Photo by Daniel C. TsangThe runaway success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would seem to make this the year for Asian film. But not for Gregg M. Schwenk, who runs the resurrected Newport Beach Film Festival, now in its second year after its earlier incarnation went kaput.
Schwenk concedes that the Asian lineup is weak this year but promises to do better next time. Of 60 feature films that will screen March 29 through April 5, only a handful are from Asia.
When the festival was revived last year, it cut "international" from its name. Turns out the break with the past was not just semantic or to distinguish it from the earlier bankrupt festival. This year's lineup, while it features films from many countries (says Schwenk: "All of it is world cinema"), leaves out much of Asia.
Only three Asian countries are represented: China, Japan and the Philippines. All the Japanese entries are animations, and there's just one film from the Philippines: Azucea(Dog Food) by Carlos Siguion-Reyna, whose films have screened at every Newport Beach festival, winning awards at two.
The three films from China—My Daddy, Greeting 2000 and Tragedy On and Off the Stage—are not particularly interesting, notes Chinese film scholar Esther Yau of Occidental College. She has never heard of them. She said, "[the festival organizers] could easily have picked better festival entries."
It turns out the Chinese government played a huge role in selecting the Newport entries, admits Schwenk, whose festival programmers had yet to view them at press time. (I was never able to get preview tapes of any of them.)
Schwenk insists they are "three very high-quality films," but you've got to wonder how he knows. A festival staffer asked me for help in translating the synopses provided by the Chinese studios for films no one on staff had seen.
The Peoples' Republic of China (PRC), which seeks screenings at festivals as part of its diplomatic (and, undoubtedly, propaganda) mission, stands to garner much-needed PR from this effort as it hosts another big bash during the festival. Last year, at a similar PRC festival reception, China's horrible human-rights record was conveniently forgotten as Newport Beach's high society (many dressed in tight-fitting cheong sams) flitted around the sumptuous buffet table.
Chopped off along with "international" from the festival title is the popular Asian Cinema Kaleidoscope series, which highlighted exciting new films from across Asia. Notable selections from past festivals include Hanoi filmmaker Dang Nhat Minh's Nostalgia for Countryland (about a rural adolescent boy's sexual awakening) and Hanoi—Winter 1946, a film about Ho Chi Minh's struggle against the French after World War II. That film screened to packed audiences, including many patrons from Little Saigon. At its height, Asian Cinema Kaleidoscope squeezed in as many as 16 features from Asia—and some of the largest crowds of any of the festival's screenings.
One reason for this year's anemic Asian presence is the departure of Andrew Le, the festival's longtime programmer of Asian films. Le is reportedly out of the country; Schwenk would only say that Le left to "pursue other things" and that they haven't spoken for months. Le, whose Rolodex matched those of Hollywood's top talent agents, was responsible for the Asian Cinema Kaleidoscope and stayed on to help program last year's festival, when he picked Montreal-based filmmaker Hunt Hoe's outstanding drama Seducing Maarya, about sexual transgression among that city's South Asian community. Hoe won a Best Director award at last year's festival.
Le's personal ties with many filmmakers made the Asian lineup noteworthy. Multilingual and a native of Vietnam, Le is especially close to Vietnam's top filmmakers, including Dang. His connections gave Orange County filmgoers a rare opportunity to see outstanding dramatic works from that socialist country. But no longer. Dang's 2000 film, Guava Season, has never been screened here; he gave me a video copy when I visited him last month in Hanoi. When we met, Dang was about to head for Ho Chi Minh City to work on the remake of The Quiet American starring Michael Caine. This new film is based on Graham Greene's novel set in French colonial Vietnam.
Ironically, Hoe, the Chinese Canadian filmmaker whose feature last year screened to rave audiences, has another film in this year's festival, but it's hidden. Slotted as a short for a midweek, afternoon showing, Hoe's new Who is Albert Woo? is a sardonic and revealing look at Asian and "Asianadian" (Asian Canadian) male identity with Jackie Chan a surprise participant. Hoe told me he traveled to Hong Kong to interview Chan for a documentary funded by the National Film Board of Canada, where he works. He had to ask me if his film was in the festival because he didn't know. Later, when he found out how and when the film was scheduled to run, he got upset and wondered if he should be present to help draw an audience.
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Visual Communications' Abe Ferrer, who programs the annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival, expressed surprise that Hoe's film was considered a short. "Really? It's a feature!" said Ferrer, pointing to its nearly one-hour running time.
Ferrer was also dismayed over the Newport festival's "slim pickings" of Asian films. "It's definitely like scraping the bottom of the barrel," he said. He finds it particularly perplexing considering that Newport's organizers called him seeking assistance, and he claims to have provided solid leads on much more interesting films.
Among the new films to premiere this May at Ferrer's Los Angeles festival is Amy Chen's Chinatown Files, a documentary on FBI harassment of Asian American leftists during the McCarthy era. Ferrer asked me, "Is it showing at Newport?" He need not have asked. Contacted in New York, Chen, now showing her film on the festival circuit, says she would love to show Chinatown Files in Newport Beach.
Too bad, Amy; it's too late. Apparently, no one out here knew enough to contact you.