REVIEW: Selections From the 17th Annual DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon
Editor’s Note: This film festival review includes spoilers.
The 17th Annual DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon returned to Eugene and was mostly held virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike last year, the festival’s opening and closing nights—April 1 and April 10 were held in-person at the Broadway Metro while the rest of the festival was online.
This one means a lot to me. I first reported on the DisOrient Film Festival back in 2019, alongside long-lost editor MG Belka. We attended the festival every day and really got to know each other during this time and, in hindsight, set things up for what would later become DSM.
In 2020, I attended the opening night of the festival and planned to publish an article with the Daily Emerald whom I was working for at the time as a film and television reporter. However, those plans evaporated due to the then-not-so-understood pandemic. The following year, well, I was busy covering The Uprising following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Well, it’s 2022, and being the film fanatic that I am, I was both ready and available to watch as many as possible, obsessively log what films were available into my Letterboxd diary, and write about how I felt about them.
As of press time, the film festival’s awards were given out. Two films below won awards including “Omoiyari” for Best Feature Documentary and “Dear Thalia” won the Award for Social Relevance. Jon Osaki, who made two films reviewed below, won the Award for Activism in Film.
On Mar. 12, the festival held a virtual preview screening of both “Dear Thalia,” a feature-length documentary and “Hawaiian Soul,” a narrative short film.
Rex Moribe, dir.
The first feature-length film of the festival was Rex Moribe’s heart-wrenching 56-minute documentary “Dear Thalia” about a mother and father raising their three-year-old daughter on the streets o, a neighborhood in Honolulu, Hawai’i.
In the beginning of the film, a message from the father of three-year old Thalia sets the viewer up for heartbreak.
“Dear Thalia. Hi Bobolu. Baby girl, you’re my whole world. I know you’re three-years-old and people might think you don’t understand that but I know when I look in your eyes, when I look in your eyes, and I tell you that, and your face lights up in this big smile, I know you understand. And that’s been our special moments. Just ours. The moments that nobody else saw. The moments that nobody else felt what I felt. The strength you gave me with that beautiful smile. I love you so much.”
Thalia, just three years old, is so acclimated to living on the streets with her family that, although she may not know much about the world, she knows what a sweep is and when to pack all of her stuff up.
There are several scenes that pop out. There’s one that shows Tracy speaking in front of the city council—and their, uh, white mayor—regarding sweeps and the need for more housing. Another where Tabitha watches “The Sand Island Story,” by Windward Video Production, about the eviction of over 100 houseless Hawai’ians who had cleaned up the island following its occupation and use by the United States as a Japanese internment camp. One of the more humorous ones was a “MTV Cribs”-style segment titled “HIP Cribs” when Tracy gives a tour of their makeshift home. HIP, Tracy explained, stands for “Homeless in Paradise.”
The film, a raw look at what it is like to be a family living on the streets with its off-setting lighthearted moments, is one that I will surely remember for years to come.
‘Āina Paikai, dir.
The preview screening’s second film was a 20-minute short narrative about George Helm, the Aloha ʻāina activist and musician from Kalamaʻula, Molokaʻi, as he seeks the support of the local elders, the kupuna, from Maui in order to aid in the fight on nearby Kaho’olawe.
In 1976, Helm and eight others occupied Kaho’ʻolawe in an effort to prevent the U.S. government from further using the land as a bombing range.
“Hawaiian Soul” is a beautiful film, and one full of music. And it’s the music itself that conveys Helm’s message. Initially looked down upon, Helm was able to gain the kupunas attention through his music — a theme continued later in the film as he performs in front of American soldiers in a bar.
Selections from the Festival
Shorts Program: Standing Tall, Standing Together
“Not Your Model Minority”
Jon Osaki, dir.
Two short films featured in this years’ festival were 30-minute documentaries by Jon Osaki — a DisOrient veteran. A previous film of his, “Alternative Facts: The Lies of Executive Order 9066” really resonated with me when I saw it at the festival in 2019, so I was really excited to dive into these.
“Not Your Model Minority,” the first of the two films as part of the “Standing Tall, Standing Together” program, delved into the history, and current implications, of the so-called “model minority myth” that stereotypes Asians and Asian Americans as superior–whether in intelligence, work ethic, or willingness to assimilate into Western culture–compared to other immigrating minorities. This myth’s existence is immediately made known during the first scene; an ABC News broadcast where the narrator says “forget huddled masses, this wave of immigrants is highly educated and successful.”
With the immediate addressing of the myth, the film features interviews with Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia; Ellen Wu, Ph.D, from the University of Indiana; Cynthia Choi with Stop AAPI Hate; and Michael Ishii with TSURU For Solidarity as they not only break down the myth’s beginnings, how the “model minority” is often deemed an existential threat during crises, and how Asian and Asian American communities have since been pitted against the Black community.
According to Wu, the myth was originally developed by liberals as a means for Asian immigrants to assimilate, to overcome their racism by being patriotic and working for their country. Many, Wu said, immigrated here and already had lots of education and money — two “American ideals” that only perpetuated the myth. It then became a conservative ideal that was encouraged by President Ronald Reagan when he entered office.
Despite being the “model minority,” the documentary reminds viewers that Asians and Asian Americans are often considered an “existential threat” to American labor. This couldn’t have been demonstrated more strongly than when the Japanese, and anyone who looked like them, became targets during the early-1980s oil crisis which resulted in the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American autoworker, on June 19, 1982.
Mistaken as being Japanese, Chin was viciously beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white men—Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz—who were each sentenced to only “a $3,000 fine, $780 in course costs, and three years’ probation.”
Then, in 1991, Latasha Harlins, a young Black girl, was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American store owner, in Los Angeles. A year later, Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers. The acquittals of three of the four involved officers in addition to the light sentence for Du greatly impacted Korean and Black relations. The film notes that some of the worst damage inflicted during the Los Angeles riots was in the city’s Koreatown neighborhood.
But despite the tumultuous past, things are on the mend. “Something is changing,” Wu said in the film when remarking about the solidarity they saw during an Indianapolis, Indiana protest she attended following the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021.
That theme–cautious optimism growing from the years and years of racist discrimination faced by Asian Americans–runs through many of the films at this year’s DisOrient festival. The filmmakers’ address the past, warts and all, but want the viewer to understand that there is reason to be hopeful, even if it’s not always obvious.
Shorts Program: Standing Tall, Standing Together
Jon Osaki, dir.
Osaki’s second half-hour documentary, “Reparations,” is that of an argument for reparations and highlights the historical struggle for equality that Black Americans have endured since the abolishment of slavery.
Through interviews with politicians, activists, journalists, and academics of all races, Osaki’s film demonstrates the need for reparations and what they would mean for equality. This is because, as Kuramoto explained, “everybody benefits when the Black community makes progress.”
The film makes a strong argument, too. Shamann Walton, of the SF Board of Supervisors,said that there has never been a true opportunity for Black people in this country to generate wealth and pass it along to their descendants. Breaking this down, Shakirah Simley of the SF Office of Racial Equity mentions that after the Civil War, those that had been enslaved and fought for their own liberation were making money off of the lands they were forced to upkeep.
This was due to William T. Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 which stipulated that “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground,” however, this was later reversed by Jefferson Davis’ Amnesty Act, resulting in the land being returned to white farmers.
Then, in 1944, the G.I. Bill was signed into law, “giving billions of dollars to white people returning from the war”, effectively creating the middle-class, Simley said. As Kuramoto further noted, Black veterans who applied were almost always declined and “racial redlining” became a norm.
Continuing into the 1980’s, there was a considerable amount of backlash in regards to reparations that continued up until Sept. 11, 2001 when, according to the film, things got worse. At that time, as the country was reeling from the attack, anything short of complete patriotism was negatively looked upon.
But, similar to Osaki’s previous film, the director ends his film on a hopeful note. Things are changing and much of it has happened following the murder of George Floyd including the 2021 introduction of H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.
As Kuramoto says towards the end of the film, “times have changed again.”
Shorts Program: LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories
Quincy Woo, dir.
The second set of short films that I watched was the festivals’ LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories program. The series began with Quincy Woo’s 2021 film “Midnight Rhythms.” Running around 16 minutes, the film is a balanced mix of poetry, music, dance, tied together with a narrative.
The film follows the protagonist and narrator (Riku Toyohara) around downtown Portland, Oregon with his lover. Poetic narration is layered on top of the scenes as the lovers meet in front of Wellspent Market and go about their night. But there’s an apprehension in the air, even though the two seem to be having fun as they wander under neon lights. The two go to a themed lounge, the protagonist gets uncomfortable, and the two, in essence, go their own way once the lover leaves.
Later that night, or early the next morning, the protagonist wakes up to the aftermath of a rowdy party: people passed out on the couches and floor, empty cups everywhere. He gets up, walks to a pair of doors, opens them, and steps forward into a bright, lively dance party. Dancing, his partner and him break away from each other and he is swooped-up by a manifestation of Death.
They dance, the protagonist is embraced and the scene immediately cuts to another in a dark church. They’re dead. The lover lays him to rest, sobs, and rushes out. But it’s a dream. The protagonist is sitting in one of the father pews watching.
Once they wake up, they once again travel through downtown Portland and see their lover standing in front of Wellspent Market and they kiss.
Shorts Program: LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories
Dan Yaj, dir.
The second film, “Rice Street” by director Dan Yaj, is a 25-minute-long twist-and-turn-filled film that came off a bit too hyperactive for its runtime.
The film starts with Ger (Chufue Yang) as they put on a bra, heels, and a wig. Looking at the mirror while they applied lipstick, they’re interrupted by a knock at the door. Answering the door, they hurriedly remove the makeup and wig, open the door a smidgen, and look around it so as not to show the bra to their father (ZongKhang Yang).
Ger leaves the house to hangout with a friend near a lake. They talk about jumping in and whether the other will save them and jokingly say “I love you” to each other. Predictably, Ger returns home and is confronted by their father who had gone into their room and found everything they had worn earlier. He chucks a framed photo of him and his child at the door, smashing it to pieces, and kicks them out of the home. Naturally, as I probably would, Ger goes to his friend’s house and ends up, through asking questions about whether his formerly married friend was loved by his ex, professing his love for him. Once again, he’s kicked out.
With nowhere else to go, Ger returns to the lake, takes his jacket, shoes, and socks off and—despite audible protests from one of two passersby, jumps in. The man who yelled, asking Ger what he was doing, was interrupted by the other man he was with and was told to, essentially, just let him die. After all, that’s what he came there and jumped in to do.
At this point, the film took another direction that was unexpected to say the least. The two men—one of them who acts like a “tough guy” and his younger, more straight-laced brother—walk down an alley and argue about what had just transpired. All of a sudden, some gangbangers pull up in an orange and black sedan, roll down the driver’s side window, and shoot. The “tougher” brother is executed at point-blank range on the ground while the other is allowed to run away.
This, by itself, was enough to make me question if I was watching the same film. Then the brother retaliates by murdering the opposing gang members — but spares a young woman because she’s pregnant.
As with every time we meet a new character, or pair of them, the subject of the film shifts. Now it’s the young pregnant woman. As she prepares to eat boiled cabbage and pork—a traditional meal eaten around New Years for good luck—her husband walks in. She asks if he had spoken with “first wife” about what they had talked about the day prior — implying that she’s not his only wife. The “first wife” as she is referred to joins her at the dinner table and an argument ensues, eventually culminating with “you stole my husband.” As we soon find out, that wasn’t the case. The husband raped her, and she got pregnant, forcing her into this life that she doesn’t want to live.
She steps out and sits on the stairs in front of her door while Ger’s father and the gang members’ younger brother cross paths. Asked if he’s seen Ger, he looks at the picture and walks away. She also hasn’t seen him but asks why he’s asking. They talk about her father and she says “he’s in a place, I can’t reach” meaning that he’s since deceased — an intimation as to what happened to Ger.
In the end, I ended this film thinking that it would have been ideal as a feature-length film that interwove all of the plot lines instead of introducing and closing them one after another. With that being said, the subject of the film—coming out to an unaccepting friends and family—is a devastatingly important one that is sometimes overlooked by the Hollywood-esque ideal that coming out isn’t a big deal.
Shorts Program: LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories
“One Lift At a Time”
Flo Singer and Ben Dame, dirs.
The next film was a short nine minute documentary titled “One Lift At a Time” by directors Flo Singer and Ben Dame.
Released this year, the film follows Ever Reiko, also known as @transweightlifter on Instagram, as ze attempts to hit the 160kg mark which is the mark needed to qualify “as a 61-160.” As ze notes, the qualifying marks are split into binary, something that needs to change.
Being a trans weightlifter not only means having to perform against an antiquated system but also involves roadblocks to even get to that point. Reiko, for example, is zir own coach because a professional coach is “inaccessible” and would not only have to focus on Reiko but also everyone else and other “situations that have not occurred yet.”
“I’m allowed to be successful” and “I’m allowed to be better than cis-men” is what Reiko says. The end of the film says that ze ended up qualifying for the American Open Series and University Nationals and ze wishes to qualify for the American Open finals and then medal at the national level. If ze does, Reiko will be the first trans plus person on hormones to do so.
Shorts Program: LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories
Grace Zhang, dir.
Directed by Grace Zhang, “Dog Story” was the second-to-last film of the program and it follows Jo (Atlas Bederson), an identifiably Queer individual as they play soccer. They are knocked to the ground on the field by Eli (Anthony Petrillo), a white bullyish jock.
Lucy (Shannon Lee), an Asian girl with recently dyed “bottle blonde” hair drives up in her car to pick Jo up. Eli wants to speak to her and then the two drive to the local 7-11 convenience store. There, as Jo fills-up a Slurpee, they listen-in while an older white man (Tommy) sexually harasses the cashier (Allie Jorge).
The two go to Jo’s home and play music while applying makeup to themselves, eventually getting lost in dance as everything around them turns to pitch black.
The film cuts to the two walking on a beach with interspersed flashbacks to a time before with images of a dog playing aimlessly in-between.
Shorts Program: LGBTQ+ Montage of Stories
Al Evangelista, dir.
Al Evangelista’s four minute short film “Dragon Fruit” was the last of the program and it’s mixed media, glitchy, yet synth-y score is a representation of two individuals’—Dipti Ghosh and Shirley Liu—experiences as South Asian Queer individuals.
Visually, the film features an excerpt from the U.S. government’s 1905 Scientific Explorations of the Philippine Islands as the background. “Glitched-out,” the background highlights certain lines of text while a person’s interpretive dance is overlaid on top while the viewer listens to both person’s story of finding community.
The film’s extremely short runtime and mixed-media aesthetic is one that invites the viewer to repeatedly view it, think, and try to identify something new, or something that resonates with them, each time.
“Before They Take Us Away”
Antonia Grace Glenn, dir.
Documentaries about the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II were—until now—selectively about those within the concentration camps. This year, director Antonia Grace Glenn released her roughly 90 minute film, “Before They Take Us Away,” that twists the common narrative and, instead, focuses on the approximately 5,000 men, women, and children who “voluntarily” evacuated from the west coast rather than be forcibly removed under Executive Order 9066.
Exemplifying the, frankly, irresponsible absence of this exodus from the history books is when Evelyn Glenn, a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies/Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the director’s mother, says that she had only recently learned of the exodus.
Glenn was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to concentration camps throughout Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.
But, as the documentary shows, there was the option of voluntarily leaving the west coast, where it became now illegal for Japanese Americans to live. To do so, three criteria had to be met: that you had a place to go, that you wouldn’t need the government’s assistance, and that you could manage to do this within 72 hours.
Many had to make the decision to either be forcibly sent to a concentration camp or leave. One volunteer evacuee, Gloria Nomura who went from California to Wisconsin, said that her father’s decision to evacuate was made under nothing but uncertainty — for all he knew, they would be exterminated like what was happening in Nazi Germany at the exact same time.
Of course, many state leaders were displeased by the prospect of Japanese-Americans migrating to their cities. In Idaho, Governor Chase Clark referred to them as “rats.” Wyoming wasn’t any better–their governor, Nels Smith, said “if you bring any Japs into my state they will be hanging from every tree.”
Contradicting that sentiment, though, was Ralph Carr, the governor of Colorado. Carr, who said “they are as loyal to American institutions as you and I,” welcomed Japanese-American evacuees and disagreed with interning American citizens, effectively ruining his political career.
If Carr’s sentiment wasn’t enough to change the American’s people’s opinions of Japanese-Americans, it would be the media’s reporting around Keetley Agricultural Colony where the town of Keetley, Utah was used as a “voluntary camp” for those from the west. There, Japanese-Americans established a 150 acre farm and, through their work, gained local allies. When the war ended, roughly a third stayed. The rest settled elsewhere, mostly returning to California.
Interestingly, the documentary shows that the imagination of the “other” person’s life—in a concentration camp or having evacuated—was, in some ways, idealized. Some thought that life inside the camp was more secure in that there wasn’t a worry about housing, food, or discrimination. Others thought that life on the outside afforded more freedom, but with a price to pay as not only were basic human needs not guaranteed but discrimination was prevalent. In the end, neither side thought that they had it better than the other.
This until now-untold story of those that evacuated is one that should, and I believe will, get more attention in the coming years and Antonia Grace Glenn’s film is going to be at the forefront of telling it.
“A Tale of Three Chinatowns”
Lisa Mao and Penny Lee, dirs.
Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited San Francisco—especially Chinatown—with both friends and family. Several of my life’s “firsts” occurred during those trips. One visit, I ate roasted duck for the very first time. Duck is now one of my favorite meals. During another visit with a friend of mine, our moms shielded us young boys from what we came to find out was gay porn being sold table-side on the sidewalk. Well, I ended up being Queer anyway… so that didn’t do much.
Considering my great appreciation for San Francisco’s Chinatown, which happens to be the nation’s first, I was anxious to watch Lisa Mao and Penny Lee’s 2021 documentary “A Tale of Three Chinatowns” — and I wasn’t disappointed.
With interviews of residents and former residents, their documentary follows the “cultural touchstone” that is a Chinatown in three different U.S. cities: Boston, Washington D.C., and Chicago.
In Boston’s Chinatown, there used to be a sense of community. According to Paul Lee, who lived there, many lived in three-story tenement buildings, otherwise known as row houses. Living in such a place offered benefits such as being able to walk out the door and instantly having someone to play with.
The city’s Chinatown started to struggle when, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the nearby “Combat Zone”—a city-imposed district of X-rated theaters and stripclubs—affected the community. As a result, many didn’t leave Chinatown’s borders.
Talking about the current state of Boston’s Chinatown, the documentary introduces Andrew Leong, an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts, who describes how it has undergone “Disney-fication.”
“Disney-fication,” Leong describes, is the “destruction of the traditional living community.” In the context of Boston’s Chinatown, there is an absence of actual Chinese or Asian businesses. However, all of the American businesses have to include Chinese writing in their signage. The point of this is to bring in customers and tourists, not full-time residents of a would-be community.
The second Chinatown featured in the documentary is Washington, D.C.’s. Originally located in the south side of the city, the Chinatown was later relocated several blocks north in the 1920’s for the building of the Federal Triangle.
In the 1960’s, Chinatown had about 3,000 residents and many of the businesses within it catered to both local residents and those traveling to D.C. for business. Two former residents—Eddie Moy and Wesley Chin—both described the community as close-knit and said how easy it was to get along with people. By the mid-1970’s, D.C.’s Chinatown was, once again, “edited” to make way for the convention center, leaving many to never see their friends and neighbors ever again.
Currently, much like that in Boston, the city’s Chinatown has seen “Disney-fication.” When a large shopping district called Gallery Place was introduced, big-name brands—even Hooters—started to pop-up in the area. Although many of the buildings have Chinese architectural features or written characters on their signage, there is an absence of a full-time community there.
The third, and last, Chinatown featured in the documentary is as Leong says, an exception. Unlike others, Chicago’s is thriving and only getting bigger. In the 1990’s, there were about 12,000 Chinese residents. A decade later, there were 18,000 and, as of 2010, there are over 25,000! This is due, largely, to the residents of Chinatown organizing and getting into local politics. In doing so, the residents have defended their community from becoming like so many others.
“A Tale of Three Chinatowns” is one of the most fascinating films I have seen come out of the DisOrient festival. Not only does it make me want to go back to San Francisco’s Chinatown, but it makes me want to visit others and do whatever I can to help preserve what’s left of these cultural sanctuaries.
“The Race Epidemic”
Tony Shyu, dir.
The next film I watched was director Tony Shyu’s hour-long documentary “The Race Epidemic” which featured interviews with some of California’s most prominent Asian American politicians as they discuss systemic racism both pre- and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This was, honestly, one of the hardest films to watch. The slow, drawn-out pacing of the documentary forces the viewer to confront the violence and discrimination faced by Asian Americans, because it doesn’t zip from one topic to another. Despite this, Shyu’s documentary is a greatly informative one that challenges the viewer to consider that Asian Americans are facing two pandemics simultaneously — COVID-19 and discrimination.
Regarding the intersection, Dr. Erika Lee, the Director of the Immigration Research Center, said that “migrants are often likened to parasites, an invasive population, a plague, an invisible threat like pathogens” and are stigmatized as carriers of diseases.
The documentary also brought up how America’s workforce has often felt threatened by Asian immigrants, again referring to the murder of Vincent Chin, and how American auto unions held “Trash a Toyota” parties. Judy Chu, a Californian congresswoman, brought up how people in her district were virtually distraught and thought their whole world was coming to an end when the local Safeway grocery store was replaced with a 99 Ranch Market — personally, I’d be psyched to have a 99 Ranch Market nearby!
Towards the end of the documentary, Chu said that since Obama, a Black man, was elected president, that the country is ready for an Asian American one.
“For Your Convenience”
Aronjonel Villaflor, dir.
Similar to Tony Shyu’s film, director Aronjonel Villaflor’s 18 minute short “For Your Convenience” really exemplified the discrimination that the Asian and Asian American community has been dealing with during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The film follows Alana (Bella Javier), a young Asian American woman going about her life working at a convenience store. While on the job, and even at a local restaurant getting food, the only thing shown on T.V. news broadcasts are attacks on Asian and Asian American community members.
Her experience that day reaches a climax when a white, maskless woman (Lauren Olson) talking on the phone refuses to put on a mask while shopping in the store. The film gets fun with angles and we get to see what happens from the shopper’s camera point-of-view once she starts recording like any “Karen” is expected to do. Of course, the cops are called and it doesn’t appear that any showed up. Meanwhile, the building manager (Kehende Blue) grows frustrated with the angry shopper who is now outside yelling belligerently at skateboarding kids.
“Karen,” as I am going to refer to her, reenters the store, gets physically violent and knocks over wine bottles before throwing other store merchandise onto the floor as she’s forced out by a bat-wielding Alana. A perfect book-ender, the film ends just as it began — as she’s mopping-up the wine.
“Where Are You Really From?”
Will Kim, dir.
One of the most aesthetically beautiful of the films I watched was Will Kim’s “Where Are You Really From?.” At just over two minutes, I thought the short film was both whimsical and psychedelic yet heavy with emotion as the viewer listens to derogatory terms and phrases used towards Asians and Asian Americans in the background of colorful water-color animation.
At its end, the colors go from light and colorful to dark, overpowering, and distorted. Then black and the screen says “We don’t want to cancel anyone. We want to cancel systemic racism and stereotypes.”
“Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi”
Justin Taylor Smith and Kaoru Ishibashi (Kishi Bashi), dirs.
The final film that I watched from this year’s festival was “Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi.” Directed by Justin Taylor Smith and Kaoru Ishibashi—who performs under the name Kishi Bashi—the film was one that I, personally, planned to be my last for the festival since I wouldn’t be able to attend the final in-person screening of “Dealing with Dad.”
Admittedly, I’m a little biased when it comes to this one. I’m a longtime fan of both his work with of Montreal in the early 2010s and his solo career beginning with 2012’s 151a. In Nov. 2017, I saw him perform with Tall Tall Trees—a longtime collaborator—at Eugene’s very own WOW Hall in the midst of his travels for Omoiyari.
That being said, when 2019’s Omoiyari and subsequent “song film” were announced, I was pumped. I love the album and it was especially exciting to see the film on the program list for DisOrient.
The film opens with Kishi Bashi playing his violin in the middle of a field of straw that was once the location of the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center,one of the Japanese concentration camps in Wyoming. Narrating, he perfectly encapsulates what the viewer is about to witness by asking “What does it mean to be American? How do we know we belong? Can we look a little different? Can we sing a colorful song?”
One thing I really enjoyed about this film was that it’s truly a combination of Japanese internment history and also acts as a making-of documentary for the musical album.
The impetus of the film was the rise in anti-Asian and Asian American rhetoric and violence in 2016 during the Trump Campaign. Beginning to feel fearful, he said that he needed to create music that embodies the lesson that we don’t repeat the past and left Athens to do so.
He traveled around the country playing at the sites of former internment camps such as Hope Mountain in Wyoming, Bainbridge Island in Washington, and Jerome in Arkansas. He also performed with Tall Tall Trees and the Ho Etsu Taiko Drum Ensemble in Chicago.
He also spoke to those that lived in the internment camps. That coupled with performing in these historically traumatizing locations were what Kishi Bashi said he needed to try to fully feel as though he was one of the incarcerated.
His music, though, is what takes center stage in the film.
There’s archival footage as 151a’s “It All Began with a Burst” plays and then a live performance of “Manchester,” my favorite song of his. Then there’s more recent footage of the recording of Omoiyarii’s “Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear” and “A Song For You” at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, North Carolina. The end of the film is its climax. Starting with the beautifully thundering intro to Omoiyari’s “Violin Tsunami,” we see scenes from his performance in Miami with the Nu Deco Ensemble—a personal triumph of his—and those from his attendance at a 2020 protest in front of the Northwest ICE Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. He performed there and, as a journalist who has reported on countless protests, I can only imagine what that experience would have been like.