Checking IDs at Rice

Now in its third year, the Rice University Asian-American Film and Literature Festival launches this weekend with a compelling lineup of films, speakers and panelists that will make you wonder how this student-run three-day showcase could be so good -- and free. Returning this year is keynote speaker Gordon Quan, the first Asian-American to be elected to an at-large City Council seat. Also making an appearance is award-winning filmmaker Greg Pak (Fighting Grandpa, Asian Pride Porn), who, when not writing or directing, maintains the Web site

This year's festival is grounded in poignant, identity-checking documentaries, with a different topic for discussion each day: home and establishing roots, marginalized groups, and student experiences. Opening the fest is Turbans, directed by Erika Surat Andersen, which revisits the prejudice faced by her Asian-Indian grandparents in Oregon, circa 1918. The filmmaker's ancestors struggle with maintaining their cultural identity -- symbolized by their sacred turbans -- while trying to blend into American culture.

Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women, directed by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, gives powerful voice to Korean women who were forced into sexual servitude during World War II. The testimony of these women, who seek an official apology from Japan, is contrasted with statements from Japanese soldiers who claim "they did it for money" or that they never existed. In a more contemporary vein, 23-year-old Nishit Saran's painfully revealing documentary Summer in My Veins portrays a gay Indian filmmaker as he comes out (on camera) to his visiting family and faces the possibility of being HIV-positive.

The festival gets some emotional levity during the two-part film-shorts showcases "Perpetual Emotion 101 & 102," featuring funny-sounding titles like Bangs, Crickets, Kung Pao Chicken and Lessons in Defensive Driving.

With all these films, you might be wondering where the "literature" fits in. (In years past, the event was just called the Asian-American Film Festival.) That rests solely on the shoulders of Russell Leong, editor of UCLA's Amerasia Journal and author of Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories, voted one of the best works of fiction last year by the Los Angeles Times. Leong has made his own documentary and written about Asian-American cinema as well, but his success with the written word was enough for show organizer Vivek Mittal to toss "literature" into this year's title.

Will there be a more literary focus in upcoming years? Well, explains Mittal, this is a student-run gig, and the shape all depends on who runs the show. In other words, don't count on Amy Tan visiting next year.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Andrea Grover