Vancouver Asian Film Festival
Serving up a Tasty Pan-Asian smorgasbord
November 6 – 9, 2008
Now in its twelfth year, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival has established itself as a vehicle for promoting and showcasing films by Asian filmmakers from Canada, the US and Asia. Founded in 1997 by Barbara K. Lee, this year the Festival has expanded its vision and scope, bringing aboard new Executive Director Don Montgomery, who is also the Executive Director of the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society—presenter of the Asian Heritage Month Festival in Metro Vancouver called “explorASIAN”, to take on this new challenge.
If Vancouver can be characterized as a bustling cultural kitchen, then Montgomery and his team are poised to serve up a tasty Asian-themed smorgasbord—with over 40 films spread over four days. While the films are grounded in a common heritage, they are varied in theme and approach, highlighting the disparate nature of the Asian experience. Taking the gastronomic analogy one step further, then the selection of films on offer vary from bite-sized appetizers to full-course meals, some salty, some sweet, and some in-between.
Canadian Nikkei filmmakers are represented at this year’s Festival by a quartet of BC filmmakers who present four very different films. The longest, Testuro Shigematsu’s Yellow Fellas, clocks in at an hour and a quarter, while Jeff Chiba Stearn’s Yellow Sticky Notes comes in at a mere six minutes. The other two films are Memoirs of the Last Samurai’s Geisha, produced by sisters Suzi Nitta Petersen and Michele Nitta, and Machine and Wishbone, by Randall Okita.
For more information, or to download a programme guide, visit www.vaff.org.
Machine with Wishbone
At a tidy six minutes long, Randall Okita’s Machine with Wishbone is a gorgeous, minimalist treat for the eyes and ears. Eschewing language or narrative, the film is labelled experimental, but don’t let that turn you off. This is no clumsily-made high school film project; instead, it’s a tightly constructed piece that keeps the viewer captivated from start to finish.
While much of the credit can go to Randall Okita, who wrote, directed and produced the film, Machine with Wishbone owes a great deal to go to the stars of the film—a series of delicate machines created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology artist in residence Arthur Ganson. The machines have names like Machine With Oil, Madeline’s Fragile Machine, Thinking Chair, Machine with Artichoke Petal and of course, Machine with Wishbone.
As Okita explains, “The film includes a lot of what they call ‘kinetic sculpture’, these wonderful art pieces that move and evoke character and emotion. We shot these pieces in mechanical sets on turntables to create a little world for them to exist in. The art was mostly created by renowned artist Arthur Ganson, and one of the first pieces (a mechanical bed that shows up in the first and last scenes) was built by Alan Storey, another renowned artist who lives here in Vancouver.”
One of the pleasures of watching the film is the dawning realization that the entire film is shot live, without the aid of animation or special effects. It is a testament to the beguiling nature of the machines that the film has sometime been programmed as an animated piece at festivals.
Ganson has been quoted as saying that the machines are about his love for solving problems and coming up with solutions. He also believes that computer technology can detract from art, even as it is helping create it. Okita captures the essence of Ganson’s philosophy in the movie, providing a stage for his machines to work their real-world magic. While the machines in the Terminator films are out to destroy mankind, these ones belong to a kinder, gentler world. They move because they can, their cogs and wheels spinning for the sake of spinning, without the need to impact the world or make any grand statements.
Says Okita, “The film and machines have a lot to say about emotional and communicative aspects of technology, which is great when you consider that I worked with Arthur back and forth for months on the project, and I shipped part of his life’s work here and shot a film with it, but I’ve actually never met him in person.”
Machine with Wishbone has been shown at numerous Festivals and has picked up best experimental film awards at the Yorkton, Winnipeg and Brooklyn festivals.
Memoirs of the Last Samurai’s Geisha
Michele Nitta and Suzi Nitta Petersen are your basic Steveston-raised sansei sisters. Like most sansei, they grew up immersed in mainstream western culture—listening to popular music, going to movies, etc. Suzi is an aspiring actor and Michele, while involved in the film industry, prefers to work behind the scenes. The two have spent many years working as background performers, with hundreds of film, commercials and television shoots between them.
Still waiting for her first big role, Suzi is developing experience by working in commercials and student and independent films, acting in local theatre productions, and taking acting classes. She has also been a member of two sketch comedy groups—Lick the Wax Tadpole and Stir Fried Crazy.
Several years ago, the sisters were working on the big-budget feature Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer as extras in the Japanese wedding scene. They wore authentic silk kimonos and were amused that more than a few people on the set assumed that all young women in kimonos were geishas. When she heard the story, local writer Liz Nunoda was inspired to write the script for Memoirs of the Last Samurai’s Geisha with Suzi in mind for the lead character. The sisters decided to produce the film and enter it in the 4th Annual Mighty Asian Moviemaking Marathon (MAMM), an initiative of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival that helps develop aspiring filmmakers.
As co-producers, the sisters hand-picked the cast and crew from friends within the film industry to form their team “Band of Buddhas” to compete in MAMM. From their experience on film sets, they knew the value of working with people who are both professional and personable, traits that would come in handy as the second day of shooting stretched to 18 hours.
In keeping with the budget, two more Nitta sisters and a family friend handled the catering, while their mom served as wardrobe assistant. The cast included Vancouver actor Zen Shane Lim who has a recurring principal role as Teddy Yukimura in the ABC Family mini-series Samurai Girl. Chad Band, serving as Director/Director of Photography/Editor filled his car with equipment to shoot over two hot weekends in August. They filmed inside Suzi’s home in Richmond and exterior shots were done close by at the Steveston Buddhist Temple.
The resulting film, a sly and gentle poke at the stereotype of the kimono-clad Asian woman, went on to win third place in MAMM, earning it a screening at this year’s Vancouver Asian Film Festival.
Asked if the success of Memoirs of the Last Samurai’s Geisha provided impetus to create more films, Suzi and Michele agreed that it did, saying, “We do feel inspired to produce more short films. We will take on the challenge if there is a really good idea or script that we’re both passionate about. We would love to work again with as many members of our Band of Buddhas filmmaking team as possible. Chad Band and the rest of the cast and crew really epitomized the team motto ‘Happy to be here! Easy to work with!’ They made it all possible and made the work of being on set a lot of fun.”
Yellow Sticky Notes
Animator Jeff Chiba Stearns first came to wide notice as the creator of What Are You Anyways?, a short, humorous film released in 2005 that looks at growing up mixed-race in the small “white-bred” city of Kelowna, British Columbia, where, growing up, he was often asked the question that makes up the film’s title.
The film brought Stearns many accolades, both for the film’s treatment of the subject matter and its classical animated style. It also changed his life in many ways, sending him on a whirlwind tour of film festivals, where he picked up numerous awards, and bringing invitations to speak at conferences and symposiums.
Stearns’ next film, Yellow Sticky Notes, is a direct response to the attention and suddenly jam-packed schedule that he faced. As he says, “I never really could have imagined the success I would have after making What Are You Anyways? All of a sudden I became the ‘go to guy’ if press or media wanted to talk about multiethnic identity. The only problem was, I wasn’t prepared for it. For three years following the release of WAYA? I was being asked to conduct countless interviews, lectures, and talks on Hapa issues and identity. The creation of Yellow Sticky Notes was a way for me to really release a total creative wave and get back to animating. I was able to enter a zone of complete animation meditation where I animated through a total stream of consciousness. What better way to self reflect than by animating on the same yellow sticky notes that made me ignore the world for the last nine years of my life. Sticky note ‘To do’ lists were constantly running my life especially after switching focus from being a filmmaker to becoming a Hapa ambassador.”
Yellow Sticky Notes proves that What Are You Anyways? was no fluke. It has met with similar success on the film circuit and picked up a number of awards. The film itself is at once a clever reflection of the filmmaker’s life over the past nine years, and a doodle-filled meditation on the creative process itself. And where What Are You Anyways? tackled a serious issue (albeit in a lighthearted way), Yellow Sticky Notes makes no attempt to be anything other than it is—an return to pure animation after the distractions of the past few years.
Despite the added pressure that came with success, Stearns is quick to acknowledge the many positives that arose from the experience. “One of the greatest things that came from the success of What Are You Anyways? was my becoming more involved with the Japanese Canadian community. Since the film dealt with my experiences growing up mixed, many Japanese Canadians could relate to the film in one way or another. Either their kids were Hapa, they were Hapa, or they knew many Hapas. I have been fortunate to have been able to speak at many JC functions, events, and conferences across Canada over the last few years and meet many prominent and inspiring Japanese Canadians. I am now even serving on the NAJC Endowment Fund Committee.”