HomeBad Ass AsiansAsAm filmmakers featured at HollyShorts Film Festival

AsAm filmmakers featured at HollyShorts Film Festival

By Amy-Xiaoshi Depaola

Josh Leong volunteered with his church alongside C3.NYC’s Juvenile Justice Ministry, at Horizon and Crossroads Juvenile Centers in the Bronx and Brooklyn during the summer of 2021. 

“It was the day after Father’s Day, and I was wondering why some of [the boys] were getting emotional,” Leong recalled in a phone interview. 

It turned out that some of the under-18s were fathers themselves.

Asian American filmmakers like Leong are bringing personal stories from the heart such as that one into the spotlight at this year’s 19th annual HollyShorts.

The Oscar-qualifying festival will include 28 short films by AAPI creatives, set to be screened at the iconic ICL Chinese 6 Theatres in Los Angeles, from Aug. 10 through 20. 

Leong and many of the others have based their short films on true experiences, hoping that audiences will not view what’s on screen as simply entertainment but become inspired to be a part of social change. 

Leong’s Chicken is centered around Shrue, a 16-year-old father who loses custody of his child while in juvenile prison, learning about resilience and parenthood through caring for a baby chicken. 

Josh Leong’s Chicken will be screened at HollyShorts on Aug. 13.

“Many of these boys … believe they’re programmed to repeat the actions of their fathers,” who were often abusive or absent, Leong explained. He said that many of the boys believe that since they’re in prison, they have already failed not only themselves but their own children and are perpetuating the same tragic cycle. 

But through Sprout by Design’s chick-hatching program, Leong observed that the boys would treat the baby chicks like surrogate children, with some of them asking, “Can I bring the chick back to my cell? It’s the only way I can sleep?” 

The hope with Chicken is that the film proves to both the kids and the audience that their story is important and that it’s possible for them to turn the page and be good fathers, Leong said. 

He also wanted to emphasize that when it comes to juvenile justice, these are not hardened and irredeemable prisoners—these are kids who deserve to be equipped with tools to make other decisions.

“If you judge society by what we did at 16 years old, we wouldn’t have a functioning society,” Leong said. 

Poster of Chicken promoted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York
Chicken screened at Tribeca in New York.

Chicken screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and HollyShorts offers the opportunity to bring the New York short film—and raise awareness of a national issue—to West Coast audiences, particularly the Los Angeles area.

“I really want to make sure that people can engage with the story behind the film,” Leong said, expressing the need for staff, volunteers, supporters and donations in the juvenile justice sector. “It’s a call to action, not just a story.”

Like Leong, producer Dave Liu hopes to invoke social change with Every Day After. (Full disclosure: Liu is on the board of Asian American Media Inc, the non-profit that publishes AsAmNews). His film with Elisa Gambino’s tells the story of Jary, who was born with a cleft-lip palate, and is taken in by his older sister, Jessa, after being abandoned by his parents. Jessa fights to get the medical care her brother needs while both of them carve out a life in Masbate Province in the Philippines.

Dave Liu’s “Every Day After” will be screened at Hollyshorts on Aug. 13.

This will be Liu’s first debut at Hollyshorts. 

“We’re really excited about it,” he said in a phone interview with AsAmNews.

Liu, who’s spent nearly six years in entertainment, started Lucrative Media with a mission to overturn negative stereotypes surrounding AAPIs by creating and funding AAPI-centered films. So when Liu heard about Every Day After, he said he “immediately got on board.”

“This became a deeply personal project for me,” Liu shared. Not only was his grandmother born in the same province as Jary and Jessa, but like Jary, Liu was born with a bilateral cleft palate. Liu has had 12 cranial surgeries, one of them around two months ago, and has more scheduled. 

The media interviews Dave Liu at the premiere of Every Day After
Dave Liu is interviewed by the media at Hollyshorts

In Every Day After, Jary is beginning his own surgical journey, but Liu stressed that the documentary, shot over 25 days, is solely focused on the sibling pair and that he and Gambino took care not to inject personal bias into the film. Gambino, whose films revolve around social change and health issues, met the siblings while at a local clinic in the Philippines, where the nonprofit Smile Train which Liu supports works to give cleft-palate-affected patients life-saving surgeries. 

In addition to changing the narrative about AAPIs, Liu said he hopes to do the same with those with facial differences, who are often treated as pariahs or villains in Hollywood, including in 2022’s The Batman, with the character of The Penguin, and with multiple James Bond villains.  

Also telling a story about empathizing with “the other” is Anne Hu, whose Lunchbox follows a Taiwanese American woman preparing meals from her childhood, causing her to reflect on how she herself has pushed away her immigrant mother. Hu plays the protagonist, Shirley, and also directed, edited and wrote the short film. 

Anne Hu’s “Lunchbox” will be screened at HollyShorts on Aug. 13.

Unlike Liu, this isn’t Hu’s first rodeo at HollyShorts, where her award-winning short film, Cake—in which a woman attempts to spice up her marriage with a female sex robot—screened in 2017. 

This time around, though, the premise couldn’t be more different: Lunchbox is taken from Hu’s “most vulnerable story” about growing up Taiwanese American in the white suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and the residual effects of anti-Asian racism and assimilation. The short film is a love letter to her late mother, who passed away when Hu was 20. 

Hu said she wrote the screenplay in 2017 after watching an NBC Asian America video where AAPIs shared their stories about being bullied for bringing their cultural food to school and how they pushed away their heritage as a result. 

“I hope this film allows [the AAPI community] to feel seen and feel catharsis for any past wounds that still need healing,” she said in a phone interview with AsAmNews. 

“I’ve had so many people come up to me after the film in tears,” with one describing it as “soup for the soul,” Hu added.

But the story already strongly resonated before Lunchbox began filming, with the crowdfunding campaign immediately meeting and surpassing their original funding goal.

A young girl stares down at her lunchbox after her mother drops her off at school
Anne Hu Films

“It blew me out of the water because of people’s support and passion for the project,” Hu recalled. “I definitely grew up with a lot of shame … having that support now felt like I was healing the things I regret in the past and reconnecting with the community.”

The AAPI-studded cast and crew also poured their own personal experiences and background into the short film. The journey was particularly full-circle for Hu, who said she pushed to return to her hometown to shoot the film, where they ended up casting two Taiwanese girls who went to the same Cleveland Chinese school Hu attended as a child. 

Lunchbox was also a response to the rise of anti-AAPI hate during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while AAPI representation is touted as part of the solution to combat ignorance and hostility, Hu stressed, AAPIs don’t need to prove to others why it’s important to exist onscreen and behind the camera.

“In claiming that space, hopefully, it helps people see the humanity of all people,” Hu said, “but if not, representation for ourselves” is an act of resilience, strength and power for the community.

a father and son enjoy the great outdoors together in Finding Our Wild
Scene from Finding Our Wild

Lastly, the themes of retracing steps and reflecting on the past also play a crucial role in Sid Gopinath and Aditya Joshi’s documentary, Finding Our Wild, where Gopinath and his father unearth old emotions about immigration, family and aging during a cross-country camping trip. 

Gopinath and Joshi met in college, bonding over their shared experiences of growing up Indian American in majority-white areas, but they differed in one aspect: While Gopinath’s father and grandparents explored national parks—he himself tagged along as a kid on road trips, despite wanting to stay home and play video games—Joshi never had been on a camping trip. 

Initially, Gopinath and Joshi thought their short film would largely be focused on what it means to be a person of color in outdoor spaces, but it became a “deeply personal story set against more of a backdrop of being a person in the outdoors,” said Gopinath in a Zoom interview. 

During the film, Gopinath and his father visit three national parks: the Rockies, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. The filming took place a little over a week, cameras and microphones in the camper constantly rolling—and thus were able to catch some unexpected scenes. 

For example, when Gopinath and Joshi, burnt out from the long trip, put away their microphones, their cameraman captured a shot of what would be the film’s climax: Gopinath and his father walking hand-in-hand down to a lake.

“It just happened to perfectly encapsulate the film,” Joshi said. 

Gopinath also was able to hear stories from his father he’d never heard before, and visit the same locations—such as a certain waterfall in Joshi’s and Gopinath’s favorite park, Yellowstone—he, his dad and grandfather had separately been to years earlier.

“There was this almost weird space outside of time where we could reflect on the three generations that had been there in some combination together,” Gopinath reflected. 

The two were able to have a lot of creative freedom and support while collaborating with REI Co-Op, which will also be releasing the film next week at the same time as HollyShorts. This will be their first HollyShorts screening after making shorts for six years. 

“I hope people call their parents and their loved ones … and maybe even go take a hike or take a walk with them,” Gopinath said. 

Joshi took that advice shortly after finishing the film, traveling with his family to various national parks in Canada and in the U.S. 

“I hope that everyone has that same experience and sees their trips with their family a little differently, even if they’re not outdoors,” Joshi said.

You can take a look at the full HollyShorts schedule and film guide here. 

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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