Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2021: Short Films Picks in Narrative, Animation & Documentary

From Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari to Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Asian American filmmakers have gained widespread recognition over the past year for their ability to tell stories that are universal. Running from March 4-14, 2021, the 9th Annual Seattle Asian American Film Festival does what it has been doing for years: bringing exactly these types of stories to your attention.
Fully virtual this year, the 2021 edition can be viewed from anywhere in the United States and presents the festival’s largest offering ever, with nine feature films and so many shorts you might feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. Hence, to help you navigate this bevy of delights, below is a quicklist of the best shorts of the festival, spanning a variety of identities, themes, and artistic styles.

(Note: those with asterisks are the standouts among the standouts!)

Please head over to the SAAFF site to view the entire festival program.

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2021

 

Afterimages *

Bryan Sih, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Family Portraits” Short Film Program)

“It’s hard to know where to start,” a blind father says to his son, after a dinnertime altercatio with his dead grandmother’s ghost. Afterimages is a highly stylized haunting stylized haunting that is far from terrifying but bizarre enough to keep viewers wondering about the intergenerational secrets which go unspoken.

 

Atomic Cafe

Atomic Cafe: The Noisiest Corner in J-Town

Akira Boch & Tadashi Nakamura, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Closing Night: Collective Memory, Community Spaces” Short Film Program)

A homage to a Japanese family cafe turned into a punk rock hangout, this short film about Atomic Cafe documents a time and a place in Los Angeles, with plenty of archival images of charismatic, stylish folks.

 

Autoscopy

Big Happiness

Da Hee Kim & Matthew Koshmrl, South Korea / USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Haru Haru” Short Film Program)

Following a Korean American adoptee’s journey to find her birth mother, Big Happiness uses home movies and recent dinner conversations as a mechanism for deeper insights. One witnesses everything from the adopted family’s ignorance around their child’s experience being Asian in the United States to an older adoptee’s nuanced reflections on her own journey.

 

Blast Burn

Blast Burn

Steve Nguyen & Jonathan Patrick Thomas, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Grief Like No Other: Holding Space…” Short Film Program)

Blending live action with animation, Blast Burn is a story of healing from deeply personal trauma. It offers a rare male insight into how to face your fears after the loss of a child, while doubling as an unexpected celebration of the natural world.

 

Cultivating Resilience

Cultivating Resilience: Seattle’s Hmong Flower Farmers

Corinne Chin, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“The No-Good Very Bad Terrible Longest Worst Year” Short Film Program)

Following the closure of the Pike Place Market due to COVID-19, one Hmong farming family is stuck with thousands of perishable flowers they cannot sell and no easy way to secure funds for the next year’s harvest. This short documentary offers a glimpse into the day-to-day of their experience as a testimony the strength of refugees and their unwavering ability to adapt in challenging times.

 

Harana

Harana (Serenade) *

Marie Jamora, Phillipines / United States, 2019, Narrative
(“Family Portraits” Short Film Program)

In a world that doesn’t accept Pacific Islander artists as equal, how does one chase their dreams of being a singer? Set in 1995 and seen through the eyes of a talented Las Vegas performer who is struggling to make it, Harana (Serenade) is about breaking the rules when one’s passion for songwriting speaks louder than shallow societal expectations… and it is absolutely beautiful. Highly recommended.

 

Hey Yu

Hey Yú | 如魚得水

Athena Han, Canada, 2020, Narrative
The No-Good Very Bad Terrible Longest Worst Year – COVID Shorts)

A playful look at hearing and seeing things when a goldfish is your only company and family is constantly on your mind.

 

Hello from Taiwan *

Tiffany Frances, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Family Portraits” Short Film Program)

With a dose of magical realism, Hello from Taiwan aligns earthquake fissures with relationship fissures and natural disasters with familial disasters. A well-acted immigrant tale about what it means when the American dream falls apart, and the fallout experienced by separation. Must-watch.

 

Fucking Japanese *

Woody Fu, USA, 2019, Narrative
(“Haru Haru” Short Film Program)

What happens a Korean American is enjoying sex with a Japanese American… and suddenly, multiple generations of past relatives appear just to guilt trip her about past war crimes and ethnic divides? This hilariously surreal film will make you laugh, squirm, and wonder if it is too un-PC, but also, who… cares… 🙂

 

Kapaemahu

Kapaemahu

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer & Joe Wilson, USA, 2020, Animation
(“Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawaii” Short Film Program)

Kapaemahu is an animated gift from the Gods, about the Gods. This short defies words. Allow it to lure you into transcendence, on a voyage to Hawaii’s ancestral past, where you’ll be reminded of the magic that needs to be reclaimed.

 

Keep Saray Home

Keep Saray Home

Brian Redondo, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Southeast Asian Showcase” Short Film Program)

Keep Saray Home sheds light on the often invisible but heart-breaking reality of Southeast Asian refugees who are at-risk of deportation due to old criminal offenses. Though they have long changed their ways and moved on to have families and careers, they remain ever-subject to the whims of changing administrations and ICE. More at searaids.org

 

Mirror

Mirror

Christina Yoon, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Haru Haru” Short Film Program)

The never-ending quest for perfection through plastic surgery is turned on its head when a burn patient seeks to fix her facial scar and finds herself soul-searching instead. Does she fall for stereotypical standards of beauty or will hyperreal circumstances bring her to her senses?

 

Moloka’i Bound *

Alika Maikau, USA, 2019, Narrative
(“Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawaii” Short Film Program)

Naturalistic acting is the strong suit in this simple tale between a young boy and a man sharing a bonding moment together — only to have it fall apart. Wonderful and authentically Hawaiian.

 

No Crying at the Dinner Table

No Crying at the Dinner Table *

Carol Nguyen, USA, 2019, Documentary
(“Trace Your Roots” Short Film Program Block)

Since its release in 2019, No Crying at the Dinner Table has been making the film festival rounds, and for good reason! An intimate portrayal of Vietnamese family and their difficulty breaking ingrained and inherited habits, the documentary is full of tear-filled moments, as parents and their children learn how to better express love and appreciation for one another.

 

One Meal

One Meal *

Yuechen Hao, USA, 2021, Narrative
(“Trace Your Roots” Short Film Program Block)

In this quiet drama, working class Chinese family of restaurant workers navigate intergenerational differences around gender and passion. Over the course of 45 minutes, One Meal shows how even the most dutiful children and most hard-working parents can drift apart when their dreams do not align. Top festival pick!

 

Parental Guidance Suggested

Dane Neves, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Queer AF” Short Film Program)

This parent guide to Gayness 101 is a playful take on how one might hypothetically ask their kid the tough questions they fear navigating. It’s sensitive, funny, and all about loving your child, no matter what age they are. Plus, there’s puppets! <3

 

Logan Lee & the Rise of the Purple Dawn

Raymond C. Lai, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Thrills, Chills and Things Gone Wrong” Short Film Program)

Real life might be indistinguishable from a pot hallucination in Logan Lee & the Rise of the Purple Dawn, a plenty playful and plenty confusing tale of aliens disguised as humans. But fear not; DJing and turntable scratching will save the day.

 

Receiver

Cavan Campbell, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Thrills, Chills and Things Gone Wrong” Short Film Program)

Receiver is a gripping, Black Mirror-esque thriller that enters into surreal and sci-fi territory when a routine phone call turns fanatically controlling. Twists and turns galore!

 

Reunion 99

Reunion ’99 *

R.J. Lozada, USA, 2019, Documentary
(“Growing Pains” Short Film Program)

At Montgomery High School, almost every student is Hispanic, Latinx, or Filipino. Reunion ’99 revisits the past through heartfelt interviews and reflections on ethnicity, culture, sexuality, gender, and beyond, depicting nuances in an already diverse, non-white community in California. Endlessly fascinating.

 

Sing Me a Lullaby *

Tiffany Hsiung, Canada, 2020, Documentary
(“Trace Your Roots” Short Film Program Block)

In Sing Me a Lullaby, a mother and daughter return to Taiwan, so that the mother can meet the birth mother who sent her away at the age of five. Over the course of a half-hour, the documentary captures the daughter’s attempts to help her mother unearth the truth. The result is the type of love and tender connections that can emerge when deep traumas and past wrongs are finally righted.

 

Srkana (The Stop)

Dinesh Das Sabu, USA, 2019, Narrative
(“Lingering” Short Film Block)

In a rural town on the Oklahoma-Texas border, Srkana (The Stop) offers a look into a vegetarian trucker stop run by Indian immigrants. Through an examination of their day-to-day lives and the idle pursuit of the “American dream,” their boredom makes one question whether it is in fact what they really want.

 

Standing Above the Clouds

Standing Above the Clouds

Jalena Keane-Lee, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawaii” Short Film Program)

A personal look into the Indigenous and Native Hawaiian stand for Mauna O Wakea, Standing Above the Clouds focuses on how the movement has evolved since 2014, with a special focus on the women who protect the sacred, life-giving mountain.

 

Thank You Come Again

Thank You, Come Again

Nirav Bhakta, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“We Need to Talk About This” Short Film Block)

A harrowing portrayal of what it is to relive trauma brought on by having your family forcibly taken away by immigration, Thank You, Come Again, is… quite simply… wow! Festival favorite.

 

This is the Way We Rise *

Ciara Lacy, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Looking Past Paradise: Shorts from Hawaii” Short Film Program)

Spoken word by Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio — a Native Hawaiian queer slam poet, activist and professor — sets the stage for a riveting experimental documentary about the Indigenous fight for land sovereignty. Set largely at the site of Mauna O Wakea during the protests against telescopes being built on the sacred site, this short speaks of passion and poetry as one with nature. Must-see!

 

Valley

Valley

Alan Zhang Tran, USA, 2020, Narrative
(“Growing Pains” Short Film Program)

In Southern California, two high school best friends grapple with their conflicting ideas of masculinity and navigate their ability to be vulnerable with one another. Valley is incredibly well-acted and heart-wrenching in its own understated, forlorn teenage boy kinda way.

 

Vanishing Seattle

Vanishing Seattle: Bush Garden Episode

Ellison Shieh, Christopher Woon-Chen, Martin Tran, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Closing Night: Collective Memory, Community Spaces” Short Film Program)

Part of an ongoing storytelling and documentary film series around displacement and gentrification in Seattle, the Bush Garden episode for Vanishing Seattle follows the journey of one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in the country as they navigate their search for a new home. It provides a look at the iconic space through the ages and charts out a surprisingly fortunate path forward.

 

Why Don't You Eat More

Why Don’t You Eat More?

George Du & Sinclair Neff, USA, 2020, Documentary
(“Lingering” Short Film Block)

Why Don’t You Eat More? conveys one young man’s struggles with body positivity, due to family pressures to be someone other than his genetics allow. A minimal and graceful experiment.

 

Yellow Peril

Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny

David Wayne Ng, Jen Sungshine & Kendell Yan, Canada, 2019, Documentary
(“Queer AF” Short Film Program)

A non-stop feast for the eyes, Yellow Peril: Queer Destiny uses a highly refined visual language to tell the story Maiden China, a charming Vancouver-based drag artist. Interviews also provide insight into a supportive ecosystem of queer Asian performance artists and their ways of navigating their cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

 

Yuan Yuan

Yuan Yuan and the Hollow Monster

Catherine Chen, USA, 2020, Animation
(“SAAFF 4 Kidz” Short Film Program)

Inspired by the Monkey King legend, a young hero prepares to fight an upcoming hurricane with her newfound imaginary weapons skills. Full of fun voiceovers, this animated short uses many techniques to lure you in and convince you that the power of youth shall prevail over the darkest of days! One can only dream…

 

seattleaaff.org

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Written by
Vivian Hua 華婷婷

Vivian Hua 華婷婷 is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares human-centered stories through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! In 2020, she will [hopefully] begin production on a comedic Asian-American series entitled Reckless Spirits.

Ask Vivian about MARSHMALLOWS, cuz she's gross... and being tips for being frugal while nomading!

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