There’s no denying that, in the international film festival circuit, films produced in Asia are received much more favorably than films produced by Asian Americans. A festival programmer in Europe or North America is much more likely to accept (or even screen) submissions from countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, or Japan, than films set in Little Manilas or Japantowns throughout the U.S.
Surely this disparity may come down to the quantity and quality of submissions. That there has never been an Asian American jury prize in Cannes, Berlin, or Venice speaks to a lot more than national quotas or anti-American sentiments.
However, it speaks volumes that juries in Asian American film festivals are following suit. At this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, three of the four films awarded in categories for narrative features went to films shot in Asia. Gerry Balasta’s Philippines-set The Mountain Thief won the Special Jury Award, Kit Hui’s Hong Kong-set Fog was given a special prize for visual achievement, and Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei took home the audience award. Beyond just raising an eyebrow for expanding what we mean by “Asian American film,” these awards raise issues about what we even mean by Asian cinema, and if our usual boundaries are even valid. Understandably then, another film at this year’s festival, Make Yourself at Home, suggests that the reverse is also true: that a Korean filmmaker can make a film about Korean Americans, thematically and stylistically rethinking what we mean by both Korean and Korean American cinema.
Fresh off the heels of this year’s SFIAAFF, Asia Pacific Arts’ Brian Hu and Chi Tung gather their thoughts on some of these cross-cultural possibilities.
Brian Hu: I wanted to start this conversation on the fact that three of the four award winners for narrative films at SFIAAFF this year were shot in Asia, and made by American-trained directors of Asian descent. Do you have any initial thoughts on this?
Chi Tung: I think the idea of transglobal filmmaking is leading us down some strange paths, some of which I like, some of which, not so much. I think the obvious place to start is language -- as in, should these films even be considered "Asian American"?
Brian: Language is interesting because it's commonly used as a way to carve up markets and target the ideal audience. As in: "Spanish-speaking territories" for selling to South America, or "Chinese-language cinema" to deal with the heterogeneity within many Chinese communities.
So you're saying that Asian American cinema can or should be similarly defined by, say, the use of English?
Chi: To me, when I think of language in Asian American films, I think of hybridity. Or at least, more fluidity between cultures, ideologies, etc. The films we saw didn't really attempt to convey any of this. Am I totally projecting my understanding of identity here?
Brian: Perhaps, but it raises an important point about both Asian and Asian American cinema. According to my understanding, Asian American cinema began as an attempt to narrate a specifically Asian American experience, with its own cultural characteristics that can be isolated and depicted. But you're saying that Asian American cinema is, instead, in a state of cultural flux. At the same time, there is a temptation to say that Asian cinema can be isolated in their national contexts ("Korean cinema," "Thai cinema," etc.). And yet, Asian cinemas are also experiencing their own hybridizations, which may or may not include Asian Americans.
Chi: That's a great point. In that light, it's fair to say that both Asian and Asian American filmmakers are going through some growing pains. Hybridity is hard to understand, and even harder to capture on film. Did you think Kit Hui’s Fog attempted to address notions about hybridity within the film itself?
Brian: The most obvious is that the two lead actors are Chinese Americans. Stylistically, the film hardly feels like your usual Hong Kong film, having more in common with independent cinema in the mainland or Europe. So in that sense, yes. And there's also the point that the director made at the Q/A after the screening: that the identity pangs of Hong Kong circa-1997 resonates as well with her experiences as a Chinese in the West. I wonder what you thought about this last point, because it speaks directly to your suggestion that both Asia and Asian America are going through growing pains.
Chi: You're right, it does. It also helps explain why the film itself struggled to personally resonate with me. Because what I was seeing on the screen felt stale and outdated -- like a period piece on post-97 Hong Kong identity. Know what I mean?
Brian: Yeah, I think that's a more basic problem with the film. That a film about 1997 feels so... 1997. But I'm somewhat excited about the suggestion that a film produced about identity in Hong Kong (however stale) can speak for a more general condition. Some better 1997 films come immediately to mind, like Comrades Almost a Love Story or City of Glass.
Chi: The problem is, seminal as they are, they were also released well over a decade ago.
Brian: It makes me wonder, for instance, if there are other, more contemporary stories of identity in Asia that can serve to speak for more generalizable questions of identity. I'm tempted to include new mainland films about migration here. Say, Last Train Home, which incidentally (or not) is made by a Chinese Canadian.
Chi: Migration and dislocation -- perennially, these have been hot button topics for both Asian and Asian American films. Certain films have started to take an even more experimental approach in dealing with these issues, like, say, The Mountain Thief, which won the special jury award at SFIAAFF. Perhaps you can help me understand what the movie says about transglobalism or hybridity. Personally, I had a hard time determining its value as a piece of filmmaking. As social tract, it was undoubtedly effective, though I wonder if it could've been more so, if the filmmakers had simply taken the footage we see wrapping up the film into a bruising documentary. I think it’s safe to say that its truths are definitely stranger than fiction.
Brian: Yeah I agree that the film does nothing new cinematically, despite flirting with non-linear storytelling. But on the point of globalization and social consciousness, it does something I've never seen before. Namely, it uses cinema as a means to fundraise in Asian American communities (and beyond) for a cause in the Philippines. Fundraising overseas for political and social projects in Asia is nothing new, but this is the first time I've seen a film produced with this in mind.
Chi: Yeah, it's a pretty stunning concept. I only wish it were done in less-muddled fashion. As the opening so proudly states, the cast of non-professional actors were trained to tell their stories of daily survival. The whole thing felt a bit stilted and doggedly self-aware. Not that their performances were, but the subject matter. In other words, I cared about the characters behind the characters, but I'm not so sure I cared about the characters as they appeared in the movie. Capiche?
Brian: Yes, I agree that the acting was impressive. Here's where I think stylistically, it bears traces of American cinema, which typically takes performance more seriously than filmmakers in other countries do. And maybe it's just my ignorance of the slums in this part of the Philippines, but I couldn't but scratch my head over why important conflicts were being resolved (or not) on the basketball court.
Chi: In a different film, this would've been awesome. In The Mountain Thief, it was just, I dunno, jarring.
Brian: Maybe it's because the performances were so "American" and the script so deliberately constructed (another feature of American cinema), that I had certain kinds of expectations of storytelling and character development. Or maybe I'm just bringing my own overly rigid categories into this. Maybe this is indeed a hybrid film, with the kind of on-the-ground realism of Filipino directors like Brillante Mendoza, with the craft (including an awfully UNICEF-ad score) of American film.
Chi: Yeah, I couldn't agree more about the score. I almost half-expected Angelina Jolie to pop up at the end of the film with a public service announcement.
Brian: Haha, talk about transnational.
Chi: I think your point about craft is a salient one. Maybe we're expecting too much from a filmmaking standpoint. Then again, we did watch Arvin Chen’s Au Revoir Taipei, which absolutely demonstrated its filmmaking chops while also being totally transglobal in worldview. Obviously, we both enjoyed Au Revoir immensely. It certainly didn't hurt that it spoke to our experiences as Chinese Americans spending glorious summers in Taiwan. But I think more importantly, it had conviction. Not conviction that can be confused for hectoring and raising social consciousness. But conviction in the sensory delights of Taipei.
Brian: Yes, and in fact, the sensory (captured just as well in Chen's short Mei) is something that's been surprisingly lacking in other Taipei films made by native-born filmmakers. Aside from Millennium Mambo and Parking, nothing comes to mind. Perhaps it takes somebody with an outsider's perspective to articulate what makes a city distinctive. At the same time, it takes somebody with a special affinity for the city (like a Taiwanese American, but we should never limit the ethnicity) to balance authenticity with sheer fascination.
Chi: I agree. Do you think, though, that it has to do with the fact that native-born filmmakers are reluctant to fetishize certain cultural practices or traditions?
Brian: Oh absolutely. The fear of self-exoticizing looms large in much of Asia, especially given how important the film festival circuit is in providing a platform for these films. And so finding this balance is a bold venture, which makes me appreciate how deftly the film integrated all the food-porn and the Taipei skyline.
Chi: It's definitely heartening that the film is performing well, both at the Taiwanese box office and on the film festival circuit. It's kind of like the foreign film category at the Oscars: getting nominated by your country raises both international visibility and interest at home. From what we're hearing through the grapevine, it appears that Au Revoir has a chance to bypass those growing pains we mentioned, which, in turn, should instill the Arvin Chens of the world with more confidence to make the films they wanna make. But there I go projecting again.
Brian: Well I think the film has been successful at home and abroad because it comes off as precisely so painless -- in that it's a feel-good movie, and also in that the craft is so assured. Not that all films need to have these elements (since as I've stated before they're often associated with "American" cinema), but Au Revoir Taipei entertains because its writing is tight and its acting is in a certain international vernacular (with a tinge of Bottle Rocket), unlike much of the juvenile wailing of other commercial Taiwanese films.
Chi: Yes, it goes down nice and easy, like one of the iced mango smoothies I used to gulp down during my summers in Taipei.
Brian: Craft goes a long way, and though Fog and Mountain Thief intrigue us for many of the same reasons as Au Revoir Taipei, if we can't recommend the film as being emotional or intellectually riveting, it's kind of a moot point. I want to end with the music in Au Revoir Taipei. It immediately brings to mind early French jazz like Django Reinhardt, or the 1980s scores of Woody Allen. It's unlike anything typically attempted in Taiwan or elsewhere in Asia. And it's composed and performed by local jazz musicians who have lived in the U.S. In other words, it's got a breezy worldiness that makes it at once intimate and cosmopolitan. Plus it sounds great and makes Taipei look better than ever. Ironically, these sounds from the west kind of make you want to move to Asia.
Au Revoir Taipei and The Mountain Thief will also play this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. For more information, click here.