SDAFF 2013 BARK’s WITH PRIDE: Borders, Adoption, Romance & Kung Fu

By Dr. Craig D. Reid

It’s the time of the season, when cinema runs high, it’s SDAFF 2013 and it slides on in easy, so let me try with visual hands, to take your minds to the promise lands, to show all of you, that it’s the time of the season for Asian films. If you’re a child of the ’60s, this may sound like Zombie hoo-hoo, but anyone that attends the 14th Annual SDAFF (San Diego Asian Film Festival), by the end of the week, they’ll be brain numbed, because they’ve got the latest buzz in an active way…zom-bee. Rev up the engines, get ready to pay the Tull booth, because during the shuffling madness of SDAFF 2013, which trains into San Diego, California station from Thursday, November 7 – Friday, November 16, the locomotive breath will not slow down.

What also doesn’t slow down is the festival’s fearless leader, Lee Ann Kim, 1st generation Korean American executive director of the Pacific Arts Movement, which she founded as the San Diego Film Foundation in 2000 with the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego. USA Today lists the SDAFF, the flagship event of Pac-Arts, as one of the 10 reasons to visit San Diego. Apart from being one of the largest exhibitors of Asian cinema in the western U.S. and the second largest Asian Film Festival in North America, SDAFF 2013 features 140+ films from 12 countries in seven venues across San Diego. Although Digiplex Mission Valley is the mainstay theater, what’s with the change?

“It reflects the growth of who we are and our community outreach,” Lee Ann notes. “Having all films in one place was convenient but we’ve grown as an organization. This year the opening and closing night films are in different larger places and adds a more grandiose feeling to the festival. Plus it geographically shows that San Diego is very big.”

To me, no Asian film festival would be complete without the genre that has defined Chinese films since 1905, the first martial arts film ever made, Ding Jun Mountain, starring Beijing opera star Tan Xin-pei. By the 1920s, Chinese martial arts films were called wu xia pian (chivalrous hero film), where characters fought with fantastical powers. By the late ’40s Cantonese opera star Kwan Tak Hing was cast as Huang Fei-hung in The Story of Huang Fei Hung Part 1, the first gong fu pian (kung fu film), where heroes fought with realistic skills…Bruce Lee globally legitimized this genre.

Sad note, after the communists seized power in China in 1949, Mao Tse-tung’s last wife Jiang Qing, because she was eventually snubbed by the Shanghai film industry due to illicit lover affairs (she denied of course), she took it upon herself to destroy that industry. Only 20 pre-1949 films survived her wrath. (Her photo in a film magazine circa 1935.)

In celebration of SDAFF 2013, my wife Silvia and I are sponsoring Ip Man: The Final Battle. Gong fu pian had a resurgence in 2008, with Donnie Yen’s portrayal of Bruce Lee venerable kung fu teacher Ip Man in Ip Man. Lee Ann saw the flickering filmlight as Ip Man had its West Coast premier at SDAFF 2009. Since then the franchise has wing chuned out four other tales: the Donnie Yen starring Ip Man 2 (2010; screened at SDAFF 2010); The Legend is Born: Ip Man (2010); the engaging Tony Leung starring The Grandmaster (2013); and one of this year’s SDAFF martial arts films Ip Man: The Final Fight, which stars the veteran of 190+ Hong Kong films, Anthony Wong. Why this film?

Chinese American Brian Hu, SDAFF’s artistic director who became enamored with the genre only if Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao were acting together, explains, “The movie is at the tail end of the Ip Man films and thus the story being made needs to be more conscious of what’s at stake here. At the beginning of the cycle it was about Donnie Yen. But not this new one, it’s more about understanding the time of Ip Man in Hong Kong, the 1950s, understanding the politics, the world he inhabited and his kung fu was a part of it. So at the end the cycle, this is a time to reflect, it’s about the latter years of his life, it’s finishing the craze of Ip Man and this film is a good way to deliver it.”

Like all SDAFFs, this year’s opening and closing night films are poignant as they are surprising when you consider who’s in them, where they’re made and the subject matters.

Opening night: On the surface Searching for Mr. Right is a Nora Ephron Sleeping in Seattle inspired rom-com about spoiled pregnant woman Jiajia (Tang Wei) from China who comes to America to give birth. Below the surface, she’s a pregnant mistress married to a Chinese rich man in Mainland China and she’s portrayed by an actress that was vilified and black listed by the Communist Party for a film she did on 2007. There’s also subliminal messages with deep significance in regard to the current almost fad and hip nationwide coverage of gay rights issues and cheap import rip-off merchandizing.

Closing night: Documented is about a Filipino American who discovers he’s an undocumented alien and comes out the closet about his immigration status while working at the Washington Post.

Although these films couldn’t be more different, Lee Ann says their underlying themes are similar. “Both are about what it means to be an American,” she posits. “They show different ways on how people become American and asks the question, what does it mean to be American?

“In Mr. Right, the kid becomes an American because he’s born here. In Documented, a boy comes to America at 12 and doesn’t know he’s undocumented until he tries to get a drivers license using a fake immigration card. He’s lived most of his life here, he’s an outstanding citizen, pays his taxes, but he’s not recognized because there’s no pathway to citizenship for him. So he started a movement about what it means to be an American. Is it what’s on paper, what’s in the heart or what you do for your community?

“Filipino American Vagros (will be at the festival) puts a different face on immigration reform. Most people believe that immigration reform is about Latinos and Mexicans but there are ton of Asians having the same issues. In fact, the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community is the most affected by the immigration laws out there right now. There’s just so many undocumented Asians who live here who don’t have a path to citizenship.

“It ties into my own lifetime struggle to make sure that I belong here. As an immigrant that came to the US, grew up in the Midwest in 1970s. There’s a reason why people asked me if I was Chinese or Japanese, or how did I learn to speak English here, where’d I come from, or saying to me, ‘You’re not from around here.’ All these things because they don’t think I’m an American or I don’t look American. The beauty of our festival is that it’ so American and celebrates the American experience, which is also a global experience.”

The theme of one of this year’s panels centers on adoption. Separated at Birth focuses on the truly amazing and griping story of Pac-Arts alumnus Dan Matthews, affectionately known as the guy with the spiky hair. When Matthews was invited to perform and speak at a Korean adoption conference, he never had interest to know who his birth parents were. But when he went to Korea, he changed his mind and went for it.

Lee Ann explains, “He put out a letter, went to an agency, and within a week heard back from his birth mom and dad telling him he has a sister and a twin brother. His adoption story is heart wrenching. What I also love about this story is how he used the power of media (kickstarter, blogging, twitter, instagram) to connect everyone engaged in parts of his journey and document it. Without these things he’d never have had the resources to do the film. The panel also includes how a Korean female who found her twin adoptee she never knew about, via youtube.”

The other panel is about a group of UCSD (University of California at San Diego) alumni known as Wong Fu productions, who single handedly have become the most influential group of Asian American filmmakers today.

This year is also debuts SDAFF’s Social Justice Award, which will be awarded to Indian (India) American Jason Silva, who after he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), documented on film the agonizing progression of the disease and will be shown as SDAFF’s Centerpiece Film, When I Walk.

Lee Ann adds, “We’ve shown Silva’s films before the SDAFF. Through his battle against MS, he found the love of his life and developed the application Access Map that is globally being used around the world online. It helps people in wheelchairs to know what places in cities are wheelchair friendly. This is his legacy. He’ll be here in person.

“It’s a film about love that make you question if your partner or child was going through this, would you have the strength and the love to go on? It makes you appreciate life.

“I’d like to give a nod to the film Raskal Love, about a SE Asian refugee who became a Pomona gangster and was diagnosed with cancer. He asked a UCSD filmmaker to make a film about his life before he died. It shows the passion independent filmmakers have. It makes no sense anymore for independent filmmakers to make films, there’s no audience, funding or distribution model. They’re either crazy or have a story to tell…this film is both. There’s a compelling feeling, an obligation to make this story. I’m amazed each year how independent filmmakers can bring together enough resources to make these films and we’re grateful to them.”

Taiwanese films are Hu’s passion, thus why last year Pac-Arts began a partnership with UCSD’s Taiwan Studies Program to show Taiwanese films during the SDAFF that were hosted at UCSD and screened for free. This year will mark the second Taiwan Film Showcase to be shown UCSD’s Price Center Theater.

“To me,” Hu gleefully speaks, “I want people to know about the diversity of Taiwanese cinema, which has the reputation of doing art films. By showcasing comedies, romance, documentaries, short films, animation…we’ll show the breadth of Taiwanese movies.

“This year, I especially want to show a film based on political events because there’s been a lot of protests in Taiwan this year. Every few months something was being protested and just not about China but things like nuclear power, worker’s rights…ground basic things. They’re about politics, but not political, not having a position on things so much as what is in the air, thus the film A Breath From the Bottom. One can see the news or once a year visit Taiwan, but that’s only one side of it. Film gets into the head space of people’s lives in Taiwan.”

Even the organizers of a street premiere of the film in Taiwan’s Miaoli Country received a “disturbing public order” citation. (Photo above.)

Hu’s surprise film of the year is the 4-hour Filipino epic, Norte, the End of History. Hu excitedly shares, “It was the talk of Cannes this year. It’s a bit long and most people at Cannes are there for business, but it got a standing ovation. Everyone got a sense that we had been through something special. It’s not the kind of film you’d expect to have in SD, but we’re the second festival to play it in the US. It’s a prestige film, made by people who take chances on making films. It’s a film everyone behind the scenes whispers about.”

For information in regard to the more than 120+ films from 12 countries, dates, time, cool stuff about the SDAFF and how to get to the Digiplex Mission Valley theater and the other six venues, please visit http://pac-arts.org/festival/.

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