We’re hesitant to call 2009 a bad year for Asian American cinema. True, the feature films screened on the Asian American film festival circuit were mostly mediocre. Meanwhile, mainstream favorites like Justin Lin, Karyn Kusama, James Wong, Mira Nair, and Ang Lee made relatively minor films. No, 2009 can’t be a bad year because it had three films that mattered: So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, and H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly. These are films audiences talked about, and which fans, critics, scholars, and filmmakers will continue to talk about. In their own ways, each broke ground. Since these three films will not be forgotten, neither will 2009.
Treeless Mountain and Sin Nombre top our list for their artistry and for their sensitivity to what the world looks and feels like. Furthermore, they are about topics that matter, not just to Asian Americans but to audiences across continents. We find it intriguing that neither of these films include Asian American characters, yet both are deeply personal and trace the transnational biographies of their Asian American directors. The former recollects details of So Yong Kim’s Korean childhood; the latter developed out of Cary Fukunaga’s multicultural family and time spent in Mexico. These are also two films about migration and coping with new and often hostile environments. These are Asian American stories through and through, though they ask that we rethink our assumptions about how and why we draw its boundaries.
On the subject of boundaries though, we must acknowledge a narrative feature we enjoyed immensely, but which we ultimately chose not to include. White on Rice is the sort of comedy about Asian Americans we adore (Hiroshi Watanabe in particular won us over). The fact that it is directed by Dave Boyle, who isn’t an Asian American by any traditional definition, became something of a point of contention among those who debated whether it was an Asian American film. (See Jeff Yang’s commentary here).
We’re not very interested in defining what is or isn’t an Asian American film. In fact, our rule in deciding the scope of our regular coverage is that we are interested in any film that sparks the idea of “Asian America,” whether that is non-Asian American content by Asian American filmmakers, Asian American content by non-Asian Americans, or work by hapa filmmakers or about hapa communities, all of which evoke “Asian America” in all of its messy exuberance. But for the purposes of this top 10 list, we’re going with films directed by Asian Americans. If we went with a broader (and arguably more interesting) definition, White on Rice would surely have made this list, but then so would Star Trek, whose inclusion of John Cho in its starship of sexies would qualify it, but might also make the list a little less valuable.
Another film of interest, as an Asian American highlight of 2009, as well as a film that pushes the boundaries of what we can/should include, is the omnibus feature New York, I Love You. Much has been made of the fact that it is a collection of short films made by 11 directors. Less remarked upon is that of the 11, four are Asians working in New York (Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Shunji Iwai, and Jiang Wen). Two episodes not directed by Asians prominently feature major actresses of Asian descent: Maggie Q and Shu Qi.
And then there’s Etienne!, a feature film by an Asian American director (Jeff Mizushima) about a hamster. For the record, it would have qualified for our list had any of us seen it. We can’t wait to. Somebody send us a screener!
Other stories of 2009:
-The folks behind Children of Invention decided to self-release the DVD while the film still played film festivals. We can’t wait to hear how this experiment went.
-The detestable Dim Sum Funeral somehow found theatrical distribution and received a fair amount of press, though admittedly also from us.
-Quentin Lee makes his first feature in five years, the energetic though troublingly conservative People I’ve Slept With, which played a number of major festivals around the world.
-M. Night Shyamalan, or rather his forthcoming The Last Airbender, continues to court controversy over color-confused casting. To see how he ultimately fares, stay tuned in 2010... --Brian Hu
Top 10 narrative features by Asian American directors:
1. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
With Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim's palette of colors, textures, moods, and faces expands to wondrous heights. Shimmering in the margins of dreamworlds and stark realities, between city and nature, childhood and maturity, Treeless Mountain shines light on the ways children think when they're left alone. There's something otherworldly, even Terence Malick-like, about the play with grasshoppers and the awkward way kids talk. Yet the story told is distinctively Kim's, and the themes resonant with a generation of young migrants and wanderers.
2. Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga)
No indie by an Asian American got as much attention this year than Sin Nombre, and for good reason. Cary Fukunaga's harrowing look at mobility (geographic, class, status) in the Americas drew comparisons to City of God and the work of Ramin Bahrani. One can criticize the film's somewhat obvious treatment of gangs and teen love, but Fukunaga shines regardless, proving to be an assured director of young actors, and more impressively, a poet of marvelous images.
3. Fruit Fly (HP Mendoza)
Colma: The Musical favorite L.A. Renigen gets a leading role in HP Mendoza's second feature-length musical, Fruit Fly. A tribute to San Francisco -- with shots of public transit, local hangouts, and, of course, the Castro Theatre -- Fruit Fly is one of those films that, at the risk of sounding cheesy and cliched, fills you with pure unadulterated joy. Joy when you catch a silly lyric about MUNI transfers, joy when an entire gay club unleashes an inappropriate fag hag diatribe in perfect beat, joy when discovering the sexual innuendos that can rhyme with words like cluck, loud, and floral. But of course, the film is not all fun and games. The whimsical humor and song coat failed attempts at connection, rejection of one's deeply personal artistic expression, and the anxiety-ridden feeling of being without a home. Fruit Fly reminds us that the setbacks, explorations, and digressions are just as important as the end products.
4. Shades of Ray (Jaffar Mahmood)
While Jaffar Mahmood's debut feature was shot a good year or two before the lead actors Zachary Levi and Sarah Shahi scored their prime-time television shows (Chuck and Life, respectively), their charismatic performances in Shades of Ray must have foreshadowed their future mainstream popularity. Levi plays Ray Rehman, a half-white/half-Pakistani twentysomething who has just proposed to his girlfriend, with uncertain results. She'll think about it. While she's thinking about it, Ray has to deal with an awkward new roommate: his father makes a surprise visit after his mother kicks him out of the house. Brian George (who many might remember as Babu Bhatt in Seinfeld) steals the show as the father, who keeps comically insisting that Ray needs to avoid white girls and find a nice Pakistani girl. Don't do what I did, he seems to be saying, look what a mess my love life has become. The supporting cast is impressive by indie film standards, with Bonnie Sommerville as the girlfriend, Fran Kranz as the best friend, and Kathy Baker as Ray's mother. Zachary Levi proves to be a solid leading man, equally effective as straight man, comic relief, and sensitive romantic lead just trying to understand his divided, mixed-race heart.
5. Children of Invention (Tze Chun)
Tze Chun's first narrative feature is loosely based on his own childhood memories, growing up with a single mother and little sister and going to a lot of pyramid-scheme meetings. In the film, a struggling mother, Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung), juggles multiple jobs to make ends meet for her two young children, Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). She inadvertently gets involved in a pyramid scheme, and the corrupt company she works for, which seems to target vulnerable immigrant families, is being investigated by the police. One day, Elaine doesn't come home, and the children, convinced that the two of them will now have to fend for themselves, come up with creative inventions that might keep them afloat. Children of Invention touches on timely issues of economic difficulty, but the story's emotional resonance is really anchored by the cuteness of the kids. Sometimes all you need is a lingering shot of Crystal Chiu's heartbreakingly earnest face to make even the biggest obstacles seem surmountable.
6. Jennifer's Body (Karyn Kusama)
Jennifer's Body is far from a perfect movie, as most critics were glad to note. But somewhere in the bloody mess (and severely botched ending) is a marvel of delirium. The first half of Jennifer's Body creeps with toothy fangs into a half-funny, half-frightening daze. A scene of fire, pretentious rockers, a busty babe, and misplaced (or is it mistaken?) hormones unleashes some not-too-serious weirdness that keeps the audience perfectly off-kilter, at least until the trite ending which we'll conveniently blame on Diablo Cody.
7. Karma Calling (Sarba Das)
What could have been yet another comedy of errors about immigrant families and their cultural mishaps becomes one of the more refreshing Asian American comedies in recent years. Karma Calling rides a great concept (call-center confusion), but pulls it off because of its cleverness and sensitivity to just how absurd globalization can be. Samrat Chakrabarti and Parvesh Cheena are hilarious as call center workers on the brink of cultures.
8. All About Dad (Mark Tran)
Made by a young San Jose State University student, All About Dad shows that a simple, personal story told with emotional honesty can go a long way. An overbearing Asian American father who doesn't approve of non-traditional careers or non-Catholic boyfriends, the young adult children who pursue those non-traditional careers and non-Catholic boyfriends, and the loving mother who gets stuck in between: it's not that we haven't seen these conflicts before, but navigated by Mark Tran's point of view (and David Huynh's charming performance as the bratty little brother and future filmmaker), All About Dad speaks to all youth who haven't quite figured out how to balance independence and parental approval. Chi Pham is particularly effective as the unsmiling father who is having trouble with the idea of losing control of his family. All About Dad took home the Best First Feature award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and it won the coveted audience award in Tran's hometown festival, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival as well as the Inaugural George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.
9. Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)
Though it’s unquestionably funny and well-acted, Taking Woodstock has been called “nothing new” by critics who have tired of hippie hijinks. But for fans of Ang Lee, Taking Woodstock is resoundingly new, as is seemingly everything the multitalented director tackles. Lee hasn’t made a straight-up comedy since Eat Drink Man Woman in 1994, and this one finds him in the rain, mud, and acid of a particular Woodstock weekend. The highlight has to be Imelda Staunton, in ragged mom dress, sensing an opportunity to make some extra money.
10. Motherland (Doris Yeung)
Francoise Yip, most famous for her Hong Kong action films, gets the chance to fully display her acting chops as the lead in the family drama, Motherland. Loosely based on director Doris Yeung's real-life story, Motherland begins after Raffi Tang (Yip) finds out her mother has been murdered. After some investigation, she starts to suspect that her father (Kenneth Tsang) and his business associate (Byron Mann) might be hiding important details. No one can be trusted in a world where the semblance of justice (or the fantasy of achieving the American Dream) is only a gunshot away.