In the three decades since media arts organization Asian CineVision instituted its Asian American International Film Festival, their mission has evolved considerably. “It’s hard to distinguish, sometimes, in the current globalized context, what’s Asian and what’s Asian American,” concedes La Frances Hui, co-curator of the 36th edition of the festival, which is playing through August 3rd at various locations around the city, including Anthology Film Archives, the Asia Society, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the New York Institute of Technology.
Describing their programming approach, Hui’s fellow curator, L. Somi Roy, explains that they tried to encompass the different cultural experiences of a varied and diverse community. “There’s the immigrant experience, which is conditioned by exposure abroad and some ties to a mother culture as well as by living and working in America. There’s also the experience of second-, third-, and fourth-generation Asian Americans whose experience is primarily American.” An overall theme began to emerge when the program started coming together, notes Hui. “Whether Asian or Asian American, the films seemed to represent the perspective of the other—someone on the margins of society or in an alternative lifestyle. The films are about people who don’t represent the majority, about how they struggle and navigate in their own environment.”
The U.S.-made movies in the festival, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflect the content and range of styles typical of contemporary small-budget American filmmaking. The selections include the opening-night presentation, Linsanity, Evan Jackson Leong’s documentary Jeremy Lin, the first Chinese American to play for the NBA; Van M. Pham’s Beyond the Mat, about a high school wrestling star who’s also a Vietnamese adoptee; UCLA film-school grad Stanley Yung’s debut feature, Chink, about an Asian-American serial killer who hates all Asians; Brea Grant’s Best Friends Forever, a Thelma & Louise-like road movie where one of the two female protagonists is of Asian origin; When I Walk, in which filmmaker Jason DaSilva turns the camera on himself to document his struggle with multiple sclerosis; and Charlie LaVoy’s Steve Chong Finds Out that Suicide Is a Bad Idea, a buddy comedy set in Louisiana, written and performed by actor Stanley Wong (best known as the Asian nerd in 21 Jump Street).
In the past, AAIF programming has drawn attention to emerging directors of Asian origin; among those spotlighted in past decades are Wayne Wang, Mira Nair, and Ang Lee. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the hitherto unknown Asian directors in the international section of this year’s festival, many of whom are making their feature-film debuts, will live up to expectations. Nevertheless, even the less satisfactory work in the festival program is distinguished by promising talent, unusual perspectives, and, for an American audience, Asian or otherwise, mostly unknown locations. Below are some of the films from the international selection that we were allowed to sample:
The festival’s centerpiece presentation, Soongava: Dance of the Orchids is the debut feature of a Nepali filmmaker, Subarna Thaps, who has spent over a decade of his life in France. Diya (Deeya Maskey), a dancer living in Kathmandu, who has passively agreed to a marriage arranged by her family, discovers that her friendship with her best girlfriend, Kiran (Nisha Adhikari), has blossomed into a love affair. Against all odds, she stands up to her family and moves in with her girlfriend. The movie is handsomely shot with high technical standards, but Thapa keeps throwing in plot twists which seem contrived solely to ratchet up the melodrama. Although he takes the bold step of presenting the two women living together independent of their families, in what is being promoted as the first Nepali film to spotlight LGBT issues, Thapa takes us through a by-the-numbers series of clichés: parental retribution, date rape, social ostracism, and even murder. Having brought the pot to full boil, he then tacks on a classical dance sequence—presumably the “Dance of the Orchids” referenced in the film title—and a coda that’s hard to reconcile with everything that has come before.
In Him, Hereafter, director Asoka Handagama looks at the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s bloody ethnic civil war, which ended after 27 years with the crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, from the perspective of a now rehabilitated ex-Tiger. It’s a rare Tamil-language film from a country whose movies are made predominantly in the majority Sinhalese language, and by a director who doesn’t speak the language either. The unnamed “Him” of the title returns to his home village only to find that he’s not welcome anywhere. An inconsolable old man accuses him of luring his sons into joining the guerilla fighters (the Tigers were notorious for child conscription), demanding to know why the ex-Tiger is still alive when none of his children have returned. Unable to find legitimate work, the returned rebel warrior gets embroiled in the schemes of a shady pawnbroker whose real business is smuggling contraband. Handagama, with six previous features under his belt, directs with an assured style, staying clear of melodrama. Some local critics have taken the director to task for avoiding references to the victorious Sri Lankan military, still a marked presence in the northern and northeastern regions which were previously under Tiger control. Perhaps it was a necessary tradeoff so that Handagama could film unfettered in the country’s northern peninsula, with its starkly beautiful landscape of palmyrah palms and small lanes with village homes behind thatched fences. The movie’s compassionate portrait of a former Tiger, thwarted at every turn from doing the right thing, is a political statement of its own.
In Mumbai’s King, Manjeet Singh’s sharp neorealist eye and the two adolescent leads compensate greatly for the story’s aimlessness. But even after Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, both of which vividly captured life on the streets of Mumbai, Singh’s practically plot-free debut feature still manages to give us a fresh look at India’s teeming commercial capital. We follow young Rahul and his mate, Arbaaz, a pint-sized balloon seller, as they scamper through slum alleyways, escape the oppressiveness of the city in an unexpectedly luscious wooded hideaway, and generally get into scrapes of one kind or another; Rahul would rather live on the streets than stay under the same roof as his drunken, abusive father. Adding color and excitement to the boys’ meanderings through the city is the multi-day festival of Ganesh with its climax on Bombay’s Juhu Beach, where the effigies of the Hindu god are dumped into the Indian Ocean.
A fusion of several cultural perspectives, Noor marks the feature debut of Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti. The quasi-documentary, which premiered last year at Cannes in a showcase for independent movies, is now the highlight of this year’s Asian American International Film Festival. Strikingly photographed in the rugged mountains of Northern Pakistan, it’s inspired by the real-life story of a young man living on the edges of Pakistani society. Noor, who plays a fictionalized version of himself in the movie, is a Khusra, a member of the Pakistan’s transgender community who’s expected to live primarily as an entertainer at weddings and functions dressed in women’s garb. Now that he has fallen in love with a woman, Noor’s dream is to be accepted as a man. His life in Lahore, as a laborer in a depot where truck drivers get their vehicles decorated, is suddenly overturned after he’s molested by a drunken trucker. Stealing his assailant’s brightly colored truck, he sets off on cross-country journey, which may not necessarily fulfill his dream, but which could bring him peace. The cast of non-professionals, including a tribe of deaf drummers who play music at funerals Noor encounters and the lonely woman dancer he befriends along the way, are well directed, though it’s Noor’s appealing and sensitive performance that’s the film’s highlight.