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Bonus Episode: San Diego Asian Film Festival Innovates For Pandemic

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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!

Speaker 1: 00:03 Two, take one. Speed. Just look right into the camera lens right here and tell us your name. My last name is Lee, Bruce Lee.

Speaker 2: 00:11 Bruce Lee is just one of the many attractions at this year. San Diego Asian film festival.

Speaker 1: 00:29 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 00:29 Welcome to another episode of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I'm Beth a Mondo. I'm adding a bonus podcast this week. So I can talk in depth with Brian who artistic director of the San Diego Asian film festival. This year COVID may have forced the festival to cancel it in person event at cinemas. But wait, until you hear about all the innovative ideas they've put into play to make this year's event fun and exciting. So without further ado, here's my interview with Brian, who

Speaker 1: 01:02 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 01:03 Brian, you had to cancel the spring showcase because of the COVID pandemic. Now you are putting on your main Asian film festival event for the fall. What are some of the challenges you've been facing with it?

Speaker 1: 01:18 If the challenges actually have haven't been related to technology, which is why, well, particularly we thought it might be it's actually, I feel like a overload of, um, an entire seasons worth of events over the summer that have now been postponed into the fall. And I think people now from their homes have access to way too many virtual events. Maybe not wait for me. I mean, it choice is good, but for us, obviously it's harder to distinguish ourselves. So that's what we ended up. That was the challenge. How are we going to put together a programming slate? That's going to be different than the rest and hopefully be exciting and uplifting and exactly what people need right now.

Speaker 2: 01:58 Well, it's impressive that you're opening film 76 days feels incredibly recent because it actually deals with the pandemic.

Speaker 1: 02:08 It's a miracle that this movie exists. So the film is 76 days takes place completely in hospitals, in the blue hon during the 76 days in which the city was shut down. And I think that, I mean, in the United States, we get a certain perspective of what's happening in China, right? We, we hear certain things from leaders in governments about the evils of, of China, but even from, um, the mainstream, I mean, even from, um, press like we often hear just in terms of policy and numbers and statistics, we don't get to see like what's actually happening in these hospitals and the interaction between doctors, nurses, and patients and how these healthcare providers are really making this up as they go along and their solutions are incredibly powerful and show the persistence of the human spirit and the drive towards healing. And I feel like it's the kind of movie we read right now to recalibrate our relationships with a global pandemic so that we can want to help each other. And I feel like it's in that spirit that we wanted to begin our festival this year.

Speaker 2: 03:18 One of the films that I think is outstanding in terms of both creating a portrait and also exploring that Asian American experience or the Asian experience in America is be water, which is about Bruce Lee. And instead of it being just a portrait of this amazing actor and stuntman, we get a real sense of what it must have been like to be Asian in America at the time that he was trying.

Speaker 1: 03:44 Yeah. I mean, it's surprisingly this bio pic of Bruce Lee, right? Like if you haven't asked her an idea of what that might be, I mean, there's no shortage of authorized or unauthorized movies about Bruce Lee right into the camera and right here and tell us your name. My last name is Lee brutally. You realize where you're watching this, not that this is more than that. This is about the 1960s and seventies in the United States for an Asian person who's lives in Seattle and who comes to Hollywood and sort of communities that he builds within his, amongst other Asian Americans, but also amongst other people of color. And they're confused studios that they, they sort of center around. Um, I love hearing that Bruce Lee had a Japanese American girlfriend in the 1960s in Seattle. You'd never think about the fact that he was just this ordinary guy who was trying to find love and that he did. So through it from a, with a Japanese person no less, right? Like you think about Bruce Lee's films as being Chinese, I can nationalist for the Chinese, but that part of his background is thinking cross ethnically about our collective hardships. And with that kind of ethos, we appreciate his, his later films. And, you know,

Speaker 2: 05:00 And one of the fun things about the actual screening of this documentary, this film, and another one called get the hell out are going to be outdoors.

Speaker 1: 05:09 Yeah. We really wanted to do something in person. And, but of course, to do so in a way that was safe and that doesn't promote, you know, a frivolous culture of not taking a pandemic seriously, but the driving has become the new way that people watch films as in groups. And we, so we just created our own drive in, um, we really wanted it on convoy. Um, this is an area with a lot of Asian businesses that people go to when they're looking for, for food, for shopping, for groceries. And so Zion market has graciously provided for us their parking lot, their giant parking lot. And so we got an AB team to put together the screen, the projection, and what better way of, of honoring Bruce Lee and kind of older traditions of going to the movies then to do it as a driving.

Speaker 2: 06:03 And the other film is a Taiwanese zombie comedy called get the hell out. And one of the things that was fun and interesting about this is it begins playing off of the real chaos that goes on inside of Taiwanese parliament, occasionally where they throw water balloons and furniture,

Speaker 1: 06:25 Sadly true that the Taiwan parliament has been no, maybe less than recent years, but for, for quite a while was known for their fist fights. Um, things got physical in government. What would a fun premise for thinking about where can we take this? What can we take the parliamentary fights then to introduce zombies and 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 one fantasize about how one, like one, how can they actually get anything done? And two, maybe we want to dismantle some of this, but how, how can we make it go down in flames in a purely cinematic way?

Speaker 2: 07:19 You always have an emphasis on pop culture in the festival. And these are films that are really fun to watch and are films that kind of reveal something about Asian culture, but not necessarily in a direct way. And I'm wondering which of those you want to highlight for this.

Speaker 1: 07:37 Yeah. So I think there are a lot of audiences who turn to our festival because they want to see Asian culture. And I'm not sure what they're looking for exactly because one, there are so many Asian cultures and some of them are contradictory to each other, but also that I think people in Asia, like th there's like upper case culture, which is, you know, like music and dance, but there's like lowercase culture, which is just how people live their lives. It's like what fast food they're buying tonight. Right. Um, and so films like this Japanese song called project dreams, how to build Mazin jerseys, hangar. And first of all, the title of it is so cumbersome that you have to imagine this was not made for anybody outside of Japan. And maybe that's what makes it kind of culturally Japanese, but it's just about people in Japan who loved this anime called ms. Zynga Z so much that they want to replicate a certain, not just a robot in the, in the show, but like the hanger that houses the robot, like it's just that level of fandom that they're trying, that these characters are trying to live out. [inaudible],

Speaker 1: 08:57 There's something cultural about that in the sense of pop cultural, um, zealotry and, and, and love. And that's the kind of culture that we want to highlight as well, because to me that that is as much the spirit of Japan as I don't know, Kabuki theater is

Speaker 2: 09:13 I also have a film from 1960, the husband's secret. So you are doing some of these retro screenings as well. So not only do we get the most current thing, but we're also getting a look back.

Speaker 1: 09:24 Well, yeah, this is really important to us this year. I mean, as, as it is in many places around the world, a lot of movie theaters in Asia were closed this year. And so I'll just admit, like we had a lot, we had fewer films to choose from because a lot of films need to come out in their local countries before they play the international film festival circuit. And so I thought, well, you know, we should be promoting other things that are happening in Asia right now, including film restoration. So yeah, these are older films, but they're new restorations of these older films. And, and this is the kind of film work that is happening right now. And so, yeah, you mentioned the 1960 film, the husband's secret, which is a Taiwanese language film. It's not very well known outside of Taiwan,

Speaker 2: 10:10 God,

Speaker 1: 10:13 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, um, the way that they talk about sex and adultery, it just feels so alive and contemporary. And that that's the case for a lot of these restored films that were, that were showing, uh, we have a film called the chess game of the wind, which is a new restoration of a Iranian film. That's long thought to be lost for many generations. It was only available kind of as a bootleg VHS, but somebody found it a few years ago in a pawn shop in Tiran. 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 2020, even though it was made in the 1970s. These are just ways in which we're trying to make classic films feel alive.

Speaker 2: 11:05 So other documentaries that you have, and one that I'm really looking forward to seeing is the one called donut.

Speaker 1: 11:10 Yeah. So I grew up in Southern California and I grew up eating donuts like, as you do, I've always wondered like Asian people who own donut shops. Is there a reason for this? It seems like donut shops and a lot of other kinds of shops like this have become like the way that laundry is used to be associated with Chinese people. Certain shops like donut shops are now associated, especially with Southeast Asian refugees. And what this documentary reveals is. It's not because I don't Cambodian Americans, aren't especially predisposed to making donuts it's that they develop this incredible network of entrepreneurship and community where one man in particular, a refugee from Cambodia big started to sponsor friends and family to United States to help him work on what ended up becoming this incredible empire of donut shops that for generations kept out major donuts franchises or national ones from, from Southern California. For instance, I love the story that tell about like, why are donut? Why are doughnut boxes pink? And it has to do with these Cambodian Americans that decided to make it pink. And now we cannot divorce donuts from their pink boxes. So it's really about how these refugees and immigrants truly shaped the, the food culture of the United States.

Speaker 2: 12:35 So you tend to have films from the Philippines and these tend to be kind of Epic, emotional dramas. And tell me about the one you're showing.

Speaker 1: 12:43 Well, they're definitely Epic when they're directed by love Diaz. Who's the director of genus pan. We've shown a many of his works in the last few years, including works of his, that are four or five hours long. What Gina's pan is basically, it's a short film for him. It's only two hours and 40 minutes and they are incredible. Um, they're, they're films that are, um, 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 love Diaz, wavelength, and the once he has you locked in, he knows he 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

Speaker 2: 13:45 I have to confess to being an action junkie. And I love films in which fight choreography is key to the success of the film. And you do have one which I have not seen, and I'm looking forward to wild swords.

Speaker 1: 14:10 I would say, I mean, I'll say this, this has been a harder year for programming action films, because those are the kinds of films that need to come out in theaters before they're able to be shown internationally. So wild sword style. What makes it so interesting as this is an independent film, this isn't made by one of the big studios in China. And 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, you know, like urban stories about ordinary people, but in this case to, to independently do a [inaudible] film where you have, um, martial artists and different sex, that's that battle each other and get revenge. Um, all the things that we have come to love in a, in a whoosh film, but hear it because it's an independent film, you get the spirit of a director that's that's, you can tell he's speaking to other fans of the genre. Um, and he, he knows that these fans have seen everything already. So how are you going to inject new kinds of visual strategies or storytelling strategies? And, um, and while sort of says it in such a, such a memorable and, uh, and distinctive way.

Speaker 2: 15:18 And since we are on the topic of martial arts, one of my favorite things of all time is at your festival mystery, Kung Fu theater. So will there be some version of this in the virtual or outdoor realm?

Speaker 1: 15:32 I mean, I love mr. Comfort theater too. It's for me also, the things I love the most about our festival. And that's when we play an unannounced martial arts film, or Kung Fu film at [inaudible] during our festival audiences show up, they have no idea what it's going to be, and it becomes a raucous good time in which she gets to see these films on a big screen with an audience. Obviously this year, we don't have a big screen and we don't have audiences in quite the same way. I don't know if people know, but mr. Comfort theater at our festival was inspired by the old mystery Kung Fu theater TV, like a weekly television series that happened in the United States, in the seventies and eighties, where you would just tune in perhaps maybe like on a Saturday morning or something, and you can catch some random Kung Fu movie.

Speaker 1: 16:15 So that's what we're going to do. So it's going to be free. It's going to be like tonight, like waking up in the morning, getting your cereal and turning on the television. And luckily we have access to Twitch. Twitch is a live streaming service, often used by video game players. And we're just going to live stream a mystery Kung Fu movie. In fact, we're going to live stream two of them. It's going to be a double feature the way that this is should be experienced. And we're definitely going to go back to our days of doing this and that theater. But I feel like this is going to be a really a nice street for people just to be able to do it in their pajamas. Right. And no one will hear you cheer. It's going to be a different kind of experience. But for me, it's going back to the source.

Speaker 1: 16:58 It's going to go back to like how a whole generation discovered crumb foo films to begin with in the 1980s. So we actually have two other things that we're doing on Twitch. Another is an animal crossing gathering. I'm no expert in animal crossing, but a lot of people in our staff are. And I think it's so cool that they're just creating a virtual film festival experience on animal crossing. Like they created an avatar for me and they created like a red carpet and what looks to me exactly like the ultra star. And you could just go in and walk around and interact with each other. And I mean, it's like we don't get to go to a virtual physical space this year, but I don't know. Let's, let's try to do this virtually and have fun with it, right? This isn't, this isn't going to be forever, but this year we might as well make the most of it.

Speaker 1: 17:44 And you can follow that on Twitch too, if you don't play on lacrosse and that's going to be Monday and Wednesday night of our festival. And then on Tuesday night of our festival, it happens to be October 27th, which is the UNESCO world day for audio visual heritage. And that's a day that's set up in order to spotlight the work of film preservation and restoration. And well, I happen to have a stack of 16 millimeter prints at home. I have, I am not able to watch these movies. I don't have a 16 millimeter projector, but we at the festival happened to know someone who does John Miller, the D a San Diego treasure. Um, and he has agreed to project one of the 16 millimeter films. And we're just going to put on a camcorder and, and stream this live on Twitch. And part of it is reminding us that this is not actually 16 millimeter, like you're at home watching a live stream.

Speaker 1: 18:41 How could your you're not getting that feeling of the tack that the tactile feeling of an analog medium, but isn't that what 2020 is all about? Like we do our classes on zoom. We do meetings on zoom and we 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. One is analog at the same time, honoring these old prints that in that are, that do not exist in any kind of digital medium. At least that's not subtitled in English. And so this is going to be a fun little experiment. Um, it's going to be on Twitch. It's going to be free. We're not going to announce, but film is going to be, in fact, I'm going to hold up to 16 millimeter print canisters. I'm going to let the audience choose which one they want, like a or B. And, um, and so it has a lot of spirit of mystery comfort theater it's um, but the film is not going to be a comfortable film. Um, but we're going to, you know, chase our celluloid dreams that continue even in the age of digital.

Speaker 2: 19:47 All right. That sounds great. We did mention some action films, one director who tends to work within the genre and then perverted and twisted is Johnny TTO. Who's one of my favorite directors. And I feel like he doesn't get enough of his films released here in a broad way, but you are highlighting one of his latest films, chasing dreams.

Speaker 1: 20:08 Yeah. I mean, we're, we used to play, it used to be a joke at our festival, right. That like, it's not a San Diego Christian film festival, just not as Johnny tome movie. And he makes it really easy because he would release like two movies a year and they would both be incredible. So, so he has made a film in a few years and we were just starting to get a little worried, right. It's just, it's just the end of the run. And then last year he drops chasing dream, which is a mix of mixed martial arts, hot pot entrepreneur movie, a gangster movie, as well as a singing competition movie

Speaker 2: 20:44 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 20:45 And it all fits together perfectly organically in Johnny toes, hands. I mean, it's organic, but at the same time, it's all still rowdy and bizarre. And just with endless energy. And we're so glad Johnny toe is back and forth.

Speaker 2: 21:00 All right, I'm looking forward to that. And how is the festival going to play out for the audience in the sense of do the films drop at specific times? Are they available over the entire course of the festival? How can people actually enjoy the films?

Speaker 1: 21:15 That's a great question because every festival is doing this a little bit differently this year. And in fact, we, as a team had a lot of questions about what would be the best way to present our films. And we actually uphold our members. Would they rather have set screening times where everyone has to show up, say like 7:00 PM on Tuesday night, we're going to watch a movie together and then have a Q and a together, or should we give audiences the flexibility, right? We're going to have a festival for an entire nine days and you choose when you want to watch which films. And for the most part, every film in our festival is going to be available for all nine days. So it's going to be video on demand. So it's going to be the way that people will experience films from home right now, like through Netflix, or if you're renting things on iTunes or Amazon prime, that's the kind of model that we're working with.

Speaker 1: 22:00 But we realized that we lose that feeling of simultaneity that is so intrinsic to the festival experience. And so re like so valued. So we are still doing some live Q and a sessions. So every pretty much every night of the festival, we're going to have a Q and a that where you can go onto our website, you can ask questions to the filmmakers directly. So we've scheduled those in. So if you want to participate in those Q and A's just make sure to watch the film bef with enough time, so you can finish it and then enter the Q and a, and tell us about your closing night film. We're really excited about this film. It's called mogul Mowgli started by Pacem Tariq and, uh, really excitingly for us. It's stars, Riz, Ahmed, who many people know, uh, from his Emmy winning performance in the night of, and in this film, he plays a rapper [inaudible] and it turns out his arm is actually an incredible rapper.

Speaker 1: 23:07 And, uh, it's a part of the joy is watching him perform. But then it's also just this tour de force performance about a man who goes home and starts to find that his body is falling apart mysteriously. And part of the film is watching him adjust to this new reality, but also him trying to get a spiritual and family and romantic life together and professional life together. And so maybe what's happening to his body as a reflection of all these sort of unsolved conflicts that he's currently feeling. And really like this is a showcase for a director who is in full command of the medium, through editing through sound in particular. And then through this, this actor who gets to such this incredible embodied performance,

Speaker 3: 23:55 Well, there are a lot more films in the festival then we will have time to talk about, but I want to thank you very much for previewing this year. San Diego, Asian film festival.

Speaker 1: 24:04 Thank you as always.

Speaker 3: 24:14 That was Brian who artistic director of the San Diego Asian film festival. It runs through October 31st with most of the films streaming VOD style, the full nine days of the festival, and join me next week for a special treat. The Halloween double dare. It's two original radio plays written by Michael misery rainy and just dripping with love for the horror genre. So til our next film, fix on backpack, a Mondo, you were residents, cinema junkie

Speaker 1: 24:59 [inaudible].

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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