It's been a while since there's been an Asian North American box-office hit. The Joy Luck Club, The Wedding Banquet, and Snow Falling on Cedars were all from the '90s. Indie successes like Better Luck Tomorrow and Eve and the Fire Horse (by Vancouver's Julia Kwan) have been few and far between over the past decade. Other filmmakers of Asian descent (Jessica Yu, In the Realms of the Unreal; Cary Fukunaga, Sin Nombre), have established themselves by tackling subjects unrelated to their heritage.
The most consistent local source for such works remains the Vancouver Asian Film Festival, which runs from November 5 to 8 at the Cinemark Tinseltown (88 West Pender Street). Unlike other local events that showcase films from Asia, VAFF emphasizes stories by and about Asian Canadians and Americans.
“Really, this is only time in any given year that people would be able to see any of this,” VAFF director Peter Leung says in an interview at City Square. “Unfortunately, some of this stuff won't make it to broadcast TV or distribution isn't going to reach them, or if they do, they're only going to play a week or two. And so if your radar isn't set”¦you're never going to bump into any of these.”
Leung has watched the evolution of Asian North American filmmaking during his six years with VAFF. “I think the stories are a lot more refined now, whereas before it was very hit-you-over-the-head with their identity issues”¦.In the past, they [filmmakers] only did their first film and never did another one. But now we're seeing that the stories—though they're still identifiably Asian—are about more personal conflicts or issues or humour.”
Identity sometimes takes a back seat to a thematic thread running through this year's 13th annual edition: lost children.
In the opening feature, Tze Chun's compelling debut drama, Children of Invention, a financially strapped single immigrant mother, enmeshed in an illegal American pyramid scheme, goes missing, and her two resourceful children are literally left to their own devices. Similarly, in Li Tong, one of the festival's few dramas set in Asia, an eight-year-old girl in Beijing becomes waylaid when she has to walk home after losing her bus pass.
Identity politics are inherent in Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam, a documentary following up on orphans who were controversially airlifted out of war-torn South Vietnam during the 1970s.
Conversely, the ethnicity of the subject in the documentary Whatever It Takes remains inconsequential. The film chronicles Chinese American Edward Tom, who leaves his soulless executive job to become a high-school principal in the troubled South Bronx, with mixed reception from students and faculty.
Leung says VAFF chose the film for its inspirational example. “There are those stereotypes or stories that Asians don't tend to gravitate toward big leadership positions,” he adds. A female equivalent is presented in Family Inc., in which New York filmmaker Emily Ting documented herself after her father asked her to become CEO of her family's floundering Hong Kong toy company.
Cultural heritage does loom large in the locally shot Dim Sum Funeral, about four feuding siblings reuniting at their mother's traditional Chinese funeral in Seattle. The ensemble cast boasts Russell Wong (The Joy Luck Club), Bai Ling (Anna and the King), Kelly Hu (X-Men 2), Vancouver's Steph Song (jPod), Franí§oise Yip, and Chang Tseng.
Leung explains that mass market–oriented films like these have always sold out at the festival. “Regionally, I think Vancouver has always tended to be a little bit more of a commercial type of an audience. Our counterparts in Toronto [Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival] have much more of an experimental angle that they like to focus on.”
Accordingly, the closing film, The People I've Slept With, by Montreal-raised VAFF alum Quentin Lee (“0506HK”), mixes Sex and the City with Will & Grace in a progressive sex comedy about a carnally adventurous Asian American woman who, along with her gay buddy, tries to figure out who impregnated her.
But the double-edged sword of commercially successful works that incorporate racial stereotypes, compounded by generational divides, will be examined. The first documentary made by VAFF, Flower, Drum and Songs: More Than a Musical, recorded Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre mounting the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1958 musical Flower Drum Song this past year. It'll be accompanied by a panel discussion, including VACT cofounder and artistic producer Joyce Lam.
Addressing history is important to Leung. “There was all that stuff that was happening in the'50s and'60s, and I know that those stories are going to die with our parents and grandparents, and I don't know if we've successfully documented or told or passed along those kinds of things,” he laments. He hopes, however, that his work with VAFF will help in some way. “At this film festival every year, I get a small hand in trying to preserve some of that, or trying to ferret out those emotional bits. And maybe other people will respond to that.”