Saturday, August 13, 2016

Film Review: In search of 'The Lost Arcade'

I'm glad to see it's starting to get the attention it deserves (see here and here), because The Lost Arcade (2015) is the best subculture documentary I've seen in a long time, and I've seen plenty (and even helped on one). It's the story of Chinatown Fair, the historic penny arcade turned video arcade in NYC Chinatown, how it closed down and then reopened (in quite a different form), and the community of people for whom it was a second home.

The documentary's singular and intimate focus on one arcade, its historical significance, and (most importantly) the people who inhabited it, has so much to say about so much more than its title would suggest, but it does so in an understated way. Its tone is less instructive, and more reflective. Instead of being explicitly analytical, it's more atmospheric and empathetic.

The Lost Arcade paints a portrait of one very specific microcosm--primarily the players of one genre of video games in one arcade in New York City at one particular point in time. But this narrative resonates far beyond that time and space. It is a story that has played out the same way in other locales and in other circumstances, so that many of us, who have never visited Chinatown Fair but belong(ed) to our own transformed communities, know exactly what the documentary is talking about.

Years from now, dismissive critics might naively point to how dated the film is, how gaming and arcades and neighborhoods and cities have moved on, but they will have missed the point. Filmmakers Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin have documented something that will inform and inspire us for years to come.

That's because it's more than a movie about a genre of video games, or video games in general, or one or even a thousand video arcades, or one particular subculture/community, or one particular neighborhood in one particular city. It's about all those things, and more.

It's about subcultures in general: how they change, for good or ill, whether by choice or because of forces they can't control, and the consequences of those changes. The film shows us how home video game consoles and the Internet forever changed the way video game players interact with each other.

It's also about what's happening in cities and neighborhoods across the country, about the devastating effects of gentrification--altering the urban landscape, and the displacement of local culture for the sake of profit.

Most of all, it's about the communities we build, the places we inhabit not because we have to be there, but because we want to be there. It's about Sam Palmer (the owner of Chinatown Fair) creating a vibrant space for people from all walks of life to interact, initially gathered by a shared interest in video gaming, and ultimately staying because they grew attached to the people they met there.

It's a celebration of those kinds of communities--the fact that they exist, the fact that we can create and be part of them. But the film is most poignant as a story of loss. Although Chinatown Fair was the last of its kind in Manhattan, the documentary is called The 'Lost' Arcade, not the 'Last' arcade.

For the players at Chinatown Fair, they really did lose their community. It was taken away and transformed (brutally, some would say). I watched the film in April when it played as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase. I still get choked up when I recall the scene featuring Akuma Hokura, one of Chinatown Fair's most important denizens, visiting the new incarnation of the arcade. The scene featuring arcade manager Henry Cen--struggling to come to terms with the way his vision for the arcade had been perverted--also hit me pretty hard.

Among those of us who belong(ed) to subcultures that have changed, some of us have felt that same sense of loss. It's a familiar story: we were part of something good, and while some things have changed for the better, we've also lost some important things along the way. More so than video gaming, the subculture/community I belonged to in the 90s and early 00s was anime fandom. I used to (but no longer) dream about anime conventions the way the opening narrator of The Lost Arcade dreamt about Chinatown Fair. We (the anime fan community in those years) were part of something special that only existed in that particular form for a relatively brief moment in time, and it might never come back.

Don't get me wrong. It’s more than just bittersweet nostalgia or a knee jerk reaction to change. Things do evolve and improve, and change is not always bad, but the documentary shows us what happened to a community for whom change came knocking, not from their own efforts and desires, but from outside forces who didn't understand or care about them. Instead of just memorializing them, however, The Lost Arcade shows that community's beautiful and hopeful response.

In the end, The Lost Arcade is a story of redemption in progress, a reminder that community is not just where we happen to find it; it is wherever we decide to build it. We can nurture and grow it when given the opportunity. It is a warning not to take those opportunities for granted. We have to seize them. We have so much to gain if we do, and so much to lose if we don't. We owe it to ourselves to make it more than just a dream.

Official site:

About the author

I earned my PhD studying anime fandom in America. In my professional life, I build and nurture online communities for companies and their customers. I am not much of a video gamer, but grew up going to arcades in Southern California and South Korea in the 80s and 90s. I've never been to Chinatown Fair, but my dad went there as a kid after moving from China to NYC in the late 1940s.