Unconventional plots, uncommon perspectives

Eliza Coupe and Daniel Henney’s ears perk up when they hear “Shanghai Calling.” Photo by Armando Salas, artwork by Nate Whitson

 Asian American International Film Fest unspools features, shorts

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  With screenings at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas, the Asia Society and Museum and The Museum of Chinese in America, the Asian American International Film Festival’s creative content is as far-reaching as its geographic sprawl.

The 35th edition of this annual event — which over the course of its lifetime has seen Asian cinema spread in popularity along with America’s embrace of indie and art house films — will offer 14 features and 33 shorts, unspooling over 12 days. Many of the filmmakers are either debut directors (actress Lily Mariye’s L.A. dysfunctional coming of age story “Model Minority”) or are returning to the festival (as does H.P. Mendoza, with the horror film “I am a Ghost”).

“We are extremely happy to see the number of Asian American filmmakers making quality work in a truly independent fashion, which AAIFF continues to champion,” says Program Director Martha Tien — who notes that several of this year’s selections are clever variations on much-tread narrative territory. “They’re not just making films about culture shock or generation gaps,” says Tien of the directors whose unique voices caught her eye. “They’re taking a stereotype and turning it on its head, or bringing us more mainstream stories where the characters happen to be Asian.”

Two selections that fall into the former (and, to some extent, the latter) category are Daniel Hsia’s “Shanghai Calling” and Simon Yin’s “$upercapitalist.” Both films take their successful protagonists from New York City to unfamiliar terrain. In the romantic comedy “Calling,” an attorney slowly cultivates an appreciation for Shanghai thanks to a beautiful “relocation specialist,” a clever journalist and a savvy assistant. In “$upercapitalist,” a hedge fund trader is plunged into Hong Kong’s ruthless culture of profits.

Stefanos Tai’s “Big City Small Town” chronicles changing times in Stuyvesant Town.

“We are living in a very globalized world now,” says Tien regarding the recurring festival theme of relocation and self-discovery. “Everyone’s on the move, and the cross cultural connection is growing stronger. That’s reflected in the work of these filmmakers. Both films have lead characters who are working in a field that many Asian Americans are in. These are relatable stories, because these things are really happening right now.”

From her point of view, curator Tien notes, “It’s great to see filmmakers taking on this topic, but bringing a unique perspective. In ‘Shanghai Calling,’ it’s a Chinese American who’s unfamiliar with all the culture and customs, and it’s the Caucasian female relocation specialist who helps him settle into his new environment. ‘$upercapitalist’ is more about individualism and family values, less about cultural customs.”

The AAIFF also distinguishes itself from other festivals, with respect to the amount of time and energy spent showcasing shorts. “Short films,” Tien says, “are the starting point for many filmmakers. They often develop it into a feature film. Our festival has always been an incubator for upcoming filmmakers, and we feel a need to support them by showing their short work.”

This year’s short programs include “Love, Interrupted” — a collection of five LGBT-themed stories, each expressing an LGBTQ perspective. “This American Life” contemplates what it means to be Asian and living in America. The eight films in “How To…” examine different coping techniques for unexpectedly severe life changes; and “For Youth by Youth” presents nine experimental, animated and documentary shorts by directors between the ages of 15 and 20.

In one of those films, “Big City, Small Town,” Stefanos Tai examines changes in Stuyvesant Town, where he grew up. “It’s a teenager’s reflection on how they’re trying to squeeze out the old rent controlled tenants,” notes Tien. “It’s his point of view, all about how he’s grown up in the neighborhood, and what it’s meant to him — a very personal, very local story.”

The best of the AAIFF’s short films will be available, in September, at dramafever.com/acv.


July 25 through August 5 at
The Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre St., btw. Grand and Howard Sts.)
Clearview Chelsea Cinemas (260 W. 23rd St., btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
Asia Society and Museum (725 Park Ave., btw. 70th & 71st Sts.)
For a full schedule (and to purchase tickets), visit asiancinevision.org/aaiff
Admission: $13 general, $11 for students, seniors & the disabled
Tickets available at the box office or at the above URL, or by calling 212-989-0017 (Mon.-Fri., 12-5pm; processing fee of $1.50 per ticket)