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Culture Report: Refugee and Immigrant Stories Take the Big Screen

The Morning Passing on El Cajon Blvd
A still from “The Morning Passing on El Cajon Boulevard,” by filmmaker Quyên Nguyen-Le / Photo courtesy of San Diego Asian Film Festival

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 [1]” 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.”

Joseph Mangat
A still from “Bidyoke,” by Joseph Mangat / Photo courtesy of San Diego Asian Film Festival

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.

Brian Hu
San Diego Asian Film Festival artistic director Brian Hu / Photo courtesy of San Diego Asian Film Festival

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.

More to Watch

Here’s a roundup of some of the standout selections — beyond the opening night screening of “Paradise” [1] — throughout the festival:

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 [12].

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Visual Art

“The Young Shepherdess,”by William-Adolphe Bouguereau / Image courtesy of Sand Diego Museum of Art
Ryan Bradford
“Edward Cheetohands,” a risograph print available at Cheetos Fest / Image by Ryan Bradford


Film and Literature

Theater and Dance

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Food, Etc.

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