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What's Next for Asian Film?


New America Media, Interview, Andrew Lam, 

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival begins today in San Francisco. Chi-hui Yang is its director and the founder of the Stanford Asian American Performing Arts Series. He has written about culture, music and film for Spin, Giant Robot, and other magazines and online outlets and his curated film programs have been screened at venues and festivals nationwide. He spoke with NAM Editor Andrew Lam.

What happened with Oscars this year? Why weren't there any Asian films making the cut? It feels like the Asian presence disappeared rather quickly after Bollywood made a big splash with Slum Dog Millionaire?

Yang: While the Oscars are certainly there to honor deserving films, the awards show itself has its own interest in increasing viewership. I do not think that there is an intentionality in not recognizing Asian and Asian American works, but when economic interests are mixed with media and representation, often what is the case (and what we have seen more broadly in what Hollywood produces), is that safer, more popularly acceptable images are presented. This is part of a much larger discussion about race and representation that is not isolated to just this year’s Oscars.

By the same token, each year is different, and there are so many factors which determine whether a film is nominated or not. As we know, it is not always the best films which are nominated or win, but sometimes the ones which market themselves the best. There are many Asian and Asian American films which were quite deserving to be at the Oscars; they just weren’t able to make it through the marketing storm.

What Asian movies are getting you excited this year? Why? What's hot in Asian cinema?

Yang: Southeast Asia is really exciting right now. There are many dynamic, young filmmakers from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia who are making provocative, small, more formally interesting films. We have many of them in the festival this year, including Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History from Thailand.


These are quite personal, engaged films which are thinking deeply about the world around them, and tackling big ideas like globalization and the cosmic connections that can be made between one person and another. They are also the ones which are winning awards on the festival circuit. While there are many big, more blockbuster types of films being made from the traditional hubs of Asian cinema -- Japan, Korea, India -- it is the small films which are standing out.

It occurs to me watching the Oscars that I only saw two of the movies nominated. I asked around and many people I know don't watch them either, except for Avatar. Are people turning to YouTube, downloading movies, and using Netflix?

Yang: There are many more ways for folks to consume media, and the viewer response to Avatar points this out. People are willing to go and see movies in the theater, but they are looking for something that they can’t get at home. In the case of Avatar, it is 3-D. Soon, however, you’ll be able to do this at home too. I would say that there is still a desire for engagement with cinema in public space, but individuals are more discerning. This is what makes events like film festivals so important – the movie itself is only one part of it; film festivals also offer interaction with like-minded people, filmmakers, and the sense that you are part of something more than just consuming media. At a festival, you are contributing to the media, as an experiential whole.

Where is the new glamour in Asia? Is it in Korea now that the spotlight on Hong Kong has faded?

Yang: Korea has, for the past 10 years, consistently had a great commercial film industry; more so than any other country in Asia. There is such a strong star system, and an audience for Korean cinema by domestic audiences. To add to this, one major trend for the past several years has been films, which are international co-productions, meaning, they are made by more than one country. Many of these have been Korean co-productions, because there has been money in Korea, and also Korean stars who are recognizable throughout Asia. We’ve seen Korean stars in Chinese, Japanese, Thai films.

Is the Philippines the new hot spot?

Yang: There is a real momentum building in the Philippines. The Philippines has always had a strong commercial film sector; what we are seeing is distinctive, independent projects that are gaining a lot of acclaim on the world stage. Filmmakers like Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Raya Martin, Adolfo Alix, Jr.; they are all making small, non-commercial work, which are quite incisively examining Philippine history and society.

Will Asian films have another revival in the United States or is the romance over? Why is it so hard to have cross-overs despite some successes such as with Ang Lee, Jackie Chan and so on?

Yang: Asian cinema will always have an audience in the U.S. I think the bigger question is when American audiences will take to the non-action/horror genre films, and really go see the kinds of dramas, comedies, romances, that are so wonderful. I think there is still an interest in American audiences to want to see Asian cinema in a certain way, again as action and thrillers. Hopefully, what we have been able to do through the film festival is really guide folks to seeing outside of this.

Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," is due out in fall, 2010.

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