By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer
Wheelhouse Creative Photo
Two films with focus on Asian Americans left the 28th edition of SXSW Film Festival with awards: The Kelly Marie Tran produced documentary about a Chinese American domino artist, Lily Topples the World took the Best Documentary Feature and the Canadian feature film Islands received a Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance for actor Rogelio Baltagtas.
However, the winner of the documentary Audience Choice Award, had a misleading title, Who We Are: Racism in America, as if anti-Black racism summed up the problem of race in the US.
The jury wrote:
A joyful portrait of grace in artistry and commitment in engineering, Lily Topples the World shows a life online that transcends virality and touches something deeper. In Lily Hevesh, aka Hevesh5, the film features a collaborative, creative soul who comes by community and entrepreneurship naturally. A rare achievement in nonjudgmental subcultural exploration and a gorgeously rendered portrait of burgeoning adulthood that tumbles forward, like Lily’s domino art, into something beautiful.
For Islands and Baltagtas’s performance the jury stated:
Islands gives us the story of a painfully shy man set adrift in the world by the declining health of the parents who sheltered him. This story, of someone blooming late in life, hinges on the tremendously compelling, interior performance from relative newcomer Rogelio Balagtas who can break hearts throughout with his tears and enables the movie to transcend with a single smile.
Director Jeremy Workman takes us into the world of 20-year-old Lily Hevesh, a Chinese-born adoptee, who was raised on Sandown, New Hampshire. Posting her first YouTube video at 10 under the moniker, Hevesh5, she hid her identity for years before revealing that she was a girl in a predominately male field, but through her sense of color and imaginative and exacting engineering, she become a popular and dominate force, a modest and self-effacing, sincere YouTube celebrity.
As a child, Lily’s adoptive mother, Cathy (Hevesh2), lived near her grandmother who was constantly fostering children. After she and her husband Mark has two kids, Matthew (Hevesh3) and Alissa (Hevesh4), Cathy wanted to adopt a child. That child, Lily, was a year old when she joined the family. Lily is now 22 (Matthew is a professional musician and music educator; Alissa is in food science and food security and living in Florida. Linkedin lists her as a farmer at Gamble Creek Farm.) and a domino entrepreneur.
The documentary follows her as she educates kids on dominoes and engineering and decides whether she wants to stay in college and study engineering or take a leap into the unknown world of professional domino artist. Her father, Mark (Hevesh1), is there for support, helping Lily as she journeys in a predominately male world of domino builders and tries to balance her art and her academics. Lily found her tribe and became a leader. Find your obsession and who knows where it will take you? Executive produced by Kelly Marie Tran, this wonderful documentary that celebrates a girl geek made its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021, winning the festival’s Documentary Feature Film Award.
Director Nanfu Wang tackles the early days of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. This film premiered at Sundance, but is well worth catching if you have questions about the communist governments control of the media. The documentary is by turns scary and mesmerizing, but that’ s only if you can stand more information about COVID-19 during whatever level of pandemic restrictions you’re under.
In the Same Breath made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time is 95 minutes.
Directors Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler and screenwriter Jeffery Robinson have written an interesting look at the history of US anti-Black racism that weaves in Robinson’s own personal experiences. The SXSW synopsis of the film clarifies the title, but perhaps the title could be clearer. Racism in America is not Black and White nor limited to specific regions. Using archival footage, and present-day interviews, Robinson is giving both a lecture on a stage and personal interviews, off stage, but the focus is on the East Coast. Some of the data is drawn specifically from the South.
Who we are as US citizens and residents is more than the East Coast and the South. There’s also the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast, a few Pacific Islands and the Southwest. After of year of rising violence against Asian Americans, the binary approach at assessing racism should be a thing of the past. As a documentary about racism toward Black people in the East Coast and the South, this documentary is sensitive, personal and thoughtful, however, it is also misleading.
Attempting to bring in other regions, the documentary also briefly shows and mentions redlining in other cities, including Los Angeles. Having been born and raised in Southern California and now living in Los Angeles, I immediately recognized why the film’s narrative was problematic. Still I was surprised to learn from my own research that besides Black people, the redlining in Los Angeles County (1939) specifically mentioned Japanese Americans. There were other concerns as well in Los Angeles County, but you’d never know that from watching “Who We Are.” Looking at the redlining history of your own city could be enlightening about the foundations of racism in your area.
If you want to understand the issues depicted relative to the rest of the US, you can check out my complete analysis of this documentary on my blog, including redlining in Los Angeles County. Racism in America is not limited to one region nor to the binary of Black and White.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America won the Audience Award at SXSW Online 2021 where it made its world premiere. Running times is 117 minutes.
Showrunner/Screenwriter Kayla Yumi Lewis with director Luke Salin take us to Illinois in a dramedy, Parked in America, where a Korean teenager gets an American first name after moving in with her relatives. Jamie Park (Judy Song) speaks English well enough, but that’s not what keeps her from making friends. Her cousins are hapa and in the first episode, she opposes her cousin Eli Barnes (Jeff Lawless) who wants to put on a party while his parents, Emma (Judy Han) and Mark (Jim Cairl) are away. The first friend that Jamie makes, Harvey Thomson (Solomon Abell), somehow rubs Eli the wrong way. Both Jamie and Eli have their own secrets. Helping Jamie adjust is Halmoni (MeeWha Alana), who’s ready to make traditional Korean fare to prevent Jamie from feeling homesick. Lewis based the show on her own experiences as the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a White Midwesterner and how she navigated between two worlds.
For future screenings, visit the show’s website.
While it’s delightful to see Harry Shum Jr. in a lead role, this dark intense film doesn’t take advantage of either his charm or his dance moves. Instead, we are led down a rabbit hole in a pre-cyber surfing world. It’s the late 1990s, a time when the internet was new and cellphones were clunky and not a must-have. James, a widowed video archivist (Shum) working the lonely graveyard shift in a dark basement, finds a series of pirate broadcasts that may be linked to a dark conspiracy, one that involves his late wife.
His dancer wife Hannah didn’t die; she disappeared. Or did she? Is she somehow connected to the strange figure in a scary clown mask and wig that speaks, but can’t be understood. How is this figure that intrudes into a news program video connected to James’ disturbing dreams? These broadcast intrusions have been investigated by the FCC and FBI, but the person behind the mask remains a mystery. James believe the intrusions are connected to missing women, including Hannah.
A media studies professor (Steven Pringle) warns James not to fall down this rabbit hole, but what loving husband wouldn’t take the plunge? Along the way, James meets others who have been caught up with the chase before him. The plot of Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall’s script is so tangled and there seem to be too many threads left to unravel along the way that by the end, the audience’s sympathy is thin and threadbare.
Director Jacob Gentry evokes an atmospheric intellectual labyrinth within urban setting, helped by Scott Thiele’s camera work, but Drinkwater and Woodall’s screenplay doesn’t give Shum enough material to rise above his angsty deserted spouse role nor does the audience receive a satisfactory richly woven resolution.
Broadcast Signal Instruction made its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021. Running time is 104 minutes.
The Fabulous Filipino Brothers ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎ (Philippines, United States)
For director Dante Basco and screenwriters Dante Basco, Darion Basco, Dionysio Basco and Arianna Basco, this film is truly a family affair, but while I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are truly fabulous, they are funny. The Bascos have many show business credits between them–acting, writing and producing. You can check IMDb for all of that info.
Narrated by a someone who will provide a surprise solution, this comedy is about four brothers at a wedding. Initially it isn’t clear whose wedding, but you’ll eventually get there as each brother is introduced through a vignette.
“The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” had its world premiere at SXSW and there’s plenty of cross-cultural and generational gap complaining and the brothers easily emulate their brotherly ties that span from teasing to tenderness to total warfare. I could easily see this set of brothers having a sequel or prequels with hopefully fabulous adventures. This film is light and doesn’t dig deep. If you want to escape from the hard realities hitting Asians and Asian Americans today, this might be your jam.
In Mei Makino’s Inbetween Girl, budding artist Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) draws often angry cartoon strips, but when her friend (and secret crush) Liam (William Magnuson) crawls in through her window one night, she quickly becomes his secret hookup. His girlfriend Sheila (Emily Garrett) is “too Catholic.” She’s saving herself for marriage.
Angie’s often left home alone. Her mother (Liz Waters) works long hours and has recently divorced Fai (KaiChow Lau). Fai has moved on and found a Chinese-speaking girlfriend, Min (ShanShan Jin)who has an academically gifted daughter Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui).
Hapa Makino delved into her own experiences but also was open to some input from the two leads, Galbraith and Magnuson. There’s a naturalness to their youthful awkward forays into intimacy and their journey from platonic friendship to slightly sordid friendship with benefits.
“Inbetween Girl” made its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021. Running time is 89 minutes and the film is not yet rated.
Islands ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎ (Canada)
Screenwriter/director Martin Edralin captures the patience required as the tyranny of aging affects a loved one in his film: Islands. Joshua is also the eldest son. He was once a dentist, but leaving the Philippines meant he wasn’t licensed for Canada. Needing to support his parents–Alma (Vangie Alcasid), and his father, Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang), Joshua couldn’t afford the dentistry re-education and found humble work as a janitor. Joshua’s younger brother Paolo’s (Pablo S.J. Quiogue) married a White woman and lives outside of the mundane stress of elder care.
In a path that parallel’s Joshua, Filipino Canadian Edralin also captures the plight of the dutiful Filipina daughter, Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco). Marisol had often been invited to visit in Canada by Alma, but only finally makes it to attend Alma’s funeral. Marisol has been earning money in Kuwait, sending it back to her family in the Philippines. Like her cousin Joshua, she has missed out on love and family and unfortunately, lived a life filled with sexual harassment and possible assault.
Islands seems like a melancholy tribute to the lonely men and women not just living far from the islands of their birth, but also living as islands of isolation in far flung cities and countries.
There are few things worse than finding out one of your former loves left you and decided to change course in their love life. In the case of performance artist and now college instructor (Lynn Chen) her romance with Kris (Pooya Mohseni) ended abruptly. He didn’t just decide he wasn’t interested in women any more. He decided to transition to being female with a decided preference for men.
Kris has had her “gender affirmation surgery” a decade ago, but now she comes for closure with Naomi. Things begin friendly enough, but there’s a load of hurt that will be unpacked and finally hurled around.
Writer/director Mari Walker is herself hapa, half-Japanese half-White. According to an article in the Alliance of Female Journalists, her mother had little awareness of her Japanese culture. Walker had lived and worked as a man until she decided to live more authentically and transitioned. Co-writing with Kristen Uno, during one night in Phoenix, Walker takes us from awkward silences to cautious political correctness until a secret breaks down to the raw anger and bitterness that have been festering for a decade.
See You Then made its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021. Running time is 74 minutes.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or making a financial contribution to support us.