“I’m actually very excited,” says Sophia Wong Boccio, founder and executive director of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema. The fifth annual festival runs from September 10-October 10 and features 22 films spanning East Asia. Though the pandemic created challenges for the festival, Wong Boccio overcame those hurdles by creating a unique hybrid film experience—seven films are available to see in-person via a socially distant movie experience at the Davis Drive-In Theater in Lincoln Yards, while the rest are available to rent online and enjoy in the comfort of one’s own home. Wong Boccio notes, “We are reaching the entire United States now because of the virtual program, so our audience is spreading to a national base instead of [just] Chicago.”
When asked how she sees the Asian Pop-Up Cinema festival existing in a year that saw substantial anti-Asian racism at the beginning of the pandemic, Wong Boccio says, “My mission has always been about bridging the differences between east and west. That hasn’t changed since day one, when we inaugurated the festival. I want to show films to help people be more receptive and sensitive to other cultures, whether Asian or not.”
This year in particular focuses on documentaries from countries like Korea and Taiwan, in an attempt to add “more doses of humanity, beauty as well as compassion.” Fictional offerings include a spin-off Halloween event, a double feature drive-in showing of Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s genre bending zombie flicks Train to Busan on October 30 and its sequel, Peninsula, on October 31. “I definitely encourage people to come in zombie outfits—they can even dress up their car any way they want!” Wong Boccio says.
The geographic scope of the film festival is incredibly broad, including films from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines. The festival’s thematic breadth is just as wide, ranging from serious documentaries to lighthearted rom-coms. Among them is an animated film called Happy-Go-Lucky-Days. Based on a series of erotic comics, the film’s Japanese release was pushed back, making its showing as part of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema the film’s world premier. “This is exceptionally pretty drawing, and I totally enjoyed it,” says Wong-Boccio. Also, directly after the credits, there will be an exclusive Q&A with the film’s cast of voice actors. Another more avant-garde film highlighted during Japan Week is director Kana Yamada’s directorial debut Life: Untitled, which sketches an intimate portrait of the daily lives of sex workers in Japan.
A standout among the Chinese offerings is All About ING, a heartrending drama that follows the lives of a father, mother, and son in the aftermath of a liver cancer diagnosis. Broken into three acts, director Huang Zi is methodical in his tracing of each family member’s wending grief, as well as life’s inexorable plod forward. Verdant and lucid, the story takes a gentle approach to tragedy, giving breathing room for the complex ways each character comes to terms with the impending death of a loved one.
On the opposite end is Women Who Flirt, a 2014 Hong Kong romantic comedy appearing in the festival for a special fifth anniversary showing. This film follows a tomboy-ish woman and her best guy friend, whom she has unrequitedly loved for years. When the friend tells her he’s started dating someone new, the woman enlists a posse of expert female pick-up artists to better weaponize her feminine wiles. Hijinks ensue, a makeover montage occurs, and there’s one particularly memorable scene in a night market in Taipei.
Though most of the Korean film options are part of the in-person drive-in experience, one is available for streaming: Diaspora: Arirang Road. This documentary threads together the stories of more than seven million Koreans living in diaspora, in places like Japan, Uzbekistan, Sakhalin, and Kazakhstan, bound together by their shared ardor for the song “Arirang.” One of those stories is that of Yang Bang-ean, a Korean-Japanese pianist and composer who is readying himself for an “Arirang”-inspired concert. The filmmaker’s talk with director Lee Kyu-chul directly follows the credits.
The Taiwanese selection of this year’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema is entirely documentary. Among them is Whale Island, a meditation on Taiwan’s connection to the ocean that surrounds it. Following writer Liao Hung-Chi and underwater photographer Ray Chin, the film waxes and wanes, pacing itself on an otherworldly, marine time. Featuring long, luxurious shots of marine life throughout, director Huang Chia-Chun offers an alternative look into a more balanced, perhaps harmonious future with the environment that surrounds us. v