Friday night, a packed house showed up to attend the sold-out opening of the 15th Annual Asian American Showcase, a fortnight featuring the work of Asian American artists in film, music, visual and literary arts. Not familiar with the Asian American Showcase? Frankly, neither was I, which is a shame, as this is the only film festival dedicated exclusively to Asian American film in the entire country. The fact that Chicago – with an energetic and diverse but relatively small Asian American population – is host to such a festival is a point of pride, and what the all-volunteer staff has been able to accomplish is simply stunning.
The showcase is brought to you by the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM), http://www.faaim.org/about-us/ and peripatetic Executive Director Tim Hugh gave me a brief introduction to this year’s highlights; which include edgy independent local films, mainstream comedies and documentaries on relevant subjects; including AOKI, http://www.faaim.org/aoki/ one of the founding members of the Black Panthers who was of Japanese-American descent; and TRANCENDING, http://www.faaim.org/transcending-wat-misaka/ the first player of color to be drafted by the NBA.
“Asian American directors have won Academy Awards and Independent Spirit Awards, but the fact that they’re Asian is almost an afterthought.” said Hugh. “The community is dimensional, textured and layered. We want to showcase another voice, giving exposure to work we believe in and an opportunity for what may be Chicago’s only opportunity to attend a screening.”
Hugh explained that this is due to the community’s challenges with visibility. “Asian American film is classified by Netflix as a ‘special interest group’, in there with Yoga and Extreme Adventures! Distributers don’t know what to do with Asian American films. If it’s in Chinese, they go “oh, it’s a foreign film.” The Chicago Film Festival has never shown an Asian American Film, so screw them.”
Hugh also asked what it means be an Asian American? “We have a rich history that can’t be defined easily. I mean, there’s South Asian, North Asian, etc.” As I reflected on this thought, I looked upon the walls of the gallery at the vibrant post-colonial pop pan-Asian paintings of Laura Kina, http://www.faaim.org/visual/ which seemed to ask the same question.
I asked director Quentin Lee about his inspiration for the opening night film: THE PEOPLE I’VE SLEPT WITH http://www.faaim.org/the-people-ive-slept-with/ and he said it was the actress. I had to wonder what this meant, and later, after the screening, he explained during the Q&A: “I wanted to make a film about a strong modern woman who happens to be Asian. A chick flick mixed with a gay theme.” He said that although the film was not autobiographical, he reflected upon his own close friendships with several strong Asian women.
The heroine, Angela Yang (Karin Anna Cheung), is an earthy and attractive woman who loves sex. But she’s forced to re-assess her free and fun-loving lifestyle when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although her gay BFF Gabriel Lugo (Wilson Cruz) thinks she should “take care of it” and her up-tight, conservative sister thinks it’s a “sign from god” to settle down, Angela quickly creates a dialog with the baby that carries through the entire film. When she decides to go through with the pregnancy, a hilarious investigation ensues, as we’re introduced to the possible suspects: five of them, profiled by nicknames (aka 5-second guy, Mr. Hottie, Nice-but-boring-guy…) along with their stats on polaroid baseball cards. Among them, there’s a vast pageant of odd fish, but who’s the father, and who’s the real catch?
I found the film to be quirky, sexy, unexpected, warm and completely un-judgemental, just like Angela herself. I liked and cared about not only her but Gabriel, who loses the love go his life and then tries to win him back; and Angela’s elderly father, who quotes wise sayings from the internet. The plot twists in unexpected ways and is messy as real life is messy, with secrets and lies (especially lies to oneself). But the underlying themes: the importance of friendship, the search for love and finding one’s own identity; are universal. The ethnicity of the characters matters little, because in essence Lee is investigating what is is that makes us human: our never-ending search for happiness.
Will Angela find happiness? Will it all end happily every after? The film shows again on Sunday, April 4 at 5:30, so you’ll have to see for yourself.
Other recommended films are God is D_ad by Abraham Lin, A Village call Versaiiles by S. Leo Chiang, and 1997’s Shopping for Fangs, another film by Quentin Lee and Justin Lin. The closing feature is Raspberry Magic by Leena Penharkar.
See the schedule at http://www.faaim.org/film-schedule/