“The System Is Broken”

The other night, in the company of Sonya Chung (author of LONG FOR THIS WORLD), my boyfriend Dustin and I went to see the opening feature presentation at the Asian American International Film Festival. There was a moderately full crowd in the theater, but I wondered where “everyone” was, as the Taiwanese delegation, celebrating the presence of many Taiwanese films in the US for the first time, finished their speeches.

I also felt I knew where “everyone” was. For some time now, major American cultural venues privilege the experiences of international writers, artists and film-makers over Americans of color in their quest for being diverse, and so a magazine or a festival or a news outlet looking for diversity will more often place an Asian or an African immigrant, 1st generation, before placing an Asian American or African American in the same spot. People of color, people of different ethnic backgrounds, are treated unconsciously, in the US, as minor regionalists of a kind, even perhaps “half-regionalists”, and so we find that Multiculturalism has oddly given us a world in which our cultural work is treated as being slightly less important than a regionalist—we end up belonging to a region that doesn’t quite exist in people’s minds, instead of to the world. I’ve addressed some of this over at the Asian American Literary Review’s forum in the last year, but what I admired in the festival’s name—Asian American International Film Festival—was that it openly embraced in both name and sensibility the way we are both of this place and not at the same time. Having said that, the crowd that was there was an exciting mix of people all the same—and there was a lot of support in the audience by way of young African American filmmakers and students, and people of mixed Asian and African heritage.

Meanwhile, the main event: Red’s film, Manila Skies, was a wrenching portrait of one man’s despair but also of a system within the Philipines that privileges 20% of the population at the expense of 80% of the population. It was hard not to see modern-day Manila as the future of America, as the parallels were constant, especially at a time when the gap between the richest and poorest here has become even worse than it was under Bush. The film begins with a young boy and his mom making baskets to sell for money for groceries, and the boy keeps asking her about when can he go to school? We then cut to the father, walking up a long road, who finds a briefcase full of money and jewelry, and stained in fresh blood. We cut back to the father joining his family, and with a haunted expression, watch as he promises to send the boy to school in Manila, but to promise in return that he won’t come back here. And we cut to the city, where a much older man, presumably the boy, is sad to learn that his father is ill, and unable to leave his job to return without being fired. He decides to apply for a job “overseas”, but we learn quickly this is a scam operation, run by local gangs who promise this help, take fees for it and then do nothing.

The film was inspired by the story of a Manila man who hijacked a plane to try to “go home” and lept to his death, having used a parachute he’d made himself. I won’t ruin the beauty of the ending for you, but it’s a bravura take on income inequality’s persistence in Manila, and I hope it will serve as a kind of warning to audiences everywhere as to the future, if governments continue to give in to corporations and policies that privilege the economy over human dignity and the environment continue unchecked.

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4 thoughts on ““The System Is Broken”

  1. Karissa says:

    That was beautifully recapped and also some important thoughts. I really enjoyed the film and have struggled to articulate all the aspects of it that spoke to me.

  2. Sonya says:

    Indeed – point well-taken about regionalists and half-regionalists. Always a challenge when curating/programming and sustaining the thing financially. (Good news for the mission: the closing night film, “The People I’ve Slept With,” by Asian American Quentin Lee, was a big hit and is getting a mainstream theatrical release.)

    And then there’s the transnational phenomenon, increasingly common among filmmakers, which I find interesting — Asian-borns who were educated in the US and now live and work here (So Yong Kim, Gina Kim) and Asian Americans who are finding audiences (and sometimes funding) in Asia (Michael Kang, Grace Lee). The world is flat?

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