As Asian American cinema slowly breaks free of the identity politics trap, events like the long-running AAIFF begin to reflect subtler and more complicated approaches to familiar ethnocultural topics. The 29th edition opens with Ham Tran’s Journey From the Fall, a moving if stolidly predictable epic that revisits the Vietnam War from the point of view of a sundered Vietnamese family. Assimilation issues figure in films as disparate as Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Fire Horse, a nostalgic portrait of childhood magical thinking fueled by immigrant culture clash, and Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat’s Rigodon, an opaque, arty meditation on alienation and homeland insecurity among New York’s Filipino community after 9-11.
A couple of docs pair rich material with perfunctory execution. Jeff Adachi’s The Slanted Screen is a meandering historical overview of Asian American men in Hollywood, from silent-era sex symbol Sessue Hayakawa to Crimson Kimono star James Shigeta to Harold and Kumar. Sonali Gulati’s half-hour Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night ponders the split identities of call center workers in New Delhi, though it lacks the potent sci-fi strangeness of last year’s similarly themed John and Jane.
Billed as the first Asian American musical since The Flower Drum Song and armed with a super-catchy score by co-star H.P. Mendoza, Richard Wong’s Colma: The Musical is destined to be the fest’s underdog crowd-pleaser. Most of the best new Asian American films acknowledge the complex realities of globalization, but this irresistible coming-of-age charmer, about a group of teenage friends stuck in the titular Bay Area suburb, speaks to a more modest and universal kind of physical mobility: the all-important escape from a depressing hometow.