The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival celebrates 10 years

'Finding Kukan' director Robin Lung. (Photo by Michelle Scott.)

This week, the largest Asian-American film festival on the East Coast opens in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF), which runs from November 9 through November 19, is celebrating its 10th year of multidisciplinary programming. It features not only film but also lectures, live music, food events, and more.

From Connecticut to Japan

Rob Buscher, a local filmmaker, professor, and recent BSR contributor, has been the PAAFF festival director for the last five years. Buscher, who is a biracial Japanese American, grew up in suburban Connecticut in the 1980s, which he describes as mostly void of diversity.

“My family didn’t have a Japanese community,” Buscher explains. “So we watched a lot of Japanese movies and TV shows — this was really impactful for my sister and me.” In those pre-Netflix days, relatives in California would send VHS tapes.

By the time Buscher went off to college, film had totally captured his imagination. He studied abroad in Japan during his senior year and returned as a graduate student, earning an MA in Japanese cinema studies.

An inclusive fest

For Buscher, PAAFF is designed not only to give the Asian-American community a unique cultural experience but to educate people of all cultural backgrounds. “The films in PAAFF include something that everyone will be able to identify with,” Buscher explains. “The festival is very accessible — there’s entrée into the culture of the Asian-American experience in a very holistic way … by meeting film-makers, eating great food, listening to music ... and seeing films.” Buscher also notes that the films are primarily in English, some with subtitles.

At International House’s Lightbox Film Center, the opening night screening of the recently restored 1919 film The Dragon Painter, starring Japanese immigrant Sessue Hayakawa and featuring an original live score by singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura, will be a festival highlight.  Also at Lightbox, the festival’s centerpiece documentary, Finding Kukan (screening November 12), tells the story of the almost-lost 1942 Academy Award-winning documentary and its uncredited Chinese-American producer, Li Ling-Ai.

Asian Americans then and now

The festival will also mark some important history. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the legal precedent that led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. PAAFF’s Japanese American Showcase, presented by the civil rights group Japanese American Citizens League, provides an overview of Japanese-American history and culture through six features, a shorts program, and a live theater performance (locations and times vary).

This year also marks the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1882 law that banned Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. The documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act explores this history and its impact on racial attitudes in America. This program, presented free on November 12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is paired with Memories to Light, a collection of home movies from California-based Chinese Americans from the 1920s to the 1970s, with live narration provided by Center for Asian American Media executive director Stephen Gong, and live musical accompaniment.

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival is running in venues throughout Philadelphia November 9 through 19. Tickets and the full schedule are available online. 

Above at right: Signature Move follows a lesbian Muslim-Mexican romance in world of female luchadors. (Image courtesy of PAAFF.)