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San Diego Asian Film Festival highlights new talent, old classics

The 23rd annual San Diego Asian Film Festivalkicks off on Thursday with the documentary "Bad Axe" at the San Diego Natural History Museum. This year's festival will showcase 130 films from more than 30 countries and screening at four venues. 

Bad Axe. jpeg
IFC Films
The documentary "Bad Axe" opens the 23rd Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Ramping the festival back up

Film festivals, as with so many arts organizations, were hit hard by the pandemic and trying to lure audiences back into cinema has been a challenge.

"Last year was kind of a nice ramp up," explained Brian Hu, artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. "We were back in-person but we told ourselves, let's not do more than one venue at a time. Partly because maybe we're still a little bit rusty. It's a lot of work to do multiple venues at the same time and then we didn't know if the demand was quite there yet."

This year they are at pre-pandemic numbers with films screening at the home base of UltraStar Mission Valleyas well as the San Diego Natural History Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, and UC San Diego's Price Center.

"So we're ready to do it, go back to how we used to be and multiple venues at the same time. And pretty soon we'll be back to 2019 in terms of our operations," Hu added. "We are feeling great about it. Audiences seem to be, too. And ticket sales are good."

San Diego Asian Film Festival
Michele Josue's documentary "Nurse Unseen" focuses on Filipino nurses over the decades.

Showcasing Asian diversity

Although the festival is more than two decades old, some filmgoers may still assume that an Asian film festival only showcases countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea.

"One of our goals is to remind everybody that Asia is the biggest continent in the world and they're making movies everywhere, and really good ones at that," Hu said. "So, obviously India is one of the biggest producers of film in the world and India makes more than just Bollywood films. India has this bustling new independent film scene, films made in multiple languages. And so we've got a couple of films from India."

There will also be films from Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Pacific Islands. Plus an emphasis on Asian American and Asian Canadian films.

"This is a film festival that is largely founded and organized by Asian Americans," Hu pointed out. "I think one of our goals is to give a platform for marginalized voices here in the United States. I mean, Asian Americans don't have huge visibility in Hollywood or in the mainstream media. So those filmmakers and artists who will go out there to put themselves on the screen, we want to give them a platform as well."

One of those films is the documentary "Decoupling," about international students living in the U.S. who let their 11-month old daughter go back to China with her grandparents.

"It's all very sweet. And then the pandemic happens," Hu explained. "I don't know what kind of fortitude it takes to make a movie about something as difficult as this as you're still living it. We actually have the world premiere of this film made by a young filmmaker in the Midwest."

San Diego Asian Film Festival
"Riceboy Sleeps" will be the closing night film at the 23rd Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Fresh from its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival is "Riceboy Sleeps."

"It's about a Korean immigrant family," Hu said. "The single mom living in Vancouver with her son. It's the 1990s and he faces a little bit of racism at school. And so for the son, it's about how much of Koreanness do I want to leave behind? How much do I want to become Canadian?"

"Riceboy Sleeps" closes the festival on Nov. 12.

"We Are Still Here" serves up an anthology of intersecting films from new filmmakers in New Zealand, Australia and Aotearoa.

The festival will also screen an anthology film called "We Are Still Here" featuring filmmakers from Australia and New Zealand. But it is not your typical anthology film.

"This one is a little bit more ambitious," Hu said. "It's allowing filmmakers from New Zealand, Australia, Samoa to each have their own little short piece, but they're woven together in a way that they're overlapping. One begins and then stops halfway. Another one begins and then it resumes later on. And the really ambitious part about it is they take as an impetus, Captain Cook's arrival in the Pacific Islands, as a kind of spark to indigenous people having a voice, but then that cascades into talking about anti-colonial resistance, and then that turns into this incredible imagining of what the future might look like. So not only does it show that there are many voices in the Pacific Islands of indigenous voices, but that they're really thinking outside of the box."

Highlighting new and veteran filmmakers

While "We're Still Here" serves up young filmmakers and new voices, the sidebar called Masters reminds us of the great filmmakers who have been producing stunning art for decades. It allows us to see new works by veteran filmmakers as well as well as introduce these directors to a new generation. This year Iran's Jafar Panahi, Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda, South Korea's Hong Sang-soo, and the Philippines' Lav Diaz are among the featured artists.

Janus Films
Antia Mui stars in "Executioners," the sequel to "The Heroic Trio." Both Hong Kong films were made in 1993, which exemplifies the fast pace of the film industry during the Hong Kong New Wave.

There are also master filmmakers on display in the showcase of Classics Restored. As someone who fell in love with Hong Kong cinema in the 80s as the Hong Kong New Wave was hitting, I am thrilled to see a pair of Johnnie To films on the slate: "Heroic Trio" and "Executioners." These films represent the wild energy, audacious style, and just delirious insanity of the Hong Kong New Wave. They feel like they are blowing the dust off of everything that came before and inventing something entirely new.

Both films feature a trio of female action stars: Michelle Yeoh (who is riding high on "Everything Everywhere All At Once"), Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung.

"These are not films you would normally think about as the important films of world cinema. But they are," Hu enthused. "These are just the wildest 1990s Hong Kong action movies. Not necessarily in terms of just breathtaking action, but also these are all deranged. Most of all, it has just the three most spectacular stars of Hong Kong cinema at the peak of their powers, kicking butt, wearing incredible outfits and just being totally memorable on top of the fact that there's a director like Johnny To just allowing them to do the most deranged things. I mean, this is too irresistible. We're showing both [in 4K restorations] and it's selling well. And we know that the audience is going to have such a great time."

I can also guarantee a great time at the amazing Mystery Kung Fu Theater, where you have to trust Hu to pick a film you will love. And he has yet to disappoint. The films tend to be 70s and 80s kung fu gems and Hu is particularly excited about this year's mystery selection.

Last year there was a sound issue at the screening and the audience, of which I was a part, voted to watch the film and do live foley. It was one of the most giddily enjoyable screenings I have ever been to and just proves the lengths to which fans will go to watch these amazing films.

So as always, I look forward to this event and urge people to come for something magical.

The San Diego Asian Film festival runs Thursday through Nov. 12.

San Diego Asian Film Festival highlights new talent, old classics

Cinema Junkie Recommandations:

  • Mystery Kung Fu Theater
  • "The Heroic Trio"
  • "Executioners"
  • "Lesson in Murder"
  • "Detective Vs. Sleuths"
  • "Too Cool To Kill"
  • "We Are Still Here"
  • "Broker"
  • "The Novelists's Film"
  • "Walk Up"
  • "What About China"
  • "When the Waves Are Gone"
  • "A Confucian Confusion"

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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