The International Southeast Asian Film Festival (I-SEA Film Fest) is happening in San Francisco this weekend (Friday, November 20 – Sunday, November 22) and I was lucky enough to get the chance to preview some of the works online. There are some brilliant films here, and some that are just plain beautiful, so it’s something I’d recommend to anyone with an interest and availability.
This video is a montage of exquisite clips of the films
The festival begins with an opening night gala at ATA on Friday. The films themselves (9 features, 22 shorts) will be shown at New People Cinema on Saturday and Sunday. (There’s a charming tea shop in the same building, along with unique shops, and you can find more fabulous shopping across the street in the Japantown mall, so plan to make a day of it!) Some of the screenings include Q&A with filmmakers and panels. See the full schedule here.
This is a longer introduction to the films
Some Film Thoughts
As mentioned, I was so lucky to get the chance to preview some of the work that’s showing this weekend. I won’t give away too much but wanted to share some thoughts and impressions on a few of the films I saw. I saw several of the feature films but I thought I’d tell you more about a couple of the shorts:
This is one of the shorts that is playing as part of the Modern Love Shorts (with Q&A) that happens on Saturday at 4 pm. It’s directed by Davy Chou, a French Cambodian filmmaker, and is described as a 20-minute subtitled film where “On Diamond Island, the country’s pinnacle of modernity, two friends tell each other about the dreams they had the night before.”
There was something really engaging about the way the film began with a panorama of an everyday urban landscape. What I loved here was that we heard speaking, which we understood through subtitles, and there was music playing over the speaking. Something about the blending of this worked for me, although it’s hard to express why in words. The music contrasted with the landscape and enhanced the meaning of the words.
From there it goes into the two friends talking about their dreams, a simple conversation between two guys sitting outside together, but one that expresses the intangible camaraderie of two young male buddies who speak vaguely about big philosophical questions (“what is it like in 2099? I don’t know, but different”) and nightmares rooted in history while still joking casually. It captures the reality and everyday essence of youthful friendship in the context of the larger world.
There is love and politics and social issues and it’s all based in the lives of two average people so that the meaning of it becomes more graspable.
A Daughter’s Debt
This is one of the films from the POV shorts collection that includes a panel discussion on Sunday morning. It’s described as “one of the first films to discuss and explore women’s issues in contemporary Hmong culture. Three generations of Hmong- American women share their experiences of bride purchasing, polygamy, and commodification in this intimate portrait of struggle and hope.”
This is such an intense story. It begins with the filmmaker relating the story of her mother’s rape, the community turning a blind eye to it, a rape that resulted in the girl’s birth, and her mother’s choice to move out of that community and raise her alone. This story of her birth led her to want to learn more about the community she came from and what it means to be a woman in this community. Through the lens of her story, and the story of her cousin who grew up within the community, we learn about this shadow side of the culture.
And also I think relevant for people living in the Bay Area. A large number of Hmong refugees are settled in the greater Bay Area and, yet, they aren’t visible to the average San Franciscan, so this film can be educational in a number of ways. It’s a bilingual film primarily in English.
In addition to these two shorts, I watched a couple others and some of the feature films and I’m planning to see at least one more. What is great about a film festival, including this one, is that you get such a range of styles in the films. In this one, there’s everything from Big Gay Love, a romantic comedy shot here in the US, to Chanthaly, a dark film from Laos dealing with terminal illness and ghosts, to The Look of Silence (the only one of these I haven’t seen yet), which is a feature-length (Indonesia/Denmark) documentary about surviving the 1965 Indonesian genocide.
More About The Festival
“The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network is commemorating the 40th anniversary of US military involvement in Southeast Asia by launching its inaugural San Francisco International Southeast Asian Film Festival. The selected films seek dialogue with local and international communities, drawing connections between wars then and now, overseas and on our streets. The films — ranging from horror, experimental, documentaries and more — embrace diverse topics including gender identity, love and modernity. The group previously ran the San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival in 2012 and 2013 and this year is rebranding as I-SEA and branching out to include films from all over Southeast Asia and its diasporas.”