Living and Dying on Asian Screens

Austin Asian American Film Festival returns with a strong lineup, which includes the presentation of Russell O. Bush's "Vultures of Tibet"

Vultures of Tibet
"Vultures of Tibet"

Thai ghost stories, documentaries decrying the affect of modernization on traditional Eastern ways of living (and dying), badass stuntmen direct from cinematic Chinatown alleyways, and vengeful green dragons are all part of the seventh Austin Asian American Film Festival, which had been dormant since its 2009 season and returns for a Nov. 13-17 berth at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre.

Featuring films from Japan, South Korea, Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the U.S., the fest's opening-night slate is a troubling documentary double-shot from French filmmaker Thomas Balmès and UT grad Russell O. Bush. (See below for more on Bush's short film "Vultures of Tibet.") Balmès' Happiness examines how the institution of a "gross national happiness" campaign by Bhutan's King Jigme Wangchuck has affected the remote Himalayan hamlet of Laya, and in particular an exuberant 8-year-old monk named Peyangki. Infrastructure upgrades, electricity, cable television, and the Internet do not necessarily spell happy, happy, joy, joy for everyone, everywhere. Or do they?

Friday night's "can't miss" movie is an ultra-rare English-subtitled screening of Pee Mak, the 2013 horror/comedy that ended up being the highest grossing and most popular film in the history of Thai cinema. Director Banjong Pisanthanakun (Shutter) draws from the oft-dramatized 19th century legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong. Think "love, death, and undead love," but with the added bonus of Thailand's unique sense of humor. A feel-good love story from beyond the grave, Pee Mak was nominated for awards in no less than 15 categories at the 23rd Thailand National Film Association in 2013 and has since raked in 1 billion Thai baht.

Also screening Saturday is Stephen Dypiangco and Patrick Epino's web series-turned-feature Awesome Asian Bad Guys, which pokes fun at chopsocky typecasting and features Al Leong (Big Trouble in Little China's hatchet-wielding Wing Kong member) and George Cheung (Big Trouble's staff-wielding Chang Sing member), among others. (Note: This free screening and panel discussion takes place at UT's student union and requires a UT ID for entry.)

AAAFF's Saturday centerpiece film is the highly anticipated Revenge of the Green Dragons. Co-produced by none other than Martin Scorsese and helmed by Hong Kong action legend Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, City on Fire) and Andrew Loo, this tale of two brothers climbing the blood-slicked social ladder of the Chinese underworld of Eighties-era New York should be a blast in more ways than one. Scorsese's 2006 film The Departed was an Americanized remake of Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs, so consider this one payback.

Paired with Thursday's opening-night film Happiness is Russell O. Bush's documentary short "Vultures of Tibet." Thematically similar to Balmès' film – here, too, the shock of the new collides head-on with a venerable culture and its traditions – "Vultures of Tibet" tackles the thorny question of what will happen when a culture's old ways are overrun by the now.

Bush and cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos traveled to the embattled Tibet Autonomous Region to film the Tibetan funerary custom of the sky burial, in which the body of the deceased is taken to a sacred mountainside, stripped of flesh, and left to be consumed by the indigenous vultures that inhabit the area. Although sky burials are an ancient Buddhist rite meant to assist a person's reincarnation, Chinese tourists (and American backpackers, who unthinkingly upload sky burial footage to YouTube) are encroaching on the village of Taktsang Lhamo and its way of life.

The Austin Chronicle sat down with Bush to discuss his Student Academy Award-nominated film, the devolution of societal value systems, and the Tibetan-Chinese situation.

Austin Chronicle: First off, how and why did you decide to make a short doc on Tibetan sky burials?

Russell O. Bush: I became interested in the topic while doing story development for National Geographic. I've been interested in finding stories that connect nature and culture and I came across this photo series that had been propagating the Internet on sites like Reddit and Imgur. Sixty images of a sky burial, with no credits, captions, or context, but showing clear identities with questionable access. It was really alarming to me how so many people are able to see an image without context and then project their own meaning onto it. I saw a chasm of misunderstanding and an opportunity for a film to fill in a context.

AC: So then you decided to go to Tibet and shoot the film? How did you secure permission?

RB: We thought a lot about where the right place to pursue this was, because sky burial is practiced in a pretty wide distribution in most of Tibet, beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and in parts of Bhutan and Nepal as well. As we looked further into it, my questions of representation within a political situation didn't feel relevant outside the context of Tibet.

The key to being allowed to shoot in that area was getting put into contact with several fixers or cultural translators, if you will, who became very important collaborators from that area. We were able to talk to them when they were in a safe space, so we were really lucky that way.

AC: The end credits note that the original voices have been replaced by Tibetan refugees.

RB: [That was] the only way to make this film in an operating realm that didn't implicate our subjects and allowed them to maintain their anonymity. There was no way that I could feel comfortable with showing our subjects' faces and hearing their voices. So we traveled to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh to re-record the voices with people who knew the people in the film. It was a really important decision to safeguard their anonymity as well as provide further context for what I had looked at and what became the film.

Austin Asian American Film Festival

The festival takes place Nov. 13-17, mostly at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre (6226 Middle Fiskville). For complete schedule and ticket info see

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Austin Asian American Film Festival, Russell O. Bush, "Vultures of Tibet", Revenge of the Green Dragons

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