‘Who is American?’

DisOrient festival highlights Pan-Asian independent cinema


The fourteenth annual DisOrient Asian-American Film Festival of Oregon was held from March 14 to March 17 on the University of Oregon campus.

Asian-American and Pacific Islander stories, histories and themes were the focus of films screened throughout the weekend, but themes emphasized were social justice and universal human experiences.

March 15 was the official opening night. First, at Lawrence Hall, the festival screened For Izzy directed by Alex Chu. In this film, he tells the story of Laura, a woman with autism, and her father, Peter. They discover the value of family from their neighbors: Dede, a queer photojournalist who’s lost her job and fiancée as the result of her opioid addiction, and her mother, Anna. The two families, through their own tragedies, come together as one. The film featured unique, caricature-like animation sequences that were a major topic of the subsequent Q&A. Director Chu explained that he chose to include these as he has family members with autism and they have all been drawn to drawing and animation as an act of comfort.

It is important to note that the acclaimed Chinese-American actor, Elizabeth Sung, who played the mother, Anna, in the film unfortunately passed away just a few weeks following the L.A. premier of the film. Coincidentally, it was mentioned at the Q&A by Lawrence Chau, the writer of short-film Justice for Vincent—screened the next day—that Sung was slated to play the mother in his, but had passed away. Her good friend, Lee Chen, took on the role.

Following the first screening, the festival moved to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art for an Opening Night Gala and performance by No-No Boy.

Julian Saporiti, who performs under the alias No-No Boy, explains the history behind his 2018 song Boat People at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Saporiti launched No-No Boy as part of his dissertation at Brown University and incorporates music, storytelling and archival imagery to capture the experiences of Asians in the United States. (Marek Belka // The Torch)

During the gala, the festival’s attendees were treated to an enlightening performance by No-No Boy, a project by Brown University researcher and scholar Julian Saporiti. His performance, a mix of guitar-backed storytelling and multimedia, many about Vietnamese experiences, is also his doctoral dissertation soon to be published by the Smithsonian Institute.

The next day, on March 16, two documentaries were screened in the morning and early afternoon—one a feature-length film and the other a short. The first film screened was Hiro’s Table, a feature-length documentary by director Lynn Hamrick. It follows master chef Hiroji Obayashi and his wife, Yasuyo, over fifteen years while they run their restaurant, Hirozen Gourmet, found in an “ugly strip mall” in West Hollywood as one interviewee put it. The pair have since relocated to Portland, Oregon.

While the documentary was often times lighthearted, filming began on Sep. 11, 2001 and features the family witnessing the attack on T.V. Furthermore, Hamrick decided to pause filming and documenting the family for a while following the death of the Obayashi’s son from an accidental overdose.  However, they eventually continued on and the product of all of that is an excellent commentary that shows strength in unity and family. Attendees during the Q&A expressed that they “felt such a sense of love” from the the family and the film.

Within a few minutes of Hiro’s Table ending, the short-documentary Mẹ, a word that means “mother” in Northern Vietnamese language, began. Directed by Derek Kwan, the film follows two generations of moms rushing to create a new dish for their East Vancouver Vietnamese restaurant. Kwan coming up with the idea as he knows the son, Vincent, who eventually took the helm of the restaurant.

Following a series of short-films and a music video, the next double-feature was screened. The first, the aforementioned Justice for Vincent by Writer Laurence Chau and director Andy Palmer who is known for his horror films. The short-film tells the true story and violent 1982 murder of Chinese-American Vincent Chin in Detroit by a couple of angry auto workers who thought he was Japanese—this being during the “Japanese Auto Invasion” as it was coined. The murderers were only ordered to pay $3,000 and serve three years probation and was the catalyst for the first Pan-American Civil Rights movement.

Next up to be screened was the feature-length documentary, Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066, directed by Jon Osaki. This film was a gut-wrenching, punch in the face. Osaki even said during the Q&A after that PBS turned it down said it was “too in your face.” It chronicled the disinformation and politics that led to the internment of almost 120,000 Japanese-Americans. The title being in reference to the current United States administration. The film, as should be highlighted, was centered predominantly around Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was instrumental in the discovery of what led to these invents—thanks to an editor who kept the tenth, and only surviving, copy of the DeWitt “Final Report” regarding the “Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast,” probably knowing that someday, it would prove useful.

She also, sadly, passed away last year.   

Jon Osaki (left), director of Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 and Lawrence Chau, writer/actor/producer of Justice for Vincent, explain the motivations for their films in the Redwood Auditorium at the University of Oregon. Both Osaki and Chau were honored with audience awards for their films, which took different approaches to explaining racism against Asian-Americans during and after World War II. (Marek Belka // The Torch)

Later in the afternoon was the screening for Last Sunrise, a Chinese science-fiction film by director Wen Ren. Also written by Ren, his debut film is centered around a world completely run on solar energy while the sun mysteriously disappears in a flash—one character in the film suggesting that an alien civilization has “sucked” it through a wormhole to harness its energy. Whatever it was that caused the sun to disappear, it brought a lone astronomer and a quirky woman together to form an unlikely bond to survive.

After the film ended, the director Ren looked confused, a little aggravated, and definitely nervous. DisOrient program director, Susan Hirata spoke with him for a minute and then he apologized to the audience. Somehow the screening had happened without any of the film’s musical score. The audience agreed that they didn’t need the film score, it stood up very well on its own.

March 17, the final day of the festival, featured a run of short films in the morning. In the afternoon was the final double feature. The first film screened, HOÀI, directed by Quyěn Nguyen-Le, tackled heartbreak and the many forms it takes, from breaking up with a partner to being forced to leave your beloved homeland. In this film, identity is wrapped up in culture, and no one can ever fully escape their culture.

Another feature documentary, Nailed It, directed by Adele Pham, covered the Vietnamese-nail salon boom of the 1980s and 1990s as more Vietnamese immigrants came to the United States. Furthermore, it was interestingly pointed out that Tippi Hedren—famous for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds—was more or less single-handedly responsible for the birth of the Vietnamese nail salon in America. As part of her charity work in the 1960s and 1970s, she helped twenty Vietnamese refugees over to the United States—now called “The Original Twenty”—and paid for them to go to beauty school and get nail technician training ultimately getting them jobs in and around Southern California salons.

Later that evening, after another run of shorts and a feature documentary, the Awards Ceremony took place.

First, the Official Judge Awards were presented.

Sandra Lozano (front), Trish Quan and patrons of the DisOrient Film Festival listen to an award speech by director A.L. Lee during the 2019 DisOrient Asian-American Film Festival. The festival, now in its 14th year, spotlights the accomplishments of Asian filmmakers, both in the United States and worldwide. (Marek Belka // The Torch)

For Izzy was awarded Best Feature Narrative with executive director Pamela Quan saying “We felt this movie took a fresh, real approach to the Asian-American story.” Best Feature Documentary was awarded to Minding the Gap, which also was nominated for an Academy Award. Artemis & the Astronaut took Best Narrative Short award with director A.L. Lee stating “I have never worked so hard for a movie as I did for this one. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, so to win this award speaks to the resilience of my team.” Best Documentary Short was awarded to Mẹ, and Moananuiakea – One Ocean, One People, One Canoe, was awarded the Social Justice Award.

A.L. Lee, writer and director of the short film Artemis and the Astronaut, smiles after winning the Best Short Narrative award at the 2019 DisOrient Asian-American Film Festival. Judges chose Lee’s film, which explored themes of loss, mental health and aging, because it encouraged “tough conversations about how we care for our loved ones.” (Marek Belka // The Torch)

A couple of Special Recognition Awards were awarded by the judges. Speakeasy Bee was awarded one for Social Relevance and Gaps was awarded the other for its Advocacy for Elders. Regarding its advocacy, Hirata said “we are an aging community, and soon, we’re going to have to have some tough conversations about how we care for our loved ones. This movie helps prepare us for those conversations about mental health and aging.”

Finally, the festival-goers made their own choices for the finest films of the weekend. Audiences chose Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066 as Best Feature and Justice for Vincent, the drama directed by Lawrence Chau, as Best Short.

Chau accepted the award in person, warmly embracing the festival directors before giving the final speech of the weekend.

“I’ve been to six festivals in six months, and I want you all to know–and I’m speaking sincerely–that this festival is the absolute best,” Chau said. His voice broke slightly before he continued. “I promise you, you all will be the biggest, best, most talked-about film festival very, very soon.”