Now showing: Storytellers and stereotype smashers
The Sacramento Asian Pacific Film Festival aims to get Asian-Americans in front of—and behind—the camera.
Until fairly recently, Asian-American men were rarely portrayed in a positive light in Hollywood films. Perhaps this was best epitomized by the Long Duk Dong character in the 1984 coming-of-age comedy Sixteen Candles—a stupid, anti-sex symbol played by Gedde Watanabe—which led to high-schoolers across the country taunting Asian-American teens with the nickname “Donger.”
The Sacramento-born Jeff Adachi decided to confront those stereotypes, and in 2006, the city of San Francisco’s public defender wrote, directed and produced The Slanted Screen, a documentary about Asian men and their long history of limited and typecast roles in film and on TV.
“I came to know quite a few actors, and what was astonishing to me was that they were sort of in this Catch-22. They had very few roles to go for, but then they had stereotypical roles,” said Adachi. “Then they were criticized by the [Asian] community for playing those roles. What I tried to do in this film is give somebody from the outside [a look at] what it was like being an Asian-American male actor.”
On Saturday, May 31, the organizers of the forthcoming Sacramento Asian Pacific Film Festival will show The Slanted Screen at The Guild Theater. The screening, part of an event dubbed Slate 1.0, will also feature short films and a panel discussion. It’s the first in a series of several events leading up to the weeklong SAPFF scheduled for May 2015 during Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Festival organizers say they hope the Slate events will raise interest among the community and the funds needed for the festival.
These days, things look a lot better for Asian-American characters, especially on television. There’s Fox’s The Mindy Project starring Mindy Kaling and TBS’ Sullivan & Son—a sitcom starring Steve Byrne (who’s of Irish and Korean descent)—which will both return for third seasons. Later this year, ABC will adapt chef Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat into a sitcom of the same name. Meanwhile, film directors such as Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) and Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) have also earned mainstream success.
There are many notable Asian-American indie filmmakers and actors, too, says SAPFF executive producer Jason Jong. He and his team have been working for the past two years planning the festival. The idea to create such an event first came in 2012, when Jong attended a reunion for John F. Kennedy High School’s class of 1992.
“I connected with a buddy of mine—Jason [Michael] Fong, an actor [from] Hawaii Five-O—and we started talking about what we could do for the Asian and Pacific Islander community,” said Jong. “We talked about a lot of different options … and the one that stuck was a film festival.”
Jong grew up in Sacramento but lived in the Bay Area for 18 years, during which he spent time working and volunteering at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and the city of Oakland’s Cultural Arts & Marketing division. He moved back to Sacramento in 2012, where he now works as culture officer at the co-working spot Capsity, and he still serves on the board of a few Bay Area arts organizations.
He says he felt conflicted coming back to Sacramento knowing that here his kids wouldn’t have as many arts events geared toward Asian-Americans compared to the Bay Area.
“[There’s] a lack of connection between the Asian communities [in Sacramento],” Jong said. “I would like to see Sacramentans having a regionally relevant cultural-arts venue for traditional and contemporary Asian and Pacific Islander arts.”
With the eventual goal in mind to create an Asian-American arts venue, he’s been working on the smaller task of organizing the film festival with Capsity founder Jeffrey Louie and a few dozen other people.
Aaron Leong, festival program director and the panel moderator for Slate 1.0, is helping program the films. A film director and cinematographer, Leong said better film roles are becoming increasingly available for Asian-Americans, and as a result, so are more opportunities.
“There’s literally thousands of Asian-American actors to choose from with all kinds of talent,” he said. “I think just that alone—just having [more] Asian-American actors—helps change things.”
And by screening films and having filmmaking workshops throughout the year, SAPFF aims to activate Sacramento’s Asian-American community to create their own films and tell their own stories.
That’s exactly what Adachi has been doing for years.
Even though he’s enjoyed a successful career in law—he was elected San Francisco’s public defender in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and is running again in 2014—he’s also been writing and directing films about the Asian-American experience for a long time.
In addition to The Slanted Screen, he directed another documentary, 2009’s You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. It traces the career path of actor and comedian Goro Suzuki, who changed his name in the post-World War II era to “perform without fear of retaliation,” according to the film’s website.
But the first storytelling he ever did was about his experience in Sacramento.
Adachi said he lived an idyllic childhood, despite growing up in a lower-middle-class family. His parents were also directly affected by World War II; they and his grandparents were interned in camps in Arizona and Arkansas during the war.
Just one generation later, Adachi enjoyed the kinds of freedom his parents and grandparents were once denied, including dining in Japantown, going to the Buddhist Church of Sacramento and playing basketball. He graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School before attending Sacramento City College and majoring in Asian-American studies at UC Berkeley. He chose Sacramento as the setting for Yancha!, a novella he wrote in his early 20s.
“The Japanese community has always been strong in Sacramento,” he said. “I think that’s really where my sense of community came from. Maybe we should make a movie about that.”
After college, Adachi worked for a short while in Southern California as a social worker, and then went back to Berkeley where he earned a Juris Doctor degree from the UC Hastings College of the Law.
He says he learned about the limited way in which Asian-Americans were portrayed on screen while he was the former chairman of the Asian American Arts Foundation in San Francisco. Not only did that inspire him to make The Slanted Screen, it’s also he also first met Jong—Jong’s drum group Zanshin Taiko performed at an AAAF event.
Now, Adachi points to two things that need to happen for Asian-Americans to succeed in film and television:
“We have to have more Asians in front of the camera, and in order to do that, you have to have parents who support and encourage [kids] seeking a career in the arts,” he said. “And as a community, we need to support works that feature Asian-Americans.”
Sometimes, he added, that means approaching film and TV with a more open mind.
“If there’s a series that comes out, and our first reaction is, ’We hate it, we don’t want to see it,’ we get nothing. We shouldn’t accept a subpar or racist sitcom, but we shouldn’t be overreactive.”