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TFT hosts 2nd Asian and Pacific Islander Film Night featuring alumni productions

Asian and Pacific Islander filmmakers gathered for a celebration of cinema May 31 at the James Bridges Theater. The annual event spotlighted diverse stories from API alumni through film. (Aidan Sun/Daily Bruin)

By Sydney Gaw

June 1, 2024 4:47 p.m.

This post was updated June 7 at 7:44 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to sexual assault.

A lively celebration of culture and human connection brought cinema lovers together Friday.

The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Asian and Pacific Islander Film Night made its first annual return to the James Bridges Theater on Friday evening. The program featured five short films created by API alumni, followed by a Q&A panel with the filmmakers. Merry May Ma, the event’s co-founder and lead coordinator, said she and her fellow coordinators planned API Film Night in hopes of highlighting alumni filmmakers and recognizing the API community’s progress in the film industry.

“Everybody has a diverse story to tell,” said Ma, who is a MFA documentary production and directing student. “What I really hope to show is how they (the filmmakers) convert their visions into films. I feel like each of them is so talented, and I want to champion their voices and their resilience as an API filmmaker.”

Once attendees had packed the theater, Ma kicked off the night by giving a brief introduction of the event and expressing gratitude toward attendees and supporters. With the help of Sophie Changhui Shi and Zheng Nate Nie, the other co-founders of the event who served as alumni consultants for this year’s production, Ma said planning for the event began nearly four months in advance. She then introduced the opening short, “Pomegranates,” written and directed by alumnus Ham Tran, who used a rewindable Bolex and shot the short’s opening sequence on a single strip of film over 10 times, Ma said.

[Related: This year’s Actor’s Showcase will spotlight talents of 19 senior theatre students]

The short took viewers on an emotional journey of loss and remembrance as the narrator relives his memories with his grandfather, who died of cancer. The script originated from a poem that Tran wrote in 1997, a decade after the passing of his grandfather, Ma shared. In a similar exploration of these themes, MFA film directing graduate Parida Tantiwasadakran’s short film, “Young People, Old People & Nothing in Between,” poignantly conveyed the story of a young girl grappling with her grandmother’s gradual memory loss. During the Q&A panel, Tantiwasadakran said the film was based on a woman who raised her but could no longer recognize Tantiwasadakran after developing dementia.

“It was really harrowing to just look at her and try to get her to remember all these wonderful things she did for me and not being able to get through to her,” Tantiwasadakran said. “It’s (the film) like a love letter to her really. It’s less about the tragedy of it.”

Viewers were then introduced to “Calypso,” a speculative horror film written and directed by MFA film directing graduate Marnie Salvani. The short portrayed a series of haunting events that occur when a woman provides shelter to a barefoot, bruised young woman she finds on the side of the road. In a gripping sequence of seemingly supernatural mishaps and flashes through reality, “Calypso” captured the nightmarish trauma of sexual assault. Salvani said she felt compelled to write the film after hearing a friend’s story about sexual assault and wanting to support women and sexual assault survivors.

Following the speculative horror film was the short “Esperanza,” which juxtaposed the struggles of an Indian American cab driver aspiring to bring his family to America with those of a queer couple attempting to cross the border to Canada without documentation. Attending on behalf of director Shruti Parekh, the film’s producer Laura Scarano said Parekh wanted to voice people’s concerns about the impending threat of restrictive legislation on same-sex marriages following the 2016 national election. Parekh also wanted to expose the harsh reality of a system that pits immigrants against each other, Scarano said.

The final film of the night offered audience members some comedic relief by depicting one man’s emotional attachment to his deceased pet fish. Taking a turn from the night’s previous films, director Ziyao Liu chose to explore loss and grief in a story about a man who attempts to clone his goldfish Daisy but finds that the new fish isn’t like his beloved Daisy at all. “Daisy is Gone” highlights the value of human-animal relationships and the importance of emotional connection in processing grief, Liu said. In an anecdote about the film’s production process, Liu said she had bought two goldfish to use in the film – one for her to take care of and the other for actor Stanley Wong to watch over as a way to build a bond with the fish in real life.

“The first day of the shooting, the morning of, before we even got to set, Stanley texted me saying that his fish died,” Liu said. “It was very unfortunate, but I think that somehow helped him to basically fit what the character is doing.”

Moderator Irene Soriano ended the Q&A session by asking the filmmakers about their upcoming projects. Tantiwasadakran said she is currently writing her first feature film, a comedy mystery that can be described as a teenage “Knives Out,” while Scarano said she, Shi and Liu are working together on a feature film about a mother and a daughter embarking on a road trip from Los Angeles to Seattle.

[Related: ‘Taking the helm’: Night of Cultura controls narrative, reflects diverse community]

After the screening and panel, viewers were invited to eat and chat with the alumni filmmakers at the event’s reception. Considering the immense amount of work that goes into a film’s production process, Ma said she and the other filmmakers value the opportunity to share their work with an audience and interact with other members of the community. It is even more exciting for current students or aspiring filmmakers to connect with TFT alumni, which is vital to growing the API filmmaking community, Ma said. While she hopes UCLA and the TFT department will continue to support events like API Film Night, she said it is also important that the API community continues to inspire and support other API filmmakers.

“What’s really rewarding is seeing a full house and people (with) bright smiles on their face,” Ma said. “We can empower ourselves so we can see our faces, our stories and hearts be represented, so more API filmmakers – emerging and upcoming – will feel inspired to get their works into the theaters and festivals. I hope this could continue to inspire people.”

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