Features & Columns

Bad Guys, Good Guys, Everything
in between at J-Town FilmFest

Unfolding this weekend, the second-annual Japantown Film Festival has increased
from seven films last year to a dozen this time around.
AWESOME ASIAN BAD GUYS: With a film title like that, how could it not be good?

It's the only scene on earth where Korean bromantics, Hmong gangs, World War II incarceration survivors and Olympic athletes all share the spotlight. Unfolding this weekend, the second-annual Japantown Film Festival has increased from seven films last year to a dozen this time around.

Run by volunteers, this year's event highlights films by Asian and Pacific Islander American filmmakers. A trailer for each film is available on the website and, in most cases, the director will even appear after the screening for a short conversation.

The 80-minute documentary Top Spin, for example, illuminates the journey of local Olympians and table tennis stars Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang, as well as their teammate Michael Landers. All three teenagers originally trained at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas. The film features interviews with parents, teachers and coaches. Director Mina Son appears in conversation following the film.

One of the best attributes of the festival comes in the form of the post-film discussions. Last year, practically the whole cast of East Side Sushi stood and talked about the film after its screening. In another case, legendary playwright Luis Valdez unleashed diatribes following a a showing of Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement. It was a joy to watch.

Since Japanese-Americans aren't the only Asian persuasion characterizing J-Town these days, festival executive director Duane Kubo says the neighborhood's multi-ethnic tapestry seeps into the programming.

'Japantown could be an anchor for many young Asian-Americans, not just Japanese,' Kubo says. 'If you look at the businesses and the people that hang out here in J-town, there's much influx of Filipino-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, a pan-Asian influx going on around here. They identify with the place, opening up businesses and lifestyle kinds of things.'

Two films will screen for the very first time. Digging to Chinatown, by filmmaker Barrie Fu and historian Connie Young Yu, documents the history of Heinlenville, just one of San Jose's former Chinatowns. No one around these parts knows more about the subject than Yu, so a whirlwind of ignored history shall be revealed.

The other premiere, Konrad Aderer's feature-length Resistance at Tule Lake, will highlight a 60-minute version of the film currently being prepared for public broadcasting. During the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, a myth has emerged that they were a 'model minority,' humbly acquiescing to forced segregation and i.d. tags, that they cooperated without dissent. By documenting the long-suppressed story of the Tule Lake Segregation Center protests, Aderer's film shows the truth. For the post-film panel, Aderer will fly out from New York to join local resistor Jimi Yamaichi and other Tule Lake incarcerees from Los Angeles.

The festival even includes a free screening of Exodus from the Jungle, Silicon Valley De-Bug's documentary on the city of San Jose's emptying of the nation's largest homeless encampment. A previous screening put serious pressure on elected officials, resulting in more awareness of the problem in San Jose.

And what's a festival without a classic? Originally filmed in San Jose's Japantown and starring the legendary Mako, The Wash (1988) was written by Philip Gotanda and directed by Michael Uno. They spent weeks prowling around J-town, checking out locations and staging the scenes. Following the screening, Gotanda himself will be the star of the party. Contemporary Asian Theater Scene (CATS) will honor his achievements with their first-ever Image Hero Award.

All in all, the fest has really grown and evolved just since last year. It should draw many people to the intriguing layers of a deceptively residential—but always percolating—neighborhood. While Japantown is the festival's base, Kubo explains, the programming of films is for the entire valley.

'There are Asian-American filmmakers out there creating a voice, creating a good product, but they're not really getting a chance to hit the mass media,' Kubo says. 'We just want to be part of that process.'

San Jose J-Town FilmFest
May 20-22
Japantown (San Jose)