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SAAFF 2023 Returns In-Person, Spotlighting Asian Stories On the Silver Screen

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Audience awaits start of closing night program. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

The 11th annual Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) returned in-person this year, with an opening night party on Feb. 23 at the Washington Hall. Film screenings were held throughout the festival weekend from Feb. 24 to Feb. 26 at the Northwest Film Forum. In total, this year’s festival included 91 films–81 shorts and 10 features. For those unable to attend in person, SAAFF opted for a hybrid model, with a virtual festival available online from Feb. 27 to Mar. 5 as well.

After the past few years of the pandemic, many festival goers were excited to convene in community to watch and hear from an array of incredibly talented storytellers. Among the films were documentaries, narratives and animated shorts exploring a variety of experiences among the Asian diaspora in the U.S. and abroad.

The stories, each emotionally poignant and striking in their own way, communicated across boundaries within culture, language, and faith. There were films reflecting on familial love and joy, immigrant struggles, generational trauma, refugee experiences and more.

While Hollywood has historically closed its doors on Asian-centric stories, local film festivals like SAAFF open up the stage for small up-and-coming filmmakers to paint a complex, beautiful portrait of what the Asian American experience looks like.

This year’s festival also showcased micro short animations from the Wing Luke Museum’s Teensway youth program. Teensway is a free art program for middle schoolers interested in exploring their culture, heritage and community through learning various art techniques and creative practices. In partnership with SAAFF, the Teensway students got to view their shorts on screen during the festival’s “New Roots: Stories About Youth” program.

During my time at the festival, I attended one of the Sunday screening programs titled “We Need to Talk About It.”

This program in particular focused on the importance and necessity of having difficult conversations surrounding mental health, racism and generational trauma within Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities through six different shorts. From exploring the aftermath of targeted violence against Sikh Americans in the Crossroads documentary to diving deeper into a Hawaiian war veteran’s efforts to confront his past and find peace in the narrative feature Ka Ho’l: The Return, these shorts each traversed the line between pain and healing.

For several of the screenings, the festival invited the filmmakers to speak more on their creative behind-the-scenes process during an aftershow Q&A session with the audience. It was during one of these sessions that we heard from Director Jess Dang of the narrative short Surrender; shown at the start of the “We Need to Talk About It” program.

Surrender is a story about a young Asian woman named Naomi, played by Canadian Actress Andrea Bang from Kim’s Convenience, who is in the throes of recovering from her gambling addiction when she relapses after 100 days. The film documents Naomi’s conversations with her therapist, played by Gilmore Girls’ Keiko Agena, as she struggles to confront her past childhood trauma and grapples with the unraveling of her addiction.

Actress Andrea Bang stars in Surrender. (Copyright/Jess Dang).

For Director Jess Dang, this film is personal. During the aftershow discussion, Dang shares how Surrender was inspired by moments from her own journey and recovery.

“If you are a creator in this room, I encourage you to just write about the hardest thing for you because I think with truth comes breakthrough. I believe in personal healing. For me, this is the rawest thing I’ve ever put on the screen before, but at the same time it’s been so helpful for me personally and again for my family and for other people,” Dang said.

Dang is passionate about challenging the Asian female stereotype of being quiet, docile, invisible. For her, it’s important to show the story of an Asian female gambler being vulnerable on screen and confessing that she is not okay and accepting that she needs help.

Near the end of the film, Naomi chooses to ‘surrender’ in her game of blackjack at the casino by folding her hand instead of drawing new cards, thus returning half her original bet to the stack and forfeiting half to the dealer. A move that represents the character’s decision to come to terms with her addiction and seek help. Afterwards, Naomi leaves the casino and returns to her car to call her therapist.

“For me, personally again, I’ve never seen the story of an Asian American female gambler on screen, and I’m really determined to put this on the big screen and have more conversations about seeing Asians in all spaces and face difficulties of all kinds. You know, it’s what makes us human. That’s why I appreciate this program so much. It brought to light so many different themes that are so critical not just for our community but for the greater,” Dang said.

Dang was one of the many creators who delved deeper into the story behind their film and built a connection with the audience at SAAFF 2023. That weekend, there was a palpable energy in the theatre as several filmmakers shared the moments that inspired their film’s creation.

During another SAAFF screening, “Belonging and Becoming: Refugee and Immigrant Stories,” Director Hang Luong Nguyen whose narrative short, Supermarket Affairs, was featured in the program connected with the audience afterwards.

A film still from Supermarket Affairs. (Copyright/Hang Luong Nguyen).

Supermarket Affairs explores the strained relationship between an immigrant Vietnamese mother and her daughter as they navigate how to honor their late patriarch on the second anniversary of his death.

“My heart kind of skips a beat whenever I hear an audience member laugh or say out loud ‘that’s exactly like my mom or aunty or grandma’…thank you so much for your love and resonating with my film,” Nguyen said to the crowd after the screening.

Director Hang Luong Nguyen of Supermarket Affairs addresses the audience at SAAFF 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang).

In a time of increasing Asian American representation in the media, with the emergence of Oscar-winning films like Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s easy to forget about the road that lies ahead–the progress yet to be made. We must continue advocating for more intricate, multidimensional portrayals of Asian Americans on screen.

According to a 2021 study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute, Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than six percent of speaking roles in the 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007-2019. The report also showed a negative pattern of API characters being silenced, stereotyped, and tokenized on screen. However, the study did indicate that “on screen patterns change when API inclusion occurs behind-the-camera.” Essentially, more API creatives in leadership positions, such as casting and directing, led to better representation.

To see yourself represented on the screen for the first time feels transformative. Being able to see a character, who is a child of immigrants, going through the same emotions and dilemmas you went through feels surreal. This euphoric experience is something that many Asian Americans didn’t grow up with. Yet, this is a feeling I got to experience multiple times while sitting in the theater at SAAFF that weekend.

Representation matters. Supporting small independent filmmakers matters. Centering Asian stories matters. That’s what SAAFF 2023 served as a reminder of.


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