The Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival kicked off on the last Friday of October at LA’s casually cool Downtown Independent theater — a fitting venue for a young, independently-organized festival stretching its legs for a third annual edition. With a programming slant and atmosphere enlivened by student and emerging filmmakers, the LACFF has tapped into an appetite for China-Hollywood exchange beyond the usual co-production and box office revenue chatter, and developed this small, volunteer-run festival as a cultural bridge between the creative worlds of Chinese and American filmmaking.
“This is a passion project for all of us involved,” Athena Bowe, a festival co-founder said: “We started this festival to support the community… and look more deeply into Chinese creative arts through film and TV.”
The festival, which defines itself broadly as a platform for Chinese language, culture, and heritage in film, painted a picture of a changing and diverse China, and offered mirrors to the often blurred lines of Chinese-American — or American-Chinese — identity. The short films The Day Off, a Neo-realist drama directed by Carter Zhao, and the neon-cool Secret Lives of Asians at Night (directed by Kevin Wang, with a soundtrack featuring Higher Brothers) imagine crime-laced perspectives on Chinese immigrants in the US, underscoring themes of secret lives lived in public. In Henry Loevner’s Nest Egg, a gently optimistic comedy of manners and translation apps, a Chinese couple who hire a white American woman to carry their pregnancy find their plans unsettled by the surrogate’s skeptical husband.
Two documentaries — Singing Chen’s Body Stories and Mijie Li’s Confucian Dream — look into the lives of women struggling with identity and expression in contemporary Asia. In Body Stories, a polyphonic cinematic poem brings the words and experience of Asian women to the body as a site of trauma, memory, and magic.
Confucian Dream, set in Eastern China, tells the story of one woman, Chaoyan, the mother of an irresistibly bright and emotional little boy. Chaoyan, alienated by the wealth-obsessed ideology she feels has overtaken her husband and the city around her, embraces classical Chinese philosophy with a rigid fervor. Scenes of a family flailing for understanding are trenchantly intimate, as ideology and desire prove an impossible balance for Chaoyan and her son.
More than a few films carried topical narratives (the festival’s programming is apolitical, and programs “uncensored films”) from and about China, while a few short films made meaning from the droll surrealism and imaginative nostalgia that have become synonymous with some schools of contemporary Chinese cinema. In Hello, directed by Zhi Zheng, a lonely parking garage attendant’s salvation may be found in the trunk of a car, as the short takes its place in a surreal echo chamber that recalls Spike Jonze and Li Hongqi. In Zilai Feng’s animated short The Remedy, an imaginatively illustrated trip through the trap doors of memory makes a play of personal iconography.
An event that grew out of a series of mixers for filmmakers and film professionals interested in China-US cooperation, LACFF holds true to its DNA as a place for emerging filmmakers to show their work and come together. “We’re in a unique position in LA to really be seeing the Chinese-speaking film community grow,” Festival Chair June Tan said, adding: “And so we’re evolving with an even bigger mission to promote uncensored films… and build our community.”
Special sections of LGBTQ short films and animated and experimental shorts rounded out the program with beautiful, sometimes radical stories of self-identity and imagination. “You can see something here you couldn’t see in China,” Tan added. “We want to be an outlet for films that are less commercial and give young filmmakers a showcase.”
Cover image: Still from Sports Day by Lin Tu
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