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San Diego Asian Film Festival Innovates With VOD, Twitch, Drive-In

Hong Kong director Johnnie To is back in fine form with a genre-mashing boxing film called "Chasing Dream."
Shaw Organization
Hong Kong director Johnnie To is back in fine form with a genre-mashing boxing film called "Chasing Dream."

Showcase of Asian and Asian American films runs through Oct. 31

San Diego Asian Film Festival's artistic director Brian Hu gives Cinema Junkie a preview of the most exciting films from Johnnie To's new boxing romance to Lav Diaz' epic Philippine melodrama to zombies in the Taiwan parliament. Festival runs Oct. 23 through 31 with Mystery Kung Fu Theater streaming live on Twitch!

Pacific Arts Movement, known as Pac-Arts, had to cancel its Spring Showcase earlier this year because of COVID-19. But Friday it kicks off its annual San Diego Asian Film Festival with a mix of online and outdoor events.

Pac-Arts was the second major nonprofit that had to cancel a film festival here in San Diego. Media Arts Center was the first, having to cancel its San Diego Latino Film Festival on the day it was supposed kick off.

Preview of 2020 San Diego Asian Film Festival

Having canceled its April event and had the past eight months to experiment with how to move a festival online, the Asian Film Festival has come up with some wildly innovative solutions to not being able to hold the festival in person in cinemas.

The Twitch Experiment

Let me begin with what may be the most interesting experiment of the festival — the use of Twitch. If you are unfamiliar with Twitch it is a live streaming platform predominantly for gamers. The Asian Film Festival has set up its own channel, which will go live later this week and where people can stop by for free and enjoy some unique content. The thing I am most excited about is moving its Mystery Kung Fu Theater, or MKFT, to Twitch. MKFT was inspired by the old Mystery Kung Fu Theater TV in the United States in the 1970s and '80s, where you would just tune in on a Saturday morning and catch a random kung fu movie.

"It's going to be like waking up in the morning, getting your cereal and turning on the television," explained Brian Hu, artistic director of the Asian Film Festival. "And we're just going to livestream a mystery kung fu movie. In fact, we're going to livestream two of them. It's going to be a double feature the way that this should be experienced. I feel like this is going to be a really nice treat for people just to be able to do it in their pajamas and for me, it's going back to the source. It's going to go back to how a whole generation discovered kung fu films to begin with in the 1980s."

But that's not all you can find on Twitch. There will also be an Animal Crossing gathering next Monday and Tuesday.


"I'm no expert in Animal Crossing, but a lot of people on our staff are," Hu said. "I think it's so cool that they're just creating a virtual film festival experience on Animal Crossing. They created an avatar for me and they created a red carpet and what looks to me exactly like the UltraStar Cinema and you could just go in and walk around and interact with each other."

The final Twitch offering is perhaps the wackiest and most meta. Hu will dig into his collection of 16mm prints of old Asian films and have projectionist Jon Miller project the films that will then be shot with a camcorder and streamed on Twitch.

"Part of it is reminding us that this is not actually 16 millimeter because you're at home watching a live stream," Hu said. "You're not getting the tactile feeling of an analog medium. But isn't that what 2020 is all about? We do our classes on Zoom, we do meetings on Zoom and we've all been so cognizant of the medium specificity of analog experiences. And I feel like this is this is a way for us to think about what is digital. What is analog? At the same time honoring these old prints that that are that do not exist in any kind of digital medium. And so this is going to be fun little experiment. And we're not going to announce what film it's going to be. In fact, I'm going to hold up two 16 millimeter print canisters. I'm going to let the audience choose which one they want, like A or B and and so it has a lot of spirit of Mystery Kung Fu Theater but the film is not going to be a kung fu film."

San Diego Asian Film Festival Innovates With VOD, Twitch, Drive-In
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Opening and closing nights

Most of the films will be available for the full nine days of the festival, like a mini-VOD for attendees. But to maintain a sense of community and interaction, there will also be more than two dozen live discussions with filmmakers. But the Asian Film Festival is designating "76 Days" as its opening feature and "Mogul Mowgli" as its closing night film. "76 Days" is an amazingly current documentary that looks inside Wuhan hospitals in China during the 76 days of COVID lockdown and how front-of-line workers made heroic efforts to provide care. "Mogul Mowgli" is a showcase for actor Riz Ahmed as a rapper who sudden health crisis allows for him to reflect on his life, career, and family.

Festival highlights

As an action film junkie I am looking forward to "Chasing Dream" and "Wild Swords." "Chasing Dream" is from one of my favorite directors, Johnnie To, a man who never ceases to amaze me in the ways he innovates with genre mash-ups that simple dazzle and delight you. To has been absent from cinemas and Hu was beginning to worry about the director.

"But then he drops 'Chasing Dream,' which is a mix of mixed martial arts hotpot entrepreneur movie, gangster movie as well as a singing competition movie," Hu stated. "And it all fits together perfectly organically in Johnnie To's hands. I mean, it's organic, but at the same time it's also rowdy and bizarre and just with endless energy. And we're so glad Johnnie To is back in full force."

From this experienced master we go to some fresh talent behind Li Yunbo's "Wild Swords."

"With 'Wild Swords,' what makes it so interesting is this is an independent film," Hu said. "This isn't made by one of the big studios in China. It goes to show that the independent filmmakers are finding ways to go around the system and even not just to tell sort of quote unquote, independent stories that are usually like urban stories about ordinary people. But in this case, to independently do a Wu Shu film where you have martial artists and different sects that battle each other and get revenge, all the things that we have come to love in a Wu Shu film. But here, because it's an indie film, you get the spirit of a director that you could tell he's speaking to other fans of the genre and he knows that these fans have seen everything already."

The Asian Film Festival also loves to highlight Asian pop culture and it does so again with films such as "Project Dreams — How to Build Mazinger Z' Hangar," about achieving an otaku dream of replicating the iconic hangar of the beloved "Mazinger Z" anime.

At the SDAFF Drive-In

This year the festival also moves to an outdoor, pop up drive-in at the Zion Market parking lot on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa.

Screening outdoors is the outstanding documentary "Be Water" that aired on ESPN. The film looks to the life of Hong Kong superstar and martial artist extraordinaire Bruce Lee but it does so in a way that also explores what the experience was like for Asians living and trying to work in America in the 1960s and '70s. The films is a great portrait of Lee as well as a brilliant social document.

Taking things to a much more ridiculous extreme is the zombie comedy "Get the Hell Out," which plays off of the real life fist fights, chair throwing, and water balloon tossing of Taiwan's parliament and just adds zombies.

"This this is sadly true that the Taiwan parliament has been known, maybe less in recent years, but for for quite a while was known for their fistfights, things got physical in government," Hu said. "So what would a fun premise for thinking about what can we take to the parliamentary fights? Introduce zombies and see what mayhem ensues.But it's also such a great way of thinking about people's relationship with government right now. I mean, all over the world, really, where the dysfunction of our legislative bodies makes us want to fantasize about how can they actually get anything done and to maybe reform and dismantle some of this? Well how can we make it go down in flames in a purely cinematic way?"

Hidden gems

Smaller films sometimes get lost in the buzz of recent releases and well-known directors and stars. But Hu always makes room for wonderful gems like the retro screening of the recently restored "The Husband's Secret" from 1960 or the epic emotional melodramas of the Philippines' Lav Diaz whose "Genus Pan" is highlighted this year.

"We had a lot fewer films to choose from this year because a lot of films need to come out in their local countries before they play the International Film Festival circuit," Hu explained. "So I thought we should be promoting other things that are happening in Asia right now, including film restoration. So there are older films, but they're new restorations of these older films. 'The Husband's Secret,' which is a Taiwanese language film, is not very well known outside of Taiwan but when I watched it, I was shocked by just how modern it felt, not just because it looks modern, because it looks almost pristine now, because of the restoration, but also the characters, the way that they talk about sex and adultery, it just feels so alive and contemporary. And that's the case for a lot of these restored films that we're that we're showing. We have a film called 'The Chess Game of the Wind,' which is a new restoration of Iranian film that's long thought to be lost. It was only available kind of as a bootleg VHS, but somebody found it a few years ago in a pawn shop in Tehran, and they got the original director to come out and help work on the restoration. And it is one of the most visually stunning films of Twenty Twenty, even though it was made in the 1970s. These are just ways in which we're trying to make classic films feel alive."

Then there is a new work, also in black and white and under-appreciated here in the U.S., Lav Diaz' "Genus Pan."

"We've shown many of his works in the last few years and including works of his that are four or five hours long," Hu said. "'Genus Pan' is basically, it's a short film for him. It's only two hours and 40 minutes and they are incredible. They're films that are they're very slow. They're always in black and white. But what happens is, as you just watch for extended amounts of time, you become lulled into this false sense of security. You enter the Lav Diaz wavelength. And then once he has you locked in, he knows you can do anything to you, including unleashing just unexpected brutality and ways of looking at the behavior of human beings as they're taken to the limits of morality. And in this case, it's also about people in power and how power manifests in creepy and unfortunate ways."

There are a wealth of great and diverse films to be found at this year's SDAFF, so take the plunge and explore.

The San Diego Asian Film Festival is going virtual this year.