Culture  AmérAsia goes avant-garde

Montreal's Asian-American film festival expands

Art has always been a means of exploring cultural identity and asking tough questions about home and community. Montreal’s AmérAsia Film Festival not only poses pressing questions of identity, but also boldly reconfigures the boundaries of the medium through its series of avant-garde films. Presented by CinéAsie, this immense cultural and artistic endeavour features short films from the Philippines, Cambodia, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Quebec, and the rest of Canada, as well as various interactive projects such as masterclasses, workshops, and multimedia ventures. About to embark on its fourth edition, the festival presents the work of many young Montreal artists, as well as internationally acclaimed filmmakers, creating an open forum for artists who would not normally have the opportunity to be showcased.

The vision
This fall, the festival intends to reach out to the diverse Asian communities in Montreal and “promote the relationship between Asia and Quebec.” Mi-Jeong Lee, the festival’s co-founder, spoke with The Daily about the need she originally saw for a platform for Asian art in Montreal.

“When I came here as a foreign student to do my Masters program, I thought it would be interesting for Montreal to have a much stronger Asian voice that comes from Asian descent,” she said. “Since my background has been always in cinema, I started to have a small size of film festivals and retrospectives. Slowly we built up the festival, AmérAsia, but Montreal wasn’t ready to welcome all aspects of Asian films back then. Although the festival started in 1999, this year is only the fourth edition.”

For Lee, the purpose of the festival is “to give a different voice to Asian people in various contexts” and “support and promote Asian-Canadian filmmakers.” Amanda Nguyen, the General Coordinator, describes the festival as “a celebration of being Asian in Quebec and Canada.”

The festival has since evolved from its original goal of promoting Asian films. Nguyen stated that “for the fourth edition of AmérAsia, there are more avant-garde and experimentally driven films,” pointing to the festival’s role in innovating film techniques and expanding film as an artform.

The festival also goes beyond specifically Asian-American films to engage with broader questions of identities in Montreal and Canada. Nguyen explained that this year the film festival’s team has created a special program called Initiation where “films that deal with non-Asian content or a blend of Asian and non-Asian content” are also featured. The intention of this program is for “AmérAsia to reach out to communities other than just our Asian-Canadian communities in Montreal.” Nguyen cited director Kavich Neang’s Where I Go as an example of this part of the festival. The documentary “deals with someone from both Cambodian and Cameroonian descent,” she said. “It explores how a person of different ethnicities lives in an Asian context.”

The centrepiece

The main focus of this year’s festival is a phenomenon called the Philippine New Wave – a movement that began in the late 1970s, but is rapidly gaining momentum due to the accessibility of today’s technology. The Philippine New Wave is fascinating because of how it deconstructs typical Western understandings of what filmmaking is and should be; Lee calls the movement the “Asian style of avant-garde in the Philippines.” Instead of relying on costly professional equipment – something that is, by nature, exclusive – films that emerge from this movement are created using any equipment available to the artist, such as non-professional cameras and smartphones. This new wave is the opposite of commercial Hollywood, which produces films that fit neatly into narratives that audiences have learned to expect and are comfortable viewing. Philippine New Wave films focus more on social and political issues, especially those present in the Philippines. They are brave and daring in the sense that that they have no specific form.

The father of this movement, Kidlat Tahimik, is a Filipino director making “his first appearance on Canadian soil” at the AmérAsia film festival. Presently touring the Netherlands, Germany, and Vietnam, Tahimik is a forerunner in non-commercial, experimental films that provide an arena for accessible filmmaking. As an artist who actively supports the perspectives of “undiploma-ed” filmmakers (those without formal higher education), Tahimik represents much of what the producers of AmérAsia love about the possibilities of film.

Tahimik will be teaching a free masterclass at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on his extensive project Memories of Overdevelopment, a film that began in the early 1980s and “will take more than 35 years for the director to complete.” The festival will also feature three Philippine New Wave films: Turumba, a “satirical takedown of the global economy,”; Perfumed Nightmare, a film that challenges the illusions of the American dream; and Philippine New Wave: This Is Not A Film Movement, a documentary exploring both the actual movement and “what the power of film means and what the future holds for cinema, locally and worldwide.”

The challenge

In the spirit of the Philippine New Wave movement, AmérAsia is launching a project this year titled the “One Piece Film Challenge,” a “distribution of independent films […] to promote new works by emerging and established Asian-Canadian and Asian media artists.” The challenge is to create a five-minute-or-less one-take film using any non-professional filming device, such as a smartphone, iPad, or camera, within a period of 72 hours. Nguyen described this project as a way “to relive traditional filmmaking” – because it is done in just one take – while integrating today’s technology. Pre-selected works will be presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on the opening day of the festival.

The must-sees

Lee and Nguyen were excited to recommend the productions La Salada, Luk’Luk’I: Mother, and Where I Go – the three films that attempt to reach out to diverse ethnic communities and raise questions of Asian identities in non-Asian contexts. Tahimik’s documentary Philippine New Wave is also highly recommended for its in-depth exploration of the revolutionary movement that underlies the film festival. In terms of cultural self-investigation, Cabinet, a film dealing with “the very idea of Chineseness that individuals possess,” and Radicalizing Intimacy, a documentary that questions how “multiple identities (Canadian, youth, Asian, queer) intersect and shape the way we navigate our world,” are likely to be powerful and evocative pieces. For local content, An Minh Truong’s amnesia mystery Apres la peine (A New Mourning) and Masoud Raouf’s docu-animation There is a Garden are not to be missed. The fourth edition of AmérAsia offers a diverse array of films and perspectives, and invites Montrealers along to question, challenge, and explore the intersection of identity and art.


The AmérAsia Film Festival will take place from Thursday, October 30 to Sunday, November 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Phi Centre.