You can count on one hand the number of Los Angeles-based film festivals that have been around for 20 years. So when the Visual Communications Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival began its 20th anniversary edition on April 29 at the Directors Guild, fans of Asian cinema breathed a sigh of relief: despite last year's tragic loss of VC's Executive Director Linda Mabalot, the nonprofit arts organization was back at full strength, highlighting films by Wayne Wang and Katsu Shintaro's beloved Japanese folk hero, Zatoichi.
To help celebrate VC's longevity, the Guild sponsored a luncheon on April 30 for festival filmmakers at Pinot Hollywood. Guest speakers included VC's new Executive Director Leslie Ito, directors Sandy Tung and Henry Chan, and writer Daniel Shaw. Chan, as typical of events past, had only upbeat and inspiring words for the emerging directors. He talked about "how far we have come in the marketplace" since Chan Is Missing debuted more than 20 years ago. "Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Face-Off show we can succeed at the box office with stories that are uniquely Asian or not even Asian at all," Chan announced. "The Directors Guild supports VC Fest because our hope is that one day you'll join our family as filmmakers who are defined by your talents and visions, not just your ethnic origins."
Sandy Tung, the first Asian-American to win a DGA award, explained to festival filmmakers that joining the Guild was an imperative if any of them had designs on pursuing a career in commercial television or cinema. "Health and pension benefits overseen by the Guild allow you to live a somewhat normal life," Tung laughed. "But in the greater philosophical sense, you're all here today because you want to be part of a group that is dedicated to protecting filmmakers' rights. Racism in Hollywood is not overt; it's done by omission. What VC and the Guild does is to create a community of filmmakers who can help each other within this industry."
Evidence of the Guild's efforts with Asian filmmakers was on ample display at the VC luncheon, and not just from industry veterans like Chan and Tung. Mia Villanueva was one of five recipients last year of the "Armed With a Camera Fellowship," awarded by Visual Communications. Villanueva, whose short film On Sundays was a VC "festival favorite" in 2003, said the support the DGA provides is one part of why emerging filmmakers flock to the festival.
"I love how the Directors Guild has been reaching out to independents," Villanueva noted, "and the specific committees they provide which embrace women and minority filmmakers. I consider myself an Asian-Pacific director and knowing there are groups like VC and DGA that support who I am, culturally and creatively, is vital as I move forward in my career."
Asian-American Committee Co-chair Victor Ho shared a table with Mun Chee Yong, winner of the 2003 DGA Student Film Award. Mun Chee's film, 9:30, screened later that evening in a highly touted VC shorts program. The DGA award, which carried cash and in-kind prizes of more than $3,500, kick-started 9:30's life on the festival circuit, which included stops at South x Southwest and Cannes. Ho said the DGA Student Award panel selected 9:30 because it "advanced filmmaking concepts without repeating themes of Asian-American identity that had already been explored." The story concerns a man who runs away from his lover in Singapore, only to end up calling her each night from Los Angeles at 9:30 p.m. Singapore time. The themes of longing and isolation are personal to Yong, a USC film grad who left her home in Asia to pursue filmmaking in the United States.
"Everything good started happening with my film after I won the DGA award, including getting into this festival with Visual Communications," Mun Chee noted. "The support they provide, through things like the Student Film Award, shows they understand that films like mine, although seen in an ethnic context, can connect with many other people outside that group. It's an exciting time to be an Asian filmmaker in this country. I feel like there are more opportunities, and sources of financing, than ever before."