Viz Cinema finds itself filled with the Red Lantern Meetup group participants.

Red Lantern Meetup Reels in Film Fans

Adam Hartzell January 24, 2011

As advertising,  the sentence emblazoned on posters for The Social Network is perfect, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” But it’s important to remember that in spite of much of the cynicism passing for commentary about the Internet, many of the Facebook "friends" people have are indeed true friends. And as much as social media might seem anti-social at times, such technology has enabled fact-to-fact communications as well.

Case in point,, a social media site that enables individuals of similar interests to find each other online in order to more efficiently organize events for mingling offline. is perfect for film-lovers of all genres and regions. One of the more successful Meetup groups is the Red Lantern: Bay Area Asian Cinephiles, promoting itself as "the world’s largest Meetup for Asian films." I witnessed firsthand evidence of the Red Lantern’s ability to gather a crowd when I attended the Red Lantern Film Series event at VIZ Cinema for the film Kamui Garden (Sai Yoichi, 2009) in November of last year. I have never seen as large a crowd at VIZ before. The reception afterwards was claustrophobia-inducing. The next installment of the series at Viz happened last week with Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Anno HideakI, 2009) and the theater was even more packed. To find out how the Red Lantern Meetup started and how they‘ve reclaimed theatres as social spaces, I had Alby Lim join me for Korean food at Doobu around the corner from Viz.

SF360: How did the The Red Lantern Meetup start?

Alby Lim: I moved to San Francisco from New York in the Summer of 2009. I came here with no friends in San Francisco. I thought if I ever wanted to make friends here, I’d better start somehow. I had gone to Meetups in New York and I had some really good experiences. So I signed up for the equivalents of my New York Meetups here and the Red Lantern was one of them.

I didn’t know this at the time, but apparently it hadn’t been very active. Not more than maybe a couple weeks after I joined, the organizer put out a call and said, ‘Hey, I don’t have time to do this. Does someone at random want to step-up and take over?’ I don’t think I’ve ever organized something social before. But then I thought, well, it might be the case that no one else is going to do it and it could be a good challenge for me. It terrified me to think about the responsibility, because I couldn’t just become the organizer and than quit after two if they were disappointing. So I stepped up.

I scheduled our first Meetup, which was Kore-eda’s Still Walking. I had only one wish at the time. I just wanted one person to show up. Even if no one shows up, I’m going to stick by my organizer duties and go in, watch it, enjoy myself, and write about it. And I got my wish. One person showed up. [Laughter.]

The turning point came when I hosted Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother. This was the first time in my life where I found myself in a movie theater lobby with about 15 people standing in a semi-circle all facing me waiting for me to say something and ready to jump or do whatever I said. So I thought, ‘This is a big responsibility and I’m going to keep doing this.’ People loved coming to these movies. People loved coming together. That’s reason enough for me to do it.

SF360: Is there a Meetup ‘way of being’ or philosophy? Do you find a similar tone or theme that carries over to the various Meetups that you attend?

Lim: One of my personal, private slogans for Meetup is: 'Meetup: For When Your Friends Are Bitches.' [Laughter.] Basically what that means is you can’t always count on your friends to do stuff that you want to do. They’ve got their own lives to think about, their own schedules. I like Meetup because it’s not like Facebook or MySpace where you somehow have to be connected to someone, where you have to know that person or be a friend of a friend. It kind of cuts out that requirement. Most Meetups have no barrier to entry. They just say all you have to do is be interested in this and that’s your ticket in. And odds are, if you hang out with a group of people who have the same interests as you do, you’re going to naturally become friends or hang-out buddies.

SF360: With recent concern about theater closings, are any of the participants mentioning that they come to support a theatre or to support an Asian film in that ever-important first weekend?

Lim: You’re wondering if people have some kind of altruistic reason for coming? Honestly, I try not to rack my brain too much about why people are coming. To a big extent, one reason why people come to Meetups is because they don’t want to plan, to research the movies, or research the theaters, or the film fests. They just want someone to boil down these things to the nitty-gritty.

I have two goals whenever I pick a movie. One is, if I were someone who knew nothing about Asian cinema, would watching this movie make me interested in seeing more or would I want to stop watching all together? And the other concern I have is I want to broaden the definition of Asian cinema. If you’re talking Kurosawa or Ozu, that’s super, super arthouse. And on the other end of the spectrum is the ‘Extreme Cinema’ of Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike. People don’t realize that there’s a whole spectrum in between. Asian filmmakers make all the same kinds of movies that American filmmakers make. I want to expose people to that.

As for supporting theaters or directors, I would say that also plays into my decision-making. I wanted to host movies at VIZ and Four Star. When VIZ’s programming started to get a lot better, I became really interested. VIZ has helped revitalize Japantown. I love Landmark. I love seeing stuff at YBCA, because they have some fringe stuff. So supporting theatres plays into my decision. It’s not a huge part, but it plays a part. Also, I try to schedule movies that I think people should be watching. Either underappreciated stuff like Ozu or new directors who are starting to make a name for themselves. I guess there’s some element of support, but, as I said, I don’t try to poll people too much. Because if I asked everyone in the group, (we’re pushing 650 members), I’d get so many different answers that I’d rather just try to be diverse, which would eventually be the answer to everyone’s interests.

SF360: How did the Red Lantern Film Series at VIZ come to be?

Lim: Well, we got to be known at VIZ not specifically because we were trying to support VIZ, but because they just kept programming movies that I thought were great, that I thought we should see. So they noticed that we kept bringing a crowd, sometimes we’d bring half the audience. I just got to talking to the management and they started talking about building a film-going community for VIZ and then they proposed the idea of the film series.

SF360: Much of what I love about film is what happens around it. You mentioned that semi-circle where people were waiting for you to instruct them. Do you have specific moments where this film caused people to talk afterwards?

Lim: I get this question a lot, ‘Do you guys discuss the film afterwards?’ I think one reason some people are hesitant to come join us is because they think we’re some snooty film [group] that is going to give people hand-outs and homework and a selected filmography. They feel like they’re going to be put on the spot. But, honestly, we almost never discuss the film we just watched. And I think that’s great, because that to me says that people want to talk with each other about things other than what they just saw.

And I like what you said, that there’s a lot more to the movie than just the movie. I think with a film group like ours it’s more about the people than the movie. I just try to keep up that atmosphere, get people excited about watching certain films.

SF360: As much as many argue we have lost the social aspect of watching films in theaters now that we’re watching things on our computers, your Meetup demonstrates the irony of that, because as much as you’re staying home and watching film, the Meetups are established online in the same space that’s supposedly making us anti-social, there is this constant drive returning us to being social.

Lim: There’s a whole romance to moviegoing. I don’t think movie theaters will ever die. Ticket prices might go through the roof. That whole argument of ‘Why should I pay $10 to go to a movie theater when I can watch it on my laptop?’, if you’re anti-social, then fine, go ahead and have your fun watching it on your laptop. But moviegoing in the theatre is by definition a communal experience. You don’t know any of the people around you, but you’ve come to feel like you’re part of something. To laugh together, to cry together, to test your limits together.

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