As Hollywood hurtles through an award season that has been a breakthrough for Asian and Asian American performers and filmmakers, sure to culminate in a Best Picture Oscar on Sunday for Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s important to remember that, even though such voices have been long neglected by mainstream movie culture, they’ve been out there if you know where to look.
Long before Michelle Yeoh had hotdog fingers, Shang-Chi faced off against the Ten Rings, or Crazy Rich Asians cashed in at the box office, the Eugene-based DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon has been showcasing work by, for, and about the AAPI community. Now in its 18th year, the festival has returned to full strength following COVID restrictions, offering in-person screenings from March 10-12 and virtual offerings from March 13-19.
Programming director Susan Hirata describes the type of films the festival showcases: “The criteria that we use is that the films are Asian-American, Native American, or Pacific Islander independent films. We see ourselves as a platform for these independent films that may not be getting looked at by distributors, and not getting screen time. It’s a little different nowadays, but eighteen years ago, that simply wasn’t the case.”
In other words, the rest of the industry is finally catching up to the variety and humanity to be found in these stories. “I think that’s happened because festivals like ours have provided a place for filmmakers to showcase their work. The fact that these films are such a big deal speaks to how rare they are,” says Hirata. “But Asian American stories have been part of the American story for a long time and they are not really among the mainstream stories that get told.”
These aren’t films made with an eye towards exploiting an underserved demographic. They’re “authentic stories, meaning that it matters who tells the story,” says Hirata. “Our films have not been vetted by Hollywood executives, they’re from independent filmmakers who have a sincere story they want to tell.”
DisOrient was founded by a filmmaker named Jason Mak, who grew up in Eugene, where his parents owned a Chinese restaurant. He went to UCLA film school and directed a short film about his childhood, which then toured film festivals as part of a program of student work. “Jason was really impressed by how their films were received in other places around the country and that there were these venues for these small, independent films,” says Hirata. “When he came back to Eugene, he wanted to show his film, and there was nowhere he could do it. So he created his own film festival, and that was the beginning of DisOrient.”
Hirata’s own connection with the festival began as an audience member. “I attended for many years and then about five years ago, I started volunteering—frankly, I just wanted to watch the films for free! And now I see every film that gets submitted–around 220 this year—and some of them multiple times. And I get to travel to other festivals. I just got back from HIFF, the Hawaiian International Film Festival. So I love that part.”
THIS YEAR’S CROP
Events such as DisOrient often must combat the notion that the films they present, while authentic and sincere, might be lacking in polish or craft, and that’s demonstrably not the case here. The narrative features I was able to preview were dramatically engaging, entertaining, and not at all the cinematic equivalent to eating one’s Brussels sprouts. “They don’t have the budgets of bigger films, so there aren’t pyrotechnics or flashy visuals,” says Hirata. “It’s just really good storytelling, powered by the care and commitment of the filmmakers.”
Director Jon Hill’s debut feature, Above the Clouds, is a delightful meet-cute comedy about a young man (Chris Labadie) returning home after the death of his father and colliding with an offbeat stranger (Kahyun Kim) searching for a lost dog. This is only the second festival screening of the film, according to Hirata. Both leads are engaging, and there’s real chemistry between them.
Golden Delicious is another coming-of-age tale, this one centering on a 17-year-old Canadian (Cardi Wong) who’s torn between loyalty to his longtime girlfriend (Parmiss Sehat) and the feelings he develops for the new boy next door (Chris Carson). Short-film veteran Jason Karman makes an impressive feature debut that’s boosted by winning performances from its young cast.
While Land of Gold tackles heavier subject matter, it does so with a delicate touch. Punjabi-American long-haul driver Kiran (writer-director Nardeep Khurmi), soon to become a father, finds a 9-year-old undocumented Mexican girl hiding in his trailer. Fully aware of the treatment she would receive if turned in to the authorities, he embarks on a road trip to reunite her with her family. Again, the performances here are authentic, lived-in, and intentional.
Documentaries are a huge part of DisOrient, often shining light on issues of particular importance to the AAPI community. The flip side of the increased recognition of Asian American voices and stories in mainstream culture is the rise in hate crimes and other mistreatment toward AAPI individuals spurred by right-wing intolerance and fueled by COVID conspiracy theories. “There’s a social justice aspect to simply being an Asian American Film Festival, putting under-represented stories out there,” says Hirata. The opening night film, Finding Her Beat, captures the formation of an all-female Taiko drumming troupe—in Minnesota, of all places. One of Hirata’s favorites is Liquor Store Dreams, a first-person documentary by the daughter of Korean immigrant liquor store owners in Los Angeles. Director So Yun Um interviews her father and other family members about the sometimes troubled relationship between the city’s Black and Asian populations, and reflects on the stereotype of the “angry Korean liquor store owner” in popular culture. Another is 80 Years Later, in which a number of Japanese Americans subjected to internment during World War II and their descendants talk about how the trauma of that experience ripples through the generations.
A PLACE TO GATHER
With a seemingly endless array of streaming platforms offering a seemingly endless selection of films, it’s important to keep in mind that events like DisOrient also function as gathering places for creators and audiences, providing just the sort of personal connection that we were so deprived of over the last three years. “People think of film festivals as kind of an elitist thing,” says Hirata. “That you have to be an intellectual. But that is not what our festival is at all. It’s meant to be a community gathering for storytelling in film. It’s really accessible to everybody, so I’m hoping we can change that perception.”
Approximately sixty filmmakers will be in attendance this year. “You can’t imagine how much more impactful a film is—any film—when you talk about it afterwards with the people who made it,” says Hirata. “And considering that we deal with a lot of social justice topics, it’s a safe place to talk about those issues. You learn a lot.”
The 2020 edition of DisOrient took place from March 10-15 of that year, so as things shut down all over the world, the festival limped to the finish line, with many filmmakers cancelling their appearances in the days before the event. “Each day our audience was shrinking more and more as the COVID terror increased, and the day after the festival was when Eugene shut down.” Exhausted from that experience, festival staff considered taking the next year off, but after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing racial justice protests, “we felt like we couldn’t sit this out now. We needed to be part of this time.” So the 2021 festival took place entirely online, and last year only the opening and closing night films were screened in-person, with the rest streaming online.
This year, in addition to a full slate of theatrical showings over the weekend, DisOrient offers a slate of virtual programming for the following week. Some titles will only screen in the theater, some will only be part of the virtual program, and some will be in both formats. For full details, visit their website.