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Courtesy of August Angel Filmworks

April 24, 2016

Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival: New Voices in Film

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It’s funny: both this article and its subject matter arrived far later than they should have. The Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival ran last weekend, from April 15 to 17. I’m just now giving it the attention it so completely deserves. Likewise, the festival — which began just last year — sheds long-overdue light on a major problem in the American film industry: a lack of Asian American representation, especially onscreen.

The event was inspired by Katie Quan, an alumna of Ithaca College and current grad student at San Francisco State University. She had attended a different Asian American film festival in San Francisco, and wanted to adopt that tradition right here in Ithaca. With the help of a few professors at Ithaca College, funding from the college administration and several local sponsors and an entire class devoted to its preparation, The Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival was born. Originally a week long, which proved a lot for full time students and faculty to organize, it was shortened to one weekend for 2016. No worries, though. There was still plenty to watch and discover. With three feature-length films, 14 shorts and a reading, the festival was jam-packed throughout.

There was far more to the experience than just the films, however. Many of the filmmakers were in attendance, and participated in Q&A sections with the audience between pictures. While I will avoid quoting too much directly — many of the questions concerned the middles and ends of the films, and I’d rather not spoil anything — there were a few major themes that appeared throughout their discussions. One was funding, or the lack thereof. Few production companies ever sponsor movies with Asian American actors, and only independent films were featured at the Festival. Another common grievance was the “chop suey”stereotype that afflicts Asian American actors today. The latter was the subject of Yankee Dawg You Die, the closing play of the festival.

I could go delve into the authorial intent of each work, but I’d rather you experience the films as I did: as a curious but ignorant passerby who had never previously contemplated the issues of race in filmmaking. Here’s my take on a few of the films in this year’s Festival:

Americanese

Courtesy of IFC First Take

Directed by Eric Byler and based on the novel American Knees by Shawn Wong, Americanese tells the story of Chinese-American Raymond Ding (Chris Tashima) and half-Japanese Aurora Crane (Allison Sie) as they navigate their troubled relationship and their own personal crises. After their break-up, which occurs before the events of the film begin, the two split ways and try to recreate their lives without one another. Aurora seeks the comfort of her best friend Brenda (Kelly Hu) and her new white boyfriend Steve (Ben Shenkman). Meanwhile, Raymond moves back in with his father Wood (Sab Shimono) and enters into a new romance with a co-worker, Betty Nguyen (Joan Chen). The former couple have a hard time separating, however, and their relationship remains uncertain until the very end of the film.

Overall, the acting stood out as the strongest aspect of Americanese. The film won the Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Cast at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and I can see why. Tashima’s portrayal of Raymond is particularly impressive, at once subtle and revealing. Raymond is a middle-aged, divorced professor of Asian American Studies; his background and subsequent actions establish his character as repressed, erudite and cynical. These traits call for a subdued performance, and make it all too easy for Raymond’s other, better qualities, like his compassion and dedication, to go unnoticed. Tashima deftly handles the challenge, presenting a character who struggles to balance his emotional constraint and passion for Aurora.
Likewise, Sie skillfully reveals Aurora’s internal conflict between her lingering affection for Raymond and her desire to move on with her life. Aurora also suffers from something of an identity crisis, as she is often uncertain if she should embrace her Asian roots or stick to the white American background she has always known. Sie represents the mixture of familiarity and estrangement her character has towards her white father, Hank (Ryan Kutrona), especially when he veers into racial insensitivity and bigotry.

The other members of the cast, particularly Sab Shimono and Joan Chen, certainly deserve recognition. Actually, many of them deserve more credit than director Eric Byler is willing to give them. Byler supplements a few pivotal scenes with flashbacks, feeling the need, for some reason, to clarify his characters’ interactions and emotional responses. For instance, shortly after Aurora’s father Hank verbally abuses his wife Keiko (Takayo Fischer), the scene transitions into a conversation between Aurora and Raymond in which he lectures her about the possibility of an uneven relationship between her parents. We, the audience, don’t need this explanation. Hank’s, or rather Kutrona’s, tone is angry and forceful enough that we can recognize the nature of the situation. Similarly, after Hank comments on his other daughter Julia’s (Annie Katsura Rollins) engagement to African American Miles (Stephen Bishop), Byler launches into yet another diatribe from the professor. The film could rely more on its cast and viewers much more than it does.

This is especially true considering the quality of the dialogue. I’ve rarely heard more realistic, honest discussion about love and relationships than I have in this movie. The interactions between Raymond and Aurora are frank but not vulgar, passionate but not romanticized. The dialogue brings the action down to earth, helps us relate to the characters and reveals their inner thoughts, not just with their content but with their tone. The occasional witty or outrageous remark is also the only (and much needed) comedic relief. For example, Wood, Raymond’s father, suggests that they both go to China and pick out a pair of sisters to marry, so that they would only have one mother-in-law to deal with. The film could have used more moments like this one.

That brings me to my biggest problem with the film: its inconsistent mood. American Knees, the novel on which Americanese is based, is a romantic comedy. With its slower pace, somber music and frequently dark cinematography (I mean this literally: many of the scenes take place outside at night or in dimly lit rooms), the film carries a dramatic tone that occasionally borders on Greek tragedy. That would be fine, if the script and story were written for a drama. As it stands, Americanese preserves the basic storyline and dialogue that made the novel so famous. The result is a mismatch between plot and style. To be fair, Byler did change a few story elements to make the transition — the change of Raymond’s job from administrator to professor being one of them. It’s not a perfect fit, though, and the film still suffers from something of an identity crisis.

All in all, Americanese is a well-made, moving, fascinating film that explores an Asian American perspective of romance but does not quite know what it is. One last tip before I depart to the next feature: do not watch this film when you are tired. In his Q&A section, Shawn Wong, author of American Knees and collaborator on this film adaptation, said his “book is really about absence.” The same holds for the film, and what is not there is just as important as what is. Watch this when you are well-rested: your eyes have to be open wide to see what is missing.

Pamanhikan

Courtesy of August Angel Filmworks

(Tagalog) Definition: a Filipino tradition in which the parents of an engaged couple meet for the first time to plan the upcoming marriage, and the title of the funniest short film of the festival. Written and directed by Angelo Santos, Pamanhikan tells the story of two gay men, one Filipino, Jun (Eric Elizaga) and one white American, Brendan (Patrick Cooley), who invite their parents over to their apartment to honor this longtime ritual.
The film borrows many structural elements from “Modern Family,” including direct speech to the camera and an overall comedic tone. What differs from the sitcom — and surpasses it — is the quality of the dialogue, acting and character development. We immediately see the love between the two male leads, and all the minor irritation, playful teasing and candor that come with a longterm relationship. The racial divide becomes a source of humor, not tension, between the couple — particularly when Brendan complains, “Tagalog words are hard for the white man to pronounce.”

The tension does increase, however, when the parents arrive. Brendan’s estranged father Sean (Bill Hoag) and suspicious mother Alice (Julia Campanelli) soon clash with each other and with Jun’s parents, the über-Catholic Raynaldo (John Arcilla) and the supportive Clarissa (Arianne Recto). Hilarity ensues as the various characters argue about old history, future concerns and — in Raynaldo’s case — his religious qualms about gay marriage. In less than 30 minutes, the film gives us an understanding of each character’s personality and attitude towards the others. Granted, none of them have the sort of deeper, internal lives fit for literary fiction or more serious filmmaking. If the writing and acting weren’t so good throughout, the characters — especially Raynaldo — could seem cartoonish.

Pamanhikan is a great comedy. That said, even considering the more serious dispute about gay marriage — over which some characters eventually come to blows — the conflicts of the film never pose any real threat. If you’re looking for a dramatic, eye-opening, philosophically engaging work, this isn’t the movie for you. All the film’s central issues are almost trivial compared to the characters’ love for one another — which is, of course, exactly how it ought to be.

There were many, many more films at the festival that I’d recommend but whose reviews I can’t squeeze into 1,400 words. Focusing more on the festival itself, though, it represents an early step in a very long process of gaining support and viewership for Asian American artists. Really, in 2016, it’s a shame that they have had to scrounge so much up to this point. The American audience is ready for greater Asian American participation in mass media, as shows like Fresh off the Boat and Master of None have recently demonstrated. What took place last weekend at Ithaca College, and what has happened before that, is a glimpse at the bigger and better things that could come with wider audiences and production company backing. We’ve only seen the beginning, and I’m excited for what comes next.

Zachary Smeader is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zds4@cornell.edu. 

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