American film, made Yellow. These people were picking up the torch that Wayne Wang and Christine Choy and countless others had lit."
So, under the assumption that everything comes in waves, where does that leave us in the year 2006?
From the viewer's perspective, 2006 seemed to be a comparatively great year for Asian American cinema. Films like Red Doors, The Motel, and Cavite saw commercial releases, however small, while Asian American film festivals seemed to be overfilling with new feature films, many of which are now being recognized outside the Asian American community in the indie film scenes. Richard Wong's Colma: The Musical and So Yong Kim's In Between Days were even nominated for Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards.
Also impressive is that so many of these films are by first-time feature filmmakers. In fact, eight of our "top ten" films this year were first features. Is this a sign of a breakthrough or just coincidence?
According to VC Filmfest director Abe Ferrer, 2006 may have seen a lot of impressive, quality films, but to him, it was less of an "exceptional year" and more just a natural progression: "The vast majority of the filmmakers who released feature-length works in 2006 are in fact veteran filmmakers who have long demonstrated their staying power through years and years of producing award-winning short films, featurettes, and music videos," he says.
Therefore, he doesn't consider the James Bais, Tanuj Chopras, Julia Kwans, Lane Nishikawas, Ham Trans, and Richard Wongs newcomers at all. They've been consistent in the Asian American film scene for so long. In fact, Ferrer tells us Punching at the Sun's Chopra and Journey from the Fall's Tran actually emerged on the scene at the same time: both had their very first shorts play at the exact same program of the VC Filmfest in 2000.
"I think they [Chopra and Tran] exemplify the modus operandi of Asian American filmmakers of the past fifteen years," says Ferrer. "They just kept making good films, regardless of the length and who would see it. And then, when they realized the dream of making their coveted 'first feature,' many of them borrowed a page from the Greg Pak and Justin Lin school of independent cinema: keep making movies, even if they aren't features, just so that you keep your creative chops up. Keep learning about the sharks you are getting in bed with, so that when the next opportunity approaches, you'll be a better, more experienced filmmaker than the last time."
While the festival directors and "old-timers" might be less easily impressed and therefore hesitant to be overly optimistic about the year, there's also another crowd -- including some of the ones who did enter the scene together around 2000 -- who are more enthusiastic. While they are quick to point out that quality was always there, they find it hard to discount the distinct jump in quantity and diversity when it came to the solid feature films that they came across this year.
"We received a lot more Asian American feature submissions for our festival in 2006 than previous years," acknowledges Asian CineVision Program Associate William Phuan, who helps put together the International Asian American Film Festival in New York. "It's definitely a very encouraging trend."
"Personally, I think it was an exceptional year for Asian American cinema, especially in terms of feature films," says Eve and the Fire Horse director Julia Kwan. "I still remember doing the circuit with my short, Three Sisters on Moon Lake, in 2002, and there were only a handful of Asian American features. The fact that there are so many and of such high caliber speaks volumes about the state of Asian American films today."
Colma: The Musical director Richard Wong believes that it is a "borderline breakthrough" year for Asian American cinema. While it's true that Kwan, Tran, Chopra and Conventioneers director Mora Stephens had had successful shorts in the past, Wong believes a good feature is a notable and distinct accomplishment in itself. "Having a successful short doesn't guarantee a feature," says Wong. "Nothing guarantees a feature. And on top of that, having a good short doesn't guarantee a good feature.
Wong also emphasizes, "[These directors] made solid features that were not 'good for Asian American film standards' but excellent in film standards, proven by how well received beyond the Asian community the films have been. Which is such an important aspect of Asian American cinema: to be able to reach outside of its own community."
Which brings us to the deceptively simple question. What constitutes an Asian American film? Can it be defined? Why even define it?
What makes the term "Asian American film" limiting are the assumptions. For example, that there's a different standard ("good for an Asian American film"), that they're about cultural identity or struggle, that they generally play to an Asian American audience, or that Asian American filmmakers can only make stories about Asian Americans.
Looking back on the year 2006, it's exciting to see that the types of films that came out this year have especially resisted definition and made significant steps to defy them. This year's crop of Asian American films makes a great case for the argument that Asian American films are inherently becoming more expansive in their scope.
If you look at the films that have come out this year through the Asian American circuit, the overwhelming consensus is that it's difficult to categorize them. There are musicals, thrillers, dramas, comedies. There are films about teenagers, about divorcees, about retirees. The stories and characters are more specific, which makes them less stereotypical and gives them broader appeal.
"Thematically, there's a lot of growth," says Chopra. "For Asian American films and also specifically South Asian films, we have people moving past identity films and the one-dimensional stories about cultural gaps and generational conflicts." He also points out the broader narratives that we see now, across the board. Identity films, like Journey from the Fall, can still be important pieces, but you also have a film like Colma, which shows Asian American filmmakers breaking the traditional narrative style.
Jeff Adachi, director of The Slanted Screen (and a San Francisco Public Defender) believes that the progress of Asian American cinema has to be viewed in the context of a "larger cultural diaspora that has occurred in the entertainment industry," a positive movement in which the media as a whole has started depicting minorities within the greater fabric of American life, instead of focusing on ethnic histories.
"There has been a significant development in the creative dimension in the [Asian American] films," notes Red Doors director Georgia Lee. "I feel that we are moving away from the idea that there is one model image of Asian Americans and towards a much more complex, multi-dimensional multiplicity of voices that are part of the Asian American experience, but not trying to be the definitive and the representative take on being Asian American."
With more room to experiment and explore, individuality and artistic freedom can reign, which can only mean good things for films to come.
Date Posted: 1/12/2007