9th Annual Seattle Asian American Film Festival Will Be the Biggest Yet

by Mark Van Streefkerk

This year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF) will take place online, and feature more short- and feature-length films, documentaries, and animated films than ever before in the festival’s history. Streaming with the help of partner Northwest Film Forum from March 4 to 14, SAAFF will virtually screen 123 films by or about Asian Americans in the U.S., grouped into 15 programs, and will hold one drive-in movie event.

The festival features Academy Award contenders like the short documentary No Crying at the Dinner Table, and short films Moloka‘i Bound and Kapaemahu, both in the Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawai‘i program. The first-ever SAAFF 4 Kidz program debuts this year, and a Pacific Northwest focus includes Vanishing Seattle film shorts as well as a short documentary on the surviving family members of John T. Williams, the Native wood carver killed by Seattle police 10 years ago. The free program Grief Like No Other: Holding Space for Healing from Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss, will take on hard-to-broach topics and include a live panel discussion. 

“Because we are online this year, we were able to choose more films,” said SAAFF founder and Executive Director Vanessa Au. “We decided to let people have a bigger window to watch since we’re not doing physical logistics. [SAAF this year is] 11 days, much longer than our usual four.”

In previous years, SAAFF featured around 70 or 80 films. This year, SAAFF received 50% more submissions compared to other years, perhaps an example of burgeoning creativity in spite of the pandemic. With the exception of The Paper Tigers and Definition Please, all films can be viewed within 48 hours of starting them online. 

The festival kicks off on opening night March 4 with a livestream event featuring local Asian American and Pacific Islander performers, and the SAAFF’s first program: The No-Good Very Bad Terrible Longest Worst Year — 2020 COVID Shorts. Filmed during COVID-19 lockdown, these shorts feature creative, pandemic-informed filmmaking techniques and highlight the adaptability of Asian American communities, like Cultivating Resilience: Seattle’s Hmong Flower Farmers.

Festival attendees have two COVID-safe ways to watch The Paper Tigers, a martial arts comedy by Pacific Northwest-based filmmaker Bao Tran: at the Burien Drive-In on Saturday, March 6 at 7 p.m., or via a concurrent virtual screening, only available for three hours online. Yuji Okumoto, owner of Seattle’s Kona Kitchen and of The Karate Kid: Part II and Cobra Kai fame, produced and acted in The Paper Tigers. The film follows three kung fu prodigies — now middle-aged men — as they avenge the death of their master. 

The pay-what-you-can SAAFF 4 Kidz program is debuting this year. “Usually we have some pretty edgy content and documentaries that are pretty serious,” Au said. “Every year we’ve tried to create a kids’ program and haven’t, but this year we have a bunch of animated shorts. We call it SAAFF 4 Kidz, but honestly [it’s for] anyone who’s into digital animation as well.”

The Centerpiece Documentary Far East Deep South explores the racially complex history of the Chinese in the segregated south through the story of one Chinese American family. In the feature drama Goodbye Mother a young man takes a trip home to Vietnam with his Vietnamese American boyfriend. 

Vanishing Seattle Films presents a short documentary about the iconic birthplace of American karaoke, Bush Garden, threatened by gentrification and displacement. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Asian American Film Festival)

There’s ample spotlight given to Seattle communities throughout the festival. “A Work of Love:” Preserving Fil-Am History focuses on Dorothy Laigo Cordova, who founded the Filipino American National Historical Society in the 1980s to document and preserve the history of Filipino Americans in Seattle and elsewhere. In “Burden to Carry:” The Williams Family Tries to Move On 10 Years After The Killing Of Their Relative, Rick and EagleSon Williams are the last remaining woodcarvers in their family after the police killing of John T. Williams.  

The festival will end March 14 with Closing Night: Collective Memory, Community Spaces, an homage to “ethnic enclaves” like Koreatowns, Little Saigons, and Chinatowns across America that struggle to resist gentrification and displacement. The program includes two films from Vanishing Seattle on Chinatown-International District institutions: Four Seas/Dynasty Room and Bush Garden.

SAAFF will have pre-recorded question and answer sessions with filmmakers and some live panels. Festival award winners will be decided by audience choice, the staff, and a selection of jurors. Check out festival passes, including programs that are free or pay-what-you-can at the SAAFF website.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to clear up confusion that this year’s is the largest Seattle Asian American Film Festival to date in terms of the number of films that will be screened during the event — and not that this SAAFF is the largest Asian American film festival in U.S. history. We also added the film Definition Please to the sentence about which films could and could not be viewed within 48 hours of starting them online.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

Featured Image: The Seattle Asian American Film Festival includes short documentary “Burden to Carry:” The Williams Family Tries to Move On 10 Years After The Killing Of Their Relative about woodcarvers Rick and EagleSon, surviving family members of John T. Williams. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Asian American Film Festival)

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