Wednesday, October 14, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando previews the 2009 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
If you are looking for an art house drama or a compelling documentary, there’s plenty to choose from at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. But if you’re like me, you might be tempted by the more extreme offerings at this year’s fest. Top of my list would be John Woo’s “Red Cliff" (screening Sunday October 18 at 7:00pm at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center). Although touted as his return to China, the film actually marks the first time Woo has shot on the Mainland. The story uses the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” as inspiration.
"Actually this story was based on true events," says Woo from his office in L.A. "The battle of Red Cliff was a big battle fought around 200 A.D. in China. How a smaller army can defeat a larger more powerful enemy through a combination of teamwork, innovation, intelligence and courage."
One general displays his cleverness by tricking the opposition into firing thousands of arrows at a straw army shrouded in fog. This allows him to then gather the arrows to use later in battle against the same enemy. Talk about effective recycling! This historical tale has been on Woo’s mind for quite some time.
"Oh he had been talking about it for almost 20 years," says Woo's producing partner Terence Chang. "I think he liked certain parts of the story where it dealt with his usual themes of friendship, betrayals, and loyalty and chivalry."
Woo’s return to epic action yields a film of breathtaking battles, tangled loyalties, and impressive strategies. Woo has a gift for orchestrating action so that it reveals character. The way a general executes a battlefield strategy or the way a man uses his sword reveals something about his personality – whether he’s smart, patient, or honorable. The U.S. release of “Red Cliff” has been condensed to a single film as opposed to the two-part version that opened in Asia. I’d prefer the full epic but Woo describes the American version as more concentrated. (Look for my full interview with Woo and Chang on Saturday.)
And while we’re talking about concentrated, let me highlight the most exciting aspect of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, the debut of its late night extreme program where you can find a concentration of over the top filmmaking.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Asian cinema was because it pushed the envelope in exciting ways. Woo was at the forefront of the Hong Kong New Wave back in the 80s, and now young filmmakers all over Asia are kicking it up a notch. The festival launches its extreme program with a clash of cultures, "Afro Samurai Resurrection" (Friday, October 16 ), the sequel to the Spike TV show "Afro Samurai." Voiced by Samuel Jackson and conceived by Takashi Okazaki, it’s safe to say that this is the first blaxploitation anime featuring a badass black samurai. Producer/writer Leo Chu says the idea of "Afro Samurai" was floating around and then Samuel L. Jackson got his hands on some test animation.
"It was floating around his agency and an agent – not even his agent – was watching it on his TV when Sam walked by," says Chu. "He took it out of the DVD player and left with it. The next thing we know he called saying 'I am Afro Samurai.' And everyone was like, 'Who is this?' And it turned out to be Sam Jackson – so who were we to argue? After that, the show got set up at Spike TV."
Although "Afro Samurai Resurrection" aired on Spike TV, it had never played on the big screen and that's where producer-writers Leo Chu and Eric Garcia felt it belonged.
"Very much so," says Chu, "We always kept in mind that we were making a movie and tried to create a cinematic experience. We actually insisted that the film air in 16x9 Letterbox on Spike due to the way the movie is composed. And they were very accommodating."
"There aren’t very many avenues for adult animation of this nature in the U.S.," adds Garcia. "Spike has been a wonderfully supportive partner. But we’ve always wanted to see it on the big screen. It’s really the way it was meant to be seen."
The action is not for the faint-hearted and the character designs are stunning. Chu and Garcia say it fits the extreme program because it pushes the envelop with sex and violence -- sometimes having both at the same time. But Chu adds, "at the end of the day, it’s about the storytelling."
Thematically, "Resurrection" continues exploring the theme of revenge that so consumed Afro Samurai in the original series. It’s quite morally complex. He battles not only his inner demons, but literally faces the “demons” he created. At what point does the cycle of revenge stop?"
"But this time we’re doing it in a different way," says Chu. "We’re putting Afro on the flip side of revenge. He has to battle the demons from his past – both literally and figuratively. Leo: The action sequences are beautifully choreographed, but at the end of the day, it’s about the storytelling."
"At the start of the film," Garcia explains, "he has laid down his sword, and spends his time carving wooden figurines of all the people he has killed. Despite the trail of blood, Afro has a conscience. But what kind of conscience we do not know. In seeking revenge, Afro had forsaken his friendships and become someone unknown even to himself. Even in seclusion, he cannot escape the consequences of his actions."
The clash of cultures, of East meets West, also excited Garcia: "Plus, we all get excited every time we stumble onto something that seems like it’s going to be bad ass – whether visually or narratively. And nothing’s more bad ass than when cultures collide and to create something you’ve never seen before!"
Subcultures collide in another extreme entry: "Detroit Metal City" (Saturday, October 24). In this delirious wacky comedy a wanna be pop star passes out and wakes up to discover that he’s a death metal superstar – imagine Donny Osmond passing out and waking up as Gene Simmons in KISS and that'll give you an inkling of what's in store for you. Don’t ask how or why this all happens just revel in Ken'ichi Matsuyama’s hilarious performance, and the novelty of Japanese death metal on the big screen. Matsuyama was the ultra cool L in the "Death Note" films but here he shows his goofy side with an over-the-top performance. Gene Simmons even has a cameo
Neko Râmen Taishô Kumiai
As with "Detroit Metal City," "Neko Ramen" (Saturday, October 17) is a film inspired by a manga or Japanese comic. The novelty of "Neko Ramen" is a cat as the hero. Taisho comes to life onscreen as a plush puppet interacting with live humans and real cats. The result here is something akin to kitty porn. It’s all ridiculously over the top and hysterically funny.
The program also includes "Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl" (Friday, October 23) What a great title for a film leading up to Halloween. In this film, blood flows, or rather gushes from the first frame as flesh is ripped off of bodies and limbs hacked away. But it’s all in goofy extreme fun. Nothing in this film is meant to be taken seriously not even the oh-so-politically-incorrect racial stereotypes. Fortunately, "Afro Samurai" is around for balance.
And if you have to ask yourself why an extreme program is a goo addition to a respectable festival, here's what programmer Phil Luque has to say: "I feel that as a film festival that wants to connect audiences to the
human experience through the Pan Asian media arts, I have a responsibility to show all of the faces of Asian cinema. In doing so, we create a complete experience for the audience and no one is excluded from the vast creative landscape that is Asian Cinema."
So if you want filmmaking that breaks the rules and pushes the limits, you will find some particularly pleasing treats waiting for you at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.