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Forever a woman.jpg
Carlotta Films
PacArts artistic director Brian Hu calls "Forever A Woman," directed by actress Kinuyo Tanaka, "a stone cold masterpiece" that has been too long overlooked. It screens April 24 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival's Spring Showcase.

Spring Showcase offers 'fresh Asian cinema, from then and now'

[00:00:00.670] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Brian, you are about to launch an in person spring showcase this week, and your opening night film is an interesting one called Anita. It's a biopic of singer and Hong Kong superstar Anita Moy. So what can people expect from this film?

[00:00:23.160] - BRIAN HU
Yeah, Anita Moy is one of the biggest stars of Hong Kong. I'm just thinking about this now because this idea of Hong Kong cinema and this golden age of Hong Kong, it feels like it's gone, right? Like Hong Kong cinema isn't what it used to be, especially now that it's been so integrated with mainland China. And so this idea of a star that's so quintessentially Hong Kong who sings in Cantonese and yet is still popular everywhere, it's kind of something that you can see. You can understand why people are nostalgic for a figure like her. And so a film like this became a big deal in Hong Kong. I got nominated for all the awards. I love this movie because this allows me to relive certain moments of that time and with Anita Moi as a figure who kind of not really a spoiler, but she passes away at the end of the film, and we can say goodbye not just to meet up, but to a certain version of Hong Kong.

[00:01:19.010] - BETH ACCOMANDO
One of the things I really love about this spring showcase are the older titles. There's a quartet of films directed by an actress, and I only got to see two of them, Love Letter and Love Under a Crucifix. But why do you feel it's important to include these older films alongside brand new releases?

[00:01:37.990] - BRIAN HU
It's something we try to do every year for our spring showcase. We dedicate an entire day to a topic from the past. And I mean, partly it's because I'm a film scholar, historian, and this is why I love going to film festivals. I don't just want to watch the newest, but I want to rediscover classics, especially ones that we didn't know about or that were not available. So that's the case with this year's series on Kinuyo Tanaka. Tanaka is most famous for being an actress of films by Kenji Mizu Gucci. And she was in like 250 films. She was one of the biggest actresses in Japan from the silent period all the way to the 1970s, like a little blip in between in her career in the 50s and 60s, she said, look, I want to direct. And everyone looked around and said, wait, really? What does that mean for a woman to direct in a place like Japan? I mean, not just in a place like Japan like in the 50s and 60s. There were few women directing anywhere in the world, especially in mainstream cinema. And so here in Japan, you have major Studios backing a female filmmaker.

[00:02:47.110] - BRIAN HU
And there was a lot of resistance, but she pulled off six feature films. We're going to be showing four of them. At least one of them is a stone cold masterpiece. And then when I watched it, I thought, how do we ever think about 1950s Japanese cinema without a film like Forever a Woman, which is not just the high level of cinematic craft, but also one of the few films I've ever seen from this era about breast cancer and not from a perspective of victimhood, but of like, if I get breast cancer, how does that affect my family? How does that affect my sexual desires? How do I reinvent myself in a scenario like this? And it's still very powerful to watch well and looking to films from the past that are less scholarly, you also are doing your mystery Kung Fu theater, which is an event where we have to trust you to deliver something kick ass. But one thing I'm curious about is some people look to films like that, to these old kind of chopsucky Kung Fu movies as something maybe we shouldn't see. So how do you deal with people who may be critical of showing something like that? Because from my point of view, they are incredibly fun, and they also have a very important kind of place in history in terms of Asian cinema. Yes. I mean, Asian cinema internationally is built on the reputation of martial arts films. For better or worse, we associate Asian cinema with martial arts films. Before there was an Asian film festival, the martial art films were kind of the Asian film festival, and you would see them at Chinatown movie theaters or on TV. So we're kind of paying homage to the ways in which Asian cinema became global to begin with. But I think you're right. There's something about these films that are themselves a legitimate form of expression of artistry. But we think about the greatest films of Asian cinema. A lot of them are and the most innovative ones. We have to think about the ways in which these are filmmakers, choreographers, stunt people who were doing some were way ahead of the game, that the entire world just had their jaws dropped when they saw the kind of intricate martial arts choreography that was on display in these films. And the fact that these actors are doing their own stunts a lot of the times, it changed the face of global cinema and not just Asian cinema. And so we want to pay homage to those great artists as well with this annual tradition.

[00:05:10.230] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And also we have a couple of superstars that came out of these mystery Kung Fu theater style films, people like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, who really gave a face to Asian actors at a time when we just weren't seeing that very often in lead roles.

[00:05:27.410] - BRIAN HU
Yeah. I mean, especially in those decades, action translates well. You don't need them to speak when their fists can speak much louder. And also a lot of these films were about fighting against oppressors. And this was a topic that really resonated all around the world. And I don't know, it still seems incredible that the rest of the world was turning to Asian cinema to find the sort of the exemplar version of let's fight against the oppressor, let's take things into our own hands and fight for justice.

[00:06:03.090] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And for your closing night, you are bringing back a very powerful documentary that is both contemporary in terms of when it was made. But looking back to a case that was very important for Korean Americans.

[00:06:15.270] - BRIAN HU
Yes, the film is called Free Cholsoul, and Cholsuli was a Korean American living in Chinatown in the 1970s. San Francisco Chinatown. Kind of ordinary guy got mixed up with some gangs and everything. But regardless of what his background was, he was wrongly accused of murder and then wrongly convicted of murder.

[00:06:39.100] - CLIP
So from the beginning, you might as well okay, it didn't look good for you when they came for your arrest, 41 rounds of live ammo. You had a. 357 Magnum in your room, and you were on probation for felony. Is that a different issue? No, it is a whole different issue. A lot of people say I was not angel on our side at the same time, I was not the devil. But whatever I was on our side does not justify to frame a person, to put him in a prison for murder he did not commit.

[00:07:13.870] - BRIAN HU
That is no excuse. So his case can happen around the same time that in the Bay Area, you have a lot of young people who were starting to see themselves as Asian American activists. And so he became a symbol for the possibility of Asian Americans, regardless of your background, right. You could be Japanese American. You could be Chinese American. You could be Korean American, Filipino American. They realized that actually the kinds of prejudices within the legal system, within the criminal justice system that led him to being wrongfully convicted could happen to any of us. And so his case started this national movement for thinking about what does it mean to get Asian American Justice. So the film follows his case, but also his life. And as it turns out, his life is way more interesting or not, there's way more to his life than just this case and just the movement inspired, but just that people are complicated and people are human, and that's kind of bigger than activism sometimes. So this film is made by journalists, and you can tell this is the way that it has a kind of magazine feature approach to looking at his life and thinking about what makes him interesting and thinking about how we can draw larger conclusions about American society from one person's experiences.

[00:08:29.860] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Is there anything else you'd like to highlight about the Back in Person spring showcase?

[00:08:33.830] - BRIAN HU
This year, we're doing a special thing that we've never done before, which is highlight a book. We're a film festival, but I don't know, something about a book, a physical, tangible book that's kind of similar to this idea, like going back to Analog or going back to in person, like a book event isn't the same way. So there's a book that came out earlier this year called Rise, a pop history of Asian America from the 90s to now. It's assembled by three of the major figures of Asian American journalism that's Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang. And they got sort of a who's whose list of commentators, artists, entertainers to write little essays in this book. And the project is we know about Asian Americans as a kind of political thing or like an activist category. But what happens when you think about it as a pop culture category? Who are the pop stars that make up Asian America? Who are the notorious figures, who would be the Asian American Kardashian or something, but also, like the TV stars, the movie stars, the YouTube stars, the novelist, the graphic artists? If you bring them all together, it's a much more accessible, kind of fun hearth Robbie approach to thinking about community. And so I wanted to invite some of the authors to town to talk about their book. So in some ways, this is like a typical book talk. We're going to have them on stage, we'll do a Q and A, and then there's going to be a signing of the books, and we'll sell the books as well. For us, it's another way of thinking about we're not here just to celebrate Asian American filmmakers, but all Asian American storytellers. So why not books?

[00:10:18.380] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And Brian, for anybody who may miss the spring showcase, you have curated a collection of films for Criterion which people can find and kind of get a little education virtually.

[00:10:31.230] - BRIAN HU
Yeah. So right now on the Criterion Channel is a program called Asian American Filmmaking 2000 to 2009. And really, these are the films that I watched at places like the San Diego Asian Film Festival during that decade. And when I was a journalist covering the Asian American film scene in California. I don't know. These films are hard to find out. They're less than 15 years old, and yet they're as difficult to find as like a silence movie. Maybe they came out on DVD, maybe they didn't. And even if they came out on DVD, there are probably three small little distributors that don't exist anymore, and most of them are not available streaming anywhere. Part of the same impetus that makes me want to show Kinnego Tanaka films that we don't know about is the same one that I want to bring to Asian American cinema that is not even that old yet. And so, yeah, these films we have 20 films, a combination of feature films, short films, on the Criterion Channel, and it's going to run for a few more months.

[00:11:25.460] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Alright. Well, thank you very much for talking about this year's spring showcase and your little curated collection of Criterion films.

[00:11:33.000] - BRIAN HU
Thank you. As always.

Pacific Arts Movement's 11th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase kicks off on Thursday. It serves up eight days of what it calls "fresh Asian cinema from then and now." There will be more than two dozen films from around the globe from animation to documentary, science fiction to lush melodrama.

Discovering Kinuyo Tanaka

PacArts' artistic director Brian Hu always manages to surprise me with something amazing. This year's back in-person Spring Showcase is no exception. The highlight for me is a quartet of films by a director I was completely unaware of, Kinuyo Tanaka, an actress who turned to directing.

Tanaka_intropage.jpg
Janus Films
Four films by actress-turned-director Kinuyo Tanaka will be highlighted at this year's Spring Showcase.

"She was in like 250 films. She was one of the biggest actresses in Japan from the silent period all the way to the 1970s," Hu said. "But there was a little blip in her career in the 1950s and 60s, where she said, 'Look, I want to direct.' And everyone looked around and said, 'wait, really?' And there was a lot of resistance."

She only directed six films but the four showcased this weekend display exquisite skill behind the camera and delicate compassion for female characters seen too rarely on the screen.

"At least one of them is a stone-cold masterpiece," Hu insisted. "When I watched it, I thought, how do we ever think about 1950s Japanese cinema without a film like 'Forever a Woman,' which is not just a high level of cinematic craft, but also one of the few films I've ever seen from this era about breast cancer and not from a perspective of victimhood, but of like, if I get breast cancer, how does that affect my family? How does that affect my sexual desires? How do I reinvent myself in a scenario like this? And it's still very powerful to watch."

Tanaka's films rival the lush, elegant melodrama of Hollywood women's pictures by directors such as Douglas Sirk and Max Ophüls. So do yourself a favor and check out this quartet of films for the Sunday Spotlight.

MysteryKungFuTheater_Spring22.jpeg
SDAFF
Mystery Kung Fu Theater requires that attendees simply trust artistic director Brian Hu to program an action film that will make your jaw dropped down in awe.

Mystery Kung Fu Theater

But what I also love about Hu's programming is that he can showcase Tanaka's elegant gems on Sunday, and then on Monday treat us to Mystery Kung Fu Theater, which features what some would consider low-brow chop-socky cinema. I happen to think these films display some breathtaking skill in delivering action plus they are just so much fun to watch when you are with an audience and can hear an entire theater gasp in awe at some of the fight choreography.

"Asian cinema internationally is built on the reputation of martial arts films. For better or worse, we associate Asian cinema with martial arts films. Before there was an Asian film festival, the martial arts films were kind of the Asian film festival, and you would see them at Chinatown movie theaters or on TV. So we're kind of paying homage to the ways in which Asian cinema became global to begin with," Hu said. "There's something about these films that are themselves a legitimate form of expression and artistry. We have to think about the ways in which these filmmakers, choreographers, stunt people who were way ahead of the game, that the entire world just had their jaws dropped when they saw the kind of intricate martial arts choreography that was on display in these films."

As the program title implies, the films are a mystery and you just have to trust Hu to pick something that kicks ass. And so far, he has not disappointed.

Anita 7.jpg
Sony Pictures
Louise Wong plays singer and Hong Kong superstar Anita Mui in the biopic "Anita," which opens this year's Spring Showcase.

Other program highlights

"Anita" is the opening night film on Thursday. Louise Wong plays Cantopop singer and Hong Kong superstar Anita Mui in this new biopic.

Hu said the film had a certain nostalgic appeal for him.

"I'm just thinking about this now because this idea of Hong Kong cinema and this golden age of Hong Kong, it feels like it's gone, right? Like Hong Kong cinema isn't what it used to be, especially now that it's been so integrated with mainland China," Hu said. "So this idea of a star that's so quintessentially Hong Kong, who sings in Cantonese and yet is still popular everywhere, you can understand why people are nostalgic for a figure like her. I love this movie because this allows me to relive certain moments of that time and with Anita Mui who, not really a spoiler, but she passes away at the end of the film, and we can say goodbye not just to Mui, but to a certain version of Hong Kong."

On Saturday, Spring Showcase takes a bit of a detour from film to highlight a book. "RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now" will be a part of the Showcase's first book event live panel. Authors Phil Yu, Jeff Yang, and Philip Wang will answer questions and sign books, which will be available for purchase from the local Asian American-owned bookseller Comickaze Comics.

For closing night, PacArts will show "Free Chol Soo Lee," a documentary that screened earlier this year in San Diego at the Sundance Satellite venue of Digital Gym Cinema. The film looks to Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant whose wrongful imprisonment for murder spurred an Asian American-activist movement.

RELATED: 'Colma the Musical'

colmathemusical001.jpg
Roadside Attractions
'Colma the Musical" is one of the film Brian Hu co-curated for the Criterion Channel's "Asian American Filmmaking 200-2009."

And streaming on the Criterion Channel

And if you can't make the Spring Showcase, here's another option for you. Hu has curated a collection of films for the Criterion Channel called "Asian American Filmmaking 2000-2009."

"These are the films that I watched at places like the San Diego Asian Film Festival during that decade and when I was a journalist covering the Asian American film scene in California," Hu said. "These films are hard to find now. They're less than 15 years old, and yet they're as difficult to find as like a silent movie. Part of the same impetus that makes me want to show Kinuyo Tanaka films that we don't know about is the same one reason I want to highlight Asian American cinema that is not even that old yet."

PacArts' 11th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase runs April 21 through 28 at the UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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