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TFT hosts inaugural Asian and Pacific Islander Film Night featuring alumni’s films

Asian and Pacific Islander alumni sit in a row on the James Bridges Theater stage, joined by Yiran Zhou over Zoom. The eight filmmakers presented short films at the inaugural API Film Night on Monday. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Victoria Munck

May 23, 2023 9:08 p.m.

A celebration of spirited culture powered the film reel in the James Bridges Theater on Monday.

Bruin cinema lovers flocked to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s inaugural Asian and Pacific Islander Film Night on Monday evening. The program screened eight short films from API alumni, followed by a Q&A panel with the featured filmmakers. The event was coordinated by MFA alumni Sophie Changhui Shi, Zheng Nathan Nie and Merry May Liangbo Ma, who selected their roster of shorts with the intention of highlighting the assortment of talents within their community, Nie said.

“We want people to have an emotional journey so that Asian cinema isn’t perceived as one narrow genre,” Nie said. “We want people to know that we can do comedy, we can do action, documentary, animation, everything.”

Once attendees greeted friends and filed into their seats, Shi kicked off the evening by revealing the story behind the event’s inception. While organizing a mixer for Chinese TFT students and alumni earlier in the year, she learned that many strove to present their projects on the university’s silver screen, prompting her to launch the project during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, she said. After Ma took time to thank the event’s supporters, Nie provided context for the upcoming slate of films, preparing the audience for what he described as complex, intersectional stories from across the world.

The screening opened with MFA directing graduate Myra Aquino’s thesis film “Beauty Queen.” In the panel that followed the program, Aquino explained that the short, which focused on a female Filipina commander’s journey through World War II, was based on a true story that she hoped to memorialize.

Following the suspenseful film, viewers were introduced to “The Way Home,” a drama from MFA directing alumnus Yiran Zhou. The short detailed two parallel stories of Chinese immigrants, one at the border and another on the New York streets.

(Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Myra Aquino, Sining Xiang and Hena Ashraf (left to right) smile during the API Film Night Q&A panel. Xiang's short film, "Foreign Uncle," starred his real family members. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Another emotional tale was brought to the big screen with its successor, “The Return.” The documentary from MFA film directing graduate Hena Ashraf conveyed her personal grief over the sudden loss of her father on a visit to India. During the event’s Q&A, Ashraf told panel moderator Irene Soriano that developing the short helped her better understand the hardship.

“I was going through a lot, and the only thing I knew to do was … make a film in order to help me cope with what’s happening,” Ashraf said. “Filmmaking really exists for me as a mode to understand myself and what I’m going through at the time.”

The solemn film was contrasted by the next short on the roster, MFA animation alumnus Jane Jingyu Zhang’s vibrant project “Pickled.” The theater filled with laughter as the short’s star, an animated pickled chili pepper, fulfilled its dreams of becoming a delectable dish after being stuck in a glass jar.

The fifth short of the screening, “Something Blue,” brought a juxtaposition of celebration and pain to the stage as it followed a young woman confronting her traumatic past while attending her cousin’s wedding. MFA directing alumnus Jinsui Song, who wrote and directed the drama, was met with flowers and applause after revealing that the evening marked the short’s premiere.

Next, audiences took to the open road with MFA film directing alumnus Chelsi Johnston’s project, “Driving.” The Hawaii-based short followed a teenager juggling her stressful family matters with an eventful nightlife of smoking and drinking. Johnston told Soriano that she created the film to depict Hawaii as more than a cheerful vacation destination. Afterward, MFA film and television alumnus Emory Chao Johnson showcased their documentary, “To Write from Memory.” Johnson said the short, which dealt with themes of bodily autonomy and strained family dynamics, was derived from their own curiosities on the matter.

“I always had this curiosity in how to portray the trans ordinary, and I was also, at the same time, exposed to a lot of conversations in the documentary space about extractive documentary filmmaking, so I had all these questions about power relations,” Johnson said.

The eighth and final showing of the night was MFA film production and directing alumnus Sining Xiang’s “Foreign Uncle.” The short, which was based on Xiang’s own experience, highlighted the bond between his American boyfriend and 7-year-old nephew during a visit to China. Audiences laughed along with Xiang’s lively family members, who were played by his real-life relatives.

Following the screening and panel, viewers cleared the theater to snack and chat with the spotlighted alumni filmmakers at the event’s reception. Ma said she was thrilled to hear feedback from audience members who spent the evening laughing and crying along with the showcase’s variety of shorts. Shi felt satisfied that her team’s effort manifested in a night of success and hopes it will allow room for expansion, she said.

“We really, really, really hope this could be the beginning of a tradition that we can continue year after year,” Shi said. “This year is just one night, and maybe, in the future, it can be multiple nights in May.”

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2024-2025 Arts editor. She was previously an assistant Arts editor on the theater | film | television beat. Munck is a rising third-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2024-2025 Arts editor. She was previously an assistant Arts editor on the theater | film | television beat. Munck is a rising third-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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