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Asian American International Film Festival

By Gordon Hitchens

A black-and-white photo of Asian-American toddlers from 'Something Strong Within', a film directed and edited by Robert A. Nakamura, produced and written by Karen L. Ishizuka.

Now in its 19th year, the Asian American International Film Festival took place July 19-28 at the Alliance Française, a New York City cultural landmark. Produced annually by Asian Cinevision, a national not-for-profit media arts center headquartered in New York's Chinatown, the AAI FF screens new films by or about Asians and Asian­ Americans. Programs later tour to Miami, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Honolulu, other cities.

Of AAIFF's fifty titles, a significant minority were documentaries. The Gate of Heavenly Peace (88 min.), by Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, about the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989, is well-known and needs no summary here. Hinton, born in China to American parents, was educated there, and Chinese is her first language. She has taught at Wellesley, Swarthmore, Middlebury, received a Rockefeller Fellowship, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. Partner and husband Richard Gordon has shot and/or pro­duced numerous films, several with his wife, and has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships.

Also known here is Synthetic Pleasures, by Iara Lee. Her film is a roller-coaster excursion through cyronics, virtual reality, plastic beauty, biotechnology, mood-altering drugs, all in 83 minutes. We enter this new world escorted by a Japanese Cyborg and soon are puzzled as to what is real and what artificial. Catapulted through digitally­ simulated city scapes, we pause to contemplate a Japanese beach-under-a-bubble, complete with controlled sunlight and ersatz surf—but the bathers are real (we presume). Who is to say that we will enjoy ourselves less within this manufactured, sanitized and programmed Mother Nature?

Iara Lee is Korean born, raised in Brazil and was for years a programmer for the São Paulo Festival. In New York since 1989, she has degrees from New York University in film and philosophy and has directed three shorts. She is active in producing exchange events among the U.S., Brazil and Korea.

Halving the Bones (72 min.), by Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury, concerns the disputed ownership of a can of old bones, those of her Japanese grandmother, found by Lounsbury in her closet. Now then, what to do with these bones? Family disagreements and separations are rehashed ironically, invoking ancient memories. Who in the family gets custody of the bones? How are they to be shared?

Summa cum laude from Smith in Asian studies and English, Liunsbury received a Ministry of Education Fellowship, emigrated to Japan, then returned to the U.S. and a career in television. Her first film, Body of Correspondence, won in the New Vision category at the 1995 San Francisco Film and Video Festival.

When Mother Comes Home for Christmas (109 min.) concerns a Sri Lankan woman forced by poverty to leave her family, for work as a domestic in Athens, a fate shared by 70% of all Sri Lankan women. In a German/Greek co­ production by Nilita Vachani, the mother is delighted to be allowed to return briefly to visit her children—after eight years. That homecoming is soured by demands and rivalries among her daughters, who can not but regard her as almost a stranger, despite her eight years of bank drafts, letters and gifts from Greece.

Producer-director Vachani studied English at Delhi University, has a Masters in communications from the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, and an M.A. in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago. Her debut film, Eyes of Stone, won seven international awards.

The title characters in The Women Outside are estranged and rejected by society and their families—they are prostitutes servicing U.S. military personnel in South Korea. Our government and Korea's collaborate to control the set-up this big profits for somebody, but not for the women. Sleeping and working within special districts near American camps, some are positioned in brothels, some in bars and nightclubs. It's a degrading life, for small change and with little chance to escape, a common fate among poor uneducated females in Korea. But a few find marriage with G.I.'s and return with them to the U.S., where again they are estranged by language and culture. Some are brutalized by their husbands. A few even find loving homes.

The Women Outside (60 min.) is co­-produced and co-directed by the Japanese J.T. Takagi and the Korean Hye Jung Park. Both women have significant credits as film/video activists. Park co-produced Until Daybreak, co-curated Echoes of Discontent, a film/video series of political media from South Korea and the Philippines. She was Associate Pro­ducer of Home Apart: Korea; is active in several media centers—Downtown Community Television Center (New York) and the Seoro Korean Cultural Network; she is on the boards of the Media Network and the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. Her colleague J.T. Takagi directed Homes Apart: Korea, Special Grand Jury Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival; directed Community Plot, first prize, short, at the Amiens Festival; and directed Bittersweet Survival, Merit Award, Athens (Greece) Festival. Twice a Fellow of the New York Foundation for the Arts, active teacher and lecturer at New York universities, she works also with the Korean Working Group and with the Organization of Asian Women.

At AAIFF, two films were combined as "Rethinking the Philippines." Spirits Rising (58min.) combines history and popular mythology to evoke the story of that nation from the perspective of its women. The Filipino family had been traditionally matriarchal, but a patriarchal Spanish and then American domination was superimposed atop. Contradictions, tensions, family disunity ensued, exacerbated today by the media and economic changes that have awakened the Filipino women and have compelled them to re­examine their status and to assert themselves.

Previous films of producer/director Ramona Diaz, Exits and In Residence, have been screened internationally. Earlier, she line-produced and edited an award-winning, 24-part television documentary series in the Philippines about their immigrants working in Europe and America. Diaz graduated from Emerson College and received an M.A. in communications from Stanford.

Bontoc Eulogy (57 min.), the second half of "Rethinking the Philippines," looks at history and identity, centering on the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Americans then had just done their "bridge to the future"—the 20th century had begun, and millions came to the Fair to be dazzled by electric lights and other marvels. A look back at savagery (elsewhere) was in order: thus 1,100 "tribal natives" of the Philippines were rounded up, shipped to Missouri and displayed as half-naked anthropological "specimens." The Fair's Philippine Exhibit created great curiosity among scholars, the public, too, and perhaps some took pride that we as civilized Christians were far above such barefooted scrawny natives. Thus, Bontoc Eulogy investigates history and the concept of "the Other."

A photographer for many years, producer/writer/director/editor Marlon Fuentes has been shown in over sixty solo and group exhibitions, including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the national Museum of American History. His earlier film is the award-winning Sleep With Open Eyes.

Among these seven long documentaries, women predominated in the highest creative capacities. This visibility of women was characteristic of AAIFF's fiction films as well. Most titles were U.S. or New York premieres; several were world premieres. Asian Cine Vision maintains year-round film and video workshops, screening sessions, production services, an archival film library and publications. Funding is from the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and from numerous foundations, private corporations and individuals.

GORDON HITCHENS is founder of Film Comment and served as edilor for the magazine’s first seven years; he is also a Variety stringer and has reviewed more than 200 films for the newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world.