Normally around this time, Festival Senior Programmer Abraham Ferrer would produce an overarching programmer’s overview of the program line-up of The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. This year, we decided to try something a little different: instead of one person’s perspectives, we wondered how the divergent perspectives of our team of programmers would add a little bit of “spice” to our assessment of this season’s programming process. Thus, we issued an invitation to respond to a set of questions that would serve to foreground their thoughts and opinions on what they all observed. Though it took them awhile to respond (our curators were still hammering out their programs as of this writing and did not participate), our core program committee members answered the call. The following is a reflection of what we all thought…
ABRAHAM FERRER: We’ve concluded a months-long programming process during which we’ve screened, as a group, over 500 individual entries from all over the world. Tell me, what kinds of thematic directions in Asian Pacific cinema have you identified during the course of your viewings this season?
ESEEL BORLASA: In the shorts, it seems that food was prevalent: docs on food, narratives about restaurants. Also, I see that animation/slick graphics are on the rise.
ELAINE DOLALAS: More stories about women and LGBT, which I greatly appreciate. Stories dealing with family struggles were also something I saw frequently. There were also a lot of films about Fukushima. They seemed to all highlight the same theme: loss and rebuilding.
CHANEL KONG: It is difficult to point out any definite direction(s) taken cumulatively by the works we’ve seen; I rather take that as a healthy sign — filmmakers are feeling empowered to make works that aren’t necessarily part of a larger movement or a trend. Nonetheless, many feature-length narrative works we’ve viewed this season notably explore the limits of genre film. Relying upon genre film vocabulary, these films tell stories that seem familiar and strange at once; they play with audience expectations of genre structure and character development. These filmmakers are clearly also people who enjoy genre films. From thrillers and crime noirs, to comedies and family dramas, these films are produced with an audience in mind. The sense of fun and exploration in these films are clearly palpable, both in works that try to perfect storytelling and in ones that offer twists to particular tropes. These filmmakers’ comfort with utilizing well-established forms of storytelling suggests that they’d like to distinguish themselves by their craft, rather than by the potential or latent ethno- or socio-cultural markers in their work.
KRISTEN LEE: Thematic elements include dealing with mental disease in family, aging and its limits, tragedy and obviously finding love. I also believe the relationship between parent and 1.5 child is also a prevalent theme in past/present films. I was concerned with the limited number of quality documentaries and the large presence of PSA entries. I was discouraged by the lack of Polynesian flicks as well.
LINDY LEONG: Stories of extraordinary APA creative pioneers and elders continue to surprise and delight. Asian Americans have been doin’ it all this time! A swath of suppressed historical chapters and perspectives on war and trauma come to the foreground, providing catharsis for those victimized. DIY and micro indie cinema prevailed in scrappy, innovative, passion projects. The tried and true meets the funky and experimental characterize much of this year’s slate. #OscarsSoWhite…whatevah.
KIRBY PEÑAFIEL: There were plenty of thematic directions in the entries we’ve received for this year’s Film Festival, however, the one I identified with the most is the generational gap amongst families. It was a perspective I’m not quite aware of, but was fascinated to witness, in contrast to how well my rapport is with my parents and grandparents and their generation.
QUINCY SURASMITH: There’s a lot of films dealing with death and family as recurring themes and motifs this year.
SO YUN UM: It’s varied but mostly forward-thinking, boundaries-pushing and widespread representation and experiences shared-kind of films.
RYAN WU: The common thread tying Asian American features is really a lack of one. We saw plenty of genre films where identity of an Asian American lead is implicit, like THE UNBIDDEN, COMFORT, and GRASS. Filmmakers are asking, “Why can’t a movie like BEFORE SUNRISE or THE CONJURING feature a yellow or brown person in the lead? And, why don’t I make that?”
More obvious thematic throughlines can be found in documentaries. We screened plenty of films exploring the vicissitudes of the immigrant experience or trying to find a new angle on historical atrocities like the Khmer Rouge or the My Lai massacre. We noted several odd trends with entries that we didn’t end up inviting to screen for various reasons. One involved documentaries exploring fallout from Fukushima. The other involved documentaries featuring an elderly curmudgeon recounting his life. My theory is that young filmmakers, confronted with how much more eventful and dramatic their grandparents or great-grandparents’ lives were compared to their own, are rushing to document their stories before they pass on.
It seems that particularly with the documentaries that we’ve had the pleasure to screen, Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders have a LOT of things on their minds. Whether it’s immigrant rights, electoral politics, mid-career crises, or the impact of external world events on our lives — it really seems as though our artists have things nagging at them. Or, they’re looking at age-old issues in an entirely new way. What do you guys think?
ESEEL: The vision/storytelling this year is more diverse. I don’t recall seeing the “culture clash” types of tales that was so popular a few years back. I think, especially with stuff like PALI ROAD, JOHN HUGHES RUINED MY LIFE, and even BE ABOUT IT, we’re seeing human stories with our faces on the screen (as opposed to our ethnicity specifically driving the story).
ELAINE: I liked the more topical documentaries. When films covered the identity issue topic, it bored me. While these films should have a place, the self-identity “discovery” story is tired.
CHANEL: The bulk of Asian Pacific documentaries we’ve reviewed this year harks back to familiar topics — identity, family and history. These films uncover more stories of displacement, loss and/or reconciliation, told by both experienced and new filmmakers. The fact that these types of documentaries continue to be made (and hopefully, continue to be seen) compels the argument for them to not only exist as a fundamental part of Asian Pacific and Asian American documentary filmmaking practice, but also as continued testimony in both personal and collective histories. On the other hand, we’ve also seen recent documentaries tackle fresh topics in new ways — which suggests that some filmmakers are rather interested in how documentaries can be a great way to tell stories that are current and developing, regardless of its previous relationship to APA/API issues.
KRISTEN: Either these filmmakers are not staying up to date with their resources on certain topics, or just lazy and submitting outdated films. Personally, I wish we had more Asian American political documentaries, especially with the elections looming during our festival time.
LINDY: I think the Film Festival boasts some of the strongest documentary programming around. As this is first and foremost a community-based festival, the stories presented about Asian American and Pacific Islander life, experiences, and perspectives remain invaluable to the society at large. As our creative community of color remains under siege from a variety of forces, presenting their works serves as a conduit for conversation and, hopefully, change.
KIRBY: I think the way API artists have dealt with issues have been more aggressive, considering how technology has expanded our way to express ourselves. Being able to express and tackle these issues in new progressive ways has enabled many unknown issues to be put under the spotlight in the public eye — which is always a great thing.
QUINCY: I think that as these filmmakers increase in their number and diversity of individual backgrounds and interests, the breadth of the work and content will follow that trend and cover more and more diverse issues and content — a great sign of pluralization of the artists and work.
SO YUN: I think they know they are living in a more progressive age and so, they are tackling it with a modern-day perspective with a universal message.
I remember at one point that, when the dust settled and we were able to look at the final program line-up, we talked about the idea of “intersections” through which disparate themes and topics converged — you know, the intersection between perpetrator and survivor; between criminal and activist; between friends and (possible) lovers; even between youth and adulthood. When you consider that this is an especially crucial election year, intersections and polemics stand out as pervasive flashpoints throughout this year’s program line-up.
ESEEL: Was this a features convo? You guys have the best chats. I think the lineup reflects conversations that can tie into our experience as Asian Americans here in the U.S. To me, that’s part of what makes LAAPFF valuable to an audience. It’s this yearly opportunity to “absorb” or experience a story, to silently meditate on it during the screening, and then have a post-screening discussion with the creators or fellow audience member.
ELAINE: … huh?
CHANEL: Yes, there is an intersectionality in many of the stories depicted in our program line-up this year. Many characters face binary decision-making and dilemmas in our films this year, and that stark difference makes their eventual choice all the more compelling to watch. These themes really do parallel the polemical, political, and social atmosphere in society today, and may well serve to propel filmmakers in the next years as they continue to explore and maybe even exploit a dogmatic approach in storytelling and character development.
LINDY: Absolutely. What we are seeing more and more in APA filmmaking revolves around entertaining these “intersections and polemics.” Nothing is “either/or” anymore. Our communities of color and those continually underrepresented in mainstream media must embrace this new world order if coalition building is gonna happen in good faith.
QUINCY: They sure do.
One of the challenges, I think, when assessing this year’s crop of narrative features and shorts is weighing technical accomplishment versus the challenges of effective storytelling. Kinda like, we’ve seen quite a bit of form-conscious cinema that fails at being “conscious” or clear on their purpose. I dunno, do you think that’s a trend?
ESEEL: I’m not sure if I understand the question. Do I feel that some narratives are a bit “too much” and “aware” of their aesthetic? Totally. Does it miss the mark? Yah. But it’s not too often; more like 50/50. Is it a trend? I hope not. Some scenes in some narratives felt hurried. I could feel that it was performed to fulfill a shot.
ELAINE: I think it’s bad storytelling. Perhaps the directors need more mentorship or guidance.
CHANEL: I’m not sure. In my experience of screening feature films for this year’s Festival, I found that many filmmakers’ attempts at using form and technique have only been moderately successful; in fact, many have a misguided reliance on using form and technique to overcome or cloak mediocre storytelling. However, I do recall that there have been certain features made outside of the U.S. which presents another more uplifting scenario: those films have proven that form and technique can indeed take precedence in a film, without compromising or dragging down the importance of a good script.
KRISTEN: Agreed. Although we all don’t like the “talking head” interview, I believe its absolutely necessary to find valuable sources when researching a story. I believe new Asian American production companies lack this racial conscious storytelling. (Works from) Chapman University’s film program, especially, disappointed us this year. I would love a panel on “the racially conscious filmmaker in Asia America.”
LINDY: Not necessarily. I think new forms of media content primarily generated as digital and streamlined for online consumption have tremendously affected expectations surrounding media spectatorship. Shorter attention spans, click bait-driven content, and swiping screens have catastrophically rewired us in how we consume, absorb, and interpret film and media. Film and media artists at all levels are struggling to negotiate a balance between commercial expediencies and artistic expression.
KIRBY: While technology continues to progressively change our way to express, I think effective storytelling still provides a challenge that many artists deal with; visuals are being supported by the story, rather the other way around — which is sadly still an ongoing trend.
QUINCY: To me, so very many of the films lacked core stories/storytelling. I am a) not a filmmaker and b) new to this process, but from my performance and writing backgrounds, a frustrating part of viewing these films is how relatively few of them had a clear idea of what its own story was, much less how to tell that story well. And even the ones where they were more “style over substance,” had bad style — a certain action thriller short with painfully long and awkward fight choreography comes to mind. I think beyond just a separation of technical versus storytelling, there’s a core issue of filmmakers not knowing what they’re trying to tell or convey.
SO YUN: It’s not a trend. It seems as though most filmmakers are not as skilled storytellers as they thought they were. They have the equipment and money to back them up, but without a proper story and a fundamental knowledge of storytelling and screenwriting, their story falls apart.
RYAN: Not sure if it’s a trend or just speaks to the difficulty of putting it all together. Certainly the programmers rarely achieved unanimity in our views of any one particular film, but overall, I’d say our differences generally related to the writing. As someone who’s very attentive to a film’s formal qualities, I’m pleased that, whatever our opinions are of any given film, all the narrative features being screened were technically proficient.
Let me ask you all: what portions of our programming do you see as pointing to any distinct thematic (or creatively/socially/politically) directions or trends?
ESEEL: I hope RICERCA by Yo-Yo Lin is a sign of more experimental and animation works to come.
ELAINE: If last year was the year of violent Korean films, this year, what stood out to me was Fukushima fallout documentaries, family stories that focused on women, and LGBT stories. With the coming election, perhaps next year’s films will be blowback from what the current election cycle looks like, or the rise of global terrorism.
CHANEL: The clearest direction can be observed in our documentary selection and our Special Presentations this year. Asian Pacific documentary filmmakers are rightly lauded and recognized for their work in effectively using documentaries to tell stories about APA/API experiences and history. This type of work must be continually renewed and cannot be replaced, especially as documentary films are enjoying a critical and popular spotlight in film culture today.
KRISTEN: I believe the influence of TYRUS and several of our experimental shorts point in the direction of “creative” over political. Although we can never get enough colorful storytelling, I wish we had more of a politically energized program, especially with this being an election season.
LINDY: In the documentary slate, I think we have gone all out with activist-driven, social justice-oriented works. They are among the strongest, most meaningful works, especially for the community it serves. It strikes into the heart of our core mission and values.
In the narrative slate, there is a balancing act going on between the tried and true, and the funky and experimental. I think also the aspirations to reach a broad demographic beyond the APA sphere are goals shared by many contemporary narrative filmmakers (and rightly so!).
In the international slate, we are full up on some accomplished pieces of arthouse cinema, especially in recent years, coming from Southeast Asia. I think I am particularly enamored of them because it is straight cinephilia love for me. In terms of genre fare, I feel like there is some exhaustion going on with already established “Asian” tropes, and we need more films to shake things up again. At least, this is what I have been seeing (or rather, not seeing). This is coming from someone who will watch a great genre film over a mediocre art film any day.
KIRBY: The documentaries in our program definitely pointed to thematic directions and trends, as they show perspectives of not only issues that are unknown to the masses, but issues that the masses are currently up in arms about today.
QUINCY: There’s a lot of how the exploration of individuals, self, and everyday life — the routine and normal — can reflect a greater political theme and journey via Justice, Art, Food, Home, LGBTQ, and other issues.
SO YUN: Our documentaries have always been political and about our identity. I think it’ll continue to stay that way, considering the amount of hurdles and injustices that we have all faced throughout time.
RYAN: The trend I see is both formal and thematic. I think the programmed docs show that the sprawling Wiki-doc format is truly a thing of the past, as filmmakers continued to narrow their focus in exploring one story, or one particular facet of a hot political issue or historical event. For example, BREATHIN’: THE EDDY ZHENG STORY is about one guy’s redemption, but also makes a larger point about a system that permits someone who grew up in the U.S. to be deported. OUT RUN focuses on a LGBT party seeking to gain legitimacy in the Philippines’ political system, even as it makes a broader point about the difficulty of effecting change in a fledgling democracy.
By narrowing the focus, filmmakers are able to find interesting stories from marginalized groups that would previously merit maybe five minutes in a traditional PBS-style documentary about Filipino politics or the American immigration system.
Just to follow up on the last question, would you say that a distinct thematic direction is more characteristic of the documentary selections or of the narratives?
ELAINE: Documentaries fall into whatever news story is trending. Narratives focused on women and LGBT stories.
LINDY: I would say the documentary selections, with its activist-driven, social justice-oriented works, dominates the slate.
KIRBY: The characteristics of the documentary selections have definitely more impact on the public, as they bring light to issues that many previously do not know but may be interested in afterwards. The characteristics of the narrative selections have more of a cerebral and internal effect on its audience as it provides a glimpse of an issue that we might be aware of, but were afraid to explore because it’s from within.
QUINCY: More on the documentary side.
SO YUN: Progression.
What do you think our program line-up tells Festival Week 2016 audiences, in terms of which filmmakers we find to be important to them? What can they take away from it?
ELAINE: A reflection of what is currently an “Asian” or “Asian Pacific American” story. These stories are varied. I’m curious to see what comes out of Malaysia or Singapore. The character studies that came out of the films we saw from that region were entertaining.
KRISTEN: Good question. I think the casting in several of these lineups addresses the movement of inclusion of Asian American actors (ie. FRESH OFF THE BOAT’s Randall Park, THE TIGER HUNTER’s Danny Pudi, etc.) “Don’t take us for granted” is how I read this year’s programming. We are a multifaceted festival with a damn good eye/heart/soul for quality cinema.
LINDY: I think we want to serve a broad demographic in terms of generations (immigrant, American-born, older, young) and cultures (Asian/American and especially for me, folks who are not Asian and don’t have a clear connection to the community). I feel like we have been making a good faith effort to be conscious of the potential audiences.
Our main mission is to showcase and cultivate filmmakers of Asian descent and color, from all walks of life, whether they are film schooled or self-taught and anywhere in between. That being said, we are always looking for those “intersections and polemics” to explore. To that effect, I think we are getting there.
KIRBY: Taking our place in the world — granted it’s such a generic phrase to say, but with so many flavors from our program selections — it was daunting to see so many perspectives from the cerebral to the external. Artists were intent to showcase their thematic muscles, no matter how miniscule the issue was, and that kind of gamble was the most inspiring to me.
QUINCY: Again: Relationships to family, love, and self, as well as handling loss and death.
SO YUN: I think audiences will take away that right now is a crucial time for us to create change and that there is progress being made. People will take away that they themselves can start creating their own stories just like many of these filmmakers have done.
Lately, it seems that the term “diversity” has been bandied about, especially in light of the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy. I wonder out loud if we, through our Festival Week programming this season, have assembled a line-up that offers our take on fully-dimensioned perspectives, visions, and representations…
ESEEL: I think so…most ESPECIALLY with Yo-Yo’s piece. I think that programming “shouts out” the APA talent pushing the boundary in new platforms. For me, I like that it’s a piece that challenges an audience. Something that encourages a critical conversation about the experience…not just “I like it”.
ELAINE: Beyond the #OscarSoWhite controversy, I’ve always thought the goal of the Film Festival was to create space that highlights Asian/APA filmmakers, since they weren’t being picked up by the Hollywood mainstream. With that in mind, that is why we program serious documentaries, touching narratives, and campy midnight films. So in short, yes, I think the line up reflects a fully-dimensioned perspective, vision, and representation. Could there be more? Absolutely.
CHANEL: In some ways, yes. This year’s films at LAAPFF (and, for that matter, all previously shown films at LAAPFF) indirectly address this issue of representation, but unfortunately, it cannot be said that they have successfully arrived at a way to communicate the depth and breadth of these issues, in a way that matches the vigorous polemics that they have recently become on social media. I am not too disappointed or worried about that, though; representation in cinema is a long game, and I believe that it’d be better for filmmakers to focus on their work and their passion rather than merely addressing it in a short-term / short-sighted way.
KRISTEN: I think we are beyond the Oscar’s white party. Our presence alone speaks volumes as we infiltrate White Hollywood, in the heart of SOCAL.
LINDY: I think so. We are woke. We are not an industry festival that would have a different mission and set of core values. Our community-based purview drives our programming efforts.
KIRBY: Thanks to the low bar set by this year’s Oscars, it would be almost too easy to not have fully-dimensioned perspectives, visions, and representations kind of programming, which I feel this Film Festival has accomplished quite well.
QUINCY: As someone who has put together two genre fiction programs, at least as far as representations and works, I think we have put together a program that reflects breadth and pluralism: that we don’t have to hit specific “ideal” representations — we just have to present a large body of work that conveys MANY different representations, interests, settings, character types, etc.
SO YUN: I think we have. There are so many of us with such distinct voices, it really shows a range of how big and vast the Asian-American community is.
RYAN: I’m proud of the Film Festival’s emphasis on female filmmakers, particularly in the Masters program. I think we also succeeded in capturing some of the diversity within the API community. Not only did the program feature diverse groups, spanning American Muslims, Indian Americans, Korean Americans, Cambodian Americans, among others, but we’re showcasing sides of Asian American life that we’re all familiar with, but have rarely seen on film. I’m talking about the Asian pothead, the Asian hip-hop enthusiast, and the Asian foodie.
Likewise, on the international front, we strove to broadly cover the Asian region. We were able to land excellent films from South Asia, East Asia, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia.
And one last question: suppose you were given the opportunity to assemble an “official” Film Festival 2016 mix CD. What ONE song could you not do without, and why? Only one, now…
ESEEL: Selena Gomez, “The Heart Wants What It Wants” …aka PALI ROAD
ELAINE: Kendrick Lamar, “Alright.”
LINDY: Warren G and Nate Dogg, “Regulate” (1994) featured on the film soundtrack, ABOVE THE RIM. All of us are trying to come together and work towards empowering our APA communities. We overcome personal agendas and obstacles in order to work as a collective. Together, we “regulate” against forces that want to tear us down. Also, it name checks the LBC and the 213, ‘hoods we circulate in and represent.
KIRBY: Joe Hisaishi, “Summer.” It’s quite melodic and surprisingly somber, maybe I’m too close to the song and the movie it’s featured in, but I feel it’s a good encapsulation of my time with the programming duties of the Film Festival.
QUINCY: Camera Obscura, “Honey in the Sun.”
Thank god none of you guys named any K-Pop songs. But then, Eseel, you selected Selena Gomez, which is kinda like K-Pop Chicana. Oh well. In any event, thank you all, and good night!
To see what our full program committee wants Festival Week audiences to not miss out on, please click here to find out what they recommend.