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The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival: By Asians, On Film, For Everyone

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival: By Asians, On Film, For Everyone

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival: By Asians, On Film, For Everyone

by Johanna Lee

From the moment the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) begins you know you’re headed towards an
alternate reality that’s not just a celluloid version of the suspension
of disbelief. Whether you’re a fourth generation Chinese storeowner on
your way to catch a vaguely remembered print from the old country, a
beaming mother excited to see her daughter’s UCLA thesis film, or even
someone who’s just caught on to the Hong Kong thang, there’s a flavor to
the Festival that’s uniquely its own.

With 105 films, 35 features, and an attendance count at about 17,000,
SFIAAFF is an off-shoot of the National Asian American Telecommunications
(NAATA). NAATA is partially funded by government grants, and
provides production money and resources for filmmakers. The festival relies
on sponsorship from large organizations like Pacific Bell and Grants for the

SFIAAFF gives true meaning to the word “festival”. The festval began at
the old Grand Theatre in the heart of Chinatown and ended at the Kabuki
Theatres in Japantown. A celebratory air filled the old theatre as a
live orchestra played a newly composed piece to a rare print of the 1931
silent Chinese Classic, “Love and Duty“. Afterwards, as everyone
munched on noodles and egg rolls at the three-tiered Grand Palace
restaurant in Chinatown, conversation pointed not only to the aesthetics
of the film, but to a renewed sense of history and accomplishment.

That’s part of what makes SFIAAFF so interesting. What at first may
seem like an agenda which could be too culturally specific, gives way to
a much broader picture. The criteria for picking the films and the
goals of the Festival cover more than what one group may think of Asia
and Asian-America. Ask Paul Yee, one of the festival’s co-directors
how he chooses films and he’ll tell you that they fall under the heading
of “Pan-Asian”. However, he’ll also bring you into a conversation that
not only covers the Federal Government’s role in coining the term for
immigration purposes, but also to the difficulty of translating Asian
boundaries into ones that fit American categorizations.

This year, the festival included a seminar on Asian American films and a
presentation on the cinema of Hong Kong by Tony Rayns, a “white guy”,
but one who heads the Hong Kong Film Festival and is a leading film
critic. He came with a near enclyclopedic knowlege of Hong Kong Cinema,
with the dryest of British wit. Also new was a highlight on Korean
Cinema which included “A Hot Roof“, a film about a group of women who
accidentally murder a man after they see him beating his wife. A long
show-down ensues between the women who hide up on the “hot roof”, and
the police below. What makes the film exciting is not only the
abundance of strong female characters, but it’s comedic sensibility.
This departure could only signal a new sense of security within Korea’s
political climate. Also presented for the first time was a
retrospective of world-renowned director Jang Sun Woo, a program that
was curated in association with the Rotterdam Film Festival. Mr. Jang
happily ignored the translator to tell the audience that his hat was
made from the sleeve of Paul Yee’s favorite old sweater.

The festival also included a number of short film programs with titles
like Asian From Uranus and Cowgirl and the Man. And although the Festival isn’t geared neccessarily towards the industry, screenings
will get you a Variety revue, and specialized buyers and distributors
like Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing and Monica Chuo of Goldwyn
were easy to spot and speak with. The filmmakers that
seemed to benefit the most from this environment were the first time
feature directors. “Sunsets” Co-Directors, Michael Idemoto and Erica
Nakamura who publish the magazine, “Giant Robot“, impressed everyone
with their financing strategy which included the sale of their car.
Quentin Lee coined the term “Generasian-X”, in speaking about his
werewolf movie, “Shopping for Fangs“. Both Rea Tajiri, (“Strawberry Fields“) and Chris Chan Lee (“Yellow“), entertained audiences with tales of
bathroom scenes shot with cold water, and the long drive from L.A. with
the first print in the back seat. All was happily forgotten when every
screening sold out. Meanwhile, the veterans like Christine Choi who
screened “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World“, and Gheeta Mehta who arrived
with “Fire“, could be found drinking champagne and talking with their
international counterparts.

The big buzz this year concerned a new wave of possible mega-financing
available from large Korean corporations who are eager to take part in
the international film arena. Place that new excitement next to the
still unfounded treasure of recovered ancient prints and you’ve got
thrills from every angle. Then again, what other festival gives you
sushi and ice cream rice cakes at the guest lounge. Tell that to the
Sundance cube cheese and crackers guys.

For many filmmakers and audience members, SFIAAFF provides a sense of
the return home. The films may go on to play at larger festivals, or
they may have already premiered on the other coast, but you can’t get
beyond this simple fact — If you make a film that in any way contains
an Asian subject matter, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing
hundreds of faces finally getting your kimchee joke. SFIAAFF is well
put together and large enough that for once your “minority” film feels
like the majority.

[Johanna Lee is a New York based filmmaker who’s film, Olympic Boulevard screened at the SFIAAFF last year.]

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