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Asian American Film Festival Showcases Some of Asia's Best - 2004-07-22

From blockbuster movies to experimental student films and heart-rending documentaries, this week's Asian American International Film Festival is showcasing some of Asia's best works. Organizers of the festival say not only are Asian films becoming more popular in the United States, but that the international exposure is helping those filmmakers gain credibility at home.

Now in its 27th year, the nation's longest-running festival dedicated to promoting filmmakers of Asian descent is riding the wave of Asian cinema's increasing popularity. Festival director Diana Lee says American audiences are showing a growing appetite for productions from Asia.

"It is definitely increasing its popularity and I think people are embracing Asian films more than ever. There is an increase in visibility in Asian film, without a doubt," she said.

That rising popularity has been spurred by the critical and box office successes of the Chinese martial arts fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and by the leading roles Asian actors, such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, have played in Hollywood movies.

This year, the festival is screening 123 feature films, shorts and documentaries from Japan to Afghanistan and points in between, as well as productions by Asian-Americans.

One of the highlights is Afghanistan Unveiled, a documentary about the plight of Afghan women today. The film follows a group of young Afghan female journalists as they travel to remote parts of the country to tell of the suffering and sacrifice of Afghan women. It also portrays the emerging voice of Afghanistan's long-oppressed population.

"During the Taleban no woman could work outside the home," Mehria Aziz, one of the journalists, explains. "Never mind go on a trip like this. This is a great opportunity for us to overcome this oppression by using our cameras.?

Just as Afghanistan Unveiled exposes the plight of Afghan women to the world, the festival provides other films with much-needed exposure to an international audience.

For Singaporean director Royston Tan, showing the darker side of Singapore is his way of balancing the city-state's image as, what he calls, an "air-conditioned eden."

In his first feature film, 15, Mr. Tan captures the gritty reality of disaffected teenage boys. Using real-life high-school gangsters instead of actors, the movie depicts some of the hopelessness and despair of its characters.

Vynn, one of the 15-year-old protagonists, describes his future after leaving school and attending Singapore's mandatory military service.

"When that is over, I will find myself a job and slog until my death,? he said. ?If I am lucky, I might meet a dream girl and get married. If we can not get along, we will file for divorce. That is life, do I have a choice?"

Mr. Tan, who was named Young Artist of the Year by the Singapore National Arts Council in 2002, says, often, filmmakers have to win acclaim overseas before being accepted at home.

"It is very funny because usually a filmmaker[s] will get more recognition overseas first and then they will get the embrace by their own local people," he said.

Like the Singaporean director, filmmakers from China are increasingly focusing on contemporary stories. Two short movies by student filmmakers from Sichuan province highlight this trend.

Roger Garcia, who selected some of the films shown at the festival, says unlike previous generations of filmmakers which made mostly historical works, Chinese filmmakers today are motivated by stories reflecting the country?s urbanization.

"China is rapidly modernizing, its society is changing, are traditions in danger of disappearing, etc., etc? Here we have filmmakers who are actually capturing what I believe is the everyday realities and their experience of it,? Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Garcia adds that film festivals such as this one provide a platform for these young filmmakers and also give vital encouragement to artists by demonstrating that their work can touch filmgoers beyond their horizons.

Diana Lee says American audiences may be embracing Asian filmmakers, but mainstream America is still struggling with understanding the concept of Asian-American films.

"There is still this misunderstanding of the difference between Asian-American and Asian,? Ms. Lee said. ?When they see a feature film that is made by an Asian-American filmmaker it is a little bit difficult for the mainstream to grasp what that is and they expect something that has to do with identity, or that has to do with race and it does not necessarily have to do with that."

Ms. Lee says film festivals and other organizations must continue to push boundaries and educate moviegoers about Asian-American films.