A Talk with SFIAAFF Directors Chi-hui Yang and Taro Goto

Susan Gerhard March 14, 2006

Cinephiles love Asia – horror from Japan, art pics from Vietnam, candy-colored creations from Thailand, and whatever Korea has to offer. But this year’s favorite among the Asian nations may come from a newer point on the filmmaking compass: Asian America. As Exhibition and Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Festival Assistant Director Taro Goto tell me, the numbers of quality Asian American indie films that came into their sights this year was exponentially higher than years past. They took an hour or two to break it down for me a week before the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, opening this Thursday, March 16, and running through March 26, makes their point for them.

SF360: Your organization recently went through an identity change, from NAATA, National Asian American Telecommunications Association, to Center for Asian American Media. What was that about?

Chi-hui Yang: It was an identity change that was a long time in the making. I think that we had been living in the identity of the Center for Asian American Media for the past decade, but really under the guise of NAATA. It’s something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time, I mean we were still getting solicitations from cell phone companies in China about what our products were, because in 1980, the word ‘telecommunications’ meant broadcast media, radio, television, and that’s what we were for a long time and in the past two-and-a-half decades that has changed very rapidly as technology has changed. It was the 25th anniversary of the organization and we felt: It’s now or never, we really need to make this change. It’s the name catching up to the work that we’ve been doing.

SF360: The Center for Asian American Media is so different from many other festival organizations, because it’s a year-round funding organization. It’s proactive in the creation of all this media.

Yang: Well part of what is exciting about that is we are able to create a pipeline of projects for the film festival and beyond. We end up helping filmmakers all the way through the process: making their films, funding their films, screening at a film festival, educational distribution, television broadcast, possibly home video. So we help with all those stages and it really allows us to maintain the relationships with filmmakers and have an active role in kind of creating cinema, too.

SF360: You not only have a big increase in the number of Asian American films in your festival this year, but also a big change in the types of Asian American films in your festival, less strictly “affirmative” than a decade ago, and more complex. What were the cornerstone films in this shift?

Taro Goto: I would say that the first film that really caught people’s attention by doing exactly that was ‘Better Luck Tomorrow.’ For a long time, I think people assumed we wanted to supplant negative stereotypes with positive stereotypes. Well I don’t think that you can expect to have a film that has perfect Asian Americans in it. I think films are good to the extent that they show people dealing with problems and having flaws and that makes them human and that is why we can identify with them.

SF360: The Model Minority is yet another stereotype that had to be defeated.

Yang: Also, mixed raced and bi-racial filmmakers are bringing a different kind of perspective, a more nuanced perspective about identity. So films like ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ and ‘Robot Stories,’ both pushed the cinema forward, too, because both of those films are, at the core, commenting on being Asian American, but they are doing it much more nuanced way. And both are experimental in form as well. Both of them did very well theatrically and are doing well on DVD – and it’s because they had a more sophisticated look at these subjects.

SF360: What are some of the biggest Asian stars to appear in Asian American movies?

Yang: I think that’s really something that is growing, and I see it for a way for Asian American indies to get more commercial play. Because the cinema really is an independent cinema; there is very little commercial cinema coming out of Asian America. So you have people like Sylvia Chang, who is a star in Hong Kong and Taiwan, she is in a film called ‘American Fusion’ that we’re showing this year.

Goto: Yun-jin Kim is an example of a Korean actress who is successful in coming to the US, she is in the ABC show ‘Lost’ right now, and she is attached to a film called ‘Georgia Heat,’ co-starring with Billy Bob Thornton.

Yang: But I would still like to see more people harness Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li. I think that the kind of roles that these guys get in Hollywood are still really constrained. You could see one of those people being directed by an Asian American director and put in a very different kind of cast.

SF360: Like the way that Quentin Tarantino would repurpose a John Travolta?

Yang: Exactly. It would change how you look at this person.

Goto: And we know that there are many Asian actors who are hoping to come to the US and break through. You know Tony Leung Chiu Wai, after years of not choosing to take on any U.S productions, has a writer working on a Western screenplay for him.

SF360: There are, obviously, very many different Asian countries, many not at peace with each other. Do you find in programming some of the international cinema, that you get into political trouble spots with your audiences?

Yang: We like to see what is happening in those national cinemas, but we also like to see the way they comment on Asians living in America too. Our closing night film, ‘Journey from the Fall,’ is a US-Thailand-Vietnamese production about the experiences of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. That era of Vietnamese history is so contested both there and within the communities here. I’m sure it has caused some controversy in the United States; it certainly has in Vietnam already. “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,” which is set in Tibet, is more soft look of the kind of politics of that region. There is also the question of North and South Korea, which a number of our films explore this year.

Goto: I think that the San Francisco audiences are very immune to that type of politics and controversy. If we show a controversial film, they eat it up. So we never feel like politics hamper our program.

SF360: Why is everything Korean so popular at the moment?

Goto: People have differing opinions about why Korean cinema has exploded so much in the last 10 to 20 years. Some will say that the screen quota system was a big reason why and others would say that the main reason was the Korean conglomerates putting in a lot of money. There were great filmmakers and actors to really carry these great films that started impressing a lot of programmers and audiences. But I think that there is a tremendous diversity in Korean cinema that is exciting. There is not just one type of film; there are different genres of films, art-house films. It’s not so one-dimensional.

SF360: What about the popularity of Korea as fashion, as in the movie in your festival ‘Linda Linda Linda.’

Yang: Well I think all across Asia, there is a lot of idol worship. Trends and fads seem to travel very quickly from Korea to Japan, to Taiwan and Hong Kong. I think each of those different regions are attracted to these fads for different reasons. Like the reason why Koreans would be huge in Taiwan are different from why they are huge in Japan. Because Taiwan is a place where people are sort of still shopping for identity, whereas in Japan, it’s really just about what’s hip, what’s most exciting, what people want to be a part of. I think it has to do with what’s happening within Asia, but I also think it has to do with how Asia looks out to the US and how that bounces back. When there is a certain kind of validation when Korean cinema is blowing up in Europe or in the United States; it gets people going.

Goto: There are two more things that are interesting about Korea. One is, whereas Koreans used to be very discriminated against in Japan, there is a huge Korean fad there right now. Korean soap operas, Korean movies, and their stars are household names in Japan. They are huge. They are really blowing up and it’s been known on a few occasions, a Korean, say, melodrama will get picked up by a Japanese distributor for the entire cost of the production, because they know that it will make that much money in Japan, all by itself, and anything that they do domestically or internationally outside of Japan is just gravy. So there is a lot of money in the Japanese industry.

Yang: But why do you think Japanese like Koreans so much? Is it that whole complicated history?

Goto: I am not really sure, but it really started with this one TV Soap Opera called ‘Winter Sonata’ starring Bae Yong Joon. For whatever reason, that show launched everything in Japan and Bae Yong Joon, the star, was talked about as showing a very sensitive side that Japanese males were not showing at all. I remember being in Japan and watching this on TV shows were there would be these interviews on the street where middle-aged women would be asked, ‘Do you prefer a Japanese man or a Korean man?’ ‘Korean Men,’ she’d say, ‘because they are so sensitive’ – as if he were the representative for everything.

Yang: I think it has something to do with The World Cup, too. I think that is a turning point also, I think that there were certain things that were in place too but when the World Cup went to Japan and Korea, there was such pride, and the Korean team did really well. I think most people in the world had already seen a lot from Japan and that they hadn’t seen much from Korean, in terms of pop culture and society and that really elevated them a lot. I think it increased the kind of pride, creativity, excitement in Korea, but also brought those things everywhere else. It’s very curious.

Goto: One thing I found very interesting about the explosion of Korean cinema is that it really grew together with the Pusan International Film Festival. The festival really played a huge part in attracting attention to Korean cinema and creating a festival that’s of value to the whole international film community. It put it on the map.

Yang: And that is our hope that it is all going to replant back with Asian American film. It’s starting to ripple back here, too.

SF360: What is the next big thing, a national cinema that you think is poised to explode, or a trend in filmmaking here?

Goto: We’re hopeful that it’s Asian American films, partly evidence by the fact that we have a dozen Asian American narrative features in our competition this year, as opposed to six – which is the most we’ve had up until now. So there are many more filmmakers producing work and they are very, very diverse – just as Korean cinema succeeded because there were so many different types of films and so much talent there. I hope that Asian American films will find similar success.

SF360: You mean on an export scale, too?

Goto: Hopefully, I mean, if Asian American filmmakers can tap into money that is floating around Asia for these co-productions, then a lot of these can be the bridge between the US and the Pacific, and really be in the position to make films that reach a wide audience.

Yang: I agree. In terms of national cinemas, I think the most curious place right now is Mainland China. There is so much cultural, political, and economic change and that’s producing incredible films, both documentary and narrative; we have a number of great ones this year. But I think that is where we are going to see a lot of movement in the next couple of years. You know, Thailand and Korea have done really well in the past couple of years, and that is going to continue, but where I think there is a fairly strong commercial film industry and a really interesting indie film underground film movement is China. And with the increasing connections with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the flow of money between those, there are a lot of films that are going to be made there that are not necessarily going to be shown in China. But I think a lot of filmmakers are making films for European audiences and the world outside of China to get a sense of what’s happening.

Goto: The other day I was asked about Censorship in Asia, you know, it exist in China for sure, but I think one thing that is exciting, is when you have censorship or restriction in expression, I think it ends up creating a situation where the filmmakers have to be very very innovative and creative about how they are going to say certain things. I think that in a lot of films that get made in China, even if they pass through censorship, they have an element of social criticism embedded. It might be oblique, but it’s certainly there, just as Hollywood filmmakers had to figure out a way of expressing romance when they couldn’t show kissing on the screen during the Hays code. I think that when you have these restrictions placed on expression, it does create a lot of interesting ideas.

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