The Sundance Film Festival is likely the most
prestigious independent film festival in the United States, having gone from a
scrappy bastion of independent cinema in the early '80s to a major Hollywood
event in the '90s through 2010s, the launchpad of countless careers and a breeding
ground for often successful new talent. A number of well known Asian American
filmmakers also got their start at Sundance, including True Detective Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Victoria Para China (short), 2004; Sin Nombre, 2009), Justin Lin (Better
Luck Tomorrow, 2002; Finishing The
Game, 2007), Tze Chun (Children of
Invention, 2009), So Yong Kim (In Between Days, 2006), Benson Lee (Miss Monday, 1998), Jennifer Phang (Half-Life, 2008; Advantageous, 2015), Tony Bui (Three Seasons, 1999), Timothy Bui (Green Dragon, 2001), Bertha Bay-Sa Pan (Face, 2002), Michael Kang (The Motel, 2003), Alice Wu (Saving Face, 2005), Tanuj Chopra (Punching at the Sun, 2006), Ham Tran
(Journey from the Fall, 2006), Andrew Ahn (Dol
(First Birthday) (short), 2012), Evan Jackson Leong (Linsanity, 2013) and others.
Compiled below is a survey of such
offerings, an encouraging indicator of the state of Asian American cinema in
this day and age, and hopefully a sign of what to expect in the future. The
festival spans from Thursday, January 22nd to Monday February 2nd, 2015.
(Dir. Benson Lee 2015) -- 105 minutes (Premieres)
Described as a homage to the John Hughes dramedies
of the 1980s, Seoul Searching is
based on Director Benson Lee’s own experiences as a teenager participating in a
government-sponsored summer program where high schoolers of Korean descent
converge from all over the world -- the U.S., Germany, Mexico and London. The
setting of Seoul of 1986 is a blender where the film’s vast array of colorful
characters crash and mix: punk rocker teen Sid Park (Justin Chon) has a crush
on Grace Park (Jessika Van), who channels Madonna. Sergio (Esteban Ahn) is a
latin lover prototype hailing from Mexico, and Klaus (Teo Yoo) comes from
Germany and has a German girlfriend back in Hamburg, characters that are entirely different than the ones you would typically expect in Asian American films.
Sources such as The
Hollywood Reporter and Variety
have already praised the 80s era costume design from Shirley Kurata, the visual
style, and the soundtrack, which includes songs from The Clash, The Go-Gos,
Culture Club, and The Cars.
99 Homes (Dir. Raman
Bahrani) -- 110 minutes (Spotlight)
Iranian American filmmaker Raman Bahrani has been
called “the director of the decade” by Roger Ebert, and his previous film, At
Any Price, which reflects on the competitive world of modern agriculture, stands
current with his trend on examining compelling modern themes -- his current
film, 99 Homes, being no different as a meditation on the occasional dark side
of the homeowning business, and possibly the housing crash of 2006-2007.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern, the film has already
won a “Best Film” award from Venice by the Young Jury Members and was a SIGNIS
Award Honorable Mention at the same festival.
Jennifer Phang) -- 97 minutes (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
San Francisco-based filmmaker Jennifer Phang has
turned her award winning and critically acclaimed short film, also named Advantageous (initially made for
Futurestates.tv and PBS.org), into her third feature film, a story that
reflects on a futuristic society where education becomes unaffordable and where
humanity has gained the ability to transfer their minds and memories into
younger, more durable bodies. How these developments strain the relationship of
a mother and daughter are examined through the course of the film, which stars
Jacqueline Kim (also the other co-writer with Phang and one of the producers),
James Urbaniak, Ken Jeong, Freya Adams, Rex Lee and others.
Zipper (Dir. Mora Stephens) --
112 minutes (Premieres)
Zipper is a political thriller having similar themes
consistent with Director/Writer Mora Stephens’ previous Independent Spirit
Award winning comedy, Conventioneers.
The film follows a politically ambitious prosecutor (Patrick Ellis) eyeing a
U.S. Senate seat who becomes slowly consumed by a continual tryst with a
high-class escort that threatens to unravel everything he has built up to this
moment, including the relationship with his wife (Lena Headley). John Cho also
stars in the film.
Brothers Taught Me (Dir. Chloé Zhao) -- 98 minutes (U.S. Dramatic
Chloé Zhao’s second feature film focuses on a young
generation of Lakotas living on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The story revolves around
a high school senior named Johnny who has to decide whether to leave the
reservation due to the death of his rodeo-cowboy father, or stay and take care
of his 13-year old sister, Jashuan. Zhao directs non-professional actors to
tell a deep narrative featuring genuine and complex emotion, while
cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures stark footage of the South
Dakota/Nebraska border. The film is also produced by Forest Whitaker and Nina
Yang Bongiovi (who are behind another 2015 Sundance selection, Dope, and
previous 2013 Sundance hit, Fruitvale Station).
Umrika (Dir. Prashant Nair) --
100 minutes (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Director Prashant Nair’s second feature (and
Bollywood debut as a Hindi language movie) is a 1980s-set film anchored by the
performance of Life of Pi star Surraj
Sharma. We follow Sharma as the protagonist Ramakant, who journeys out for
Bombay while tracing the path of his brother, Udai, who writes inspiring
letters of questionable authenticity describing his adventures in America, or
Ivy (Dir. Tolga Karaçelik) --
104 minutes (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
is Turkish writer/director Tolga Karaçelik’s second feature, and is DP’d by
legendary cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki (Winter
Sleep, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia). Ivy
tells the tale of the varied, disgruntled crew of a Turkish cargo ship, who
arrive in an Egyptian port only to learn that the port authority plans to
foreclose on them, forcing them to maintain their vessel until its owner’s
debts are paid. Slowly, tensions rise until the ship’s men start to take out
their frustrations on each other.
Meru (Dirs. Jimmy Chin &
E. Chai Vasarhelyi) -- 92 minutes (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Meru is a breathtaking documentary about the
magnificent Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru, a 21,000-foot peak rising above the
headwaters of the Ganges River in Northern India and a monumental challenge for
the world’s finest mountain climbers, many who have failed to summit its peaks.
The documentary focuses on three elite American climbers -- Conrad Anker, Jimmy
Chin (co-director) and Renan Ozturke as they brave sub-zero temperatures and 19
days of violent storms. Featuring incredible footage shot in death-defying
conditions, Meru is the ultimate mountain climbing documentary.
In Football We
Trust (Dirs. Tony Vainuku & Erika Cohn) -- 87 minutes (Doc Premieres)
Filmed over four years, In Football We Trust follows
the journeys of four talented Polynesian high school football players as they
practice, play and strive to achieve their ultimate dreams of professional
recruitment in the NFL.
Timothy Tau is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His short story, The Understudy, won the Hyphen Asian American Short Story Contest (sponsored by the Asian American Writer's Workshop) and appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Hyphen Magazine, the Survival Issue. He is currently working on a film project about Asian American cinema pioneers set in the 60s, 70s and 80s.