The New York Asian Film Festival is a Relief From Whitewashing

NYAFF 2016 director Samuel Jamier explains what's still standing in the way of artistic globalization.

Hollywood has never been culturally sensitive. Offensive practices like blackface and white-washing have long histories in American cinema that questionably continue today. The common excuse is about money: producers cast bankable stars to attract audiences. But this stops making sense when you glance at people in the theater.

In just the last few years, Asian-American audiences have become one of the most rapidly growing and loyal consumers. Neilsen describes the a demographic as “diverse and deeply rooted in their cultural traditions.” So where are the Asian-led Hollywood movies?

There aren’t any. But there are Asian movies, and that’s where Samuel Jamier, executive director of the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival happening from June 22 to July 9, hopes to fulfill to an eager, and frustrated, moviegoing audience.

“I think we could be at the center because we are diversity,” Jamier tells Inverse. “I’d love to show American films that have to do with Asian-Americans, it’s one of the fastest growing communities. It’s dismaying when you see what happens with stuff like Ghost in the Shell. There’s talented Asian actors out there I think needs to be represented in the mainstream. I think it’s possible, you see it on TV. You have far more diverse casts on TV than on the silver screen, so it can be done. We know stories are there.”

Samuel Jamier — who happens to be the first Asian to spearhead this year’s festivities from Subway Cinema — spoke with Inverse about this year’s New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and SVA Theatre. Serving up both the bizarre and exquisite from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, the NYAFF has a unique position as Hollywood and Asia forge a profitable, but troublesome relationship.

“In the end it’s about going to a theater and see what films from half the world away are like,” Jamier says. “That’s what it is about. We’re trying to show great storytelling from distant worlds.”

New York Asian Film Festival 2016

Subway Cinema

How hard is it to program the NYAFF? How do you narrow down selections to represent a region that produces such widely diverse genres and stories?

It’s hard because it’s not just one country. You focus on the geographical location, China itself, it’s an empire in a way. That’s 1.8 billion people, several times the size of the United States. In terms of selection, the festival started after the shutdown of the last Chinatown theater in New York, when Chinatown theaters were just showing kung fu and Hong Kong films. That’s where we come from.

We try to remain faithful to that spirit, but over the years we’ve embraced a lot of movies. We try to find films with a broad appeal to an American audience that already resonated in East Asia.

That’s a tall order. How do you find movies that have such an appeal?

Of course we look at the box office of each country. But we go to Asia, see what’s happening there and go to the festivals and the major film markets in Hong Kong, in Bhutan, in Tokyo. We see films there, often in advance. Over the years we’ve belonged to a strong network of friends and allies. We are aware of projects before they even come into existence.

After a while, you know it’s good and it should be shown in New York. There are films that stand out like that. Twisted Justice is a fantastic gangster movie I think is a rarity and that’s the kind of stuff that attracts me and needs to be shown in the U.S. Even though it’s from Japan, that’s a movie I think has strong echoes to the local New York film scene.

Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi, 'Twisted Justice' is a personal favorite for NYAFF director Samuel Jamier. Based on a 2011 non-fiction novel, the film follows an ex-detective who blows the whistle on the sanctioning of yakuza activity by Japanese police.

In what ways is the NYAFF engaging with white-washing and the lack of diversity in Hollywood, if at all?

When Asian-Americans don’t see themselves on the screen, they should definitely come to our festival. We’re a U.S. festival showing Asian movies. We don’t show Hollywood films. Of course, we agree with things said in favor of Asian representation.

We know the actors who are trying to make it out there, but we have little to do with Hollywood. I’m not sure people would give us the time of the day [there]. We’ve somewhat become a local institution. I don’t think we’re in any position to tell people what to do. But people know where we’re standing, and I think every time there’s a chance for us to speak out, we will. I’m not sure we’re necessarily heard.

Why is it that when topics like that in Hollywood exist, the genre festivals become de facto voices for those discussions?

Because I don’t think theaters are doing as much as they could. Distributors are still conservative. Festivals too. Most festivals, not just in the U.S., are very Western centric. You probably saw that New Yorker Top 100 Films, I don’t know what the proportion is but it’s like 50 percent French films. I’m a French guy, but I was surprised. You could say we did the same with Asian cinema, but that is because these very often they never get distributed. We’re part of that struggle for representation as well.

I’d like to get into one of the more bizarre movies on the slate: Hentai Kamen 2. I love that it spoofs the Kamen Rider stuff I grew up watching. But did you think it would be out of place in the NYAFF?

It’s really a superhero parody. It’s an immensely fun movie, a really insane original film. It just shows the power of imagination. With all our rules here and our conservative, “You can’t do this, you can’t show that,” I thought it was a good film to show.

Based on your perspective of curating Asian cinema, do you see Hollywood influencing it in any drastic way?

Yeah, it has happened. The way it works is different, of course, [but] there is a sense they’re emulating Hollywood. Big visual effects, with Attack on Titan and so on. But the writing in Asia is not as formulaic or structured. As in Hollywood, you don’t have that three act structure. Hollywood influences everyone, but at our festival we have a number of films that rely on completely different styles of storytelling. They don’t start A to B to C.

I just can’t imagine a guy in the U.S. coming up with Hentai Kamen 2, a guy getting super powers from being a pervert. There are influences from Hollywood, but I don’t think that’s what makes the films we’re showing attractive. I find it more interesting to see the other way around, how Asian cinema has influenced [Hollywood]. The grammar of Hong Kong action is completely mainstream. You see the X-Men movies, everyone speaks the language. It’s not even a question [but] people don’t know what it came from. When you see one of these superheroes kicking and doing all that action, it’s fully integrated now.

Taiwanese horror 'The Tag-Along' from director Wei-hao Cheng.

As a sort of ambassador for Asian cinema in the U.S., what do you think the movie market will look like in the near future? Especially considering how much Hollywood is courting China.

China is where everyone is looking now because they have money. People are saying it’s the next big film scene. It’s not the next scene. It’s already one of the biggest scenes. It’s so close to being the world’s largest it’s not even funny. We’re not talking 10 years, not talking five. We’re talking two or three.

But in terms of [wider] Asian cinema, it’s evolving. In terms of storytelling, I think it’s hard for them to cross over. It’s not an industry that’s quite mature yet, I would say. There’s some great storytelling out of China, we’ll be around to show that I hope, I hope to keep our films on the forefront of this effort to build bridges between continents.

The New York Asian Film Festival is underway from June 22 to July 9. Visit Subway Cinema’s website to see the full list of scheduled films.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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