Clockwise from top left: 2021 Sundance Film Festival selections “Try Harder!”, “I Was a Simple Man,” “BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop,” “Marvelous and the Black Hole”
First-time feature directors. Visionary legends. Artists at the forefront of boundary-breaking immersive XR storytelling. Together, they converged on a Sundance Film Festival lineup marked by bold storytelling from the Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities around the world.
In the 2021 Festival’s features competition, Wong Kar-wai — titan of Hong Kong cinema — presented One for the Road, a film from Baz Poonpiriya (acclaimed director of award-winning thrillers like Bad Genius and Countdown) that traces a moving journey into friendship, love, mortality, and the heart of Thailand. And then there was I Was a Simple Man, the debut feature of Christopher Makoto Yogi. The story of a family facing the reality of a patriarch’s mortality against the natural (and supernatural) landscape of Oahu’s North Shore went through the nonprofit Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs in 2015.
In the New Frontier category, Namoo shined as an immersive experience built in Oculus’s VR animation tool, Quill, that delves into the existential question: What is a life? Created by Korean American artist Kevin Oh, the project is the perfect inclusion in a Festival lineup packed with innovative storytelling from Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, and more.
Read on for the full list of projects directed by Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander directors at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival — along with details on where to find them as they get released.
IN THE SAME BREATH | Director: Nanfu Wang; producers: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, and Carolyn Hepburn
Acclaimed filmmaker Nanfu Wang navigates the origin and spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan to the United States through a lens both personal and geopolitical in scale. The result is a wrenching, wide-reaching documentary that contextualizes the trauma experienced by health-care workers and the families of loved ones lost. At the same time, the documentary probes President Xi Jinping’s and President Donald Trump’s eerily similar responses to the pandemic: Both men spread disinformation and sowed mass confusion during the most critical moments of the pandemic.
Ed. note: In the Same Breath will air on HBO Max later this year.
I WAS A SIMPLE MAN | Writer-director: Christopher Makoto Yogi; producers: Sarah S. Kim, Christopher Makoto Yogi, Matthew Petock, and Yamato Cibulka
The rushing wind on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, never stops. It constantly rustles the leaves outside Masao’s house, providing a balmy sonic backdrop. Nature is both a driving force and a spiritual indicator in I Was a Simple Man, the second feature from writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi. When Masao is healthy, his plants thrive; when a terminal sickness encroaches, the plants wither and die. The island’s ambient noises—the waves, the wind, the birds—thread through the film’s time-shifting chapters, from the pre-World War II sugar plantations of Oahu to Hawai’i statehood to the present gentrification of Honolulu.
Ed. note: I Was a Simple Man will be released by Strand Releasing later this fall.
MARVELOUS AND THE BLACK HOLE | Writer-director: Kate Tsang; producer: Carolyn Mao
Thirteen-year-old Sammy is struggling to cope with the death of her mother. After she is caught vandalizing one of her school’s restrooms, her father, fed up with her wild behavior, enrolls her in a summer course—if she fails, she’ll be sent to a boot camp for delinquent youth. After storming out of her first class, Sammy meets Margot, a surly magician. Margot forces Sammy to be her assistant for a performance, and although Sammy seems uninterested, she seeks Margot out after the show and asks to become Margot’s pupil. Margot agrees, and as their unlikely friendship grows, we learn that she and Sammy understand each other more than they expected.
Ed. note: Stay tuned for a release date for Marvelous and the Black Hole.
ONE FOR THE ROAD | Director: Baz Poonpiriya; screenwriters: Baz Poonpiriya, Nottapon Boonprakob, and Puangsoi Aksornsawang; producer: Wong Kar Wai
Boss lives a seemingly charmed life as a popular bartender in New York City, with an endless line of female customers after hours. One night, his estranged friend Aood calls from Bangkok with the news that he’s dying and asks Boss to come home. As the two travel down memory lane throughout Thailand, returning items to Aood’s exes, their pasts and reasons for their broken brotherhood are exposed. But Boss doesn’t know the whole story, and when Aood has one last gift to return, it might destroy their relationship forever.
Ed. note: Stay tuned for a release date.
TRY HARDER! | Director: Debbie Lum; producers: Debbie Lum, Lou Nakasako, and Nico Opper
At Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges. They scrutinize how every element of their application, from their classes to their extracurricular activities to their racial identities, might be read by admission officers. At Lowell—where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the student body is Asian American—the things that usually make a person stand out can feel not good enough, even commonplace.
Ed. note: Stay tuned for a release date.
AVA FROM MY CLASS | Director: Youmin Kang; screenwriters: Youmin Kang and Soomin Kang; producers: Sharon Lee and Soomin Kang
Anna thinks Ava is the best actress in her class.
BJ’S MOBILE GIFT SHOP | Writer-director: Jason Park; producers: Julianna Imel and Jason Park
A young Korean American hustler runs throughout the city of Chicago making sales out of his “mobile gift shop.”
EXCUSE ME, MISS, MISS, MISS | Director: Sonny Calvento; screenwriter: Arden Rod Condez; producers: Sheron Dayoc, Eduardo Lejano Jr., and Manet Dayrit
Vangie, a miserable contractual saleslady, is about to lose her job. But in her desperate attempt to persuade her boss not to sack her, Vangie uncovers the ultimate jaw-dropping secret to regularization.
KKUM | Writer-director: Kang-min Kim; producers: David Braun and Jason Milov
My mother’s dreams have always been strong premonitions for important moments in my life. I rely on her dreams more than any religion.
MISERY LOVES COMPANY | Director: Sasha Lee; screenwriters: Sasha Lee and Yejin Choi; producer: Yejin Choi
As Seolgi is lying on a grass field with friends, a shooting star falls, and dark, intrusive thoughts hit her. Her melancholy blooms into bright and colorful “flower people,” dancing and wishing for a meteorite to end the world.
MOUNTAIN CAT | Writer-director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir; producers: Ariunaa Tserenpil and Christopher Granier-Deferre
A troubled girl is coerced into seeing a shaman. Trapped by the ancient beliefs that pacify her mother, she finds peace in the physical realm, unleashing her repressed, youthful spirit on the shaman when she realizes his true identity.
RASPBERRY | Writer-director Julian Doan; producers: Turner Munch and Brianna Murphy
Undertakers wait on a family’s final farewells as one son struggles to say goodbye to his dead father.
TEARS TEACHER | Director: Noémie Nakai; producer: Lindsay Crouse
Yoshida is a self-proclaimed “tears teacher.” A firm believer that regular crying promotes healthier living, he’s made it his mission to make more people weep.
THIS IS THE WAY WE RISE | Director: Ciara Lacy
An exploration into the creative process, following Native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, as her art is reinvigorated by her calling to protect sacred sites atop Maunakea, Hawai`i.
TO KNOW HER | Director-producer: Natalie A. Chao
A poetic exploration of the camera’s gaze and a family’s relationship with the filmmaker’s mother.
THE UNSEEN RIVER | Writer-director: Pham Ngoc Lân; producers: Gabriel Shaya Kuperman and Alex Curran-Cardarelli
Stories told along the river: a woman reunites with her ex-lover at a hydroelectric plant; meanwhile, a young man travels downstream to a temple in search of a cure for his insomnia.
BEYOND THE BREAKDOWN | Lead artists: Tony Patrick, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Grace Lee
We are now spending less time with one another and more time than ever with algorithmic suggestion engines designed to keep us consuming and powerless. In this elegant, world-building browser performance, Festivalgoers engage with an AI + human collaborative team to imagine alternative narratives for our near-future reality. Designed as a renewal center for humanness, this creative browser emphasizes the practice of self-reflection, self-care, and cultivating new ways of building community in online spaces.
AMOO | Lead artist: Erick Oh; producers: Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell, Maureen Fan, Kane Lee
This evocative, immersive experience follows the journey of a man from birth to the end of his life, with the entire journey taking place on a grassy knoll next to a seed that grows into a sapling and, eventually, a fully mature tree. Namoo, which means “tree” in Korean, collects meaningful memories in its branches—from pacifiers, stuffed animals, books, and favorite scarves, to broken glasses and objects from times the man would rather forget.