Posts tagged ‘asian american film’

Swagga Like Us: 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

A man and his ukelele, Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, 2012

Now in its thirtieth year, the San Francisco International Asian American film festival offers several treats this year, with some brand new narrative films from Asian American directors. These include features by some familiar names and one remarkable debut by a newcomer that is astoundingly assured and original, demonstrating the continued growth and expansion of Asian American cinema.

The lucky Kimberly-Rose Wolter with foxy Sung Kang, Knots, 2012

Michael Kang’s Knots is a fast-paced rom-com with great comic performances and a decidedly un-cloying script. As in his debut film, the offbeat adolescent comedy The Motel, Kang has an eye for strange yet engaging characters coping with the bizarre dynamics of dysfunctional family life. Lead actress and screenwriter Kimberly-Rose Wolter is a marriage-phobe whose weird mom and sisters are wedding planners in Hawai’i. Sung Kang (Fast & Furious; Better Luck Tomorrow) is the dreamy love interest.

Yes, We’re Open, directed by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is an entirely agreeable, sleek and charming timepass, with a clever and engaging script (by Colma’s star and screenwriter H.P. Mendoza) and winsome performances from its cast. Lynn Chen and Parry Shen play a comfortable yet slightly bored couple whose relationship has lost its groove, until they meet another couple that tantalizes them with the possibility of an open relationship. The film does a good job capturing the feel of non-tourist San Francisco, with locations at Green Apple Books, the Alemany Farmers’ Market, the Roxie Cinema, and other neighborhood locations, as well as gently lampooning foodies, hipsters, and tech geeks. I haven’t seen Parry Shen in a movie since Better Luck Tomorrow and he does a great job as the slightly neurotic male lead who is somewhat lacking in self-awareness. Lynn Chen is funny and endearing as the other half of the conflicted couple. The movie is not unlike Annie Hall or some of Woody Allen’s other earlier romantic comedies in its young urban groovester milieu, its reliance on a specific cityscape (here San Francisco instead of New York) and its lighthearted take on the foibles of contemporary relationships.

BooBoo on the spectrum, White Frog, 2012

Quentin Lee turns up the melodrama with White Frog, a family tale of a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome dealing with tragic circumstances. Led by a strong performance by BooBoo Stewart (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), the cast also includes some of the best-looking teenagers I’ve seen since Beverly Hills 90210, yet the actors overcome the handicap of their beauty by turning in convincing performances. The story makes a plea for tolerance and understanding of difference, and while it tilts toward maudlin at times, director Lee’s strong direction steers it back toward steady ground. He modulates the somewhat overwrought twists of the narrative by drawing out believable and sympathetic turns from his actors, including BD Wong as the conflicted father and Joan Chen at her dreamy and vulnerable best.

Although it also delves the family dynamics of coping with a tragic loss, Patrick Wang’s In The Family is a horse of a different color. Subtle and smart, the film offers a new way of seeing that diverges radically from the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking–it clocks in at nearly 3 hours, and the majority of the film is shot in long, deep-focus master shots. However, its formal style is in no ways mannered or pretentious. The film begins with a series of long, static scenes that simply explicate the quotidian lives of Joey and Cody, an interracial gay couple living in Martin, Tennessee with their energetic and precocious young son Chip. The long lockdown takes emphasize the normalcy of their everyday life despite a family structure that falls outside of the heteronormative frame. The time that the film takes to establish their deep emotional bonds pays off later in the film as tragic circumstances as well as societal pressure conspire to destroy their idyllic home life. With a reliance on long single takes the acting had better be good and here it’s stellar, anchored by actor-director Wang as the humble yet passionate and devoted father.

Stillness and movement, In The Family, 2012

In The Family is not only one of the best Asian American films I’ve seen in a long time, it’s one of the best films, period, that I’ve seen in a long time. Not to overstate the point but Wang’s compositions and his confidence in the power of the action within the frame are reminiscent of Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Although touching on several hot-button issues the film deftly sidesteps polemics and instead presents a subtly shaded, morally complex story.

Also of note: Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, his first feature-length film that centers on the Okinawan-Hawai’ian ukelele wizard. The film follows up Tad’s short docs Pilgrimage, Yellow Brotherhood, and A Song For Ourselves and, although there were no advance screeners of the film, it promises to be as brilliant and moving as Tad’s earlier work. It’s great to know that not all Asian American filmmakers aspire to making narrative films, and Tad is following in the footsteps of Loni Ding, Steve Okazaki, Renee Tajima-Pena, Christine Choy, and his own parents, Bob Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka, all seminal Asian American filmmakers whose documentaries are the gold standard for Asian American cinema. The film festival will feature a program with Tad and his parents, A Conversation with the Nakamura Family, on Saturday, Mar. 10 at 3.30p, where science will surely be dropped.

Bonus: here’s a clip of Jake Shimabukuro from the upcoming documentary playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

For tickets and a full schedule go here.

March 4, 2012 at 3:31 am 1 comment

The American In Me: DC APA Film Festival and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

Reflecting, Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, 2010

Just got back from a weekend at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival in Washington DC. This is the second time I’ve attended the festival (the first time being in 2007 when the fest screened Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male) and, as with my last visit, it was totally great. Although I had to take the red-eye from SFO and could only attend one day, I saw all three of Saturday’s programs, which pretty much satisfied my Asian American film jones.

Grace & food, DCAPA Film Festival closing night party, 2010

The DCAPA staff are an especially fun and friendly bunch and they always put on a great festival with lots of bang for your buck, with this year being no exception. Staff member Grace even cooked up a bunch of delicious snacks for the closing night reception, including ginger oatmeal cookies, edamame hummous, and K-food mini-tostadas with kimchee salsa.

The closing night film, The Things We Carry, was a gritty and heartfelt little drama about a pair of Korean American sisters coping with their fucked-up crackhead mom. The movie did an especially good job of capturing the rundown, seedy side of LA, with lonely and forlorn drug addicts puking their guts out in mini-mall parking lots. Though the film occassionally flirted with melodrama, the hard-ass lead performance by Alyssa Lobit kept the film from veering into pathos. Lobit also wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay and the film was produced by her sister Athena and executive-produced by their dad, so it was a family affair all the way.

Tat Marina, before and after, Finding Face, 2009

My short film, The Oak Park Story, screened with Finding Face, an intense agit-prop documentary feature about acid burn attacks on women in Cambodia. Though it wandered a bit in its focus, it still managed to convey a gripping urgency about these crimes, which are growing in number since the high-profile attack on 17-year-old karaoke starlet Tat Marina in 1999. Marina and her family are the focus of the film as both she and her brother, the swoonfully intense Tat Sequndo, attempt to bring the perpetrators (including Cambodia’s Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha) to justice.

Image capturing, Lincoln Memorial, 2010

The day after the festival closed I got to play tourist in DC, visiting the National Gallery to see the amazing Chester Dale collection, which included a huge number of paintings by brand-name Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Cassat, and Monet. I also hiked over to see the Washington Monument in all of its erect glory, then trekked to the far end of the reflecting pool to cool my heels on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans of all shapes and colors snapped photos and posed with Honest Abe.

I ended up at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which I’d never seen in person before. The Memorial is arguably the most famous artwork by an Asian American in this country so it’s been on my list of places to visit. Arriving there near the end of a balmy early autumn day, I was impressed by the simple, poignant power and beauty of the piece. Several people there were clearly there to find the names of lost loved ones, somberly pausing in front of the polished black granite. Seeing it in person, I was struck not only by how long and tall the memorial is, but by how small names are rendered and how very many of them there are. It’s amazing exactly how much space more than 58,000 names can take up, even when engraved in pretty small text. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Lin’s design that the piece conveys at once the enormity of the loss of life as well as each individual behind that monstrous sacrifice.

Vets, Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, 2010

It’s significant to remember that back in the early 80s when her design was first selected, Lin was vilified by conservatives as an inappropriate choice for the memorial due to her Chinese background (Ross Perot called her an “egg roll”), since, of course, that was pretty close to being a gook, right? Doubters also wanted to install a more traditionally representative memorial instead of Lin’s minimalist design and because of that sentiment, Frederick Hart’s abysmally banal bronze statue of three noble soldiers mars the entrance to the memorial. But despite the naysayers, Lin put up an epic fight to preserve the integrity of her original design and, nearly 30 years down the line, Lin is a renowned artist, the memorial is a landmark, and the haters have been proven dead wrong. Glad I was able to finally see the results of Lin’s persistant vision, and glad it still resonates today.

Bonus beats: The Avengers, legendary San Francisco punk band, performs “The American In Me,” Winterland, 1978

October 19, 2010 at 6:09 am 9 comments

De Paisano A Paisano: An Interview with 9500 Liberty’s Eric Byler and Annabel Park

Proofed in Prince William County, 9500 Liberty, 2010, Eric Byler & Annabel Park

I had the chance last week to sit down with Eric Byler and Annabel Park, the directors of the new documentary 9500 Liberty that’s now playing across the country. 9500 Liberty outlines the 2007 battle in Prince William County, Virginia, over legislation that legalized racial profiling of “illegal immigrants” and the ways in which that battle polarized the tight-knit community.

I know Eric Byler as the director of Charlotte Sometimes and Tre, two seminal Asian American feature narratives dealing with angsty interpersonal relationships among several Asian Americans, but lately Eric’s been devoting his time and creativity to producing activist shorts. He and Annabel are the instigators of the youtube channel 9500 Liberty, of which the feature doc now in theaters is an offshoot. Both Eric and Annabel are articulate, committed, and smart as a whip, and they’re very passionate about changing the ways that political discourse is conducted in this country. Given the aggravating and idiotic screeds that pass for political expression these days it’s great to talk with thoughtful and creative people who are looking for alternative solutions to some of the tough issues facing the U.S. today.

Here are some excerpts from the almost-hourlong talk I had with them—the full interview can be heard below.

on the dangers of election season

Eric Byler: What we observed in Prince William County is that, in an election season, information is not as important as ammunition, and so people decide what they believe, say and repeat based on whether it helps their side win, not whether it’s true.

I think what certain insurgency tacticians have learned is that, because their positions are so radical and so far outside the mainstream, the only way they can assert their will is to use these tactics that alienate the average American from the political process and shrink participation down to a level that’s easier to manipulate.

So that’s what happened in Prince William County–they organized around deeply negative emotions. By combining racial antagonism with political partisanship they created an environment where only people who really thrive on conflict and who are comfortable with racial tension were going to those board meetings and were daring to speak on these issues.

Messaging, 9500 Liberty, 2010, Eric Byler and Annabel Park

I think that’s why Annabel and I were so concerned when we saw that become a national political strategy and instead of a blog amplifying the most negative emotions you find an entire news network to amplify not only the most negative emotions but those people they had assembled.

on button-pushing

EB: If you can make the election about some sort of social issue that really pushes emotional buttons–there are too many Mexicans in Arizona is basically the underlying theme of this election—that’s a really polarizing issue. Extreme candidates introduce extreme laws that get extreme reactions that create the kind of political landscape that favors the extreme candidate. So it’s not a surprise. And it always happens a certain number of months before the election because you’re lighting a fuse that’s gonna blow up.

on the use of intimidation tactics

EB: The week before the election (in Prince William County) was the scariest time for us. The racial tension in the county was more palpable than I ever expected to see in this century and I hope I never see again. People would drive by Liberty Wall and throw things at us—people would drive by and yell racial slurs. Those kind of climates are deliberately created for election season. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican you can respond really negatively to this kind of politics—we all can be intimidated, we all can be afraid.

Annabel Park in situ, 9500 Liberty, 2010, Eric Byler and Annabel Park

on film and the internets as a means of empowerment

EB: Given that there are people who are going to use as a political strategy organizing around the most negative emotions known to humankind then what we have to do is to populate our democracy with people who are willing to be responsible and fact-based and solutions-oriented. That’s what the Coffee Party and 9500 Liberty both seek to do is enlist those people who might otherwise be intimidated into silence because of these kinds of tactics and show them two examples of people who are prepared to engage even in a political process that’s been mightily toxified and frightfully polarized, because we have that much at stake, and to convince them that they have something at stake.

on hearing the news of the anti-immigrant laws in Arizona

Annabel Park: I got really emotional—I started crying! It was almost like a flashback to northern Virginia 2007. It was traumatic!

EB: It’s just such an unnecessary tragedy—the economic hardship that this kind of policy caused, the social toxification, the damage to public safety, was all so unnecessary, and really the only ones who benefit are very extreme politicians who cater to a really tiny fraction of out population.

on creating a more civil political discourse

AP: Politics is about us making collective decisions, and democracy is a method for making collective decisions–it’s not meant to be a fight with two sides. It’s supposed to be a situation where we thrive on differences and diversity but we need to be able to talk to one another. We have to create opportunities for people to talk to one another. That’s the first step in a democracy, that open dialogue—it has to be civil, there has to be real information exchanged. In a way it’s a very simple thing—asking people to protect and practice democracy, and by using social media, to create not only a communication network but by having this idea go viral—let’s go viral with this idea that we have to participate in democracy, and to give them portals for doing it.

on making a difference

AP: The (9500 Liberty) youtube channel did have impact on the community. We just showed (the movie) in Phoenix and in parts of Arizona and I think we made some progress there. I think there are people who are now ready to have dialogue at least. Just saying “Illegal Is Illegal” is just not really a starting point for dialog. It doesn’t help us formulate policy, it’s just grandstanding—it shuts down conversation.

on optimism and inevitability

EB: I feel very optimistic. 9500 Liberty is a microcosm of what’s happening in Arizona and Arizona is a microcosm of what’s happening across the country. The reason why we’re seeing these insurgency tactics, these desperation tactics coming from the right is that they’re afraid of the changes that really are inevitable. They feel that they’re actually delaying those changes by using these extreme tactics but I believe they’re actually accelerating these changes.

Every year another crop of kids turn 18 and registers to vote and during that same time unfortunately we have to say goodbye to our grandparents and aunts and uncles who grew up during the pre-civil rights era and who aren’t really as comfortable with the 21st century as those of us who are younger. So these kinds of cultural issues where a group of very extreme politicians are asking us to hate another group more than they love our country, are gonna cease to be effective, and that’s really when this will stop, when it can be shown, and maybe it will be in November, that this kind of fear politics is not effective.

on the relationship between love stories and political activism

EB: Both Tre and Charlotte Sometimes are essentially love stories where I made the choice to cast both mixed race and full-blooded Asian Americans. And I didn’t realize it but, because it’s an identity issue and identity is very much something that informs my artistic choices, for me it became a political choice. As Annabel likes to say, politics and identity are essentially the same thing.

Eventually I had to become comfortable talking about politics because I was talking about race and identity, and so the transition isn’t as unexpected or as dramatic as you might expect. Identity issues are at the core of American politics right now.

The short answer is I think I decided that in this era of American history, when so many important decisions are being made that are going to affect the rest of this century, that just making love stories, albeit love stories that do have social and political commentary, was not enough of a contribution—I wanted to do more.

(Now) I feel like I could make a movie about Weimar Germany. I could do one of those futuristic movies about a war. I now know what it feels like when you have politicians laying the groundwork for war and you have agitators essentially systematically dehumanizing a population so they can directly take action against them

Looking illegal, 9500 Liberty, 2010, Eric Byler and Annabel Park

on “looking illegal”

EB: I think that in some ways Asian Americans were given a pass on this issue in a weird way, even though many Asian Americans are undocumented—it’s a culture war directed at Latinos, let’s face it. And so I’m the one that actually looks Latino (laughs), being the halfer–

During that time, everything was about looking around and trying to figure out who looks illegal–the police are now being directed to try to tell who looks illegal, the government is basing policy on who looks illegal and who citizens say are illegal, because they went to the emergency room and saw a lot of Latinos—so they must’ve been illegal! So everything’s about who looks illegal– And y’know, some days I wake up I look more “ethnic” and my hair’s messy or curly or something. When you live in a climate like that you wake up in the morning and you see yourself in the mirror and you say, “Oh my god—I look illegal today!”

on the role of film and participation politics

AP: Being filmmakers doesn’t give us a special status not any more than being elected gives us a special status. We all have to be part of this democratic process or it’s just gonna fail. To me that one thing that’s a given—if people don’t participate it’s not a democracy.

There are enough people who have been silent who now have an opportunity to say, “Y’know what, I don’t want to be silent any more, I’m sick of this, enough is enough, let’s come together as a community, let’s stop being Democrats and Republicans and start being Americans and figure out what we have in common and have some of these tough conversations about our future. How much money are we spending on the military? How long can we sustain these two wars? What does it mean to be an American at this point? What unites us as a people in a meaningful way beyond the fact that we live in the same land mass?

on the dire need for civility and the role of the Coffee Party

AP: We’ve got to leave our ideology aside in order to come together. Otherwise you’re submitting to these forces that are in every society that want divide people and separate and secede and balkanize—that’s always there. If we don’t step up and counter that with the force of unity and peace and harmony then we’re headed for a very, very bleak future.

With the rise of the Tea Party there was this narrative that the Tea Party represented America, and there’s a lot of frustration with the government, but their point of view is not representative of America. To me it’s a marginalized view of minorities who know how to engage in political theater.

What happened with the Coffee Party is that I started this fanpage on facebook that just exploded. We want to find another way of engaging. We have these problems but I don’t want to be out there denouncing the government or Obama.

I want to be out there trying to figure out how to improve the government and to feel like we’re on the right path so that ordinary people are being represented and we’re on the path to not destroy one another but to work together.

So people are sort of just self-organizing—we have local chapters across the country. In the Bay Area there’s a cluster of them that are very active—in LA, too. There are local chapters–they function largely autonomously. We have national campaigns—like we’re having one right now where we ask people to discuss campaign finance and corporate personhood.

We’re trying to give people ways of connecting to the political process that isn’t alienating, isn’t negative, it isn’t about fighting people but it’s about dialogue and bringing people together–and really insisting on civility.

I don’t know how true this is but I’ve heard people say that people in the Tea Party, it’s had an impact on them. They’ve been much more conscious of their tactics and whether or not they’re going to be judged as being uncivil or not. I think I just like having civility become a viral idea.

Are we gonna being screaming at our politicians and at each other, or are we gonna say, “Okay, we need reform–how do we get there? Let’s work together.”

9500 Liberty (81 minutes)

Co-Directed by Eric Byler and Annabel Park

UPDATE: 9500 Liberty will have its cable television premiere this month on MTV Networks. It will show on Sunday, September 26th at 8pm (ET/PT) on MTV2, mtvU (MTV’s 24-hour college network), and Tr3s: MTV, Música y Más (formerly MTV Tr3s) as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. You go, Eric  & Annabel!

Here’s the extended trailer for the film:

Here’s the full interview (trt: 52 min.)

June 14, 2010 at 7:13 pm 11 comments

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