San Diego Asian Film Festival At 20
Ten-day event kicks off tonight
San Diego Asian Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary tonight with the opening night film "The Paradise We Are Looking For."
My history with SDAFF
Two decades ago Lee Ann Kim, then a TV news anchor, asked me to help with the inaugural San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF). She had a vision for creating an event to showcase Asian and Asian American film and to celebrate those images. At that time I had been helping other film festivals such as the San Diego Jewish Film Festival (SDJFF), San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF), and the now gone UCSD sponsored San Diego International Film Festival run by the late Ruth Bailey. I had helped with everything from checking film splices on 16mm prints for SDJFF to serving on selection committees for SDLFF to lugging 35mm canisters of a brand new print of “Gamera” to the Greyhound station for Bailey’s festival.
For SDAFF, one of the first things I did was point out that the beautiful theater that University of San Diego was offering the festival for free had no projection booth. Since I had worked as a projectionist and Kim was working in TV with no knowledge of film venues, I had to be the bearer of bad news and point out that the theater had no means of projecting 35mm film, which was the main format that first year. That meant the neophyte festival would have to come up with an additional $20,000 to rent not just a projector but a screen and a portable projection booth because 35mm projectors needed to be housed in a fireproof booth to meet the fire code.
I don’t know how Kim did it but she found the extra money and made the event happen. She had a gift for fundraising and for organizing people, and it is because of her that San Diego has one of the best Asian film festivals in the country.
I served as the international film programmer that year because I had a passion for Asian cinema from Hong Kong, Japan and China (my grandfather was Chinese and loved movies). I only lasted a year in that role because Kim and I had very different taste in film and her interest was really in Asian American films.
That first year I had to beg, plead and twist arms to program Hou Hsiao Hsein’s “The Flowers of Shanghai,” Mabel Cheung’s “The Soong Sisters,” Ringo Lam’s “Full Alert,” and a pair of admittedly insane but spectacular films from Suzuki Seijun, “Branded to Kill” and “Tokyo Drifter.” But I lost a battle to screen the Vietnamese film “The Retired General” (a political satire made under an oppressive regime) because it was crudely made. I think Kim was unsettled by the fact that some people walked out on “Tokyo Drifter” but I was happy that others (including the projectionist) told me they loved the film and I was thrilled that director Karyn Kusama (whose film “Girlfight” was screening at the festival) snuck out of her film to see some of Seijun’s “Branded to Kill” on the big screen.
A new artistic director
After I left the festival I was frustrated by programming choices that sometimes included mediocre Asian American titles while excluding challenging international ones. But I was thrilled when the festival eventually hired Brian Hu as its artistic director. Hu has been with SDAFF for almost half of its two decades and in that time he has helped to showcase the vast diversity of Asian and Asian American cinema, and he has not been afraid to program films that challenge viewers and push them out of their comfort zone (like last year’s 8 hour documentary “Dead Souls”). He has also turned down Asian American films that other festivals were screening if they did not meet his bar for quality. He has sought out titles at home and abroad that reveal his dedication to truly finding the best and most eclectic films to showcase.
During his tenure he has seen films go from 35mm prints to being delivered on flash drives.
“And that's been part of the fun and challenge because it means we have to constantly adapt,” Hu said. “But it also shows sort of the sense of anything is possible like film is trying to figure itself out. And Asian-American filmmakers are trying to figure out where they fit within that shift in the cinematic landscape and we as a film festival are also trying to figure out what can how best to serve our audience.”
Hu programs the expected crowd pleasers, but he also challenges audiences with wonderful gems like “Present. Perfect.” about live streaming in China or the documentary “What We Left Unfinished” about the Afghan film industry during a series of tumultuous and repeated regimes changes.”
“If we don't play these films, who will?” Hu asked. “So I mean it's moments like that are partly to test our audiences because film festivals should be ways to stretch our audiences or just to remind audiences that they're capable of so much more than what Hollywood is offering them. We have films that are 40 minutes and that's an awkward length. It's not quite a short film. You can't put it on YouTube and you can't sell in movie theater commercially. Perhaps the film festivals are the only place for them.”
Film festivals are sacred ground to me and they are meant to be the place where you can see films that cannot play anywhere else and I love how Hu seems to share that vision.
SDAFF opening night
SDAFF is sponsored by Pacific Arts Movement (Pac-Arts), a non-profit media arts organization based in San Diego. It is dedicated to promoting different voices through the media arts and through youth filmmaker training programs such as Reel Voices. For the opening night film on this 20th anniversary, Pac-Arts decided to commission a film made by filmmakers with a connection to San Diego. The result is “The Paradise We Are Looking For,” an anthology of four documentaries.
“We invited four filmmakers to pick a neighborhood in San Diego that they feel a particular connection to or that they know people from and they want to tell their stories and in particular I wanted to give them challenge of thinking about the documentary form more expansively,” Hu explained. “So there are so many ways to make a documentary. I don't just want to watch films where it's just professors talking about the history of San Diego or something. So really immerse the filmmakers in these neighborhoods and just soak it all in and all four of them have very different styles different approaches to documentary. And it really shows the diversity of different ways of telling the San Diego story. And that was precisely our point.”
My favorite segment of the film is “Bidyoke,” a black and white look at a karaoke bar in National City. It opens with a man explaining how people have been killed for singing badly and that is all you need to pull you into the particular passions of the people in the film.
Opening night films never have trouble selling out, which is why I like to highlight films such as “What We Left Unfinished.” As someone who loves film and loves to sample it from around the globe I was immediately drawn to seeing this documentary because I had never seen any films from Afghanistan.
Hu explained, “the film is about the 1980s and '90s in Afghanistan when you have continued regime changes and with each regime there's propaganda. But it takes longer to make a film than for a regime to stay in power. So what happens is that with the regime changes there are all these unfinished films and what we forget is these filmmakers are artists, they're entertainers, they're not here especially for ideological purposes, and they've left their passions behind. And so the documentary filmmaker got access to these unfinished films that have never really been showcased anywhere and restored them and got the filmmakers to talk about these unfinished projects and tell the stories of how they were making films in this very unique political situation and what it means to be a filmmaker and artist and storyteller. During this time and the result is sometimes hilarious and some shocking but you get the sense of history through the images of entertainments and of how people want to enjoy life under a regime that we often don't think about in those terms.”
The filmmakers talk about how film can be more powerful than a gun or a bomb and it's interesting that the Communists feel film is so powerful that they want to control it and use it as propaganda. And the Taliban feels that film is so powerful that they want to ban it completely. If you love film or history, this is a riveting work and this is likely your only chance to watch it.
The same is likely true for “Present. Perfect.” This collection of live streaming videos may test some viewers’ patience but it is a fascinating look at life in China and in a country with severe restrictions on how information is shared and conveyed, these live streaming videos feel a bit dangerous and radical.
To return to Hu’s idea of changing media there is the film “No Data Plan” in which an undocumented Filipino immigrant tracks his journey across country with a cell phone. Cell phones have been used as somewhat gimmicky devices to make films but in this case his secretive journey eluding authorities as he takes a train from Los Angeles to New York could only be recorded with a cell phone. The film has a clandestine quality and gives us a truly different perspective on America.
When forced to pick a favorite film, Hu did cite “Hope Frozen” as one to seek out.
“It’s a really bizarre but beautiful, touching film, a documentary from Thailand by a Thai American director and it's got a family of scientists,” Hu said. “The dad is a scientist. The son is in high school. His name is Matrix and he wants to be a scientist one day like his dad and then unfortunately Matrix’s younger sister is dying of a terminal illness and the family, because they believe in science so much, they decide to cryogenically freeze her and they know that we don't have technology now to revive her but who knows, maybe we are just 10 years away, maybe it's within our lifetimes that we could see her again.”
The director and the son Matrix will be at the screening on Nov. 15 at UltraStar Mission Valley.
I would also recommend the retro screenings of “Colma: The Musical,” “Refugee” and “Saving Face;” plus of course the unknown joys of Mystery Kung Fun Theater on Nov. 8 where you have to trust Hu to pick a great old school chop sockey film; from the Asia Pop collection “The 12th Suspect” and “Wild Goose Lake” look most promising; and from the Masters sidebar Kiyoshi Kurosawa delivers another beautifully ambiguous and compelling film, “To the Ends of the Earth.” I highly recommend going online and just searching through the program for what might spark your particular interest be it romance, musicals, documentaries, shorts, family drama, action, or just the unexpected.
With two decades behind the festival, Hu is excited about the future.
“I'm looking forward to continuing to do projects like our opening night film that we are producing,” Hu said. “But also to keep finding other ways to serve our communities and to tell our stories in particular because we still believe in film even if a lot of filmmakers are now moving into television and web. So if the films aren't being made naturally maybe we have to be involved in encouraging their production. And so having the festival rethink what it can be and that it is not purely for exhibition but that we are a hub for new ideas.”
Here’s looking forward to 170 films from more than two dozen countries and to the next 20 years.
Listen to the new Cinema Junkie podcast coming out Friday in which Hu discusses the Los Angeles Times list he helped curate for the 20 best Asian American films from the last 20 years as well as more of the films from the festival.