Asia-palooza: Asian American Fest Opens in NY
by Augusta Palmer
The 21st Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF) opens at
Manhattan's Florence Gould Hall on tomorrow with the presentation
of the first-ever Asian American Media Award for Lifetime Achievement to
Ismail Merchant, producer, director, and half of the famed Merchant Ivory
filmmaking franchise. After a screening of Merchant's 1994 film "In
Custody," the festival proper starts off with a bang: the
adrenaline-pumping Hong Kong action film "The Blacksheep Affair,"
directed by Ching Siu-Tung (of "A Chinese Ghost Story" and "Heroic Trio"
This year's festival, presented as always by Asian Cinevision (ACV),
continues through August 1st in Manhattan with a cavalcade of films from
the U.S., Canada, India, China, South Korea, Hong Kong and the
Philippines; then it's on to the Brooklyn Heights Cinema for a
celebration of "New Asian American Independent Cinema" which spans the
weekend of August 7th-9th; and, lastly, on August 22nd and 23rd, there
will be "A Tribute to Filipino Cinema" at the New Center Cinema in
Festival Director Vivian Huang sat down with indieWIRE during the
steamy, hectic days leading up to the festival to talk about about
some of the high points of this year's offerings and Asian CineVision's
twenty-two year history.
Among this year's festival highlights is Zhang Yimou's new film "Keep
Cool" - an urban comedy about unrequited love and irrational violent
urges which should defy the expectations of anyone familiar with his
cycle of Gong Li films - it debuts on July 26. Another strong piece of
work, in an entirely different vein, is Rea Tajiri's "Strawberry Fields,"
an evocative coming-of-age story set in the early seventies in which a
young woman comes to terms with death, her own sexuality, and her
parents' secrecy about their experiences in a California internment
This year's festival features about forty shorts and twenty features.
Many of the features already have a distributor, but Huang expects
several shorts to get picked up for distribution because of their
screening at the festival. In encouraging words to indie filmmakers
everywhere, Festival Director Vivian Huang closed our conversation about
the festival by saying, "There are so many niche markets out there that
no one pays enough attention to. When people think about making a film,
they're usually imagining a narrative feature film that has to be shown
at the cineplex. But there are so many venues out there that you just
need to take the time and do the research to find."
This year's festival also includes a master class in filmmaking with
documentarian Loni Ding following a screening of her videos on the
history of Asians in the Americas from the 16th through the 19th
century. New this year are several days of video screenings, ranging
from rare video histories of Philippine film to profiles of Bruce and
ACV began as a cooperative film production company; but its founders
quickly realized that there was no venue for their products so they
started the festival to showcase the work of Asian American filmmakers.
At first the festival consisted mainly of short films because few Asian
American directors had access to the resources to make feature films.
Then the festival began to program feature films from Asian countries
which had been unable to find a foothold in the American market.
Gradually, as more Asian American directors began to make features and
more films from Asia began to receive awards on the international film
festival circuit, the AAIFF evolved into the richly varied combination
of shorts and features from around the world it is today.
Showcasing Asian American films is still the primary purpose of the
festival. According to Huang, "What distinguishes us from other Asian
American film festivals is that we are very artist-oriented. We showcase
work by filmmakers or videomakers with Asian heritage regardless of the
contents of their work. Every year we have several films which have
nothing to do with Asia or Asians. We accept all genres: documentary,
experimental, narrative. It's not our position to censor people's work."
ACV thus exhibits all the positive qualities of identity politics (a
showcasing of Asian and Asian American work programmed by Asian
Americans) without ever falling into the negativity of political
correctness (assigning any unitary meaning to "Asian American" or
making content requirements for artists). To say that the festival is
"artist-oriented" is an immense understatement. In 1988, for example,
the AAIFF willingly canceled their screening of "Daughter of the Nile"
because it was "in the best interest of the director, Hou Hsiao-hsien,
to be able to premiere it at the New York Film Festival instead." In
fact, the AAIFF has introduced New York audiences to the work of Asian
American directors like Wayne Wang and Ang Lee as well as Asian
directors like Taiwan's Tsai Mingliang (a darling at Cannes '98 for his
film "The Hole") long before any other venue was willing to chance it.
This faith in fledgling talents has been rewarded many times - Wang and
Lee in particular have been willing to support the festival in any way
they can, including teaching master classes last year as a part of the
The last-minute changes and bargain basement budgets familiar to
independent filmmakers are also fixtures at the low-budget film
festival. Although AAIFF has major sponsors like Budweiser and Universal
Pictures, it's not always easy to get films all the way to the New York
festival. According to Huang, the producers of one film agreed to show
their film in the festival earlier in the year; however, they insisted
that AAIFF had to foot the bill for sending someone from the production
staff to accompany the print from an Asian nation to the festival. So
Huang had to find both an airline and a hotel to sponsor the film. Yet,
in the end, the production company decided to just ship the film on its
own. Even better was the fax from St. Petersburg telling Huang the
flight number - but not the airline or even the airport - for a plane on
which a print was arriving.
After the New York festival closes, a variety of the films will be taken
on tour to venues in the U.S. and Canada.
[For ticket information and directions call the AAIFF Festival hotline:
(212) 925-6014 or consult a full festival program listing at:
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and doctoral candidate in
Cinema Studies at New York University whose dissertation will focus on
Chinese cinema in the 1990's.]