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More Than Underdogs: Asian American Films at Sundance 2024

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With all the talk of Oscar snubs, 2024 has been a sparse year for new Asian American-helmed works at the Sundance Film Festival–just one documentary short, three full-length documentaries, and one narrative film. Asian American filmmakers remain underdogs, coincidentally a common theme in many of their films. From The Smallest Power illustrating the power of an Iranian woman to fight injustice to a coming-of-age story of an awkward Taiwanese American 13-year old boy in Didi, these films illustrate how people often overlooked in society can have an important voice.

The Smallest Power


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A single revolutionary moment, from a first-person perspective, is at the center of The Smallest Power. Filmmaker Andy Sarjahani (2023 CAAM Fellow) provides a glimpse into Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom uprising in the aftermath of Jina Mahsa Amini’s murder under the custody of Iranian morality police on September 16, 2022. The participant is a member of Sarjahani’s community in Iran and the recordings were made on encrypted phone lines over many conversations between the two when Sarjahani began making the film during the height of the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising in Iran The film is animated and voiced in English to maintain the anonymity of the speaker, who could be jailed if her identity were revealed. “I chose to do them in English for a couple of reasons,” Sarjahani told CAAM. “She’s less identifiable that way, and her English is very good and the intended audience is Western. “The Smallest Power is an inspiring instance of an Iranian woman who heeds the call to stand up against injustice.



Union


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Similar to The Smallest Power, Union depicts a David and Goliath story of Amazon workers organizing the first Amazon labor union in Staten Island, New York. Directed by Stephen Maing (a 2021 CAAM Mentor), Union not only shows workers battling a commercial giant, but also the challenges of forming a union amongst workers who get 100% replaced every six months. Union won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for the Art of Change at Sundance. At the center of this story is Chris Smalls, the founder and president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Smalls was wrongfully terminated from Amazon for protesting the lack of safety protocols surrounding COVID-19 exposure. Union shows Smalls organizing with a diverse group of Amazon workers and labor organizers through all hours and weather conditions in front of Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center. The group of ALU organizers score hard-earned victories despite Amazon’s union-busting tactics, setbacks and division. On April 1, 2022, the ALU made JFK8 the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States. Union illustrates the crushing challenges of labor organizing and battling one of the biggest companies in the world. As of Union’s premiere, ALU still hasn’t secured a labor contract with Amazon.



And So It Begins


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Fighting for rights in the face of overwhelming odds is also the theme of And So It Begins, a documentary about the 2022 presidential campaign of Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer and Philippines Vice President under President Rodrigo Duterte. Directed by Ramona Diaz (2020 CAAM Mentor) and CAAM-funded, And So it Begins is a companion piece to Diaz’s previous film A Thousand Cuts. Running against Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos, Jr., son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Robredo is shown hitting the campaign trail and speaking at enormous rallies filled with a diversity of supporters, from the LGBT communities to nuns. And So It Begins emphasizes the power of the people through Robredo’s supporters and the continued coverage of journalist Maria Ressa (subject of A Thousand Cuts) and Rappler, a pro-democracy Filipino online news outlet. In one scene, Ressa interviews Robredo and they commiserate over the social media attacks they’ve both endured as women. Ultimately, Robredo loses to Marcos by a large margin. Footage of Rappler journalists, Robredo supporters and a post-election Robredo rally show folks mourning her election loss and recommitting to fight for democracy. The parallels of the 2022 Filipino presidential election to the upcoming U.S. presidential election is a warning about the ongoing role of misinformation in global politics.



Didi


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The teenage years are all about challenging, surviving, and overcoming hardships, as represented in Didi (recently acquired by Focus Films), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film from writer-director Sean Wang and winner of the Audience Award. Wang’s short documentary Nai Nai and Wai Po screened at CAAMFest 2023 and is now a 2024 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short. Wang’s real grandma (Chang Li Hua, also star of his short doc) also appears in Didi, playing the role of—who else?—Nai Nai. Didi, or “little brother” in Mandarin, centers on Chris (Izaac Wang), a 13-year old Taiwanese American boy. His family all call him Didi, which is a tradition in Mandarin-speaking families. He is also known by the nickname “Wang Wang” to his middle-school friends and Chris to his older skater friends.

Set in Fremont, California in 2008, the summer before Chris enters high school, the film is about “how shame manifests itself in a young Asian American boy’s life,” according to Sean Wang during the Q&A. Didi is an authentic portrait of the awkwardness, insecurities, and frustrations of boyhood with Asian American specificities. Chris gets taunted by a bigger white boy pulling his eyes back, and later he lies to his non-Asian skater friends that he’s only half Asian–revealing his internalized shame. Other Asian American elements include Chris’s mother (Joan Chen) and Nai Nai expressing care (in Mandarin) by micro-nagging him and his older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen) on food, academics, and everything in between. Didi does not hold back on portraying raw fights between mother and son, brother and sister, and mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, while ultimately grounding the family in love. For their wonderful performances, the cast has won the “U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble” at Sundance. Didi joins the ranks of Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), The Motel (2005), and Minding the Gap (2018) as one of the best Asian American teenage boy films to premiere at Sundance.



One of the most iconic Asian American Sundance moments was when a white man asked director Justin Lin at the 2002 premiere of Better Luck Tomorrow, “Why, with the talent up there and yourself, make a film so empty and amoral for Asian Americans and for Americans?” Celebrity film critic Roger Ebert stood up and defended the film, saying that “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people.” In contrast, no one during the Didi Q&A questioned Sean Wang’s choices to represent Asian American teens as they are–imperfect and occasionally amoral. Instead, Didi received a standing ovation at its premiere and two major Sundance awards: the “Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic films” and “U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble.” Union also won the “U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for the Art of Change.”

Even though Asian American filmmakers had a smaller showing this year at Sundance, their lauded films stand on the shoulders of previous Asian American films, expanding the repertoire of Asian American-helmed stories in an increasingly diverse and global U.S. society.

Bonus: Also premiering at Sundance was Bao Nguyen’s The Greatest Night in Pop, a fun Netflix documentary on the making of the song, “We are the World” and interviews with stars like Lionel Richie, Bruce Springstein, and Cyndi Lauper. Nguyen’s documentary on Bruce Lee, Be Water, debuted at Sundance in 2020.

Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist of the people and evangelist of Asian American cinema.
 
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