Ulam: Main Dish

“Asian American” is a difficult identity to define. Culturally speaking, the term “Asian American” is tasked with the near-impossible job of representing people with origins in nations as disparate as India and South Korea, who speak languages ranging from Japanese to Tagalog. Routes of immigration to the U.S. vary widely among Asian Americans: some came to this country as refugees of the Vietnam war, while others can trace their history back to the building of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s. Demographically speaking, Asian Americans are extremely diverse, part of both the wealthiest 10 percent and poorest 10 percent of this country. Some occupy positions of immense privilege while others face deportation, arrest, and mistreatment. The fastest-growing minority population in the U.S. according to the 2010 census, Asian Americans represent a motley monolith, with no one easy narrative or descriptor.

It’s this population that the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media pays homage to in its 24th Annual Asian American Showcase. A mix of shorts, documentaries, and feature films round out the 12-day program, with meditations on self, home, and belonging providing a unifying undercurrent throughout.

The festival opens with Go Back to China, a feature film directed by Emily Ting about a Chinese American socialite who, as punishment for spending half her trust fund, is forced to leave behind her cushy life in L.A and return to China to help run her father’s toy factory. YouTuber Anna Akana plays said socialite with sardonic aplomb, while veteran Hong Kong comedic actor Richard Ng adds complications to the father figure, giving him depth beyond being a simple nag. Light and airy, the film plays like a rom-com without romance, brushing over issues of identity and self without seriously engaging them, effectively acting as an aperitif for the rest of the showcase.

Next on the schedule is Origin Story, a documentary by Laotian American comedian, actress, and writer Kulap Vilaysack. At the age of 14, Vilaysack discovered during a family argument that the man who’d raised her was not in fact her biological father. Twenty years after that painful revelation, she sets out in search of her birth father, ultimately traveling to Laos to meet him. Vilaysack’s documentary is searingly honest; her examination of her biological parent’s very real failures is unflinching, as is the on-camera exploration of her own pain and hurt. As one of several films that feature an Asian American returning to Asia to learn something about themselves, Origin Story distinguishes itself by being critical and self-aware, acting as a much-needed breath of fresh air among the other selections.

The short film program, titled “Asian American Dreams,” feels like a jewelry box, each short film a gem of drama, whimsy, and imagination. Among them are A.M. Lukas’s poignant One Cambodian Family Please For My Pleasure, starring Emily Mortimer as a Czechoslovakian woman who, in 1981, writes to a refugee resettlement agency in order to sponsor a Cambodian family in Fargo, North Dakota. Kim Chi, directed by Jackson Kiyoshi Segars, explores the tensions between a Korean American family and their daughter’s Japanese American fiancee, commenting on the distinctly Asian American experience of how cultures once in conflict can now converge. Jingjing Tian’s Cowboy Joe shows us a Chinese American cowboy ambling through an electric Manhattan, while Youthana Yous’s Buffalo Nickel gives us wistful hilarity in its portrayal of an Indian American woman’s run-in with social media.

The standout among the feature length films is Seadrift. Directed by Tim Tsai, this documentary follows the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees to a majority-white Texan town on the Gulf Coast, telling the story of gradually building racial tension that culminates in the fatal shooting of a white resident; this ultimately attracts the attention and arrival of the KKK. Tsai is careful in his exposition of a convoluted situation, deftly coaxing stories from white and Vietnamese residents alike, teasing out themes of nationalism and unexpected forgiveness. Though the film ostensibly deals with an isolated incident in a tiny town that occurred 40 years ago, this story feels at once immediately salient and universal, as if an insightful fable for our own troubling times.

Ulam: Main Dish, a documentary directed by Alexandra Cuerdo, highlights various Filipino American chefs and their endeavor to share the tastes of Filipino cuisine. Beautifully shot in a style reminiscent of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Cuerdo doesn’t limit the documentary’s scope to simple food porn, but instead contextualizes Filipino cuisine in histories of diaspora and cultures that emphasize family, sustenance, and sharing. (A side note: if you get hungry after watching Ulam, I suggest heading to Merla’s Kitchen on Kimball for your own Filipino fix.) Nailed It, another documentary, this one directed by Adele Free Pham, takes up the nail salon and its seeming ubiquity, attempting to understand just how it was that Vietnamese Americans became so enmeshed in the American nail industry. She uncovers a moving story that weaves together accounts of refugee resettlement, the need to provide for family, and, very unexpectedly, Tippi Hedren of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Pham’s documentary also touches on the relationship between the black American and Vietnamese American communities within the nail salon, but curiously, it shies away from directly commenting on recent conflicts between Asian American nail salon workers in Brooklyn and their black customers.

The festival ends with Fiction and Other Realities, a feature film directed by Steve Lee and Bobby Choy about a Korean American man who returns to Korea as a roadie on his (truly terrible, very mean, and racist) white friend’s band’s tour. There, he meets what can only be described as the Korean version of a manic pixie dream girl, whereupon he decides to stay past his planned short visit to discover himself, among other things. This montage- heavy film underscores a tension that can be observed across almost all of the offerings of the Asian American Showcase: caught between being American and being Asian, Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners wherever they go. For Lee and Choy, the answer to this conundrum is oscillating and unclear. For the Showcase itself, it seems it is an open-ended question with many pluripotent outcomes for the audience to ponder as the credits roll.   v