The 2016 Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) will kick off on February 19 at 4:00 p.m. with a soft opening dedicated to revisiting the history of Asian American cinema. Two films will be screened free of charge: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (a 1916 film directed by Mariah E. Wong) and Beacon Hill Boys, a 1985 film directed by Ken Mochizuki, Bill Blauvelt, and Dean Hayasaka.
In the early 1980s, Mochizuki wrote a manuscript that was quickly adapted into what some consider to be the first dramatic film about Asian American youth. Beacon Hill Boys is a coming-of-age film set in Seattle that follows a young Japanese American man, Dan Inagaki, and his friends as they navigate issues of cultural identity and finding their place in the world.
Mochizuki, a Seattleite and a University of Washington graduate, said his film is set at a time of self-realization for the Asian Pacific Islander community in Seattle.
“At that time we were really socially adrift,” Mochizuki said. “We were social chameleons. We had no knowledge of our history.”
Mochizuki said he intended his film to reflect the zeitgeist of the ’70s, during which cultural minorities born and raised in America started fighting to be represented in media and other spaces.
“I wanted to document the beginning of Seattle’s API history,” Mochizuki said. “It is an honor that it is still interesting 31 years later.”
The film’s release and positive reception across the country paved the way for the first Seattle Asian American Film Festival, which aimed to recognize Asian American filmmaking and promote representation of the community in cinema.
“We’re not going to see our stories in media,” Mochizuki said. “That’s why it’s important to make our own imprint. Otherwise, they’re going to do their version of our stories.”
Leilani Nishime, SAAFF grants director and associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, said that when Asian Americans are present in films or shows, they often become the “token” Asian character and are expected to represent the entire community.
“Showing a greater range of Asian American images on film is a crucial part of our festival,” Nishime said. “At the heart of stereotypes is a lack of diversity of images. The problem is not the image of, for example, an Asian person who is good at math. The problem is when we see that image repeated again and again with no other alternatives.”
SAAFF co-director Martin Tran said that although much has already been done in the arena of Asian American representation in cinema, a lot of work is left to do.
“[SAAFF is] exploring films that tell stories beyond just the ones that have been accepted for us. The immigrant stories, the [World War II incarceration] camp stories,” Tran said. “Asian American identity is present but not the central focus.”
The line-up includes multiple genres, from horror-comedies like Crush the Skull, directed by Viet Nguyen, to It Runs in the Family, a Canadian documentary directed, edited and produced by Joella Cabalu.
“I think in a lot of ways the discourse in America is very binary,” Tran said. “It is still very black and white.”
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not as represented in mainstream media compared to Caucasian or African Americans, said Tran.
“You are not going to find Asian American films easily,” he said. “If you want to see Asian American actors and filmmakers you attend festivals like SAAFF.”
Tran said taking a look back at the beginnings of Asian American films and attending festivals that celebrate them play a big role in the preservation of Asian American, Pacific Islander culture.
“I think it’s important to know our history,” Tran said. “Beacon Hill Boys is the reason SAAFF exists and it is a reminder of where we are going.”
Tran said he hopes that through increased awareness and community support, the need for festivals like SAAFF will cease to exist.
“Ultimately my goal is for Asian American stories to become such an integral part of national discourse that we don’t have to carve our own space to tell people we are here.”