SDAFF Review: ‘The Paradise We Are Looking For’ successfully reframes San Diego from the Asian American perspective
To someone like me, an Asian American who knows little more than his little suburb in Los Angeles County, the idea of Asian Americans existing outside of the San Gabriel Valley bubble can be admittedly foreign. Unless you’ve lived in various cities across the US, it’s hard to know that others just like you exist outside of explicitly labeled, census-designated ethnic enclaves across the globe. In reality, Asian American communities exist all over with their own local slang, landmarks, and of course, their own stories. In San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF)’s opening night film, The Paradise We Are Looking For, the Asian American identity of San Diego is explored through four short documentaries in the hopes of capturing the local flavor that makes it so special.
Directed by (in order of short film sequencing) Norbert Shieh, Quyên Nguyen-Le, Joseph Mangat, and R.J. Lozada, the four stories told here are widely varied, magnifying the diverse community from which each of them hail from or were affected by. Here you’ll learn about the military jet that crashed into a suburban home in 2008, killing four of its Korean inhabitants. Next, you’ll follow a Vietnamese mortuary worker as she struggles to keep family traditions alive amidst a family tragedy. Venture out late at night to the Gapo karaoke restaurant in National City, where you’ll meet the interesting Filipino patrons who have called it their home. Finally, attend the 1999 Montgomery High School reunion, where bits and pieces of life as a high school student 20 years ago are put together through interviews with director R.J. Lozada’s classmates. San Diego, through the lens of these different filmmakers, is so much more than Balboa Park, Sea World, and the Gaslamp District. It’s home to these vibrant communities and people.
While the film succeeds in showcasing the San Diegan Asian American community, what it really accomplishes is juggling its wide range of documentary styles that it employs to get that message across. Serving as a visual mosaic of sorts, The Paradise We Are Looking For reflects just how varied the talent from those communities are. Shieh’s “Two Miles East” is a mixture of found footage, archival news soundbites, and static image camerawork that reframes the accident as an ever-lingering, spectral tragedy. Nguyen-Le’s “The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard” captures emotions and impromptu events on the fly as their characters’ situation quickly unfurls. Mangat’s “Bidyoke” is voyeuristic, only being interrupted when his karaoke singers are asked questions about their backgrounds. R.J. Lozada’s “Reunion ’99” is the most direct, approaching his film with Q&As and direct voiceover participation from the filmmaker himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that each short film is bound by a common theme and sequenced one after the other, there seems to be little else holding them together. Think of The Paradise We Are Looking For as a shorts program of its own–curated by producer and SDAFF artistic director Brian Hu. Separately, the shorts might invite confusion, but together they prove a larger point. Together, they stand strong.
However, that doesn’t completely absolve the scant flaws that appear throughout the film. Pacing issues drag down a majority of the first segment due to its glacial movements through San Diego and apparent non-sequiturs. Not helping is the lack of coherency for non-native San Diegans who don’t know anything about the Yoon tragedy–audiences familiar with the event might be able to tie together the shots of naval bases, Korean churches, and neighborhoods with ease, but others will be kept in the dark thanks to the segment’s loose narrative structure. It’s a tough choice starting out with such a local tragedy as the introduction to San Diego, but it’s even more damaging starting off a series of films with the slowest moving one. While “The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard” remains the most interesting entry thanks to its subject matter and raw storytelling, a dirty camera lens largely distracts from the content of the film in many, many scenes. The final two films, which are tied to a very specific time and place, work well within the context but doesn’t make further points about them other than gesturing to the existence of karaoke bars and high schools in San Diego. Yes, both are personal to their directors (“Montgomery ’99” more than “Bidyoke”), but outside of the larger framework of the film, they don’t seem to be making any greater statements. “The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard,” for example, asks how second-generation Asian Americans will deal with their family’s funeral traditions once their parents pass–raising questions of what responsibilities they have to retain their culture. In the last two segments, few questions of that caliber are brought to your attention.
While The Paradise We Are Looking For might not be the perfect documentary, it remains a great watch for anyone interested in learning about San Diego and its many diasporic communities. For people like me who don’t know much about how other Asian Americans live throughout the world, it’s a great starting point. But most importantly, it’s a film that rightfully captures the spirit of the San Diego Asian Film Festival by spotlighting local talent, telling local stories, and celebrating local communities. The 20th edition of the film festival couldn’t have kicked off in a better way.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Header photo: Still from Quyên Nguyen-Le’s “The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard” segment.