The 10th-annual Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival is screening through Nov. 19 at area venues.
At 7:40 p.m. Nov. 11, the festival will present the Philadelphia premiere of “Signature Move,” a savory lesbian rom-com at the Lightbox Film Center.
Zaynab (co-writer Fawzia Mirza) is a lesbian immigration lawyer in Chicago. Her traditional Pakistani mother, Parveen (Shabana Azmi), has moved in with her after her husband died, and now Parveen won’t leave the house. She sits around watching soap operas and peering out the window with her binoculars, looking for a suitable husband for her daughter. Parveen also tells her daughter that she should marry a man, not look like one.
Of course Zaynab has no intention of marrying a man, Pakistani or otherwise. However, she has not — and feels she cannot — tell her mom that she’s only interested in dating women. But then Zaynab meets Alma (Sari Sanchez), a bookstore owner, in a bar. After some tequila shots, the women end up in bed together. Zaynab is smitten, but she is also wary: Alma is not necessarily looking for a relationship, and her comfort with her sexuality causes the closeted Zaynab some discomfort.
As the two women get to know each other and fall in love, Zaynab must find a way of dealing with her conflicting emotions. She does this through wrestling. Taking lessons from a client, Jayde (Audrey Francis), Zaynab eventually finds herself training to wrestle in a Lucha libre match.
Although the central characters in “Signature Move” are all stubborn, they never come across as one-dimensional or caricatures. Zaynab may be reluctant to come out, but she is sure of her emotions and wants to forge her own path through life. She is aware of the intricacies of Pakistani mother/daughter relationships as well as the difficulties of lesbian romances.
In contrast, Alma may have a close relationship with her accepting mother, Rosa (Charin Alvarez), a former Lucha libre wrestler herself, but she has emotional issues when it comes to finding love. Lastly, Parveen, who has become more conservative in America, may be capable of change; just watch her try on makeup in one scene.
The South-Asian and Latina characters connect through food and soap operas — where the heart is driven by feeling, not language — as well as wrestling. What the film illustrates is how everyone wants the same thing: love.
Despite the characters’ emotional anxieties, “Signature Move” has a relaxed vibe that makes it is easy to want Zaynab and Alma to get together. Watching Zaynab speak from the heart to Alma about navigating her life is touching, as is a scene where Jayde gives Zaynab some sage relationship advice. The wrestling scenes are fun too, even if they seem as choreographed as the central romance.
Nevertheless, “Signature Move” is an enchanting romance and features engaging, likable performances by Mirza, Sanchez and Azmi.
At 11 a.m. Nov. 19, the festival will present a free screening of “Sex Sells,” a 48-minute shorts program with three queer-themed entries, at Asian Arts Initiative.
“Cake,” written and directed by Anne Hu, is an amusing short about Eliza (Daniella Rabbani), who brings home sex robot Jade Oh (Hu) to spice things up with her husband, Thomas (Tom Lacey). But where Eliza is adventurous and wants to express herself sexually with Jade Oh, Thomas is more conventional. Jade Oh’s silent acknowledgement of the couple’s conflict is clever and witty, and this short features just the right amount of naughtiness.
In fewer than six minutes, writer/director Ryan Michael Connolly’s “The Hierarchy of Needs” tells the story of Jonathan (Christopher Aguilar), a gay Filipino-American caught in a bind of his own making. When his roommate asks him for rent, Jonathan arranges a meeting with his grandmother Lynne (Marylin Tokuda) to address the problem. He then meets up with Chase (Jayson Glick) to ease his despair. It’s a quietly powerful film.
The third queer short, “Please Hold,” is also excellent. Danny (Mike Ball) is a gay Asian guy who panics after his condom breaks during an anonymous sexual encounter in a parking lot. As he takes an HIV test, he calls a help line and speaks to Logan (Ben Warner), inadvertently pouring his heart out, talking about his mother, his low self-esteem and feeling punished for being gay. His monologues about his need for love and connection are heartfelt and moving. “Please Hold” should resonate with anyone who has needed to reach out and feel a stronger sense of self and security. And it features a graceful ending.
There are two other non-queer shorts in the program. “Dear Mother” is a poignant and affecting documentary about Kayla Tange, a Korean adoptee who reads a letter she wrote to the birth mother she never met. Rounding out the program is “I am Jupiter,” a sex-themed revenge thriller set in the Philippines that contains no dialogue (there are a few intertitles) but some striking imagery.