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Arts & Culture

San Diego Asian Film Festival returns in-person with daring programming

KuyaAnime.jpg
Kid Heroes Productions
Mark Muñoz is Kuya or Lumpia Man, a Filipino-American superhero who uses lumpia as a weapon in "Lumpia With A Vengeance."

More than 100 films from 20 countries screening at four venues

San Diego Asian Film Festival is back in person this week and with 130 films from 20 countries screening at four venues. Here's a preview.

The pandemic forced many of us to play it safe by staying at home for the past year and a half. To celebrate the fact that we can can now return to cinemas, San Diego Asian Film Festival is doing anything but playing it safe with its film selections. Take "Terminal USA."

San Diego Asian Film Festival returns in-person with daring programming
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

"It's the kind of movie you'd watch on a dare," said Brian Hu, artistic director for the festival. Hu is daring audiences to take a chance on this restored print of Jon Moritsugu's
1993 film.

TERMINAL USA THEATRICAL TRAILER

"PBS sort of commissioned it, but I feel like they regretted commissioning this movie," Hu explained. "They wanted a series on American families with a more subversive edge and they hired Jon Moritsugu, who is known for films with titles I can't even say on the radio. What it does is it shows that there's a certain kind of stereotype of Asian-Americans as being this model minority, or at least of being kind of like, non-offensive.

"And he really wants to show how, one, it's possible that they're not. But then two, it's also possible that under the surface even of very normal looking Asian-American families, you don't want to look under the hood. And so there's something so gratifying about that, even if I would never show this in my own family."

San Diego Asian Film Festival Returns In-Person With Daring Selections

In the documentary "Inside the Red Brick Wall," it’s the filmmakers who are not playing it safe as they try to document 2019 protests in Hong Kong.

"This was happening on university campuses where protesters were taking over the campuses and using the campuses as a platform for them to express their grievances with the Beijing government," Hu said.

"It's such a powerful documentary in that the filmmakers are amongst the protesters. No one knows what's going to happen. People are talking about, we may not see each other again, because this may be like Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong and getting a sense of the courage of these filmmakers to persist because they see these protesters are too. So they need to be there to document it all. This is historic, and it's an intense documentary."

"Writing with Fire" documents another type of daring as it looks to women journalists in India who run their own news outlet.

"'Writing with Fire' is about just these intrepid women who have become journalists because they pick up phones and they figure out a way to get their stories on YouTube and online. But you also get a sense of the stakes of journalism and why it's so important. And there's a way in which people in the west often look at these stories from the non-west and say they're catching up with the liberalism of the west. But really, it's not that. We have much to learn from these women about what is possible in journalism and what does it mean to consume media and news media."

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Then "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy" challenges expectations about narrative structure with its trio of stories about chance.

"There's something about the way in which when people who don't expect to meet each other end up doing so, the dance they do around each other and what it reveals about themselves and also their ability to be sometimes kind of cruel," Hu said. "And it's such a joy to see a director know how to squeeze every ounce of drama from unexpected directions, not in any melodramatic or scandalous way, but in a way that really cuts to the moral stakes or the possibilities of tension on screen that's really masterful."

Filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi also provides the festival with its closing night film "Drive My Car."

More masterful storytelling is on display with the newly restored print of the 1970s melodrama "Execution in Autumn" directed by Lee Hsing.

"Lee passed away in August," Hu said. "So I figured now we really must show this movie in part because I think Taiwan cinema is associated with some of these art films from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. But let's talk about what happened before. And this is also kind of a juicy drama of ethics and family that really stretches our definitions of family."

"Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes" stretches a single take into a quirky tale about a guy who notices that there’s a two minute delay between the security camera and what he sees on his computer, and this leads to some time travel shenanigans.

"Films have often used a single take as a kind of technical stunt," Hu stated. "But there's something about the single take in a single location now, especially since we've been at home all this time. I think it has a special meaning. And I just love seeing people who make so much out of so little. We've all been stuck in our homes. We've all had to improvise new kinds of joy. And this is a film that puts that on display in full force."

Making a lot out of a little is also at the heart of "Lumpia," a film that director Patricio Ginelsa says was inspired by "El Mariachi."

"If that movie was about a Mexican hero that used a guitar as a weapon, what would be the Filipino version? The best thing we could think of was about a Filipino guy who just throws lumpia. That's what my brother said. And he was just joking around. And I go, wait a minute. There's something there visually," Ginelsa explained.

Lumpia are Filipino egg rolls.

Ginelsa shot the film with friends on an eight millimeter camcorder over many years starting in the 1990s.

"It became like something of a cult hit amongst Filipino Americans because it spoke directly to their cultural uniqueness," Hu explained. "But from the perspective of not necessarily like historical trauma, but from, like, let's have fun with this. Let's go in the theater and celebrate each other through a superhero movie."

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Hu enjoyed pointing out that Lumpia Man was an Asian American superhero on screen BEFORE Shang Chi. Now Ginelsa and company have crowdfunded a sequel called "Lumpia with a Vengeance," and both will screen at the festival. Ginelsa has one disclaimer about the films.

"No actual lumpia were wasted in the film," he said. "We made sure that any real lumpia was eaten properly. But anytime that it was thrown, it was actually a fake prop."

So check out the buffet of films being served up by San Diego Asian Film Festival and enjoy some cinematic treats.

Get the recipe for lumpia from Patricio Ginelsa's mother-in-law in this Geeky Gourmet video.