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San Diego Asian Film Festival Celebrates Its Sweet 16
Cinema Junkie / November 5, 2015
The San Diego Asian Film Festival celebrates its sweet 16 this year. Artistic director Brian Hu talked about programming the festival and highlights some festival offerings.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando. Before I leave for my Horror Film Festival in Wales, I wanted to sit down with Brian Hu to chat about the San Diego Asian Film Festival, who is the festival’s artistic director and here is our discussion about what are programmers looking for in films, trends in Asian cinema and some highlights of this year’s festival. Usually my interview podcast go upon Fridays, but this month is going up early since the festival kicks off on November 5th. Welcome Brian to the Cinema Junkie podcast. You are just about ready to kick off another season of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. So how does that feel right now?
Brian Hu: It’s a little craze, but I’m really excited to finally unleash these films that we’ve been watching, talking about for months and giving it to the audience.
Beth Accomando: No, for a programmer and an artistic director running a festival does your job start months ago? Or do you actually start like your next festival like the day after this one ends?
Brian Hu: It’s pretty much immediate. I already have a document for Festival Ideas 2016. There is way too many films and you have to be on your -- from day one but really like the bulk of it starts in January for our November Film Festival.
Beth Accomando: So how did you get into festival programming and working with the San Diego Asian Film Festival, what’s your background?
Brian Hu: Originally I was in film criticism. I’ve always written film reviews since I was in high school and college and in college is when I started to cover film festivals. And I caught the bug then. It’s funny out that there’s a place where you can just watch movies all day, then no one else can see you. You’re seeing them for everybody else. You get to meet the filmmakers. So I started covering film festivals as much as I could, including The San Diego Asian Film Festival.
So when I was living in Los Angeles, I would drive down to San Diego to watch -- to go to this festival. I’m really having a lot of great things to say about the festivals, so not so good things and I guess the festival sides hire me as their movie picker. So that’s how I got involved in San Diego. I’d been coming for years and, yes, it’s been a great opportunity.
Beth Accomando: Now when you are looking to program a festival, what are you looking for? Are you looking at each film individually? Or do you also have a night at the overall festival programs so that you ensure that there is diversity in the programming?
Brian Hu: In the beginning and sort of towards the end, there is a lot of big picture. I’m looking at the big picture thinking about what are the directions we are seeing in Asian, Asian-American cinema, what kind of trends do we want to really promote in particular and then once you are in the weeds, then you can’t really think that big anymore, then you are really just -- you are going film by film making sure is this film watchable, is this film that it’s going to create some kind of conversation. And then as we picked the films, then we think about how is this filling out the slate that we hope is diverse that shows a certain kind of interesting direction. And then at the end, we kind of reassess again.
We think about at this point do we have too many films by men or too many romantic comedies, too many films from one country over another and then we start making adjustments. So I would say in the beginning and the end is where a lot of the big picture happens, but in the middle that’s a luxury.
Beth Accomando: So this year what’s kind of the range that you are showing and how many films, how many countries?
Brian Hu: As usual we have 20 plus countries and including short films we have over 130 films this year, everything from world premieres to classic films from the ‘60s, everything from mainstream films from Asia to independent films from the United States, documentaries, experimental films, animation. The idea is that we want to capture as diverse as the voice of Asian, Asian-America is which I think about as an entire continent, the biggest continent in the world, it’s got to have a huge variety of different styles and sensibilities as diverse as United States. So our festival is designed to be wide, very, very wide in scope. I like to think about it as four different film festivals in one, each as a section in the festival, capturing a different kind of reasons. Somebody will come to a film festival. Yeah, as usual it’s pretty vast.
Beth Accomando: What do you think the role of a programmer is in a festival? And also what do you think the role of a festival is in a community? Because I was on a panel and I think you were actually at the festival where I was at, where someone brought up the notion of, well, you should program crowd pleasers. But do you feel that festival should be programming crowd pleasers or should they also be pushing the envelope on what people’s expectations are?
Brian Hu: Well, this is a debate that we have all time internally. What I always turn to the fact that idea of the crowd pleaser is very subjective. We want all of our films to be crowd pleasers but we understand there are different kinds of crowds. What might be considered mainstream to some folks might be extremely dull and unwatchable to another group and I think that because we are “niche film festival” that we do films from Asia or Asian-American films. We are ready like, we are ready playing films that are -- the market has deemed like unmarketable. These are not crowd pleasers because to the main stream a crowd pleaser cannot have subtitles.
So we are ready kind of in a great position where we already realize that crowd pleaser means something different to different people. So we are trying to explore how we can please as many crowds as possible. So that includes films that are kind of genre films, films that are kind of easily, if not easily digestible, something that they can recognize in the kinds of film consumption that they already have like a romantic comedy or action film or horror film. So there is that kind of crowd pleasing appealing to genre expectations.
There is another kind of crowd pleasing. I know some people, I have some friends who they don’t care if the movie is good or bad, they just want to know who the director is and if he is -- he or she is famous. There are people who -- they will happy to see the latest film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. They might not even like his film, they might not understand but they are like they’re so happy to have seen it. So we have to appeal to that audience too. And then there are people who just want to see something they’ve never seen before. They want to have all their expectations shattered and they go to film festivals to discover those kind of films, because these are the ones that are the farthest from the mainstream.
These are experimental films, their films that have topics that are a little bit odd, that don’t fit any kind of political or cultural category that we know of yet. These are by filmmakers who are pressing the boundaries of what can be on film. And again to those audience to be pleased is to see something they’ve never seen before as opposed to genre crowd, which wants to see something that kind of confirms or at least starts off in a genre maybe they depend the genre but the parameters are still within genre. So I guess to answer question, we feel like as a film festival, we have a luxury of not defining the crowd so narrowly.
And nothing we struggled with because we all have our own taste even within the programming team and within in the festival and it’s just how do we understand that we are trying to get a large audience and to create a conversation from different kinds of starting points. So that’s how we see the idea of a crowd pleaser as well as the role of film festival.
Beth Accomando: Not everybody has gone to film festival sadly. Part of the benefit of going to a festival is it’s an environment where you do have opportunities to speak with filmmakers. You have opportunities to come up to you and even ask you why did you program this film, I hate it, or why do you program and I love it, why can’t you get more? So what do you see is the benefit of kind of the festival experience for someone?
Brian Hu: Definitely you mentioned the conversation, conversation like you said with the filmmakers, with curators but also with other audience members, the lobby of a film festival. When we pick a theatre for a film festival, we need to make sure there is a lobby, some kind of gathering ground or someplace where, after a movie you, there is always a moment where which of your friends is going to say something first and once I’m going to have this, all the way to the car or right in the lobby is a great place for that conversation to begin.
You never know what you will overhear from another crowd and so I think that environment of conversation is really sensual to film festival, but also just idea festivity we also put so much emphasis on the film part, the festivity in a sense is a celebration happening that there’s a celebration of independent cinema, world cinema, new kind of voices. And so for us it’s having music. It’s being kind of exuding excitement for the films and for the filmmakers. That’s what we are trying to put together and that’s what we see as a huge value of film festivals.
Beth Accomando: And you mentioned that one of the things you look for are trends. Do you see any trends in particular this year? I understand that there is actually quite a few women filmmakers? Is that a trend? Or is that just kind of fluke of programming this year?
Brian Hu: When we start the programming season, we’re always thinking about what are some of our priorities. We always want to create diversity in gender, in nationality and in styles. We’ve never really struggled looking such fine women filmmakers. When we are talking about Asian-American cinema, women have always excelled in Asian-American cinemas, especially in the documentary realm.
We know that this is a priority, but it never becomes a burden. That’s something that we feel very lucky about. It’s really the films from Asia where we struggle a little bit. And the trends that I’ve seen is that in countries where there is a long tradition of studio filmmaking of talent agencies and just kind of more old school systems of making films, it’s going to be very male dominated, just like in Hollywood. It’s kind of an old boys club. That’s sort of places like, Japan, Hong Kong that’s -- yeah, established film capitals, but it is everywhere else where you realize that they don’t make a ton of films.
There is really no reason you would limit opportunities for people who are potentially going to make great films. And so in some places like Cambodia, we are showing a film called The Last Reel directed woman director. It’s actually Cambodia submission for the Oscars. A film called The Kids from Taiwan directed by a woman named Wei-Shan Yu. So there are some places where film is kind of in limbo, when they’re still trying to discover their own voice or build their own industry. Women get a lot more opportunities, again because there is they realize that it would be ridiculous to -- to a certain like the men behind the camera in particular.
So first it’s not that difficult. It is harder for us to find women directors and get them like them in the more established countries and definitely in the so-called master section of our Film Festival, the idea of a film master I think is already kind of a masculine approach to film classification sort of Europe, European approach. So in that category we are kind of playing into the kind of culture of quality. So we always make sure to have at least one filmmaker in the master section and we do this year as well.
Beth Accomando: One of the things that you are excited about this year is you are honoring Kijū Yoshida someone that you called one of the most legendary, but least known directors of the Japanese new wave of ‘60s and ‘70s. He is a contemporary of Imamura and Oshima and you are bringing one of his films on 35 millimeter with him here, so talk about this.
Brian Hu: Yeah, we are really, really lucky to be able to bring Kijū Yoshida, as well as his actress [indiscernible] [00:11:19] to San Diego. When I just saw two of his films at the Museum of Photographic Arts on two consecutive days during the film festival, this is possible because we are working with the professor at UCSD named Daisuke Miyao who is one of the world experts on Japanese film history and he recognizes the importance of Kijū Yoshida. He has seen his films.
He knows then the historical context. I think that you mentioned Imamura and Oshima like these are directors who, I think, were really able to make a splash in the United States or something like in their own senses, because they are pushing the envelope in terms of sexuality. Whereas Kijū Yoshida, his films are very political and to understand that I think you need to know the political context and kind of where the intellectual crowds, what kinds of conversations they were having in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I think back then it was a lot more difficult for Americans to understand, but I think now we understand Japan a little bit better than we did in the past and we don’t know that period fully. But I think we’re a little bit more excited to see what were the conversations that we are having, that they were having in Japan in this weird time and his films kind of speak to that the best I think.
He does mix the political with the violence as well as the erotic, then his most famous film, which is the one we’re showing is called Eros + Massacre, I love that title and it really captures all the components and what he was trying to combine. It’s a legendary film and as far as I can tell, his films have never been released with English subtitles in the United States and we are going to have one 35 millimeter with him in presence, so we’re really excited.
Beth Accomando: And with subtitles?
Brian Hu: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And are you going to help try to provide some sort of contacts for these films in the sense of helping the audience understand maybe some of the politics that was going on at the time?
Brian Hu: Yes, Professor Daisuke Miyao will speak in the front and then the director is going to be there and he is prepared to say a longer introduction that we’re used to for Art Film Festival, I think, because this is special occasion. He is a special guest and his films have not been released for a reason. So I think they know that it’s going to take a little bit more setting up.
Beth Accomando: And you said there was a second film, what’s that one?
Brian Hu: Yeah, the second one is called Coup d'Etat, which is a historical reenactment or representation of a famous attempted political coup in Japan.
Beth Accomando: You mentioned that you’re already working with a category of films that sometimes is not considered mainstream here in the United States. And one of the filmmakers you’re showcasing, which you’ve showcased in the past is Johnnie To, who I adore. He is fabulous and I’ve always been baffled by the fact that his films get so little play here in the United States. So tell me about the one you are brining this year, it’s Chow Yun-fat 2.
Brian Hu: Chow Yun-fat’s back. It’s a star that it casts. It’s called Office. The title doesn’t get quite to the fun of it. It’s a musical and it’s based on a very, very famous stage play that was at the head of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan a few years ago, written and performed by Sylvia Chang and she is also in the film. And the film is kind of a critique of corporate culture in Hong Kong where the idea of security as a financial product is punned with idea of security in an emotional sense and romantic sense.
And he has a lot fun with that. People who are back stabbing each other or linking up romantically and you don’t really know what the reason is and you know money is at the root of it all and it takes place for the financial crisis and he get to see watch people struggle and sync through their promise. But I think the star of the show, Chow Yun-fat is great and Sylvia Chang is amazing. But the stars of the show are the sets. The sets are done by William Chang who is best-known for doing sets of Wong Kar-Wai films like 2046 and the Beautiful Love. It’s a giant set that looks like the inside of the clock. It has to be seen to be believed and the songs, they are singing and dancing.
Beth Accomando: So we get to see Chow Yun-fat sing again?
Brian Hu: No, unfortunately. He is too cool now. He was cool back then, but he didn’t realize that dorky was also cool. Yeah, yeah, for fans of Chow Yun-Fat, it’s just such a joy to see him on the big screen again. And you are right that like his films, for some reason, don’t get the notice in the United States. The crazy thing is Office actually opened nationally in the United States and nobody saw it. The critics who normally like his films maybe would like his films just thought that this is a film for the Chinese audience.
They mostly released -- the distributor to China Lion is appealing to the ethnic Chinese audience in the United States and not so good at getting the mainstream critics excited about their films. And so we figured. Even though it’s already played, we want to bring this back to San Diego and give it a platform for people who might not have known about it the first time around, including Johnnie To fans.
Beth Accomando: Well, Johnnie To is a director who even though he tends – he sometimes works within genres in the sense of he’ll do a gangster film or he’ll do an action film, but he always kind of uses those genres very loosely and kind of explodes the mount at some point in the films and I always thought that because he does have kind of some of those genre hooks that his films would have gotten a little more play at least some of the action films and mafia films. And I’ve always been so disappointed that I’ve seen almost all of his films on a small screen as opposed to one of big screen. So I always love it when his films are actually brought out here.
Brian Hu: Yeah, you are right. I mean he is kind of the master of genres today. I can’t think of any director in the world who is as comfortable in the genre, whether conforming to it or exploding it from within, as he is. I like to compare him with people like Anthony Mann like directors who [indiscernible] [00:17:22] but they also understood the kind of personalities within this world. So oftentimes it’s about masculinity.
Oftentimes it’s about power structures in society and Johnnie To understands this really well too. So from Drug War, which is a perfect police procedural film and I can’t think of anything in contemporary cinema that kind of does it as effortlessly and blissfully as that film does and you are right like why isn’t this film better known and why shouldn’t this be shown at the anniversaries?
Beth Accomando: And his name, I mean, you mentioned his name to most people and sometimes you mentioned a title and then go, yeah, I saw that. But his name just doesn’t seem to be that well recognized and I fell in love with him, I think, with the mission, which was early on and I’ve been like seeking out his films everywhere I possibly can.
Brian Hu: And he makes one or two a year.
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Brian Hu: So there is always something of his to watch. We don’t hear about them too much.
Beth Accomando: And diverse, you mentioned this is a musical, he has done some others that don’t fit into a -- don’t keep him locked into a single genre.
Brian Hu: Yeah, last year we played his romantic comedy called Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, which is way more exciting of an action film than most action films, just because he treats romancing with a lot of desperation and struggle. He does this so well and a super romantic and very funny.
Beth Accomando: Now another filmmaker who may not be a household name, very prolific kind of like Takashi Miike is Sion Sono and let’s play a little bit of a clip from the film you are showing Love & Peace and here a little bit of the trailer.
[Foreign Language] [00:18:53]
Beth Accomando: So tell me what’s going on in this trailer? We know it’s about a rock star, but it’s been kind of out of control.
Brian Hu: Nothings is ever completely in control in the Sono film and that’s the way its fans like it. It’s the film that starts off just as just this nerdy guy in office gets picked on all the time. His best friend is the pet turtle and then one day his turtle speaks to him and suddenly everyone is speaking to him, people who no more shouldn’t be speaking and they implant this idea that he may be a nerd the most, but he is a rock star at heart. And to me it’s a classic rock opera, the way we used to see in the ‘70s and ‘80s and the David Boye references throughout these costumes.
The music is bombastic, but also heartfelt. The whole thing is kind of ironic. Sono has this great ironic style where you’re never really sure how seriously to take anything. We don’t know whether we should be laughing or not. At the same time, this is a great story about an underdog who attempts to make it. But it’s never quite as simple as that and it’s never quite as heartwarming as that in a Sono film.
Beth Accomando: So people aren’t familiar with his name. Tell me a few of the other films that he has done and the others you’ve shown?
Brian Hu: Yeah, we showed a film of his called Cold Fish, which is a film about a family that is sentenced to a bloodbath. We also showed his film Land of Hope, which on the surface is just a like another quiet film about a family coping with the Fukushima disaster. But it gets really dark by the end. So he is a director with his lot of concerns about society. He is not just going after the kill for no reason. He often has something to say about the way that we treat each other. And what he says isn’t necessarily quite as optimistic as some filmmakers would try to spin it.
Other films we recently showed by him, we showed at our Spring Showcase a few years ago, a movie called Why Don’t Play in Hell? which is one of his most joyous films. It’s an ode to cinema and ode to 35 millimeter, an ode to a sort of old-fashioned filmmaking that Sion Sono must be nostalgic for. But it’s dressed up as this Yakuza bloodbath and it’s a lot of fun and his films have a great sense of excitement and energy. This latest one Love & Peace is definitely no exception and we're actually showing second Sion Sono film this year.
The other one is called The Whispering Sound, which is talking about genre. It's a sci-fi film. It's very quiet for a Sono film. This is his most quiet film he's ever made. The film pretty much just takes place in a spaceship and it's a woman who is a delivery person. In the future she is a robot and she looks at all these packages that she is delivering and starts wondering about the people who are getting these gifts in kind of a post-apocalyptic universe. He is using his genres. He is but making us feel these genres anew.
Beth Accomando: A lot of his films are marked by this kind of extremism, which is something that runs through not all Japanese cinema but there's a very distinct category of kind of extreme Japanese cinema, which I've always seen as kind of a reaction to the very polite kind of surface that you have in Japanese society. Do you see that kind of that brand of cinema is continuing, getting stronger, getting weaker, because it's something that's been around for a long time?
Brian Hu: Yeah, I think that filmmakers in Japan will always explore the extremity. We were talking about the new way of like the Oshima’s and Imamura. They were doing that too in their own way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and Takashi Miike and Sion Sono, these are directors who have taken the idea of extremity as a goal and thinking about how our bodies react to certain kind of images and wanting us to feel films in our bodies and I think that that's so basic to what film is that that's never really going to go away.
I think what is happening in Japan is that there is a little bit of fatigue because after a while it seemed like these films are just appealing to us and audiences and there was a whole strand of filmmakers and studios that could always rely on American or British distributor to pick up these films. But these things go in absent flows in terms of their popularity.
On the plus side, we're getting a lot of films that are becoming very self-conscious about the idea of extreme cinema. So we have another film called Deadman Inferno. It’s winking at you the entire time. It's a film about Yakuzas versus Zombies and I’m just saying that you're really appealing to a lot of people, especially in the United States. The film is very smart about it. It's very aware of genre conventions and it wears on sleeve and once you’ve been on the joke and so it's not to be taken too seriously and still at the same time delivering a lot of the kicks of extreme cinema.
Beth Accomando: And you have another film that's kind of in the similar genre kind of a horror comedy called Crush the Skull. We have a clip from that. Can you set that up?
Brian Hu: Yeah, so this film is about – it’s a comedy. I think first and foremost, it's about four bumbling thieves. They break into a house that they didn't do too much research on and they can't find their way out. They are locked into the house. Things get a little dicey when they explore the basement and they find a bunch of torture devices and other things to suggest that not only can they knock it out but someone might be coming in very soon.
Beth Accomando: All right. So let's hear a little bit from Crush the Skull.
Male Speaker: [indiscernible] [00:24:45] down here.
Male Speaker: No.
Male Speaker: That’s right. You are claustrophobic.
Male Speaker: Fuck claustrophobia. Do you never have a go into a dark underground layer?
Female Speaker: It’s the smartest thing I heard you say.
Male Speaker: Stop insulting my crew.
Female Speaker: I was complimenting.
Male Speaker: I know what you are doing. Thank you.
Male Speaker: Probably you want your gun back.
Male Speaker: Yeah.
Male Speaker: You can have it if you go first.
Male Speaker: Deal.
Male Speaker: Let’s just get this over with.
Male Speaker: And you know who I always asked first in these situations?
Male Speaker: The Black guy.
Male Speaker: What the fuck is this place?
Male Speaker: What is it?
Female Speaker: Sorry, sorry.
Male Speaker: She was scared.
Male Speaker: I thought it was a ghost.
Female Speaker: Really a ghost.
Male Speaker: …ghost, okay.
Beth Accomando: So one of the things this film addresses is some of the horror tropes, also horror tropes relating to minorities and how does this play out for you in this film?
Brian Hu: It’s hilarious. I think we've -- this is appealing to an audience that they've seen a lot of horror films or they know about a lot of horror films. They don't want the same film over and over again and films like this kind of wink at you, you know that. We also know that there are a lot of films like this. But we’re going to have a lot of fun with it. And in the case of this clip, there is a whole trend in Asian American filmmaking now where they want to make films that are necessarily about race or about Asian American problems.
They just want to show films that happen to have Asian Americans in a role that can go to anybody and in many ways that's this kind of film. Two of the leads are played by Asian American men, but they could be played by anybody and that's what's so exciting about seeing these two actors play these roles. I mean they're not playing a stereotypical character. But in a scene like this, it's also clear that even regular characters are aware of issues of race and how that may play out, because they’ve seen horror films and they're a little bit nervous about what their skin color might mean in the film that they're trapped in, not just the house.
Well, it also seems like, I mean, I've been going to the Asian Film Festival since it began and it seems like in the early years the Asian American films were very much this kind of very earnest sincere looks at identity and what does it mean to be Asian American and it seems like over the years as more films are being made and I think more films are being shown by Asian Americans that they're moving away from that still dealing with those issues but not in that kind of head on sort of manner and branching out into making more genre films and more diverse films.
Brian Hu: Yeah, I think that's a great thing. When our Festival first started in 2000, the idea of Asian American cinema at least for a younger generation was very new. They were taking their Asian American studies classes and they were figuring how to apply that to film. And then YouTube happened and Asian Americans all over YouTube and it's sort of like it's -- these conversations are being played out all the time. They don't have to be constantly talked about on film either. And meantime we're seeing films like Harold and Kumar, now films like Fresh Off the Boat where Asian Americans are in the mainstream. It's still not perfect, but it's there.
So we don't have to put so much burden on the filmmakers to have to represent an Asian-American perspective anymore and it's liberating, because, like you said, they get to make films really that they've always wanted to make, films of genres, films not even about Asians at all. So we have a couple of films this year. We have two films about Asian-Americans set in Africa about Africans, one in Library and one in Rwanda. We have a film called There is a New World Somewhere about Whites and Latino couple that drive through the Deep South.
So geographically Asian-American cinema is really branching out definitely beyond LA, San Francisco, New York, Asian-American worlds that were so used in their films. And I think that's great. We still have the films that are about Asian-American history and cultures and societies, because a lot of audiences are looking for that. And filmmakers still care about these kinds of issues, but for us as Asian-American Film Festival, we want to show that the voice is really broad and that, to us, it just is empowering to see a story about Asian-Americans as it is to see a story about just anything and then bring the Asian-American director to the Q&A afterwards and have the audience see and make visible the fact that there is a Asian-American face behind all this.
Beth Accomando: What I think is liberating too and I see this from the perspective of women filmmakers is this notion that once you can branch out like that you are no longer feeling this pressure that all your characters have to be role models, because for a long time there were so few women filmmakers and so few films focusing on women that if you presented characters that were flawed or evil or whatever, you would get criticism.
I remember when they made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, nobody wanted to play nurse ratchet because they said like, oh, that's not a good feminist role model. But it's a damn good character. I think it's nice to see where you can get that range. You can still get films that deal very seriously with Asian-American identity, but you can also get films that are wild or horror comedies or stories about flawed individuals.
Brian Hu: Yeah. We like that there is a safe space like a film festival. Once this is on the mainstream, that’s when everyone gets nervous. That’s when everyone is like, oh, are you representing us well, which is a really unfortunate position to have to take on any artist. These new artists should be -- they just need to express themselves and they can and they should -- they can definitely try to talk about their culture, but they don't have to. So we like the safe space where we’re embracing all kinds of voices including ones that might not seem so positive. So we have a film called Female Pervert.
Female Speaker: Why don’t you play with this?
Male Speaker: I’m not comfortable with that.
Sarah Brightman was this Black woman in the late 19th century in South Africa. She unfortunately had a really huge labia and it caught the attention of some English colonists.
Male Speaker: Flash light, I don’t know what it is.
Female Speaker: It looks like a flashlight. When you open it, there's a vagina-like hole.
Male Speaker: And it comes out light from here.
Female Speaker: No, it's a masturbation tool.
Brian Hu: By a director named Jiyoung Lee who – we shot her film Moral Sleaze a couple of years ago. She is out of her mind. Her films have amazing female Asian-American characters that are straight up like pathological in their perspective on the worlds. The latest one she would probably be considered a sex offender and we don't know how we’d feel if these are out in the mainstream. I mean these films can never be in the mainstream anyway. So they’re just so joyous as quirky weird potentially explosive statements on Asian-American femininity, but we love that we can create a safe space. We’d just embrace this voice and not worry about all that baggage that you refer to.
Beth Accomando: I have not seen her films but based on their titles alone, I'm going to go check them out as soon as possible. And while we're talking about Asian-Americans, we also have kind of a local slant on this. You are having the World Premiere of UCSD’s Alvin Tsang and Reunification. So tell me what that's all about.
Brian Hu: Yeah, this is a film that we had not even heard of. It just came in as a blind submission and with blind submission, you never know where you’re going to get and they’re usually quite bad. But with Reunification, we immediately sense that from the opening scenes that this is a movie that had to be made. And they’re just kind of films that you feel that. There are some films that you watch and it's like they just want to put this on the reel, so they can get funding for the next film more than they can try to put on the resume.
But this is a film where it's a little bit raw. The elements [indiscernible] [00:33:17] but you could tell it's been sitting on a director shelf for a long time, because you never want to throw it away either and he keeps her visiting and it's a project that grew, so with the films about him and his family moving from Hong Kong to the United States in 1980s.
Male Speaker: Sitting around that apartment reminds me of the time when he and I used to live together in Hong Kong, security, togetherness. I haven’t felt that way for a long time.
Brian Hu: He remembers his family. Part of his family went first. He stayed behind with his dad. And then when they moved to the United States, on day one, his mom wants to divorce his dad and with the idea of moving to United States and this hope for reunification actually ended in disarray, in family disarray. And that itself is really such a fascinating story about a family about immigration.
But it really is his personal search to ask questions of a family that has always refused to talk about what happened and he uses his camera to interrogate. And he picks a lot of styles, the approaches to documentary filmmaking, he picked up well a student at UCSD, studying about documentary approaches, about experimental approaches of the documentary. We're really proud of the film and he talks about going to UCSD in the film and how going to UCSD was kind of great escape from his family. We feel like that's a story that will resonate with a lot of people, not just at UCSD but in San Diego thinking about what is -- where is San Diego's place in the world and this is a film that directly connects those things.
Beth Accomando: And are there any other Asian-American films that you want to highlight? I know it’s like picking favorite children or something when you've got so many?
Brian Hu: Yeah, so many. Our centerpiece film is called Soul Searching. So this played at Sundance this year and the buzz at Sundance was the Korean-American John Hughes’ film has been made. It's set in the ’80. I think it's in ’86, ’87 and it's about a phenomenon that I know that happens in Taiwan too and it happens in Korea where you have all these Koreans – Korean people all over the world, second generation. They don't know really culture too well. They don't necessarily speak Korean.
So the Korean government realizes what a huge resource it is that we have kind of bicultural people all over the world, but we need to reel them in, bring them back to the motherland. So they created this program where you kind of have summer vacation in Korea and you take lessons on culture. But everybody knows that you sign up for this, you are in for a big party. There is going to be drinking. There is going to be hooking up and parents know this too because the kind of hope that their kids will fall in love with the actual Korean person.
And it's about the director's own memories of going through this program himself and all the high jinks he saw. And in terms of genre, he uses the John Hughes’ film as a model. I mean it's perfect in ‘80s, but you also have the music. You have the friendships, all the different character types that you would expect the Latin Lover, you have the Madonna Wannabe. You have this Sid Vicious one and how all these different kinds of personalities reflecting different corners of the world that Koreans have inhabited and how it all explodes on an unforgettable summer.
Beth Accomando: Let's talk a little bit about documentaries. I want to play a trailer for one of them made in Japan. So let's hear this trailer and then let's talk about the film.
Male Speaker: This young lady played the Grand Ole Opry Anniversary Show to a standing ovation in 1964 alongside the likes of Johnny Cash.
Female Speaker: How do you know?
Male Speaker: You have this fireball Japanese woman.
Female Speaker: Viva Las Vegas, yeah.
Male Speaker: Who is steep in country music from little in Nashville…
Female Speaker: The history of Japanese country was [indiscernible] [00:37:51] when I was 19 years old.
Male Speaker: You were the first Japanese person to ever play on the Grand Ole Opry.
Female Speaker: Yes.
Male Speaker: That era when [indiscernible] [00:38:06] in this beautifully considered the golden era, country music’s greatest generation.
Female Speaker: Country music is my whole life. This is why I want to thank the Grand Ole Opry one more time.
Male Speaker: The history of country music in Japan made after this lady.
Beth Accomando: So how did you find this film?
Brian Hu: Japan and played South by Southwest this year and it's been playing a lot of film festivals, not really Asian-American film festivals brutally enough, but it just had a subject that was too resistible. So it's about the reigning queen of country music in Japan, and not Japanese folk music or national music, but good old American country music. And just based on the pitch that it's about Japanese, elderly Japanese women doing country music that's already -- people will be interested.
But for us it’s just the sense of empowerment. You hear the sounds coming out of a body that should not be making these sounds or that we've been conditioned to believe shouldn’t be making these sounds and to hear experts in country music all around her talk about the authenticity of her spirit. In this genre that is so traditionally xenophobic that it has kind of racist strands to it and to see them embrace the kind of globalization of their music and their genre, I think it also challenges what we think about as country music.
And it reminds us that country music is not just about kind of Americana, but it's actually a kind of spirit that can be transnational. That said, Tomi Fujiyama loves the American spirit too and the film is basically her on a road trip all across the U.S. trying to relive her glory of having shared a stage in the Grand Ole Opry with Johnny Cash and other legendary country figures.
Beth Accomando: You see her just in the trailer and she is this like bundle of energy and so positive and you can see how anybody could not embrace her.
Brian Hu: Yeah, when we’re putting together a film festival and thinking about our big nights and how we were going to sell our festival this year, this is the 16th year, so we want to call our sweet 16. And we realize that there's actually no character in our film festival with more of a teenage spirit than Tomi Fujiyama who is in her 70s now, so it would mean that our closing that film just tell us – just to remind the audience that that youth doesn't need to fade ever. And she is scheduled to be there at our closing night. She told us she is bringing a guitar. We'll see what happens.
Beth Accomando: Well, that sounds great. There is also a focus this year on some of these well-known Asian auteurs who are kind of -- some of them are stepping out of, I don't know if you call it, their comfort zone, but stepping out a little bit from what they’re best known for especially Yoshida Shoin who I adore and usually has these kind of slow elegant social explorations and this year he’s got an action film, which I'm sure is not going to be action in the classic, maybe in the traditional sense. So that's pretty exciting.
Brian Hu: He has been talking about this film for almost a decade now. And every single year we’re promised that it’s coming out and it hasn't come out and his fans have just been wondering what's going on? Is this actually going to happen? Can he even do it? Like you mentioned, he makes films that are very like -- the characteristics of this film tend to be the opposite of what we think about as a martial arts film.
His films are very slow that have long takes. All of martial arts films are long takes too. He doesn’t have a lot of close-ups and I think it is a love story. And so everyone is very apprehensive about this, especially because other Asian auteurs have attempted this and so have often eliminated their fans. So Zhang Yimou who had made Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, and Hero, and House of Flying Daggers and a lot of his old fans are saying, oh, you sold out.
Even though I see a lot of similarities between that and his previous films and then directors like Wong Kar-wai with Ashes of Time and Grandmaster prudently not to fit those films within his [indiscernible] [00:42:24] necessarily. So there has been a lot of fear about the assassin Yoshida Shoin’s martial arts film. But I'm happy to say that of all these directors, this is the film that is most -- martial arts film, it’s more similar to the other films by the director.
It’s very slow. There is almost no story. There is a story, but it's very hard to follow and it makes you wonder what exactly am I watching until you realize exactly what you are watching and that's this extremely elegant and beautiful sets and cinematography and how individuals can be placed on stage within that kind of environment. The martial arts film is often about action and what Yoshida Shoin has said is if you're an assassin, you're not going to be – you just go in, slit the person's throat and run away. You are not going to stand around in pose. You are not going to draw this out longer than you can.
So this, I believe, is very little time. So most of the times he actually spent kind of waiting around, lurking, just contemplating what your place is in the world, especially in this case where she has been assigned to do a kill that she really does not believe in. And so we're watching the film and we're wondering what am I watching here? There's no story. This is not giving me any of the joy of the martial arts film. What am I seeing? And you're seeing the kind of natural beauty of the environment.
You’ve seen her within that and it makes you wonder – and you start to reflect on violence itself. It just reflects on ethics and it’s the sublime of beauty as opposed to the sublime of action, which would normally gravitate towards in the martial art film. So that's kind of his intervention in the genre. It’s unlike anything we've ever seen. A lot of people are going to be very upset with this film, because the title makes it – it promises one thing I think.
But I think that a lot of -- his fans will not be disappointed and meanwhile a lot of people who are interested in the spirit of martial arts or don't realize how into the spirit of martial arts they are, they actually might discover in this film something that they've been seeking all along, which is that there is more to the genre than action choreography and that if you are truly interested in the philosophies and the psychologies of the martial arts world that this film actually fills in a lot of those gaps that have -- after this going to be not addressed on the film.
Beth Accomando: Well, also with Yoshida Shoin, he seems to be a filmmaker a little bit like Wong Kar-wai in the sense that you have to be patient with the film unlike a lot of mainstream films, which announce exactly what they are at the beginning. So you know what to expect. They frequently lead you in one direction and then take a total U-turn and you have to kind of just be patient and wait for it and embrace kind of the style that they have.
Brian Hu: Yeah and I think of all of his films, he doesn’t make this one as probably one of the most difficult, because we go in with so many expectations of how to orient ourselves with this genre. So in the very beginning, he just constantly disorients you. It starts in black and white. He plays you on the aspect ratio in strange ways that I still don't quite understand. I’ve seen the movie twice now.
But it's like he wants to catch you off guard a little bit. And once you've been caught off guard, then you immediately realize I need to shed a lot of my speculations and then that's when he invites you to be patient and all viewers will be able to do it. But I think that any viewer will always see something here that they've never quite seen before and I think that’s something you can say about all Yoshida Shoin’s films.
Beth Accomando: And you also have Jafar Panahi’s film, Taxi. So that's also I think some people forget that Asian expands out to Iranian and Rocky films and things like that. So is that something that you're also making an effort to pursue?
Brian Hu: Yeah and especially because that’s just a great film. It’s coming out of Iran all the time and we would be crazy not to include Iran. Yeah, we definitely want to remind people that Iran is part of Asia and these are all countries and cultures that have historically been orientalized by the west. So we should all kind of stand up for each other's cultures. This film, Jafar Panahi, we've shown many of his films in the past. We showed This Is Not a Film. We showed Closed Curtain and Taxi completes this or probably it doesn’t complete, because there's always more, but the [indiscernible] [00:47:02] of films that have been made, while he has been banned from filmmaking, because of his political views.
He was under house arrest for a long time. Now he is able to get out of his house, but he is still not allowed to make films and so with this, with Taxi, he gets out of his house and then he puts like four cameras on himself at all times. He's basically driving a taxi around the city with cameras propped up all around the vehicle as he picks the passengers. It's about telling stories. It's about how he wants show Tehran from the ground, from the ground up and he's interested in the kind of conversations that people have with each other but also with him. A lot of characters in the film know who he is and to some extent we don't know if this is documentary or if this is fiction, because a lot of this may be actually scripted.
Beth Accomando: Well and he has blurred that line before.
Brian Hu: Absolutely and a part of the joy of the film is figuring out like is this real and just how people navigate the fact that he is a “criminal” and what they are -- what he is doing with them is implicating them on his crime of making films. So how do they respond to that and sort of ethics of that? And the way it plays out is probably his most mainstreams of these last few films, because it's just fun to hear these conversations play out. But it's also just a very rigorous examination of what is the role of a camera in the streets of Tehran today and what is the role of an artist and he has a lot of fun with that.
Beth Accomando: And who are some of the other Asian auteurs that you're highlighting this year?
Brian Hu: We met Sion Sono and we have two of his films, Johnnie To, of course. I believe this is the first time any film by Naomi Kawase has ever been played in San Diego. Her films are usually very, very difficult. Think of Terrence Malick but without a lot of the elegance or without sort of the bombastic kind of elegance to it. Her films are very much by nature about ordinary people. But this year she made a film called An, which has a lot of her kind of pet themes of ordinary folks and nature. But she makes into a food movie about cooking. So, this is I think a great gateway into Naomi Kawase’s aesthetic and her world.
We’re also showing the new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul who is a favorite of our festival. We've shown his last couple of films including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His new film is called Cemetery of Splendour. This is actually the film that requires probably the most patience, because it is literally about washing, sleep. There's a sleeping sickness going around the Thai military, not in real life, but in the story of the film, so you're in a hospital that's very atmospheric, very moody, very strange, eerie ghostly where the soldiers are sleeping. And something like it conjures kind of ghosts that are kind of based on this plot of land itself that used to be a school. Now it's a hospital and some characters start exploring or exploring very dreamy way.
What is this place that they are at? And the film is called Cemetery of Splendour, which is such a beautiful title. His films always have great titles. And his fans will love this one too. And the other big auteur that I can think of is Jia Zhangke who is considered one of the great directors of the world today. He made films like Platform, The World, Still Life and A Touch of Sin, which we showed a couple of years ago and he has become China's main chronicler of everyday folks and their economic and cultural difficulties.
He is really interested in migrant workers, but Mountains May Depart, which is a new film, is a little bit more of mainstream for him. He's also great at genres. A Touch of Sin was about – it’s kind of like a Ouija film set in the presence. And his new one is Love Triangle, the Soap Opera. And it starts off kind of as a Cheesy Soap Opera, including some amazing dance sequences and it transforms through the decades and it turns into something of sci-fi.
The film is split into three threads and each thread takes place in different time period. The first in 1999, the second in 2014, and the third part in the future where he is tracking the trajectory of a certain kind of optimism of China with the whole idea of the China dream and he uses a love triangle that’s going to play out how that optimism becomes shattered and how ordinary people kind of try to keep their families and their love affairs intact through the decades. And it's like all of his films are really piercing look at China today, but incredibly enjoyable because with the way he’s playing with genre and just because there's nothing quite like it also the way he jumps around in time. He plays with the aspect ratio and it's got the most wicked use of a Pet Shop boys song I’ve ever seen in any movie.
Beth Accomando: Well, I have to say looking through some of the descriptions of the films, one of the ones that jumped out at me that I'm curious about is an amnesia musical.
Brian Hu: Yes. This is La La La at Rock Bottom by one of our favorite directors. He made Linda Linda Linda a few years ago. There was also rock'n'roll film about an outsider and Linda Linda Linda was about a Korean exchange student in Japan who becomes the singer of a rock band in a high school despite not really speaking Japanese. And this new one is kind of in a similar spirit.
It's about a guy who is amnesia. He wakes up. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know where he is. All he knows is there is a microphone in front of him and he knows to pick it up and he can sing beautifully. Nobody knows why. He doesn't know why. But this local rock band just happens to need a singer and they bring him on. Unfortunately they also bring on the things that he's forgotten. And as he starts to regain his memory, it gets all dark and that's what the movie is about. And it's great. That's great music and it's a great spirit of rock’n’roll as kind of redemption.
Beth Accomando: Rock'n'roll has a theme running through your festival a little bit there.
Brian Hu: I think so, yeah.
Beth Accomando: We've talked about the number of filmmakers who have been around for a long time. And also you're bringing some films back from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but there are also some very new things as well. You're honoring Ken Jeong who has a new TV Show. So let's hear a little bit of a promo from his new TV Show Dr. Ken.
Male Speaker: And now a special message from Dr. Ken.
Ken Jeong: Let me tell you about my new comedy Dr. Ken. It stars my favorite actor. Me. It has something every TV show should have, me. It's about a doctor, his family, his struggles. Did I mention the doctor is very, very sexy? I didn't have to, because it's me.
Beth Accomando: So what goes into choosing some of the people that you highlight and focus on and what made you decide that this was the year for Ken Jeong?
Brian Hu: We always want to highlight the past legends, but we also realize that there are people working right now who are paving the way in very important ways. And Ken Jeong is somebody who is definitely one of them. He is someone who kind of – he came about in the post Harold and Kumar period, which is where Asian-Americans are allowed to be bad, where they don't have to be so kind of sullen and representative and positive, where they could just be as naughty as they want to be.
And Ken Jeong, I think, is one of the great talents of that strain of Asian-American comedy and we all know him from his roles in Hangover, in Community, his cameo in Knocked Up. And he is a recognizable face and that's rare amongst Asian-Americans and he is clearly very talented and he has never been to our festival before and we felt like with Dr. Ken on the air, it’s a great opportunity to have conversation with him about how he got to this point and how he sees the show and what it means for Asian-America.
Especially last year we highlighted fresh off the boat and with a show like that, because the first family sitcom in 20 years with Asian-Americans in it, that's a show that had a lot of baggage needing to represent it well. But Ken John comes in at the perfect time, because he gets to be the other show on the same network and he doesn't have to represent quite so well. He can be whoever he really wants to be and he can have the show he wants to have and hopefully he can and it will be interesting to hear from him how he has had to figure this out himself.
And I think these are central conversations as the Asian-American community moves forward from just having one show to having multiple shows. How is that conversation different than when we were struggling just to have any kind of visibility? And we hope that that panel is going to kind of pave the way for not just for the artists, but also for us as audience members and critics. What are the conversations are yet to be had?
Beth Accomando: So what is the presentation with him going to be like? Are you going to show an episode of the TV show? Or is it going to be just him on the panel? What’s that going to be?
Brian Hu: Yes, so we're going to show an episode that has not been aired yet. So this is the Thanksgiving episode. But we’ll be showing it this Thursday. He is going to be there to talk about that episode, as well as the show in general. So that's about 20 minutes of the show and then a conversation with him and we’d open up for questions from the audience.
Beth Accomando: And one thing we haven't talked about at all, is there going to be animation this year at the festival?
Brian Hu: Yeah, so every year we have our Animation Shorts Program, which covers not just Asian-American filmmakers but filmmakers in Asia where there is a lot of innovation in animation happening. And so it’s our usual kind of cross-section of different styles different genres. There is even one that's mostly live action, but just has animated characters crawling around in a real world.
It's our usual fun and we've built up a great audience for that program. But we do have a feature-length animation this year. It's the first animated film by the Director Shunji Iwai who is kind of a cult figure amongst young audiences and filmmakers in Asia. He has films like All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana and Alice and then some other ones and first animated feature he decided to do a prequel to Hana and Alice, which is one of his kind of a cold hit to the 2000s.
But his actors are now much older than the high school students they were in the original. So I think animation is kind of the most logical choice to have them to voice their characters and some of his rotoscopes, mostly rotoscope the action is and, yeah, so it's a great reason to bring out animation again.
Beth Accomando: So with 130 films from more than 20 different countries, what do you suggest to someone as a strategy or a plan of attack when they go to the website and look at some of these titles or pick up your program, it could be overwhelming. Do you have any suggestions?
Brian Hu: It is overwhelming and we do our best to try to make it manageable for potential audiences. As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to think about it as four different festivals in one that there are different sections. So if you're interested in politics of Asian-America, the cultures, the history, the Asian-American panorama section would be great.
If you just want to see films by the masters, we have a master section. In many cities where there is an International Film Festival, that's the festival where you will find a lot of these auteur films. But in San Diego where there is no International Film Festival, we provide that section for you. We have a section called Asia Pop. So if you just want to see fun stuff from Asia, fun to fun very broadly, of course, it includes comedies romance, action, and drama. This is where you're going to find it and this is where you are going to find.
If you just want to see movie stars, pop idols, or if you just want to see what’s popular in Asia and popular films from other countries, you tend to never make it into the United States where we are looking for art films. So Asia Pop section is where you get a glimpse into what's cool in Asia.
And then lastly if you want to see films you've never seen before, kind of experimental films, films about subjects that are often too unusual I think, then our discovery section is for you. But if you like more traditional ways of navigating films, our website you can search by genre, search by language, search by country. If you already know like you just want romantic comedies from Korea, there is a way to search down our site. So we will try to make it easy to navigate.
Beth Accomando: Give us the low-down for what's your website address, where can people get tickets, when is the festival running?
Brian Hu: Yeah, the festival website is festival.sdaff.org, so festival.sdaff.org and they'll take you to the site where you can get information about all the films, how to buy tickets, where the venues are. That's the one place to find everything.
Beth Accomando: And how many venues are you at this year?
Brian Hu: Fewer than the past, because it was just way to for people to be at and we try not to have more than two venues going on at one time. But our main home base is still at the UltraStar Mission Valley in Hazard Center. We are also doing a lot of films at UCSD, including our talent showcase, which includes The Assassin. And we're also at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. That's for Kijū Yoshida retrospective where they have the facilities to show 35 millimeter and our opening and closing of films will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla at the Sherwood Auditorium in their large 500-seat auditorium.
Beth Accomando: So people can also go to the festival by venue if they want.
Brian Hu: Yes, yeah. Oh and I want to mention that our last day of the festival is in Escondido. We have a lot of fans in North County. So we want to bring the festival up to them at least for four days at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.
Beth Accomando: Based on the fact that you do seem to be spreading out throughout the county, is the festival healthy? Is it growing still?
Brian Hu: It's definitely healthy and a lot of that is due to the fact that Asian cinema is healthy and there is still a lot of interest in Asia and there is growing interest in Asia. It helps that there is a growing Asian-American population in San Diego, not just because Asian Americans want to see these films, but because the idea of Asian-Americans as part of the community is growing in San Diego. So non-Asians are becoming hungrier for this kind of content too. So, yeah, we have great sponsors like KPBS who want to support our mission and our festival. So we’re getting a lot of support from the community. So, yeah, I think we're doing pretty well.
Beth Accomando: And looking at this year's festival, would you say there is anything really defining about it? Would you sum it up in any particular way this year that's different from past years?
Brian Hu: I'd say that this year there is a big emphasis on honoring past legends and then highlighting new talent. This happens -- this always happens. But this year in particular with Kijū Yoshida, with Wong who is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree and then with new talents like Ken Jeong, the folks of BuzzFeed which are really changing the landscape of Asian-American media making and, of course, as well as all of the independent filmmakers who are coming to us with their short films, with their first feature-length films, so, yeah, so being able to highlight where we've been in the past and where we could potential go, I think that's a huge thing for this year.
Beth Accomando: All right. I want to thank you very much. I've been speaking with Brian Hu, Artistic Director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival and you have your festival just right around the corner. So I'm sure you have a lot to do still.
Brian Hu: I do but we're really excited about finally showing – presenting it to the audience.
Beth Accomando: All right. Well, thank you very much.
Brian Hu: Thanks for having me.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I’ll also have a review of SPECTRE up later today and I plan to see the film again when I'm in the U.K. and talk to some fans there. And look for my special podcast coming up in the next two weeks from the Abertoir Horror Film Festival in Wales. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, so you won't miss any episodes. Until our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place