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Not Your Usual Hollywood Dogfood, Shorts Surprise at Key NY Asian Fest

Not Your Usual Hollywood Dogfood, Shorts Surprise at Key NY Asian Fest

Not Your Usual Hollywood Dogfood, Shorts Surprise at Key
NY Asian Fest

by Augusta Palmer

After nearly a month of film programs, New York’s 21st Asian American
International Film Festival
wrapped on Sunday, August 23rd. The festival
opened during the last week of July, when crowds of cinephiles lined up
outside Manhattan’s Alliance Francaise to see New York premieres of Eric
Koyanagi’s “Hundred Percent” (celebrating yellow power in a fictional
Venice Beach populated by Asian American stars Tamlyn Tomita, Dustin
Nguyen, and Garrett Wang), Harish Saluja’s “The Journey” (a meditation
on existence in the Indian-American community starring the masterful duo
of Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey), and Steve Wang’s “Drive” (modestly
touted as “the best Hong Kong action movie never made in Hong Kong”).

Smaller, but faithful and interested crowds turned out for quieter films
with fewer big names attached, like Rea Tajiri’s “Strawberry Fields” (a
quiet, well-crafted coming-of-age story set in the early 1970’s) and
Mani Ratnam’s “Iruvar/The Duo” (a brilliantly satirical look at
friendship, politics, and movie stardom in India). Several days of video
programming showcased video work on everything from feminism (in both
Wen-jie Qin’s “Woman Being” and Mayfair Yang’s “Through Chinese Women’s
“) to the search for the ultimate tomato (in Kimberly Saree Tomes’
Looking for Wendy“) to the future of surveillance (in Tran T.
Kim-Trang’s “Ocularis: Eye Surrogates“) to queer Asian and
Asian-American identities (in Mickey and Ming-Hsiu Chen’s “Not Simply a
Wedding Banquet
,” among others).

Bill Gee, executive director of the festival’s sponsor, Asian
CineVision, arrived on his motorcycle in time to introduce a staggering
number of film and video programs and festival director Vivian Huang
also made her share of introductions and managed to keep the festival
running smoothly even when prints failed to arrive on time.

On Sunday August 1, Huang introduced one of the festival’s most
interesting programs of shorts, titled “Metaphor/Metaphysics” only to
find that virtually all of the directors were chatting amongst
themselves in the hall outside the screening room. After someone
corralled the directors, they were introduced to their audience and the
program began. The ensuing shorts ran the gamut from straight-forward
narratives to a zany 13-minute exploitation film (Kentaro’s “Secret
Asiant Man
“) and an animated portrait film assembled from cut and pasted
photos (Masahiro Sugano’s “Hisao“). Many of the producers and directors
of the 11 shorts gathered for a Q & A session after the program which
touched on a variety of subjects. On the subject of inspiration, “Coma
director Anil Baral said he had dreamed his film’s labyrinthine plot.
“Secret Asiant Man” director Kentaro explained that he “just wanted to
make an exploitation film,” and Steve Yamane, director of the collage
film “Jumping at Shadows,” admitted, “I get inspired by just walking

Variations on the usual independent filmmaking war-stories were
provided, as well, as Greg Pak (dir. “Mouse“- in which the male
protagonist tries to avoid a discussion with his girlfriend about
unplanned pregnancy by obsessively chasing a mouse around his apartment)
detailed the difficulties of obtaining, caring for and training brown
mouse actors. Apparently brown mice are both more expensive and harder
to find than the standard white variety. Pak confessed that, due to the
commingling of said actors, “By the end of it, I had forty mice!”

More hardships were endured by Kentaro, whose elegantly improvised
“Secret Asiant Man” was largely filmed on the sly in New York City ‘s
subway system. When refused entry to the subway with camera and lights,
Kentaro faked being handicapped, hiding his equipment under a blanket as
he was wheeled into stations in the decrepit wheelchair — which so
often passes for a dolly in low-budget filmmaking. The casual and
comfortable atmosphere of the AAIFF seemed to make any question
acceptable. When asked about budgets, Pak easily announced that the 11
minute “Mouse” had cost about $8500. Other filmmakers present quickly
volunteered that they had used the time-honored financing methods of
Robert Townsend: putting it all on the plastic and worrying about those
pesky credit card bills later.

Despite the complaint that “festivals only care about features,”
producer Angie Wong (“Coma”) voiced her own preference for the short
form and writer/director/producer Fatimah Tobing Rony (“Demon Lover“)
said that short films were an opportunity to avoid making “your usual
HBO Hollywood dog food” and a “place to dare.” Many of the directors
also agreed that there was a small, but growing market for and an
increased public awareness about short films. Mentioned as a factor in
creating an increased public awareness and taste for short films was the
growing attendance of film festivals by the “general public.” The crowds
at the 21st AAIFF certainly confirmed the idea that film festivals could
draw large groups of the interested movie-going public as well as
filmmakers and distributors. When asked to detail the market for shorts,
filmmakers mentioned that many European and a few American theaters were
looking for (and willing to pay for) shorts to run with features. In
addition, the directors said there was a limited video market due to the
increasing popularity of shorts and that cable networks like Showtime
also provide a great venue.

Many of the shorts and features previously mentioned were shown again to
new audiences as the festival continued with a showcase of “New Asian
American Independent Cinema” in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema
on Henry Street. Brooklyn audiences were also treated to Francisco
Aliwalas’ “Disoriented” and Hur Jin-Ho’s “Christmas in August.” The
festival’s final leg then traveled to Queens’ New Center Cinema in
Sunnyside for a series of four Filipino films from the fifties, sixties
and nineties which, like the recent series at the Film Society of
Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, commemorates the centennial of
Philippine independence.

This year’s festival received attention from many media outlets – even
the usually staid New York Times hopped on the bandwagon with a Sunday
feature story – because of a feeling that Asian American filmmakers and
film viewers are a growing (though still relatively small) force in both
the American film industry and audience. Most of the attention focused
on relative newcomers like Eric Koyanagi and Steve Wang; but it should
also be remembered that stalwarts like Rea Tajiri, who has been making
films about Asian American history and experience for ten years, also
continue to produce fine work that deserves more attention than it has
gotten so far. Once again, New York’s Asian American International Film
Festival has worked to provide that attention by showcasing a diverse
body of films from Asian and Asian-American directors to a diverse group
of filmgoers all over the boroughs of New York City.

[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 1990s.]

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