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10 must-see films at San Diego Asian Film Festival

Lee Sun-kyun stars in the wacky South Korean comedy "Killing Romance."
Clover Films
Lee Sun-kyun stars in the wacky South Korean comedy "Killing Romance."

The San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) kicked off its 24th year last night with "Quiz Lady." But that's not the type of film I seek out at festivals because it is now readily available via streaming. Here's my guide to exploring more adventuresome terrain.

There is nothing wrong with "Quiz Lady" or being eager to see it at the festival. But because it is distributed by a big studio and a secured release platform (you can find it on Hulu starting today), I am just less excited about carving out time to see it when the festival has some rare gems to discover.

When I attend a film festival, some things I look for are films that could disappear after a festival run, restored films that I never had a chance to see on a big screen, rarities that — for whatever reason — may be hard to watch and anything that looks boldly unique.


So here are my top ten recommendations for what to seek out at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival. The list is in alphabetical order.

'100 Yards'
I cannot resist action films, and while we get a lot from Hong Kong, we do not get to see as many from mainland China. This one looks to have an American, western flavor mixed with martial arts choreography. It also looks likely to be my only chance to see this on the big screen maybe ever.

Song Kang-ho stars as a director in Kim Jee-Woon's "Cobweb."
Samual Goldwyn Films
Song Kang-ho stars as a director in Kim Jee-Woon's "Cobweb."

I adore Kim Jee-woon, the director of "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird," "A Tale of Two Sisters," and the brutally brilliant "I Saw the Devil." For "Cobweb" (not to be confused with the English-language film of the same name), Kim delivers something I love — a film about the making of a film. To make this even more enticing he casts the amazing Song Kang-ho (of "The Host" and "Parasite") as his director alter-ego. It's a film about the creative process, ego, art and business, and an artist evaluating his craft. There is also a gorgeous black and white section.

'Concrete Utopia'
South Korea makes some of the best pop entertainment in the world right now. One reason is that filmmakers there embrace melodrama as a tool to engage audiences and make us love the characters before horrific things happen. "Concrete Utopia" mixes a thriller with social commentary and stars Lee Byung-hun, who I have to confess is very easy on the eyes.

"Evil Does Not Exist" screens as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival's Masters sidebar.
Janus Films
"Evil Does Not Exist" screens as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival's Masters sidebar.

'Evil Does Not Exist'
SDAFF artistic director Brian Hu introduced me to Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and I fell in love. Now Hamaguchi has a new film called "Evil Does Not Exist." There are some directors that you just trust will deliver, and he is one of them. So I don't need to know anything more. I'm there.


'Killing Romance'
Sometimes you just need a ridiculously silly escape from reality and this wacky South Korean comedy is it. In terms of its weird unpredictability, it reminded me of Park Chan-wook's "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK." I have no idea where actor Lee Sun-kyun hails from or what he has done before, but he is so hilariously conceited and despicable that his performance is riveting. The film has crazy fun production design and unexpected turns. A pure delight.

'Mad Fate'
I had to include something from my beloved Hong Kong, and "Mad Fate" captures the schizophrenia of Hong Kong movies where you can jump from slapstick comedy to tragedy in a split second. This is a dark tale, but with a clownish lead and a sociopathic sidekick. It takes multiple strange turns as it considers questions of fate.

Hirokazu Kore-eda is another director that I will seek out and not even bother to read anything about his new film, because I know I just need to see it. This film also has children and Kore-eda has delivered some spectacular films with children in them, "Shoplifters" and the heartbreaking "Nobody Knows" are standouts.

'The Oath of the Sword'
This is the kind of event you want to seek out at a festival because it cannot be replicated anywhere else. This is a rediscovered silent film from 1914 that will screen with live music and then be followed by a discussion with the person who found the film. These are what film festivals are meant to do and audiences need to support it.

I have no clue what to expect from this film, but this description in the program won me over: "Bottomless bowls of rice. Sake that never gets hot. Shampoo suds that keep getting into the eyes. Disappearing words from a document! There’s something wrong with time at the Fujiya Inn, a remote spa in the Kibune area, specifically for two minutes. In other words, they’re stuck in a time loop!" Described as a mix of comedy, romance and science fiction, it just cried out to me to watch.

'The Secret Art of Human Flight'
H.P. Mendoza is a talented Asian American filmmaker with a flair for whimsy and the unexpected. For this film he tackles themes of grief. He is scheduled to appear at the festival and that is another thing to seek out. Do not pass up an opportunity to speak with a filmmaker about his/her work.

Ten films is merely the tip of the iceberg at a festival like the SDAFF. And I am still agonizing over titles I left off. But I will add as my bonus pick Mystery Kung Fu Theater. That should be a given for everyone attending the festival. It is always a rollicking good time and usually the films are rare. If you have never gone, just go!

Another good bet is anything from Masters, a collection of films by veteran directors that you can trust to deliver. I listed a few of them but you can also find the wonderful Ann Hui and Hong Sang-soo among these filmmakers.