Exploring the lives of LGBTQ Asian Americans

“Chosen" profiles five Korean American political candidates during their 2020 campaigns.

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, which showcases films from the Asian diaspora, will present their program both live and virtually from November 3-13. 

Among the LGBTQ offerings this year is Joseph Juhn’s engaging feature documentary, “Chosen,” which profiles five Korean American political candidates during their 2020 campaigns. A live Q&A with the director is scheduled for November 4 at 9:00 pm.

Openly gay Congressional candidate David Kim gets the bulk of the film’s screen time, and his story is the most interesting. The son of a Pastor (and Pastor’s wife), he was encouraged to go to law school and be successful. He was popular in school, and he hints that his overachievement was a way to gain acceptance from his parents and others because of his shame about being gay. As “Chosen” shows, David’s parents send hurtful messages when they learn about David’s boyfriend. 

But Kim’s personal life is only briefly addressed. The focus of the documentary is on his political campaign in California. He is seen as “too progressive” — the word “socialist” is thrown around throughout all five case studies — which may harm his chances at getting elected. Moreover, he has trouble connecting in his Koreatown district because he is a first time Democratic candidate trying to unseat a (Latino) incumbent from his own party. Kim’s grassroots efforts are admirable, however, and his genuine investment in bringing about change on social justice issues makes it impossible not to root for him — especially as the race tightens. 

“Chosen” features four other Korean American candidates, including New Jersey’s Andy Kim during his reelection campaign, Orange County Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim, and Marilyn Strickland, a biracial Tacoma, WA representative. 

Among the many festival shorts programs available online is, “Together, We Rise: LGBTQ+ Shorts,” featuring a half dozen films. (One title, “Veils” from Japan, was not available for preview).

“Beast,” has Rani (Meghana Murthy) psyching herself up — or possibly out — of a Bharatanatyam dance audition. She has anxiety when she is asked about her pronouns. At the salon where she works, there are concerns about her mustache. But in her head Rani tries to be “agile, graceful, and expressive,” which is what will bring her success. “Beast” includes some magical realist moments as Rani envisions a way to be herself and reconcile her identity. 

“Beast” stars Meghana Murthy as Rani.

“Unity Mosque” is the sole documentary in this program. In Toronto, El-Farouk Khaki and his husband Troy Jackson founded the Unity Mosque to provide a space for LGBTQ Muslims as well as anyone else who wants to attend. The mosque has a gay Imam and allows women to have roles denied to them in traditional mosques — as when one female member, Urvah Kahn, is asked to lead the call to prayer. Both Kahn and other members talk about the importance of the mosque, and their stories are empowering. One gay man, Shawn Ahmed, found solace there when he was in an abusive relationship and his partner wanted to out him to his family. “Unity Mosque” shows the ways these Muslims are practicing their religion and their sexuality. 

“Coming Out with the Help of a Time Machine” is the only comic entry in this program. Sid (out actor Karan Soni, who also plays gay in “People We Hate at the Wedding” out later this month) is preparing to come out to his parents, but he is afraid of how they will react. So, with the help of a time machine, he can practice what to say to ensure things go smoothly. Even if the plot is pure gimmick, Soni delivers a fantastic speech that expresses his feelings thoughtfully. This short is charming, and one of several films that considers issues of dating, marriage and approval and hiding that many queer Asians face when it comes to their families.

“Luv, Me” has Tiffany (Quyne Mariah Vu) putting a dating profile on an app for her roommate, Thanh (co-director Yen Dinh) against her wishes. Tiffany does not understand why Thanh is uninterested in a relationship, but Thanh points out that Tiffany has had a string of bad experiences, so how can she be an authority? “Luv Me” is a sincere film about asexuality.

“Firecracker” has Annie (Lydia Li) who is not out to her mother living with Sam (Faye Nightingale). That situation drives a wedge between the women as their relationship is getting serious. How the couple navigates this complication could bring them closer together — or tear them apart. 

A few other LGBTQ shorts will screen in other shorts programs available for streaming. The terrific short “Like Father, Like…” has Gita (Arya Desai) worried when her father, Ramesh (Ismail Bashey), catches her kissing her classmate Lisa (Cristina Spruell). His response sheds new light on the expectations of children and parents, and, like “Firecracker,” exposes the complications of hiding who you are.

In the “PAAFF Picks” shorts program, “Eyes and Horns” offers an impressively rendered gender-bending animated fable, but the highlight in this program is “Duet.” This lovely drama, filmed in black and white, has a young married music teacher, Ruen (Zhang Mingyi) reconnecting with a former colleague, Sun Rai (Gao Lipei). They discuss their lives and the freedom they have (or don’t) and end up performing a duet together at a concert. Watching their hands work the piano, they express and experience the feelings they once had for each other. The simple short is elegantly made and acted and it speaks volumes just through the women’s glances — and their music. 

For tickets and more information, visit https://paaff.org/.