Sophia Wong Boccio on Netflix, Crazy Rich Asians, and Why You Must Watch Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema

Sep 18, 2019 | AA, ART, Asia, POP

With a brilliant film line-up and top-tier guests, the Asian Pop-Up Cinema is truly one to watch. Festival founder and executive director sparks conversations about her childhood, small screen movies, and making Chicago an international destination through films.

Walk along any major street in Asia and you’ll see larger than life Western movie posters plastered on billboards. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said as you walk in Times Square or any street in the US.

However, one visionary is determined to give more representation to Asian movies on the global stage. Sophia Wong Boccio, founder and executive director of Asian Pop-Up Cinema started her love for cinema at an early age.

Born to parents who worked in the film industry in through the 50s and 70s, Boccio’s love for Asian cinema drove her to diversify Chicago’s vibrant culture through Asian films. When asked about how her background inspired her to create the festival, Boccio shared that growing up with her dad being a film director and mother as an actress, she had so many memories in the sound stages and seeing her parents work.

“I have always felt comfortable around the movie people as they’re like people hanging out at our home when I grew up. Mom happened to be a very good cook. Her peers often came for a yummy meal. I also saw the passion of these people, and many driven by their creativity to make a good movie. I also witness their self-criticism or amongst their peers and how to make a better movie next time. I feel strongly that there is a need to fill the void of lacking a dedicated film festival in Chicago to show Asian films made by filmmakers from Asia,” she recalled.

Before Boccio decided to retire in 2015, she incorporated the non-profit Asian Film Festival using pension money to inaugurate the first-ever edition of the festival in Chicago.

Sophia Wong Boccio

Sophia Wong Boccio @ Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema

“Since I have had a strong relationship and known many film experts in Asia through years of attending other Asian film festivals, I was able to get endorsed and support from film sourcing and choices. Then it’s a matter of hard work and finding people of like-minds to help to organize this festival. My 15 years of not-for-profit executive roles in three other not-for-profit including the Chicago International Film Festival definitely give me all the ammunition and experiences to lead this brand new concept film festival,” Boccio shared.

Boccio took time to share with Breaking Asia her deep connection to her childhood, why she veers away from sexual and violent films, and her vision for the bright future of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

You are harnessing your vibrant Asian roots to educate people about Asian films in your new home, Chicago. Why do you think it’s important to bridge the gap between the East and the West through films?

In the grand scheme of things, Asian film festivals have been in years of existence in many major cities in the United States. I think Chicago, trying to become an international destination should have its own Asian Film Festival. Films appreciation are an effective medium to share stories, subtle cultural differences between the East and the West.

I believe strongly that if people learn to understand and accept differences of different cultures, we will be living in a world of harmony instead of constant conflicts and prejudices. 

Considering the myriad of top-caliber films from Asia, it must be hard to choose your qualifying films. Can you tell us about how you selected the films to be screened, and the actors and directors that will attend the event?

Mainstream commercial blockbusters are enjoying a fair amount of attention and theatrical releases, home videos distributions in Europe and to a certain extent in America. Also with Netflix actively producing original series which include Asia content, people have more access to Asian films these days compared to 10 years ago.

However, I am programming mostly smaller, overlooked films especially those portraying stories resonant with American people’s ordinary lives and predicaments. 90% of the films I have selected would never get wide releases in America theatrically. I definitely shy away from violence, nudity or strong sexual content movies. I think they are actually quite plentiful in the marketplace. Based on the feedback from our Wednesdays/Thursdays nights audiences, I select mostly contemporary films with mixed genres, many of them are first-time directors’ works who have poignant message to share with the American audiences.

What is the festival’s secret to lasting success? What makes this year’s festival different from the previous years?

Being a young film festival, with our inaugural season only 4.5 years ago, our festival is taking baby steps and growing slowly but surely. Since we are a bi-annual film festival, presenting two individual films series per year, we have been able to evaluate, correct and adjust by learning from the immediate past season and improve ourselves for the upcoming season. I think this is probably one of the secret weapons that Asian Pop-Up Cinema has compared to other conventional film festivals that have to wait for another year to make changes.

The 2nd secret weapon that we have is that we have two opportunities to select films from Asia from the recent releases since it’s our objective to exhibit at the minimum Chicago premiere of the films selected. If we missed anything in the Spring due to conflicts of schedule, we can slot the films again for the Fall.

At the end of 2019, we would have presented 40 films and accommodated close to 50 guests (as many of our guests are bringing their family members and associates to Chicago with their films). This data itself, for a boutique, non-competitive film festival, like Asian Pop-Up Cinema proves that film industries in Asia have accepted our good service in exhibiting their films per international film festivals standards and taking good care of their guests. The number of guests from Asia has definitely grown by almost 100% as compared to 2018. For the first time, we even have a guest from the U.S. who took part in a major blockbuster in Korea attended the screening and share his experiences of being cast in a South Korean film and his work with the South Korean cast and crew.

What is your opinion on Asian cinema and film industry at this moment? Which direction do you think it would go? 

Asian cinema and film industry are continuously thriving and moving forward and with the help of Netflix and other home video opportunities, as there is definitely a shift of change for films made for “small screens” for people to enjoy at home than theatrical format. If there are a good story and a good script, there will be outlets for them to be shown. Time will tell.

Film festivals, competitive or non-competitive, big or small, still holds the platform for premiering new films and guests as an introduction to the Asian Cinema. We premiered a very low budget film “ONE CUT OF THE DEAD” last fall as our closing night film. It won that season’s Audience choice award. After a year’s gap, the film is now enjoying theatrical release in Chicago.

Considering the success of last year’s English speaking Asian centric films, such as Crazy Rich Asians, what is your outlook on the continuing success for Asian-American films in Hollywood?

With the success of “Crazy Rich Asians”, I am certain that Hollywood and independent filmmakers will have the confidence to collaborate more on Asian centric films utilizing the large pool of Asian-American filmmakers in Hollywood. This is a good development as the general public will have more access to Asian centric films. Nevertheless, these films are made from the Asian-Americans’ perspectives and we still need a fair share of Asian films made by Asian filmmakers in the marketplace.

How do you see Asian Pop Up Cinema Festival in the future? What are your plans for the next editions?

2020 will be our 5th anniversary. For the first year, we are going to stage a major fundraiser with a Gala star. It is also our goal to hire our first employee starting 2020 to become the festival manager overseeing all the day-to-day operations. The model will remain the same moving forward unless we succeeded in soliciting a major sponsor. By 2030, I hope a successor would have already been in place to take over the leadership of the organization and lead the organization to new horizons of success. I would be happy to stay on as the artistic director and focused on programming while grooming a new program for the festival.

With such an impeccable cinematic vision, we look forward to much more of Sophia’s Choice for 2020 and beyond.

Films To Be Screened During The Asian Pop Up Cinema

Back for the ninth time since its conception in 2015, the Asian Pop Up Cinema will run from September 10 to October 10. Within this 5-week period, the festival will feature 17 intriguing films made by Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Thai, and Filipino directors.

Aside from the films, festival attendees will also be treated with the presence of 16 big-time guests from the Asian entertainment industry to give more insight into the movies.

Each week, the festival will focus on a certain country. The screenings will take place in AMC River East 21, the festival’s primary venue. Every film buff will definitely feel spoiled thanks to the selection’s wide variety of genres. Check out this edition’s features films below.

South Korea

The Odd Family: Zombie on Scale

This film centers on a large pharmaceutical company in Korea which conducts illegal experiments on humans. Unfortunately, a test goes wrong and creates a zombie, Hyun-Woo. Not long after, the creature meets the Park family in the remote countryside.

Instead of being afraid of the zombie, the family made a plan to generate money through him. How will the zombie adapt to his strange new family? Without question, this comedy will have you laughing until you fall off your set. Director Lee Min-Jae will be present during the Chicago premiere of his debut film.

Other Korean films:

  • Juror 8, with special guest director Hong Seung-Wan.
  • Swing Kids (Free and open to the public), with special guest actor Jared Grimes


The Enigma of Arrival

The first feature of director Song Wen, this arthouse film centers on the lives of four gang members who live by the Yangtze. The story escalates when the girl the guys are chasing vanished mysteriously. This raises suspicions about two of the gang members. The movie features the voice-over of San Pi, played by Liu Weibo.

While it may be tempting to refer to this movie similar to a Law & Order episode, the movie’s beautiful imagery, play or color and black and white, and brilliantly executed long shots will be enjoyed by every cinephile at heart.

Director Song Wen and Actress Gu Xuan will be present.

Other Chinese films:

  • Dying to Survive (我不是药神) | Chicago Premiere
  • Shadow
  • Crossing the border, with special guest Director Huo Meng
  • Wushu Orphan (free and open to the public)


Melancholic ~ Centerpiece

One of the best films that challenge genres, Melancholic starts off as a coming-of-age tale, transforms into an action film, and emerges with unforgettable sentimentality. In his debut film, director Seiji Tanaka fuses Yakuza plotlines with scenes from family, love life, friendship, and education.

The film vividly captures the vibe of Japanese action films in the 80s and 90s with the unique perspective of a college graduate. Young lead actor Yoji Minagawa’s performance captivates the audience very well and has been compared to Dustin Hoffman’s charming portrayal in The Graduate.

Director Seiji Tanaka and Producer and Actor Yoji Minagawa will be present.

Other Japanese films:

  • Can’t Stop The Dancing
  • Bento Harassment


The Pool

A movie that will have you gasping for air because of fright, The Pool centers on a troubled art director who is tasked to clean a 6-meter pool after a shoot. Due to fatigue, he falls asleep on a raft, only to wake up and find out that the pool water has sunk low. This situation may be fine. Unfortunately, there’s a nearby crocodile farm. With no ladder to escape from, how can you get away from this deadly situation? 

This nail-biting classic won the Critic’s Prize at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival 2019. Director Ping Lumpraploeng will be present.


Signal Rock

Shot in the picturesque hometown of veteran director Chito S. Roño, Signal Rock is a gripping tale of despair and joy. Signal Rock refers to a jagged outcropping which rises above the island, where people could get phone reception. Each day, people trek to this rock to reach members of their families who work abroad.

The story is a portrayal of the country’s most pressing issues through the perspective of local island people. According to the veteran filmmaker, the film is based on a true story that happened in the 1990s.

This movie is the official entry of the Philippines for the Academy Awards. Actor Christian Bables will be present. He will also receive the Bright Star Award.

Another film from the Philippines:

  • Miss Granny (free and open to the public)


Long Time No Sea

A box-office hit in Taiwan that will be shown free for the public during the Asian Pop Up Cinema Festival, Long Time No Sea tells the story of a newbie teacher and a young island boy who wishes to see his father again.

The two come together to practice for an indigenous dance competition that will lead them closer to their dreams. An uplifting tale about the country’s Tao community, Long Time No Sea directed by Heather Tsui perfectly encapsulates why there is a need to preserve traditional languages and cultures. With its authenticity that comes naturally, you will surely be enamored. 

Hong Kong

The Attorney ~ Finale

Starring Hong Kong’s biggest stars, The Attorney directed by Wong Kwok Fai transcends from a movie to a character study and an exploration of the complexities of justice. The movie is a fierce portrait of the flawed judicial system and moral dilemmas, especially when the power of money is involved. 

The story centers on a lawyer who takes a case of a man accused of killing the child of the country’s most successful tycoon. In time, the jaded attorney gets caught in the middle of a political conspiracy. Legal thrillers surely can’t get any better than this.

Actor Justin Cheung, Executive Producer Cherrie Lau, and Scriptwriter Frances To will be present.

Actor Kenneth Tsang Kong will also be there and will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award to honor him for this lifelong dedication to the film industry and his artistry. Tsang spent the last 50 years participating in over 200 films which spans from his homeland Hong Kong to Hollywood.

Other films from Hong Kong:

  • Deception of the Novelist, with Producer and Actor Justin Cheung, and Director Christopher Sun
  • Office (free and open to the public)
  • Concerto of the Bully (special guests)

So Many Great Films to See

Many of the participating movies in the Asian Pop Up Cinema do not just aim to tell a story, but also to spark cross-cultural dialogue. This is evident in films such as Swing Kids, Long Time No Sea, and Shadow. There will also be a focus on movie musicals through Miss Granny, Swing Kids, Office, and Can’t Stop Dancing.

Truly, the Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 9 will not only be a gathering of some of the most brilliant minds in the Asian entertainment industry. Most of all, it will represent unforced authentic voices and perspectives of the region through the works of Asian filmmakers. This simply proves that films are a great tool to fully understand the diverse culture of Asia.

Get your tickets at  Asian Pop-up Cinema.