Twelve years ago the Asian Film Festival of Dallas was an informal gathering housed in donated spaces. Promotional materials consisted of black-and-white xerox hand-outs and raw enthusiasm.
Since then it's grown and matured into a destination festival with sponsorship by McDonald's and Well Go USA, a distribution company specializing in Asian cinema. They have a strong PR presence; an active, volunteer-run board; and a reputation for sniffing out rare and wonderful films that Dallas wouldn't see otherwise. It's become so popular within its market that AFFD ups its venue from Magnolia to the Angelika this year, and will add a second screening room for opening weekend of its eight-day run.
As thoroughly explored as Asian Film Festival of Dallas is among its dedicated followers, the city's more casual moviegoers still don't know much about it. Pan out and you'd see that anomaly mirrors the genre's current struggle, where releases from Asian countries and by Asian American filmmakers are consumed only by a niche market, rather than being assimilated into more general viewership. Why is that? What's the cause of this cultural division? When it's 100 degrees out, shouldn't we all be hunkered down in a theater?
Asian Film Festival of Dallas' organizers frequently bat those same questions around. Naturally, they come up with a lot of different answers. A common suggestion is the prevalence of poorly dubbed films, where tone and tension are lost in a puddle of overspeak. Another is that many of the best releases from Asian countries get bulk purchased through American distribution companies who hoard them without knowing how to market them. So the films sit, neglected and unwatched.
AFFD's publicist, Teresa Nguyen, thinks that as far as this festival is concerned, public perception doesn't match the content's spectrum. "The majority of people think it's all kung-fu," she says, then adds, "It's surprising." Others, like Eric Hanes (AFFD board member and Creative Director) pin-points the chicken-egg conflict surrounding Hollywood's drought of Asian-American filmmakers, noting that Ang Lee (LIfe of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm) and Justin Lin (Fast and Furious) are the only names cashing those big checks, while up-and-coming talents are held deep within the indie stacks. Hanes sees niche festivals like AFFD as a chance to even things out, introducing lessor-known talents to broader audience.
But the most seemingly accurate guess to why Asian cinema isn't as popular as other imports is also the most revealing: People associate "reading" with "work."
"Why is it hard for me to get some of my friends to come to the Asian Film Festival?" asks Hanes. "It comes down to subtitles." By his logic most moviegoers need their cinema pre-chewed to enjoy it as entertainment. "But the films that we show are so fabulous and phenomenal that they're doing themselves a disservice by not going."
The 2013 schedule is loaded up with tastes spanning from romantic comedies to anime, action flicks, crime sagas, shorts, documentaries, the first feature film shot entirely on an iPhone and a special bollywood title, Eega, that AFFD's programmers tracked down on a hot tip from a reviewer buddy at Twitch. After locating and watching Eega -- an odd story of a murdered man who returns as a fly to haunt his attacker -- they were enamored. It's so good, they say, that the film will screen twice, once on Friday, July 12, as a full-length Director's cut and again on Sunday in its abbreviated theatrical version.
I asked film-vetters, AFFD board members and dudes who just love movies, Eric Hanes and David Gibson (Operations Director), about the most generally accessible films tucked into this year's roster. Since they've been Visine addicts since December, watching more than 100 submissions in preparation for this year's fest, they're prime candidates to serve as genre trailblazers.
Here's their list of ten, must-see Asian Film Festival selections, so you can more easily explore Dallas' best-kept, not-at-all-secret, festival.
Rurouni Kenshin Southwest Premiere, Opening Film (Thursday, July 11; 7:30, Thursday, July 18; 9:30) "Even a family would want to watch that one," says Hanes about Rurouni Kenshin, an adventure live-action take on the popular titular manga series. It's the story of Japanese assassin-turned wanderer Himura Kenshin (Takeru Sato) who's vowed never to kill again. Still, he must use his skill set -- and specially-designed-for-pacifism sword -- to protect the lives of those in danger. This one is a Japanese blockbuster, currently grossing more than 60 million worldwide.
Eega US Premiere (Friday, July 12; 1 p.m.; Sunday, July 14; 10:15 p.m.) Holy. Shit. This flick showed in its market section at Cannes and seems like a natural candidate for Fantastic Fest. It's a bollywood-esque story of two lovers, Nani and Bindu, torn apart. After Nani is murdered by a terrible dude who's after his beloved Bindu, he's reincarnated as ... a killer fly on a revenge mission. This one gets two screenings: Friday's will be the Director's Cut, which is preferred by both Eric and David, and Sunday's theatrical release version.
Sake Bomb Dallas Premiere (Friday, July 12; 4 p.m.) Winner of Best Screenplay in the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival's Narrative Feature category, and with a few month's rest since screening at SXSW, this family/buddy/comedy/road trip/romance brings all the hyphens. It's the story of two cousins: one, a jaded Asian American; the other, a fresh-off-the-plane relative from Japan. Each are chasing loves lost but tracking them from opposite points of perspective.
Cold War Southwest Premiere (Friday, July 12; 7 p.m.) "One of the mainstay genres is the Hong Kong crime thriller," says Hanes. "It's been a couple years since we've had a really strong one just all the way through." Cold War is what they've been waiting for. It dives headfirst into action and keeps the heart rate up throughout while still boasting an all-star cast and masterful cinematography.
Cats and Dogs (Friday, July 12; 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 16; 5:30 p.m.) "If you like romantic comedies, Cats and Dogs is going to be it for you," says Gibson. This one's soaked in buzz because it's the first feature film captured entirely on an iPhone, a method that lends itself nicely to a modern take on found love. Basic plot: Girl adopts stray dog. Boy adopts stray cat. Boy and girl adopt each other. All worlds collide. They'll need to untangle themselves to figure out their romance's viability.
Step Back to Glory (Saturday, July 13; 1 p.m.) Another pick by Gibson, who at heart, might just be a softie. This dramatic narrative feature is the feel-goodest of them all, and centers around the true struggles of the Taiwanese Jingmei Girls High School tug-of-war team. Mastering the sport as a group is more than an athletic victory for these young women; it's a means to an otherwise unattainable education leading to a life of independence.
Berserk: Golden Age Arc II Southwest Premiere (Saturday, July 13; 11:30 p.m.) One of the year's biggest anime releases, Arc II is loaded-up with adult content, so leave the kids at home. The second of the popular, but tough to locate Berserk: Golden Age Arc series, will be shown back-to-back with the first installation on the big screen. Gibson assures that AFFD specifically looked to meet demand for Dallas' rabid animation fanbase, so there's even more offerings this year than they've previously presented. Still this is the big one, and enthusiast should see it in the theater now, while they can.
Ip Man: The Final Fight Southwest Premiere (Sunday, July 14; 3 p.m., Tuesday, July16; 7:30 p.m.) Based loosely on the golden years of Yip Man, the martial arts legend known best for training Bruce Lee, The Final Fight closes out this popular Hong Kong trilogy. The earlier installments screened at previous AFFDs, and have collected a dedicated following in the United States. This is the what saga fans have been waiting for, as Ip Man defends honor by fighting evil. One. Last. Time.
Seeking Asian Female Sunday, July 14; 4:35 p.m. with Director in Attendance; Tuesday, July 16; 3:45 p.m.) This documentary peers in on middle-aged American white guy, Steven and Jianhua ("Sandy"), the much younger Chinese woman who agrees to marriage during an online courtship. Sandy arrives in America where the couple discovers the full-scope of their language barrier and potential union. There's a scene in the trailer, where Sandy laughs charmingly while threatening to slice off Steven's fingers and toes if he crosses her -- a translation lost on Steve who laughs along good naturedly with his new bride. But what's making this film so widely discussed is what happens next, as filmmaker Debbie Lum turns the camera on herself, translating for the couple. Soon, the story shifts and becomes personal as Lum attempts to look at her own bi-racial marriage in the extreme reflection of Steven and Sandy's.
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Go Grandriders Southwest Premiere (Monday, July 15; 1:30 p.m.) This selection is a pick by AFFD's publicist, Teresa Nguyen, and it follows a gang of motorcycle-riding octogenarians through a bucket list adventure as they tour the Taiwanese coastline against their families' wishes. It's the highest-grossing documentary to emerge from Taiwan to-date, and it looks impossibly charming.
Pro Tip: Don't Skip the Shorts The shorts are where most filmmakers get their start, so whether you're interested in Relationships (Friday, 9:30), Student (Saturday, noon), Documentary (Sunday, 12:15), Experimental (Sunday, 6:30; Wednesday 1:45), or Drama (Monday, 3 p.m.) categories, they are your chance to see both early work from budding directorial talent (Justin Lin showed a short at AAFD before he blew up), to submissions by masters of abbreviated narratives.
The Asian Film Festival of Dallas runs from Thursday, July 11 through Thursday, July 18. Regular individual tickets cost $9 plus fees online or $10 at the door (discounted 4-pack vouchers are also available). Opening night, Centerpiece and Closing screenings are $15. Student shorts are $5. Discounts are available for seniors and students. VIP all-access laminates are available for $159.