REFUGEE

Directed by Spencer Nakasako

Grand Jury Prize, 2003 San Diego Asian Film Festival

“It’s a whole lotta truth,” says 24-year-old Michael Siv. He’s still processing the stories being told to him by his family in Cambodia, from where he and his mother fled 22 years before. Growing up in San Francisco, he was never told these details about why he and his mother left but his dad stayed behind. But now he’s ready for the truth. To reconcile his feelings about growing up fatherless and a refugee, Mike and two Cambodian American friends, Paul and David, fly to Cambodia to seek out family known only through telephone calls and stories–if at all.

There is a language barrier, especially for Paul and David, two rambunctious Americans suddenly rendered speechless. But there’s a cultural one too, particularly about notions of being a father and husband, codes of masculinity Mike as a Tenderloin kid find non-negotiable. But this is his dad, a man who knows more than he the effects of the Khmer Rouge, and who now cherishes this unforeseen opportunity to rest an arm on his son’s shoulder as Mike belts “Everytime You Go Away” in karaoke. Between a son who needs to talk and a father who’s never had to are immense tides of regret washing against what both wish could be family love. Meanwhile, Paul, as the first member of his family to return to Cambodia, reunites with an older sister and discovers his role as a provider to a family way poorer than he, even as a teen from the streets, could ever fathom.

16 years after REFUGEE’s debut, the film has lost none of its humor and emotional depth packed tightly into an unforgettable hour. It also remains one of American documentary’s finest works of self-reflection, a product of Spencer Nakasako’s famed video programs for San Francisco’s Vietnamese Youth Development Center, where he also produced classics like aka Don Bonus and Kelly Loves Tony, diaristic documentaries that predated the YouTube vlogging that would revolutionize Asian American media in the coming generation.   

–Brian Hu

Co-Presented by SDSU World Cinema, University of San Diego – Prof. Huston

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