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A long, hard look at the programming trends and trials at the Asian-American film festival circuit, including the 2006 VC FilmFest.
An Asian-American film circuit has emerged. From San Francisco to Pittsburgh to Toronto, we’re seeing the same familiar titles pop up again and again. Red Doors. Punching at the Sun. Eve and the Fire Horse. The Conventioneers. What’s Wrong With Frank Chin? Repetition builds buzz until you start wondering if you should actually see some of these titles when they roll into the Asian-American film festival near you.
The question is if this practice of recycling programs from other fests is healthy for Asian-American filmmaking and Asian-American filmgoing. The obvious criticism is that the circuit discourages individual film festivals from developing their own distinctive vision. Another is that if these films are pigeonholed into the Asian-American festival circuit, they’ll be excluded from mainstream festivals searching for local premieres. These mainstream fests -- like Tribeca, Toronto, AFI, or Sundance -- are also where potential distributors gather, shopping for the next big indie hit.
The first point is only superficially a problem. First of all, festivals like the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival have long carved out their own voice, taking a stand by programming by themes; for example, this year’s SFIAAFF took serious issue with the problem of Asian-American male sexuality. More importantly, however, the majority of films screened at many of these Asian-American film festivals have local appeal: narrative and documentary shorts or feature-length videoworks by local filmmakers about local issues. Take Toronto’s emerging Reel Asian International Film Festival. In 2005, Michael Kang’s The Motel may have been its opening night film, but the great majority of the shorts hailed from Canada. To further draw attention to local interests, the festival hands out awards to fledgling local filmmakers, rather than to circuit veterans like Kang or Grace Lee, whose eponymous doc also played the fest.
The second point assumes that mainstream festivals around the U.S. (many in cities without a significant Asian-American presence) would even care to play Asian-American films had they the chance, so in many ways, Asian-American festivals are the only option for some of these films. It should be noted, though, that of the big eleven from the 2005-2006 festival season (Red Doors, Americanese, Eve and the Fire Horse, The Conventioneers, Punching at the Sun, Journey From the Fall, The Motel, What’s Wrong with Frank Chin?, American Fusion, Saving Face, The Grace Lee Project), nine premiered at major mainstream festivals that have a history of supporting Asian and Asian-American cinema, but which do not specialize in them exclusively. Punching at the Sun and The Motel emerged from Sundance, the latter with an award in hand. Journey from the Fall debuted in Pusan and Saving Face in Toronto. Americanese picked up two awards when it premiered at South by Southwest and American Fusion was awarded the audience fave after its premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Red Doors, The Conventioneers, and Eve and the Fire Horse were all hailed as local films when they premiered: the first two played the New York, New York category at Tribeca (with Red Doors picking up the NY narrative award) while Eve and the Fire Horse earned a much-deserved award for favorite Canadian film at Toronto.
So the Asian-American festival circuit is crucial because it keeps these important, award-winning films in circulation and in the popular discourse after their initial debuts. The case of the two of these eleven films that did premiere at an Asian-American film festival is further exemplary of why this circuit is essential. What’s Wrong with Frank Chin? and The Grace Lee Project are the only documentaries on this list, and it can be argued that few mainstream festivals would play these docs without the buzz gathered at the SFIAAFF where they both debuted -- the former winning the festival’s documentary award. The momentum sparked from its SFIAAFF premiere propelled the latter into actual theatrical distribution, an amazing feat for an Asian-American documentary, let alone one with a topic as obscure as the most common name in the Asian-American community.
Why is this circuit emerging now? For one, there are more Asian-American film festivals, many still very small like Seattle’s Northwest Asian American Film Festival and Oregon’s Disorient Film Festival, and some starting to gather steam, like Washington’s DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival and Pittsburgh’s Silk Screen Festival. More importantly, though, are websites like Angry Asian Man which transmit the latest API American film news on a national level. Fans of Asian-American cinema are beginning to catch the Sundance or Toronto buzz early on, and it makes sense for programmers to satisfy that brewing interest.
The VC Filmfest 2006
It’s hard to pinpoint a leader in the Asian-American film festival circuit. The temptation is to choose the San Francisco fest, although there are plenty of major Asian-American films (like Red Doors, for instance) that play other Asian-American fests first. In terms of sheer numbers, the SFIAAFF, the Asian American International Film Festival (in New York), and the VC Filmfest (in Los Angeles) stand out, and their short film programs are also the most substantial. The Chicago Asian American Showcase also stands out for programming all the major AsianAm films and intentionally excluding films from Asia. Just take a look at the feature films at this year’s Chicago showcase to see that there is indeed no leader. Of the 17, five played at last year’s VC Film Fest, and eight are playing at this year’s VC, one month after Chicago. Of the remaining four, two played at the SFIAAFF and of the 13 films in common between VC and Chicago, only 9 have played San Francisco.
It’s hard to make recommendations without first seeing these films, but based on buzz, I would say that the six films at this year’s VC Filmfest which also played Chicago and San Francisco are definite must-see films. The closing night film Americanese is the newest by Eric Byler, whose Charlotte Sometimes made waves in the American art house scene. An adaptation of Shawn Wong’s famous novel American Knees, Byler’s film takes Asian-American romance seriously, without sacrificing the politics of race that inform male and female sexuality. The Independent Spirit Award-winning The Conventioneers is another love story crossing usual boundaries, this time between red-state and blue-state politics. Kieu imagines the nineteenth century Vietnamese poem “The Tale of Kieu” onto the streets of contemporary San Francisco, where a worker at a massage parlor confronts economic hardship and the ghosts of the past. Featuring Tamlyn Tomita, Jason Scott Lee, and the late Pat Morita, Only the Brave is a full-on war film focusing on the Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II. Tanuj Chopra’s award-winning Punching at the Sun looks at South-Asian teens dealing with violence and racism in the basketball and hip-hop world of Queens.
This year’s centerpiece film Eve and the Fire Horse was the sole film I was able to catch at press screenings and it’s an astonishing debut by Julia Kwan, who manages to explore life in multi-racial Canada through the perspective of a nine-year-old’s religious awakening. The result is a visually luminous and emotionally assured film that acknowledges the transformative powers of religion but has greater faith in the title character’s ability to negotiate religion in order to cope with personal issues of culture, race, and family.
Other films also stand out as must-sees. The opening night film Journey from the Fall is an important entry in the developing trend of bi-coastal Asian-American cinema. Ham Tran directs an epic that moves from the battlefields of Vietnam to the streets of Los Angeles. Michael Kang’s acclaimed The Motel finally makes an L.A. appearance this year. The film follows a 13-year-old who learns about life while working at his family’s sketchy motel. A jury-prize winner at this year’s SFIAAFF, the formally ambitious Colma: the Musical has been turning heads by depicting the sad and funny story of recent high school grads who break into song in the dreary suburbs of San Francisco.
As it did last year with Three...Extremes, Bear Hug, and others, the VC Filmfest solidifies its stature as a major Los Angeles film festival by programming some of the best in Asian cinema. Unlike the AFI and Newport Beach Film Festivals, which program the most obvious and/or uninteresting Asian films -- as if to fill out nationality quotas to appear “international” -- this year’s VC Film Fest includes some noteworthy and welcome surprises. Eric Khoo’s heartfelt Be with Me is already one of my favorite films of the year, as it ambitiously and successfully probes the romantic and spiritual yearnings of several Singaporeans without resorting to a single line of conventional film dialogue. A catchy, energetic comedy about a battle of pop bands, Linda Linda Linda is one of this year’s most talked-about and beloved Japanese films. Co-written by South-Asian British auteur Gurinder Chadha, The Mistress of Spices is appealing because of its cute blend of ancient wisdom and romance, but is a must-see because it stars Aishwarya Rai and Dylan McDermott. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros recently played New York’s prestigious New Directors/New Films showcase; Aureaus Solito’s gritty drama about crime in the Philippines arrives at VC as perhaps the most acclaimed and awarded film in the festival. Starring Jang Dong-gun (Taegukgi, Friend, The Promise), Typhoon is one of the highest-profile films in recent South-Korean cinema, which is saying a lot. Its producer CJ Entertainment is distributing the political thriller stateside later this year. The Blue Communist is by Malaysian maverick Amir Muhammad, one of the best-kept secrets in Asian cinema, while Blue Cha Cha is a romantic drama by Cheng Wen-tang, whose 2002 film Somewhere over the Dreamland is one of the many masterpieces of contemporary Taiwanese cinema. The two midnight screenings are noteworthy. The Echo (a.k.a. Sigaw) has already played L.A., but is continuing to generate excitement as Hollywood rights are sold to remake king Roy Lee (The Ring, The Grudge). The other is the haunted hotel horror Reincarnation by Takashi Shimizu of Ju-on and The Grudge fame.
This year’s VC Filmfest lacks a breakthrough program like SFIAAFF’s incredible James Shigeta event, which highlighted one of the forgotten icons of Hollywood history, or a consistent theme which resonates throughout the festival, like Asian-American male sexuality at this year’s SFIAAFF. Oddly, the theme of Asian-Americans/Canadians trying to make sense of Japanese pop culture is the topic of two features, Finding Home and i have no memory of my direction, and at least one short (All About Tada, which plays in the Secret Identity Crisis program). All three of these works seek to explore and complicate the culture shock and racialized exoticism popularized by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. By focusing on the perspectives of Japanese in Canada and the U.S., these works don’t see the two cultures on opposite sides of an uncrossable east/west binarism, but as cultures that meld together symbolically in the Japanese diaspora.
With the Asian-American festival circuit firmly in place, in many ways pre-determining the selections of the big films at this year’s VC Filmfest, how does VC emerge with its own voice? From what I see, VC stands out from the other Asian-American festivals because of its Asian film programming, helped by the fact that no other L.A. festival (with the exception of Silver Lake and to a lesser extent the L.A. Film Festival) programs Asian cinema with any sense of taste or imagination. Surprising, eclectic, and bold, these choices provide the festival a refreshing balance and a diversity of culturally relevant filmgoing options.
The VC Filmfest runs from May 4 to May 11, 2006, with most screenings at the Directors Guild of America or the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre. See festival website (http://www.vconline.org/ff06/index.html) for more details.
For more coverage of VC Film Festival 2006, please go to:
Date Posted: 4/27/2006