If filmmakers are society’s observers, then the new generation of North American Asian filmmakers has arrived just in time to document the absurd. Drawing out the inanities of war, family, romance, and the struggle against the white man, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival at the Cinemark Tinseltown this Thursday to Sunday (November 6 to 9) showcases more than 40 films in its 12th and edgiest year. “I’m just carrying on the tradition of insanity,” the festival’s new executive director, Don Montgomery, said by phone. He takes over the position from VAFF founder Barb Lee, and he also concurrently runs Vancouver’s Asian Heritage Month festival, ExplorASIAN.
There are no subtitles in this festival—really! Montgomery relays this message more than once, hoping to allay audience fears. But more than that, he explains that the festival’s focus is still largely misunderstood. “The majority of our films are made by contemporary filmmakers of Asian descent—in English.” The festival’s fare echoes the complexities of living between cultures, and most of the films are set in Canada or the U.S. Refreshingly, the casts, unlike those in most mainstream films, are predominantly Asian.
And although identity and racism still figure as common themes, Montgomery has noticed comedy taking over as the genre of choice. “These films”¦talk about identity, but maybe not the way they did five years ago. Now we’re kind of laughing at it. As far as the story goes, everyone can relate to the story. It’s the underdog”¦the guy that’s trying to impress the girl.”¦It happens to all of us.” Taking a large dose of Harold and Kumar–style self-parody is the opening night film, Ping Pong Playa, directed by Jessica Yu, who won an Oscar for her short film “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien”. In her new film, Jimmy Tsai plays C-Dub, a hip-hop-styled NBA wannabe who defends his family’s ping-pong legacy.
Offering less budget and more bite is Yellow Fellas, which screens Friday (November 7). Written and directed over the course of seven years by former Vancouverite Tetsuro Shigematsu, a CBC radio and TV host and writer, it was originally conceived as an Asian-Canadian Fight Club. By phone from his L.A. home, Shigematsu describes the indie as “a spoof of this sort of ’60s style fervour”¦of the Black Panthers—but these are the Yellow Panthers, and much less organized.” Still, the political humour shines through. It’s the kind of satire that comes out of keen observation of the majority and from knowing how one is perceived by it.
For a gritty gangster thriller, there’s the closing-night film, West 32nd, starring Vancouver’s Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica, Edgemont). Short films—including Julia Kwan’s “Smile”, Jason Karman’s “State of Yo”, and “Curse of the Jade Falcon” by Tracy D. Smith and Ian Tang (who won the festival’s Mighty Asian Movie-Making Marathon on September 6)—also take a dominant place in the festival schedule. By Montgomery’s assessment, more short films confirm the rise of new Asian filmmakers. He’s happy to provide them with the venue.