Thursday, October 15, 2009
The San Diego Asian Film Festival is one of the largest exhibitions of Asian international and Asian American cinema in North America. Along with narrative features, the festival also showcases documentaries, short films, and animation. We'll talk with the festival's executive director about what's being offered this year, and with actress Jodi Long, whose documentary "Long Story Short" is screening at the festival.
The 10th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival begins today and runs through October 29th. Screenings are held at the Hazard Center UltraStar Cinemas.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. When you hear the words Asian cinema, some preconceived notions may enter your mind. Movies with lots of action, maybe some creepy horror movies, epics with beautiful costumes and special effects. Well, those trademarks will certainly be represented during the San Diego Asian Film Festival, but most of the films will probably stretch your notions about Asian cinema wider than you ever expected. First of all this is the largest film festival ever in San Diego, and the films come from all of Asia, including India. And the variety spans from a five-hour historical war movie to a musical about real estate. Joining me to talk about this ambitious celebration of film is my guest Lee Ann Kim, executive director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Welcome, Lee Ann.
LEE ANN KIM (Executive Director, San Diego Asian Film Festival): Thank you so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And later we’ll be talking to Jodi Long, an actress who has a documentary screening at the festival. Lee Ann, there are over 200 films in this festival and I mentioned a little bit in the opening but if you can expand on how this festival is different from other Asian film festivals when it comes to what’s considered an Asian film.
KIM: It’s pretty broad. We consider anything Asian, for our festival, if it’s made by a person of Asian descent, or if the director is of non-Asian descent, the subject matter has to be Asian. So, for example, you’ll see a documentary called “The Philosopher Kings,” by Patrick Shen but there’s not a single Asian person in the film and that film, in particular, is about janitors in higher institutions of learning where, you know, and we also have films from Russia because Russia is within the continent of Asia. And so when people think of Asian films, they usually think of China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. But we have films from Indonesia, from Russia, as I mentioned. We have an Indian film from Switzerland, to believe it or not. And so it’s very, very diverse.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s start. There’s so many movies to talk about. Let’s start with the opening night selection, tonight’s selection. You’re showing a film called “Children of Invention.” Tell us about this film.
KIM: This film, it’s so uncanny how relevant and timely this film is. It references the mortgage crisis and the suburban ponzi schemes that have been happening in the United States. It’s basically about two children who live right outside of Boston. Their mother gets evicted. She’s a single mom. And so they end up squatting in these condos outside of Boston. She’s trying to get back on track and achieve the American dream, work for her kids. She gets sucked into a ponzi scheme and gets arrested. The kids don’t know what’s going on, and so the rest of the film is about these kids just trying to fend for themselves. It’s a drama that opened at Sundance this year. It’s won more than ten awards. The director’s only 28 years old, Tze Chun, who will be there. And he was listed from Filmmaker magazine as one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.
CAVANAUGH: So it’s an impressive start but I must mention what is, I guess, the centerpiece of the festival. It’s a film by Chinese filmmaker John Woo. I know that that name is familiar to a lot of people but let’s remind the audience who John Woo is.
KIM: Well, he started in Asia, a famous Hong Kong director, and then moved over here in the United States. He did “Mission Impossible.” He did “Paycheck.” And so he’s legendary. And the “Red Cliff” is a culmination of work from the last five years for him. He said that he had dreamed about doing this film for 20 years, and I know that it’s going to sell out because it is the most expensive film ever produced in Asia. It’s based on the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” and it’s set during China’s feudal history after the fall of the Han Dynasty. And just to give you an example of how epic this film is, China, the government of China, lent 100,000 of their soldiers for some of the war scenes, so can you imagine directing something like that?
KIM: It’s very epic in nature and that is our centerpiece film on Sunday.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it’s not all war epics and – there’s romantic comedies included in this film festival and one of them is called “Shades of Ray.” Tell us about this film.
KIM: I love this film. It’s directed by Jaffar Mahmood, and it’s about being a person of color in Hollywood, and in this case, a mixed race person. He’s half Pakistani, half Caucasian. And he’s just trying to make it in Hollywood, and the funny thing is he always gets typecasted (sic) so throughout the film you see him, you know, going out for roles and, you know, they see him, they see his name, and they expect a certain something out of him, so that’s the basic – the basis of the film.
CAVANAUGH: And we do have a clip. Here is the main character, an actor named Ray played by Brian George. He’s at a screen test and the director gives him some guidance.
(audio of clip from the film “Shades of Ray”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s a scene from “Shades of Ray.” It’s screening along with 199 other films at the 10th Annual Asian Film Festival beginning today in San Diego. And, Lee Ann Kim, what – what accent? I love that question. Like he’s never heard the question before. What accent?
KIM: Right, and it really touches upon, you know, how people really set certain expectations by simply the way that you look, you know. And, certainly, I’m sure Jodi can talk about that experience, too, because she’s played many roles where you’ve had to fake the accent because of the way you look, and there’s that expectation in Hollywood that if you are of Asian descent or you look different that you can do the accents.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Now for the more serious film goer, you have a block of films from North Korea. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
KIM: Yeah, how timely. And it just so happened that this year we received two documentaries and also Korea’s submission to the Academy Awards, which is a narrative called “Crossing,” all dealing with the topic of North Korea. And what’s interesting is that whole Euna Lee, Laura Ling crisis that had happened, it was very clear to me that very few people know about what’s happening in North Korea and, more importantly, beyond the nuclear talks is the humanitarian crisis. So these three films, “Kimjongilia,” which is a film that is a documentary based on defectors out of North Korea, who share their experience about the horrible life over there, as well as “Tiger Spirit,” trying to reunite South and North Koreans families, to “Crossing,” which is a narrative account of defectors in North Korea and life in North Korea. This is a really eye-opening opportunity for San Diegans to see firsthand what is happening there because there’s so little information coming out of North Korea.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Lee Ann Kim. She is executive director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which begins today, of course, right here in San Diego. We have to take a short break. We will return in just a few moments. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re continuing our conversation about the Tenth Annual Asian Film Festival that begins today. Lee Ann Kim, executive director of the festival is still with us, and joining us is Jodi Long. She’s an actress who co-wrote the documentary “Long Story Short.” It’s about her parents who were nightclub entertainers. Let’s start out with a scene from the film narrated by Jodi, which gives some background on her parents’ early entertaining careers.
(audio of clip from documentary “Long Story Short”)
CAVANAUGH: Jodi Long, welcome.
JODI LONG (Documentary Filmmaker): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: It’s nice to have you here.
LONG: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to congratulate you on this documentary, “Long Story Short.” And tell us what happened, how the act changed. What kind of an act your parents developed together.
LONG: Well, you know, my father started as a tap dancer. He was a tap dancer with this man named Paul Wing and they were the Wing Brothers, that’s how he started in America once he got here. So they were kind of like an Asian Nicholas Brothers.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.
LONG: And when Paul and he split up—I think Paul went back to the west coast—he met my mom and my mom was this pony, as she said. She said she kind of strutted around the stage in fun costumes. And he said, well, you look good, so we’ll just, you know, have you do some jokes and I’ll teach you how to dance. So they did this sort of – I call them like a musical Stiller & Meara, be…
CAVANAUGH: That’s a nice – that’s a nice description.
LONG: …because they sang, they told jokes, they did sort of this repartee, this sort of male/female repartee kind of, you know, I mean, she wasn’t the dumb Gracie Allen type but – and then my dad did impress – impersonations. So it was sort of all purpose entertainment.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it was the kind of nightclub act…
CAVANAUGH: …people used to go and see.
CAVANAUGH: Now, they…
LONG: Before television.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. Now, they performed on what was called the Chop Suey Circuit. What was that?
LONG: The Chop Suey Circuit, that’s actually a name that was coined many years later, right, but in the day it was nightclubs in San Francisco and there was a night – I think two nightclubs in New York where they had Asian entertainment for mainly or predominantly a Caucasian crowd. But there was also – my parents also did the Borscht Belt as well, and so they would play the clubs all around the tri-state area, New York and Pennsylvania.
CAVANAUGH: And you were almost literally born in a trunk.
LONG: Yeah, absolutely. I traveled with them until I was about five and my dad used to say that they put me in the drawers in the hotels, that’s where I’d sleep instead of a crib.
CAVANAUGH: Amazing. Now what kind of challenges did they face as Asian-American entertainers?
LONG: Well, you know, I can’t really speak of that because I was too young. I mean, my mother would say that they didn’t get bookings a lot because, you know, they were so specific as being – I mean, the started their act sort of very Chinese, Chinese saying fake Chinese stuff with Chinese costumes, and they would develop into this dance routine and my mother would have her Rita Hayworth gown on and so I think that they were – Most of their work was in the Chop Suey Circuit with other entertainers who were Asian-American.
CAVANAUGH: Now a lot of your family history revolves, at least when it comes to entertainment, revolves around the Broadway play the “Flower Drum Song.”
CAVANAUGH: And a lot of Asian-American entertainers look at the “Flower Drum Song” as a seminal work for recognizing the fact that Asian-Americans were here and were performing. Your father got a job in the Broadway play. That was short lived.
LONG: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: And then they revived and rewrote the play…
LONG: Fifty years later.
LONG: I was starring on it – in it at the Mark Taper. We started at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles and then we went on to Broadway. And it was – I really wanted that part. I mean, pffff… And I was – They told me I was too young, I was too skinny, I was too whatever, and I was determined because I had grown up with it backstage, seeing my – because once my dad – My dad got into the Broadway production and then you’ll – if you come to our movie, you’ll find out what happened to him.
CAVANAUGH: It’s a good story.
LONG: And – But once he left that show, about a couple of years later he went on to do many different productions of “Flower Drum Song” for about ten years, all over the country. So I was also backstage with him and I actually did the Tupperware tour with him in Florida and in Utah. I played Suzy Q in “Flower Drum Song,” so I really knew all the words to all the songs. So it was like there was no way there was going to be a revival, a new revival, because it wasn’t the same book. David Henry Hwang had written a new book for “Flower Drum Song.” There was just no way this play is going to happen without me, this musical.
CAVANAUGH: Now one – I think one of the most touching parts of your documentary, “Long Story Short,” is when your parents see this kinescope that you have uncovered from the Ed Sullivan Show, their one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and they never saw it before and they never really saw themselves perform on film before. Tell us a little bit about their viewing of that old, old TV show.
LONG: I think what one has to remember is that there was no such thing as Tivo then and no such thing as even a video recording cassette, VHS. So – And Ed Sullivan was live so, 1950, they never saw themselves. Nobody had video cameras, and they were shooting in kinescope. So my father had – his recollection of it, was that they had bombed on the Ed Sullivan Show because they were rehearsing right up until the studio audience came in so they were rehearsing, the audience came in, they saw the act like four or five times. And my father was a little concerned about it because he thought, well, they’ve seen it already, how’re they going to laugh at the jokes? But they were like, oh, you’ll be on later, don’t worry about it. Well, they turned around and they were on like one of the first up on the show. So by the time he got out there, the people had all heard all the jokes already. So his recollection was a bad one, so for him to finally see it and to see that he didn’t bomb and that he actually had talent. I mean, I think he knew it in his heart, but to actually see it, and for me to see it, how many years later, I mean, as a child. I was four years – I wasn’t even born then, but seeing them onstage, I don’t remember. So to see that they were good and that they had talent and for my mother to see that – and if you really look closely, my mother is great because she just sells, sells it, sells it, sells it. But if you’re really looking at her feet, she’s not tap dancing.
CAVANAUGH: Right. But the performance is remarkable. We have to end it here. I’m so sorry. But anyone who wants to see more of this remarkable documentary, it is part of the 10th Annual Asian Film Festival. It’s going to be screened at 12:45 this Saturday and Monday, October 19th at 4:00 p.m. I want to let everyone know that the film festival, the 10th Annual Asian Film Festival begins today, runs through October 29th. Screenings are held at the Hazard Center Ultra Star Cinemas. Lee Ann Kim, executive director of the festival, thank you so much.
KIM: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Jodi Long, thank you.
LONG: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.