Friday, July 14, 2006

NY Asian Fim Festival Part 1

Here are just some random thoughts from me on the just finished NY Asian Film Festival. Much of this was already posted at the Mobius Asian Forum mid-way through the festival but now we can add the Audience Award winners and some depressing news about the financial results. First though just a bit of background on the folks who bring you this festival every year. Why? I have no idea - I just feel like it.

Back in 2000 a bunch of us sat around a table in Chinatown munching on dim sum and wondering whether it would be possible to bring some Hong Kong films to New York City to show in a film festival. None of us really knew each other all that well except primarily through various discussion forums on the internet - in particular the Mobius one - or as that other weird white guy sitting through Cat III double features at the Chinese theater, The Music Palace. Grady was already gaining a reputation with his highly literate and entertaining posts on Asian cinema (he now has a blog affiliated with Variety magazine called Kaiju Shakedown that is very popular), Paul tended to be terse and to the point in his posts and at some point we finally realized that he could actually see into my apartment from where he lived - not that there was anything very interesting going on unfortunately. Goran had perhaps the most interesting background of all - he had skipped out of Serbia to escape the troubles and being drafted into the army and was now becoming an engineer at a telecommunications company - but instead of embracing the American dream he instead came to America and fell in love with Asian culture and Asian films and seems to know something about everything to do with Asia. He is still an engineer but also writes about Asian film with a focus on distribution for an on-line magazine. Nat was our fifth member, but he was wise enough to quickly drop out and move to Hong Kong - he has a cool blog about living there.

There were actually about ten people around that table but when it came time to put up some money for this film festival venture all but us five did a vanishing act that Houdini would have been proud of. So we ended up with five white guys and that has caused us some embarrassment and awkward moments from time to time. I can't tell you the number of instances Asian people have expressed surprise to find this out and a certain note can often be detected in their voice that seemed to resent this - even one of my favorite volunteers Angie told me at the closing party last year after a few drinks had loosened her lips that she was initially shocked to find this out and kept muttering "but you are all white". Only if you look really closely. All I can say is that no one else was bringing these films to NYC and my guess is no one would still be bringing these films to NYC - so we did it simply because we loved them - and had nothing much else to do in our mundane lives.

Back then no festivals or U.S. distributors were particularly interested in Asian films unless someone named Akira Kurosawa or Zhang Yimou was attached to it. Not that we have anything against those kinds of films but we wanted to show that Asian film was so much more - that it could be rowdy, funny, emotional, romantic and transcendent at times. Even though none of us had a bit of experience doing this, we thought what the hell and all ponied up some money to give it a shot. Little did we expect then that we would be doing our 10th festival all these years later and will have shown over 170 Asian films of all kinds. Even more unlikely and just as important is the fact that after many fierce arguments about what films to include and what direction to go in we are all still good friends and we still get a kick out of bringing great Asian films to see.

We began learning the ropes with a few Hong Kong film festivals - these were the films we really loved and grew up with - Tsui Hark, Johnny To, kung fu and a wonderful horror/extreme fest - and in truth these are still our favorite films. But we did it just in time - in those days all the rights to show these films were owned by two Chinese companies here in the US - Tai Seng and Pinetree - but now the rights to so many of those films have been picked up by US distributors and so putting together a Tsui Hark/Milkyway retro would be nearly impossible. I look back very fondly on those first festivals and remember being really excited when like over 100 people showed up to see The Mission. Next we decided to branch out from Hong Kong films primarily because we had showed most of the good ones these companies had and unfortunately the HK film industry had begun its downward spiral and there just weren't enough good films to show anymore.

So we decided to try our hands with a Korean film festival - it was a big jump because it meant having to develop new relationships and prove our worthiness to someone outside of the US - but we had the help of a Korean student group and between the two groups we put on an amazing fest - the first one in the US I believe to really focus on contemporary Korean film - some really great films - JSA, Attack the Gas Station, Momento Mori, Christmas in August, Barking Dogs Never Bite (my introduction to Bae Do-na), Foul King, Art Museum by the Sea, The Isle and a few others. It was a great success and we then decided to embark on doing something called "Asian Films are Go" - which over time evolved into the more stately titled NY Asian Film Festival. We loved the original name of the fest, but nobody understood it. Not even me but I liked the sound of it.

Putting on a film festival isn't brain surgery by any means but it is a lot of work and entails creating a lot of relationships - most importantly with the distributors of the films who have to believe that you will do right by their movie and the press who you have to convince that you are worthy of being covered in their publication. We have come a long ways since our first NY Asian Film Fest in which we only showed eleven movies and were turned down by nearly all the distributors because they just didn't know who we were. It has taken a while to build a track record and to show them that having their film in our festival is a plus - we communicate with them all the time and visit many of them when traveling overseas or going to other festivals. Even so we still get turned down all the time like spurned lovers as they prefer showing off their baby at Toronto, Tribecca or the NY Film Festival - so most of the time when you wonder why we didn't show this or that - chances are we tried and were told no. Small festivals like us will always be scooping up what the big ones don't want.

The press is a different matter. I read an article in the Village Voice a few weeks back that was about the incredible growth of film festivals in NYC and basically said there are way too many of them with everyone and their uncle deciding to put one on. There is an average of 3 festivals a week in NYC with a focus on everything from bikes to transgender films to Albanian cinema. So trying to get even a mention in a paper is a huge effort - 90% of the festivals never get a word. We have been lucky but it's because we develop relationships and try to make them feel sorry for us!

Continues in Part II

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