What to watch at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival

Seattle Asian American Film Festival

Despite all the publicity surrounding the Sony Pictures leak, there was one email that got a lot less attention than the rest. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, The West Wing) wrote that he could not adapt the book “Flash Boys” into a screenplay, in part because the story centered around the real life Wall Street trader Bradley Katsuyama.

The problem was that the script couldn’t be made into a movie because, in Sorkin’s mind, “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”

“Flash Boys” was never filmed, but in movie after movie the solution has been simply to replace the Asian characters with White actors — see “21,” “Lords of Dogtown,” “Avatar,” and the upcoming “Ghost in the Shell” among many others. Instead of seizing those rare moments when they might show a fully realized Asian character, mainstream cinema ends up erasing them instead.

Rather than waiting around for Hollywood to suddenly realize that there actually are great Asian movie stars and even better stories to tell about Asian Americans, the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (February 12-15) is screening a whole slate of films showcasing the lives of Asian Americans in all their complexity.

While the festival intentionally shows films that cross a range of ethnicities and topics, this year has a particularly strong showing of LGBT and transnational films. These films challenge conventional ideas of what it means to be Asian American in ways surprising and new.

Here are my top four picks for this year’s festival:

Kumu Hina

This film, the short films that precede it, and the opening night film, To Be Takei (a documentary about actor/social media star/LGBT activist George Takei) are representative of the exciting turn towards LGBT themes in independent Asian American film.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a kumu (teacher) and a mahu (transgender woman), is a fierce advocate for Native Hawaiians. The film’s focus on her politics and romantic life promises to show us how gender, race, and sexuality are flexible concepts, with meanings that shift depending on personal and cultural contexts.


This is the film that I’ve anticipated seeing the most. I’ve followed the career and activism of Filipino American Jose Antonio Vargas for a long time even though he’s still quite young. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Vargas risked his job and his home to come out publicly as an undocumented immigrant.

Vargas stopped by one of my classes on his speaking tour in support of the Dream Act, and he was a charismatic and deeply compassionate speaker. Asian Americans are about 12% of the undocumented population, a total of 1.3 million people, and this film tells their little-heard story.

Cambodian Son

Like Documented, this movie addresses the need for immigration reform, but the story it tells couldn’t be more different. If Vargas is the poster child for the “deserving” immigrant, the star of Cambodian Son gives us a different face of Asian migration.

Poet Kosal Khiev was forced to flee Cambodia as a 1-year old and grew up an American. Then, after serving a prison term in his youth, he was deported. The film showcases his powerful spoken word performances as he tries to negotiate life in Cambodia.

How to Fight in Six-Inch Heels

Looking at my list, it might seem like the festival is all documentaries and weighty topics, but that really just reflects my own biases. In contrast to the first three picks, this last one is a romantic comedy and heavy on the slapstick. It combines some of my favorite themes – fashion, make-overs, and trans-pacific culture clashes.

The main character, Anne, is a Vietnamese American who travels to Vietnam to find out if her fiancée is cheating on her. As Anne moves across national and cultural boundaries, she finds herself having to reinvent herself and re-evaluate her own identity. Even though the film is a comedic fantasy, it plays on the experiences so common to the Asian diaspora.

This is just a small sampling of the films on offer at the festival. There are dramas, comedies, science fiction, and short films, too. Check it out and explore a world far beyond the ones seen in your local Cineplex.

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