Ranking the 2016 Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Part 1
On the last day of the festival, a speaker from the Austin Film Society floated the idea that on a global heat-map of important cultural events, our auditorium in Austin would have been bright red during this festival. I think that’s true. We lucky few, perhaps a couple hundred in total, saw rarified imports that only audiences in New York and Los Angeles would normally see, as well as homegrown gems that would fit well with the world’s most feted fests. AAAFF just wrapped up its ninth year and still our little secret, but without a single dud in the lineup, it has cemented its status as the highest-quality and best-run film festival in Austin.
There were twelve features total. I’ll rank the first six today and the last six in my next post. Here’s the first half of the slate, beginning with my favorite. If you disagree, don’t worry – you can log on to Flickchart.com and rank them for yourself!
A thick blanket of atmosphere envelopes this Korean movie, a pervasive atmosphere of both intimacy and watchfulness that, for the characters, is both comforting and stifling. Two childhood sweethearts, who are also cousins, steal moments of tenderness during rare family gatherings. The boy is Taeik, called “Piggy” for his plumpness, and the girl is Yuri, the more impulsive of two sisters. More than ten years after their childhood meetings, the slimmer adult Taeik, now serving a stint in the military, and the older Yuri, now calling herself “Ari” and visiting home between semesters abroad, reunite; their electric chemistry during daytime sojourns and nighttime sleepovers ensures that the audience is solidly on their side even if their increasingly suspicious relatives are not. An AAAFF programmer compared the film to the television K-Dramas in which cultural taboos create obstacles to romance. It is interesting that although we collectively create and enforce these taboos, an observant and memory-rich movie about the chary loves of childhood and young adulthood can quickly make us root for transgressors.
You’ve heard it before, but I’ve got to trot it out again: per Roger Ebert, movies are machines for generating empathy. I know transgender people and I’ve wished for them to have the support they need and the rights they deserve, but until Finding Phong I’d never felt a specific empathy for the experience of being trapped in the wrong body. Anh Phong Le is a 30-something Vietnamese person with a video camera and an urgent problem. Phong is a bright, sensitive, outgoing person, but s/he is depressed and wants to be happy, and that happiness is dependent upon being perceived and treated as a woman. Phong’s sensibilities as an autobiographer are impeccable, and the documentary is superbly-edited as we follow Phong’s journey along the spectrum from “he” to “she.” A scene in which the Vietnamese-speaking Phong and a Thai-speaking doctor communicate slowly, carefully, but successfully, in English, about a delicate physical and social issue is an eye-opening moment that speaks volumes about where we are as a global society. Phong’s supportive friends, and more reluctantly-supportive family, are almost as sharply-conveyed and compelling as Phong; by the end of the documentary, her 80-something father was an audience favorite.
Though he only worked for the studio for three years and contributed to just one animated feature (Bambi), his beautiful concept art was enough to make Tyrus Wong a Disney legend. Yet if you think it was easy for a Chinese-born man to attend art school and pursue a career in movies in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, you don’t know American history. Featuring interviews with the 105-year-old Wong, his children and associates, and animation historians, Tyrus covers a century’s worth of history from the “Ellis Island of the West” where Tyrus arrived, to the war years that fractured California’s burgeoning Oriental art community, to the racial barriers of Hollywood’s studio system (Disney, for example, didn’t properly credit him for his Bambi concepts, and he was always among the first to be fired or farmed out during studio slumps.) Tracing Wong’s post-Disney creative output right up to the present, the documentary serves as a comprehensive visual gallery of his diverse and gorgeous work.
4. Mele Murals
Hawai’i may be part of the United States and a crossroads for immigrants from the four regions it lies between (Asia, North and South America, Oceania), but it is also an island, and island cultures are sui generis. Not far below the surface of the island’s diverse cultural life is a distinctly Hawai’ian cultural base, a base constituted of native gods and a native language, and a concerted effort is underway to expose Hawai’ian children to those parts of their heritage that are Hawai’ian. That effort extends to a populist, hyper-public, yet often-overlooked art form: graffiti. Two taggers from the hip-hop-influenced ‘80s street scene, Prime and Estria, have honed their craft to an incomparable level and now take their talents from the city of Honolulu to the rural Big Island. There they help school students conceive and execute a massive spray-painted mural that honors Hawai’ians’ connection to water, land, and history. Prime and Estria, as well as some of the students and community figures featured, have strong emotional through-lines that make this documentary as much about the creators of art as about the deep meaning of their creations.
The Stoner Buddy Comedy is a genre whose stash ought to be depleted after arguably too many Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow movies, but Tanuj Chopra’s largely-improvised trip-out flick about two friends getting high and eating pizza proves the contrary. Grass is, start to finish, a funny, truthful, and gorgeous movie that takes cues from the likes of Clerks without being beholden to other filmmakers’ visions. Chopra uses just the right amount of psychedelic visuals to enhance, not overwhelm, the story of two women who work out big and small problems over the course of eight or ten foggy-headed hours in a sunny urban park. They think and talk like high people, elevating the mundane to the cosmic, talking in tangents as well as in circles, but co-stars Emily Chang and Pia Shah stay tethered to their characters’ relatable emotional centers. The film lacks a satisfying solution to its original quandary – whether to deliver the weed to an unknown and potentially-risky buyer – but the journey justifies the destination.
The documentary buries the lede, but I’ll go ahead and spoil it, because I think it’s important to know the full story: the leader of “Men of Korea,” a South Korean political party/advocacy group that criticizes feminism and fights anti-child-pornography laws in the name of “men’s sexual libido,” killed himself to bring attention to his cause. The documentary traces his path to that end by watching his shrill public speeches and capturing his abusive interactions with his staff, all of whom seem to suffer from various kinds of personality disorders. It’s a sad documentary about sad people. It’s not a great movie, unfortunately, any more than the subjects are the great people they believe themselves to be; the editing in The Wolf Mask leaves quite a bit to be desired, and its monotonous pace threatens to obscure the story arcs. The incredible access the documentarians had, though, makes this a revealing glimpse into a potentially-dangerous, if low-simmering and far from popular, Asian alt-right movement.
The Best Thing I Didn’t See
I caught every feature, but unfortunately I missed the narrative shorts program. AAAFF runs shorts in front of every feature, though, so I did get to see some fun ones, including Golden Golden (a non-linear arthouse short) and A Tribute to Sab Shimono (a darkly funny collection of clips from the well-known Asian-American actor).
Check back soon for the final part of our AFF coverage! It includes two new prestige Japanese titles, so you won’t want to miss it.