In this current cinematic era, dominated by instantaneous iPhone streaming and Snapchat filters that turn you into Thor, a black-and-white silent picture produced nearly 100 years ago seems like a hard sell. So how does one get modern audiences engaged? For Rob Buscher, director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF), it's all about context — reminding us that just because a film is old that doesn't mean it's dated.
The Dragon Painter, the 1919 feature in question, serves as the opening-night screening for this year's festival. It stars Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa, who's not well-known today despite being a major screen icon of the early 20th century. One of Hollywood's very first male sex symbols, Hayakawa plays a tortured artist hidden away in Japan's Hanake Mountains who's haunted by a mystical woman he met in another life. Said to be one of the actor's favorite performances, it's a rare nuanced role for Hayakawa, whose better-known characters saw him typecast into sinister, misogynistic molds that reflected a pejorative view of Asian immigrants at that time.
"Hayakawa was dealing with the exact same issues we deal with today," says Buscher, who is Japanese-American. "In some ways that's disheartening, but at the same time it's incredibly relatable."
This idea of historical relevance from an Asian point of view is a big one for this year's festival, now in its 10th year. There's a strong focus, via both screenings and panel discussions, on actors of Asian heritage who made an impact in the earliest days of Hollywood, such as Chinese-American leading lady Anna May Wong and the mononym'd Indian actor Sabu, known for his adventurous roles in The Jungle Book and The Thief of Bagdad.
Additionally, "because it's our anniversary, we're also looking at other anniversaries in history," says Buscher. It's been 75 years since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass internment of Japanese during the World War II era. This year's lineup digs deep into this somber period of American history, via documentaries like And Then They Came For Us (1:10 p.m., Nov. 11, Institute of Contemporary Art), narrated by actor and activist George Takei; and Relocation, Arkansas (3:30 p.m., Nov. 11, Lightbox Film Center), which explores the aftermath of internment in the Deep South.
But there is also ample room in this year's PAAFF program for moviegoers to explore other, often lighter, topics, especially the universal themes of food, education, family and music. "You don't gotta be Asian to come to the Asian American Film Festival," says Buscher. "Ultimately, we've put together really compelling content that all people are going to be able to engage with."
Thu., Nov. 9: The opening-night screening of The Dragon Painter will be accompanied by a live original score from California-based Japanese-American musician Goh Nakamura commissioned especially for the Festival. The film and performance is followed by a welcome reception with refreshments. 7 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10
Fri., Nov. 10: The Korean-Canadian comedy Stand Up Man follows an aspiring comic (Daniel Jun) who's unexpectedly saddled with some major personal baggage, in the form of his family's struggling restaurant and the unannounced arrival of a troublemaking cousin (Daegun Daniel Lee) who dreams of being a K-Pop star. Director Aram Collier will be in attendance. 6:45 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10
Sat., Nov. 11: Way before blowing up as the creative force behind the Fast & Furious and Star Trek franchises, director Justin Lin released Better Luck Tomorrow, an early-aughts indie hit that launched the careers of actors like Sung Kang, Perry Shen, and John Cho. It introduces a group of high-achieving Asian-American students who capitalize on model minority stereotypes to hide their escalating addiction to crime. 9:30 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10
Sun., Nov. 12: A major influence on romantic cinematic depictions of the ancient Middle East (think Prince of Persia or Disney's Aladdin), 1940's Thief of Bagdad is a stunning Technicolor adventure starring Sabu as a scrappy street urchin who helps a disgraced sultan (John Justin) win back his throne from an evil interloper (Conrad Veidt). 2 p.m,, Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10
Mon., Nov. 13: In addition to films, this year's Festival features a number of live stage productions tackling relevant topics. InterAct Theatre hosts a reading of Traitor, a new work from director and playwright Steven de Castro that tells the story of David Fagen, an African-American soldier who deserted the U.S. Army to join the opposition in the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. 7 p.m., InterAct Theatre Company, 302 S. Hicks St., $8-$10
Tue., Nov. 14: Kentucky chef Edward Lee's documentary Fermented takes a deep look the powerful, some might say magical process of preservation and transformation that has been employed by cooks since the dawn of humanity. This screening, held after-hours at the Reading Terminal Market, will be accompanied by tastes of relevant products, like kombucha and Indian breads made with fermented dough. 7 p.m., Reading Terminal Market, 51 N. 12th St., free
Wed., Nov. 15: Keye Luke, the Chinese-born character actor known for supporting roles in the Charlie Chan, Green Hornet and Gremlins franchises, gets a star turn in the 1940 murder mystery Phantom of Chinatown, the only installment of the Mr. Wong film-noir franchise to actually feature an Asian in the lead role. (The detective was previously depicted by Boris Karloff.) 6:30 p.m., Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St., free
Thu., Nov. 16: Why do so many Japanese people love American Country-Western music? That's the question at the heart of documentarian James Payne's Far Western, which highlights a group of passionate Japanese musicians in love with that honky-tonk sound. 7:45 p.m., Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St., free
Fri., Nov. 17: Documentary Shu-De! takes audiences along on a breathtaking tour of Central Asia alongside African-American beatbox artist Shodekeh, who travels to Tuva, in southern Siberia, to make music with that republic's vaunted throat singers. 6:15 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., $10
Sat., Nov. 18: 1Love Movement is a Philadelphia-based non-profit that fights to protect locally based Cambodian refugees from deportation. Director Sahra V. Nguyen's Deported highlights 1Love's work in both Philly and Phnom Penh; Nguyen will be in attendance at this screening. 2:15 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., $10
Nov 19: The short documentary Paris, Ni Hao introduces audiences to a fascinating class of young Chinese immigrants to France, navigating their experiences straddling two supremely different cultures — a personal entrée into the complexities of the Chinese diasporas. Director Zixuan Deng will be in attendance. 4:45 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., $10