Asian American Film Festival in Chicago

Greetings from Chicago

Tim Hugh, one man bandleader of the Chicago Asian American Film Festival

This is Tim Hugh and his dog Helga in his kitchen in Chicago. Tim has run the only Asian American Indie Film Fest (i.e. no “imports”) for 12 of the 17 years that it’s been in existence. In this picture, he’s a one man bandleader- running it solo, something I can relate to as a solo musician. I’m in town to promote my film “Daylight Savings” which premiered at SXSW this year, and will be the opening night film this year. Joining me at the screening will be Michael Aki who plays my cousin in the film. I met Mike at this very festival in 2010 when he was showing his films Sunsets that he directed with Eric Nakamura, and his Film Noir tribute “Strangers”

I asked Tim a bunch of questions:

Goh: Why is this festival important?

Tim: It’s one of the only festivals that shows only Asian American films; produced, directed and/or about the Asian American experience. In the midwest more so than the coastal states, you’re constantly asked that stupid question “Where are you from?”… so it’s important to help define what being Asian and American is.

I’m a fourth generation Chinese American. In the midwest, it’s usually under the assumption that you’re just “Asian”… and not “Asian American.” When I see Causasian people I don’t ask them “are you from Poland? are you European?” I just see them for who they are, not what they look like.

Goh: How did you get involved in the festival?

Tim: I was just a fan of the band Seam, and Sooyoung Park, Ben Kim and Billy Shin started the festival in 1995 after they released the Ear of the Dragon CD, which was the first Asian American Rock Compliation. I’d always go and watch everything I could. I’d never seen films like this before; Asian American characters that spoke like me; the actors weren’t forced to speak with a bad accent. I could relate to these images and characters that I was seeing at this festival.

I became obsessed and would watch everything I could, whether it be a feature, documentary, or shorts program. I just wanted to see as much as I could, because I knew I’d never get a chance to see these movies again. Plus, being able to meet the directors and hear them speak about their films was one of the coolest things for me. I remember hanging out with Justin Lin, back when he was just a shorts director.

They noticed me being there year after year, and began to recognize me. Eventually, they would ask me to do little things like hand out program booklets, take tickets, watch the table, and take pictures during the Q&A’s. Basically, I became a volunteer. I remember standing there back in the day giving out Giant Robot magazines!


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Sunsets in CHICAGO – Gene Siskel

Sunsets, the feature film still is getting it’s day. It’s now played twice in Chicago to not the largest crowds, but twice at Siskel Film Center. The first time they (Siskel and Ebert) were both alive and well with a powerful show that influenced crowds to see movies. Today, Siskel has passed away and Ebert is working hard through a stroke. Rating movies has gone to new folks, mostly online. Films have changed. The medium and technique are different. Yet, the film center still exists and makes movies look good. The front door itself is a reminder that you’re entering a real cinema center. Don’t mess around inside. This is the Rucker Park of film.

The projection was beautiful. A serious projection system that made us look good. I actually sat through the film again.
What do film fest folks do to kill a bit of time? Scrabble. That’s the scene when we walked in. Game on. What’s with the eye patch girl in the painting!
That’s Mike standing outside of the film center. He dresses up for cinema. Chicago has cinematic streets thanks to the elevated trains. The Fugitive! Remember the “L” train scene? How dramatic.
The photo is says it all. I hope this photo stays up in this joint forever.
One the way out we bid Siskel adieu once again. Thanks for everything. If people took a sec and poured some out for the man, that would be cool.
Yes. We made the digital marquee. Is Revisited part of the title? I guess it looks cool.

Of course with a big group, it’s all about Korean food since they’re open late. How Asian, right? I hope a ritual like this never goes out of style. San Soo Gab San is one of these places. They give you an insane amount of side dishes (panchan). Although it was cold outside, we left as many of our articles of clothing in the car. This place will get you smelling pretty.

Kim Turley is about to bust into laughter again. Tim tends to the pork. And Emily Wang ponders a square of food.


1997 Revisited "Asian American New Wave" Revisited Podcast

We dared to re-shoot the 1997 photo. I think the prize goes to Michael on the upper right. Look at his face on both. Amazing. 1997-2009. 12 years have passed and honestly, I didn’t have enough time with everyone and it actually would have been nice to talk a little bit longer. It really was important, but honestly, at 20 minutes our panel was much too short. I left it all very unsatisfied. I think there were plenty of questions that could and would have been asked, and it would have been nice to hear from everyone about them. What little we did talk about was interesting, but just barely scratched the surface.

In case you don’t know. That’s Chris Chan Lee, Justin Lin, Rea Tajiri, Myself, Quentin Lee, and Michael Aki. The rest of the photos are just some images from the green room, right before we went up there.

Click here to hear the Podcast of the panel discussion.
or link to iTunes

more photos up at flickr.


The movie screening.

That’s me and cousin Mike. I didn’t think about taking a photo together, but I’m glad it was forced upon us. Now, here it is. Our film, Sunsets showed, and it was fun to see and great to be able to relive in a way. But this version is quite different, it does feel like something brand new, and I can actually stand to watch it now. Who knows if I can see it again, but it looked great on screen. Much better than I thought. People seemed to like it too. Now what do we do with it? We’ll be doing a roundtable on Saturday night with Justin Lin, Quentin Lee, Rea Tajiri, and Chris Chan Lee, the film class of 1997.

Fugetsudo manju. Very good and I’m thankful that they donated some cakes.

That’s what it looked like inside.
That scene above was shot in super 8!

That’s Tamlyn Tomita and Me.

Wen and James. Wen is just back from Taiwan from a Tango Festival, and James is just a bad ass mofo.

James, me, and Harry Kim. Watch for Dirty Hands sometime soon. That’s a great film.

That’s Oscar Rios. A GR supporter.

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Class of 1997, the voices and more.

Chris Chan Lee, Justin Lin, Rea Tajiri, myself, Quentin Lee, Michael Aki. We all wrote about our ideas about 1997, our trips, our films, what it was like, and what it became. This might be one of the most important posts regarding Asian American film, ever. It’s a long read, and each of us in many ways seemed to have similar views looking back. I’m glad I’m not the only one. This was to be 2 paragraphs from each of us. I thought I was doing a disservice by writing 4 or 5. It turns out, some of the others wrote nearly a book. I’m not sure if it’s great to be lumped into this nostalgia just yet, since this is the type of stuff I used to think should just die off, but oh well. One thing that might be fun to hear is from the film festival programmers etc. I know they played major favorites to who they thought were the bigger films. Yellow, by Chris Chan Lee was considered to big one for sure. We were always given the crappier time slots and smaller theaters (yes, admit it bitches). Our film sold out at it’s premiere, plenty early, and no further screenings afterwards. At the NY Asian American festival, we were given a midnight slot in the middle of nowhere and I think 8 people were there. Black and white film = midnight? That was fucked up. For that, I give the programmer the middle finger.

But overall, it’s very possible that of all of these films, ours may hold up the most because it was shot black and white and grainy, giving it a timeless feel – sort of like Strangers in Paradise by Jarmusch. It’s theme wasn’t about Asian America at all, or had a cast that existed in Asian American land. It was very prototypical, but then again, we never even considered our film to be part of any Asian American anything. Read more, at the link please.

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Sunsets ID Film Festival JANM Oct 1, 2009

Remember this project? RE-CUT.


Sunsets movie screening at iD Film Festival

Check out the FACEBOOK page.

October 1, 2009
8:00 p.m.

Japanese American National Museum
National Center for the Preservation of Democracy
111 N. Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 625-0414

link to JANM site.

The 2009 iD Film Festival is scheduled to open with a rare screening of Sunsets, the first feature by filmmakers Michael Aki and Giant Robot’s Eric Nakamura. Premiered as part of the Class of 1997 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival over a decade ago (along with works by Justin Lin, Rea Tajiri, and others), the film has never been shown outside the festival circuit or been commercially released.

Shot on grainy black and white 16mm film, the very medium of rebel cinema, Sunsets chronicles the ennui, drunken bouts, and petty crimes of three young men, a white guy, a Hispanic, and a Japanese American (played by Aki himself) growing up in the small town of Watsonville, CA. The film is very much a coming-of-age story that is compelling in its purity and rawness. Understated, honest, and funny, this little-seen film shows a rare slice of Asian-American cinema that had never been attempted before. A critic has asserted that the film is “smarter and more credible than anything Gregg Araki has come up with.”

The screening will take place at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 1, followed by a reception for the filmmakers at 10:00 p.m. For more information about Sunsets, the iD Film Festival, or Giant Robot, please contact:

Eric Nakamura
Giant Robot Owner/Publisher
[email protected]
(310) 479-7311



Old interview about Sunsets from Flak magazine.

Here’s an old interview from 1998 about Sunsets. These are excerpts… read the whole thing at the link below.

By Jeremy Richards

Eric Nakamura is one of the founders of Asian-American (and all around cool) magazine GIANT ROBOT, a journal of West coast youth culture that’s found a dedicated audience from coast to coast. Teaming up with his cousin, Michael Idemoto, Nakamura has recently made the leap from editor to film maker, but the leap from print to film has done nothing to diminish the impact of his work.

Eric and Mike spent almost four years working on their first film, “Sunsets”. The directors follow the last summer a group of young friends spend together before they each go their seperate way. The film plays on the dynamics in a group of young men, looking for something to do during a sleepy, hot summer. Although the summer is one in which nothing seems to happen, all of the characters are aware of the impending end to their relationship. Thankfully, there is no spoon-fed, generic focus on the characters various racial and social backgrounds as they pass the summer hanging out on the beach, breaking into cars and spending time together. Instead, Eric and Mike decide to let their characters become entities for themselves, not paper-cut representations of different aspects of society.

Flak caught up to the two of them and discussed the arduous process of making an independent film, along with the motivations that lay behind making a movie in the first place.

Interview with Eric Nakamura

Flak: So what are you guys doing to get your film seen?

Eric Nakamura: Well, we were showing it any time we could show it, anytime we could get a screening in some city, we would take it. We just did San Francisco again, a little while ago, and so we just keep pushing it. And we have this distribution with a company called Phaedra. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Takeshi’s Gonin, but he distributed Gonin and some other Japanese movies. It’s still fringe kind of stuff, but it’s a lot bigger. He’s going to start it off for midnight shows in December in LA.

Flak: What kind of responses were you getting from people who saw the movie?

EN: Oh man…everytime it shows, we get a few people who walk out. They’re expecting, like, “Apocalypse Now,” or something really huge, and then they look it at, and it’s black and white and kind of gritty and there’s some language in it…so they’re like “fuck, we gotta get out of here, forget this” and they just know within the first five minutes that it’s not their kind of film. So there’s that, but then that’s a small minority, and on the whole people really like it. I really get very little criticism on it.

Flak: As far as the cars in movie, where did you get them, and how did you get to break them up like that?

EN: There were two cars that were beat up, right? Both of them were same car. We just turned it around. You don’t notice because we parked it a different way. It’s the same car, but we just blasted it twice. We had to buy it though, which sucked. We had to buy it, we broke it up, and towed it away. Even when we were out in Madison [Wisconsin], we saw so many people with cars in their yards, outside of Madison in those little towns. And we we were just like “Fuck.” We just wanted anybody’s leftover car, and we couldn’t one. When it came time to get one, we just couldn’t get one.

Flak: Have you have any sort of weird experiences doing discussions after the movie?

EN: The cool thing is…did you ever see “Karate Kid II” where the guy goes to Japan? And that girl Tamara Tomita, that girl? SHE liked it. And she like totally blew us away and gave us the coolest, greatest comment, which was that she said exactly what she felt, that she loved it and stuff- you know, when I was little (well, not little, but old enough, anyway) she was the chick I wanted. You know what I mean? I was on stage with my cousin [Michael Idemoto] in a film festival in LA, and she was in the crowd and said all this stuff, and I couldn’t even see her because it was pitch black in the crowd. And then afterwards she walked up, and it was her, and I was like: “Oh my GOD. That was the chick.” She was the hot chick at the time. I was just stoked.

Flak: You guys spent about three years writing [Sunsets], right?

EN: Yeah, definetely.

Flak: And you made it in a week, or something like that?

EN: Well, not one week; it was a little longer. It took up a good three weeks, actually.

Flak: When was that, exactly?

EN: We shot it in ’95 and finished in January of 1997. But you know editing and all that stuff takes a long time. When you’ve got a lot of money, it’s a lot easier. With a lot of money, it speeds up the editing process. But we were editing on a home system, and nobody really does that anymore.

Flak: I thought that really worked as far as showing the groove they were kind of forced into. I’d like to ask you about Josh Brant and how he found about the film.

EN: Yeah, we were having problems casting that character. We knew who we wanted: we wanted a guy just like Josh. He’s kind of like the tough guy. And it’s suprisingly not easy to find. We sent scripts out to people who were interested, and they didn’t want to play that kind of a role. They were just afraid of that role, playing the mean guy. It’s kind of an exciting role to play, though…it’s kind of like playing a De Niro role in Goodfellas. I was thinking that you’d come off pretty rad…girls would love you! It’s really exciting, but we had a hard time casting it. The best two people we had came from the supermarket ads we put up. We just went to the big-ass supermarket in the white town next to [Watsonville]. Watsonville is kind of like mixed…a lot of Latinos. But Ascot is kind of like the rich area near Watsonville. We put up a billboard there, kind of figuring: you know, they’ve got money, maybe they have time to think about this sort of stuff, you know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s a weird classification or ghetto-ization of somebody, but I figure that people with money have more time to think about being an actor. In Watsonville, you’re not going to be an actor. If you’re a dreamer, you might be able to, but if you’re living in Watsonville, you’ve got no chance. The chances of you getting out and making it like that…well, it’s slimmer. We just put it up in that neighborhood, and right away we got two calls and both of them were pretty good. Once Josh showed, we saw his face, and we’re like: “here’s what we wanted.”

Interview with Michael Idemoto

Flak: Was the film autobiographical for you? How much were you influenced by your Watsonville youth experience?

Michael Idemoto: We like to say it’s fiction, but it’s also very personal, for me and Eric, in our own ways.

Flak: As far as the character Mark goes, did you empathize with him, and were you playing yourself to some extent?

MI: I guess so. It’s personal stuff.

Flak: You guys wrote this over the span of three years. Did you kind of bounce ideas off of each other?

MI: We had a rough outline of things and since we had it all in different subjects, the scenes would just sort of come out of those subjects.

Flak: Did you use any of your English [major] background when writing the film?

MI: Well, out of all that studying and stuff you try to create a style for yourself. You take what’s best, or what you really like about other writers and pieces of literature, and you find your own style. You decide if it’s going to be complicated like Thomas Mann or maybe Mishima-style dialogue or something…or something like Hemingway, which is very simple but also very constructed.

Flak: Do you think there’s Shakespearean influence in the movie?

MI: I like Shakespeare, his type of drama and tragedy. I always considered Sunsets a type of tragedy, but it’s on a lighter scale. Shakespeare’s kind of a role model for me for drama-based stories. Or even comedy.

Flak: You guys managed to put the movie together with a pretty limited budget. If you had unlimited resources, would there be anything you would change about the movie?

MI: Oh yeah. I think so. I think if we had a higher budget, the film would be totally different in terms of its style. The editing was always questionable to me; it could have been tighter. Originally it was like a two-hour film, and we cut it down another 20 minutes, and then we had a final cut and then we returned the equipment. It was like: “man, there’s still some scenes that could’ve made the film a little tighter”

Flak: And do you enjoy doing that as a filmmaker?

MI: Uh…Not really. I mean, I like it because…No, I don’t really like it. It’s so impersonal, you know? To discuss the film with somebody on a one-on-one basis I think is so much more informative than if you’re speaking to a whole group. I worry about what their interests are, or if I’m talking too much, or what they want to hear. But you figure that people who attend independent films…well, I don’t know if you’d consider ours an independent film…it’d be like a guerrilla film…are like peers, you know?

E-mail Jeremy Richards at [email protected]


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Sunsets photos from the archives

That’s me in 97. Or was in 96. I don’t remember anymore. The camera with a 9mm lens. I’m sitting in the back of the Mercury Marauder. I think it was a 64. We bought the car to use in the film and drove it all summer. It’s almost like a modern Dickens tale or something. Making a film, buying a vintage car, and cruising around Watsonville. A fun summer for sure.

I wish I knew where this was at. It’s obviously a movie theater, but it’s empty. That’s Betty Hallock from the LA Times – an old friend of mine from UCLA. That’s Mike Idemoto in the center (co director, actor, etc) and his best friend from way back, Craig Wong (who was also in the film).

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Once upon a time… I used to make films

Yeah, it was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I made film. That’s me with the shorter hair, in the back row, that’s my cousin Mike next to me with the shortest hair in 1997. Our film Sunsets played the festival in SF, and I think that’s where this shot was taken.

That’s Chris Chan Lee on the left. He just came out with Undoing and made Yellow. Justin Lin next to him who made Shopping for Fangs and as you know many other films, including Fast and Furious 3, Rea Tajiri smiling – she made Strawberry Fields and lives on the east coast. Quentin Lee who co-made Shopping for Fangs on the bottom right. He’s still trucking along in cinema. Cousin Mike Idemoto was the lead in Charlotte Sometimes, and is slowly working on film projects. You can imdb search all of these folks to see what’s going on in their lives. It was a great time in 1997 – 11 years ago… I’m proud to say I was there, and it was the genesis of the current “wave” of Asian American films. Sunsets is all but forgotten now, the kids who are turning out feature projects on hi-def video have no idea what sound sync 16mm is all about. The BS we went through is still around for sure, but it’s a little bit better for everyone, I’m glad to have a part in that.

Here’s where that link exists.