Susan Chinsen, creative producer at ArtsEmerson, wanted to launch an Asian-American film festival back when she was on the board of the Asian American Resource Workshop, an organization that documents Asian-Pacific American histories, experiences, and social conditions. “I recognized film as a way to engage audiences around the themes of social justice and civil rights,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There were Asian-American film festivals in other places. I thought, If Pittsburgh can have one, Boston is going to have one.”
The Boston Asian American Film Festival celebrates its 12th year in 2020 and now counts as New England’s largest Asian-American film festival. Co-produced by the AARW and ArtsEmerson, the BAAFF will be virtual this year but audiences can still expect the same adventurous programming with a lineup of 50 narrative and documentary features and shorts.
This year’s Centerpiece Narrative, “Coming Home Again” (Oct. 24), has personal relevance for Chinsen who grew up in Boston and remembers watching the 1989 film “Eat a Bowl of Tea” on WGBH. “Wayne Wang’s work was instrumental to my Asian-American identity,” Chinsen said.
Wang’s newest film is an intimate family drama based on a personal essay by Chang-rae Lee, originally published in the New Yorker in 1995, about a first-generation Korean-American son who returns to San Francisco to care for his ailing mother. Wang will engage in a conversation following the screening.
Family conflict is also the subject of the BAAFF’s opening film, the comedy “Definition Please” (Oct. 21). It’s about a former spelling bee champ who lives at home with her ailing mother and struggles to reconcile with her estranged brother so she can move forward in life. Director Sujata Day and actors Ritesh Rajan and Anna Khaja will participate in a post-screening talk moderated by Phil Yu, aka the blogger Angry Asian Man.
Other festival highlights include a double feature (Oct. 22) of the timely short documentaries “Keep Saray Home,” about Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees in Boston who fear deportation and family separation; and “Ghost Mountain,” filmmaker James Taing’s personal account of his father, Bunseng Taing, who escaped from Cambodia as a refugee and made his way to Connecticut in 1980. The screening is followed by a discussion with James Taing and Brian Redondo, director of “Keep Saray Home.”
Another timely documentary, “76 Days” (Oct. 23), follows the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China. On Jan. 23, the city of 11 million people went into a lockdown that lasted 76 days. Director Hao Wu will join moderator Callie Crossley for a post-screening discussion.
Hedy Wong wrote, produced, and stars in “Take Out Girl” (Oct. 23), a drama about a young woman who delivers Chinese food for her mother’s struggling restaurant in Los Angeles’s Low Bottoms neighborhood. With hopes of financial independence, she agrees to transport drugs inside her takeout boxes for the local drug kingpin, a dangerous move rife with tragic consequences. Chinsen moderates a post-screening discussion featuring Wong; director Hisonni Mustafa; cinematographer Alberto Triana; and producer Melissa Del Rosario.
Director Alice Gu will join a conversation following the screening of her documentary, “The Donut King” (Oct 24). The film profiles Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who came to Los Angeles in 1975, built a multi-million-dollar doughnut empire that effectively kept Dunkin' Donuts out of Southern California for decades, and became a hero of the Cambodian community by sponsoring hundreds of visas for incoming refugees.
Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins play childhood Kung Fu prodigies who are now washed-up, middle-aged men in “The Paper Tigers” (Oct. 24). When their master is murdered, the men ditch their dead-end jobs and overcome old grudges to avenge his death. Director Bao Tran joins the three actors for a conversation following the film.
The festival closes with the documentary “A Thousand Cuts” (Oct. 25), about Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and her ongoing battle for press freedom under the authoritarian regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Writer, co-editor, and producer Ramona S. Diaz, an Emerson College alum, will engage in a post-screening talk. Diaz will also participate in a livestream discussion Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. with Ressa and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.
BOSTON ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL
Oct. 21-25, $10-$12 per film. www.baaff.org