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#VAFF20 Amazing Asian-Canadian Films

The Vancouver Asian Film Fest (VAFF) celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend, and Vancouver Bits and Bites were delighted to walk the red carpet along with them. The schedule was packed with panels, shorts, and feature films, all centered around the theme “homecoming”. Alice and I got the chance to see four films and a collection of shorts, as well as listen to the stars and directors’ thoughts on diversity in the industry.

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Alice kicked-off the festival with their opening feature: the Canadian premiere of Pali Road, a psychological thriller filmed and set in Hawaii. Starring Chinese actress Michelle Chen and Asian American actor Sung Kang, this film is a joint production between Chinese and American film studios. The audience is thrust into an intriguing and Inception-esque plot, where a young successful woman wakes up from a car accident to a husband she doesn’t know and memories of another man who may not even exist. At the screening were Hollywood actor Tzi Ma and Lauren Sweetser, playing the amnesiac’s father and best friend respectively.

After the film, VAFF presented a special award to Tzi Ma for Outstanding Contribution to Diversity in Film. In his thank you speech he reminded the audience of the struggle Asian actors continue to face in Hollywood, highlighting the importance of integrity and hard work.

“I need to represent my community well,” Tzi Ma told the crowds. “I would not do anything that would put my community in a negative light. I lost a lot of work because of that.”

Congratulations to Tsi Ma on his award, excellence, and tenacity in representing Asians of all walks of life on screen!

I switched in to see The Bleeding Edge, the Leo-award winning, BC-filmed festival centrepiece. Anastasia Lin, current Miss World Canada, delivers an amazing and impactful performance in a film about illegal organ harvesting in Chinese prisons. Yes, it’s as gruesome as it sounds.

Writer and director Leon Lee gives us a heart-wrenching (heh) tale of a woman struggling against an oppressive system and a foreign man who does all he can to stop it. Set in the early 2000s, and cleverly marked by everyone’s flip phones and desktop computers, we follow these two protagonists as they uncover corruption, censorship, and conspiracy. It’s worth noting, that both Anastasia Lin and Leon Lee are now not allowed entry into China for their parts in the making of the Bleeding Edge. When asked about the propaganda aspects of his film, he had this to say:

“We are all human. This is an atrocity against human rights, and we cannot let it continue.”

I loved this film. Sure, it was hard to watch, but in the good, incredulous, I-need-to-know-more way that always comes with a film based on true events. The story felt real and urgent. Normally films stay away from having two protagonists, but Lee pulled it off quite nicely, balancing the screen time and pacing between them well.

Though, I felt an ounce of unease at the common white saviour trope. Too often do we see a western character (often a man) swoop into the scene with radical ideas that will “save” the locals. I understand that this was based on true events. I get that it takes radical thinking to produce change. It just makes me frustrated that in a festival about Asian excellence and strength, a film once again glorifies and features the white man.

After a popcorn break, I settled back into the theatre to see Heartfall Arises, a Hong Kong blockbuster crime-thriller.

Starring renowned Asian action stars Tsui Hark and John Woo, the film follows a cop and a psychologist as they chase down a ruthless serial killer named the General. It sounds pretty cookie-cutter until you throw in the theory of cellular memory, that each cell can hold the memories, habits, and hidden urges of the person they belong to. What happens then, when a killer’s heart is transplanted into one of the best cops on the force?

Filmed over 4 countries, 44 days, and edited over 14 months, the end result is an entertaining mix of solidly choreographed action scenes and slightly unnecessary CGI-holographs. I watched this with the same mindset I watch summer superhero flicks, not much of one at all. The twists were obvious but satisfying all the same. The acting was as good as any Hollywood film actor’s. The plot had the distinct zany flair that accents most Asian movies and dramas.

Alice was back on the carpet for the last day of the festival, and she got to see an eclectic showcase of Asian American and Asian Canadian talent in the afternoon short film program. The eight Canadian-filmed shorts varied from 5 to 8 minutes each and were a wonderfully entertaining mix of fiction and nonfiction entries. A Dwarf’s Hideout won National Film Boards best Canadian short, as a documentary on a Japanese immigrant couple building their lives in wintry Winnipeg. Final Wishes won People’s Choice short film with its focus on how one fictional father’s dying wishes brings his family together. Honourable mention to Under Fire, a UBC student documentary on Chinese roast BBQ featuring Money’s BBQ on Fraser and 49th.

The two of us met up for the closing feature and got to meet some of the great minds behind the event. This year, VAFF’s 20th anniversary was significant in its constant message that Asian Canadians and Asian Americans are persevering to feature Asians in movies, media, and music.

And what better note to end on than a happy one. The Tiger Hunter is a comedy-drama featuring Danny Pudi (yes, Abed from Community) and Karen David (you can catch her amazing musical prowess in Galavant). In a refreshing reversal of the token brown guy cliche, Jon Heder is the token white guy in a colourful cast of South Asian immigrants who moved to America to chase their engineering dreams. Of course, as many immigrant families know, the dream does not always involve your hard-earned degree.

Set in the late 70s with the groovy tunes to match, the film bursts with quirkiness. It’s hard not to laugh at thirteen grown men squeezed onto one mattress, but the best humour always has a hint of truth in it. Writer/director Lena Khan drew on (and exaggerated, she admits) the experiences of her friends and community to craft the film, and the authenticity shines through. All in all, The Tiger Hunter was a great end to the festival and a glimmer of hope for the rise of East Asian stories on the big screen!

Check out VAFF, the films they feature, and all the great work they do in the Asian community on their site.

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