Telling AAPI Stories in Virtual Reality

by Sue Ding

This year at Sundance, it was exciting to see Asian American and Pacific Islander creators and narratives in the spotlight. Films like Mindy Kaling’s LATE NIGHT and Lulu Wang’s THE FAREWELL starring Awkwafina, sparked rave reviews and high-profile acquisitions. AAPI voices were featured across the festival programming, as well as at panels and events like the 15th Annual Asian Pacific Filmmakers Experience (co-organized by Visual Communications).

 This year’s festival also saw the launch of the Programmers of Colour Collective (POC2), and Critical Minded, a new initiative supporting critics of color. Meanwhile, Sundance's Press Inclusion Initiative provided stipends to more than 50 freelance journalists (including this writer) from underrepresented communities. Together with the films on view, these programs suggested that while there is still much work to be done, diversity is increasingly being centered and institutionalized in substantive ways.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

New Frontier, now in its 13th year, is Sundance’s program for innovative and boundary-breaking work: experimental films and performances, virtual and mixed reality, and interactive installations. Nearly half of this year’s projects are led by one or more women, and almost 40% are led by one or more creators of color. This commitment to inclusion is essential in a space where creators are not only telling powerful stories, but also helping to shape society’s understanding and use of new technology.

 Asian Americans occupy a complex position in the field of emerging media. East and South Asian men make up a large demographic in the tech workforce, and there is a robust VR industry in several Asian countries. However, AAPI in tech and media are often dismissed as narrowly focused engineers, rather than recognized as creative leaders. Asian American women, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and other groups also face additional hurdles. As a result, there is still a substantial gap in representation and access when it comes to AAPI creators and stories in new media.

 This year, in an encouraging sign of progress, Sundance’s New Frontier program featured a number of projects by Asian and Asian American artists, representing a broad range of stories and perspectives:

THE TIDE, by TaekyungYoo, is an episodic story about a future world terrorized by man-eating giant sea creatures. This unique dystopia is brought to life through striking animation and creative use of scale and perspective shifts—although it relies a bit too heavily on these devices, leading to some disorienting moments. The experience remains compellingly suspenseful, however, and hauntingly bleak.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

LIVE STREAM FROM YUKI<3, by Tsung-Han Tsai, creatively portrays the world of livestreaming celebrity culture. YUKI takes advantage of VR’s spatial storytelling possibilities by having internet commenters—no longer hidden behind their avatars—pop up around Yuki’s living room, but ultimately turns into a heavy-handed horror narrative (with a twist straight out of the classic anime PERFECT BLUE).

GHOST FLEET VR, by Lucas Gath and Shannon Service, is a companion piece to a feature documentary. The VR piece follows one man’s horrific story of being kidnapped into slavery in the Thai fishing industry. His account is compelling, but would be equally powerful, if not more so, in a traditional film format. Since none of his ordeal was captured on camera, the piece largely consists of everyday fishing scenes; animation or archival might offer more effective imagery. Furthermore, neither production lead is Thai, which arguably contributes to a distancing perspective even in this brief piece.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Of all the New Frontier projects by AAPI creators and/or featuring AAPI narratives, the most impressive was MECHANICAL SOULS, by GaëlleMourre and L. P. Lee. Hopping genres between comedy, sci-fi, and thriller, the project follows two Taiwanese families as they plan a fancy wedding, complete with a malfunctioning android bridesmaid. It also combines several storytelling approaches, including live actors, VR, and AI, and draws on both game mechanics and film language to effectively and subtly shape the interactive experience. Planned as part one of a series, the experience left participants eager for more.

 It was exciting to see this work by AAPI creators at New Frontier this year, but it is also crucial to continue growing both representation and access for the AAPI community in this space. To this end, VC will be launching a new emerging media program at this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The program will take place throughout the Festival at multiple venues, with the goal of showcasing Asian American creators and narratives.

New technologies and media including virtual reality, augmented/mixed reality, mobile apps, and AI present enormous creative, social, and political potential. They may also, like older media forms, be used to exclude, mislead, and do harm. As part of VC’s mission to support AAPI voices and empower diverse communities, this new emerging media program will seek to represent a wide range of experiences, and share emerging media stories and technology with its intersectional, international, and intergenerational community.

Sue Ding is a Senior Programmer of New Media for the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. A documentary filmmaker and immersive media producer, her work explores the intersection of identity, storytelling, and visual culture. Sue is also passionate about dessert, the desert, speculative fiction, and supporting women and POC in both traditional and emerging media.