One of the hottest tickets for this year's L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival will undoubtedly be Lixin Fan's exquisite documentary Last Train Home (a Sundance hit earlier this year), about the changes roiling modern China and how they play out in one family. But the festival — which includes everything from panels on filmmaking to a Bruce Lee tribute — pushes beyond buzz to take the pulse of diaspora politics and aesthetics.
Evoking the feel (and something of the artfully gritty look) of Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores (adapted from Michael Muhammad Knight's groundbreaking novel of the same name) is set in a huge, ramshackle house in Buffalo in which young Muslims — college students and slackers alike — embody and navigate a host of hot-button issues swirling around their ostensibly dueling religions: Islam and punk. Funny, smart and sexy, the film's look at a subculture within a subculture posits irreverence and the upending of fundamentalism as the path to enlightenment.
The death last year of Richard Aoki (the first but not the only Asian member of the Black Panther Party) sent shock waves through academic and progressive activist circles; anyone unfamiliar with the man's work and legacy would be well advised to check out Ben Wang's and Mike Cheng's documentary Aoki, in which everything from Aoki's childhood in internment camps and his role in helping found the Black Panthers to his unflinching (if evolving) lifelong commitment to radical politics is deeply researched and celebrated. The film is technically raw and completely sidesteps Aoki's personal life as an adult, but it's so on point otherwise (if for nothing more than illustrating the interconnectedness of civil rights struggles that are too often left compartmentalized in the telling) that its flaws are forgivable. In Helie Lee's documentary Macho Like Me, the celebrated author doffs all signifiers of femininity to live as a man, with the goal of proving that for all the social and political forward motion in the quest for equality, it's still very much a man's world. The film is nearly undone by Lee's cutesy one–woman-show framing device and her stock moaning about parental pressure to get married, but the footage of her struggles as a man and the conclusions she reaches (except for her gratingly simplistic take on gay men) completely upend her preconceptions, making for engrossing viewing. Lee's encounter with a bigoted cop is edge-of-the-seat material, while the emotional struggles of some of the bio-males she encounters are heart-wrenching.
Other highlights in this extraordinarily strong year of programming include Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin's documentary Enemies of the People, a real-life thriller that examines the role of Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two to Pol Pot's Brother Number One) in orchestrating Cambodia's Killing Fields, and Quentin Lee's fluffy but charming The People I've Slept With, a celebration of sexuality, which winningly demolishes some stereotypes while wallowing in others. Gay dudes in wedding dresses and tiaras ... ugh.
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LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL | April 29-May 8 | asianfilmfestla.org.