The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) program titled Genre Shorts: Asian Imagination is broad by design because it’s meant to demonstrate what stops genres from growing stale—new voices to tell these stories in ways they’ve never been told before.
Usually, almost any genre film can be simplified into a generic-sounding version of itself. Take “humans feel threatened by machines and decide to lash out,” or “gang member (not for the first time) drunkenly walks into enemy territory and now another member has to get him out before he’s killed.” Or how about “grandmother resists granddaughter’s attempts to buy her new appliances, amongst growing concerns that she shouldn’t be living alone anymore”? Or try “man on a deadline has trouble concentrating due to recent and past traumatic events in his personal life.”
These all sound like they could describe multiple films, and there wouldn’t be genres if there weren’t certain constraints that identified a film as being one type or another. These traditions continue to thrive, however, because there are filmmakers willing to put their own spin on them—as ably demonstrated in the selections of this shorts program from PAAFF.
Hao Zheng’s The Chef isn’t the first film to project how the world might react to humanoid robots in the workplace. Like the Industrial Revolution, except with machines that look like people, it’s a territory that the TV show Humans covered for three seasons, but The Chef isn’t interested in whether or not William (Quinn von Hoene) is sentient. Instead, it’s about Pu (Jim Lau) and his trepidations about passing his recipes on to someone who’s neither human nor Chinese. When we first meet William onscreen, it’s not his inhumanity that’s accentuated. If it was, he’d probably know how to translate any language, but since he doesn’t, he doesn’t realize Pu’s boss (Raymond Ma) switches pronouns, from “him” to “it,” when he’s not speaking English.
The Chef’s Pu is resistant to change at first, but eventually gives William a shot. Roxy Shih’s The Visit follows a grandmother (Yin-Shang Liu) who’s not so open. Her granddaughter, Yi-Hua (Felicity Huang), works hard in the city and feels guilty about leaving her grandmother behind in Taiwan. In Phet Mahathongdy’s Go to Sleep: A Lao Ghost Story, Khon (Ova Saopeng) nurses a similar guilt, but over the people he left behind in Vietnam. Whereas Yi-Hua goes to her grandmother’s place for visits, it’s the ghosts from the refugee camp where Khon spent time as a child that are visiting him. Mahathongdy’s short begins and ends with text that frames the story within the experience of Southeast Asians who “were forced to leave their homeland after the Vietnam War” (without this text provided onscreen, it would be difficult to pick up on the film’s historical context). Usually dying in your sleep is seen as a peaceful way to go, but Go to Sleep puts an end to that comfort.
Secret Lives of Asians at Night
KEFF’s Secret Lives of Asians at Night is the only film in this Genre Shorts program that focuses entirely on the younger generation of Asian Americans (featuring Lyrica Okano of Marvel’s Runaways). This film portrays young Asian people divided into gangs based on what country they’re from—a move later contrasted with responses from police who think nothing of lumping the young people together as Asians.
While the cops in this short don't realize people of Asian descent can have roots in a lot of different countries, this year's PAAFF lineup does reflect this truth, and the festival offers the chance to see films representing different cultures, along with many approaches to genre filmmaking.
What, When, Where
The Chef, directed by Hao Zheng and written by Ithaca Deng and Leqi Vanessa Kong. Go to Sleep: A Lao Ghost Story, directed by Phet Mahathongdy and written by Mahathongdy and Liam O’Donnell. Secret Lives of Asians at Night, directed and written by KEFF. The Visit, directed and written by Roxy Shih.
The Genre Shorts: Asian Imagination program screens at Lightbox Film Center on November 9, 2019 from 9:45-11pm, with a Q&A from filmmakers to follow. The screening is free; RSVP online here. The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival runs November 7-17 at venues around the city. Here’s the full schedule of events.
The Lightbox Film Center is wheelchair-accessible.