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Here’s the New Wave of American Immigration Movies

Here's the New Wave of American Immigration Movies

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s black-and-white Iranian vampire romance “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, resembles many familiar places but exists firmly in fantasy. Amirpour is a British-born Iranian filmmaker who looks at the world her characters inhabit with a cockeyed lens. Her film’s fictional locale is titled Bad City (it was actually shot in California) and yet it could double for Iran or America. Amirpour explores themes of assimilation and belonging and her perspective as an immigrant filmmaker is refreshing. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is captivating because it bends genres of feminist, noir, vampire and western with truly unique results. The film also prompts a recalibration of the dynamics of love, death, family, and culture.

READ MORE: You’ve Never Seen a Vampire Movie Like the Beautiful ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,’ Produced By Elijah Wood
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is one of many recent examples of filmmakers with immigrant backgrounds reflecting on the idea of creating a new identity in an alien world. Illustrating that trend, Amirpour’s film was one of six features in the New American Filmmakers (NAF) program at the recent Hawaii International Film Festival. The series showcases “immigrant contributions to American cinema,” and emphasizes young talent, in the early stages of their careers. Their collective focus suggests an emerging new wave of filmmakers interested in similar themes.

The American Dream in Unexpected Places

This year, the series included one documentary, “Mudbloods,” along with several genre features: the aforementioned “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night;” the sci-fi film “2030;” the mystery “Man from Reno;” the behind-the-scenes drama “Uzumasa Limelight;” and “Difret,” (the latter was not available to screen). These films all provide a critical lens for actors, writers, directors, and producers to filter their immigrant experience and thoughts on assimilation and belonging. Each project offers an exciting portrait of diasporic life and culture that reflects deeper meanings from the immigrant’s perspective.

The metaphor of chasing the American Dream was best realized in Iranian-born director Farzad Sangari’s “Mudbloods.” This engaging documentary follows the UCLA quidditch team to the Fifth Annual World Cup in New York City. The game, which originated in the Harry Potter books, is described as “a cross between rugby and dodgeball.” It involves players holding brooms between their legs (forcing them to play one-handed) as they earn points in various ways. Quidditch has become popular among college students, and Sangari’s film introduces several enthusiastic players. In the film, the team members discuss being marginalized and seen as “outsiders” for participating in a fictional “nerd sport” from a fantasy series. Yet the young players find confidence and meaning in their team and community building. They develop camaraderie in being “different.” As Alex Benepe, the commissioner of the quidditch league observes, the players have the courage to chase their dreams and play a game despite resistance and negative judgment.

The Genre Approach

The American-born Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Võ’s sci-fi flick, “2030” offers a more oblique approach to the immigrant experience. In a world mostly covered by water, Sao (Quynh Hoa) and Thi (Kim Long Thach) eke out a living with scarce resources on a floating farm. When Thi is said to have died by “drowning,” Sao discovers he was waterboarded. The film touches on issues of race, ancestral land (even though it’s underwater), and legacy as it emphasizes creating a new life in a different world. “2030” also flashes back 10 years to Sao’s relationship with Giang (Quy Binh), a researcher studying mutated seaweed genes. When Giang is placed under scrutiny as a security threat, the film manages to explore the political and environmental climate of the futuristic world.

Questions of identity formation are also keenly presented in the intriguing mystery “Man from Reno.” When San Marcos County sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) accidentally hits a Japanese man (Hiroshi Watanabe) with his car, the victim survives, only to escape from the hospital. Meanwhile, Aki (Ayako Fujitani), a famous mystery series writer, flees from her book tour and holes up in San Francisco. Aki meets the title character (Kazuki Kitamura) in her hotel bar, and they later have sex in her room. The next day, he disappears. The two vanishings are inevitably connected and involve fake identities — but to reveal anything more would constitute a spoiler.

“Man from Reno” has several characters playing with their true selves, which is part of the film’s unique entertainment value. Even Aki at times hides tries to pass herself off as a different kind of person, and confesses at one point that she “feels like a fraud.” She also assumes the role of investigator in the disappearance case. Fujitani, a Japanese-born actress (and NAF delegate) handles the Japanese and American dialogue with aplomb.

The excellent “Uzumasa Limelight,” by Japanese-born director Ken Ochiai, provides a nifty parable for immigrants families who try to keep one foot in the old world and another in the new one. This film, which pays homage to Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight,” considers generational tastes and decisions.

Seiichi Kumiyama, aka “Kumi” (Seizo Fukumoto), is a kirare yaku—sword-fighting extra on a samurai TV series. After studio executives cancel his traditional program, Kumi is phased out of work. When he meets a budding young actress, Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto), in the studio, she asks him to teach her samurai moves. Kumi literally passes the baton — a wooden sword from his series’ original samurai actor — to Satsuki. She eventually gets a choice role in a new samurai drama, which uses CGI swords, among other non-standard elements. Ochiai’s film explores the tension between older generations and the ones surpassing them. The theme reaches an eloquent peak when the daughter of the woman who was a main character on the TV series says she doesn’t want to be an actress like her mother. Tradition, it seems, is not what it used to be.

Reasons for the New Wave

Immigrant stories — be they films by or about immigrants — may take different forms or genres as they do here, but these films all consider ideas of loss or gain in similar fashion. In “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Arash is prompted to leave Bad City because he feels a loss of his old world customs and believes he can find a better life elsewhere. The quiddich players in “Mudbloods” benefit by being part of the subculture they create. The survivalists in “2030” are liberated in their efforts to develop a fresh lifestyle in a new world, but measure their status against their past experiences. The Asian characters in “Man from Reno” never encounter cultural bias or prejudice in establishing themselves in America, but run into trouble maintaining a single identity. And the characters in “Uzumasa Limelight” try to compensate for the loss of the old culture and the formation of the new with grace.

With bigger budgets, these promising NAF directors can hopefully tackle immigrant concerns — allegorically or head-on — on a larger scale. While these directors may not be deliberately incorporating themes of assimilation and belonging into their work, there has been a spate of genre films, both independent and from Hollywood that have addressed facets of transnationalism.

In the past six months, South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” provided a caustic allegory for class struggle and the American Dream. Iranian writer/director Hossein Amini’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Two Faces of January” spun a tale of identity politics as Oscar Isaac tried to reinvent himself as a stranger in a strange land, only to find another reason to reinvent himself. Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman turned a jaundiced eye towards Hollywood in “The Congress,” showing how an outsider looks at an insular community. And while Lasse Hallström’s adaption of “The Hundred-Foot Journey” was pure treacle, the film’s depiction of Indians in France explored the issue of cultural hegemony and the importance of keeping one foot in the old world and one in the new.

Perhaps it is the focus on immigration in the U.S. that has prompted American filmmakers to explore these themes. Immigrant dramas go far beyond “coming to America” stories. Emerging filmmakers certainly choose projects that reflect their personal sensibilities, but it’s particularly notable that all of these films offer up stories ripe for analysis. They ask more questions than they answer — an apt statement on the open-ended nature of the immigrant experience today.

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