Why I’m already planning my trip to Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2021

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Top row: Joon Kim + Lee Ngo. Bottom row: Anika Kan Grevstad, Ellison Shieh, Selena Yip.

As I deal with the inevitable withdrawal of attending Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) in 2020, I cannot help but gush about my experience and am already planning my next time there.

Here are four reasons why I think you should go, too.

SAAFF is all about community.

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An informal yet customary post-festival dim sum brunch. Photo credit: Ellison Lynn Shieh

At the top of every program, a volunteer representative would open with an acknowledgment that this event, its space, and the residents of Seattle occupy land that was first inhabited by the Duwamish people. The announcement is political, serving as a sense of mindfulness we all must have.

SAAFF is not “owned” by any singular person. Everyone involved is a volunteer, driven by a pure love for the arts and providing rare experiences to their community. An in-kind community sponsor also provides further context, further immersing their interests into the festival.

The team is primarily of Asian descent, but anyone can get involved. This year, we had organizers from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles attend in solidarity of the effort to put beautiful faces of color on screen.

The only requirement, really, is to care about something beyond yourself.

Global stories with beautiful faces on screen.

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Still from SONG LANG (Leon Quang Le, dir.)

I often cry during film festivals, but this one was special. This year’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for feature narrative went to Song Lang (Leon Quang Le, dir.), a story about a gangster and an opera singer who meet under stressful circumstances and discover a mutual love for their craft.

The story is certainly a tearjerker, but I was more emotional over the fact that I’m hearing Vietnamese and seeing beautiful cinema at the same time. For my entire life, I’ve heard this myth from all angles: there will never be a Vietnamese film good enough for the global stage. I almost believed it.

The sentiment particularly hurts when I hear it from other Vietnamese people, who far too long feel they are “lesser Asians” due to their class or political position in the world. My hope is that Song Lang is the start of a new standard from that region. The best work lies just head if you believe it.

I wish the same for all stories with lovely Asian faces on screen as well. Parasite’s victory lap in the global award circuit doesn’t have to be the culmination of our efforts. (And yes, Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, dir.) matters to diasporic non-Korean communities even more than one realizes.)

It’s only the beginning.

Our karaoke game is unbeatable.

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Award-winning local filmmaker Champ Pinyo Esminger singing “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal.

As a kid, I hated karaoke. My parents would invite their friends over, and they’d all get drunk and sing until every so often the police would arrive, responding to a noise complaint. I’d avoid the mic at all costs, rejecting an embarrassing Asian stereotype often assigned to me by others.

However, I went to Asia in my mid-twenties, and everything changed. I learned how to sing in English, Japanese, and Vietnamese, and I brought that passion back with me to the states. Ten years later, karaoke is now my go-to activity. I now embrace it, regardless of what anyone might think.

Fortunately, SAAFF abides. My favorite moment: seeing my mentor, boss, big brother, and dear friend Anderson Le wail with SAAFF Programming Director Ellison Lynn Shieh. And, by wail, I really mean…

Film festivals are cheaper than therapy.

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Filmmaker Peter S. Lee (center) talks HAPPY CLEANERS (co-dir. Julian Kim). I cried four times.

“Lee, why do you love film so much?”

I never quite knew how to answer this question until recently. I’ve loved film for as long as I can remember, and I wanted to be a director as early as age twelve. These plans were largely discouraged by my parents, my mentors, and my wallet, and so I deferred them to pursue a prosperous life.

I’m nearing the half-way point of my life, and I’ve come right back to film. Most of the people I work with are Vietnamese like me, descendants of a forgotten era largely shaped in the imaginary by external powers. Yet films from Vietnam can also be beautiful, silly, provocative, and … transcending.

Film, to me, is therapy. It allows me to externalize what I might be feeling subconsciously. I’ve attended several film festivals in the last year, mostly in the Asian-American space. They’ve taught me that my experiences aren’t just my own. Film has the potential to sort out collective traumas together.

That’s why I love film.

What will I do at next year’s SAAFF?

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Me (left) with local filmmaker and John Woo enthusiast Joon Kim.

I’ve been attending SAAFF in some way over the last four years, with my experiences in 2019 and 2020 the most engaged. Last year, I promised I would make a short film, but, circumstances have changed for me. Most notably: I’ve started a film company with some amazing industry folk.

At the minimum, I’ll return to Seattle as an industry rep to attend, support, be a Q&A plant, and just revel in community. I might not have time to review hundreds of shorts like I did this year, but anything’s possible.

Regardless, I will be back.

Thanks for reading,

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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