Asian & Asian American filmmakers present vignettes of the human condition at the Austin Asian American Film Festival.
The Austin Asian American Film Festival ‘Shorts Fest’ was online this year, featuring over 30 documentary and narrative short films directed or produced by Asian American and Pacific Islander artists.
In a statement to the press, Executive Director Hanna Huang offered this year’s lineup of shorts as ongoing creative resistance to recent xenophobia and anti-Asian racism, and their online presentation this year as yet another effort to accommodate unprecedented circumstances.
The shorts format can be frustrating, offering slivers of stories rather than fully developed arcs. In seven minutes, we are delivered a frustration without resolution; relationships deprived of closure; characters suspended in their own immaturity.
But in these films, we also get to explore human specificity and its inverse effect of universal intrigue.
In Kim Tran’s Pussy Talk, a talking vagina with an attitude (“no, bitch”) cock-blocks her human’s rehearsed autobiography. “My parents were refugees from the Vietnam war,” the poor girl tries to tell her date.
“Take your shirt off!” interrupts her vagina. “Stop talking about refugees being ambushed and START AMBUSHING HIS PANTS.”
The vagina (named “Gina” because of course) pipes up repeatedly until the girl, frustrated, unzips her pants so they can have a proper conversation. We learn that Gina has felt ignored and neglected, prompting both the girl and her date to offer pleading words of affirmation. Gina, mollified, offers a resounding orgasm as a token of reconciliation. “Oh my god,” she pants as they (?) climax, “I knew we could do this.”
Jason Chao’s Over the Hill presents a more familiar cast of characters and emotions. An adult son trudges after his elderly father as they hike up a hill. The scene is full of tense silences and heaves with third-culture introspection. The father is quiet, thoughtful; the son visibly wrestles with fragments of a long-overdue conversation. “Coming to America,” he asks in Korean, “do you regret it?”
It’s a question many immigrant families know intimately, and the father’s answer echoes a characteristic fragility. “It was hard… very hard,” he offers slowly, in English. “But it was okay… it was okay.”
Their hike up the hill is interspersed with similarly heavy moments; the phrase “the hill to die on” - often referring to a belief one is willing to fight for - comes to mind as we see that this unresolved relationship between immigrant parent and second-generation child will forever trouble them both. And in the end, it does, as we cut to the adult son finally standing atop the hill, pouring out his father’s ashes, asking: “dad, are you proud of me?”
Anna Tran’s For My Monolidded Girls is another recognizable narrative, a crossover between adolescent girlhood and the mystery of the disappearing eyeliner. A teenage girl brings a Cosmo-esque magazine into her bathroom, flipping to an article on “10 ways to get him to notice you.” She practices its various cues in the mirror, trying out flirty little bits and winks to a wreath of cut-out paper models, sunflowers, and mildly shallow affirmations (“Groovy, “Be Strong,” “In Your Dreams”). The magazine’s tips become a voiceover, suggesting that the best approach to eye makeup for monolids is not to accommodate them, but to tape them into submission for the appearance of double eyelids. “Baba,” the girl yells to the other side of the bathroom door, “where is the tape?”
But diasporic angst is only one thematic approach complicating the myth of a singular pan-Asian narrative. Films like Taiwanese Cha Cha Cha humanize state-sanctioned policies around language and their effects on intergenerational families. Jordan Hwang, who has directed for The Try Guys and Jubilee Media, shared two films this year: narrative short The Mask from Home and mini-documentary Between the Notes, following young musicians at the Taipei Music Academy & Festival.
While the film festival was only available to stream for one week, I felt encouraged by the breadth of this year’s offerings; each film offered a unique vantage point, at once welcoming us into the visceral experience of each character and allowing us the grace to simply witness something beyond ourselves. Art has always been timely and necessary, and it feels reiterative to say this now, but current events beg us to look at the world as artists do: with compassion, intrigue, the desire to contribute rather than destroy. A film festival like this reminds us that diversity in film is less an act of tokenization and superficial representation than it is a powerful reckoning of disparities. In these, we can examine the impact of class inequity, migration, cultural conflict, sacrifice. We can allow ourselves to look into lives apart from us without compromising the validity of our own. I suggest that this is the work we need to do most, right now and every day: to be guided by a constellation of single truths, to look at each one and say: I see you.