Collaged screenshots of a cat stepping onto the keyboard of a laptop whose black screen bears the white Reel Asian 25 logo. In some of the screenshots, the image is deep fried and multicoloured.
Abandoned attempts at editing a photo of a cat stepping on the keyboard of a laptop whose black screen bears the white RA25 logo. Sometimes the photo enters another multicoloured dimension, where I’m fine if it stays

BRIGHT SCREENS IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD:

TACLA
taclanese

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Confronting a Virtual Reel Asian

by Hannah Polinski

This essay is published as part of the Youth Critics Initiative III, a collaborative mentorship incubator between the 25th Reel Asian Film Festival and TACLA.

As Bong Joon-Ho opened the 74th Festival de Cannes in the summer of 2021, the Festival’s first return since the start of the pandemic, the film industry breathed a sigh of relief. People rejoiced that cinema was back, but Bong specified that “maybe the festival had a break, but cinema never stopped.”

For film enthusiasts like myself, movies have never been on pause. As the pandemic raged outside, people spent lockdowns and their strange aftermath living within their screens, catching up on long film watchlists or binging every show that Netflix was tripping over itself to release.

Image of a laptop on a bed in a dark room, featuring a man dancing with the title ISLANDS displayed across it. A small amount of light filters in the window, and green digital lettering appears between the light of the window and laptop.
My dark bedroom is illuminated by two things: one is my laptop screen showing a man dancing with the title ISLANDS superimposed on top of it, and the other is a window looking onto leaves. Each presents a portal to a different world than I currently occupy in my room. Green Matrix-like lettering settles gently between them like snow, or perhaps static.

Reel Asian 25 rolls around a few months after Cannes and the festival is primarily online except for an in-person opening night. Until now, I had refrained from participating in any virtual events, finding the digital-social world a strange sphere for which I don’t have the proper scripts. For one, I don’t have a TV. I don’t mind watching movies on my laptop, but a film festival seems to command a greater sense of scale than my 13-inch screen can handle. Secondly, virtual events require being on camera, navigating the gray-zoned silence as everyone awkwardly wonders who will speak first. In person, we could have just filed into the cinema silently, pretending to be unaware, yet enjoying our mutual presence.

But the coronavirus doesn’t give me that option, so instead I set up an easy password for RA25’s online screening platform, log onto the system and sync up my viewing of Martin Edralin’s ISLANDS to match the in-person premiere. I later find out that opening night suffers technical issues with 30 minutes left, halting the screening and leaving the audience without the film’s ending. My own projection from the small screen balancing on a pillow in my bedroom carries on uninterrupted, save for the iMessage notifications that ding me out of Joshua’s quiet world.

Screenshot of the dark interior of a moving car is interrupted by a Google Calendar Mail notification for a Copywriter interview in the top right corner.
From the dark interior of Christopher Kahunahana’s WAIKIKI, a Mail notification appears in the top right corner for a Google Calendar reminder of a copywriting job interview, contributing to the film’s grim atmosphere.

Cinema is supposed to be an escape from reality, so being reminded by Google Calendar that I am still unemployed and have upcoming Zoom interviews is less than thrilling. The emails and texts that cross my screen remind me that I am a mere mortal seeking external comfort, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The silver screen has always been a place to imagine future possibilities. It presents new ideas which function as an outlet for audiences to reconcile their emotional struggles and inner turmoil, no matter how deep or superficial they may be. I might not know what it’s like to be a painfully shy middle-aged Filipino man like the protagonist of Edralin’s film, but I do know what it’s like to feel locked into your own anxieties and desperate for change. The intrusion of reality from my text and email notifications keeps me one foot rooted in the present in a way that doesn’t happen in a theatre. I am corporally reminded that we can never really escape ourselves.

A mirrored image of a plate of ramen and vegetables on a glass table, adjacent to a laptop with a pink screen featuring the title DENTURE ADVENTURE.
Our main course for tonight features a dry Shin Ramyun tossed in scallion oil with a side of grilled bok choy, paired with a tabletop MacBook screening of DENTURE ADVENTURE, the delightful 2021 short film by Azumi Hasegawa.

While notifications continue to pop up momentarily, I create my own distractions moving from bedroom to kitchen. I pair CODENAME: NAGASAKI with miso-glazed salmon and I WAS A SIMPLE MAN with avocado toast. I’m glad to watch the latter in the daytime over breakfast, as its unexpectedly chilling atmosphere has me peering over my shoulder and jumping at every creak that my old house coughs up. Christopher Makoto Yogi’s mystical yet domestic ghost story about a dying man haunted by his past has a far more chilling effect at home than in the safety of a theatre, fearing an unforgiving Constance Wu-like entity appearing in my living room.

I cleanse my palate afterwards with SEXY SUSHI, a bizarre five-minute animated romp that ensures my stomach will remain satiated until dinner. I shatter the quiet beauty of Albert Shin’s TOGETHER by pausing halfway through for popcorn. Eating during a movie isn’t unique to online viewing, but the frequency at which I feel the need to consume things interrupts my immersion into cinema’s formulated reality. However, snacking while watching DIGITAL VIDEO EDITING WITH ADOBE PREMIERE PRO: THE REAL-WORLD GUIDE TO SET UP AND WORKFLOW on a laptop adds a meta aspect that director Hong Seong-Yoon probably didn’t intend for, pushing me further than expected into his magical horror-realist world of film editing.

Screenshot of a woman walking through a forest while the right-click menu of a computer screen shows the title DIGITAL VIDEO EDITING WITH ADOBE PREMIERE PRO: THE REAL-WORLD GUIDE TO SET UP AND WORKFLOW
Still from the DIGITAL VIDEO EDITING WITH ADOBE PREMIERE PRO: THE REAL-WORLD GUIDE TO SET UP AND WORKFLOW trailer, where digital and IRL worlds collide both on and off-screen.

Even if I am distracted, I have the power to go back and rewind to the last scene I remember. The draw of the digital world is that you can become whoever you want, and joining a virtual film festival brings a new sense of agency to the audience, who has typically passively accepted the programming and narratives offered to them.

Attending an online festival disrupts the power hierarchy that lies inherent to a festival’s structure. By selecting which RA25 films to watch online, I become the projectionist and programmer. I don’t have to honour a director’s vision; I can rewind and fast-forward as I please, remixing the narrative to suit my own pace and comprehension as I form a new director’s cut. A film programmer’s meticulously curated shorts collection becomes a choose-your-own-adventure path into curation. If a movie doesn’t grab me in the first 15 minutes, I can turn it off and start a new one altogether, playing the role of a particularly harsh film critic.

As the world continues to burn outside, I have less patience for movies that don’t capture my immediate interest than I did before. Since 2020, we’ve been living through dreaded ~unprecedented times~ that include war, a pandemic, glaring economic inequalities, and a dramatic increase of violence towards Asians. The privileged work-from-home crowd has screen exhaustion, and those who must continue being in workplaces are forced to the frontlines without regard for their health. Being alive in the 21st century has never been more exhausting, yet we continue to push festivals and events online, despite knowing they’ll have a drastically lower turnout than their physical counterparts.

Four photos of a laptop sitting on a dining table. On the laptop screen, we see three people looking at a TV, and a group of people looking back from within the TV screen.
Still from BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES, one of RA25’s most fun and innovative features that explores time travel as a group of friends gazes into a Mac monitor, as seen through my laptop screen, as captured by my phone from my grandmother’s dining room. Four screens within a screen.

I tune into RA25’s THE FUNCTION OF FESTIVAL IN CRISIS II panel from the driver’s seat of my car as I wait for my cousins to finish tennis lessons. As my internet connection glitches in and out, my main takeaway from the panel is that the festival is not really in crisis, at least from the perspective of an audience member. Its functions and formats are just shifting. Online festivals have increased accessibility for more diverse audiences, overcoming physical barriers that prevent some people from attending an in-person festival. A digital festival allows for the democratization of access, which also permits international filmmakers to tune in and interact, which in past years may have been impossible due to a lack of funds.

For those who face these barriers, a virtual festival is the only way to access Reel Asian’s film programming, meaning the festival is only in “crisis” for those who have a particular preference for attending a physical theatre. As we barrel through the pandemic, some film festivals are beginning to reconsider their annual programming. Likewise, audience members like myself are negotiating the frequency and formats in which we want to engage with film. As Bong Joon-Ho reminded us, cinema isn’t going anywhere; forcing myself to attend a virtual festival only makes me long for the days of in-person screenings. I love Reel Asian because stepping into a predominantly Asian cinema gives me an inherent sense of community, carving out a space for belonging in a city full of festivals.

This community is not explicitly defined by Reel Asian, but given the many dimensions of ethnic identity, could be composed of Asians in Toronto, Asian-Canadians across Canada, or Asians in Asia. Perhaps an online version of Reel Asian best serves its community rather than in person, opening up wide-reaching access to all types of Asians; hyphenated, diasporic, and otherwise, so long as they’re located within the confines of the festival’s geo-blocking, negotiated by film screening rights.

A photo of five negative grayscale faces is broken down into square panels.
Literal panels of the virtual FESTIVAL IN CRISIS panel featuring four panelists and one ASL interpreter with negative grayscale faces.

While I can’t say that I love virtual events, I don’t think I would have even half the sanity that I’ve clung onto during the pandemic without cinema. It’s neat to curate your own personalized film festival experience via virtual screening platforms, even if the notifications that pop up on my screen remind me of who I am outside of the movie’s runtime. They don’t take away from the art itself, but I’m still very much looking forward to going back to IRL festivals because nothing beats the catharsis of laughing, crying, and screaming in your seat in a dark room full of strangers.

Hannah Polinski is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker from Southern Ontario. Approaching her subjects through the passage of time, her work explores familial memory, shifting landscapes, and the surreal. She can be found at her nearest bakery, or less commonly at hannahpolinski.com.

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TACLA
taclanese

a commons run by a coalescing of Asian diasporic people.