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FESTIVALS: Hidden Dragons; Asian Filmmakers Still Struggle Post “Crouching Tiger”

FESTIVALS: Hidden Dragons; Asian Filmmakers Still Struggle Post "Crouching Tiger"

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by Augusta Palmer

(indieWIRE/ 07.31.01) — New York’s 24th Asian American International Film Festival (July 19 – 28) closed Saturday after ten days of screenings, panels, workshops and after-parties around New York City. Organized by Asian Cinevision and featuring over 70 films and videos produced in the U.S., Asia and elsewhere, the festival provided a range of films for every taste and interest with features ranging from the serious fun of elegantly crafted thrillers like opening night’s Korean box-office topper “Joint Security Area” to Japanese director Wada Junko‘s avant-pop video “Body Drop Asphalt.”

Though 2002 will mark a bigger anniversary for the AAIFF itself, this year’s fest celebrated the 20th anniversary of Wayne Wang‘s seminal indie film “Chan is Missing,” the first Asian American feature to receive American theatrical distribution, with a Wang retrospective (including not only crowd-pleasing classics like “The Joy Luck Club,” but also the rarely seen “Life is Cheap, But Toilet Paper is Expensive” -whose X rating helped prompt the creation of the NC-17 in 1990). There was also a one-on-one discussion between Wang and New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell, and a panel discussion on changes in independent film since “Chan”‘s 1981 release.

All this celebration of Asian American cinematic achievements did not obscure the continuing difficulties and importance of making and presenting Asian and Asian American films. At the end of the AAIFF press conference, Festival Director Risa Morimoto responded to this reporter’s question on how the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” juggernaut will affect the future of Asian American filmmaking in general, and the AAIFF in particular, by remarking on the differing markets for Asian and Asian-American films: “Asian American cinema may not be able to ride on the coat-tails of the ‘Crouching Tiger’ syndrome.”

Despite this fact, the AAIFF has always been one of New York’s best summer venues for Asian cinema. Among the Asian cinema discoveries at this year’s festival were “Cure,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s hypnotic serial killer social critique, and “The Iron Ladies,” a giddy Thai film about a cross-dressing championship volleyball team. While Ms. Morimoto didn’t have time to address why the two markets are so distinct, it still seems clear that the market for Asian cinema capitalizes on an American thirst for the exotic, while Asian American films like Abraham Lim‘s “Roads and Bridges,” a gritty drama about an Asian American and an African American who learn to work together on a road crew, or Ron Pulido‘s closing night film “The Flip Side” about a Filipino family stranded in the shag carpet of suburbia, present a critical look at everyday American experience from an angle that is anything but escapist.

The Sundance 2001 attendee and Singapore-born first-time feature director Meng Ong, whose carefully crafted immigration drama “Miss Wonton” was featured at the fest, seemed pleased to have found a friendlier venue, calling his Sundance experience “a rude awakening, like being thrown into a meat market. Before I went, I thought film was about art.”

At AAIFF, budgets were as varied as the filmmakers; features ran the gamut from nearly a million U.S. dollars for the Chinese “X-Roads” to $400,000 for “Miss Wonton,” while shorts cost any thing from $12,000 for Fatimah Tobing-Rony‘s affectionate portrait of a fag hag (and 2000 D.G.A. Student Short winner) “Everything In Between” to June Yup Yi‘s digital short, “Self-Portrait,” of which the director sheepishly admitted, “I made it for under $1,000. Sorry about that, guys,” he said, turning to the group of directors assembled for the press conference.

Like all indie filmmakers, Asian American filmmakers have to struggle to fund their films. Meng Ong’s budget of $400,000 may seem like peanuts when compared to a Hollywood feature, but he said, “It took me seven or eight years to get the financing, which came from private investors. And I still owe Sakura (one of the film’s stars and a former Singaporean pop star) for the song rights!” Several directors like Shazon Jiang of “X-Roads” relied on the generosity of friends and that old standard of indie financing — credit cards — to finish their films. Others, like Fatimah Tobing-Rony, managed to win grants because of film school. Across the board, economizing measures were necessary to get things done. Jiang reported that her actors took a voluntary pay cut, while the more pragmatic Chi-Jang Yin, whose experimental short “Another Clapping” explores her own relationship with her mother, said, “I’m really glad I didn’t have to pay for my Mom.”

Though AAIFF has grown in popularity and prominence over the past twenty-plus years, finding the funding for it is still as frustrating as financing an independent feature. Earlier this summer, according to Program Director Vivian Huang, American Airlines entered into “a good dialogue” with Festival Director Risa Morimoto about sponsoring the festival, but they later declined to become sponsors, specifically claiming that several of last year’s entries were “pornographic,” and identifying a bisexual character in Taiwanese director Wu Mi-Sen‘s “Fluffy Rhapsody” and the serial killer in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” as inconsistent and with their “conservative corporate image.” Though Huang emphasized that she respected American Airlines’ right to define their own corporate image, it is particularly unsettling that these decisions were based on press kits rather than on actual viewing of the films. In addition, it is unlikely — to say the least — that any corporate sponsor would have the same response to a mainstream festival’s inclusion of a Hollywood serial killer franchise like “Silence of the Lambs.”

If the festival seemed shorter, it’s because 2000 marked the first year without the outer borough forays into Brooklyn and Queens, which used to extend its running time to nearly a month. Program Director Vivian Huang said the decision was made based on both a lack of appropriate venues in Queens and a need to concentrate Asian Cinevision’s largely volunteer manpower. This streamlining strategy seems to have increased the festival’s success since last year was the most successful ever in terms of both attendance and media coverage and, though the official numbers are not yet in, this year seems to be continuing that trend. If outer borough cineastes had to take the subway, American audiences all across the U.S. will benefit: portions of the packed Manhattan program will take to the road for a ten-month national tour of cities from Honolulu to Houston.

In the twenty years since “Chan is Missing,” Asian American filmmakers have struggled not only with all the financing headaches common to independent filmmakers the world over, but also with what San Francisco writer Oliver Wang, writing in the festival program, identified as “the nature of the subject.”

“Any film which attempts to answer the questions of ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What does it mean to be an Asian American’ walks a dangerous path into didacticism,” writes Wang. “However well-intentioned, many of the attempts that followed ‘Chan is Missing’ these past 20 years have either resulted in anemic, feel-good tales that celebrate multiculturalism or they reproduce the same narrow, troubled politics of cultural nationalism that have proven untenable as the community grows more diverse and disparate.” Despite these pitfalls, the AAIFF has long provided a cinematic safe haven for attending directors whose outlooks and backgrounds are as diverse as the Asian American community.

[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and a doctoral student in New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies. She is currently writing her dissertation on urban Chinese cinemas from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic in the 1990s.]

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