Strong Female Voices Take Centre Stage at Vancouver Asian Film Festival

Unprecedented, but not unexpected. For the first time ever, the 2018 Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF) featured a 50/50 split of films screened by both male and female directors — giving an equal platform that brought strong female voices to the forefront.

It’s a feat that mirrors the cultural shift happening within the wider industry, where a growing push for inclusivity in a traditionally male-dominated industry has led to increased diversity — both behind and in front of the camera.

“Dead Pigs” – Directed by Cathy Yan (Photo Submitted)

Held from November 1 to 4, the festival drew film-attendees to a theatre near Vancouver’s Chinatown. Among the nods to strong female filmmakers for this year’s program includes the opening film “Dead Pigs”, which was directed by Cathy Yan — recently named to be the first Asian woman to direct a DC Comics franchise movie (Birds of Prey).

Meanwhile, Domee Shi’s “Bao”, the first-ever Disney Pixar short directed by an Asian (Canadian!) female, brought audiences to tears for its rich metaphors that represented the cultural struggles of first-generation immigrant families.

A panel featuring ‘Asian Women in Film’ highlighted the need for more women to bring their voices and stories to the big screen. 

L-R: Moderator Ritesh Matlani, Festival Director Lynne Lee, Alexandra Cuerdo, Mia Fiona Kut, Olivia Cheng, VAFF Founder Barb Lee at the ‘Asian Women in Film’ Panel.
(Photo by Natasha Jung)

Actress Olivia Cheng, who played a concubine and assassin in Netflix’s 2014 “Marco Polo” series, shared her perspective on playing roles criticized by some as perpetuating stereotypes and tropes of Asian women.

“We can’t shy away from these kinds of tragedies… [women] were put into the human trafficking system,” Cheng said. “They exist. So moving forward, I don’t want any actress to feel ashamed or scared to play a role like that.

“I think what the dialogue needs to become is: Does the role show the humanity of a woman who is in a situation like that? And is there room for many facets of that woman’s personality to come out? Is there a chance for us to show the dignity of a human being in that role, and not just have a knee jerk reaction, like ‘I don’t want to play a prostitute’, ‘I don’t want to play a concubine, it’s stereotypical’. It’s in the humanity of the writing.”

Photo courtesy of VAFF

Film as a tool for exploring personal identity was a strong theme for filmmakers, such as Alexandra Cuerdo who took to exploring the emergence of Filipino cuisine in the American foodie feature, “ULAM: Main Dish”.

“I think that for me personally, Filipino food is really a personal story,” Cuerdo said. “It was the way I would identify with my own culture growing up. In terms of why now, in some ways I’ve been trying to tell this story my whole life. I just didn’t know what the format would be.”

Determined to lay a foundation for one personal story to open the door for others, Cuerdo offers: “I remember, growing up, really longing for something to point to. When I was making ‘ULAM’, I really wanted to create something for the next generation that it would be easier to be ourselves, and to have some more representation in the media.”

Cold Tea Collective VAFF Festival Pass Contest Winners, friends, and YouTuber Jennifer Zhang aka JenerationDIY
(Photo by Natasha Jung)

Moviegoers also emphasized their appetite for more representation on screen, with some more thoughts and reflections from VAFF attendees:

Hilary Nguyen-Don: “I absolutely love seeing diversity on screen. Every time I see an Asian character on television or in a movie, I always go, ‘Cool! An Asian!’ It’s mildly sad that this is my reaction since it just goes to show that it’s so rare to see Asians on screen. With Sandra Oh’s Emmy nomination and the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, this year was pretty decent for Asians in media. I’d still love to see more Asians in leading roles, but I’m also just glad to see Hollywood moving in the right direction.”

Yux Zhangi: “I loved how I could relate to a lot of subtle quirks of things that only happen in an Asian household. It made the film feel more relatable to my life. This is something that I don’t usually experience with mainstream productions that don’t have strong Asian characters.”

Alexis Chow: “I really liked the diverse stories on screen. Especially in the short films portion, it was eye opening to see short films from different Asian cultures focusing on different themes and film styles.”

Amy Wu: “Asian representation, not only on screen, is something I strongly believe in. Since I was a kid, whenever I watched a movie or TV show, I always rooted for the Asian character, provided the character didn’t have horrible traits. Even though I was raised in Vancouver, my roots to my Taiwanese/Chinese culture are quite strong. I am very much assimilated into Western culture, but I make sure to keep in touch with my Chinese heritage through practising the language, keeping up with some news, and listening to music. While ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was a great stride for Asians in film, I felt that the storyline was overdramatized and a bit stereotypical (mindful that it IS Hollywood). I felt like it almost perpetuated stereotypes of Asians being rich and spending money blindly — something not representative of the general Asian population. However, it was great that there were subtle Chinese cultural references/mannerism included, but I’m not sure if people who don’t understand Asian culture would understand the reference or merely think it’s weird. Comparing ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to ‘Dead Pigs’ or ‘For Izzy’, I’d say the latter had better portrayal of Asians. I’d love to see films like these making it into the mainstream. That being said, I think the best case scenario for Asians in films is not to have films with an all-Asian cast, but to have an equal proportion of Asians versus non-Asians in each film, with stereotypes being absent. I hope for more success for Asian films!”

Vivian Jin: “We need to see more diverse stories on screen! ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was the first film I saw that focused on Asians and Asian culture. I believe we all need to embrace diverse stories that feature varying lifestyles and unique perspectives that aren’t seen in the usual cliche plot lines.”

Tiffany Choi: “As an Asian-born Canadian, I’m always happy to see Asian representation on-screen. In the past, it seems Asian characters were always portrayed in a particular way that played on the stereotypes. I think these diverse stories help people see from other perspectives and brings about more understanding and compassion.”

Check out our other stories on the Vancouver Asian Film Festival below.

From Beauty Queen to Bunny Man: Our Picks for the 2018 Vancouver Asian Film Festival

Hustle and Heart: The Lee Shorten Story

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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