The Asian American International Film Festival opened in New York this week, celebrating its 40th anniversary. Presented by Asian CineVision, in association with Asia Society, AAIFF is the longest running film festival dedicated to Asian American cinema.
2017 marks not only a major year for the festival, but also several landmark anniversaries in Asian American history. This year marks the 130th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 75th anniversary of Japanese internment during World War II, and the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots in L.A. In such a historic year, the festival theme, Still Here, Not Going Away, is not necessarily a response to recent political events, but rather a tribute to the legacy of decades of Asian American advancements, achievements and activism.
Whittled down from 640 submissions and representing films from 18 countries, the festival will screen 23 feature films and 63 shorts this year. The festival opened with the feature Gook, which received the Next Audience Award after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Starring Justin Chon (Seoul Searching, 21 & Over, Twilight) and David So (the Youtube account DavidSoComedy). Gook depicts the unorthodox friendship between two Korean American brothers and a young African American girl at the precipice of the 1992 L.A. riots. Gook provides a glimpse into the often untold perspectives of Korean Americans in South Central Los Angeles during the 1992 riots.
In an interview, Chon, who also wrote, directed and produced the film, emphasized the importance of supporting Asian American creators, and the struggles he faced financing the film as an Asian-American filmmaker. “When films like this come along–not just for my sake but for Asian American representation–if you vote with your dollars, then executives take a second glance,” he said.
Another notable feature of the festival is the Tribute program, which pays homage to Asian film history, including the festival’s own history. The programming for this year’s festival includes The Class of ’97, a selection of films from the 1997 AAIFF festival including Shopping for Fangs, the debut of Fast & Furious and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin, and Strawberry Films, a documentary by Japanese American video artist Rea Tajiri.
The Class of ‘97 program reflects the changing state of Asian-American cinema, including landmark works that have paved the way for many of the films shown at this year’s festival. In many ways, the festival itself chronicles Asian-American film history, along with Asian-American history itself.
AAIFF provides a rare opportunity for Asian Americans filmmakers to tell their own stories, and develop films that reveal the depth and complexity of stories within the diverse Asian American community. For a community that so often provides what is considered an outsider perspective in American culture, the festival honors often-unrecognized history and cultural achievements of Asian Americans in American film.
As Executive Director John C. Woo asserted at a press conference for the festival, “We are seeing that filmmakers are now being true to what the founders of Asian CineVision’s (ACV) original mission was: if you don’t see yourself on the screen, see yourself in the boardrooms, then raise your hand and do it yourself. Tell your story.”