The behind-the-scenes genre has been popular in Hollywood recently. APA takes a look at how Asian Americans are playing around with the format and adding a unique perspective, through works such as Justin Lin's Finishing the Game and David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face.
A failed attempt at emulating Brad Pitt's smooth moves in order to impress a girl inspired actor Chris Dinh and director Ryan Kim to co-write a short film called Pulling a Legend -- showing us that there can be hope after humiliation.
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Films about Asian Americans, films made by Asian Americans (and Canadians). It's been an impressive year for them all. APA combined the opinions of some notable filmmakers and festival directors and dug into our own hearts to create our 2006 Top Ten List of Asian American Film.
Asia Pacific Arts covers both Asian and Asian American arts and entertainment, and our annual "Top 10 films" list traditionally traverses both Asian and Asian American cinema. This was done in part because one of the publication's editorial goals is to discover the alliances between the two categories, but more importantly, there simply have not been enough Asian American feature films per year to warrant a "top 10."
2006 was different. By autumn we knew it was a special year, and became delighted by the prospect that we could actually create a separate list for Asian American cinema in our annual "Best of" issue. While the appropriateness of such a list can be debated (for example, what's the usefulness of ranking an emerging cinema where every film regardless of quality needs community support), we're publishing one anyway, if only to celebrate the fact that Asian American cinema has matured to a point where it can warrant the same kind of critical games played on mainstream films. And we'd love it if everyone started debating our choices, because it's a sign that audiences are watching the films.
Our ranking is based on the humble opinions of APA's editors, with input from festival programmers and directors, many of whom generously volunteered their time to write a few blurbs about their favorite films. At least on the editors' end, there might be an unconscious bias toward films that haven't yet secured distribution deals. We're also using this space to list some of the major awards these films have garnered at festivals and other competitions.
In a recent interview, Americanese director Eric Byler reminded us that in the 1990s, Asian American film festivals boasted only about four narrative features per year. The fact that today, the biggest festivals like San Francisco, New York, VC, and Chicago can annually showcase up to 15 or 20 feature films by Asian Americans is an encouraging sign of progress. "They'll probably have to reject a few," he says, half-jokingly. Similarly, we're "proud" to announce that we had to leave a few notable films off the list; any other year, they would have been top 5 contenders. These include: Kieu, American Fusion, Undoing, and others. We also limited our list to narrative features (which saw the greatest surge this year), which means the many great short films and documentaries (traditionally some of Asian American cinema's strengths) were somewhat unfairly overlooked.
1. Colma: The Musical
dir: Richard Wong
Premiering at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Fesival in March, Colma: The Musical broke traditional boundaries and styles when it came to what we think of "Asian American" film. First of all, it's a musical; second, it's shot on video; and third, it defies definitions and therefore is not contained by its "Asian Americanness." Directed by Richard Wong with music and story by H.P. Mendoza, Colma: The Musical focuses on three recently graduated high school kids who are simultaneously frustrated and whimsical about being a youth in a small, lifeless town. No race issues. Just kids being snarky, funny, bitter, depressed, and hopeful in a film that also manages to indirectly comment on the oddities of adulthood as well.
Fellow filmmakers also acknowledge its distinctness. The Motel director Michael Kang says: "Colma: The Musical was one of the most pleasant surprises for me. I hope that film gets out there. I think they really proved with that film that you don't have to be held back by the limitations of 'digital filmmaking' and if you have a story that is close to your heart, you can tell it. I love that they made a big movie musical with nothing. I'm really looking forward to seeing what those guys do next." Asian CineVision Program Associate William Phuan adds that Colma "made you want to sing and dance along! Unsentimental, yet it's genuine and heartfelt." In fact, it's gone on to receive nominations from the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards.
2. Eve and the Fire Horse
dir: Julia Kwan
While it debuted at the Toronto International film festival in 2005, Julia Kwan's film Eve and the Fire Horse garnered buzz for American audiences early this year with its stunning debut in Sundance, picking up the Special Jury Prize in World Cinema for the Dramatic category. Since then it's played at many festivals around the world including Cannes, as well as picking up five Leos at the at the 2006 Leo Awards (Celebrating excellence in British Columbia Film and Television), including Best Direction and Best Screenwriting.
A clever, heartfelt tale of two young sisters grappling with their faith, Eve and the Fire Horse dealt with a child's desire to makes sense of the world. When asked about films that stood out this year, Colma: The Musical director Richard Wong mentioned Eve "for its very thoughtful filmmaking and very adult, retrospective and loving look at childhood." Punching at the Sun director Tanuj Chopra raves, "I loved, loved, loved Eve and the Fire Horse. I think it's so sweet. She got great performances out of those girls [Phoebe Kut and Hollie Lo]. It made me cry, I couldn't help it. [laughs] I was sitting next to her too, at the SD Film Festival, thinking 'Oh man....'" The film secured Canadian distribution and was released last year. On January 11, 2007, Eve and the Fire Horse was nominated for five Genie Awards, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Best Sound.
3. Journey from the Fall
dir: Ham Tran
Ham Tran's Journey from the Fall debuted at the Pusan International Film Festival and shortly made its way to American festival audiences. An ambitious film inspired by true stories about Vietnamese refugees who fled after the fall of Saigon, Journey from the Fall follows a family, played by actors Long Nguyen, Diem Lien, Nguyen Thai Nguyen, and Kieu Chinh as they make painful, gut-wrenching decisions about whether to stay, to separate or to escape by boat, and how to survive. Tran takes their story all the way to America as the second generation son struggles to find his place, the mother deals with the pain and consequences of the voyage, and the father attempts to reunite the family. It's a film that takes a look at the hope of America and freedom, without sidestepping the sacrifices it takes to get there.
"Journey from the Fall," says Jeff Adachi -- director of this year's documentary The Slanted Screen -- "told an epic story through a completely different lens than Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, and was unique because it told the war from the perspective of a refugee who himself had experienced the fall of Saigon." Punching at the Sun's Chopra was also impressed by the film: "for it's scope, production value, emotion. It's such an important piece." The film has secured distribution through ImaginAsian and will be coming out this Spring.
dir: Mora Stephens
Conventioneers, directed by Mora Stephens, on the surface may not appear to be an Asian American film, but it got play in multiple Asian and Korean film festivals due to Stephen's background. World premiering at the 2005 Tribeca film festival, Conventioneers stars Matthew Mave and Woodwyn Koons as former college friends who reunite only to realize the jarring divide that automatically separates them due to their political differences. An intelligent and thought-provoking reflection of America's current political state, Conventioneers takes place during the 2004 Republican National Convention which took place in liberal New York.
Eve and the Fire Horse director Kwan describes the film with having "smart, well-written, beautifully drawn characters." The film played everywhere from the San Francisco to Pusan in the festival circuit, and it won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, which is given to the best feature made for under $500,000.
5. In Between Days
dir: So Yong Kim
More than any other Asian American film -- or most any film for that matter -- In Between Days is a sensual, visual experience. So Yong Kim's most important accomplishment is taking the story of Korean immigrants to a new crowd via a new aesthetic, and in so doing, broadening the definition of Asian American cinema by exposing the common grand it has with Asian and other art cinemas. In addition to the nods at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards, In Between Days won a FIPRESCI award at Berlin -- a first for Asian American filmmakers.
A fellow Independent Spirit nominee, Richard Wong praises In Between Days for its "completely character driven approach to narrative," while Julia Kwan calls it "poetic and affecting."
dir: Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon
Self-shot and self-acted, Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's Cavite was an object of unprecedented admiration amongst indie filmmakers and their critics. Shot for a song on what looks almost like hidden cameras stowed away on buses and through airports, the film boasts a guerrilla style that fits the story. A young Filipino American arrives in his parents' home country, before getting swept away in an ingeniously crafted thrill-ride of Hollywood proportions.
"As tight a thriller as there could be, but inventively made on practically no budget," says William Phuan.
7. The Motel
dir: Michael Kang
A standout from Sundance 2005 where it won the Humanitas Prize, The Motel was perhaps the most talked-about Asian American film in the 2005-06 festival circuit. Mike Kang's feature debut seemed to pick up laurels wherever it traveled: the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, the San Diego Asian Film Festival, VC Filmfest. Starring Sung Kang as a horny drifter and newcomer Jeffrey Chyau as frustrated pre-teen son of immigrant motel entrepreneurs, The Motel was picked up for theatrical distribution by Palm Pictures and ImaginAsian Pictures.
Says director Eric Byler: "The Motel is a great step in telling very personal stories that it's very original because it comes from somebody's own life as opposed to coming from another movie. And that's the trick: we've got to make movies that come from our lives, and we've got to feel justified."
8. Punching at the Sun
dir: Tanuj Chopra
Tanuj Chopra's Punching at the Sun debuted at the Sundance film festival this year and broke the barrier as the first South Asian American feature narrative to go to Sundance. The film follows a young teenager Mameet Nayak (played by Misu Khan) from Queens, NY who has to deal with the turmoil and frustration of losing his beloved older brother. The story was inspired by the director's involvement in the South Asian Youth Action, an organization that develops the leadership skills and talents of South Asian youth in New York City, which was also where he met the young man he eventually cast to star in his film, Misu Khan.
Richard Wong admires the film for its "incredible heart and how you can see the passion that went into making this movie." Punching at the Sun also picked up the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
dir: Eric Byler
Held up as an exemplary depiction of Asian American male sexuality when it premiered at this year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Americanese lovingly portrays a handsome professor and his romantic woes. An adaptation of Shawn Wong's landmark novel American Knees, Byler's film boldly injects issues of mixed-race families into a classic comedy of romantic paranoia and ethnic self-consciousness.
"Americanese told a very simple story of a breakup between an Asian man in his 40's and his struggle to re-create himself late in his life," says Adachi, who adds that it's one of several "well-made films [that] went beyond the 'identity' issues typically raised in Asian American themed films."
10. Red Doors
dir: Georgia Lee
Georgia Lee's Tribeca-winning first feature was the year's highest-grossing Asian American indie, pulling in a chart-topping $17,500 per screen average in its opening weekend. The comedy follows a suburban family as they quirkily deal with marriage, celebrity, and suicide. Red Doors is the leading example of a major new direction in Asian American cinema: a professional-looking tale of love and life with everyday Americans who just happen to have Asian faces.
In a blog posting from earlier this year, Michael Kang had this to say about the film: "If you want to see a film that is a deeply personal story about characters that are three-dimensional and maybe reflect some universal truths about the human condition, then you should watch a movie like Red Doors."
Date Posted: 1/12/2007