Culture Report: Refugee and Immigrant Stories Take the Big Screen
The San Diego Asian Film Festival celebrates 20 years of showcasing pop culture films, documentaries, dramas and shorts, San Diego Museum of Art opens a Bouguereau exhibition and more arts and culture news.
Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s acclaimed 2003 novel “The Gangster We Are All Looking For” follows a Vietnamese refugee family in San Diego. “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore,” reads the opening line. The book is not only uniquely San Diegan, but it remains a significant work about the Asian immigrant experience nationwide.
And it inspired the filmmakers behind the feature-length film that kicks off the upcoming San Diego Asian Film Festival on Thursday. The film, “The Paradise We Are Looking For” — a collection of linked, short documentaries — borrows from the title and starts with an epigraph from the book to pay homage.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Pacific Arts Movement’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, and “The Paradise We Are Looking For” is the first time Pac Arts has produced a feature-length film. The four short documentaries included in the collection are distinct and powerful examples of storytelling, with San Diego’s vast and varied communities as a unifying backdrop.
‘The Paradise We Are Looking For’
“The Paradise We Are Looking For” opens with Norbert Shieh’s film essay, “Two Miles East,” about the aftermath of 2008 plane crash into a University City home. It’s quiet and somber storytelling: patchwork vignettes of press conferences, the communities affected by the loss, cockpit recordings and the repetition of a vast horizon over the ocean seen from a re-enacted plane. Filmed on the 10th anniversary of the crash last year, it’s a reminder that isolated tragedies can seem intensely personal but have a lasting, broad reach.
The second story, “The Morning Passing on El Cajon Boulevard,” by filmmaker Quyên Nguyen-Le, is an emotional and macabre look at mortuary workers who cater to the specific needs of immigrant and refugee funerals and end-of-life care in City Heights. It follows Julie Tran, a mortuary worker at Goodbody Mortuary, as she navigates her own grief. More than once I felt implicated in (or at the very least spying on) her vulnerability.
Joseph Mangat’s “Bidyoke,” centers on a fluorescent-lit restaurant and karaoke joint (the Gapo) in National City, following the stories of its regulars, many of them immigrants, and many of them in makeshift community. “I sing because it rejuvenates my life,” says one regular, while a 95-year-old man (“The Mayor of The Gapo”) croons in the background. “It’s not just a hobby; it’s what’s keeping me alive.”
Finally, “Reunion, ‘99,” is R.J. Lozada’s portrayal of memory, hinging around his 20th high school reunion at Montgomery High School (“Our ghetto school: so close to the border, so close to the bases, so close to the beach,” narrates the opening sequence). It’s a moving, relatable and personal look at remembering the experience of high school, and the particulars of being a teenager in the late ‘90s, in the South Bay.
20 Years of Asian American Films
Running for 10 days in eight venues across the city, this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival will present more than 170 films from 29 countries, including several with ties to San Diego.
Celebrating 20 years means that the festival has seen a lot of changes, and so have the audiences. “Before the internet, it was just a vacuum. It was hard to find Asian American films,” said Ed Lim, who teaches photography and film at Bonita Vista High School.
He also attended the first San Diego Asian American Film Festival in 1999, and said that these festivals throughout the years were how he found community. “These were films I couldn’t find anywhere else. It was like coming home,” said Lim, who added that the festival’s curation is comprehensive, inventive and far-reaching, and he still always discovers new films and filmmakers.
“Yellow Rose” (Nov. 9) — Featuring Broadway sensation Eva Noblezada, this film centers on an undocumented immigrant trying to make a name for herself in the country music world while her parents are fleeing ICE.
“Shorts for Shorties” (Nov. 9, free) — This family-friendly collection of shorts was curated in part by the program’s high school interns. “We asked them ‘What would you show your younger cousins? What would you want them exposed to?’” said festival artistic director Brian Hu.
“Straight Up” (Nov. 10) — Written, directed by and starring James Sweeney, it’s an LGBTQ rom-com with messy characters leading messy lives. “We kind of root for them, but we don’t root for them,” jokes Hu.
”Rituals of Resistance” (Nov. 10) — This three-part documentary that follows Tibetans in exile in the United States includes one story that follows a woman in San Diego, and is directed by her son.
Reel Voices (Nov. 10) is Pacific Arts Movement’s high school program, featuring a collection of mini documentaries that tackle identity, trauma, culture, family and more.
“Fagara” (Nov. 11 and Nov. 14) — This food-centric Hong Kong feature follows sisters who have to save their father’s hot pot restaurant. It’s part of the “Asia Pop!” series of films in the festival, which showcases pop culture and mainstream films. “Without pop films, film festivals just become what rich people with a lot of free time do,” said Hu.
“Lingua Franca” (Nov. 14) — Directed by and starring Isabel Sandoval, this film follows an undocumented trans Filipina woman and was nominated for best film at the Venice and London Film Festivals, among other honors.
“To Live to Sing” (Closing screening: Nov. 16) — A young person’s devotion to Sichuan opera, this moving and quirky story is the final film of the festival. Tickets include a pre-screening reception and after party at The Nat.
Tickets range from free (all 4 p.m. weekday films, the Reel Voices, VR and Shorts for Shorties showcases and more) to $12 for regular screenings and $60 for a festival six-pack. All-festival passes and student, senior, military and group rates are also available. More details, including venue information, can be found here.
Neoclassical Hype Culture, a Big Gay Singalong and More Culture News and Happenings
Hype culture, but make it neoclassical: The San Diego Museum of Art’s new exhibition of 40 works by French painter Bouguereau showcases his masterful portraiture. Holding fast to realism while styles were rapidly changing around him meant Bouguereau lost favor with his contemporaries (nice job outing yourself as going to a brothel, Gauguin) but this exhibit looks at his legacy unmarred by the fads. Opens Saturday. (San Diego Magazine)
Artist-in-residence Tanya Aguiñiga‘s exhibition, Tikitiko, is now open at the New Children’s Museum.
Cheetos-themed art? Really? Really. This slightly absurdist yet incredibly relatable group art show on Saturday afternoon is sure to metaphorically dust your fingertips with joy. Plus, it’s a fundraiser for San Diego Food Bank.