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Arts & Culture

San Diego Asian Film Festival Overview

Three of the best films are up against each other on opening night. Justin Lin's Finishing the Game screens only once at the festival, but will open in San Diego later this month at Landmark. The other two playing on Thursday will repeat, so if you plan well, you can catch both. South Korea's A Dirty Carnival follows the rise and emotional decline of a small-time gangster. Byeong-du (Jo In-seong) is the petty hood and he bumps into an old school friend, Min-ho (Nam-gung Min), who happens to be an aspiring filmmaker penning a mob script. Naturally he asks Byeong-du for advice. Chock full of memorable characters and loaded with tense action, this doesn't top last year's A Bittersweet Life , but it's well worth checking out.

Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile (Focus Films)

Getting to see Japanese anime on the big screen is a rare treat indeed and this year's SDAFF highlights two from Makoto Shinkai: 2003's Voices of a Distant Star and his latest film 5cm per Second. Shinkai made Voices pretty much single-handedly in his apartment and on his Mac G4 computer using mostly off-the-shelf software. So just the fact that he finished it is a major accomplishment and the fact that it's such a beautiful contemplation on war, memory, communication and long distance relationships. Although only 25 minutes long, the film displays ambition in terms of the themes it wants to tackle and the emotional force it builds up. The animation is not terribly sophisticated and tends to be static images, but the images are sometimes composed with breathtaking care.


5cm Per Second refers to the speed at which cherry blossom petals fall, and the film offers a perfect thematic and emotional follow-up to Voices. Once again, Shinkai is concerned with a relationship that spans time and distance and how the two parties communicate. As with Voices, 5cm has an aching sadness at its core and surprises you with emotional depth. The title refers to something that is a constant that the two main characters can refer to no matter where they are or how far they have drifted. The SDAFF Web site refers to Shinkai as the heir apparent to Hiyao Miyazaki, but I think that's inaccurate (and is used more for the fact that Americans have become somewhat familiar with Miyazaki's work). Shinkai's films are more akin to the moody works of Wong Kai Wai (although sadder and less romantically giddy) or the melancholy and thoughtful art films of the French New Wave. Shinkai's films are not fast-paced actioners for young kids, but rather existential meditations on modern isolation and loneliness. Don't miss a chance to see Shinkai's work on the big screen. Although he keeps the animation simple, he composes every frame with a great eye for the mise en scene and for the way light can play on the surfaces.

As I mentioned, the festival's a bit light on Asian action this year, but one of my favorite Asian extreme directors, Park Chan Wook ( Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance ), offers up an unlikely romance. Park's I'm a Cyborg But I'm OK is the kind of romance someone like me can embrace. Its about a woman who believes she's a robot and a kleptomaniac who steals her heart. The two meet up in an insane asylum. Park has made a a surprisingly sweet and endearing love story, despite all the violence. There are some wonderful fantasy sequences including a yodeling number in which the young woman is flown in her bed by a giant insect to the Swiss Alps. I'm a Cyborg feels whispy compared to the emotional heft of his revenge trilogy, but it's a lovely change of pace and a visually delightful work.

Hula Girls (Viz Pictures)

More traditional warm and fuzzy emotions can be found in a film called Hula Girls about a Japanese mining town that tries to reinvent itself by building a Hawaiian village and training local girls to do dance. The film is a genuine crowd pleaser with appealing performances all around. On a more dramatic note, Hong Kong's Patrick Tam returns to directing with a beautifully rendered tale of a young boy coping with the fact that his mother has abandoned him in After This Our Exile . Tam, who worked for some time as an editor with numerous credits with Wong Kar Wai, understands that editing is not only about knowing how to cut shots together but also about knowing when not to cut. He lets some scenes play out in single long takes that allow the characters to work through their characters' emotions in an effective manner.

There's an eerily prescient tale in Dark Matter. The story concerns a Chinese university student in the U.S. who runs into problems with his thesis when he challenges his professor's findings. The student cracks under pressure and engages in a violent spree on campus, much like the Korean student at Virginia Tech. Dark Matter also claims a real event as its source of inspiration. But the film, which stars Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn, never really finds the depth or insights to make it rise above the sensational headlines from which it draws its material.


Representing Asian horror this year is Thailand's The Victim. The film serves up a nifty premise: A young actress works with the police to do crime re-enactments designed to help catch the killers and criminals, but the spirits of the victims she's portraying start to appear and take possession of her. The film mixes a certain self-deprecating humor with a creepy supernatural mood. This one is a perfect mood setter for Halloween.

SDAFF, as in years past, also provides short film, student and documentary showcases. Of the films I haven't seen, but am looking forward to, is Vietnam's The Rebel, an actioner set in the 1920s with a sexy Johnny Nguyen. There's also a Vietnamese-American film called The Owl and the Sparrow that has good buzz.

For a complete schedule of films and events go to .