While spikes in hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans have emboldened activism in recent years, filmmakers and creatives have long been working to amplify Asian stories for decades.
In 1978, a group of grassroots activists organized the very first iteration of the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF), the oldest and longest-running cinematic showcase of its kind. Throughout the years, the festival has debuted some of the most acclaimed directors of Asian descent, from Wayne Wang to Ang Lee, and showcased films from over 40 countries.
This year’s festival celebrated the collective Asian diasporic identity by paying tribute to the diverse range of traditions and cultures that exist within it.
The following are the films that we saw throughout the 45th annual AAIFF.
“Free Chol Soo Lee”
Directed by Julie Ha, Eugene Yi
The film festival opened with the screening of “Free Chol Soo Lee,” a deeply moving documentary that tells the story of a Korean American man wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, as well as the social movement his conviction sparked.
The film is a mosaic of archival footage, animations, interviews and needle drops that masterfully capture the oppressive isolation of Chol Soo Lee’s decade-long imprisonment, as well as the enterprising spirits of the AAPI communities that rallied together to his aid. A sizable chunk of the film is dedicated to a compelling character study of Chol Soo Lee, a tragic figure whose many misfortunes are emblematic of the issues that members of the AAPI community face today – from a deeply flawed justice system to the interethnic chasms that divide different groups.
While the end of his story is not a happy one, the film gives closure to Chol Soo Lee – who spent his last years trying to make amends to those who had dedicated years to setting him free – by making sure that their efforts, solidarity and compassion will not be forgotten.
“38 at the Garden”
Directed by Frank Chi
Watching Jeremy Lin succeed on what is arguably the world’s biggest stage for basketball was a watershed moment for a community whose men are typically emasculated and whose women are stereotyped as submissive.
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“38 at the Garden” illustrates the Linsanity movement at its zenith, zeroing in on Jeremy Lin’s 38-point eruption against the reigning NBA champions — the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers — just in time for its 10th anniversary. While Lin’s story has been told and retold throughout the years, this particular documentary’s greatest asset is hindsight, as it examines the cultural shockwaves left by Lin through vibrantly animated segments and interviews with Lin, his teammates, the Asian celebrities he has inspired and the New York locals who witnessed his rise.
Where the film shines is in its use of subversive humor to underscore the absurdity of the stereotypes Lin shattered on his way to the top and how his legacy was able to galvanize an entire generation of Asians to dream beyond the labels commonly forced onto them.
Directed by Kamila Andini
While occupying a genre that is a cinematic staple in the West, AAIFF’s centerpiece film “Yuni” offers a fresh and striking glimpse into the coming-of-age experience in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia’s entry for the 94th Academy Awards follows a 16-year-old girl named Yuni, whose adolescent yearnings and curiosities are at odds with the constraints of the conservative society she lives within. With ever-looming marriage proposals complicating her desire for independence, Yuni’s struggle to hold onto her youth is not only a scathing commentary on centuries-old traditions, but also a strikingly relatable experience for the youth of the Asian diaspora who face similar conflicts in balancing their bold aspirations with deeply entrenched cultural traditions.
“Spikes and Spindles”
Directed by Christine Choy
For the closing night event, the AAIFF organizers brought Asian American culture back to the beginning: our political awakenings.
The first documentary – “Spikes and Spindles,” directed by Christine Choy – spoke to the very soul of back-breaking labor and heart-wrenching racial history that set the stage for the rest of the night. The film, which was first released in the 1970s, begins with Peter Yew, a young Chinese man brutalized after a fight breaks out in Chinatown between a 15-year-old local and the police. Yew attempts to stop the police from beating the teenager, but the violence turns on him instead. Chinese Americans intent on helping others — whether by trying to stop an altercation, taking on jobs to support their families or offering economic prospects — meet similar consequences in Choy’s film. This details the myths of a better life that led countless immigrants to work for lower wages which in turn made them even more resented in a country full of people desperate to survive. That resentment was used to gain what the film describes as “profit through people’s hardship,” as yellow peril rhetoric through election year campaigning led to several Chinese pogroms that murdered, lynched and drove Chinese communities away from Western cities.
As her film moves through various forms of labor exploitation, Choy also examines the garment workers in New York City who sewed their way through linguistic, social and legal barriers. Hong Kong women worked in these spaces even if they planned to embark on different career paths, using their skills to weave their way into some sort of economic stability. For the men, they used their strength and operated laundry businesses. But despite their efforts, the high cost of living and denial of just wages remained seemingly insurmountable, with many women often unable to work their way out of the industry. Yet, undeniably, their contributions made a huge difference in the economic prosperity of the city.
Directed by Curtis Chin
As documented in “Dear Corky,” directed by Curtis Chin, 15,000 workers gathered in New York City for the largest garment workers protest in the United States, calling for better wages, better working conditions and labor rights. The late activist and photographer Corky Lee, who captured this protest, was proud to have helped keep records of Asian American activism back when the term itself was just gaining traction. He started his work in 1960 as a college student, but his repertoire and collection only grew from there, with various Asian movements and leaders such as Yuri Kochiyama, Bill Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs and Helen Zia filling his files. Lee connected with his community through photography – citing many instances of students and people expressing their own admiration for his work – even though he continued to struggle with maintaining a stable income well into the end of his life. From photographing the 500,000 protestors who showed up in Chinatown for Peter Yew to capturing protests against Asian American hate crimes during the pandemic, Lee’s work was never-ending. To him, photography was a lifelong passion and calling.
In a moment of vulnerability, Chin shows the audience an intimate monologue from Lee talking about loneliness and the death of his wife as he processed his grief. Lee eventually passed away in 2021 due to COVID-19, documenting Asian Americans organizing until his very last day. Chin explained in the panel for the film that Lee’s photos, although innumerable, are still being compiled into an organized record.
“A Father’s Son”
Directed by Patrick Chen
Remnants of the past, alive and tangible in photographs, are also revitalized in Patrick Chen’s short film adaptation of novelist Henry Chang’s ‘90s noirs. “A Father’s Son,” shot in New York City’s Chinatown, revisits Detective Jack Yu, who struggles with his family trauma as he investigates a gang’s murder of a young boy. Throughout the film, sentimental scenes featuring nostalgic cultural items, places and introspective dialogue capture the distrust of authorities and fear of crime festering in the soul of the neighborhood.
Films such as “38 at the Garden” and “Yuni” illuminate a common thread within a seemingly disparate Asian community by portraying divergences from convention – whether that be traditions or stereotypes – throughout the international Asian community.
Detective Yu, who is regarded as an outsider in the Chinatown community because of his police work, wrangles with dreams of his father and his words, criticizing him out of concern as a ghost of the past. Yet, similar themes in reality haunt the Asian American community.
Anger toward injustice rings starkly throughout “Spikes and Spindles” and “Free Chol Soo Lee,” reminding us, or rather, interrogating us, of what our anger is really capable of and what it manifests into. But perhaps Corky Lee’s career and resilience teach us exactly what anger is.
Anger is a conduit for action that roots itself in solidarity within communities. While it does not last forever, action from that anger must not be forgotten. And that anger must always lead back into our community for healing.
Featured Image via “38 at the Garden,” “Yuni,” “A Father’s Son”