Seattle Asian American Film Festival celebrates the spirit of resistance

Still from "Mele Murals."
Still from “Mele Murals.”

Seattle has had a long history of protest and political activism. But in the past few weeks, we’ve emerged as a national leader. Although we chose the movies for this year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) well before inauguration day, that spirit of resistance runs throughout these films.

For some the pairing of Asian Americans and resistance politics seems odd. The popular image of Asian Americans as apolitical and socially conservative reinforces commonly held “model minority” stereotypes. After all, protests and protesters are loud, assertive, and angry while Asians are imagined to be quiet, passive and well-behaved.

This stereotype ignores the tradition of Asian American activism right here in Seattle. Asians were at the center of three generation of union organizing, often in the face of violent opposition and Seattle’s first neighborhood advocacy group formed in the International District to fight against the building of I-5 right through the center of the neighborhood.

There are multiple films in the festival tackling social justice issues. Painted Nails, a documentary that follows Vietnamese nail salon worker, Van, in her fight for protections against toxins in cosmetics products. Right Footed tells the story of disability rights activist and pilot Jessica Cox.

However, there are four films that seem most relevant to our current political moment:

Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story lands us right in the middle of one of the most contentious issues of the election: immigration. Arrested at 16 for a home invasion robbery and tried as an adult, Zheng spent nineteen years in prison, including a stint in solitary after trying to organize Asian American studies courses with fellow inmates. Zheng has spent the years since release fighting deportation, a fight that continues to today. The film puts a human face on the struggle for both immigrant rights and prison reform.

Two other films take resistance in a very different direction.

Massive Monkees: The Beacon documents Seattle’s local dance crew’s incredible athleticism and the community they’ve built around their dance studio.

The deeply moving film Mele Murals similarly features street art, this time graffiti, to explore the meaning of community. The film follows two artists whose different styles and philosophies clash and merge on the way to a fuller understanding of Native Hawaiian culture and rights.

Neither film gives us conventional stories of protest, but they lodge their activism in the practice of art, art that speaks to a community. The subjects of the films do face hardship, but they also experience joy in the creation of something new and beautiful. It’s the kind of resistance that feeds a community and makes it possible to continue to fight.

Finally, I want to end on a film that you wouldn’t find on any other list of resistance films: Better Luck Tomorrow. In celebration of the film festival’s fifth year, SAAFF is screening the now-classic film of Asian American nihilism and teenage alienation.

Fifteen years ago when the film debuted audiences were appalled at the film’s lack of moral center. Devoid of the staple narratives of ethnic films such as self-discovery and the clash of cultures, the movie launched the careers of its star John Cho (Harold and Kumar, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and its director Justin Lin (The Fast and Furious franchise, Star Trek Beyond). Rather than finding resistance in the plot of the film, the challenge here was in the audacity of its premise – that Asian Americans had more stories to tell than we could have imagined. The film told Asian Americans that we don’t have to be perfect or model citizens to be worthy of having stories of their own.

Resistance comes in many forms. We can find it in inspiring stories of people who fight systems of injustice, in the explosive power of dance and art, and even in stories about suburban malaise. What remains consistent is the refusal to give up and the refusal to stay silent. Instead, these films all urge us to rise up and resist.

The Seattle Asian American Film Festival takes place from Friday, Feb. 23 through Sunday, Feb. 26 at Northwest Film Forum in Capitol Hill. Tickets and a full schedule are available at

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