Film

How Asian American Representation in Film Has (and Hasn’t) Changed Over the Years

My Sight is Lined with Visions presents films from the Asian American indie/arthouse wave of the ’90s. Hyperallergic talked to programmers Keisha Knight and Abby Sun about complicating ideas of cultural celebration.

From Terminal USA (1993), dir. Jon Moritsugu (all images courtesy Sentient.Art.Film)

With Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month drawing toward its end, the independent distribution initiative Sentient.Art.Film has put together a unique online screening series to celebrate. My Sight is Lined with Visions presents films from Asian American filmmakers made during the indie heyday of the 1990s, with a special focus on the experimental and avant-garde. The whole program will be available to purchase (at multiple price points, depending on what one can pay) for one week, and will be accompanied by live virtual Q&As with filmmakers and critical essays by a variety of Asian American writers.

In a press release, Sentient.Art.Film explains that the program “challenges conventional notions of celebratory heritage during this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, inviting audiences to encounter the diversity, formal experimentation, and personally political tradition of Asian American cinematic visions.” Many of the selections are normally difficult, if not impossible, to find, with some of them making their streaming debuts. Titles include Shu Lea Cheang’s 1994 “eco-cybernoia” film Fresh Kill, about a queer couple who uncover an international conspiracy revolving around radioactive fish lips, Jon Moritsugu’s 1993 faux-sitcom Terminal USA, a satire of the model minority stereotype, and Spencer Nakasako’s 1998 documentary Kelly Loves Tony, about a pair of young US-raised Laotian refugees struggling to make ends meet.

Via email, Hyperallergic spoke to the series’ curators, Sentient.Art.Film founding director Keisha Knight and independent programmer Abby Sun, about putting it together, as well as how Asian American filmmaking and representation have (and haven’t) changed over the decades.

***

Hyperallergic: How long has this series been in the works?

Keisha Knight: The idea came down about six weeks ago, when we were all beginning to realize that lockdown might last for quite some time. Abby and I had just successfully negotiated a last-minute shift of the DocYard’s screening of No Data Plan to a virtual format, so I knew we were a good team under pressure, and we were both passionate about bringing these voices to a broader audience.

Abby Sun: This is a landmark year for Asian American media in many ways, from the broadcast of the PBS series that in so many ways was decades in the making to the anniversaries of Visual Communications (50th) and the Center for Asian American Media (40th). COVID-19 has placed a unique burden on these institutions and Asian American journalists, writers, cultural workers, and individuals to address hate speech, crimes, and discrimination on a level that hasn’t been matched since 9/11, against South Asians. I listened to a Q&A about Asian Americans with its producers, and one of the submitted questions was from a college student from California who said he’d never personally faced anti-Asian racism until COVID-19.

This is all to say that there is a renewed sense of weight on providing examples of positive representation and focusing on messaging that appeals to the broadest audience possible. And to me, that also means this is a real moment to remind ourselves of the complicated critiques of systems and stereotypes and representation that are present in the films in the series and in the lives of their makers. So that drove my interest in the formal qualities of these films, and also in ones that were complicated in their portrayals of their subjects, especially the ones that didn’t fit neatly in the box of ‘Asian America.’ Several of these filmmakers disavow the label of Asian American. All, at some point, lived in the US, but some have made homes in Canada or decamped across the Pacific. In commissioning the essays, we looked for voices that would match the complicated histories, energy, awareness, grace, and punk attitude of these films.

COVID-19 drove many of our decisions about the format of presenting the series too, but like in real life, it exacerbated a lot of existing problems and didn’t really create new ones. For instance, we have a tiered payment structure, and a section of free shorts called ‘The Vault’ to facilitate access to the series. This is because we’re sensitive to the financial uncertainty that many of our friends and potential audience members have as freelancers and arts workers and gig workers, even outside the current moment of unprecedented unemployment. As someone who grew up in mid-Missouri, without access to repertory offerings outside of the VHS rental section of the grocery store and one Blockbuster, an online series is appealing in many ways, if I’m thinking about potential viewers like my teenage self.

From Strawberry Fields (1997), dir. Rea Tajiri

KK: It’s often hard to bring attention to repertory titles that haven’t recently undergone a special restoration or aren’t having an anniversary of some description. One of the benefits of the focused attention during this period of isolation is that people are thinking about streaming in more sensitive ways. There’s a sensitivity to the range of energies that different images bring into your world (and home) through the screen. I don’t think we would have been able to do this series if it weren’t for isolation and the way it has changed, albeit subtly, the way people think of virtual cinema. Hopefully this opens up opportunities for more creative exhibition options when theaters do open up again.

H: What kind of essays can we expect from the pool of writers you’ve assembled?

AS: Each piece hones in on one aspect of one of the films, mostly relating to how they’re read in the present moment. We approached a mixed group of academics, freelance writers, graduate students, and recent grads to have a wide range of experience and interests represented. As a writer, I know how frustrating it can be to be used as another arm of the publicity machine for a film or a theater, so these essays are all separate from the program notes, and they’re allowed to drill down as deeply or as expansively as the writers saw fit.

H: What drove the decision to focus specifically on this era of films?

KK & AS: We find this period to be free and exciting. All of these films are politically aesthetic and/or aesthetically political. It’s the experimentation, play, and biting commentary that jumps out of the frame. These films are alive in ways that we don’t feel as urgently in many films produced today. The films in My Sight is Lined with Visions are living, breathing, and figuring themselves out in real time.

H: What, more broadly, was happening in culture/society/the industry that led to the indie wave of Asian American films in the ’90s? What ideas or trends that we see today in films by and/or about Asian Americans can be traced back to then?

KK & AS: Crucially, the ’90s were still a period of development for Asian American filmmaking, which really saw critical and commercial success in the ’00s. Like today, there were films with ‘positive representation,’ in the general international arthouse/fuzzy aesthetic. The infamous Sundance Q&A for Better Luck Tomorrow and its subsequent theatrical success were a few years away. But ITVS had just come into existence as a producer-run public funder outside the direct oversight of the conservative Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It specialized in supporting exciting, not necessarily experienced filmmakers, even and especially experimental ones. Unfortunately, its funding has remained flat, not even accounting for inflation, for the last 20 years, and they have slowly stopped funding fiction projects entirely.

There were also far fewer Asian American filmmakers working then, compared to now, and so every film that got finished was a huge accomplishment. We purposefully didn’t try to represent the entirety of the moment, but it’s true that many of the filmmakers from that time are Japanese American, which doesn’t reflect the diversity of who’s making films today. Most importantly, however, there wasn’t the rampant professionalism that exists in independent film today across all genres — the incessant need to fill out grant application after grant application, or to participate in pitch forms and dance for private funders to secure micro-budget support. We are interested in the overlap with the video art and experimental worlds that seemed a lot more prevalent then, where Nam June Paik pioneered the way for artists like Shu Lea Cheang and Richard Fung and others, not just Asians in America. As a result, what was being publicly funded, broadcast, and programmed at film festivals was, paradoxically to our current eyes, mindbogglingly expansive in their treatments of representation and in the form of the films.

From Some Divine Wind (1991), dir. Roddy Bogawa

H: A lot of discussion around Asian American media today revolves around representation — good representation, bad representation, a lack of representation, etc. In the ’90s, what was the conversation like? How much overlaps with today? Are there any aspects — priorities, framing, contexts — that are notably different? Is there anything you find interesting about what’s changed over time?

KK & AS: A lot of the conversation was exactly the same, and reminds us of current discourse that centers the goal of achieving complex representation within a commercially viable container! We think there is a lot we can gain by remembering the past. Representation remains an important part of the discourse about Asian American film because its origins stem from a desire to fight harmful stereotypes, and though we like to think there’s progress, things like the rise in hate acts and speech during COVID-19 remind us of the real-world stakes of racism. The ’90s saw a public pushback against the ‘model minority’ term, and the demographics of Asian America were continuing to diversify. There were complicated racial dynamics and anti-Blackness in Asian American communities — compare the LA Uprising / Soon Ja Du shooting of Latasha Harlins with the more recent shooting of Akai Gurley by Peter Liang. There was major mainstream success; the ’90s, after all, were the era of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, Ang Lee, Amy Tan, and the Wayne Wang-directed hit film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club. Today, internet-native industries, like YouTube videos, online shorts series, cooking shows, and livestreaming, have many young Asian American stars. They’re not often politicized, though. That’s the thing that is really missing today. The media that’s produced feels defanged compared to the depth of discourse that exists.

My Sight is Lined with Visions runs May 29 through June 7.

comments (0)