Breaking Racial Boundaries

Film is in a constant state of transformation. As the medium evolves, the interest in creating film has witnessed a surge in popularity as well. With the birth of the first major film festival in Venice in 1932, film festivals of varying missions and causes have cropped up throughout the world and have continued to attract a growing number of submissions and audiences every year.

One such film festival is the Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF). This weekend witnessed BAAFF’s third run with a premiere at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre. BAAFF came together with the help of nearly 20 community-based organizations in the greater Boston area, though it was started by the Asian American Resource Workshop, an organization that seeks to document the diverse histories, experiences, and social conditions of Asian-Pacific-Americans.

“I often get the response, ‘We have one of those?’” said BAAFF Co-Director Yvonne Ng, in regard to the presence of the Boston Asian American Film Festival. “This is the first year where we’re doing year-long programming [for the film festival],” she says, expressing hope that the film festival will continue to grow and become an annual event. “We have the ‘Short Waves’ competition coming up in the spring, too, as another resource for Asian-American filmmakers, and the winner of ‘Short Waves’ will have their short featured in next year’s Boston Asian American Film Festival.”

A prolific actor who has played over 500 roles during his 57-year-long career, James Hong is in Boston for his first extended stay to work on “R.I.P.D.,” an upcoming film that will also feature Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges. This past Friday, Hong visited BAAFF to participate in a question and answer–format discussion moderated by Al Young, a copy editor on the Night News Desk of the Boston Globe. Hong shared insight regarding his own experiences in Hollywood.

“The man we have today has been called the man of 1,000 faces,” Young said at the start of the discussion. “There are 18 pages on Mr. Hong’s films and credits [on the Internet Movie Database] … but unlike Cheers, the little bar across the street, not everyone knows his name.”

Hong discussed his journey from Hong Kong to California, where he frequented bars and delivered stand-up comedy performances before he got his first break on the television show “You Bet Your Life” for his impeccable impersonation of Groucho Marx. Riddled with humorous comments and several demonstrations of some of his best-known roles—such as Mr. Ping, the adoptive father of protagonist Po in “Kung Fu Panda”—Hong’s responses also carried a sobering tone. Of his work in the French film “L’Idole (The Idol),” Hong said, “Why is it that in the U.S., an Asian man never gets to be the leading man? Here I am in Paris and I am able to be a leading man. [But in the U.S.,] even after 57 years of being rescued by the white hero, things haven’t really changed. I want all of you to make your own films and turn things around. I don’t see too many activities in terms of filmmaking here in Boston. If you have talent, go after it!”

When asked what roles remain on his bucket list after nearly 60 years of active work in the entertainment industry, Hong said, “Well, obviously I’d like to do another 100 roles. Maybe I can if I keep eating my herbs.” After a short pause while the audience laughed, he continued, “I’m 82 and a half [years old,] and I’m still doing this. I’d like to play a brilliant scientist, a Nobel Prize Peace winner, a father running a family, and the head of a corporation. In ‘Blade Runner,’ I was just an eyeball maker! I think we [Asian-Americans] should play leading roles, and I’d like to get into it.”

In keeping with the views presented by Hong, Lily Chan, a member of the BAAFF planning committee, remarked that the mission of BAAFF was to help empower Asian-Americans through film by providing an opportunity to showcase Asian-American experiences. “Asian-Americans haven’t really completely made it into the mainstream yet. BAAFF helps to support the [Asian-American] artists who want to take that next step.”

As film technology evolves, so to have the role and place of film in society. Film festivals have branched out to serve as a powerful tool to connect members across multiple generations and foster greater community bonds. BAAFF Co-Director Susan Chinsen closed the night with the words, “We want to encourage all of you to keep empowering our community.”

—Staff writer Soyoung Kim can be reached at soyoungkim@college.harvard.edu.

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