“Finding Phong,” a documentary detailing the journey of a young Vietnamese man who undergoes a sex change operation, is among the films screening at the S.F. International Southeast Asian Film Festival. (Courtesy photo)

Inaugural film fest showcases Southeast Asians

A new film festival in town is dedicated to the lives and experiences of Southeast Asians.

The inaugural S.F. International Southeast Asian Film Festival, focusing on people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and the Philippines, opens Friday at Artists Television Access with a party and installation called “Ways of Seeing,” a collection of projected images of Southeast Asians in home movies, Hollywood, the French colonial era, declassified CIA propaganda and more.

Organized by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, a group promoting Vietnamese artists working across the world, the festival screens more than a dozen films and shorts (including Cannes festival entries and works by Oscar nominees) Saturday and Sunday at New People Cinema.

At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, a bill of three short films includes “A Daughter’s Debt,” a personal, intense, 29-minute documentary by Chao Thao, a Hmong-American who explores the Hmong community in Sacramento, and particularly focuses on her cousin Gee’s struggle as a single mother of two little children.

Even in America, the Hmong culture doesn’t favor women. Brides are bought (Gee fetched an “average” sum of $7,000, and at her wedding, the women ate all the food left over after the men finished). Unusual for her background, Gee leaves her marriage; her husband does drugs and doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, Thao’s aunt, working her garden, talks about her difficult past, escaping from Laos in the wake Vietcong-U.S. fighting, and how it changed her life forever.

From an American’s perspective, there seem to be few options for Thao’s family members. But her cousin remains hopeful, treating her daughter with the same respect as she treats her son.

Another equally personal, first-person documentary “Finding Phong,” tells the story of a young Vietnamese man who fulfills his wish to become a woman.

Screening at 7 p.m. Sunday, the 92-minute film by Swann Dubus and Tran Phuong Thao shows Phong at home, at work and play in Hanoi. He is in most every frame of the film, trying on his female persona (makeup, clothes, hairstyles) and interacting with funny, supportive friends (talking about sex) and coworkers.

The film veers to his family in a small village, their descriptions of him as an effeminate boy, and their reactions to his unusual choice.

Phong visits doctors in Thailand, who describe the procedure, and soon the film takes viewers behind the scenes, as Phong is being wheeled into the surgery room.

And medical workers explain what Phong must do to keep his womanhood intact; it’s a graphic, fascinating part of a deeply personal story Phong shares with abandon.


IF YOU GO

S.F. International Southeast Asian Film Festival
Where: New People Cinema,1746 Post St., S.F.
When: Films screen 10:30 a.m. to midnight Nov. 21-22
Tickets: $12 to $125
Contact: www.i-seafilmfest.com
Note: Opening night gala and installation at 7 p.m. Nov. 20 at Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia St., S.F.

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