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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



New York: Asian American International Film Festival 40 (AAIFF)

Celebrating its 40th anniversary AAIFF is the oldest film festival in the United States focusing on productions by and about Asians and Asian Americans.  The festival is unique given its close ties to the Asian-American community it serves as the listing of community partners for each presented film shows partners as diverse as the Taiwanese American Association of MU, the Asian American Arts Alliance, the Asian Women Giving Circle, AARP, the Japanese American Association of New York, and the China Institute, to name but a few. Held again at the Asia Society and the Village East Cinema from July 26 to August 5 the program presented 23 feature films and 63 short films from 18 countries covering a broad array of themes accompanied by numerous panels, workshops, live performances and social events.  Four features from the 1997 AAIFF editions on Asian American identity politics which achieved theatrical distribution were part of the program as were six films from Hong Kong produced after Hong Kong became part of China in 1997.  In the Taiwan Cinema Days special two narrative and two documentary features were programmed. The close link to New York Asian American communities assured that the films selected were close to community concerns rather than being chosen for their theatrical or digital distribution potential, a consideration alien to the festival’s philosophy. Stories of minority issues, gender conflict, defense of civil rights, identity formation, discrimination, and environmental degradation are more important for the curators than marketing potential and production value. The growing appeal of AAIFF was also reflected in the strong increased number of submissions from 320 in 2016 to 640 from 48 countries in 2017.

Numerous special  presentations  companied the  screening program of AAIFF 40 including a showcase  of shorts by  students from the City University of New York,  the 2017 72-hour shootout themed Welcome to the New Normal, a panel on the changing economics and dynamics of feature film distribution, a discussion by award winning  female film directors,  a SAG-AFRA screenplay reading  of the AAISC winning script  HELEN EVER AFTER, A Transgender Story and the Class of 97 panel with the filmmakers  of  the four   1997 features shown at this year’s festival.

Apart from the quality of the selected productions and the special presentations, several essays in the film festival catalogue provided an excellent contribution to the understanding of the state of Asian American film making, comprehensive reflections omitted in most other festival programs. Peter X. Feng authored The State of Asian American Cinema: In Search of Community and Daryl Chin surveyed Hong Kong Cinema: 20 Years.

The festival was presented by the nonprofit Asian CineVision, a media arts organization which started the Asian American Film Festival in 1978. Its 40th edition was supported by public and private agencies, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office New York, the Taipei Cultural Center in New York and the Friends of Asian Cinevision

Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamana and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers, USA, 2017

This film about the response to the Japanese-American minority group in Hawaii during World War II by officials and civilians received the AAIFF 40 Audience choice award as the best documentary. Whereas 150,000 members of that group on the mainland were shamed and forced into internment camps and

frequently lost their property only 2,000 of those living in Hawaii had that fate even though Japanese Americans constituted 40% of the Hawaii population. The majority were well educated, bi-lingual and integrated in Hawaiian society but more importantly several hundred recruited into the army as translators were essential for the war effort and proved their loyalty by making Japanese military secretes accessible to the US military and proving heroism in combat. This documentary is a case study of the advantage of diversity and uses well researched archival material to support the merits of integration.            

 The Receptionist, Jenny Lu, Taiwan, 2016

As a character driven feature The Receptionist depicts the struggle of the college graduate Tina trying to survive in London while supporting her family in Taiwan and her unemployed boyfriend. She shares this fate with other abused women presented in the film. Desperate for money she accepts a job that turns out to be work in a message parlor and is confronted with a life style totally alien to her and is pressured to become involved.  As an isolated first generation female Asian immigrant who is poor and has no social support Tina has few if any options. This small scale first feature by Jenny Lu is superbly lensed and scripted conveying realism devoid of melodramatics, yet offers the viewer a perspective on the oppression faced by impoverished immigrants hidden from sight.  Jenny Lu received the award for emerging director.

Gook, Justin Chon, USA, 2017

The festival’s opening film’s story is equally persuasive though embedded in the Los Angeles race riots of 1992. It takes a documentary approach to portraying an episode in the life of two Korean-American brothers Eli and Daniel who run a shoe store inherited from their father and a young African-American girl Kamilla who they take care of because she feels at home helping them. The story evolves against audible TV commentaries describing the riot’s development and the emerging looting of stores. When Kamilla’s father learns that she helps selling shoes he decides with his friends to rob the store. In the confusion following the robbery Kamilla is killed in an accidental shooting.  Gook conveys that behind the riot’s violence and the overt conflict between Koreans and Afro Americans were two communities with more similarities than differences in spite of the tension expressed in jokes or the label ‘Gook’ for Koreans.  There was mutual affection between Kamilla and the American Korean brothers and the accidental shooting of the young girls had an emotional impact on all concerned. Justin Chon avoids exaggerations in telling the story and overreaching by his non-professional actors and succeeds in conveying that even in the worst of all circumstances there is space for human interaction. He was able to produce his film on a shoe string budget, yet in spite of Gook’s acclaim at Sundance and other film festivals he reported at AAIFF 40 problems raising funds for his next film project.

Plastic China, Jiu-liang Wang, China, 2016

The filmmaker finished Beijing Besieged by Waste in 2011, a comprehensive documentary that received widespread attention in China and caused the government to force the municipality of Beijing to address the problem of waste disposal. Plastic China investigates an equally important issue, disposal of highly toxic plastic waste. China is the world’s largest importer of plastic waste generated by advanced industrial societies, specifically the United States. Waste imports grew tenfold and reached 45 million tons in 2016.  In 2011 already one million tons of waste plastic was shipped from the US to China, a figure that has grown higher given the growing costs of recycling in the US.  Whereas advanced technologies permit the US to process some plastic waste the bulk of has been shipped to China. 30 Chinese towns handled the imported plastic with devastating consequences for the environment including polluting the air and water, and impairing the health of the people processing it. Increased consumption in China adds to the amount that must be processed or recycled. The work is carried out by mainly small family based enterprises and requires few skills. Jiu-lang Wang investigates two families with children, which make a living processing the waste that surrounds them. In the 2017 documentary Machines by Rahul Jain, the surplus of unskilled labor in India forces people to accept poorly paying work to survive. The same holds for the plastic waste processing in China. Sorting out plastic waste requires few skills and as large numbers of people migrate from the countryside to cities where farming skills cannot be applied plastic processing can becomes one of few options for employment. Income is needed to survive but also to pay for the schooling of children; motivating their parents to engage in dirty labor and forcing the children to help. There are upsetting images in this documentary. The two families literally live in the plastic toxic trash which serves as a playground for the children, eating food found in the waste. They also get dead fish from a polluted creak and after frying they eat the fish. According to the film maker his documentation resulted in the closure of some processing facilities. Hopefully, this film will help to foster the consideration of toxic waste pollution which has not yet figured prominently as an issue in Chinese public discussion. It certainly will help to fully implement the policy of blocking the importation of illegal and low-quality waste articulated in 2013 which has reduced the import of such waste.


Claus Mueller,  New York Correspondent


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