The 2019 Austin Asian American Film Festival
There is certainly no shortage of film festivals where I live in the Puget Sound area. There’s the behemoth that is the Seattle International Film Festival, of course, along with smaller broad-based festivals based in Tacoma and Olympia. And of course, at the far end of the Sound from where I live, there’s the Vancouver International Film Festival, still arguably the most cinephile-friendly festival in North America. But increasingly prevalent in cities across the continent are smaller film festivals, taking place over a few days, usually a weekend, and focused on one specific area of cinema. We have a bunch of these in the Seattle area as well: festivals of French and Italian and Polish and Nordic and South Asian and Turkish film just off the top of my head, along with festivals devoted to queer cinema and local filmmakers. What we don’t have, and I really don’t know why this is, are festivals showcasing East Asian cinema, either by individual nation (Chinese, Korean, Japanese), or as a whole, like the soon to launch New York Asian Film Festival or, the subject of this report, the Austin Asian American Film Festival. The Austin festival is presenting eleven features over this weekend, June 13–16, with a special focus on films by and about women and films with some kind of connection to Texas. The works come from Vietnam, the Philippines, India, China, Korea, Japan and the US, and I was able to watch four of them.
The most distinctive of the four is Yang Mingming’s Girls Always Happy, which played here a year ago at SIFF and has obstinately stuck in my head ever since while dozens of other films have slipped into the cracks of my rapidly deteriorating memory. Yang herself plays a young woman, an aspiring writer, who has a contentious relationship with her mother, played by the always great Nai An (an essential figure in 21st century independent Chinese cinema as both an actress and producer). Yang’s shots are mostly long and handheld, with harsh lighting emphasizing the actress’ physicality, bringing out the tangible claustrophobia in their cluttered apartments, all the lived-in grotesqueries of eating and living with another human. But rather than some dire meditation on familial hate, she leavens every confrontation with snippets of humor and whimsy, coming close to capturing the fear and disgust and joy and warmth of family life.
The highest profile director in the festival is probably Wang Xiaoshuai, a key figure of the Sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers, but nonetheless one whom I only know from his cameo in Jia Zhangke’s The World. The AAAFF has his Chinese Portrait, an experimental documentary that consists of nothing but dozens of single shots of people (mostly) in China. The shots last for only a few minutes each, and mostly are of people in their work environments. Usually they have a person or two staring directly at the camera not moving, while other things move in other parts of the frame (the wind, other people, molten steel, sheep). But some of the shots have no people at all, but are instead of the land, the water, the sky, or buildings in various states of newness or collapse. Some shots are of individuals, some of large groups. Some have the feel of a slice of life, as of a bustling open-air café at night, made unnerving by the fact that two of the patrons are staring directly at us while normal life goes on all around them. The name of the film and the compositions strongly recall still photography. We are accustomed, in such pictures, to people looking directly at us without moving. But it’s uncanny in a motion picture and the incongruity, the stillness within a moving frame, is not entirely unpleasant. It reminds us that these images, while appearing to show us a real China, are themselves constructs. By mixing one art form (still portraiture) with another (cinema), Wang gives us something that isn’t exactly either. Taken individually, any one of these portraits could be an interstitial scene from a narrative film, a pillow shot or an establishing shot, in an otherwise wholly constructed narrative. But of course, they still are that, we just can’t know what narrative these images are sliced away from. Taken as a whole, it might present an image of China itself, in all its individual contradictions and rhymes (urban and rural, digital and industrial, old and young, etc). Or it might just be China staring back at us, wondering why we’re so reliant on such dichotomies to make sense of their/our world.
Opening the festival is the South Korean coming of age drama House of Hummingbird. It follows a young girl, Eunhee, through 1994, her 8th grade year. And quite the year it is: in addition to regular beatings at the hands of her older brother and verbal and emotional abuse from her father, she has her alcoholic uncle die, has two on-off relationships (one with a boy whose mother doesn’t like her because she’s too poor, the other with a girl who just seems kind of weird), befriends her very cool Chinese tutor (played with star charisma by Kim Saebyuk, who memorably marched up and down stairs in Hong Sang-soo’s Grass) only to have her disappear one day, gets caught shoplifting with her best friend who then rats her out, and, to top it all, has a cancerous growth in her head. Basically, everything that could go wrong for a 14 year old girl does, and yet, in a credit to director Kim Bora, the movie never feels the least bit maudlin or depressing. Unlike, say, An Elephant Sitting Still, another exercise in disaster piling on disaster, Kim keeps things moving with a picturesque sense of wonder, small beauties like a hanging plant, or a shared cigarette break, provide welcome respite from the harsh emotional landscape of Eunhee’s concrete block world. Park Jihu, playing Eunhee, is terrific, sad but never moping, somehow maintaining perspective and a tiny degree of hope despite all the nonsense she has to deal with.
Another young girl caught in an awful world she never made can be found in the festival’s closing film, Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife. Set in 19th century Vietnam, it follows 14 year old May (played by Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as she becomes the eponymous third wife of a wealthy silk merchant. Mostly she lurks around the edges of the drama, as she witnesses the various goings on between the other wives and the wives of her husband’s father and the doomed love story of her husband’s brother. The men are totally opaque: we see this film from May’s perspective almost completely. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, though a closer and more obvious analogue is Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, not just in its setting and subject matter, but in Mayfair’s sensuous use of color. The Third Wife is a ravishing film, with some of the most vibrant greens and pinks of recent years. It’s that lushness, and the boldness of sticking to the limited perspective of a young girl who doesn’t quite understand the world she finds herself in, that redeems what is otherwise an overwhelmingly bleak, although no doubt accurate, chronicle of oppression and loss.
I’ve written a couple of times about the Austin Asian American Film Festival: when they played Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and when they had a Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective last fall. They seem to be doing great work, not just programming a bunch of Asian films seemingly at random, but picking challenging works from outside the big art house distribution channels with a guiding sense of film history (looking through their recent events they’ve also co-presented, along with the Austin Film Society, the very great Wayne Wang film Chan is Missing and had a Wang Bing series in the past few months (the AAAFF was invited by AFS to co-present these films as a community partner and assist with promotion)). And while there are no doubt some excellent institutions in the Seattle area doing some terrific work highlighting the artful and the obscure (Northwest Film Forum and Grand Illusion I’m looking at you), it would sure be nice to have something like this specifically highlighting Asian cinema around here.