amwa 01: shorts review by janet kwon
on a friday night after business hours, chinatown is deserted, still and quiet. the los angeles contemporary archive (laca), home of amwa’s first film series screening showcasing shorts by pan-asian artists and filmmakers, is tucked away up a dark staircase on an unpopulated street in chinatown. i live in new york, a visitor to los angeles only for the summer, and i am always struck by moments of quietude afforded to me in a city. like these moments, the quietude so generously given to us in art and in film can feel like a personal secret.
i’m not speaking here of the silence or secretiveness ascribed to stereotypes of docile asian women or enigmatic, stone-faced asian men, but rather the kind of stillness in which you are able to access your own kind of peace. you might find this even in the presence of joyous, exuberant movement, as i did in the splashes of red curtain and pink dress and human dance in jasmine lin’s unchained melody in which two lovers, chinese lesbians, enjoin their bodies for brief seconds, then fall away. or in the steady, unintrusive camerawork of eulogy for venkama, nevin kallepalli’s short documentary about the indian saint, in which the narrative of her story is interspersed with footage of men, women, and children eating, celebrating, and honoring within the context of a village’s colorful festivity for the deity.
the first screening at laca was packed and intimate, friends and strangers crowding together on korean seat cushions and blankets to watch the films. the intimacy of the space foregrounded the sense of community – one not merely delineated by race or aesthetic interest, but one shaped by a tacit acknowledgement that those whose works we were watching were sharing with us sacred stories and access to their inner lives.
the first screening’s popularity occasioned a re-screening at echo park film center, which is sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and the machine project, off sunset boulevard. more long than wide, its narrow perimeter packed to the rafters with old film reels and trinkets, this space, too, was filled elbow-to-elbow with people. sitting in the back behind someone much taller than me, i paid more attention to sounds, such as miko revereza’s voice in disintegration. the filmmaker narrates his family’s journey from the philippines to america, tracing and tracking memories via homemade movies, musing about his family’s assimilation into american culture by way of consumer capital. pained at times, angry at times, but also imbued with the kind of hope that is a hallmark of immigrant perseverance, revereza’s voice and the power of his editing made me grateful for talent that has the power to transform something as commonplace as homemade movies into an inquiry into what it means to belong.
alisa yang’s please come again made me laugh the most and its text-based narration cleverly subverted expectations of feminine docility: her words, raw and confessional, resonated with me in ways both uncomfortable and hilarious. as her camera snaked its way up, down, and around all the nooks and crannies of a room in a japanese love hotel, her words on the screen performed a different function, conjuring up familiar criticisms of female appearance handed down from mother to daughter, or one generation to the next – your skin is too dark, you are too unattractive. only the passage of time provides a balm for this kind of sting and the salve, the survival mechanism, to laugh it off.
yang said later, at the q&a session following the screening, that the room functioned as a metaphor for the body, and that the camerawork, roving, exploring all the surfaces of the room, was an intentional gesture towards qualities of the male gaze. in this way, yang’s short felt complete to me – not only in its inventory of various assaults on our bodies, on our very subjectivity – but in its mechanisms and tools for understanding, working through, and surviving. which is to confront the question head on, and to share the question with others, and to ultimately find healing and solace in our ability to laugh.