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San Diego Asian Film Festival

Hou Hsiao Hsien is quite simply one of the world's premier filmmakers yet his films are lucky to play a few festival dates here in the U.S. The San Diego International Film Festival used to champion his work and Madstone Theaters brought in Hou's Millennium Mambo , but both that festival and that theater are now gone. SDAFF showed Hou's Flowers of Shanghai in its inaugural year and now returns to Hou for Three Times .

The reasons Hou's films get minimal play in the U.S. are that his slow pace and themes of alienation can test the patience of viewers raised on music videos and 30-second TV spots. But Hou is a master craftsman and you cannot call yourself a connoisseur of film and not appreciate his craft. For Three Times (the Chinese title is The Best of Times , echoing Charles Dickens), the Taiwanese filmmaker serves up three segments each set in a different time period but with the same pair of actors (the lovely Shu Qi and Chang Chen) performing the leads. Hou's film explores how the culture and social limitations of each era affect the relationships of the characters. The three times are 1966, A Time for Love ; 1911, A Time for Freedom ; and 2005, A Time for Youth . Each section has its own sense of visual composition. The first story -- an achingly sweet love story of a pool hall girl and a soldier -- is the best. But the middle tale is the most stylistically daring. Reflecting its time period, A Time for Freedom is done like a silent movie and has no sync sound. So there's no spoken dialogue. Title cards relay the content of what's said as music plays on the soundtrack. In an odd way the use of title cards creates a sense of anticipation and even suspense as we wonder what the characters are saying and eagerly await the title card to fill us in. The story echoes Hou's Flowers of Shanghai as it looks to courtesans and concubines. The freedom of the title reflects both a nations and a womans quest to be free. The final segment calls to mind Hou's Millennium Mambo as it looks to a trio of contemporary characters who are kept apartmore so than brought together by the modern technology of email, text messaging and cell phones.

The film is ravishing to look at with everything from the bright green pants worn by Shu in the pool hall to the distance kept by the camera being carefully planned out and executed. Hous films are dazzling and deceptively complex works. He demands far more of viewers in terms of participation than his countryman Ang Lee, whose works ( The Wedding Banquet on through his recent Hollywood film Brokeback Mountain ) are much more accessible, ingratiating and widely shown. Hou, however, is far more challenging. There's little dialogue to engage viewers; his characters can be cold and distant; and his style can be visually seductive but intellectually provocative. He never tells his audience what to think but gives them plenty to think about if they are willing to look beyond the surface. Yet even within this world of characters that cannot connect, Hou finds moments of tenderness. When the shy lovers in the first segment hold hands, the small gesture is heartbreakingly sweet and surprisingly momentous.

Hou's camera always remains an outsider, albeit an inquisitive one. Typically, his shots will move parallel to the action but rarely move in for close-ups. Theres a deceptive calm and elegance to this visual style but dont be fooled, because a lot is going on beneath the surface.

A film of a very different nature but equally worth checking out is Kim Ji Woon's A Bittersweet Life from South Korea. The story revolves around Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), a sleek and elegant mobster whose cat-like grace recalls Alain Delon in Le Samourai . Sun-woo's mob boss Kang (Kim Young-cheol) assigns him a simple task: watch over the mobster's girlfriend and make sure she's not two-timing him. If Sun-woo does find her with another man, he's to kill them both. Simple, right? Wrong. The problem is that the ice-cold killer develops a weakness for the woman, Hee-soo (Shin Mina). When he finds her with a lover he experiences a split second of compassion and lets them live, and then pays for that decision the rest of the film. Kang tries to have Sun-woo killed but fails, and this leads to a violent rampage of revenge.

Kim has impressed filmgoers with The Foul King and more recently with the creepy psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters . A Bittersweet Life has a more epic sweep than either of those films. With A Bittersweet Life Kim delivers an action film with a dark soul and aching vulnerability buried at its heart. Sun-woo at one point explains a sweet dream he had and how he cried when he awoke because he knew it could never come true. And thats essentially what the film is about. Sun-woo is a ruthless killer and his one moment of compassion gives him a glimpse of something he could never havea happy life with a woman he loves.

Kim's film uses violence -- extreme violence and implied violence -- in a manner that may send some fleeing for the exits but also in a way that reflects the unique cultural flavor of his country. As with many Korean films, the violence reflects a divided soul. Violence often tears at the participants because it is between brothers or friends or causes a rupture in loyalties. There's a reluctance to commit the violence or at the very least an emotional price to pay for inflicting the harm, which reflects a country that has been split in half and with families sometimes stuck on opposite sides of the border. A Bittersweet Life reflects this in the way Sun-woo and Kang are depicted as almost family, and the rift that occurs between them pains bothalthough it prevents neither from going after the other without mercy. But in the end, each one seems driven by a desire to know why each has been betrayed by the other. Understanding that betrayal seems almost more important than achieving revenge or even surviving.

A few other highlights at the festival include Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War , a fun, relatively kid-friendly fantasy actioner from the Japanese master of extreme Asian cinema. The story is about a young boy who must save the world from monsters and evil. The yokai (or creatures) are derived from Japanese folklore that inspired a series of comics that were in turn the source for a series of films during the 1960s. The film has a deliberate cheese factor as high-end special effects are mixed with low-end devices. This allows the film to be contemporary while paying homage to the movies made in the 60s. So the cute little critter that follows our young hero around looks like a furry renegade sock puppet from Shari Lewis. Miike also endows the film with a goofball charm as the action sometimes descends to the level of slapstick.

The Great Yokai War may surprise people who are only familiar with such extreme Miike films as Audition or the Dead or Alive series. But Miike is actually a very prolific filmmaker who has worked in just about every conceivable genre. In fact he's already directed a feature, made a music video, did a cameo appearance and produced another film since he made The Great Yokai War just last year. And that's actually a rather slow pace for him.

The film, like much of Japanese science fiction and fantasy, is colored by the fact that Japan is the only country to have suffered the ravages of two atomic bombs. An explosion at the end of the film recalls the image of an atomic blast and the characters conclude that war must be avoided because it accomplishes nothing and only makes you hungry. The Great Yokai War is highly entertaining and lets audiences see a different side of Takashi Miike.

A more feminine perspective is represented by Ann Hu's lushly realized period film The Beauty Remains . Set in 1948 against the rise of Communism, the film focuses on two sisters, one an illegitimate child. The story begins like a Douglas Sirk melodrama. When the father dies, the sisters are reunited and end up competing for the affections of the same man. Yet the film escapes the confines of melodrama to come to a surprising conclusion. Two female stars, Vivian Wu and the captivating Xun Zhou, shine as does the breathtaking cinematography of Carol Wells.

From the Philippines comes an Amelie -like tale of love and devotion, Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog . The tale of a young man's quest for both love and a dream plays out with inspired wit and charm. And for action junkies there's Shinobi from Japan. Director Ten Shimoyama delivers some fun action set pieces yet his film feels rather posed and video gamish. I do have one warning of a film to avoid and that's Cromartie High , the live action adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime series. This deathly dull and uninspired film has none of the sublime lunacy of the manga or anime. Please seek out either of those and avoid this film, which might turn you off to what is one of the funniest and most surreal portraits of high school.

The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs October 12 through 19 at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center and the Brickhouse Salon at the Doubletree. For a complete schedule of films and ticket information, please visit their website at www/sdaff.org.

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