Austin Asian American Film Festival Spans All Film Genres —
July 2, 2020

Austin Asian American Film Festival Spans All Film Genres

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

From historical drama to punk rock opera, along with exclusive events such as a K-Pop Opening Night Party and an Asian American Comedy Showcase, the 8th annual Austin Asian American Film Festival explored a world of stories spanning across all film genres.

“We’re excited to put on the festival again this year and bring a diverse collection of fantastic new films to Austin,” said Festival Programming Director Tim Tsai before the festival. “These films highlight the Asian and Asian American experience through the unique visions of dozens of talented cinematic storytellers from across the globe, and we can’t wait to share these powerful and entertaining stories with the Austin community.”

This year’s centerpiece presentation was, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor,” followed by a conversation with veteran filmmaker Arthur Dong. Winner of the Best Documentary Audience Award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, this moving documentary is about the life and legacy of Oscar winner Dr. Haing S. Ngor, one of the most well-known and outspoken survivors of the Cambodian genocide who was tragically murdered in a Los Angeles Chinatown alley at the age of 55.

Additional films include: “The Chinese Mayor,” winner of a special Sundance jury award for “unprecedented access”; indie dramedy, “The Purple Onion,” with star and co-writer Edwin Li in attendance; coming-of-age romantic comedy, “Seoul Searching,” with lead stars Jessika Van and Justin Chon in attendance; “Top Spin,” with filmmakers Sara Newens and Mina Son in attendance; “La Salada,” winner of the Films in Progress Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival; “Placebo,” jury award winner at the EBS International Documentary Festival; and Ali Ahmadzade’s surrealist feature, “Atomic Heart.”

Special events included a K-pop themed opening night party, a VIP Comedy Night featuring local Asian American comedians and headliner Edwin Li; a Filmmakers Brunch and Badgeholder & Sponsors Social; and a Closing Night party.

Yvonne Lim Wilson (Asian interview with Arthur Dong, Director and Writer, “The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor”

Asian Austin (AA): Why is it important for people to learn about Cambodia?

Arthur Dong (AD): I’m guilty of the same of many Americans who saw “The Killing Fields” in 1984 and thought I know all there is about Cambodia, happy ending, story done, let’s move on. It was [Dr. Ngor’s] quest to get the story out there and let people know that it’s not over. It’s a reflection of forgotten responsibilities.

AA: What was one thing you were surprised to find working on this film?

AD: The most striking component of the story that I felt compelled to bring out was the love story between Dr. Ngor and his wife. She inspired him to go on, to live and have a purpose. It’s a beautiful love story between him and [his wife] Huoy, but on a political level it’s love story between him and Cambodia; it goes hand in hand.

AA: What were some of challenges in researching this documentary?

AD: To visualize the story. I chose to tell the story as told by Dr. Ngor. The idea I had was to pretend that he was my Uncle sitting by the fireside, and he would tell his life story. The challenge I had was to visualize this narrative which I pulled from his 500 page book. I used animated scenes and it was very liberating to me as a filmmaker. I told my animators, ‘Take us out of this world – let’s ride in the clouds for this.’ The exhilaration and challenge was finding visual material for the film.

AA: What would you like people to learn about Dr. Ngor as a person and survivor?

AD: Here’s a doctor who became a social worker in America, an actor – the only Asian male who ever got an Oscar – and he chose to serve the community. The money he made in subsequent acting roles all went into his activism work to open orphanages, schools, rescue camps, to give aid. He lived in a regular apartment in Chinatown. He could have had a more luxurious space, but he dedicated his life and career to helping his wife and country.

Interview with Matt Szymanowski, Director and Co-writer; Edwin Li, Lead Actor and Co-writer, “The Purple Onion”

Asian Austin (AA): What made you decide to make this film now?

Matt Szymanowski (MS): Ed and I met while I was working nights at the Punchline comedy club in San Francisco nearly five years ago. Seeing so much great comedy at work I wanted to see the process of a comedian more closely. I began to follow Ed to his comedy shows around town. I was trying to naively witness the alchemy between the life of an entertainer and what they created. Fiction seemed a better approach for this.

AA: How does The Purple Onion explore the process of comedy and the divide between a comic’s everyday self versus his onstage comic persona?

MS: The film is like a quiet biography of someone who has not yet made their mark as an entertainer, someone still honing their craft. I wanted to show how this guy’s life fuels his specific brand of comedy where his seemingly regular experiences are projected in his comedy as something much greater.
Edwin Li (EL): Johnny is an unsuccessful dishwasher, but on stage, he is the center of attention. But then the show ends and the next morning I go back to work. Johnny goes through this same process – he gets frustrated and feels like his life has no meaning but then all the emotions are funneled back into his comedy and the cycle continues.

AA: Was it important to you to have the film be funny as well?

EL: It was very important Johnny be funny. But not in the sense that he got a laugh by saying a quick one-liner, more in that his actions were absurd and honest to his character.

MS: While the film is about a comedian, it’s not really a comedy. The comedy comes from a more unexpected place. Amidst this guy’s dreary life there’s this constant lightness that skews everything. I’m more concerned with showing real human behavior, however odd and unexpected it can seem.

AA: What do you hope people will get from the film?

MS: I want to show how impactful people can be on each other lives, that there are often great forces at work, whether it’s a social connection, filial connection or simply a fated and less clear connection – people need people. The film is a brief moment in a comedian’s life who is greatly affected by the arrival of a mysterious woman – it’s the process of this odd couple attempting to understand each other. And we feel strongly that this is not only a unique Asian American film unlike any we’ve ever seen, but that it also stands as a uniquely American indie film – it’s an ode to unsung comedians and artists working hard on their craft everywhere.

Interview with Archana Phadke, Producer/ Editor/ Associate Director/ Screenplay, “Placebo”

Asian Austin (AA): “Placebo” follows four medical students over the course of the year to show the pressures and challenges they undergo in pursuing their degree. Can you tell me more?

Archana Phadke (AP): “Placebo” is a very personal film. The filmmaker Abhay Kumar’s brother met with an accident, an act of self-violence that almost made him lose his right hand. As the editor of the film, it was almost voyeuristic, peeping into the lives of those young students – knowing their fears, their aspirations, their thought process, stroke by stroke painting a larger portrait of this environment.

AA: The students are practicing in New Delhi’s most prestigious and competitive medical college, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). What are some of the similarities and/or differences the students face compared to their U.S. counterparts?

AP: I believe that human nature is something that is pretty much the same everywhere. Abhay has had students from different parts of the world come and tell him, “This is my story.”

AA: Why was it important for you to tell this story now?

AP: It has changed my own life not just as someone involved in making the film but as someone who can swatch it as an audience and experience everything it has to say. The experience has made me speak out. We are constantly under the threats and pressures of our own expectations and the expectations of others. Very few come out and do what they want to do or say what they want to say. I hope the film becomes a tool to begin conversations.

For more Q&A with the filmmakers, visit