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Philadelphia Asian American Film Fest: What you need to see

Stories range from comedian Kulap Vilaysack's search for her father to the story of former Secretary of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta.

Surviving Bokator
Surviving BokatorRead morePAAFF

The Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (PAAFF) has long taken a mixed-media approach to building its program, sprinkling concerts, scholarly gatherings, gallery shows, live theater, and cooking demos throughout a slate of scripted and documentary features. The spotlight shifts from screens to soundtracks at the outset of this year's PAAFF, which counts the exploration of Asian-American music among its chief themes for 2018.

The big idea was "to use our platform to instigate a conversation around diversity in popular music," says festival director Rob Buscher, who's positioned the front end of PAAFF '18 to do just that. The largest annual celebration of Asian-American cinema on the East Coast, the festival kicks off its 11th year Thursday, Nov. 8, with a screening of In the Life of Music, a drama that depicts a Cambodian family's generation-spanning links to the beloved Khmer ballad "Champa Battambang."

It's one of a number of opening-weekend offerings poking at complex questions of art and identity: What does Asian American music even sound like? And why isn't it recognized? Buscher is bringing a number of prominent academics to town to speak on the topic, as well as a genre-blending lineup of artists.

He also points out that In the Life of Music marks the first time the PAAFF has offered a feature with Southeast Asian roots as its opening screening — relevant in a year when big-budget romcom Crazy Rich Asians sparked a larger conversation about Asian American representation in film. While Buscher acknowledges the box-office hit's impact, he observes that it "wasn't particularly empowering," an escapist fantasy with a narrow worldview. As such, "There's a necessity to prioritize the voices who are least visible in our community," he says.

Buscher and Co. exercised this ethos with inclusivity in mind, collecting little-told stories from countries such as Laos, the Philippines, Tonga, Tibet, and Bhutan; highlighting LGBTQ perspectives of Asian and Pacific Islander origin that are often doubly suppressed; and sifting through history to excavate narratives both tragic and triumphant.

Friday, Nov. 9: In addition to marking the kickoff of the Music of Asian America Conference, a collection of free-to-attend presentations and workshops, the festival's first full day will feature a live showcase of disparate sounds. The traditional Swarthmore Chinese Music Ensemble will share a bill with two California-based hip-hop artists: Sikh emcee SETI X and Cambodian rapper praCH Ly. The 9:30 p.m. performance will be preceded by several screenings, including Surviving Bokator, a documentary about native Cambodian martial arts. 5-11:30 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10

Saturday, Nov. 10: Korean American singer-songwriter Bobby Choy, aka Big Phony, wrote, codirected and stars in Fiction and Other Realities. Shot between New York City and Seoul, it follows an introverted musician (Choy, as a version of himself) who travels to his parents' homeland in a bid to learn about himself. Choy will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A and performance. 7:35 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10

Sunday, Nov. 11: Visit Reading Terminal Market for a Taste of the Philippines. At lunchtime, multiple vendors will serve Filipino dishes in concurrence with a screening of Prison Food, which sees Fil-Am chef Johneric Concordia uncovering the cooking techniques of Southeast Asian inmates. In the evening, watch Ulam: Main Dish, about the modern rise of Filipino food in America. Director Alexandra Cuerdo will be joined by local chef Ana Cruz, who's catering the post-show reception. 11 a.m., Reading Terminal Market, 51 N. 12th St., free; 6:15 p.m., Lightbox Film Center, International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St., $5-$10

Wednesday, Nov. 14: In addition overseeing the PAAFF, Buscher is a lecturer in Penn's Asian American Studies Program, where his research focuses on anti-Asian propaganda throughout U.S. history. Accompanying "American Peril: Imagining the Foreign Threat," his collection of offensive print media dating to the late 19th century, is Propaganda Film Night, a curation of clips — everything from cartoons to newsreels — pushing a discriminatory agenda. Discussing this difficult-to-digest material is key to understanding the origins of bigotry directed toward Asians in the United States. 6:30 p.m., Twelve Gates Arts, 106 N. Second St., free

Sunday, Nov. 18: The 2018 PAAFF's dedication to Southeast Asian storytelling continues with Origin Story, Kulap Vilaysack's directorial debut. The actress, known for her work on Childrens Hospital and Comedy Bang! Bang!, invites viewers along on a long-awaited trip to Laos to seek out the biological father she never knew. 3 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., $8-$10

Sunday, Nov. 18: The closing night film, director Dianne Fukami's An American Story: Norman Mineta & His Legacy unspools the incredible life story of Mineta, who went from being held with his family in a WWII-era Japanese internment camp in Wyoming to the White House, serving as Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Transportation under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. Mineta, who will soon turn 87, will attend the screening and participate in a Q&A led by Fukami. 7 p.m. Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., $8-$10