Interview: Sophia Wong Boccio of Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Closing-Night Gala on May 20, 2016

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CHICAGO – One of the gems of the Chicago film scene began last year, and is successfully finishing its second season. The Asian Pop-Up Film Festival is the invention of its founder, Sophia Wong Boccio, a Hong Kong native who has lived all over the world, but never forgot her background in film, rooted from her parents. With that passion, she began the festival to share her vast knowledge of films from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, and expand access to them in Chicago.

The final film of the second season will be a North American premiere, “The Mobfathers” – on Thursday, May 19th, 2016 – from Hong Kong director Herman Yau, followed by a Closing Night Gala the following evening on May 20th. Director Yau will be in attendance at both events, and Patrick McDonald of will moderate a Q&A with the director at the Gala. For more information about the premiere screening of “The Mobfathers,” click here. For more information about the Closing Night Gala, click here.

The Mobfathers
Asian Pop-Up Cinema Presents the North American Premiere of ‘The Mobfathers’
Photo credit: Asian Pop-Up Cinema

Sophia Wong Boccio was born and raised in Hong Kong, to parents who were both in the film industry there – her father was an award-winning film editor and her mother was an actress from the 1950s through the ‘70s. Sophia’s first life was as a successful business person, working for a Swiss multinational corporation in Hong Kong and Beijing, before shifting to represent a U.S. agribusiness trade association in Beijing during the 1990s. It was during that time she developed “Sophia’s Choice,” a film festival that highlighted Chinese subtitled films for expatriates and the diplomatic corp. Later in the 1990s, she moved to Sydney, Australia, and began to represent Asian filmmakers and film festivals there. She expanded her cinema interests when she moved to Chicago in 2000, working with the Chicago International Film Festival for seven years, and founding the Asian Pop-Up Cinema in 2015. sat down for a comprehensive interview with Sophia Wong Boccio, in anticipation of “The Mobfathers” North American premiere at the Asian Pop-Up Cinema, and the Closing Night Gala for the second season. You are wrapping up your second season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema with director Herman Yau’s ‘The Mobfathers.’ What makes this film the perfect choice to represent the spirit of your program?

Sophia Wong Boccio: First, it’s a bit personal. I’m from Hong Kong and it’s a Hong Kong film, and that’s how I wanted to end a season. ‘The Mobfathers’ also was released during a particular time in contemporary Hong Kong. There are a number of films that are starting to reference Hong Kong people’s feelings regarding the relationship with China. I respect the fact that director Herman Yau, and his actor and producer Chapman To, made a film that has some reference to the social aspect of Hong Kong, and the circumstances there right now.

I wouldn’t call it a political film, but it does reflect some of the sentiments of the Hong Kong people regarding the election process, and the people’s feelings that they can’t get their voices heard. This is also a Triad [Hong Kong organized crime] film, and that adds another layer to it – if you’re not interested in the political elements of the movie, it’s still a very entertaining gangster genre movie. Herman Yau balanced it very well. Personally, for me, it’s like ‘The Sopranos,’ because it’s about a guy’s life that is dysfunctional against his family and the crime gangs, it’s all reflected in the film and condensed in the protagonist. In association with the final film, you will be presenting a Closing Night Gala on May 20th. What will be special about that night, and how will it celebrate the philosophy of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema?

Wong Boccio: In a sense, it celebrates my first two back-to-back seasons for the Pop-Up Cinema – 24 screenings of 18 titles, along with five artists who have visited Chicago to represent their films. It’s a good first and second season wrap-up for the organization, which was a start up, and gives us a chance to assess and evaluate the overall concept, and our audiences reaction to it.

Having a director here as distinguished as Herman Yau is also an honor. I honor him, and he honors me with his support, so it’s a mutual celebration. We have created our very first Pinnacle Award for him, and the Award will become our future honor for other filmmakers. With his body of works over the last three decades, Herman Yau is very worthy of getting a career achievement award – he will be the first, and that is groundbreaking. What have you adjusted as you’ve gone along, in learning about how to run a film festival like the Asian Pop-Up Cinema?

Wong Boccio: Mostly it’s about understanding my audience better. What I have learned from collecting the viewer response questionnaires, is that my film choices are not a problem – the feedback has been positive regarding my choices so far. It was about the timing and scheduling of the festival that became important, how to make it convenient for people’s lives, and that was a challenge. This is not a condensed festival, over a few days, it’s drawn out over a few months. I wanted to design it to get it on people’s calendars, so they can follow and keep up with us.

Because of scheduling, I’ve already adjusted one screening time, especially for the suburban Wilmette screenings. I first screened on a Tuesday night there, but I found out that wasn’t good, because the suburban lifestyle means taking care of daily business during the weekdays. So in the second season, I moved it to Sunday afternoons, and attendance jumped by 50%. I also changed the programming to reflect those afternoon screenings, I’ve made the program more family friendly, and saved the more cutting edge films for the city folks. Besides programming the films I love, I also want the festival to serve the audience, to make them feel both entertained and educated.

Asian Pop Up
Spring 2016: A Sampling of Film Offerings of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema
Photo credit: Asian Pop-Up Cinema You were born in Hong Kong, and grew up with parents who were heavily associated with the film industry there. What is your favorite childhood memory about being on-the-scene in that vibrant film industry?

Wong Boccio: I always remember the big sound stages, with my mother putting on make up before her acting scenes. She was always telling me who-did-what on the set, which I didn’t absorb at the time. And often when there was a big scene, like a wedding, I would be pulled in as an extra to be one of the kids running around.

I did meet a few child stars at the time, but I never thought about them as anything more than kids, because we were all just kids. Many of them continued in the film industry. Nina Paw became a mainstream actress in the Hong Kong cinema, and her brother [Peter Pau] won an Oscar as Best Cinematographer for ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ You were a successful business person before you came back to film, with the launching of Sophia’s Choice during a stint in Beijing. Culturally, how was that festival different than doing a similar event in the United States?

Wong Boccio: Well, first to be clear. Sophia’s Choice began in Beijing in 1994, and I started it to bring films to the foreigners that lived there – so the target audience was not the Chinese. This was 22 years ago and there were no film venues for foreigners in Beijing, no films shown with subtitles, and of course no DVDs or internet. This was also around the time that directors like Chen Kaige [“Farewell My Concubine”] was getting recognition, and the actress Gong Li, who was gaining fame.

There were expatriates and diplomats who would hear about the films from European friends, but they weren’t available in China. So basically with Sophia’s Choice I was filling a void. I would make it my pet project on Friday nights. I also wrote a newsletter advertising the event and hand delivered around the city and to the various diplomatic compounds – there was no email. It was more or less underground when it first started. Did the Chinese film community take notice?

Wong Boccio: After I got it going, I made it more high profile by renting a screening room in a four star hotel in Beijing. After two or three screenings people started to know about it and began to attend, so I got a knock on my door from the Chinese Film Bureau. They asked me things like what was I was doing, and who gave me the right to do it, and where did I get the license?

I was summoned to a room, a schoolroom that was very Communist in design, and was interrogated. I explained to them my purpose – I was trying to show Chinese films to foreigners, my friends wanted to see them and they were being shown overseas with subtitles, but not in China. I basically convinced them that I was doing them a favor. They understood that, and actually found an import/export company for Chinese films who oversaw me and helped me out. The event eventually made the front page of the China Daily News, I was interviewed for television and things began to take off from there. How did ‘Sophia’s Choice’ deepen your cultural roots while showing these films?

Sophia Wong Boccio
Sophia Wong Boccio of Asian Pop-Up Cinema
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Wong Boccio: My Chinese translations definitely became better, because I was able to invite the filmmakers to the screenings, and I translated for them. So for example, when ‘Farewell My Concubine’ was screened, I had the two children at the screening who portrayed the protagonists when they were kids. When they came up to the stage, they showed the audience their singing voices and their martial arts. So all of that was part of a film festival element that deepened my interest to make something bigger. You and your husband moved to Chicago in 2000. What precipitated the move, and what is your perspective regarding this city after 16 years of living here?

Wong Boccio: It had to do with my husband’s company, who is based in Chicago and moved him back here. We had met in China in 1988, where he had been a student at Beijing University, and had worked in the city since 1980. We left Beijing in 1996, when he was reassigned to Sydney, Australia. While I was there, I did film festivals for both China and Hong Kong, and I developed relationships with those cultural departments.

I LOVE Chicago, I cannot say enough about how much I love it. The people here are kind and generous. I have a broad and diverse number of friends. With the Asian Pop-Up Cinema, I have connected with the Asian academic community, different Asian heritage societies – there are about 50 or 60 of them – and right now I’m just connecting to the Asian/American heritage group. Together, we are creating a stronger voice in the city. What emotion or philosophy do you think distinguishes Asian cinema versus the rest of the world. Is there a worldview that we should be paying attention to?

Wong Boccio: The films reflect the societies and culture of the countries that we show, either historically or in a more contemporary manner. But what is most apparent is that the issues that are portrayed in the films are more universal, and has common elements with all societies. I think these movies are not trying to say anything different, they are trying to tell us we’re all the same.

When we look at these films with an open mind, what we discover is that we all deal with the same issues, especially as big countries such as China and India develop economically, jumping from third world status to first world. This also creates the social problems that America knows well – divorce, raising children and economic inequality. It’s a very interesting time for these countries to be going through this evolution, not to mention that it represents two or three billion people. [laughs] Anything they influence becomes explosive. Your last two films, ‘Zinnia’s Flower’ and ‘I Am a Monk’ focused heavily on the Buddhist faith in redirecting lives. What do the philosophies of that faith mean to you?

Wong Boccio: I don’t have a particular religious affiliation. However, as I’ve experienced it, I love the philosophy of Buddhism more and more. Because it’s not aggressive, and it is about the inner soul, without a lot of ritual. It can be practiced anywhere, and it doesn’t impose on other people. The best way, I believe, to influence people is through actions, and not just quoting the words of something else. Buddhism is your own inner being, and it’s about how you carry on in your life. What do you want Chicago to know about the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Film Festival, that you think they don’t know, and when does your new season start again?

Wong Boccio: It is still a small festival, but of course I want more people to know about it and attend the screenings. The fall season will begin in mid-September, and will run through December. I will finalize the Fall season of the Asian Pop-Up program by July, and hope again to bring in the filmmaker artists.

From the first to the second season, I added two more Asian countries. So along with China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, I added Thailand and Vietnam. And for the future I’m looking at the Philippines and Malaysia, to fill that void. It really isn’t about the territory or countries, but the art of the films that tells a good story to share.

The Asian Pop-Up Cinema presents the North American premiere of “The Mobfathers,’ directed by Herman Yau, on Thursday, May 19th, 2016, at the AMC River East 21 Theatre – 322 E. Illinois Street, Chicago. The Closing Night Gala of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema will be Friday, May 20th, at Venue SIX10 – 610 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Patrick McDonald of will moderate a Q&A with director Herman Yau of “The Mobfathers” at the event. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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