FESTIVALS: Asian American Celebrates with Six Packs, Sammo Hung and Korean Blockbuster
by Augusta Palmer
It's been a long time since Hong Kong producer/director Tsui Hark slept in the offices of Asian Cinevision, the parent organization of New York's Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF), but much of that familial feeling has lingered on at the 22nd AAIFF, where the opening press conference resembled an extended family reunion as participating filmmakers took their place in an informal group photograph. This year's festival, which wrapped on August 8, featured films by Academy Award winners and first year film students in two venues, Manhattan's Florence Gould Hall and Brooklyn Heights Cinemas.
The range of honorees at this year's AAIFF says much about the breadth of the festival's interests. On opening night, veteran documentarian Dai Sil Kim-Gibson and award-winning cinematographer/director Emiko Omori shared the 1999 Asian American Media Award. The next evening, an impossibly tan and prosperous Sammo Hung (Hong Kong actor, director, fight choreographer, and now star of CBS' "Martial Law") received a lifetime achievement award and two six packs courtesy of AAIFF and Budweiser. A sharp study in contrast to Hung, who seemed content to grin for the cameras while clutching his beers, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson reminded a press conference that her moving, vital film "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women" was a necessary work not only because it provides the victims of Japanese aggression with a forum to speak out, but also because of the sheer paucity of literature and film on the Pacific War. "There are roughly 10 works on the Korean comfort women, while on Hitler alone there are over 110,000," said Kim-Gibson.
The fest's executive director, Bill Gee, introduced the festival program as one of the most diverse ever with films from South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the UK, Canada, as well as the U.S. Often a venue for Asian American shorts and documentaries, the original home for Asian American cinema is now able to show a large number of Asian American-made fiction features. This year's ten Asian American features (up from six last year) run the gamut from the "Karma Local," which allows actor/director Darshan Bhagat to explore his self-proclaimed appreciation for the multicultural texture of New York's subway system and his attraction to Off Track Betting, to the gleefully silly "Fakin' Da Funk" which proves that even a goofy mainland Chinese exchange student (played by Margaret Cho) can assimilate into Pam Grier's South Central hood. Another treat included the meditative morsel "Life Tastes Good" -- which screened in Sundance '99's American Spectrum section -- an atmospheric noir in which a dying gangster (Sab Shimono) tries to make amends to his children (Tamlyn Tomita and Greg Watanabe) while enjoying an epicurean affair with a mysterious woman.
Among the short film programs were some very pleasant surprises. Among them, Georgia Lee's "The Big Dish - Tiananmen '89," which provides both political commentary and a Scorsese homage in under 5 minutes (and which won its young director an audience with Marty himself). Tammy Tolle's more sustained "Searching for Go-Hyang" is a riveting, beautifully photographed story of Korean adoptees reunited with their biological families only to find themselves separated by the continental divides of language and culture. Less serious, but seriously funny was Greg Pak's short, "Po Mo Knock Knock," in which two men exchange ridiculously angst-ridden knock knock jokes. ("Knock, knock," says turtleneck-clad intellectual #1. "Who's there?" asks black-clad intellectual #2. "Don't you realize communication is impossible?" replies #1.)
A major shift was evident in this year's AAIFF opening night screening. Traditionally reserved for a Hong Kong action extravaganza, this year the fest officially opened with the South Korean blockbuster "Shiri." "Shiri" outsold "Titanic" in Korea (not to mention all other films in their history) and it's not hard to see why with its non-stop John Woo-style action, paranoid communist invasion plot, and star Han Suckyu (Korean heart-throb and star of former AAIFF faves "The Gingko Bed" and "Christmas in August"). Though the lack of a Hong Kong action opener and the nostalgic screening of Sammo Hung's fictionalized life story, "Painted Faces," (Alex Law, 1988) echoed the death knell of Hong Kong action cinema, "Shiri" provided at least a glimpse of an international action cinema on the horizon.
The festival high point, however, was the discovery of a new star in Adrian Pang. His first appearance was in a campy British short titled "Yellow Fever" (directed by Raymond Yeung). The screen was all Pang's from the opening shots as he's trying to enjoy a mint green facial in his bathtub. Much hilarity ensues as Pang consults a bevy of wacky pals about how to get a date and battles his own anxiety about dating another Asian man. But no sissy facials are in sight when Pang takes to the dance floor as Singapore's answer to both Bruce Lee and John Travolta in a sneak peak at Miramax's "That's the Way I Like It." Director Glenn Goei's debut is the first feature from Singapore to find a U.S. release. With Pang's performance and a crew who cut their teeth on Australian dance films like "Strictly Ballroom," "That's the Way I Like It" is a sticky valentine to "Saturday Night Fever" which may open the door for more films from Goei's island home.
But some of the news at the 22nd AAIFF was not as welcome or as sweet as Adrian Pang's performances. Like most non-profit events and organizations, the AAIFF has suffered from drastic reductions in public funding. Though the National Endowment for the Arts still gave money to the festival, their allotment was reduced by something like 40% this year. And, despite big-name corporate sponsors like Budweiser and Bell Atlantic, that reduction accounts for the slight shrinkage of this year's festival in terms of both the change from tri-borough to bi-borough programming and total number of screenings within the Manhattan leg of the fest. It's time for a re-evaluation of priorities when government-funded state and local film offices, who mainly provide services and subsidies for Hollywood filmmakers, seem to suffer less from funding shortages than organizations which truly need and deserve funding, like the AAIFF.
That the 22nd AAIFF included films featuring both well-known directors/stars like Mira Nair and Sammo Hung and veteran documentarians like Dai Sil Kim-Gibson alongside total newcomers like Georgia Lee and Tammy Tolle indicates that the fest is not only still true to its roots as the "discoverer" of then-new talents like Ang Lee and Wayne Wang, but also retains its ties with new talents long after they achieve fame and influence. AAIFF's achievement of a convivial family atmosphere and a serious, wide-ranging program may be part of the reason there are so many more Asian and Asian American films at the neighborhood multiplex today.
For more information about the AAIFF and Asian Cinevision, consult their website at
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University whose dissertation will focus on urban Chinese cinema in the 1980's and 1990's.]