July 12, 2008

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 true."

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 trip to Vietnam, 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 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Courtesy of Doan Hoang.

The Hoang family face their divided past on a return trip to Vietnam, 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 Los Angeles Asian Pacific 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 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

From Christine Choy's Long Story Short, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

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 festival 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 and photography.

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.

 

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