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  • New Independence at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
  • Darrell Y. Hamamoto

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), presented by the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) for fifteen years running, showcased four feature-length productions, including Shopping for Fangs, Yellow, Sunsets, and Strawberry Fields. In addition to these offerings, over 100 Asian and Asian American documentaries, shorts, experimental, and narrative films and videos were screened during the eight-day event March 6–13, 1998. Since its inception in 1982, the film festival has been held in a number of different venues in the Bay Area, but for the past eight years the principal site for the festival has been the AMC Kabuki 8 Theaters in the heart of Japantown. Over the years, the SFIAAFF has enjoyed the enthusiastic participation of filmmakers, producers, and legions of fans the world over. Its international scope is reflected in the many Asian films that were exhibited this year, including six features directed by Jang Sun Woo representing South Korea.

The Friday following the opening night gala—which featured a classic of silent cinema directed by Bu Wancang, Love and Duty (China, 1931)—the festival began in the late afternoon with a series of highly personal short films that attempted to make sense of modern regional wars and their lasting effect upon the lives of those displaced by the ravages of military conflict. Apart from Missing Lebanese Wars (U.S., 1996) by Walid Raad, the other four films sifted through the memory of the Vietnam War. David Knupp, who directed Remote (U.S., 1996) and appeared at a Q&A session following its screening, said his “memory” of the Vietnam War was “mediated” by such dissimilar films as Hearts and Minds (1974) and the Rambo series. First Year (U.S., 1996), by Trac Vu, quickly shifts from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to a whimsical account of his [End Page 204] exploration of homosexual identity in a barren southern California landscape dotted by K-Mart stores, Laverne and Shirley, Greyhound Bus stations, and the public library where he consumed clinically pornographic books on his sexual orientation. In person, Minh Duc Nguyen referred to his positioning of yellow men as victims in the tableaux that compose Love Motel (U.S., 1995). The director declared himself to be interested in the question of “who dominates?” True to his vision, the five-minute, 16mm film features leather, spandex, whips, and a man in a studded dog collar illuminated by strobe lights flashing in time to disco music. A dominatrix abuses a wheelchair-bound man with a .45 caliber pistol and then shoots him, leaving him lying on the floor of the “love motel” in his Jockey shorts. Other than the brief appearance of a man and a woman huddled together, presumably Vietnamese peasants, there is no direct reference to the war itself.

Later that Friday evening, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance with NAATA presented the world premiere of Shopping for Fangs (Canada/U.S., 1997). Directed by Quentin Lee and Justin Lin, the 90-minute 16mm feature is a suspenseful romp through the sunlit world of suburban Los Angeles mini-malls. The film wittily creates a camp universe of werewolves, carnivorous lovers, religiously chaste girlfriends, murdered psychotherapists, and blonde bewigged amnesiacs working their way through the varieties of sexual repression Asian American-style. Both Lin and Lee appeared at a panel discussion the following Saturday afternoon on “New Asian American Feature Films.” Lee grew up in Hong Kong, emigrating to Canada before leaving for the U.S. with hopes of breaking into big time filmmaking. Lin came to the U.S. from Taiwan at age two and grew up in Orange County, California. According to Lin, his work is motivated by memories of a childhood almost devoid of Asian American representation in the dominant media.

Lin’s sentiments were echoed by many directors at the festival. Prior to the world premier of his film, director Chris Chan Lee said at a panel discussion that he grew up feeling “cheated” by the virtual exclusion of Asian Americans in U.S. popular culture. But with the debut of his 90-minute feature, Yellow...

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