Director: Shalini Kantayya
Shalini Kantayya continues to explore the inequities that exist in social media with her latest documentary feature, TikTok Boom. Stars and influencers abound on social media but TikTok’s ability to target and segment user interests using AI technology has led to the video app’s total take-over of the digital mediascape. Kantayya explores the explosion in the interest in TikTok, which was once the province of the under-14 set, into a phenomenon that propels ordinary people to live their lives online to satisfy the hunger for content or makes them a star thereby bypassing traditional conduits of stardom such as Hollywood.
The story of beatbox star Spencer X, a Chinese-Ecuadorian American serves as an example of how stars are born through the ability of TikTok to reach the youth market advertisers crave. Does it matter to the app’s users that the AI technology built in the app maps out their reactions to videos through facial recognition technology? Mostly not, or only when they stop to think about it.
While some may say that using free apps comes with a trade-off, it begs the question about the ability of apps to connect us to each other when it adjusts video recommendations to keep the users engaged with like-minded groups. Exploration, difference, and otherness takes a hit in the drive to gathering data so that humans, particularly young and vulnerable humans, can be exploited.
Of course, the exploitation works both ways. The stars of TikTok make money from sponsorship deals and product recommendations. Spencer X’s career is built on TikTok finding an audience for his style of music, and he is grateful for it. But it’s a fraught relationship given the propensity of online bullying especially when users express unpopular opinions. Popular influencer Deja Foxx reveals in the film that she turned to TikTok to a make living after becoming homeless as a teen. It helped her to support her mom who struggles with addiction and is the reason she left home — to get clean and stay clean. While she admits that Tiktok has taken a severe toll on her mental health, she doesn’t believe she can stop using it because she depends on it as a source of income. There are all kinds of dependence, it seems, and TikTok isn’t above using its addictive qualities to exploit the people who use it.
Free Chol Soo Lee
Directed by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha
If there is a heartbreaking film at Sundance this year, Eugene Yi’s and Julie Ha’s Free Chol Soo Lee is it. It’s a damning film about the injustices experienced by immigrants unable to navigate the system because they lack a common language, education or knowledge about their rights. It just so happens that Chol Soo Lee was one such immigrant in the 1970s Bay Area when gangs in Chinatown forced police and politicians to ride roughshod over human rights in order to placate a public frightened about gang violence in Chinatown.
The film shows all too clearly how Chol Sool Lee had the deck stacked against him from birth when his mother left him in poverty with his aunt in South Korea, and later in San Francisco, where he rejoined his mother but ran away from home because she beat him. A handsome and charismatic young man, Lee finds himself with an arrest record and few friends, living a hand-to-mouth existence. He is an abused and misguided young man in a dead-end lifestyle.
At age 20, Chol Sol Lee becomes a prisoner in the California prison system after he is wrongfully convicted of a Chinatown gang murder. Throughout, he protests his innocence, but he is a poor and uneducated immigrant with few resources to make himself heard. He is sentenced to life imprisonment, but it isn’t until investigative journalist K.W. Lee takes an interest in his case that the tide turns in his favor. The Korean American community in the Bay Area throw their support behind his case and work diligently with K.W. Lee to free him.
Even his eventual release from prison doesn’t bring Chol Soo Lee satisfaction because he no longer knows how to live on the outside. The Korean American community continues to support him, but they cannot undo the damage to his psyche of imprisonment. Lee’s later years reveal just how he suffers to adjust, and the tragic mistakes he makes before gaining relief from a lifetime of pain. It’s sometimes easy to forget that a very real human suffers when rights are trampled, a violent act in itself, and the painful consequences for the innocent as it begets a culture of violence.
Free Chol Soo Lee will be the closing night feature film playing at Seattle Asian American Film Festival in March.
Directors: Violet Columbus and Ben Klein
Christin Choy takes no prisoners. That is abundantly clear in Violet Columbus and Ben Klein’s documentary Exiles, which presents the unique Choy and her total commitment to searching for stories others might fear to make. She is best known for her Academy-award nominated documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?, which she co-directed with Renee Tajima. The filmmakers explore how Choy began documenting the leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement who fled China following the June 4th massacre but which she abandoned due to lack of funding.
Choy is unapologetic about herself, which can feel abrasive, loud and opinionated to some. The filmmakers of Exileshow snippets of footage Choy shot over 30 years ago, and the remarkably candid interviews she coaxed out of her subject. It requires subtlety and compassion to make people, especially the traumatized leaders of the uprising, to open on-camera. The film invites viewers along as Christine Choy meets up with the remaining leaders as both a way to find a method to educate future generations about the atrocities committed in Tiananmen Square, and to revisit the subjects of a film she didn’t complete.
It’s instructive to watch the interaction between Choy and the youthful leaders in the material from over a generation ago, and the aging men and women she revisits in Exile. I believe it’s her complete acceptance of herself, warts and all, that resonates with her interview subjects, her students and the audience. It’s this ferocious commitment to exploring the Asian experience, whether as a political exile, as in the case of her aborted documentary, or in exile from preconceived ideas about womanhood and filmmaking that makes it hard to look away from Choy and whatever she has to say.
Director: Bradley Rust Gray
Blood directed by Bradley Rust Gray is one of those films that whisper rather than shout its portrayal of grief. A widow, Chloe (Carla Juri) travels to Japan on a photography assignment, and connects with an old friend, Toshi (Takashi Ueno) who introduces her to friends and family. Chloe and Toshi circle each other as friends, and then, something more but her dreams of her husband as she grieves her loss stops her from pursuing the relationship.
The sweetness between them, quiet friendship, and slow burn awareness of something more plays beautifully with the on-screen chemistry between Juri and Ueno. Both give lovely performances in this adult rendition of falling in love when you’ve been around the block a few times. Gary’s restrained directing style captures the moments between two people who don’t share a language yet learn how to speak the language of affection and desire.
Every Day in Kaimuki
Director: Alika Tengan
Naz (Naz Kawakami) is a young Hapa man, part Japanese and part Hawaiian preparing to leave the small town of Kaimuki for New York City. His girlfriend, Sloane (Rina White) drags her feet, in two minds about whether New York, and a place at a prestigious design school is all that. The film’s quasi-documentary feel works for the hybrid narrative which takes the actor’s real-life doubts and excitement about getting out of Hawaii with the slice-of-life feel of the film.
The couple fail to communicate what each really feels about the move, and herein lies the worm in the apple. Naz sulks when his replacement at work wins over his friends and fails to support Sloane when she asks for help with packing up her pottery studio. The simmering discontent between the two plays against the unambiguous love he displays towards his cat. The man knows how to love, he just hasn’t figured out how to communicate, using words, his love for his girlfriend. But, then again, this is a coming-of-age film about a millennial figuring out what he wants from life, so he has time. Let’s hope he uses it wisely.
After Yang is a sci-fi that wanders the corridors of what it means to be a family, our obligation to AI, and the meaning of Asianess in an age where hybrid identities are becoming the norm. It doesn’t try to arrive at an answer. However, Jake (Colin Farrell) struggles for answers when a robot, or technobeing (Justin H. Min) purchased to help adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) connect to her cultural root, malfunctions. In other words, he dies.
You won’t see fantastical elements typical of the sci-fi genre in this film. The beauty of Kagonada’s film is in its quietude as a family grieves the loss of something — someone? — and the responsibility for giving space to the feeling of loss. Meanwhile, the mother (Jodi Turner-Smith) struggles to keep her family from drifting into sadness and away from each other but finds it hard to connect to their pain over the death of an ordinary household object. The film ponders whether the poignancy of blurred, human memories is better than the sharp edge of recordings that technology can offer us.
Leonor Will Never Die
Director: Martika Ramirez Escobar
I wish I could describe this film. It really must be experienced to understand its very specific beauty. It’s an action flick stirred in with a pinch of sci-fi and bathed in the warm nostalgia of an over-the-top melodrama; think Douglas Sirk spliced with Pedro Almodovar with a Kung Fu action movie cut in for good measure. Yeah, it’s like that. Its director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s love letter to filmmaking, and her choice of a scriptwriter, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) last days on this earthly plane takes the grief of death and turns it into an explosion of excess in a song and dance routine that directly challenges the viewer to move and live a little. I dare you to not grin after watching it.
A focus on the body, and society’s beliefs about it, figure prominently in films by Asian filmmakers for the shorts programming of the 2022 Sundance film festival. The filmmakers examine toxic masculinity, sexual violence, online bullying, and anti-Asian bias in U.S. immigration policy, in a – mostly – even-handed exploration.
Makassar is a City for Football Fans
Writer/director Khozy Rizal’s Makassar is a City for Football Fans tackles college student Akbar’s (Sabri Sahafuddin) fear that his burgeoning friendship with his macho buddies will lead them to discover his secret. Sabri’s gentle demeanor wars between horror at the hooligan behavior of his mad friends, and his need to fully express himself. A late-night revelry with the guys takes a turn forcing Akbar to make a choice between subscribing to a brutal notion of masculinity in a conservative Muslim community and being true to himself.
Seemab Gul’s Sandstorm/Malaqat is a cautionary tale about the dangers of teen girls and online dating. But really, it’s about the trust we place in another when our hearts are on the line, a trust we hope will never be tested. But love, like war, is unpredictable, and 15-year-old Zara (Parizae Fatima) finds that out the hard way after she sends a video of herself dancing to her online boyfriend (Hamza Mushtaq).
A born rebel, Zara chafes at the restrictions faced by females in her strict Muslim society in Karachi, Pakistan. She pushes back, questioning why the female body is taboo and must be kept hidden. However, her boyfriend’s response to the video forces Zara to question everything he has said to her until she is driven to do the very thing she abhors, or face potentially devastating consequences.
Close Ties to the Home Country
Akanksha (Akanksha Cruczynski) supports herself as a dog walker while waiting for her application for U.S. residency to go through in this comedy short. A job dog-sitting for a wealthy couple’s pooch provides a brief reprieve from her stressful life. Timothee (Bissou) a spoiled French bulldog, joins Akanksha as they enjoy spa nights, romantic walks and fake dates which she reports faithfully to her family back in India.
Half the fun of this film lies in watching Cruczynski burying a horrified expression and quickly swallowed responses under a mask of politeness at her client’s clueless speech. It doesn’t escape Akanksha that they can enjoy a trip to India, but she can’t leave without invalidating her student visa. She sobs to a friend that it’s been nine years of missing graduations, birthdays and other significant family events while she waits to make her American dream a reality.
The effects of a long-term separation from loved ones will strike close to home for many of us during this global pandemic. Too bad that forced separations needn’t occur if immigration policies weren’t biased as Akanksha’s client’s experience immigrating from the UK exposes.
A secret robs high schooler Genevieve’s (Eva Noblezada) trust in the people who should be protecting her Hannah Petersen’s revenge comedy Champ and the film poses the question of how to exact a fitting comeuppance when you are young and powerless. Genevieve can’t recall exactly what happened to her the night her basketball coach (Morgan Maher) crawled into her hotel room bed at an away-game.
After she finally confides to her teammates, her besties plot to avenge her. No one smiles brighter than Genevieve as they wreak vengeance. And while their stunts won’t correct the past, at least they allow Genevieve to feel a smidgen of agency has been returned to her, which is more than most young girls get to feel.
The anniversary screening of 2018 Sundance entry Counterfeit Kunkoo by writer/director Reema Sengupta is loosely based on her mother’s struggles to find housing after given only a week by her husband to vacate the marital home after 24 years of marriage. A woman (Kani Kusruti) faces rejection by housing professionals as she seeks a new place after escaping from a violent marriage. But landlords won’t rent to a single woman despite an ability to the pay rent. The film is available online, and it is worth watching Sengupta’s nuanced portrayal of the complexities of the situation. She shows a deft hand in her handling of the couple’s relationship, and the paternalistic attitude of a misogynistic society where big and small injustices wear away at women.