The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival will unspool Nov. 2-12 in area venues. This year’s program includes two LGBTQ+ films — a feature and a doc — as well as nine shorts. Here is a preview of what to watch.
“Peafowl” is the auspicious feature debut of writer/director Byun Sung-bin. This drama opens with trans dancer Myung (Choi Haejun) competing in a Waacking showdown to get the money she needs for surgery. After the contest, she receives a call that her father, from whom she has long been estranged, has died. Returning home, reluctantly, Myung is met with intolerance from some relatives, but Woo-gi (Kim Woo-kyum) asks Myung to stay and perform the memorial rite. If she does this, she can claim the inheritance Myung’s father left her. While Myung is uncomfortable being back home, she connects with her closeted gay cousin, Bo-suk (Ko Jae-hyun), accepting blame for his transgressions to protect him from shame and harm.
As Myung comes to reconcile the past — she makes a discovery about her family — she redoubles her efforts to live honestly. Byun Sung-bin eloquently presents themes of memory and healing as the character grapples with Myung’s father’s death, and a lovely moment has Myung in a bamboo forest, reciting a poem her father taught her. The rituals, dreams and signs that pepper the drama inform the characters, and the depiction of queer lives is thoughtful. As the film juxtaposes the Waacking contest and the memorial ceremony, “Peafowl” offers interesting parallels and insights into Korean culture.
“Coming Around” is a terrific documentary about Emna Abdelhedi, a Muslim woman whose queerness is a point of contention with her mother. In New York City, Emna leads coming out day sessions, has a coterie of queer Muslim friends, and appears in a play where she kisses another woman. But she is not able to live authentically in the presence of her mother, whom she visits in Columbia, MO. The “hiding” is causing Emna stress and depression. When Emna tries to address her sexuality — as when her mother goes to see the aforementioned play — she is either met with silence, or they agree to disagree. When Emna falls in love with Quinton, a man she meets on a dating app, she understands how meaningful it would be for her mother if she married him. However, this brings up feelings of imposter syndrome and living a different kind of double life. “Coming Around” sensitively addresses Emna’s and her mother’s attitudes and feelings, especially in a conversation late in the film where they talk openly and honestly. This is a very compelling documentary and Emna is a fascinating and inspiring subject.
The shorts program “Queer Dreams & Waking Life” features four films. “Know You Twice” has Paloma (Tadira Guevara-Prip) needing to find a way to stay in the country to avoid deportation. Her girlfriend, Claire (Zoe Cipres) could agree to marry her, but things may not be quite that simple. This short does not fully address all the points it raises, but it is engaging. “Somewhere All the Boys Are Birds” is a slight but sweet short about Benjie (Miko Tiu-Laurel), who admires the late actor, Jaime Reyes (Alfredo Reyes). Conjuring his idol on a rooftop, the two men talk, expressing their thoughts and feelings, which include romantic desire. “Shanghai Fish” depicts the relationship between Ping (Ping Tan) and Yan (Wang Yan), and their interactions with Yan’s grandfather (Xu Caigen). There are lovely scenes of the three men sharing a meal, or Ping and Yan being playful, showering together and kissing, but this bittersweet film feels a little obtuse. The enchanting short, “The Difference Between Us,” set in Philly, has Sufia (Samiha Ahmed) moving into an apartment and wondering about her roommate, who works nights and whom she never meets. She imagines this person who may just be the attractive cab driver (Iman Carter) she interacts with one day.
The program “Recognition, Liberation, Celebration” includes three shorts about trans lives. “Golden Voice” has Noy Sitha returning to Cambodia in 2019 after surviving the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. He reunites with other trans friends, his former unit leader in the women’s camp he spent time in, and others. Through observational footage, photographs and conversations, he talks about his past as well as the woman who became his wife and their adopted children, poignantly juxtaposing his life then and now. “Unnamed” is a very heartfelt and heartbreaking documentary portrait of Zeinab, an Iranian volleyball player who wants to transition to male, but her parents are against it. She would also not be able to play volleyball in the male leagues. Zeinab’s struggle is painful and palpable and eloquently presented. “The Alexander Ball” showcases the members of the House of Meanjin in Brisbane, Queensland. Mothered by Ella Ganza, the film eavesdrops on their rehearsals and family meetings, as well as the dressing room and Ball performance. The subjects are all ingratiating and the Ball is entertaining to watch, but it is the appreciation of trans women of color, who are “never celebrated for who we are” that gives “The Alexander Ball” its heart.
Two other shorts screening at the fest depict gender fluidity. “House of Enigma” is a documentary about Augus (aka Yu’ang Wang), a 20-year-old dancer in Northeast China, and Sebastian Olayo, a nonbinary performer, both of whom talk about challenging gender roles and expressing themselves as both male and female. The gorgeous animated short, “Aikāne,” is inspired by the Hawaiian term for “intimate friend of the same sex.” An injured warrior is rescued by an octopus who turns into a handsome young man. The two men form a partnership that helps defeat a ship that threatens their people and culture.
The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival runs Nov. 2-12. For more information, including tickets, schedule and venues, visit https://paaff.org/.