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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

A better tomorrow

Familiar faces and true stories on the big screen

"It's not Asia, and it's not America either."

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This was the astute observation of a viewer coming out of a screening at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which ended March 14.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the 10-day festival drew huge crowds, consisting largely of those people who were indeed neither Asian or American but a bit of both: Asian-Americans. SFIAAFF is not the only festival of its kind (New York, Los Angeles and Chicago also host similar events), but the Bay Area provides an appropriate backdrop: One of out four people is Asian, a man named Jeff Adachi is running for district attorney and a large number of the films were screened at a theater called AMC Kabuki, conveniently located in the city's Japan Town.

Sponsored by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, the festival has grown in fame and scale -- from just 13 titles for its first program in 1982 to the 134 films of this year's event.

To celebrate its origins as well as the future, the festival has adopted a "20 years forward, 20 years back" perspective that showcased contemporary titles along with past landmark films, such as "Flower Drum Song" (1961) and "Chan Is Missing," the first Asian-American production to get national distribution.

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SFIAAFF director Chi-hui Yang

"It's a chance to look forward to the stories and talents to come and to look back at the people who built the foundations," explained SFIAAFF director Chi-hui Yang.

This year the emphasis was on on commercially viable works that speak not only to the Asian-American community but also to mainstream America.

Clarisse Ann Wong, who studies filmmaking at U.C. Berkley and has been coming to the festival for the past three years, said she can see the changes. "The quality just gets better all the time, more contemporary and diverse with edgy, here-and-now stories that we can relate to."

And what exactly are Asian-American issues? Compared to other minorities, these have been difficult to pinpoint, largely because of the number and diversity of the various Asian communities. And despite incidents such as the Japanese internment camps and anti-immigration laws against Chinese, Asian-Americans have seldom united in a display of political solidarity.

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Documentary filmmaker Louise Lo

"The idea of Asian-Americans is a strange one since the Asians who immigrated didn't think of themselves like that," explained Louise Lo, director of the acclaimed documentary "The Floating World: Masami Teraoka and His Art." "They were too busy trying to survive, bringing their families over, etc. The term was arbitrary and a state of mind. But over the years it became very real. Asians have learned that they have the bond of common struggles, common aspirations."

Still, that community -- however broad it may be -- needs more voices. "The fact is, Asian-American artists don't get much exposure simply because there aren't a great number of them," Lo said. "They are high achievers, but a lot of them don't choose the arts as a profession."

Risa Morimoto, director of the Asian American Film Festival in New York, would agree. Morimoto grew up in the States, did her graduate studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto and, at one point, considered a career with the United Nations. "But now that I've chosen to go into film, I'm the black sheep in my family," she said. "When you're an Asian-American, everyone automatically assumes you're going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a financial consultant . . ."

But all the evidence points to the fact that more Asian-Amercians want to get involved in the media or arts because there is a definite need.

Members of the older generation, such as 62-year-old Mike Yoshimoto, fondly recall the appearance of the 1961 musical "Flower Drum Song" -- Hollywood's first gala Asian-American production. "It was the first time we saw familiar faces on a big screen," Yoshimoto said. And though he said he has seen it 50 times since, he was just as excited to see its tribute screening at the festival.

"People want to see themselves and their communities," explained Yang. "It's as simple as that."

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Justin Lin, director of "Better Luck Tomorrow"

Whether such stories can and should translate into something with a larger market appeal has always been a subject for debate. It's true that they're compelling tales of particular experiences but, admittedly, they may speak more to people who actually have ties to such experiences. Will their messages reach a larger audience -- and are Asian-American filmmakers interested in doing so?

"I think that's our goal, to reach out to the widest audience possible," Morimoto said. "But maybe we start out with wanting to share ourselves with other Asian-Americans or get their approval. Family approval is so important [in our culture]."

Case in point: Filmmaker Wayne Wang, who debuted at SFIAAFF with "Chan Is Missing" in 1981 and went on to score a hit with "The Joy Luck Club," helmed films that had no Asian themes whatsoever.

Maybe a sign of things to come could be seen in "Better Luck Tomorrow," the festival's biggest draw this year (which also happened to be the first Asian-American work picked up by MTV). Directed by Justin Lin, the film dissects a universal topic -- teenage boredom -- in its story about overachieving Asian-American kids in Los Angeles who find diversion in cheating, theft and, finally, murder.

At the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, an angry viewer asked Lin whether he didn't feel "a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community," to which Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times replied: "You would never make a comment like that to a white filmmaker."

Lin said that such a dialogue was exactly what he was hoping for: "I wanted people to talk. I didn't want to be the a voice for the community, but to depict reality among teenagers of any race."

Still, Asian-American filmmakers are often defined by their portrayals of their communities. "When you're a minority you never forget it," Lo said. "You're always questioning who you are because you live in a world where you don't really belong."

When Lo first visited China she was delighted -- "Everyone looked like me!" she said. But that feeling quickly dissipated when she realized that the Chinese pegged her right away as an outsider from the U.S. "In the end, where we belong is with other Asian-Americans. So those of us in the media are apt to try and explain this sense of belonging."

As Abraham Ferrer, who co-directs an Asian-American film festival in Los Angeles, put it: "Our communities have matured enough to create and accept real stories about who we are. And the more such stories are repeated the more mainstream America will have the chance to see the depth and scope of how we live."

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