7 Reel Asian Film Festival titles worth your time, and how to watch from home

Vancouver’s Chan Family, a driving force behind the freeway fight in the Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods, appears in this 1968 still photo. Their story is featured in Karen Cho's Big Fight in Little Chinatown, one of many films at the Reel Asian Film Festival available to stream online. (Tony Westman - image credit)
Vancouver’s Chan Family, a driving force behind the freeway fight in the Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods, appears in this 1968 still photo. Their story is featured in Karen Cho's Big Fight in Little Chinatown, one of many films at the Reel Asian Film Festival available to stream online. (Tony Westman - image credit)

Toronto's Reel Asian Film Festival launched for its 26th year earlier this week, featuring films from creators spread all across the world.

It was also something of a homecoming for the festival, which, like many others, were forced to switch to a virtual format for the past two years. Now back in person, organizers promised to deliver a festival focused on community — without leaving the rest of the country behind.

Here, CBC gathers some of the most exciting films at this year's festival, many of which are available for $15 digital streaming from anywhere in Canada.

The Grizzlie Truth

98 minutes
Streaming Nov. 14 - 17

Filmmaker Kathleen Jayme's The Grizzlie Truth already took home the Audience Award at VIFF earlier this year, for a tongue-in-cheek documentary firmly rooted in the city's history.

The iconic basketball team — who, along with the Toronto Raptors, joined the league in 1995 as the first two modern Canadian franchises — lasted only six seasons in Vancouver before relocating to Memphis as an athletic and financial dud. While everything from a lack of sponsorships to poor draft picks to the NBA lockout have been put forward as the reason (not to mention losing more than 70 per cent of all their games) Jayme says there's something more.

In her fourth film on the team, Jayme talked to former Grizzlies players Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby — and uncovers more about the story than you're probably aware of.

Stay the Night

89 minutes
Streaming Nov. 14-17

Star Andrea Bang and director Renuka Jeyapalan reunite for this subdued romance after years collaborating on Kim's Convenience. And though this film about a woman stuck in an extended and awkward meet-cute with an NHL hockey player takes place over the course of a single night, it took years to make.

Filmed over three subsequent Marches due to reshoots and COVID-related delays, Bang said she was just glad to see it makes it way to the festival.

"It's a film that is a love letter to Toronto. It was made in Toronto and it was set actually in Toronto, and not a lot of films usually are," she told CBC. "So I just am really, really honoured and excited that it is being shown there."

Outside its Reel Asian streaming window, Stay the Night is releasing in theatres Friday, Nov. 18 in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa.

Riceboy Sleeps

117 minutes

Riceboy Sleeps has already swept up a number of awards — pulling in the Best Canadian Film Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and a prestigious $25,000 award at the Windsor International Film Festival.

Inspired by Canadian writer, director and star Anthony Shim's own life, it follows a young boy and his mother in the years after they emigrate from South Korea to Canada, and their eventual (brief) return.

It features Canadian actors Ethan Hwang, 17, and Dohyun Noel Hwang, 8, and a show-stopping performance by first-time actor Choi Seung-yoon, a South Korean ballet dancer. Though the festival opener is the only film on this list not available online and without a confirmed release date, Shim said a wider release could come soon — while remarking on the positive reception it has already enjoyed.

"When I set out to make this film, the goal was to, you know, make something that I thought would affect people in a positive way and move people, move audiences," he told CBC. "But I never imagined that it would be received in this manner."

Therapy Dogs

83 minutes
Streaming Nov. 14-20

Another debut feature this year, 21-year-old Ethan Eng's Therapy Dogs was filmed at his high school — completely in secret.

The coming-of-age movie follows Ethan (played by Eng) along with his friend Justin (Justin Morrice) in a meta-story about their final year of high school. He, along with a small number of collaborators, disguised the project as a yearbook project — roping in friends and teachers without letting any of them in on the secret, and without much of a fear of getting caught.

"Teachers are slow. We could outrun them at any second, any kind of authority we could outrun," he said. "The only real struggle for me was the detriment of my social life, because I had a GoPro in my face the whole time."

Beyond Extinction: Sinixt Resurgence

103 minutes
Streaming Nov. 14-20

Canadian filmmaker Ali Kazimi spent more than twenty years producing Beyond Extinction: Sinixt Resurgence. It started in 1995, when a Vancouver lawyer and friend told him about an unusual immigration case he was handling — a Sinixt man, who was being deported from Canada and argued he should be allowed to stay on his traditional territory.

The government's response? Since the Sinixt people had been declared extinct in 1956, he wasn't protected by any legislation, and so would have to go.

The only problem there, Kazimi said, was that they were far from extinct. The film itself follows the story of local Sinixt leader Marilyn James's fight to have her people recognized, as well as Kazimi's own experience as an immigrant to Canada.

"This is, in a way, the perfect festival for it," Kazimi said. "The film is about the intersection of two south Asians — myself and Zool Suleman,  the refugee and immigration lawyer —  intersecting in different ways over a long period of time, and with the ongoing struggle of an indigenous community."

All that Breathes

91 minutes

Another film that does not have a streaming option at the festival, All That Breathes has already picked up critical accolades, being dubbed "extraordinary" by the Los Angeles Times, "masterful" by and winning the world cinema prize for best documentary at Sundance.

The Shaunak Sen-directed piece follows two brothers in New Delhi who care for injured birds of prey, often sickened by pollution in the city. But for those who missed their shot to see it in Toronto, a representative for Bell Media's Crave confirmed it will debut on the streaming platform in 2023.

Big Fight in Little Chinatown

87 minutes
Streaming Nov. 14-20 (excluding Quebec)

Canadian documentarian Karen Cho's Big Fight in Little Chinatown will see its world premiere at DOC NYC this Friday, but Canadians won't have to wait much longer to get a look.

Following an in-person screening on Nov. 13, the documentary about gentrification of Chinatowns in cities from New York, to Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco will be available online until Nov. 20.

Cho, who is based in Montreal, studied at Concordia University's film production program before going on to release a series of documentaries focused on heritage and social justice, including the National Film Board-sponsored In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, Seeking Refuge and  Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada.