Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) 2017: Part 1

This year, I was very lucky to see the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival: a showing of Asian Americans in films every day for two weeks at the Philadelphia Arts Initiative. Though I wish I was able to go to multiple nights of the festival, I was able to see two interesting films that night: the short, “Monday” directed by Dinh Thai and the feature film, “Cardinal X” directed by Angie Wong.

Just as a disclaimer, I have never truly understood the form of a movie review. I have always approached movie reviews with the expectation that it will inform me whether or not I should see the movie. However, unless the critic is vehemently panning the film, there is usually no clear direction for reader and usually, the plot has been spoiled. So in this little blog post, I will try to avoid these two things.

First of all, I would recommend getting to the Philadelphia Arts Initiative an hour to half an hour early to purchase your tickets. You don’t want your plans to be ruined if the show sells out (as it did on closing night for me.) The Philadelphia Arts Initiative can be a little difficult to spot, due to the industrial neighborhood, but this is what the space looks like from the outside:

Inside, there is a small reception area and a standard, small art gallery. That night, they were offering virtual reality headsets that showcased 2 short movies where the viewer was able to watch the film from all angles. I’m sure that you wouldn’t be able to see everything without watching those films at least twice.

Every night of the PAAFF has a theme, and that night’s was: Asian Americans doing drugs.

The short film “Monday” is a story about an Asian American drug dealer named Kwan who navigates his diverse clientele by acting in different ways to best fit whatever his customer views him to be.

The ease in which Kwan interacts with witty rapport that metamorphoses depending on the ethnicity of his customers was fascinating to watch. The pop culture references used by the characters reminded me of the punchlines in rap and gave the conversations a unique rhythm with lighthearted insults peppered. As the film starts to open Kwan’s deeper wounds, the film loses this dynamism as he wrestles with the contradiction of his appearance as a model minority Asian American with his dangerous, drug-riddled lifestyle.

While this is the structure of the film, director Dinh Thai’s attention to detail is what makes the movie become even more whole-bodied: Kwan’s customers are interesting and unique themselves: Nina, the Latina girl Kwan delivers Chinese barbecue pork to seems to be much scarier than any of her heavily tattooed male relatives and Andre, the African American weed customer is seen lighting a blunt while wearing baby blue medical scrubs. In addition, the daytime shots of Kwan’s deliveries seem to be shot in bright clear light that add for beautiful shots of his journey through different L.A. neighborhoods.

And while this is the strength of Thai’s film: his ability make bold characters that break stereotypes that haven’t been seen on the screen before, it seems like a bit of step-back when the film tries to deal with more emotional issues.

For example, a scene with Kwan’s cousin who berates his dangerous lifestyle is awkward and over-seasoned with swears– though it does convey the expectations of an Asian family and the stress that comes along with it. And while Kwan is able to break the stereotype of being the typical “Asian American” with his job, his persistent worry for his white love interest, Emma and the idea that he will probably do anything for her seems to be falling into that caricature of an emasculated Asian man.

However, I am not an Asian American man, and Thai did note that parts of Kwan’s story is autobiographical– perhaps this is how his experiences have been, and I don’t really want to discredit that. Anyways, the quality of the dialogue discussing racial stereotypes, affirmative action and the legalization of pot as well as the cinematography of the short film makes up for the somewhat vague execution of Kwan’s love life.

In other interviews, Thai has talked about making the film into a TV series, which I would be excited to see. After all, we’ve got the rest of Kwan’s week after this– it’s only Monday.

Dinh Thai’s “Monday” is now available to view on HBO GO.

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