Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival
Louanne joined Reel Asian in 2009 as a volunteer on the Special Events Committee. Since then, she has taken on the staff roles of Director of Marketing, Managing Director and currently oversees the festival’s sponsorships, grants and finance as the Executive Director. Prior to Reel Asian, Louanne worked in the business development department at Ronald McDonald House Charities Toronto and taught English in Taiwan. Louanne holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a specialization in International Business and East Asia from McGill University.
Interview conducted on 12/09/2016 (Reel Asian International Film Festival Office, 401 Richmond Street)
throwdown815: You've been involved with Reel Asian since 2010 - how did you first get involved with the festival?
Louanne Chan (Reel Asian): I became staff in 2010, but actually joined the special events committee in 2009 as a volunteer. And I guess I found out about the festival because my sister's a filmmaker, and she had her work shown at Reel Asian over 10 years ago and I started attending for that reason. But I also grew up watching a lot of Hong Kong films, so I also just always had an interest in Asian cinema. And when I moved to Toronto in 2006, I was actually volunteering for the Chinese Canadian National Council, and I saw a Reel Asian post card, thought it looked really cool and thought - on my god, I can't believe there's an actual film festival showing Asian films. Because growing up in Hamilton, no such thing existed. In fact, even today, there is no Asian film festival in Hamilton. So I started attending and thought it was a really good idea. I thought it was cool that you could watch an Asian film in an actual theatre, unlike when I was young you would always just watch it at home on VHS or TV. So i joined their mailing list, and there was a call out for volunteers on the special events committee. That's how I joined. And I was in another job at the time, but I just got bored of my job. And right around the time when I was thinking of quitting my job, they were looking for a marketing person, so timing just worked out really well for me. I started as the director of marketing in 2010.
td815: So prior to joining Reel Asian in 2010, you weren't actually involved in the film industry.
LC: No, never actually. I didn't study film, I actually did a business degree and interestingly enough, I did a business degree that was in international business. And at the time at McGill, you could specialize in one part of the world as a specialty and so I chose East Asia. And within that program, you did half of your course load in the business program, and the other half course load within the arts. And for me that was really interesting because I could take Chinese language classes, Chinese cinema classes, Chinese history and culture classes and I think that really heightened my personal interest in East Asia.
td815: And 2006 was when you first moved to Toronto, meaning you were in Hamilton the whole time before?
LC: Yeah, and I went to McGill as well so lived in Montreal for 5 years. And then after that I went back to Hamilton for a short while, and moved to Toronto in 2006.
td815: I read your Huffington Post article where you talk about how growing up in Hamilton, outside of your home and immediate family, there was a lack of Asian representation. And for obvious reasons, this was an issue. I'm just wondering, since coming to Toronto, would you say that this idea of there being a lack of Asian representation has become less of an issue for you?
LC: I think definitely for me personally it's less of an issue. I think first and foremost, there's just a much higher percentage of Asians amongst the Toronto population versus the Hamilton population. So just by having more Asians around me, I now interact with a lot more Asians and I have a lot more Asian friends. But also, I think that influences the culture around me too. Even the existence of Reel Asian is a perfect example. But you know, the number of Asian restaurants and cafes that you can go to. The fact that there's Pacific Mall, which basically makes you feel like you're in Hong Kong. None of that existed in Hamilton and it still doesn't, so I think just by being surrounded by a higher number of Asians, it's definitely helped me appreciate my cultural heritage more. But also, it made me feel more connected to my own cultural heritage.
td815: And in terms of Asian representation in the media itself, that's a separate issue. And to me, I think there's definitely been an improvement when it comes to Asians being represented in film and television over the past 10-15 years. Would you agree with that?
LC: It's funny, in a way I wanna say that it's improving, but I also feel that sometimes we come full circle and we come back to the beginning. I saw that because now with the influx of conversation happening on social media, it almost feels like the issues have heightened because more people are talking about it. Whereas 10-15 years ago, it was a problem and people were talking about it, but unless you were within those communities, you probably wouldn't be a part of that discussion. Whereas now, it's way more prevalent. So, I would like to say that if you were to measure things, you would definitely see more Asians in the media. But at the same time, I think there's now more awareness in these issues, and more people are trying to do something about it. So in a way, this heightened advocacy also feels like we haven't progressed this far.
td815: So I guess just because people are talking about the issue more, it doesn't necessarily translate to there actually being more Asians on screen?
LC: Yeah, and obviously, being part of Reel Asian, I would say that having the existence of it has helped. Because prior to the existence of Reel Asian, unless you went to one of the few Chinese cinemas in Chinatown - like me growing up - essentially the only way you could watch something is by renting it on VHS. Probably from a convenience store that was run by Asians.
td815: It's funny you bring up Chinatown, because I always hear my parents talking about a time when there were actual Chinese theatres in Chinatown playing movies from Hong Kong. And it just seemed like Toronto really had an 'Asian film scene' back then. Whereas today, I don't know if Toronto actually has a film scene for Asians outside of film festivals like Reel Asian or TIFF.
LC: Since starting at Reel Asian, I've definitely noticed more Asian film distributors bringing films to Toronto for theatrical releases at traditional cinemas like at Yonge-Dundas. One of them I remember in particular - because they were one of the first on the scene - was a company called China Lion Film Distribution. They would bring some of the more commercial Asian films that you wouldn't normally be able to see unless you went to a film festival. I think the only thing with that is, yes you could access these films more regularly throughout the year, but in my experience going to them, it still didn't quite bring out the Asian community in the same way a film festival would. And they rarely would bring in talent. So you could still go watch the movie in the non-festival period. But you wouldn't have the advantage of coming to a film festival and meeting the director, asking them questions and engaging with them. And this, you know, is the kind of heightened experience you get at a film festival.
td815: Right, and Reel Asian also does events and screenings throughout the year to try to re-create this experience outside of the festival period.
LC: Yes, exactly.
td815: And while we're on the topic of watching Asian movies. You mentioned before that you're a fan of Hong Kong cinema. And for me, with the exception of being in Kingston for a few years for school, I've essentially spent my whole life in Scarborough, Markham and downtown Toronto. And this means I know a lot of Asian people. But my experience is that most Asian people here in Canada, and I suppose North America as well, don't necessarily keep up with Asian cinema. And I don't mean keeping up with Hollywood movies and TV shows that star Asian actors, I'm talking about films from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, etc. And to me, that's always been frustrating. Do you think it's important for Asians to be keeping up with (international) Asian cinema?
LC: Yes, I think it's just as important to support Asians in Asian cinema. In fact, I feel like it's more important to support them in their own cinema than necessarily only supporting them in Hollywood. Because that sends the wrong message that the only way to be successful is for an Asian to get into Hollywood, right? And the truth is, if you look at Hong Kong, they have been making films for almost as long as Hollywood, and doing a way better job than a lot of Hollywood films too. And sometimes, you see a lot of Asian films being remade in Hollywood. And a perfect example is, most recently there was a South Korean film called Trained to Busan which you may have seen. And it did really well in box office sales - it showed here at Toronto After Dark, it showed at the Royal, and I feel like it also showed at Yonge-Dundas. And just yesterday, my sister sent me an article that it got picked up by somebody in Hollywood and they're gonna remake it. So now you're actually seeing people in Hollywood turning to Asian cinema as their role model of films that are doing really well, stories that are really unique and coming out of Asia and not Hollywood. So, I worry that if people think that the only way to be successful is to get to Hollywood, that it's actually a little backwards in the progress we're trying to make.
td815: And would you say that Reel Asian is playing a role in this, in that it's trying to expose people to international Asian cinema, who would have not been exposed to it otherwise?
LC: A hundred percent. And a really great story I love to share is this. Reel Asian was traditionally in downtown Toronto, but about 6 years ago we expanded to include Richmond Hill as part of the festival. And as you know, in Richmond Hill there is a huge Asian community, and so when we went there, it was kind of a natural move for us because there were so many Asians out there who wanted to see Asian films. In our very first year there, we showed Ip Man 2 and I remember there was a Caucasian man who came to see the film. He was probably almost 60 years old, and he came out of the film and said that it was the first Hong Kong film he had ever seen in his entire life. And for somebody who had lived in Richmond Hill for so many years, surrounded by Asian neighbours, he always had the curiosity there, he just never had the access and maybe never felt comfortable or knew to go to Pacific Mall. So his first time was at our film festival. And it made me feel that this was also the reason why we're around too. Yes, it's so that Asians can support Asian cinema, but it's also so that non-Asians can be exposed to Asian cinema that they've never seen before.
td815: That's a great story. Now, I know that this year was the 20th anniversary for Reel Asian. Compared to the beginning when Reel Asian was first started - knowing that you weren't involved right at the beginning - how has the Reel Asian film festival changed over the years?
LC: Because this was the 20th year and a year of reflection for us, although I wasn't around in the beginning of Reel Asian, I actually went back into the program guides and I wanted to see what kind of programming we showed and just see how the message has changed. And one thing that sticks out for me is definitely the size of the festival. Naturally, when Reel Asian first started it was much much smaller. It started on a $5000 grant, it was only a couple of days long, but most interestingly, it only showed Asian North American work at the time. Because the founders had actually traveled around to many Asian American film festivals prior to starting Reel Asian, and that's where they got the inspiration to come back and start the festival. And when you go to all the Asian American film festivals, you're also exposed to lots of Asian North American work. So for them, they felt it was important for Asians in Canada to be exposed to lots of Asian North American work - knowing that work from Asia was starting to get exposure, but not work form Asian North America. And of course, with Asian North America, that also includes local Asian work too, so they really tried to make it a focus to ensure that we were showing local work too. So if you look at the first couple of years, the very first year is only Asian North American work. And as the years go on, they started to introduce more international work. But the other thing I noticed in the first year, which was great to see, is that there was a short film made by Justin Lin - now from the Fast & Furious franchise - so he was actually involved in the early days of the festival. And there was another short film that starred Sandra Oh, who we now recognize as somebody who's entered Hollywood. And there was another short film that starred John Cho. So it's really great to see Reel Asian supporting these artists early in their careers and seeing them make it big today.
td815: So would you say that this is still an emphasis for Reel Asian today? Because I've only been attending the festival for a few years, but it seems like the program only includes a few 'big' movies each year. And by that I'm referring to some of the bigger films from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea - and a majority of what's being shown is still the smaller independent films, many of which are from North America. So it seems like supporting local talent is still part of the mandate of the festival.
LC: It's definitely still a part of the mandate, but we also have a mandate to show international Asian work. Part of it is, there's so many amazing films coming out from Asia that it would not do the industry justice to not show it. But at the same time, we're trying to respond to what our audiences want to see. So now that Asian films and Asian culture are starting to enter the mainstream, not just through film but through music and fashion, we're also responding to what people are looking for. And international Asian films definitely play a large part in drawing the audience to the festival.
td815: Final two questions. So I read on your profile that you're a huge Daniel Wu fan..
LC: Oh no, I should probably update that.
td815: It's a fun fact! So what's your favourite Daniel Wu movie?
LC: Hmm, this is so embarrassing because I know his most recent work was that terrible Bad Lands show. And I didn't even watch it because I saw the trailer and did not feel good watching the show. I would have to go back to the Overheard series, which we also shown at the festival. Unfortunately, we were never able to bring him. But, I would say the Overheard films is my favourite.
td815: I was actually going to ask you about Bad Lands, because if you watched the show then you would have to be a true fan. I tried watching the first episode, and it wasn't good at all.
LC: So the trailer's as bad as the show?
td815: Exactly. Now, final question. What is your most memorable Reel Asian experience?
LC: Okay, so this year we did a project called 20/20, and I did one of them but I don't think we've uploaded it online yet. It was just shown onscreen at the festival, but the story that I shared there, which was my most memorable moment is this. I grew up watching a lot of Hong Kong movies, so Simon Yam is somebody who I've seen in a ton of movies. And, one year, we showed a trilogy of short films called Tales from the Dark. And since he was in one of them, we invited him to the festival and he actually agreed to come. Now, leading up to him coming, I was actually very very excited for his arrival. And one of my jobs was to pick him up from the airport, being one of the few staff who could speak Cantonese. So I picked him up from the airport, and we had to take him out for dim sum and everything. I have to say, the whole time, I was like screaming inside but I had to obviously on the outside keep it cool and not like play crazy fan girl. But what's funny is, when I was younger, I had actually met him one time when I was in Hong Kong with my family over 20 years ago. And at the time, I think we were at a show or something, saw him at a lobby and we stopped him and I took this photo with him. So when he came to the festival a couple of years ago, I thought to myself, I should dig up the photo and get him to autograph it. So I actually found the photo and kept it with me during the festival, but I never worked up the courage to ask him. Which in hindsight I wish I did, but at the same time, It just kind of spoke to how in aww I was of him. He's a huge role model I think for a lot of people who grew up watching Hong Kong movies. And he was the nicest most down-to-earth person ever too. Very charismatic, charming, friendly, but I think for me, just thinking of all my experiences, that's probably the most memorable. You know, if you asked me when I was younger, like 6 years old watching his movies - do you think you would ever meet this man? There's no way I would've thought it would happen.