The Austin Chronicle

Austin Asian American Film Festival Raises Its Profile

Asian cinema is back on the calendar and AAAFF celebrates its filmmakers

By Richard Whittaker, June 14, 2019, Screens

From Southeast Asia to Asia Minor, from Vietnam to Switzerland, the Austin Asian American Film Festival celebrates the diversity of the global Asian experience. Now it returns after an 18-month hiatus, and Programming Director Jenny Nulf describes this year's lineup as one of its strongest.

In part, the delay was in response to internal changes, with several staffers leaving around the same time and new staff coming on board; pushing back six months from their normal December date meant more time to make the return something really special. However, the move also allows the festival to expand its programming. The previous slot was in a peculiar space in the calendar – at the tail end of fall festival runs for many films, and just at the start of awards season, when it could be harder and more expensive to book buzzy titles. Moreover, if an independent film opened in the U.S. at an earlier festival, like Sundance or San Francisco's CAAMFest, Nulf said, "A lot of those films end up on streaming services by the end of the year." With all those factors combined, she added, "It didn't mean we had worse films, it just meant we had a smaller pool to pick from."

Moving to June means the festival had a better shot at giving Austin audiences an early look at titles like opening night film House of Hummingbird, which gets its Texas premiere at AAAFF. Nulf described the nuanced coming-of-age period piece as "Lady Bird-esque," and it's already picking up some discussion as South Korea's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, after receiving rave reviews from Tribeca and the Busan International Film Festival. She said, "That's really exciting, and I don't think we could have ever got that film if we had our festival in the fall."

House of Hummingbird is the debut feature of filmmaker Bora Kim, and it's one of a small but growing number of South Korean films by women directors making it to the international festival circuit. It's a point of pride for Nulf that it's one of four features – alongside Girls Always Happy, Empty by Design and The Third Wife – that are the first features by women directors, while seven of the 11 features screening are from women directors. That's important to Nulf, as she still sees a lack of venues for women filmmakers (especially in the case of The Third Wife, which has now been banned in its native Vietnam). She said, "We also program a lot of documentaries by a lot of filmmakers who don't get to see their films on a large screen. ... It's really important to give them those chances."

Austin Asian American Film Festival

June 13-16 at AFS Cinema. Tickets and details at


7:30pm House of Hummingbird Coming-of-age drama in the lead-up to the devastating 1994 Seongsu Bridge collapse. (South Korea)


6pm Seadrift* True crime documentary explores a murder, and racist violence against Texas' Vietnamese American population. (U.S.)

8:20pm Jaddoland* Documentarian Nadia Shihab explores the multigenerational impact of being a migrant family. (U.S.)


11am Narrative shorts (Free to general public)*

12:40pm Chinese Portrait A lyrical 10-year chronicle of radical social upheaval. (China)

2:45pm American Hasi* American comedian Tushar Singh finds out if his Alabama humor translates for Indian audiences. (U.S./India)

5:30pm Empty by Design* The traumas and joys of migrating away from America. (U.S./Philippines)

8:45pm Girls Always Happy A mother and her grownup daughter clash and bond in their traditional Beijing neighborhood. (China)


11am Documentary shorts (Free to general public)*

12:40pm Geographies of Kinship* The ongoing struggle for recognition by children orphaned or abandoned during the Korean War. (South Korea/Sweden/Switzerland/U.S.)

3pm Omotenashi* Cultures and generations clash over the future of a Kyoto ryokan. (Japan/Taiwan)

5:40pm Soni* Indian drama using the police procedural to explore women's roles. (India)

8:15pm The Third Wife Unforgiving depiction of the lives of 19th century women. (Vietnam)

* indicates filmmaker Q&A

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