When the establishment and their hangers-on hightail it to the Hamptons on the weekend, the city reveals its true colors. The 27th edition of the long-running Asian American International Film Festival mainly takes place in the impressive Asia Society building on the Upper East Side. But this year, a charming, newly decorated neighbourhood theatre had been added to the venue: the Imaginasian cinema that will show Asian films year-round. The various Asian communities that are part of New York’s population are usually very loyal – when I walked out of a digital Filipino feature that shall remain unnamed, there was hissing and tut-tutting from the crowd. But since many of the vibrant films in the last decade have come from Asia, the festival and the cinema are catering to hungry film fans too.

With Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang now making sequels and remakes of their own films, it’s a good time to hunt for fresher Asian fare, which is what festival programmers in Europe, those of the Rotterdam, Berlin and Locarno festivals have been doing for years. In this year’s catalog, Asian American Film Festival co-founder Daryl Chin notes that "international film festivals such as those held in Berlin, Cannes and Venice that historically provided the validity of an emerging national cinema have only recently proclaimed their interest in Asian cinema", before going on to quote a New York Times critic about 2000 being a breakthrough year in Cannes for Asian film.

Hmm. I distinctly remember standing in line for Wong Kar-wai’s historical martial arts pic Eagle Shooting Heroes in front of Berlin’s tiny arthouse cinema Arsenal in 1997 – together with the city’s entire Chinese population. Berlin and Rotterdam were traditionally battling over premieres and guests such as Zhang Yimou, Gong Li Chen Kaige in the late Nineties. As for Chin’s comment on Europe’s ‘recent’ interest in Asian film, there might be two delaying factors at work.

The first one is the largest: the Atlantic Ocean. Even though New York has many more opportunities to see foreign and undistributed films than in London, it is still hard to get a sense of what’s happening in the world of cinema. Like everywhere else, film fans are dependent on which films and which information distributors and critics offer them.

American critics tend to be only interested in Cannes, which is slightly less adventurous in its programming than for example the Forum section of Berlin – the second factor that might be playing a role. So when a New York critic says Cannes discovered Asia in 2000, it doesn’t mean that Europe discovered Asian cinema in 2000. There is a shocking lack of worldwide festival reporting in American film criticism, whose coverage is often limited to Cannes and Toronto. They typically file fluffy pieces about their laptops being stolen or which yacht P Diddy was on or which star has a new deal. Rarely do you get the sense that someone has lined up for a 9am screening to see an obscure film in the Quinzaine des Realisateurs section. Cannes is a market, a circus and a great trampoline for mid-sized films that could hit the big time. But the festival is not known for its cutting edge programming. So if American critics only cross the Atlantic for Cannes, then they might not get a feeling for what’s happening in more cutting-edge arenas.

So, cultural sniping aside, what made this year’s Asian American festival worthwhile? Inspired by a few good films from Singapore shown in Rotterdam, such as Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997), which was brilliant in hinting that not all was well in the city state that prides itself on hard work and civic discipline. Khoo returns as producer of Royston Tan’s 15 (2003). 15 is the hallucinary roller coaster ride of two boys who dive headlong into the world of crime and drugs, hoping to survive and become real men in the process. Tan depicts their universe with visual bravado – leaving traditional narratives behind in favor of atmosphere and poetry. The boy’s druggy universe is translated well by an audacious wide-angle camera, some black humour and a colourful set of filters. Cinematography seems to be a lost art these days, with filmmakers (and their cautious producers) more interested in storytelling than in visual fireworks, so films like 15 are like a shot in the arm.

Like 15, The Beautiful Washing Machine (James Lee, 2004) from neighbouring Kuala Lumpur examines the growing pains of its society with its growing wealth and middle class, but it’s far less accomplished. Like Tan, Lee is obviously inspired by Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for Wong Kar-Wai: visual jokes such as porno-posing Barbie dolls in an aquarium and lonely men talking to their washing machine. But Lee’s lonely hero turns out to be an insensitive office rat, who doesn’t hesitate to pimp his ‘slave’ (the embodied soul of his washing machine) to the first stranger he meets at an ATM machine.

Korean cinema has been on the map for a while now, with filmmakers like Hong Sang-Soo (The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors) plugging away. The Asian American festival only yielded Ice Rain by female director Kim Eun-sook, a compelling story played by some of Korea’s hottest young actors, concerning a love triangle that derails into pure melodrama by the end.

Some Asian filmmakers, like Hong Sang-Soo, learn their craft at European and American film schools, only to return to their homelands to use these technical skills to tell their own stories. The two other outstanding features at the festival fall into this category. A Buthanese lama and contributor to Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Kyentse Norbu debuted with The Cup, about football playing monks, in 1999. He’s followed that up with Travellers and Magicians, a Buddhist cautionary tale about impatience and immigration. Recruiting his actors from Buthan’s media circles and remote mountaintops, Norbu takes up the formidable challenge of imparting Buddhist wisdom upon filmgoers. The huge success of the Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring and other Tibetan/Buddhist related features and documentaries proves there is a great thirst for these kinds of works. Unlike Spring… Norbu displays is less interested in putting monks on a pedestal than in engaging the viewer with a well-told story. If the sold-out screening in the Upper East Side is any indicator, Travellers and Magicians will enjoy the same success as The Cup.

A real discovery is the Indonesian filmmaker Nia diNata, who should have picked up the festival’s Emerging Filmmaker audience award (which went to Norbu, courtesy of the sold-out auditorium) along with Royston Tan. With a U.S. media degree under her belt, diNata went on to debut with a historical epic Ca-Bau-Kan, which was shortlisted for a foreign film Oscar last year. Her second film The Gathering (Arisan!) is a black comedy sprinkled with powder sugar (this is a Javanese picture, after all) that pokes fun at the country’s nouveaux riches. The ladies who lunch use the arisan (get togethers) to show off their latest trinkets and boyfriends. A young business woman with a bad marriage and her closeted colleague don’t feel at home at the arisan and they have to make their own decisions outside of the circle of ‘friends’ who ape each other’s lifestyles.

Finding A Voice – The Urbanworld Festival 2004

After the Asian festival on the Upper East Side, I headed for West 34 St and the Urbanworld festival, launched eight years ago to showcase black talent, with slots available for latino and Asian filmmakers too. Last year’s entries were strong on shorts and documentaries. This year the overall program was leaner and the international films section has disappeared, but the quality of homegrown films was higher. There were plenty of films about serious issues such as jail, HIV, abuse and politics, but it takes more than a deep subject to elevate a work to a piece of art.

To get warmed up, I found a hilarious short by Andrew Gura called On the DL, about two Philly music scenesters trying to get their driver’s licenses – that holiest of American grails – in their mid-thirties. The short has some hilarious sketches, such as Guestlove’s instructor plugging her gospel demo, and King Britt trying to pass his written test – but most of all it’s a tribute to the community-based, soul-infused hip-hop scene of the city.

There was more humour in Fronterz, a comedy about three classically trained actors who morph into rappers so they can get film roles. The script by first timer Courtney Jones, an LA key grip veteran and short film director, is so smart and tight, that Jones got Henry Winkler, Ted Danson and Blair Underwood on board to star. The nature of the plot is to show the hypocrisies of the entertainment industry, so even though the three actors are doing a great job, it’s the bad guys who are the stars – especially Danson as a grey-haired, coked-up A&R guy with prerequisite leather jacket and attention deficit syndrome. Danson is fun because he’s super nasty, and the same goes for Winkler.

One feature that transcends mere polemicism is Woman Thou Art Loosed, about a young woman who has been abused by her mother’s boyfriend while her mom chose to look the other way. The plot is told via flashbacks so we are spared a linear, cliché-ridden tale of Michelle’s descent into drugs and prison. We get to know her through talks with a minister (TD Jakes) and through a flash back of an earlier release from prison, when she confronts the people responsible for her pain. Jakes is a successful minister who wrote the book and the play on which this film is based, and he is a financier of the film. Credit goes to director Michael Schultz (Car Wash) to make Jakes a part of the story without turning it into propaganda. Jakes is a great performer at the altar and Schultz has a good eye for the performance aspects of the religious service. The characters are blissfully multifaceted, so we get to hear everyone’s side of the story. Even though the film has a happy ending (Michelle’s story is about a real woman who is now a counselor to abuse victims), it comes quickly and unexpectedly. Actress Kimberly Elise portrays Michelle with so much pain, you think she might have turned into Dostoyevskian character beyond pain. But then there is the open door through which she returns to the real world.