Has Asian American cinematic representation really reached unprecedented heights, as almost all recent film coverage on the subject claims? In the past two years, critics’ polls, New York Times features, and Golden Globes scandals have marked the newfound success of Asian American indie filmmakers like Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), and Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs), many of whom have upcoming studio projects. What’s been represented in this conversation so far, though, is a fairly limited range of the vibrant work that Asian American filmmakers have been making for decades.
To understand our contemporary moment, we must look back at the 1980s and ’90s, when cultural media organizations and film festivals that supported Asian American filmmakers robustly programmed a diversity of aesthetic approaches. The history of Asian American cinema and production actually stretches back even further, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, a period that scholars like Denise Khor have been uncovering. But the standard narrative starts with Wayne Wang’s seminal Chan Is Missing (1982) and proceeds directly to Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) and the globalized commercial success of Jon M. Chu’s “boba liberal” romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018), riding the flow of finance without umbrage and leaving little space for creators who question and actively push against industrial boxes and algorithmic frames. The ’90s were indeed a breakthrough decade for directors like Wang, who also made The Joy Luck Club (1993); Oscar winner Ang Lee; and Lin, whose first feature is the piercing, underseen cult classic Shopping for Fangs (1997), codirected by transgressive queer filmmaker Quentin Lee. Aside from recognizing the success of “bad boy” Gregg Araki, however, the art-house establishment has tended to neglect stories about the experimental and truly independent filmmaking practices thriving during this decade.
When we launched the first edition of our streaming series My Sight Is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film & Video in May 2020, it was intended to challenge the assumption that the history of film and its makers follows a linear path. Our working title for the series was “Underground Asian American Film,” but we quickly realized that this term was a bit of a misnomer. Though all of these films and videos were produced independently, many of them were broadcast on public TV and received theatrical releases. They traveled internationally on the film-festival circuit, and distributors brought the filmmakers on tour. Even the works that draw more from the avant-garde tradition were shown at Asian American film festivals as well as in museum contexts. Nevertheless, everything in the lineup is unjustly obscure and underappreciated today, begging the question of why these films are erased not only in the Asian American media space but also in the more general experimental and independent cinema space.
This question takes us straight into the knotted heart of the politics of representation. Even though “Asian American” as a term can be used to unify and to assert solidarity, it has also been used to exclude. In light of this, why are so many Asian American organizations that once served as a home for marginalized filmmakers now taking a much more restrictive view of what constitutes Asian American filmmaking? And why have the past contributions of longtime Asian American institutions and film organizations gone unmentioned in current considerations of Asian American filmmaking? One of the few film festivals that still highlights a wide range of cinematic expression, including masterpieces from Asia and more experimental fare alongside Asian American independent films, is the San Diego Asian Film Festival, led by artistic director Brian Hu. Many other organizations, in their drive to give a platform to the diversity of Asian American identity, have unfortunately left behind a constellatory understanding of experiencing cinema in favor of an exclusive focus on topical urgency.
In the continued effort to amplify the voices of the uncompromisingly independent Asian American filmmakers working during the 1990s, and to approach history from a clear-eyed rather than revisionist perspective, we’ve gathered five of the original series’s filmmakers. Roddy Bogawa (Some Divine Wind), one of the “bad boys” of Asian American film (the others are Araki and Jon Moritsugu), makes self-reflexive films that take inspiration from the DIY and anti-hegemonic ethos of punk music. Rea Tajiri’s first feature, Strawberry Fields, shares the “class of ’97” debut moniker with Shopping for Fangs, and her experimental video practice and excavations of Japanese American incarceration inform her films’ multiple timelines. Tran T. Kim-Trang (The Blindness Series) spent more than a decade working on a series of short videos that display an acuity for matching form to content, and whose styles range from the observational to the haptic experimental. Collaborative documentary pioneer Spencer Nakasako (Kelly Loves Tony) makes nonfiction features that are filmed by high school students he taught in afterschool workshops in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. And Shu Lea Cheang (Fresh Kill) has created multimonitor installations and anticorporate sci-fi screeds that draw from her feminist, techno-genre interests.
To us, representation is not a tally of positive or negative images, but an interactive, cultural technique through which we shape collective imagination. Diversity exists not only in the form of these films, their content, and the identities and experiences of their makers. It’s also reflected in the geographically dispersed, bicoastal nature of where these filmmakers lived and worked, the various communities of fellow artists and filmmakers they were in contact with, and the different institutions that championed their careers. Together we discussed the logistics of making moving images, important turning points in their practices, and the need to excavate a history that might now be able to make more flexible the calcifying edges of our cinematic imagination.
Abby Sun: During the nineties, who were you in community with? What sorts of structures and support did you find necessary?
Rea Tajiri: Asian CineVision [ACV], a media arts organization in New York City that had a festival, was the place where I got to meet Shu Lea and Roddy. When I went, it was actually to the video festival that Peter Chow was running. It was an offshoot of the main festival. They used a theater on Canal Street, between Chrystie and Bowery, called the Rosemary.
Spencer Nakasako: ACV had the first Asian American film festival in the country. Danny Yung, who’s now an artist in Hong Kong, was a real force behind that, along with Daryl Chin and Wayne Wang. Wayne was hanging out with those guys back then. I was a kid, but what I was impressed by was that they really had big dreams. They were actually talking about feature films. We should mention [the photographer] Corky Lee, who recently passed away, hanging around back then. He was responsible for the documentation of that period. The other person to not forget about in this circle is Christine Choy [whose 1987 film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, codirected by Renee Tajima-Peña, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary].
Roddy Bogawa: ACV had money to bring filmmakers to the festival. I was able to go to New York for the first time in ’87 with a fifteen-minute short film. The other thing they did was put together a film print tour. They would pay the filmmakers a little bit of money, package the movies, and send them around to all the media organizations. That was before Asian American film festivals sprouted in every city. Sometimes they would even bring filmmakers there. That was unusual, back in the day. I don’t think anybody else, including general film festivals, was sending 16 mm prints everywhere.
Tajiri: If there is a fantasy that we all worked together, that is false, though we did see and know each other. Aside from sharing a studio with Shu Lea, I would cross paths with her at various venues—Asian CineVision, DCTV. I bumped into her at the AFI Video Festival once when she was putting up the Tiananmen Square piece [Making News Making History (1989), a four-screen installation of Cheang’s surreptitiously captured footage of the protests, with some logistical help from Chen Kaige]. We would talk, and gradually we started hanging out. We came together at one point when we had some grant money and discussed bringing several other filmmakers in with us and renting a space together. As far as the word “community” goes, we knew each other, admired each other’s work, and felt each other as presences that, if needed, could be summoned. We sometimes covered for each other and sought each other out for feedback, equipment, or resources, or to compare notes on a given crew member, funder, gatekeeper. For instance, years later, I could call up Spencer in San Francisco and say, “I have a student. Can you give her advice?” Or I can text Shu Lea on Facebook and say, “These young curators here want to put us together in a retro ’80s/’90s screening series—will you do it? Or will you talk to us in a roundtable for Film Quarterly?” And she would do it.
Keisha N. Knight: What was being shown at the time? Was there a lot of experimental work?
Bogawa: ACV showed a lot of foreign films from Asia, which came through Peter Chow and then Norman Wang. When I came to New York in ’89 there were also all these other media organizations like Film/Video Arts and Millennium. Many of these places were started as community-based organizations, neighborhood places that would offer workshops and rent out 16 mm Bolex cameras for cheap. There were also some screening venues down in Tribeca, like the Collective for Living Cinema, as well as alternative spaces in the gallery scene. It seemed like there was a real groundswell of organizations.
For me, it was a romantic time. Climbing up the dizzying, rickety, crooked stairs to visit Asian CineVision at their loft in Chinatown felt nearly identical to climbing the stairs to Rafik to buy film editing supplies. What should also never be forgotten was the rise of a new generation of young film producers as well as adventurous curators and programmers. I would screen my films in ACV’s festival but also screen at Anthology Film Archives—so although all these organizations had their own identities, there was less of a fear of categories. The Asian American filmmakers who were screened in ACV and other Asian American film festivals reflected this as well—some were making narratives, others were making experimental works, and some were making documentaries that broke from more traditional forms. But there was a camaraderie that resulted from seeing each other in city after city, and many of us have stayed lifelong friends, often helping each other out when we can.
Right from the beginning there were a whole bunch of films from Asia, whether it was China, Thailand, Philippines, wherever. Though the films coming from Asia might not have been considered mainstream yet, they were still feature films. Most Asian Americans were still working in shorts or experimental documentary.
Shu Lea Cheang: Since Roddy talked about other independent spaces . . . in the ’80s and ’90s, I lived in the heart of the East Village, next to Millennium. I was doing my MA in cinema studies at NYU and worked with Ang Lee on his student film production. I was connected to Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and other American independent filmmakers like them. I felt much more connected to the downtown performance scene. I didn’t quite connect with the ACV screenings, perhaps because I didn’t have particularly Asian American themes that I was working on at the time. But of course it was another strain of the community, and because most of the Asian American filmmakers were either making experimental shorts or more activist documentary kind of work, it became an interesting mixture.
Bogawa: Looking back on all of our work, I think there wasn’t yet a language that codified talking about certain things, so people were trying out everything, including installations. But we were internalizing some kind of discourse around identity. When we were brought together, primarily by the festivals, a big percentage of the films were explicitly dealing with identity in different ways. We’ve come back around to the same themes thirty, forty years later: the current climate of anti-immigration, racial violence, and questioning who constitutes America is as explosive as it was in the nineties. The utopian notion of the melting pot has really disappeared. It might be important to look back at films and videos from that period because it is the moment of the germination of certain theoretical models of production and filmmaking that attempted to take this all on.
Knight: I’m thinking through what you said, Roddy, and I think all of your works also refuse this redemption story of identity, which smooths things over and makes them neat and clean.
Bogawa: At that moment everybody was interested in open-ended structures, and that was a move against “commercial cinema.” There was an impulse to not tie everything up and to explode it in some way. I know it sounds dated to say this, but I think there was a critical, oppositional practice emerging. Spencer’s videos were very different from documentary work I’d seen before, but totally punk rock too.
Tran T. Kim-Trang: A word from today that I would use would be intersectional. The work was about race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, as well as local and international relationships—all of those things. I have been based in Los Angeles, and the community here was pretty centered around Visual Communications [VC], so it was kind of comparable to ACV in New York. VC is the oldest Asian American community organization center. They also had a festival and taught people how to make films. When I was in graduate school, I was volunteering for them, helping with the festival, making work, showing work with them. After I graduated from my MFA program, that’s where I would go not only to see work but to try to make work before I got my teaching jobs. We were tied, as I’m sure you all were, to the equipment, so we were always looking for jobs that would get us the equipment.
Sun: Where did you work? Where did you get access to Steenbecks, film stock, or video cameras?
Tajiri: Roddy mentioned Film/Video Arts—that’s where I worked when I first came to New York. They had this policy where if you interned for them for this many hours, you could have this many hours of access. I would sit at the front desk (well, they had two desks), and Jim Jarmusch and his producer, Sara Driver, and all of these different independent or experimental filmmakers would walk in and rent a room or equipment. If I needed help editing, I’d just knock on the next door and ask for help. There were other programs, like DCTV. This was a moment where all these organizations were strategizing about buying the equipment, setting up access, and keeping it going. ACV did a little bit of that—I remember teaching a community editing class there. Later on, Shu Lea and a bunch of us got together and rented office space and tried to pool equipment and do that as well. Sometimes I would end up getting jobs because I’d have access, off-hours, to equipment.
Nakasako: Out in San Francisco, the organizations that actually had gear became centers. I met a ton of people by being a volunteer at the Bay Area Video Coalition [BAVC]. Back then, video was like the bastard cousin of film. If you worked in video, you were kind of a chump, but it didn’t matter; people would still come from all over the country to edit at BAVC, because it was one of the few places where you could edit video for two or three weeks at a nonprofit rate. I worked for Loni Ding [the veteran independent filmmaker] when she bought one of those RCA TK-76 cameras, which was, I think, $80,000 to $90,000 back then, for Bean Sprouts [a PBS docuseries produced by the Children’s Television Workshop]. People hung out around the Children’s Television Workshop even if they didn’t care about children’s programming, just to have access to the gear.
There was the filmmaking art community, and then there was the motherfucking community, if you know what I’m saying. What was interesting back then was the increased merging of those communities. Loni was firmly entrenched in Chinatown. Curtis Choy’s [production company] Chonk Moonhunter was in the I-Hotel, which was being torn up [an event documented in Choy’s The Fall of the I-Hotel (1983)]. It was hard to get away from the “community.” There’s a lot of stuff back then that I think I took for granted. And it’s not until you have some time to reflect that you realize that it was a crazy time—but at the time, it was just a time.
Tran: Ming [Yuen S. Ma, the media artist] and I went through grad school together, and we also tried to share an office and equipment. But another strategy for getting equipment was public access. We volunteered to help other people make public access programs, to see if we could just get into the studio. It was one of the worst and most hilarious experiences of my production life, but after having worked in public access I could call people up and ask them to take on this super strange experimental video art kind of programming, and it worked for a while.
Cheang: Since we are talking about the ’90s, I want to bring up one particular moment, which is when we went for feature filmmaking. I think it’s quite important for me and for Rea. With Ela Troyano, a Latina filmmaker, we shared this studio space on Broadway. There was a time when we all suddenly wanted to launch ourselves into making feature films. When I decided to make Fresh Kill, the biggest decision was comparing the prices of 16 mm and 35 mm film, and deciding to go with 35 mm. It was totally political, because no Asian woman was able to make a film in 35 mm, as far as I knew at the time. This is also when Rea was making Strawberry Fields. The leap to feature films was about visibility and distribution. Fresh Kill was conceived from Lower East Side stories and performers, and it came from the feeling that only a feature-length film could express and condense these experiences. The decision to make it in 35 mm was a bid for wider distribution, and also an attempt to stretch myself.
Sun: When we titled the series My Sight Is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film & Video, we did so because we wanted to destabilize the categorization of Asian American film, not concretize it. But we’re curious how this has played out for you in general. What do you think about your work being labeled “Asian American”?
Tran: In the beginning of my career, I gravitated toward Asian American centers, festivals, venues, and communities, but I don’t consider myself part of that scene anymore, except for these tangential relationships formed from past decades. These festivals are not friendly to experimental shorts anymore, and that’s been going on for a long time. I can only show in arts venues right now, and I’m making three-dimensional installations, because scale still matters, even if it’s not in terms of the jump up from 16 to 35 mm or the jump up from short to feature. And it matters more for women, because we’re slower to take up space and more time. A museum just bought my latest work because it’s big. I’m completely pulled out of the film world.
Bogawa: The art world’s very problematic too. I taught in the MFA program in a rather famous art school, and I saw it change radically over twelve years. Students were saying, I’m going to graduate and get a gallery and then sell all my paintings, and then I’m going to be rich.
Tajiri: A lot of people are also questioning the public dialogue around the term Asian American, with the current anti-Asian violence. Asian American creative culture and intellectual and critical thought are not that legible, so there is a constant misreading of our presence, the weight we carry, and our contributions. If we’re not just “foreigners,” who are we? What is our impact or mark or intellectual heritage, our gesture? In the art world, during that big “identity politics” moment of the early ’90s, there was a sense that our work could only be thought of within the Asian American realm. But the work has resonances beyond that, and perhaps the curatorial practices of the time were driven by narrow thinking. Is it that our work can only be seen and understood within that context, or can you break it apart? Conversely, one of the Asian American film festivals had trouble seeing my film Lordville as an Asian American film, because Asian American identity isn’t foregrounded in it, even though it’s actually about Asian American complicity in settler colonialism, and about my quest to trace the history of property I purchased back to the Indigenous presence on that land.
Tran: There appear to be polar opposites now. There are famous Asian American YouTubers and TikTokers—is that where experimentation happens? There’s also the resurgence of interest in Asian American narratives, with Crazy Rich Asians and all of the recent Oscar nominees [Minari, Nomadland]. But for me, I can’t aspire to that. Hopefully there’s still a lot of interest for Asian American works out there, but I don’t see where I belong.
Cheang: I was very happy to be included in the book New Queer Cinema, by B. Ruby Rich. At the same time, I decided to call my own work new sci-fi queer cinema. I call Fresh Kill a cybernoia film. I.K.U. is cyberpunk. And my last feature film, Fluidø, is sci-fi cypherpunk. This new feature I’m working on, I’m calling it sci-fi viral alt-reality cinema. You certainly want to get the genre correct first. Half of the film will be totally in 3D. I’m designing the set by the game engine Unity, creating avatars, rather than using motion capture with performers. It will follow my usual theme of attacking a big corporation—don’t be evil, that kind of thing. I am quite tormented by this new film. I realized that I will probably never make another big-budget film. Fresh Kill is probably my biggest-budget film ever. Fluidø was made in Berlin with crowdfunding that was not successful, but somehow a secret admirer suddenly just gave us the money to make the film. With every film, you are still lucky you are making a film.
Knight: That makes me wonder about everyone else’s upcoming projects. Could you all tell us about what you’re thinking about and/or working on?
Tajiri: I am finishing up a stalled project—a documentary about caring for my mother when she was sick. It looks at family, intimacy, aging, and communicating and connecting with someone who has dementia, entering her world. I also finished a multisite installation in 2018, Wataridori. I want to continue exploring work outside of linear chronologies, work that activates place and also deals with objects.
Bogawa: I’m in the final stages of a feature-length documentary on Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd, and I’m doing artist portraits for the art foundation HENI Talks. I’m also working on a music video for the band the Everyothers. I’ve got the rerelease of Some Divine Wind by Sentient.Art.Film going on, and then there’s a book from Kaya Press forthcoming—If Films Could Smell.
Tran: I’m editing a new video on the affective labor of teaching that includes my foray into abstract animation and writing poetry. I’m also expanding my media practice by researching and making unique projection screens.
Nakasako: I’m still trying to figure out my Act III!
Bogawa, Tajiri, Nakasako, and Cheang are featured in My Sight Is Lined with Visions, now playing on the Criterion Channel. A program of Tran’s films is currently in the works.
Top of page: Spencer Nakasako. Images courtesy of the filmmakers and Stephen Gong.