Preface: I wrote this essay for the 2007 SFIAFF Program. I was very thankful and honored that CAAM allowed me to write it...I was a little late in sending them the idea but as it turned out, they had planned to write something about the 10 year anniversary of the famed Class of '97.
The essay itself lays out what made that year so significant but to add a personal note that doesn't appear there: 1997 wasn't my first SFIAAFF but it came during the same semester I took the Asian American Film/Video course at UC Berkeley (taught by Spencer Nakasako) and it was one of the first years that I practically lived at the Kabuki during that week (or so it felt).
It was, to be sure, an amazing time to be witness to what was happening within Asian American cinema and as cliche as it sounds, that sense of change was in the air everywhere you went during that week. In hindsight, it doesn't seem any less momentous - '97 was a crucial watershed. The fact that it came 15 years after Chan Is Missing is a coincidence but a significant one at that especially since the next important year would be five years later, in 2002, when Better Luck Tomorrow and Charlotte Sometimes screened (amongst others).
THE FEATURE (originally appeared in the 2007 SFIAFF Catalog).
Class of 1997: 10 Years Later
Six filmmakers, four narrative features, one year. The Class of 1997 comprised Quentin Lee and Justin Lin’s SHOPPING FOR FANGS, Rea Tajiri’s STRAWBERRY FIELDS, Michael Idemoto and Eric Nakamura’s SUNSETS and Chris Chan Lee’s YELLOW. The arrival of this quartet in time for the ’97 SFIAAFF may have just been coincidence, but looking at the long-term evolution of Asian American independent filmmaking, it’s as if a critical mass had been waiting to coalesce.
The mid-’90s were a transitional time for Asian American narrative cinema. The most influential director of the ‘80s, Wayne Wang, had moved away from Asian American themes following 1993’s JOY LUCK CLUB. There were several new filmmakers filling in the gap, notably Canada’s Mina Shum (DOUBLE HAPPINESS, 1994) and the late Kayo Hatta (PICTURE BRIDE, 1995) but much of the Class of 1997 was comprised of an even younger, emergent generation. Lee, Lin and Lee all came almost directly out of major film schools. Cousins Idemoto and Nakamura were amateur, first-time filmmakers. Even the cohort’s “senior” member, acclaimed experimental/documentary director Tajiri, was still in her thirties.
More importantly, their films suggested that Asian American cinema was at a key thematic crossroads. Though STRAWBERRY FIELDS and YELLOW ostensibly dealt with familiar topics around the traumas of the past and family tensions of the present, they were a leap forward in artistic style and storytelling. Likewise, though SHOPPING FOR FANGS was a film about identity starring an all-Asian American cast, race and ethnicity were barely present in favor of more humorous and existential explorations of self. Following a trio of youth whiling away their summer, SUNSETS had virtually no Asian American themes whatsoever, but its depictions of suburban/rural ennui had a more universal appeal. Collectively, the four films marked a moment where the older traditions of Asian American filmmaking were being shed to make room for new, exciting and imaginative ideas, styles and stories.
Symbolic import aside, the 1997 SFIAAFF also helped plant the seeds for future groundbreaking projects. It was at this Festival where Justin Lin first met YELLOW star Jason Tobin, whom he later cast in a scene-stealing role for BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2002). Likewise, aspiring filmmaker Eric Byler and writer Jeff Liu met actress Jacqueline Kim at the Festival and the three drove back to Los Angeles, brainstorming what would eventually become Byler’s debut, CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES (2002), a film that also starred SUNSETS’ Michael Idemoto. The Festival also saw John Cho star in both YELLOW and SHOPPING FOR FANGS; he’s since become one of the most prolific Asian American actors in Hollywood.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of how the Class of ’97 signaled a momentous change is how unextraordinary it’s become for the SFIAAFF to host any number of Asian American narrative features (this year boasts 12 in competition). Over the last decade, there’s been a blossoming of dozens of up-and-coming directors including Alice Wu (SAVING FACE), Tanuj Chopra (PUNCHING AT THE SUN), Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana (CAVITE), and So Yong Kim (IN BETWEEN DAYS). Never before has the Asian American cinescape been so broad or diverse.
Yet despite that expanding scope, the most powerful moments are often the smallest. My favorite memory from the 1997 SFIAAFF came at the back of the theater during the sold-out world premiere of SUNSETS. As the credits began to roll, Idemoto and Nakamura, standing behind the seat rows, hugged one another, yelling “we did it, we did it!” It was a personal moment that went unnoticed by most of the audience still staring forward but in a sense, the two were celebrating for all of us. The labor and challenges of making the if lm were, of course, theirs, but in contributing to such an important, watershed moment, the pride and exhilaration for their accomplishment
was ours as well.
Oliver Wang served on the SFIAAFF Screening Committee from 2000 through 2005. He is
currently a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and cultural critic living in Los Angeles.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
• Michel Idemoto both directed and starred in the ensemble feature O.B.I.T.S. (1998) and was the lead in Eric Byler’s CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES (2002).
• Chris Chan Lee has directed television in Asia, and produced several films in the U.S. His second feature, UNDOING (2006), screens in this year’s Festival.
• Quentin Lee runs the production company Margin Films, and directed both DRIFT (2000) and ETHAN MAO (2004).
• Justin Lin has directed BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2002), ANNAPOLIS (2006), and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (2006). His latest fi lm, FINISHING THE GAME
(2007), screens on Opening Night at this year’s Festival.
• Eric Nakamura continues to run Giant Robot Magazine as well as its related publishing and retail ventures.
• Rea Tajiri continues to practice and teach filmmaking at schools such as UCLA, NYU, Columbia and CalArts.
PHOTO BY PAMELA GENTILE: FRONT (L–R) JUSTIN LIN, REA TAJIRI, QUENTIN LEE
BACK (L–R) CHRIS CHAN LEE, ERIC NAKAMURA, MICHAEL IDEMOTO