13th San Diego Asian Film Festival: Three Landmark Changes

By Dr. Craig D. Reid

Yes, I hear you all out there, I am of course rather biased toward martial arts films, but in the words of Steve Martin, “Well, excuuuuuuuuse me.” As most of you know by now, they only literally saved my life. But the 13th San Diego Asian Festival (SDAFF), which runs from Thursday, November 1 – Friday November 9, really takes the kung fu cake. This extra special piece martial arts frosting cooly spreads itself Friday, November 2, 2012 at the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center in San Diego, the festivities to begin at 5:00 pm in the lobby. What could it be now? Something related to martial arts cinema?  Oh yeah.

It was March 21, 1973, when mainstream America first tasted the wild and wacky flavors of Chinese kung fu cinema with Korean director Chung Chang-wha’s (Chinese name Chang Cheng-ho) Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer). And guess what the “Opening Night Film” at the Hazard Ultrastar theater is? That’s right, the Five Fingers of Death, which sounds a much more awesome title than the original English title of King Boxer. Not only that but legend….wait for it…dary director Chung will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s SDAFF. But wait there’s more, Chung will be attending the 6:30 pm screening in person and then do an exclusive Q&A session after the film.

The actual opening film of this year’s SDAFF is tomorrow, Thursday, November 1 at the North Park Birch Theatre at 7:00 pm, with a most dynamic film, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. But since I’ve been covering the SDAFF circa 2007, opening night to me has always been the first film at the Ultrastar, this year Five Fingers, thus in my warped mind…bing, bing, binnnnng, Ricochet Rabbit, it’s the opening night film.

Consider that recently USA Today acknowledged that the annual SDAFF is one of the 10 reasons to visit San Diego and has grown to become second largest Asian Film Festival in North America, it’s the first time a martial arts film director is to receive the award. This of course is unprecedented and the first landmark change of this year’s festival.

Lee Ann Kim, a first generation Korean American, executive director of the Pac-Arts Movement, which she founded as the San Diego Film Foundation in 2000, poignantly points out,” It’s such a dichotomy in some ways, because for years our community members and ourselves, have fought the stereotype that Asian film is not just about kung fu. It’s the first thing that many people think of when they think of Asian films. So to honor somebody who helped start the kung fu craze here in the United States or North America, there may be some…not controversy…but some may have some issues or questions about it.

“Yes, this is a kung fu film, but Asian cinema goes way beyond that…there is a bigger picture and story beyond that. Director Chung not only started the kung fu craze but he also started people’s true interest in Asian culture and got Hollywood thinking that films from Asia can actually make money in the States. So it’s more than just about kung fu but having an affect on world cinema and opening the doors to Asian cinema as a whole in America. It just so happens this is the 40th Anniversary if the movie.”

Try watching this film like it was 1973, where back then most of us were clueless as to what this “fresh” genre was all about and were blown away to see a film that was like an American Western in which feet, fists and swords replaced guns. It’s got glowing red hands, iron palm kung fu, death strikes, “brothers” and “sisters” kissing (of course we didn’t know that “brother” and “sister” was referring to one’s position in the kung fu school and not the family) and audio shticks from the NBC-TV show Ironside (1967-1975). It was far out to learn that iron palm was real and you could learn it too if you dared. Now that’s cool man.

Besides having a kung fu film director being the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, something else big has gone down at this year’s San Diego Film Foundation…now 13 years later it’s a whole new soccer ball game (as most of you may now know, China is the birthplace of soccer).

Here comes the second landmark change. The San Diego Asian Film Foundation is no more…it’s gone…kaput. It’s been replaced by the Pacific Arts Movement. What? Being a man of the 60’s and 70’s, this has the portent of politico-socio manifestations or does it?

Kim feels my emotion and reflects, “The idea of changing the name started years ago. The Film Foundation and Film Festival both have the same acronym of SDAFF and that has been confusing. Changing the name is also about the process of our growth. Plus by having San Diego Asian Film Foundation, it’s so specific and gives very little flexibility. Technology allows us to share films, and our work outside the barriers of San Diego. The film festival is our flagship program and film is always going be our platform…but film has evolved, it’s really media arts, and that encompasses music video, food and other forms of story telling.

“Thus ‘Pacific,” which takes out the word Asian, but also reflects that we’re on the Pacific Rim and serve audiences with stories from the Pacific Rim; ‘arts,’ makes it more broad and allows us to be more flexible; and ‘movement,’ this being important, because it’s not all just about film but being a catalyst for social change. Our mission is that our work creates a transformation and a positive cultural shift in the community. It’s also our spirit…we are a movement. It’s really just about moving forward. And just to show our commitment to film, we’ve added the tag line:  moving pictures, moving minds.”

So back to the cinematic business at hand…Asian Cinema.

This year’s SDAFF also features two critically acclaimed Old School Fant-Asia flicks: the Jet Li/Tsui Hark high flyer Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and the film that broke all box office records in China, Painted Skin saga, Painted Skin: The Resurrection.

In Resurrection, an ancient malevolent fox spirit Xiaowei (Xun Zhou) breaks out of her icy prison and undertakes a seeded quest to become human by seducing men and eating their hearts. If a man willingly gives her his heart she will become mortal, be able to walk amongst the living and finally be free from hell. In the meantime, an ominous cloud looms over Princess Jing’s (Wei Zhao) kingdom. She flees the kingdom wearing a gold mask that hides her deep facial scares. Her quest is to find her former love who pines over his failure to protect the princess years ago. When fate brings Jing and Xiaowei together all hell breaks loose as the battle for the princess’ heart ensues.

Kim laughingly blurts, “I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard that there is demon sex in it. We want to see how well the film translates here at the festival and it just makes sense for us to have a film like this at the festival.”

Released in late December in 2011, Flying Swords, won the Best Action Choreography award at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards. The movie reunites Jet Li with the father of Fant-Asia film Tsui hark where Tsui’s love for the mystical, martial arts underworld of Jiang Hu returns to Dragon Gate Inn, a place where heroic swordsmen, vagabonds, eunuchs, treasure hunters and lovers collide with a new twist.

Kim shares, “It’s in 3-D! We’ve never done 3-D. This movie came out in a limited release in some theaters in major cities for less than a week with limited advertising. This was the same for last year’s festival hit, Jackie Chan in Shaolin. But the film was packed,  which speaks to the power of the SDAFF, where people want to have a collective experience and share an embrace something like a film festival. So we’re okay with showing some films that may be a little bit old….I mean come on…let’s face it…Jet Li?”

If martial arts is the first thing that most film goers associate with Asian cinema, nowadays, a close second is undoubtedly Asian scary off the wall films. Thus, I’m also stoked that this year’s SDAFF is affrightedly amok with

horror/gore/ghost/spurt/zombie/artery/robot/time travel and blood letting with an insanely sane creepazoid collection of macabre manifestations that will have you on the edge and under your seat.

Here’s a mouthful one to consume with your eyes. The next time your out at a Japanese restaurant, think twice about ordering sushi. No not because some select fish have more parasites than others but sometimes sushi may not be as dead as you think. In fact they’re probably more fresh than you think. Just ask the ignored sushi chef apprentice Keiko (Rina Takeda) in Dead Sushi (2012) as she prepares for battle against the attack of the killer sushi, who want human sushi.

There another seven more vomit inducing, nail biting films to look for as Kim gingerly blurts in, “Oh my gosh, this one of my favorites in the festival…Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings (2012).  Who’d have ever thought some one could have come up with a gay zombie film and make it accessible and fun. And we have it. The title itself is the best title of the festival. It’s totally zany and is actually a commentary on how people feel about the gay community in the Philippines.”

What was third landmark change?

Well this year there are more Taiwanese films that in previous years. “I’ll blame that on Brian (Brian Hu; Pac-Arts Movement’s artistic director),” Kim beams. “He’s a scholar of Taiwanese cinema. The other piece of this is that UCSD (University of California at San Diego), they have a Taiwan studies program there and every year they do a very small Taiwan Film Festival. They came to us and Brian and asked if we could help promote their festival. We thought, ‘Why promote it? It’s around the same time as our festival and they have out dated films.’

“So we had the idea to roll their festival into ours, so they’ll have a larger audience and Brian, a scholar of Taiwan films, can help curate eight films from Taiwan, they’re all hosted at UCSD and they’re free. It made sense to do this rather than be in competition. So it’s our inaugural Taiwan Film Showcase at UCSD (at UCSD’s Atkinson Hall), we thought this would be our gift to the community and make it free.”

When I asked Kim if there were any films that either touched her or was especially surprising she quickly speaks about Eden, the festival’s Centerpiece film. She posits, “Over the years we’ve had many films about human trafficking, that were either borderline offensive or didn’t hit the mark. But Eden is so gripping and so well done that it really surprised me. Actress Jamie Chung plays a 17-year old Korean American who was kidnapped from Texas and drawn into a serious sex trafficking ring. It’s based on the real life experiences of Cheong Kim and her harrowing story of survival and eventual escape. It’s told in a way that is so gripping that you are so angry and shocked.”

The stars are aligning. It’s election week and on the California ballot there is Proposition 35, which is trying to increase penalties for convicted human traffickers. Off with their heads.

Former San Diego Asian Film Foundation stalwart staff member Mye Hoang comes back to the festival not as worker but as a the director, writer, and lead actor in her semi-autobiographical tale of breaking free. Kim reminisces, “She worked here for many years and she was always working on a film, it consumed her and this is a very cathartic and personal film for her. She really put herself out there…very courageous…very sad…and very dark. For those of us that know her, it explains a lot. She shared that it was never meant for her to play herself, but the story could not have been told without the nudity, sexual situations and very dramatic. There were many actresses willing to do the nudity but Mye felt it would not be true to the story, she had to do it herself. I truly have a new found respect for her.”

For information in regard to the more than 150 films from 25 countries, dates, time, cool stuff about the SDAFF, how to get to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center and UCSD Atkinson Hall, please visit www.sdaff.org.

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