By Dr. Craig D. Reid
This year’s 11th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which runs from October 21 –28, features 140 films from 20 countries that covers a wide variety of genres, all of which are solely and souley Asian.
But what makes the SDAFF one of the county’s premier film festivals is the unbriddled passion and unrequited dedication that the San Diego Asian Film Foundation’s founder Lee Ann Kim has instilled within herself, the foundation, the devoted workers by her side, her steadfast board of directors, and the hundreds of hard-working volunteers and interns that have entered the hallowed hallways and festival family over the past 11 years.
In 2009, after more than a dozen years as an Emmy Award-winning news journalist for KGTV, the ABC station in San Diego, Kim turned in her anchor-helmet to take on the San Diego Asian Film Foundation as a full-time executive director.
As it turns out, last year was an explosively important year for the SDAFF because it was a year that revealed it was not only a truly world-class festival but they also showed that it is legitimately one of the most important film festivals (not just Asian) in the United States. Regardless of 2009’s devastating economic climate, where the country’s top Asian (and non-Asian for that matter) film festivals drastically cut their programs, showcased fewer films and/or ran for fewer days, the SDAFF did the opposite.
The New York Asian Film Festival, which has been around for 30 years cut back their normal eight days to two and a half days. Although the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival lasted 11 days, they had major cut backs on its cinema schedules. Even the powerhouse Los Angeles Asian Film Festival only ran for eight days and showcased 183 films. Yet since it was the festival’s 10th year anniversary, and against economic logic, the SDAFF ran for a mind numbing 14 days and featured 200+ films from 20 countries. The national and international media recognized this achievement as proof positive that the passion of the SDAFF’s founder Lee Ann Kim exceeded the safe approaches made by the other festival organizers.
I sat down with Kim to find out more about this enigmatically outgoing tour de force in San Diego, the power a film festival and a couple of details about how putting a festival together year after year just never gets easier.
CR: Why your interest in Asian film?
LAK: I didn’t grow up watching Asian films, but I saw Karate Kid (1984) and Goonies (1985) with Jonathan Ke Quan as Data, Happy Days (1974-1983) with Pat Morita the cook in the back (who eventually became the owner of Arnold’s) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972; Miyoshi Umeki in 66 episodes as the Japanese maid Mrs. Livingston). I always saw those faces because it was such a homogenous white world on TV and to me to see Asian faces really struck me in several ways. Then when I saw Tamlyn Tomita in Karate Kid II, (1986; her first film) I just went. “Wow, who is this woman?” Then in college when I saw Joy Luck Club (1993) that really changed my life because something deep happened to me in that film. For the very first time I felt, particularly with Tamlyn’s character, that was the relationship of me with my mother. It hit me so deeply, I cried. I think that is why film is some magical. A good film hits you so deeply that it opens your world.
I think the Asian American experience is simply reflective of who I am. (wee laughter). I hate to say this, but you know we have to throw a festival to reflect who I am. Not really. It’s a reflection of the community and if mainstream film and TV is not reflecting the community, somebody else has to do it.
Things are slowly changing but not fast enough. Although there are interesting platforms on the internet that allow Asian Americans to tell their stories, be artists in different ways and build audiences, there is nothing like having a festival, a collective experience that brings everyone laughing, crying, booing and hissing together. Plus, you meet directly the actors and directors…and there is something very special about that.
Why the interest? It has become an addiction, I am addicted to what I do, addicted to deeply transforming people through films…Asian or not.
CR: It’s been written that one of the goals of the festival is to bring together the often times separate Asian American communities that compared to the African American and Hispanic communities appear more unified. Is the goal being accomplished?
LAK: Hard to say, there is no scientific proof so to speak. What I can point out is that if we showed a Korean film 10 years ago, the audience was predominantly Korea, same for Chinese, and so on. But not anymore. When I walk into a film that is very specific ethnically, the audiences have broadened, it is obvious, there is more unity in the community from a diversity standpoint. Usually first generations, like say older Chinese want to see Chinese films, older Filipinos want to see Philippine films, and they probably wont change, but filmgoers under 40 are malleable and that kind of thinking has changed.
CR: I notice that there are a lot of martial arts films this year.
LAK: We didn’t do this on purpose (she laughs), some years it is a dry but this year is different. Last year we had a lot of Korean films, I mean we probably have the best Korean film line up of any festival in North America, including Toronto and Tribecca.
It’s funny when we go out to promote martial arts films, 9 out 10 people who are interested in Asian films immediately know IP MAN. These are random people at my kids pre-school that come up and say, “Oh my god, IP MAN 2.” It’s nice to have martial arts films, they don’t need much help in advertising, there is always a market for them and they have ton of followers.”
We hope that the martial arts film attendees will cross over and pick something that may not be martial arts but something culturally enriching and say, “Wow that short film program was amazing” or “This documentary is about something I boldly chose because it is off the beaten path.” So although the martial arts films are not the heart of our mission, they help the mission because it brings in people who probably would not come to the festival.
Again, we didn’t do it on purpose it is just what the marketing offers.
CR: Is it getting any easier to put the programs together?
LAK: No, it is not. Many times we discussed that we should do another week, going back to 15 days like last year, but that was because it was our 10th anniversary. So now we’re back to 8 days it was a bit**, because there are so many good films and so few key slots.
Also to mention, the film technology keeps evolving. It can be a problem with formats. All the international films are on celluloid; domestic films are HD, Pendex or not, old school digi-beta, they’re not all readily acceptable. Without being too technical, even though technology makes the viewing experience better, it makes it harder for afestival because there are so many different exhibition formats.
It really broke my heart to reject one particular film, where this filmmaker followed a woman for 40 years starting in 1970. She was a North Korean who defected to Japan and became a Japanese opera star, used opera in Japan to bring Japanese and Koreans together, and opened up the heart of North Korea to South. Korea. The film was 2 ½ hours long and 40 years in the making, and I had to reject it because we didn’t have space for it. It’s so niche, I know our audience and I would have hated to screen it and only five people showed up at say 2:00 pm on a Wednesday. (Sadly sighs.) The filmmakers wrote me a very long letter. It was very very sad.
I don’t think it will never get easier. We try to be so flexible and we put so much thought and care into the program. There is no cookie cutter and no easy way to program things. You have to be cognizant with the community scheduling, so for example you can’t have Indian films on Sundays, or Vietnamese films on Saturdays. We even added an off line screening for older Chinese for the elderly home where they can come in and see some films. It is not on the schedule but we are doing it for them because that is how we are going to get people to see films.
I wish there was an easier way to put the program together, but there isn’t.
CR: Last year there was North Korean theme. What about for this year?
LAK: We have a spotlight on adoption, and that evolved because we had five adoption films come up. It wasn’t planned but we took four of the five and decided to put them into a spotlight series. With Hollywood and trans-racial adoption being so accepted in pop culture, thanks to Madonna, and Brad and Angelina Jolie. It is time for us to talk about it in our community as to why this is happening and why people of Asian descent aren’t adopting our own.
We have five Filipino films, one about (Benigno) Aquino’s rise to power and assassination. How interesting is it that his son is now the president of the Philippines. One thing that has come up is that this is a really huge year for Chinese films (HK, China and Taiwan) who are also very divided in our community.
This is also the first time that all our short film programs are being exhibited in HD. We had problems last year where we would have a 2-minute lull between shorts. I didn’t know this was happening, and so that wont happen this year. Short films have been a challenge for us. Even after all these year that we’ve been preaching short film programs and how they’re really cool but it’s still tough to get people to watch them. Last year the director who won the award for best narrative dramatic short fly over from Korea, went to the screening and maybe 35 people showed up. Maybe it’s because we have so many good films that are competing. But in other cities short programs do well.
We also have an Interpretations program this year, a national contest sponsored by director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious, 2009; Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee, 2007; The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2006). (Logline: 3 Lines, Infinite Possibilities.) Everyone was given the same three lines in benign language and they had two minutes to create their own film. We had over 300 entries and they’re announcing the top five at the festival, as well as showcasing their favorites with the filmmakers. It will be cool. I saw some of them and the program is truly magic.
CR: What are SDAFF’s causes this year?
LAK: Apart from our spotlight on adoption, we are asking the community to donate new socks, shoelaces and shoes that will be distributed to orphanages around the world through a local non-profit organization. Also, our festival runs one week before the November general elections and so throughout the festival we’ll have PSA encouraging and reminding people to vote. It’s one thing to come to a festival to be enlightened and empowered, but we truly aren’t empowered unless we participate in the democratic process. I feel like we as Asian Americans or Americans in general have the responsibility that when you have a platform like a film festival that we can gently remind people that this is important and we need to partake in it.
*For information in regard to the films, dates and times, how to get to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center where the films are being shown, and other cool stuff about the SDAFF please visit www.sdaff.org.