My personal guide to the Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2020

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Learn more: saaff.org

I’ve been looking forward to this all year. Seriously. SAAFF is an incredible community of artists, activists, movers, and shakers who come together for four days to celebrate great works from around the world.

SAAFF is small enough so that there’s usually no more than two activities at any given time, but it’s still impossible for someone to full enjoy its precisely curated program. Since I have an all-access pass (I’d encourage you to get one, too — it’s way more fun), I have tough decisions to make.

I’m going to offer my own choices, driven by three conflicting factors:

  • I’ve seen many of these films at other festivals, especially the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival.
  • I was on the screening committee for SAAFF 2020, focusing on short films. Many of the films I watched carefully and supported made it to the lineup, so I’m not likely to re-watch them unless I need the theatrical experience.
  • As a founding partner of EAST, I’m interested in filmmakers who are engaged with Southeast Asian stories, particularly Vietnamese ones. Whenever possible, I’ll watch a story from that region.

My apologies to the filmmakers whose work I’m not prioritizing. This is all by my own personal agenda and preferences and not meant as an endorsement or promotion, except for a non-solicited genuine appreciation of SAAFF. Still, if you’re interested in these films, I’ve put links for tickets in the titles.

Also, it’s a way for people to come find me and say hi.

… Please say hi to me.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20 (OPENING NIGHT)

7:00pm

Seadrift (Tim Tsai, dir.)
Broadway Performance Hall

Proud that this film will be opening SAAFF! I already saw it when it showed during LAAPFF in May, and it’s an incredible story about the settlement of Vietnamese refugees in a small Texan town and the tensions that followed, even leading to the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although a historical piece, I think it’s incredibly relevant to many of the tensions of today and offers a critical lesson of how things once were and can improve over time.

9:00pm

SAAFF Opening Night Party ft. G Yamazawa
Washington Hall

Ain’t no party like a SAAF Opening Night Party because this one’s kind of … mandatory. Everyone will be out, loud, and proud to network and enjoy the show. I’ll be honest: I’m going to last about an hour and recruit as many people as I can to go with me to a restaurant or a quieter tea house nearby.

I don’t do well in big parties. If you’re like me, let me know and I’ll tap your shoulder when we’re going to get late night dim sum.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21

6:00pm

Southeast Asian Showcase (shorts program)
Broadway Performance Hall

I may at the last minute change my mind about this one because I’ve seen many of the films in this lineup. However, it’s part of my work to forge these relationships, and I’ve only seen 2/4 of the films.

I’d say it’s 55% likely I’ll be at this one.

Also showing: normal. (Mragendra Singh, dir.)
Northwest Film Forum

The subject matter of this film might hit very close to me and some of my recent circumstances. That’s both part of the appeal and the reservation I have towards seeing it. It’ll be a near game-time decision, honestly.

8:30pm

Queer AF (shorts program)
Broadway Performance Hall

In general, I get a lot out of queer cinema. I’m tired of heteronormative narratives and the weak sexual/romantic/platonic tensions compared to the richness of queer stories. I think the future is queer, so best to get an early glimpse into how filmmaking has always been and will continue to be.

Also showing: What Haunts You (shorts program)
Northwest Film Forum

There are some terrific films in this horror lineup, some I’ve already seen and supported for inclusion. That said, I’m personally not a fan of horror as a genre, so if you’re into getting scared in a dark room, this lineup is for you.

There’s likely to be a secret after-party this night, but I’m not going to advertise it publicly. Because it’s secret.

Let me know (discreetly) if you want to partake.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22

11:00am

On the Brink (Jeff Shulman & Steven Fong, dirs.)
Northwest Film Forum

The Central District of Seattle was my first neighborhood when I moved there in 2015. I remember one night I decided to wander and discovered an incredible jazz music session just down the street. It was electric.

I’d like this film to greater inform me and cultivate am improved respect for the rich history of the area, especially for the African Americans who built it and continue to make it special. I hope you’ll be there, too.

Also showing: Borders & Belonging (shorts program)
Broadway Performance Hall

I’ve seem almost all of the films in Borders & Belonging, and they’re great as crises of identity, immigration, and nationhood are as relevant as ever.

Also happening: The Pitch: Learn How to Pitch Your Work from the Creator of Hoarders (11:30am workshop)
Northwest Film Forum

Matt Chan is a good friend, so I can certainly vouch for him as Seattle’s leading TV guru. This is a great workshop for any aspiring filmmaker to go learn the ins-and-outs of the industry.

1:30pm

Between Tides (Masa Fox, dir.)
Northwest Film Forum

This story is fascinating: an Island in the Pacific once nationalized as part of the Japanese Empire was occupied by the U.S. Navy until its “return” in 1968. What happens to the multi-ethnic people who live there? Where do they belong? What narratives will they tell about their own history?

Stories of liminality are quintessentially Asian American, and I’m unable to shy away. Looking forward to this one.

Also showing: Geographies of Kinship (Deann Borshay Liem, dir.)
Broadway Performance Hall

Geographies of Kinship is an awesome documentary I had the privilege of seeing and conducting a Q&A with the filmmaker in Hawaii. It navigates the complex history of Korean adoption over the last 70 years and the often heart-wrenching clash of race and nationality.

Those who attend this should also go to: Real Life Journeys and Experiences of Transnational Adoptees (4:30pm panel — Broadway Performance Hall) that build upon the conversation.

4:00pm

Family Portraits (shorts program)
Northwest Film Forum

I’ve seen less than half of these shorts, and among the ones I have seen, they’re just delightful. I’ve also recently moved home with my family, so I’m sure there will be catharsis in watching others go through my own struggles.

Also showing: Empty by Design (Andrea A. Walter, dir.)
Broadway Performance Hall

I had the honor of seeing this one as the closing film for Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in 2019. Featuring a star-studded cast (Osric Chau, Samantha Ramos, Chris Pang, Dante Basco), it’s a deeply introspective, cerebral film about loneliness and human connection.

6:30pm

Song Lang (Leon Quang Le, dir.)
Broadway Performance Hall

This will be another near game-time decision. I’ve seen the last hour of this film, and it was my choice for the best film of the LAAPFF 2019. A gangster kidnaps a male opera star and, during their seclusion, the develop a bond over their mutual love for music.

It’s beautifully filmed, subtly queer, and impressive for a film coming out of Vietnam. Now, if I can just see the first 30 minutes…

Also showing: The Illegal (Danish Renzu, dir.)
Northwest Film Forum

Migration is a particularly sensitive and pertinent subject in America, and it impacts Asian communities as well. This film has also been awarded well in the film circuit that I think, worst-case scenario, I’m going to try to watch both. Which defeats the point of this entire article.

There is certainly some kind of after-party this night. I’ll be there until they wrestle the microphone from my cold, dead hands.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 23

11:00am

Mastering the Craft (shorts program)
Northwest Film Forum

I’ve seen over half of the films in this lineup, but the ones I haven’t intrigue me. Crafting is a surprisingly rich way to learn about the broader culture of one’s group, as if all that epistemological energy coalesces into a fixed pont, whether it’s noodle-making, flower-arranging, photography, or dance.

Also showing: Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawai’i (shorts program)
Broadway Performance Hall

I saw all of these films while in Hawaii in the fall, and they taught me a tremendous sense of empathy towards the native community of Hawai’i. There’s a palpable sense of beauty, pain, and catharsis presented in each film, and this year has been a strong one for Hawai’i that the shorts program was almost entirely cloned from HIFF’s lineup.

Also happening: Storytelling Secrets from a TV Veteran (11:30am workshop)
Northwest Film Forum

In a second workshop at SAAFF, TV veteran Matt Chan focuses more on the craft of storytelling. If I can, I may try to sneak into this one and be a flower on the wall, especially to see how it applies to reality television.

Transparently, depending on how Saturday night goes, I may rest in Sunday morning. I rarely do that, but hey, film festivals are what they are.

1:30pm

Jeronimo (Joseph Juhn, dir.)
Northwest Film Forum

A rare glimpse for Northwesterners into the experiences of Asians in Latin-America, featuring the incredible life of Jeronimo Lim Kim. Kim’s parents were Korean indentured servants in Mexico and Cuba and became associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the revolutionary era.

Oh my. I HAVE to see this.

Also showing: DirectHer: Films Made by Women (shorts program)
Broadway Performance Hall

I selected almost all of the films here for inclusion, and they’re great. My dream is that this category won’t ever be needed again, but as long as systematic, de facto inequality persists for the director’s chair (see 2020 Oscars), there will always be a space for women at this platform.

Also happening: Immigration, Migrant Justice, and Resources for Documented and Undocumented Immigrants (2:00pm panel)
Northwest Film Forum

A great resource for people who know the trials and pains of instability and exclusion in America. I absolutely love that SAAFF is a deliberate safe space for those who seek sanctuary and stability in an unstable time.

4:00pm

Love Boat Taiwan (Valerie Soe, dir.)
Broadway Performance Hall

One of the longest-running summer programs, this documentary explores a Taiwanese-sponsored program that serves as a opportunity for transnational Taiwanese Americans to … find romance, hence the nickname.

Interesting. I want to know more.

Also showing: Born to Be (Tania Cypriano, dir)
Northwest Film Forum

As gender fluidity and affirmation simultaneously gains acceptance and controversy, one doctor in New York creates access to quality healthcare for transgender and non-binary people. I’d declare it as a must-see for those interested in LGBTQ stories.

6:30pm

Happy Cleaners (Julian Kim, Peter S. Lee, dirs.)
Broadway Performance Hall

So, fun story.

Have you ever done a panel or Q&A of a film you haven’t seen? I have… for THIS film. I felt so embarrassed that I asked the directors if there was ever an opportunity again to see it, and that led us to an elaborate game of introductions that finally ended with them closing out SAAFF.

I’m definitely seeing it and look forward to a film that hits home as a son of small-business parents and hungry for something … more.

I might even ask a question. If I have one. Which I always do.

That’s my lineup, or rather … THE lineup with my strong inclinations. What do you think? Should I reconsider some films before Thursday, or do you agree with my choices? Thanks for reading.

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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