Among the more than 200 features and shorts set to unspool at this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival are over a dozen by Southern California filmmakers and two dozen by international female filmmakers. Running Thursday through May 10, the festival’s 35th edition promises an array of world and area premieres of Asian and Asian American works, tributes to artists of screens big and small, and some feisty conversation.
“The opening and closing night offerings are both world premieres … written and directed by two female Asian Pacific American (also Filipina American) filmmakers,” says co-director David Magdael, who has worked on 23 editions of the festival presented by Asian American and Pacific Islander media artist organization Visual Communications since 1997. “Opening night — ‘Yellow Rose’ — written and directed by Diane Paragas, and closing night — ‘Empty by Design’ — written and directed by Andrea Walter, are both [from] first-time feature directors with a base of producers and actors who are Asian Pacific American and Asian international.”
Among the many others Magdael spotlights are “centerpiece films” “Ms. Purple” by Justin Chon (“Gook”), which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and Emily Ting’s “Go Back to China,” which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival.
The films and filmmakers “share the common theme of not waiting for someone to greenlight them in Hollywood,” says Magdael. “Instead, they … created these films and created opportunities for artists and film crews.”
Executive director Francis Cullado rattles off those and other big gets from Sundance, SWSX and Tribeca and adds, “I’m excited about [Tribeca title] ‘Plus One’ because of Maya Erskine of ‘PEN15’ and am looking forward to seeing [Sundance breakout] ‘Blinded by the Light’ again.”
One of the festival’s tributes will spotlight the Margaret Cho sitcom “All-American Girl,” which debuted in 1994 on ABC. It was the first network show to star an Asian American family and the last for decades.
Cho says, “It was 25 years ago, and it’s only recently that we’ve been seeing more Asian faces in mainstream entertainment with ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ ”
The comedienne has detailed publicly (and hilariously, in her jaw-dropping standup film, “I’m the One That I Want”) how members of the Korean American community disapproved of the way she represented them and how the network tried to defang her comedy and smooth over her image — to her physical detriment — in its efforts to sell the show. ABC gave up on the show after 19 episodes.
“The problem was they were trying to make it as ‘authentic’ as possible, which is a strange requirement they don’t have of other comics’ shows,” she says. “They brought in ‘experts’ to make sure everything we did was ‘authentic.’ It was very weird, trying to make those adjustments.
“I appreciated the effort, but then when it didn’t do so well, they said, ‘OK we tried it, we tried it’ … and there wasn’t another one for a long time.”
One of the more intriguing films in this year’s lineup is “Vai,” directed by eight women, in which the protagonist is played by eight actresses at various chapters of her life (moving the settings among different Pacific countries). Each entry is shot as a single, unbroken take steeped in the cultures and traditions of its location — or clashes inherent with its protagonist there.
Marina Alofagia McCartney, whose Samoan segment finds Vai in her 40s, says: “The Samoan piece is a reflection of my own insecurities about being a diasporic New Zealand-born Samoan/Geordie and how this affects my connection to Samoa and Samoan culture. … The piece weaves together my experiences, influences, thoughts and hopes with those of … other women and matriarchs in my family.”
Mīria George’s vignette depicts 30-year-old Vai finding her voice as an activist in the Cook Islands. Of seeing all the pieces put together, the director says: “The gravity of what we’d done began to sink in — the first feature film written, directed and produced by Pacific women was being made. … We had control of a narrative that depicted Pacific women as complex people who were from many different contexts throughout Oceania.”
The festival also promises a lively, no-holds-barred conversation between Emmy-winning indie filmmaker Spencer Nakasako and Visual Communications stalwart Walt Louie, an editor and a professor at Santa Monica College. Louie says both men are opinionated.
“It’s pretty free-flowing,” he said of the evening’s plan. Nakasako “has written to me a few questions he wants to talk about. ‘What have we accomplished as Asian Americans — is it really better?’ I told him, ‘Bring it on! Jam me up!’ He and I have a really good relationship. His attitude about things — some people fear him, I swear. If there’s an ‘Angry Asian Man,’ it’s Spencer. He’s the funniest, most caustic person, and he’s also very loud.”
Louie acknowledges the cultural importance of the success of Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” but says, “It’s a rom-com, but dammit — this was not his first film,” lamenting that the box-office breakthrough film for Asians wasn’t more intellectually or sociopolitically substantial.
Louie says of Asian representation on-screen today, “My first question is always, ‘Am I embarrassed?’ With so many of these shows and films, I think, ‘Well, at least that wasn’t embarrassing to watch.’ ”
Representation is an unavoidable theme at the festival.
Magdael says, “For our LAAPFF, this is a crucial and important moment. It is really up to us as an Asian Pacific American community to support our artists and their work, and the festival is a great way to see who these new and talented storytellers and artists are ... so that we can tell our stories [rather than] some ‘whitewashed’ version of what someone else thinks our stories should be.”
The 35th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
When: Thursday through May 10
Where: 341 FSN; Aratani Theatre @ JACCC – Little Tokyo; Aratani Central Hall at the Japanese American National Museum; Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy; the Downtown Independent; Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood; and Regal L.A. LIVE
Tickets and info: festival.vcmedia.org or (213) 680-4462