Another spectacular year at Vancouver Asian Film Festival, or VAFF for short. There was quite the blend of films and attendees this year. Of course, before I get into the good stuff it’s usually customary of me to give shoutouts to people, so shoutout to Lynne Lee for making this festival a possibility this year with what little money they have as well as getting me in touch with Regina Leung and other media PR folk who generously give us passes every year, Barbara Lee for founding the festival, Richard K Wong and his wife Grace for generously donating lots of money to VAFF, Vincent Wong for his work as Creative Director, the huge team of executives who work hard to keep this event going, the volunteers who sacrifice their time to help keep VAFF fully staffed on a shoe-string budget (I should get some myself), and every filmmaker who submitted this year. Now then. Let’s get to the films and events.
Opening Film: In A New York Minute – The best way to start off VAFF is with an Asian type film by an Asian director, starring Asians. Aside from the director being a lady (there’s lot female directors for this year’s), our 3 main characters were also ladies. Because there’s not enough female stories out there or female directors. Or even female directors directing female story films. The film starts out with our first woman Amy who has been starving herself out of stress since she lost her last boyfriend. While she works at her office job of being a food critic, her boss offers her a role in acting at a restaurant with her co-worker Peter who continuously pesters her offering to help her with her appetite problems. Before long, he even rushes their relationship or whatever it is they have going on making things worse for poor Amy. Ugh. Been there, dealt with that. Twice. Our 2nd main woman is Angel Li, who is a scriptwriter living with her unenthusiastic husband who’s away on business trips frequently. She spends her alone time attending auditions and cheating on her husband. Eventually, she gets too much into character with her role in a sad romance film and also gets pregnant thanks to the guy. Angel Li learned life is not what it seems, I would say. Now our 3rd and final main female character Nina lives with her family who own a restaurant where Angel and Amy were to shoot a video showcasing the restaurant. Nina is sick of dealing with her dysfunctional family and plans to move out and live with her close friend Ian who is opening his own restaurant and suggests she join. Nina already has quite the fortune given her escort job servicing creepy guys, but she definitely wants to get out of that work. It’s funny how these three tales all somehow coincided with each other, and caused me to have several flashbacks to backstories about myself, someone, or several someones for that matter. Ximan Li who directed this production and wrote it said she shared these kinds of experiences with some associates who suffered in a similar matter. Afterwards, everybody attended the afterparty where there was a good source and mix of music and mingling, and a basic blend of cheese, grains, and drinks. There seemed to be more youth than seniors there which seemed to be a good crowd for the music which consisted of quick simple raps. For somebody who was a 90s hoodlum, I certainly never did have much interest in Rap. Oh well, Melo LV, Wild Waves, and Err Day DJ’s did some pretty cool performances. The posh venue at Parq Vancouver was pretty impressive as well.
Norman Mineta and his Legacy: An American Story – In this modern day and age, I don’t talk too much about the fact that I’m a half US citizen. I didn’t even vote last election. But it’s great to see something that details the United States before things got more out of hand than they already were (No wonder 68% of my family moved here) and explain the amazing story of an Asian American. For those who don’t really know (not too many do I’m sure), Norman Y. Mineta started out as a son of two immigrants, was sent into an internment camp, and struggled his way through politics. A lot of the US changed ever since the Pearl Harbour incident, but Normand did his best to help Asian Americans stand strong as he went from mayor to congress to even secretary of transporation. Even after resigning shortly after 9/11, he still finds ways to do work to this day with helping the Japanese. This documentary may have been short and simplistic but it teaches you a lot without expecting and that’s what makes it really well made.
100 Stories Challenge Final Showdown – In case anyone was wondering what Richard Wong’s donation went towards, it went into this amazing new competition for filmmakers. Unlike MAMM, 100 Stories encourages young filmmakers to speak to their Asian realatives who happen to be living in Canada. Perhaps some of these unheard tales can make for good original movie plots (since there’s not enough originality in my opinion). That night was the night of the 3 finalists who were to be voted in the final 3 rounds. First place went to Boat People, a story that’s both calm and heart-wrenching about a Vietnamese man who batted out of Vietnam with other refugees as he made his way into Canada but has trouble reconnecting with his family after not seeing them for 5 years. 2nd Place was World’s Narrowest Mind, a very interesting story about a rare couple, an Asian and a French Canadian who used to live in a a shop way back in the 1950’s. Third place went to First Swim (Yeah, weird…) which was a mother history story but took place during WWII when two Chinese soldiers struggle to survive somewhere they don’t exactly belong. While ballots got counted, the MC Milton Ng and generous donater Richard Wong told some hilarious and heartwarming stories for us. Also, the social media competition selected a winner for two Vancouver Symphony Tickets. Afterwards, it was all an afterparty which was a great way to connect. Gotta love the elevator-type music that played during those times. Wish I knew who the artist was…
The World Is Bright – This happened the same night as the event above, but I’m including it because I watched it at VIFF last month and because it’s really good. Written by good friend Lawrence Le Lam, with direction and additional writing by Ying Wang, this documentary tells the story of the mysterious suicide of a young man named Shi-Meng in 2005. When his parents heard the news, they were quite shocked. But the biggest matter they wanted to know was what caused him to do it? For well over a decade, the couple Qian Hui Deng and Xue Mei Li try to uncover as many clues as they can and fight against Vancouver’s legal system which apparently didn’t do a very good job at investigating the cause of death, and even failed to realize that maybe, just maybe, Shi-Meng had a side that no one ever knew about. A great documentary that teaches about immigration, the stress that goes with it, mental illness, and the bureaucracy that I’m ashamed of in this city. Quite educational, and quite sad at the same time. I know one immigrant personally and I’m glad they haven’t gotten wrapped up in something like this. It’s like I say, you can’t always judge an actor by his headshot.
Panels – As usual, there’s quite a small handful of panels at VAFF on explaining how to make it into the industry. Last year there was a panel all about women and what they did. This year, we got a panel of men. Hosted by Tim Lam who asked questions to Christopher Lee, Curtis Lum, Osric Chau, and Tarun Keram. These fine fellows talked about the deeper things in life, like who they felt resembled them, share their experiences (some of which Darren and I may have covered), how Asians seem to have barriers thanks to negative stereotypes in media, and how Asians should celebrate each other. They also plug their businesses and explained that Asian movies helped provide support to the community, and explained how to make it through the industry with methods like enjoying struggles, and being open to opportunities. Another great panel was financing projects. Hosted by the incredible Phil Planta, who was joined with Kim Guise, Lauren Davis, Robert Wong, and Patrice Ramsay who went into fantastic detail about their companies, their programs, and the ways of working with broadcasters. They explained they like to find filmmakers of communities who deserve more recognition, how everything works, who their partners are, their mandates, and what types of projects and people they’ll highly consider. An important lesson in that panel was that Creative integrity may be curbed by funding and finances, but it’s important to understand there’s lots of places that could be looking for your content and will help. There were other great panels such as one that discussed on how to work with music, but I wasn’t able to attend some of these. Anyways, there was plenty more to check out.
International Shorts – A nice little collection of short films from many different places around the globe, but some connection with Asian culture or made by Asian filmmakers. Some stories were short and even minimal like Bruised which focuses on a little girl dealing with abuse at home, and Daytime Moon where a young actor meets his ex-gf at an audition. Some of the more unsettling and ominous included Cul-de-sac, a story about a mother who gets more overwhelmed with her life as the struggles pile on, Year Zero, a real life story about a young prisoner and his brother who suffer in Cambodia during the 70s, and Justice For Vincent, a story about an Asian couple and their dying son – Yeah, I know. Sounds familiar. However this young Chinese fellow got brutally beaten by a couple of racist auto guys who thought he was Japanese. I guess the justice system in the U.S. is even worse, but then I’m not surprised. This was quite a mix of feelings.
Home Away – One of the more elaborate stories with lots of people getting involved, this is a super long movie about an elderly couple, Zhou and Dong who are so money hungry they choose to arrange a fake marriage for more government benefits. But while doing so, the rest of their family who is involved with them gets wrapped up in vivid amounts of bad luck. As everyone gets into serious struggles Zhou tries to keep his head up only for things for him to get hospitalized much like Dong did earlier. The story has an awful lot of main and minor characters making it quite the amount of work to check out. Its got a little humour, a lot of feeling, and fair amount of that feeling is tragic. Like most Chinese dramas, this one is very family based.
Centrepiece Film – Okay, so for the centrepiece we start out with a short film Nightcap Mariana, a love story between an Asian man and a black woman on Christmas who share a strange experience: Having the same ex. A good hilarious little film, but at the same time, a bit traumatizing for me. It’s productions like these that bring back flashbacks of MY ex (no details necessary). Now to get to the feature film of the night: Empty By Design. It’s all about two different young adults: An Asian stunt double named Eric and a cranky girl named Samantha. They’re both in the Philippines temporarily for different reasons, but interestingly enough, they were classmates in high school. On the rare chance when they finally meet each other, the two young people get to know each other better, and even hang out having some great fun together. The whole film was impressive and very deep. It actually took quite a while to create the story, but the crew was very open and the pitch was accepted by what I believe to be the best team ever, a team of female executives. A well made film about Philippine lifestyle and the rowdiness of youth, the film was great and the centrepiece party afterwards was worth attending even if the space wasn’t too big. There were at least some foods.
Terrolun and Lunlun – On the rarest of occasions, this was was a feature that had two short films premiere before it. First we got My Daughter Yoshiko, a story of a struggling mother who’s husband is a soldier and daughter is autistic. She has to rely on her father for help and things get quite iffy at times. It was freaky and disturbing. Sometimes I feel I was like that. The next short was another mother story called Motherhood, except it was a lot more fictional. When a pregnant woman named Miya trips on some shrine stairs she time travels to 1994 where she’s cooped up in an asylum and forced to abort her pregnancy. One patient helps her out because the same thing (time travel incident, not stopped pregnancy) happened to her. It’s a very intense and edgy story. Seldom beautiful moments that only turn dark. Now for the main feature. Two young individuals who come across each other. They’re both very quiet and keep to themselves a lot. Ueda Lunlun is unpopular in her school and Rui Asahina nicknamed Terrolun is shunned by the community due to an incident involving his father and some home-made fireworks. He works on repairs alone in his garage and somehow Ueda meets him and they make an interesting little connection. But even that gets misunderstood when Ueda’s mother intervenes and Rui starts being called a rapist by the neighbours and other members in the community. It only gets darker for the two outcasts. It’s a heartwarming story that ends on a sad but beautiful note. Or maybe I’m experiencing weird flashbacks again. It was still pretty great. The director himself even did research on a community and said that he made this movie because he personally connected with them.
BC Shorts and Canadian Shorts – Okay, so we have short films from all over but what about short films from here? Also, I don’t know what’s up with the names, okay? But they got categorized in a way, one by province and one by country. BC Shorts were, well, short, and some even strange. Like the first two: Into Here is a very simplistic Asian neighbour love story with very little interaction, followed by Finding Uranus which features a lonely cartoon guy using VR to find the g-spot or birth canal. Weeeeeee-iiiiiiirrrd. Some bits of the surrealism in that were cool though. Also, is it me or are too many films using the only song that Radiohead seems to be known for these days? Oh well, for the less unsettling, Inner Space is a partial science fiction about a young girl named Eva who will soon be going to Mars, but she feels uncomfortable about some things. The Shipment was a little unsettling for me in visuals given most of it being CGI, but there’s actually a pretty good story with it. GASP! WHAT?! That’s right, investment in both good effects and stories. George Lucas would be jealous. A single father takes his painting daughter along on trips but they’re so financially unstable until he gets an opportunity to be set for life… as well as put a third world alien species to extinction. I really enjoyed it. Super creepy was Odd Girl, about a socially awkward teen who tries to fit in and even invites a peer to dinner. Things get creepy and chilling.
Now for the Canadian shorts. More than half of these are MAMM shorts so I’ll just talk about the ones I haven’t covered. New Born is a bit of a touchy film about a man who doesn’t want his son to have the same name as him, thus breaking the family tradition. The Nisei is a detailed short doc about a couple who have retired and discuss their stories about being Japanese Canadians of the 2nd generation. Single Asian Male is a funny story about a fellow who flirts with the latest handsome fella who walks in for a drink. Finally, Worth tells the very true-like stary of a man in Pakistan who has to donate his baby son to a woman and then escape from the town with his daughter for a safer home. It was extremely ominous. But well put together. I also finally got to see the end of Deep Take after what happened at MAMM this year, and it was every bit as epic as I thought it was. If you’ve seen it yourself though, you probably know what happens anyway.
Closing: Yellow Rose, Awards Ceremony, and Afterparty – Now to get to the final events of the final night. Boy was this packed. A little girl named Rose is an aspiring musician who lives with her mother who works in the motel business somewhere in Texas. Rose’s father passed away long ago and she feels she’s getting nowhere as her mother won’t let her out too often. If anyone’s wondering, Filipino family. But not the most legal, because one night when Rose finally gets to go to a concert and returns, her mother is getting arrested thanks to some incorrectly submitted paperwork thus resulting in deportation. Rose doesn’t want to leave and instead lives with her aunty temporarily and lives with several other different Texans while figuring out her life. Rose still aspires to be a musician but is feverous at performing live, but all it takes is a local Texas hero to get her spirits up and on the right track… musically, that is. A wonderful story that’s a blend of funny and sad, reminds me of a lot of things I experienced, and while I’m not fond of country music, this film has some catchy country fun that’s enjoyable to the ear. Now for the awards, there weren’t a whole lot. In fact it seemed the only two winners in the ‘best’ category were Worth and Because We Are Girls (Darren and Shaun go into more detail regarding that one). People’s Choice had a lot more variety giving Best Performance to Year Zero, Best Short went to Grandma’s 80th Surprise (can’t blame ‘em, it’s got Lillian Lim, a true Chinese talent), and because the theatre was jammed full, everyone voted for Yellow Rose and it won. Richard Wong and Mina Shum got some awards too for their contributions to the community. After that, everybody went straight to the afterparty where the night was all great fun, featuring rapper Chuchu, MC’ed by Lawrence Le Lam who riled up the place even with a faulty microphone, and there were some delicious appetizers being passed out as well. But it went on kind of late IMO (I apologize if any of the writing is askew as I came back late to write this up)
Well, that’s it. Vancouver Asian Film Festival. This year gave me some vague flashbacks but it also had some great new additions to the whole program, it was a lot of fun to attend, great meeting people involved, and I’m super excited for what is about to happen next year. I’ll have to attend their upcoming board meeting to see what’s in mind. They might even applaud me again for this article in particular.