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Destabilizing Agents

DisOrient film fest seeks to upend stereotypes of Asian-Americans

In his groundbreaking 1978 book Orientalism, the late critic Edward Said went after the West’s misconceptions about the exotic and inscrutable otherness of Asian cultures, often so lavishly and fantastically portrayed in colonial writing. “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient,” Said wrote, “the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself.”

In the West, stereotypes about Asians and Asian culture are persistent and often particularly tenacious — i.e., bad drivers, tight-lipped and clannish, whiz-bang at math. The 10th Annual DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon, running April 17-19 at the Bijou Art Cinemas, seeks to rattle through the pop art of cinema our longstanding misconceptions by deconstructing media stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Among the offerings at DisOrient is a slew of world and Oregon premieres as well as workshops, lectures and Q&A sessions with many of the films’ directors, producers and writers. For instance, the Saturday, April 18, showing at 9:23 pm of Eat With Me will be followed by an appearance by writer-director David Au and lead actor Sharon Omi.

On its surface, Eat With Me is a simple romantic comedy. Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver) is a young gay man living in Los Angeles and running a failing restaurant — he’s just not a very good cook, cranking out standard Asian fare for a customer base rapidly dwindling to zero. When his mother, Emma (the wonderful Sharon Omi), leaves her “asshole” husband, she seeks out her estranged son, showing up at his workplace with a suitcase and a scared, helpless look. She moves into his messy bachelor pad, where she commences cleaning and, when Teddy’s not around, discovering with discomfort the accouterments (Condoms! Beefcake magazines!) of her son’s gay lifestyle.

Per DisOrient’s mission of destabilizing our expectations about all things Asian, the trajectory of Eat With Me is at once familiar and disarming. Emma at first seems the classic Asian-American wife and mother — taciturn, servile, disapproving — and yet it is her openness and warmth that works (with a little help from an accidental hit of ecstasy) to break the ice with Teddy, who, against stereotypes of a more “progressive” young generation, is walled-off and alienated by his own sexuality.

In the end, Eat With Me, despite following a pat rom-com formula, begs a reassessment of the gulf that divides Asian-Americans, both from Western culture and among themselves in the family unit. Of course, any thawing of homophobic tension is greatly facilitated by George Takei of Star Trek fame, who makes a lovely cameo in a park to comfort Emma after she walks in on Elliot and his new lover.

The 10th Annual DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon plays April 17-19 at Bijou Art Cinemas (492 E. 13th Ave.), with more special events held at New Hope Christian College, Sam Bond’s Brewery and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. For tickets and a full list of screenings and events, visit disorientfilm.org and