Your Guide to the Most Intriguing Films of This Year’s Austin Asian American Film Festival
AAAFF looks cool AF
The Austin Asian American Film Festival is back in town, but if you assume that means a heavy dose of martial-arts, Bollywood, and Asian gangster flicks, think again. Under the leadership of programming director Anand Modi and executive director Tim Tsai, AAAFF, now in its 10th festival year, has become an annual celebration of the amazing heterogeneity and artistry of the cinema of the Asian continent and its diaspora communities around the world. "Genre programming in general, and Asian genre programming, is well-worn territory," Modi says. "We don't need to spend our time doing that. There is much more to this world than genre cinema."
To illustrate, two of Modi's top picks from this year's festival are the far-flung The Future Perfect, an ingeniously structured, semi-fictional story of a young Chinese woman living in Argentina and learning Spanish, and Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember, the latest wild ride from Filipino provocateur Khavn De La Cruz. "He's an enfant terrible of world cinema, constantly pushing the line of what constitutes a movie," Modi says of De La Cruz. "He's a love-it-or-hate-it director, but the people who show up are going to walk out changed by what they've seen."
More securely on the "love it" side of the ledger is the festival's centerpiece film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, an American documentary that was released in 1987 and nominated for an Academy Award. The story concerns the Detroit-area death of a Chinese-American engineer in what may have been a hate crime or may have been an "ordinary" bar fight gone wrong. The film tracks the legal aftermath, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. AAAFF will bring co-director Christine Choy to town to discuss her long career as a social-issues documentarian and to serve on a festival jury. "That's a first for us, in that we're bringing in a filmmaker from out of town to present some work and also stay for the duration of the festival," Modi says.
Speaking of social issues, Modi is also excited to present Mixed Match, a documentary about the desperate need for bone marrow donations from people of mixed-race heritage. "Particular combinations of racial backgrounds produce relatively specific needs," Modi explains. "In general with bone marrow, it's a numbers game. You need a big volume to be able to consistently find matches. For people of mixed racial background, the potential pool of donors is that much smaller." Modi hopes that by showing the documentary, AAAFF can help spread the word and build the mixed-race donor pool.
This year's AAAFF program includes a number of other politically tinged documentaries. On opening night, The Chinese Exclusion Act is a timely, expansive look at the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S. and the state-sanctioned backlash that immigrants have faced through the years. On a very different note, Bamseom Pirates Seoul Inferno tells the story of an irreverent grindcore punk band in South Korea and, as Modi puts it, "the political trouble that they and their friends get themselves into when it becomes clear that not everybody in power can take a joke."
Looking to take the edge off after a heavy dose of AAAFF political documentaries? Modi recommends Chee and T, the latest from American director Tanuj Chopra. Chopra's Grass, a super-low-budget, smarter-than-it-let-on stoner comedy, was an AAAFF audience favorite last year. His new film concerns another cast of screwup friends caught up in a lowlife adventure. "It's another sneaky comedy," Modi explains. "The big comedic moments can distract you from the fact that the film is really about growing up and finding your identity and place in the world."
The Austin Asian American Film Festival runs Thu.-Sun., Dec. 7-10, at AFS Cinema. Festival badges are $65, film passes are $45, and individual tickets run $10. See the full schedule at www.aaafilmfest.com.