A still from Americanish. Credit: Diverse Films LLC

The 21st annual D.C. Asian Pacific American Film Festival explores a rich array of distinct cultures. Featuring 55 films from nine countries, it streams online from July 15 to 25 and closes with an in-person screening of The Girl Who Left Home at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. These independent productions revel in Hollywood tropes, but each puts a regional flavor on a vanilla template—for example, in more than one case, food plays a crucial role in cross-cultural conflicts. The Girl Who Left Home wasn’t available for preview, but it’s the debut feature from Rockville native Mallorie Ortega. The musical dramedy tells the story of a young Filipino American woman who puts aside her career dreams to help keep her family’s business afloat. Based on the high quality of the titles we did screen, the festival will be a thoroughly entertaining look at the Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant experience in America.

Lumpia With a Vengeance

“Nobody will get that! It’s too Filipino!” That’s what one unfortunate villain tells high school student Rachel (April Absynth) when she explains her crime-fighting name Ate Hero is a pun on generational honorifics. Director Patricio Ginelsa’s rambunctious second feature is indeed very Filipino, but as with lumpia, everyone will want seconds. In fact, Lumpia With a Vengeance is a belated sequel to Ginelsa’s low-budget action comedy Lumpia (2003), which depicted students dealing with bullies at a predominantly Filipino high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a bigger budget and an exuberant pop art sheen, Ginelsa follows up with his high school charges 18 years later—in comic book movie form.

Vengeance tracks a vigilante known as Lumpia Man (Mark Muñoz), who tries to protect his reputation from a crime gang that sells drug-laced versions of the Filipino egg roll that gives him his name. Ginelsa makes a running joke out of mistaken culinary identity: News reports initially claim that murder victims have been found with taquitos sticking out of their mouths, but Fogtown’s Filipino mayor clarifies the distinction for a press conference filled with reporters who still don’t get it. Comic book graphics introduce each character and punctuate fight scenes, and the sight of greasy, delicious lumpia being wielded as deadly weapons may seem silly. But despite that surface glitz, food is a powerful metaphor. When used for good, it unites people of different cultures; laced with drugs, it’s a corruption of the culture. Even without that subtext, Vengeance is a wild ride, with Muñoz, a former mixed martial arts fighter, as a strong and mostly silent presence. Watch for genre veteran Danny Trejo as a rival drug lord.

The cast and crew of Lumpia With a Vengeance will participate in a live virtual Q&A on Sunday, July 18, at 6 p.m. All audience members who buy a pass or purchase a ticket will get a link to a free digital copy of a comic book tie-in.

Americanish

Hijabi American Muslim Iman K. Zawahry makes her feature directorial debut with this endearing rom-com about three women who try to reconcile varying degrees of Pakistani tradition with the dating pool in Jackson Heights, Queens. Maryam (Aizzah Fatima) is a PR specialist who reluctantly tries to make racist political candidate Douglas Smarts (George Wendt) more palatable for social media; her younger sister, Sam (Salena Qureshi), is getting ready to take the MCAT and dreams of attending Harvard; meanwhile, their cousin Ameera (Shenaz Treasury) is visiting America determined to meet and marry a Pakistani doctor. Naturally, each of the three women matches up with someone they least expect. But even if the plot is thoroughly predictable—as soon Ameera meets Black Muslim bodega owner Gabriel (Godfrey), you know they’ll end up together—the cast is likable enough to make it all work. 

The cast and crew of Americanish will appear for a live virtual Q&A on Thursday, July 15, at 9 p.m.

Dinner Party

First-time director Chris Naoki Lee grew up in an ethnically diverse community in Los Angeles, and based this timely and provocative drama on his own circle of friends. The slow-burning tension starts when Cal (Lee) brings his new girlfriend, Izzy (Imani Hakim), to meet his high school friends, most of whom he hasn’t seen in a decade. Hosting the party are Shannon (Kara Wang), the only woman in this gang of bros, and her husband, Vinny (Daniel Weaver, who also cowrote the script with Lee). In the backdrop of this amiable but uneasy reunion is the outcome of a fictional assault trial, which everyone is following on social media. This already tense group dynamic is fueled by the fact that Cal and his friends grew up in a different political climate—one in which a certain level of racial and sexual hostility was played for laughs, but their jokes just aren’t funny anymore, especially to outsiders. And coloring the proceedings is a dark secret that these friends share.

If the setup is contrived, Lee, who made the film in four days during the pandemic, deftly directs his ensemble cast, who are completely convincing in their roles as a bunch of old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. And the fictional trial case is a clever device, raising relevant questions without preconceived ideas of guilt. Dinner Party is a sober look at where society is today, suggesting that maybe we can’t all get along after all.

Take Out Girl

This flawed but ultimately moving crime drama from Guyanese American director Hisonni Mustafa revolves around Tera (Hedy Wong, who also cowrote and produced), who delivers orders for her family’s Chinese restaurant in a crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood. Tired of watching her mother, Wavy (Lynna Yee), working so hard just to break even, Tera decides to work with neighborhood drug kingpin Lalo (former Soul Train dancer Ski Carr), who seems to take a shine to the tough young woman, referring to her as “take out girl.” While Tera doesn’t like being part of the drug economy, it’s the only way to lift her family out of despair, but then her family’s past activities come back to haunt them all. Take Out Girl is sometimes too raw and the acting is inconsistent from scene to scene; but Wong is a formidable presence, Yee a steady elder, and Carr a vivid gold-toothed villain.

Correction: A previous version of this story based on incorrect materials misstated the number of films in the festival and the number of countries represented.