What is your reaction when you hear the phrase “fresh off the boat”? When someone dismissed my mother for being “fresh off the boat,” she came home and asked me and my siblings what it meant. When we told her, she was highly offended, not only because the term minimized, if not trivialized, the suffering of Vietnamese boat people, but also because not every Vietnamese American arrived by boat. While my mother interprets “fresh off the boat” or “fob” as a racial epithet, my U.S.-born younger siblings employ the term as a descriptor, sometimes playful, that distinguishes their friends who were born in Viet Nam and did not necessarily come to the U.S. by boat. Clearly, the term’s meaning varies according to context and is changing from generation to generation. Because of the various reactions the phrase elicits, I was compelled to attend the premiere screening of the pilot episode of ABC’s forthcoming Asian American sitcom, Fresh off the Boat, at the fifteenth annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF).
Based on Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir of the same name, the upcoming ABC series Fresh off the Boat follows pre-adolescent Eddie as he and his family moves from Washington, D.C., to Florida. I was hopeful that the show would explore Asian American identity, but wary that the show would be ABC’s empty gesture to diversify their network’s programming. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the pilot episode and see it as a beginning to a much longer conversation. The episode featured many relatable scenes specific to Asian Americans, as well as anyone who has felt like an outsider. The show used music to differentiate Eddie from his two brothers—the former playing Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan as his anthems, while his siblings sing along to Ace of Base—and this, along with several other instances in the episode, shows varying levels of assimilation and marginalization within and across generations, and that being Asian American is a different experience for each individual.
What struck a chord with me is the lunchroom scene in which Eddie is mocked by his peers for the Taiwanese lunch his mother packs for him, launching his mission to bring “white people food” for lunch. As I watched this scene, numerous memories of my own “smelly” and “weird” Asian school lunches surfaced, and it was comforting to see that experience depicted on the screen. At the supermarket, Eddie’s mother is baffled by the “hospital-like” aesthetic and longs for the hustle and bustle of Taiwanese markets. I found Constance Wu’s performance as the mother to be most engaging, as she is hard on Eddie, but not in a stereotypical Tiger Mom way; she defends and protects him when it counts.
Randall Park, the actor who plays the father in the show, explained that he was attracted to the project because, after years in the industry, he finally saw “a show featuring people who looked like me without being the butt of the joke.” Indeed, the white people in the pilot episode are depicted as ignorant, annoying rollerbladers and are used as stereotypical marketing ploys for the steakhouse Park’s character opens. Though I was thoroughly amused to see whites through an Asian American perspective for once, I recognize that flipping the stereotype is not productive either. Hopefully, the show will complicate the interracial relationships while still being funny, meaningfully commenting on racial stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. Regardless, I am sure that the show, tentatively slotted for a mid-season premiere at the beginning of 2015, will receive much critique, as has ABC’s blackish. Inevitably, there will be a lot of pressure on Fresh off the Boat because, although we Asian Americans represented in The Mindy Project and Sullivan and Son, it has been twenty years since Margaret Cho’s show aired. Indeed, in the Q & A period following the screening, many Asian American audience members critiqued details in the episode, primarily for not reflecting their own specific experiences. It is important to remember that the show represents Eddie Huang’s experience, not all Asian Americans’, and it is a comedy, not an intellectual treatise. The show is the marks a new point in the conversation, and debate can lead to new possibilities. If this show can break through, perhaps we can pave other paths for more diverse representations of Asian American experiences, just as the SDAFF tries to do each year.
I’ve been covering SDAFF for the past few years and this was the first year that the ten-day schedule did not feature any Vietnamese or Vietnamese American films, although the festival seems to be expanding and diversifying every year, as this fall’s lineup featured films submitted from New Zealand to East Asia, Iran, and the U.S. In my limited time at the festival, I tried to view films of different countries of origin and genres.
On the documentary front, the west coast premiere of South Korea’s Non-Fiction Diary is an initially disorienting but ultimately chilling and intriguing portrait of the country’s first major serial killing case in the ‘90s. A patchwork of footage from the media frenzy, interviews with police detectives from the case, and expository interludes with David Lynch-like images, Jun Yoon-suk’s film documents the capture and execution of the serial-killing, cannibal Jijon Clan. Comprised of five young men led by a cultish leader, the Jijon Clan professed anti-capitalist motives and thus became part of South Korea’s much larger discussions of political and social climate. The documentary’s structure seems disjointed at first, as it cuts to footage of disparate events—the Clan’s killings, the death penalty, bridge and building collapses as a result of negligent infrastructural and corporate actions, the Korean War, and military coups of the ‘90s. Indeed, after the screening, I overheard several of my fellow theater patrons complaining about the confusing plot structure, or lack thereof. However, I felt that by the end of the film, the events coalesce into a deeper exploration of politics, nationhood, law, morality, power, and histories of violence and loss. In my understanding of the enigmatic documentary, Yoon-suk asks audiences to consider all of the events to be different forms of murder and the Jijon Clan as a representation of the ambiguity, if not impossibility, of justice for inconceivable violence. The film leaves us with the question, What can we learn from our past and what will we choose to do with those lessons?
A much lighter documentary, Mami Sunada’s The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, follows Japanese animator and director Hayao Miyazaki, probably best known in the U.S. for his feature-length Spirited Away, during the production of his last film before retirement, The Wind Rises. The film focuses on the relationship between Miyazaki and his team of animators and producers at Studio Ghibli who, I imagine, are usually eclipsed by Miyazaki’s name. The film makes clear that behind the whimsical and often enigmatic animated films—and even Miyazaki himself admits that he doesn’t understand what Spirited Away or any of his other films are about—are long-standing relationships that are as loyal as they are tumultuous. He is evidently hard on those around him, yet the documentary suggests that he is hardest on himself. The film shows that Miyazaki is a man weighed down by the world and its failures—the economic depression, NHK censorship, the aftermath of the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and an era of wars that persist while people are, in his words, distracted. Fittingly, The Wind Rises seems to be Miyazaki’s way of coping with the world, and the documentarians show his poignant crying at the end of its screening, a self-proclaimed first for him. At the same time, the documentary offers more lighthearted glimpses into Miyazaki’s every day routine, from his cat and calisthenics and waves to schoolchildren who seem to be a source of hope for him during demanding, tedious work schedules and darker states of mind. Philosophical yet quirky and witty, Miyazaki proves to be a compelling documentary subject, and Sunada’s film will satisfy those who are interested in learning the stories behind a great creative force.
A Bollywood feature from India, Vikas Bal’s Queen follows a young, spurned bride-to-be who, to alleviate her heartbreak, goes solo on the planned honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam. In the process, the eponymous protagonist, Rani, meets a string of stereotypical yet somehow endearing characters, including a sexy and free-spirited French party girl (bearing a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie, to boot), a brooding and beer-chugging Russian, and a food-arrogant Italian lothario. Though oftentimes straddling the line of colonial narratives in which the “progressive” West liberates the “backward” East, Rani’s character development does not seem intent on tackling such issues. Queen is an amusing popcorn movie—a conventional coming-of-age storyline, employing familiar comedy tropes, such as mixed-up names, Threes Company-style gender dynamics, and hijinks; nearly all of the comedic moments hinge upon the minor characters, save for the scene in which the star, Kangana Ranaut, plays drunk laughably, lovably. Despite its conventionality, Queen was quite entertaining. Though not as extravagant as other Bollywood productions, its mini tour through northwestern Europe and the cast of characters were enjoyable, proving that not every movie-going experience needs to be some kind of mind-bender.
Another highlight of the festival was triple-threat writer, director, and actress Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, which earned the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature. Akhavan got her start with the web series Park Slope, whose dry wit, largely poking fun at stereotypes of lesbians and the uber-pretentiousness of Brooklyn hipsters, carries over into Appropriate Behavior that delivers consistent laughs. Striking an endearing balance between funny and sad, but always earnest, Akhavan’s film follows Iranian American Shirrine as she navigates tumultuous malaise after splitting from her girlfriend, Maxine. In the spirit of Annie Hall, the film reveals the arc of Shirin and Maxine’s relationship through flashbacks that are peppered in to the main plotline in which Shirin awkwardly and desperately tries to rediscover herself through teaching film to kindergartners, various sexual adventures, and coming out to her parents. To Akhavan’s credit, the attraction between the two lovers is believable and the dissolution of their relationship painful to watch because of its rawness.
Akhavan depicts the clash between Iranian and LGBT cultures, but not in the way you’d expect. She shows the pivots of discourses and socializing, and, in a post-screening interview, Akhavan stated that she wanted to depict coming out as not a big event with a distinct before an after, but an “ongoing struggle.” She clarifies that she did not go into the project with political aspirations, but everything she does is “inherently political” because she is a bisexual Iranian American woman. Akhavan expressed ambivalence about recently being compared to Lena Dunham, accepting the intended compliment but hoping that Asian Americans will soon become a large enough part of the film industry that such comparisons will be unwarranted. Appropriate Behavior will be released in select theaters on January 16th. Go see it, if not for the reasons above, then for the farting zombie scene.
As always, SDAFF provided an interesting array of films, and it was refreshing to see the diversity of Asians and Asian Americans up on the big screen. I hope to see Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans represented more next year. To find out more about SDAFF, visit the Pacific Arts Movement website.
Jade Hidle is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian writer and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from CSU Long Beach and is working on a PhD in literature at UC San Diego. Her work has appeared in Spot Lit, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels.
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