Hidden Histories Revealed at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
"My father's ideal is
for me to marry a Chinese guy...and become a doctor," confesses Miss Los
Angeles Chinatown contestant Priscilla Tjio. "Neither of which is coming
Priscilla's Asian-American angst is captured
in the new documentary Yours Truly,
Miss Chinatown, which premiered this past May at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival,
produced and presented by Visual Communications. Like most of the docs in
the fest's lineup, Miss Chinatown was inspired by filmmaker Daisy Lin
Shapiro's drive to get to the bottom of her own Asian-American story.
A beauty pageant might seem like a frivolous
subject, but to a shrewd filmmaker, it reveals themes running below the
surface. As Shapiro tells us early in her film, "Miss Chinatown" pageants
sprung up in the 1950s as a PR move to head off America's less-than-flattering
Cold War impressions of the Chinese. But the weight of that job was put on the
contestants, who were asked to hit a mysterious note that fell somewhere
between the non-threatening traditions of Chinese modesty and the
we're-so-modern 1950s American va-va-va-voom.
The pageants were campy from the start. But
they were also a tremendous source of pride in every Chinese-American enclave
in the country, and as Shapiro's film shows, remain a source of pride to this
day for the contestants and every member of the Chinese-American Chamber of
Commerce backing the events.
Shapiro should know. As the daughter of a Chamber
of Commerce sponsor, she sat front and center at the LA pageants from the time
she was a tot-which, as Shapiro said in her Q&A, left her "conflicted. You
want to be true to yourself...but you also want to be a good daughter, you want
to be true to your heritage."
So it's no surprise that Shapiro (today an
Emmy-winning news producer at LA's KNBC) starts out Miss Chinatown in
good humor with giddy shots of contestants stifling giggles as stern
instructors tell them how to walk, talk, sit and be "appropriate in any
situation." But before long, her
subjects reveal just how hard it is to keep their balanced wearing those
pageant heels. Priscilla struggles for Dad's approval of her mixed-race
romance. Her fellow contestant, Celeste,
struggles with being mixed-race. Meanwhile, outspoken performance artist
Kristina Wong offers up "Fannie," a whisky-swilling, cigar-chomping send-up she
calls "Miss Chinatown Runner-Up." As Wong says in the film, "Fannie is who I
would have been, had I ever run for the Miss Chinatown pageant."
Then the story goes deeper, following its
subjects past the pageant crowning to the consequences of real-world
choices...with scenes that will bring a tear to your eye.
The Hoang family face their divided past on a return
their homeland from where they had escaped decades before. From Doan Huang's Oh, Saigon,
which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the
Film Festival. Courtesy of Doan Hoang.
Scratching away at the surface like this, digging down for
the personal story, however raw, is a theme of nearly every doc that screened
in this year's festival. Oh, Saigon,
winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best
Documentary Feature, is Vietnamese-born director Doan Hoang's brutally
honest record of her attempt to redefine a crucial day in her family's history:
April 30, 1975. On this day, Hoang and her family were in Vietnam. Saigon had
fallen. The US was conducting
civilian airlifts, but after this day, there would be no more airlifts, no way
out of Saigon. Somehow, Hoang's father managed
to get her family out on the last US
helicopter leaving Saigon. But to do so, he had
to leave behind a child, Hoang's half-sister. Twenty-five years later, Hoang
tries to heal the scars left on her family since that day. Cameras in tow, she
leads them back to Vietnam
for what she hopes will be the ultimate reunion.
In Wings of Defeat, Japanese-American
filmmaker Risa Morimoto investigates her own family's wartime taboo: her
uncle's role as a kamikaze. With a head full of modern-day questions, Morimoto
first interviews her reluctant family, then surviving kamikazes, and finally
pieces together the human story behind this desperate tactic.
Long Story Short, winner of the
festival's Audience Award for Best Documentary, follows actress Jodi Long, the film's subject and writer, as she hunts
for artifacts from her divorced parents' long lost history as a successful
song-and-dance team. Directed by Christine Choy (NYU professor and director of
the Oscar-nominated doc Who Killed Vincent Chin), Long Story Short
also took home the festival's feature Honorable Mention award.
From Christine Choy's Long Story Short,
which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the
Up the Yangtze, awarded a Special
Jury Prize, is writer/director
Yung Chang's poetic take on the dramatic impact of China's Three Gorges Dam
project. The massive dam promises to power a modern China, yet its impact on the
ancient Yangtze marks the end of many cultures living on its banks. Inspired by
a luxury Yangtze cruise he took with his grandfather, Chang turns one of the
Yangtze "Farewell Cruise" ships as a set piece, floating past villages doomed
to succumb to the Yangtze's rising waters for the drama between an encroaching
West and ancient East of Yangtze workers.
The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is one of many
projects produced by LA's Visual
Communications, the nation's oldest Asian American media center. "The organization
provides a place for our filmmakers to grow and to be nurtured," says
co-director David Magdael. "VC provides educational opportunities through
classes and workshops, exhibition opportunities through the film festival and
screenings throughout the year, resource building and networking through its
membership, and financial support through fiscal sponsorship. The goal of VC is to support and build a strong community of storytellers."
VC not only offers documentarians nicely priced workshops
taught by industry pros, but it also houses California's largest archive of Asian film
VC's Los Angeles
Asian Pacific Film Festival, which this year screened 160 films for an
estimated audience of 10,000, is one of the country's biggest ethnic-based
festivals and also proved to be a welcome place. "Documentaries have been a mainstay at the
Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival for the past 24 years," says Magdael. "Asian
Pacific filmmakers have been a strong and recognizable force in the documentary
genre of filmmaking for a long time." He cites the festival's history of
screening filmmakers like Jessica Yu, Frieda Lee Mock, Arthur Dong, Steven
Okazaki, Spencer Nakasako, Loni Ding and Christine Choy.
Elizabeth Blozan's latest film is Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly. www.rebelbeat.com.