In many ways, the year 2020 is already turning out to be a pivotal one for Asian Pacific American cinema, and for reasons largely out of the control of not only filmmakers and audiences, but of exhibitors, festival programmers, media activists, and cultural workers alike. At first, 2020 began as a year of promise, punctuated by rapturous praise for a complement of veteran and emerging APA filmmakers who made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival. The accolades afforded Cedric Cheung-Lau (THE MOUNTAINS ARE A DREAM THAT CALL TO ME), Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI, Ramona S. Diaz’ A THOUSAND CUTS, Shalini Kantayya’s CODED BIAS, Bao Nguyen’s BE WATER, and Edson Oda’s NINE DAYS would be accompanied by subsequent screenings leading up to the 2020 South-by-Southwest Film, Music, and Digital Media Festival, where an expected rendezvous with new feature narratives and documentaries by the likes of Iram Parveen Bilal (I’LL MEET YOU THERE), Lynn Chen (I WILL MAKE YOU MINE), Alice Gu (THE DONUT KING), Kitao Sakurai (BAD TRIP), Jiayan “Jenny” Shi (FINDING YINGYING), Joshua Tsui (INSERT COIN), and others. When juxtaposed with the anticipated World Premiere of Alice Wu’s THE HALF OF IT at the Tribeca Film Festival, it all seemed to add up to a banner year for APA cinema.
As things have turned out, a global pandemic and the postponement and/or outright cancellation of just about all cultural events and gatherings have robbed both artists and audiences alike the opportunity to revel in this cornucopia of new and intriguing work. In a sense, this season’s crop of new APA works promised to effect a necessary corrective to 2018, when a similar stellar crop of APA productions was virtually eclipsed by the box office and cultural behemoth CRAZY RICH ASIANS. That Jon M. Chu phenomenon was at least partly responsible for a perceived “renaissance” and new mainstream career opportunities for APA cinema and movieworkers, while masking the fact that the film portrayed a myopic, fantasized portrait of Asian American and Asian transnational communities that largely failed to skew with the realities of a Trumpian America. With live festival events and gatherings of all kinds now put off until at least mid-summer 2020, a prime opportunity for the type of audience-building for APA cinema is certainly lost.
In its place, a virtual cultural “community” is forming. “Zoom” hangouts and meetings have replaced conferences and cultural gatherings. A robust streaming mechanism, playing off of existing models as Kanopy, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and others, is rapidly ramping up for the benefit of audiences who have been denied the opportunity to experience this World Premiere or that U.S. Premiere screening of the latest and brightest of new cinema. And in many circles, that “virtual film festival” has already arrived. Case in point: The Hawaii International Film Festival has recently launched HIFF@HOME, an online videopolis through which audiences can revisit that venerable film festival’s many past hits; and experience current seasonal hits that would have made their U.S. Premieres at HIFF’s Spring Showcase. Pacific Arts Movement, presenters of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, has partnered with Kino Now to host special presentations of select classics of APA cinema, with attendant Q&A sessions with artists and PAM’s Artistic Director Brian Hu.
Not to be outdone, SXSW announced a partnership with Amazon.com to bring a sizeable selection of feature-length works to its Amazon Prime video platform beginning in late April. For those who can’t wait to sate their SXSW fix, the online e-letter platform MailChimp has established a Festival website through which audiences can experiences many of the short films skedded to screen in Austin back in March. I can’t speak to the experiences of African American, Chicano/LatinX, and Native American/First Nation film festival goers. For Asian Pacific Americans of a certain demographic, the virtual universe seems tailor-made for APAs, many of whom consume and in fact create filmed entertainment and informational content for online delivery. The missed opportunity for a shared, communal movie-going experience may be greatly lamented, but for audiences, a “virtual” film festival offers another kind of communal experience.
(A note of disclosure: Visual Communications, the non-profit media arts organization of which I am a part, recently launched its own online platform, VC CONNECT, as a means of re-acquainting audiences with its 350-plus strong filmography spanning a half-century. Weekly curated “albums” are spotlighted on VC’s web destination, while the actual free Vimeo site is located here.)
But for the artists, is a “virtual” film festival experience an acceptable alternative to traditional forms of audience-building? And what of those festival events indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic, including CAAMFest and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, whose programming was already impacted by impacted exhibition windows due to streaming arrangements with the Amazon Primes and Netflixes of the world?
To answer that question, one only needs to examine the means by which audiences currently view motion pictures online. Whether by binge-watching or by repeatedly pausing a feature film at various points for any number of reasons (bathroom run, fridge run, starting a film at an airport terminal waiting to board a flight, or whatever), the disruptive nature of movie-watching online stands as a stark contrast to the communal experience of watching a motion picture, uninterrupted, in a common screening venue — whether it be a movie theatre, film festival venue, screening in the park, or similar. Readers of this posting will have their own stories to tell in this regard; me, I can say that I have my own thoughts on the matter. For instance, my own frustrating experiences earlier this year attempting to get through the cinematic train wreck that is Michael Fimognari’s TO ALL THE BOYS: P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU, a Netflix Originals adaptation of a Y.A. novel by Jenny Han. It has taken me six tries to finally get through an approximately 100-minute feature film since its release, mostly due to the fact that the film was so very bad. Over social media and in past postings throughout this blog, I’ve made my feelings known about compromised visions, in which material by APAs are produced largely by non-APA creatives (TO ALL THE BOYS… was directed and written by whites, though the novelist Han took an executive producing credit, whatever that means). Having to put up with works such as these that bear the lingering stink of inauthenticity is challenging enough. For the viewer to have the convenience of pausing this or any other works — or even moving on to another viewing choice altogether — must send a shudder down the backs of not only filmmakers, but streaming executives whose careers are dependent on the success of titles invested with tens of millions of dollars. I have to ask: would TO ALL THE BOYS… been a better selection with a theatrical run similar to what was afforded Nahnatchka Khan’s 2019 Netflix Original ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE? I think I might have been able to sit through an uninterrupted screening session, with an audience, than the seemingly never-ending hell of trying to get through an online screening session. Another disclosure: I have never watched director Khan’s feature on Netflix, instead opting to view it in a movie theatre, with an audience, during its short theatrical window in May 2019. I found that a “Netflix” aesthetic was starting to emerge with these sort of movies, one that largely didn’t exist in most theatrical motion pictures — over-acting, a distinct lack of subtlety, a nagging sense of “smallness” that’s exacerbated on those occasions when films are presented in wide-screen, or “Scope” format.
These tropes are on full display in yet another Netflix Original that dropped this weekend — Alan Yang’s TIGERTAIL, a cross-generational drama based largely on the experiences of director Yang’s own father. From a sustained viewing of the film, it’s clear that Yang (a producer of American television series including PARKS AND RECREATION, MASTER OF NONE, and THE GOOD PLACE) has referenced the masters of Taiwanese New Wave cinema as well as select key scenes of Asian cinema. The budding relationship between young Pin-Jui and Yuan in 1950s-era rural Taiwan plays out in visuals not unlike an Edward Yang or Lin Cheng-shen feature (Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY and THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH; and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s DAUGTHERS OF THE NILE comes to mind right away), while those vast rice field scenes that bracket the film recall Japanese director Shunji Iwai’s ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU. The lyrical yet rootsy storytelling that inform those scenes strangely go flying out the door once we fast-forward to Pin-Jui’s life in America: now an elderly divorcee (Tzi Ma) negotiating a torturously strained relationship with his grown daughter (Christine Ko), the narrative becomes a tough and predictable slog — Yang, a first-time director, lacks full command of his material (he also wrote the screenplay, as well as produced his film). The result is a manneristic family drama that bears clear aspirations to Lulu Wang’s 2019 cultural phenomenon THE FAREWELL, another family drama that enjoyed a lengthy and satisfying theatrical run after its triumphant debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Like TO ALL THE BOYS…, I have to wonder: would TIGERTAIL have been a more effective and engrossing drama had it enjoyed a run in theatres, where its wide-screen vistas and intimate dramas may have played out to better effect? For the foreseeable future, we’ll never know — in Los Angeles, the “shelter-in-place” policies are in effect until at least mid-May, and even then, the reopening of cinemas and other forms of communal entertainment and sporting activities will be a long process that may takes weeks, if not months.
We’re not going to know how TIGERTAIL will be received until at least the beginning of next week, when Netflix rates its Top Ten most-viewed selections. The Twitter-verse has already seemed to weigh in with its collective verdict, but I’m withholding judgement, as we all know that opinions on that social media platform are largely “juiced.” Instead, I’m already looking ahead, with trepidation and genuine concern, to May Day, when Alice Wu’s long-awaited second feature-length narrative, THE HALF OF IT, makes its debut on Netflix. Having been deprived of a proper theatrical screening at the COVID-19-shuttered Tribeca Film Festival, I wonder if director Wu’s gift for intimate and nuanced interplay will play out on a small screen in her sophomore directing effort. I’ve previously compared director Wu’s storytelling and understanding of urban drama as analogous to independent master John Cassavetes; I sincerely hope her latest displays the same filmmaking gifts that distinguished her electrifying 2004 debut SAVING FACE. More to the point, I sincerely hope that THE HALF OF IT overcomes the hurdles that have seemingly tripped up TIGERTAIL. If not, then I shudder to think that we might be entering an unwelcome new era of Asian Pacific American cinema, one lacking in community-building through sharing and engaging audiences through cinema. Without that crucial ingredient in enfranchising our collective communities, we might very well be condemned to watch cinema in a vacuum, and build community through Zoom meet-ups, which has its own problems due to Zoom’s purported deficit of privacy protocols. Welcome to the New Normal. Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to enjoy a minute of it.