THE FACE of Asian American cinema is changing. Just ask David Magdael, co-director of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. "I've been doing this for 11 years," he says. "The first year, I knew everybody. . . . Last year, I looked around at the film festival on opening night, and there's 800 to 1,000 people. I didn't know most of the people there."
Now in its 24th year, the festival -- which begins tonight at the Directors Guild of America and continues at various venues till next Thursday -- offers an overview of Asian and Asian American cinema's burgeoning culture, featuring more than 160 films and topics that include Japanese manga ("The Machine Girl," Saturday); social strictures in modern-day Indonesia ("Chants of Lotus," Sunday); and Harold and Kumar (the "Escape From Guantanamo Bay" screenwriters and star John Cho will appear in a panel on Saturday).
One of this year's highlights is female filmmakers. "Every year, when we go through the selection process, I just start looking at what pops out, in terms of what the mix is," Magdael says. "When we pulled everything together, it was the women's voices that stood out. There were so many of them, and they were all so different."
Tonight's opening film is "Ping Pong Playa," a comedy about a Chinese American NBA wannabe who finds out he's better suited to table tennis. It's the first narrative feature from Oscar-winning documentarian Jessica Yu.
"We're so excited about opening this festival, because it's home, and over the years we've had films at the festival and a lot of involvement," Yu says. "The film is shot in Los Angeles and visually and culturally refers to Los Angeles, so we thought there would be a lot of connection there."
Other showcased films include the martial arts-themed "The Sensei" (Sunday), from local stuntwoman-turned-writer-director D. Lee Inosanto, as well as "Never Forever" (Friday), an interracial love triangle between a Caucasian woman and two Korean men (to be released May 9 in L.A.).
"I wanted to really subvert the stereotype of Asian men [in the U.S.] . . . and focus on Asian men's sexuality," says "Forever" writer-director Gina Kim. "That issue isn't really often talked about in this country. There are only stereotypes, like a computer genius who wears glasses, or poor immigrant guys that don't speak English very well."
Indeed, presenting different perspectives seems to be key here. "We are, as a culture, now in a place where we can accept ourselves as artists," Magdael ventures. "Before, it was a matter of [being] a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. But I think that's changing. We need people who know our stories to tell those stories. Who better than ourselves to tell our own stories?"
And perhaps those who see the stories will be inspired to talk about them as well.
"With any small film, especially independent film that has an Asian American theme to it and no bankable stars, the word of mouth is so important," Yu says. "I think that this festival is a huge part of getting the word of mouth going, especially in the Los Angeles area."
LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL
WHERE: Various locations in West Hollywood and downtown L.A.
WHEN: Today-next Thursday
PRICE: $8-$10, screenings; $12-$15, seminars; $24-$100, opening night; $16-$20, closing night
INFO: (213) 680-4462, Ext. 68; vconline.org/festival