By Dr. Craig D. Reid
In 2000, first generation, Korean American Lee Ann Kim stepped up to bat for San Diego, which is more than the city’s local MLB team has done, and with the help of the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego founded the San Diego Asian Film Foundation, which switched names to the Pacific Arts Movement (Pac-Arts) in 2012. Later in 2000, Kim hit a grand slam with the inaugural San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) and since then it has manifested into a veritable world series of festivals as it is now regarded as one the most important and successful Asian film festivals in North America. Maybe this year’s Chicago Cubs can ransack Kim’s karma and break the Cub’s Curse of the Billy Goat and win their own World Series. Regardless, the 17th Annual SDAFF will strike out more festival competitions with their 10-day film series that will run between November 3-12, 2016 as they will lead the majors with 140+ films, from 15+ countries and with films being featured in six venues. So who’s on first and what’s on second? A single new pitching change, i.e., a new ERA, and for martial arts fans, two martial movies with record breaking RBIs.
The lead off hitter? Call of Heroes…a classic wu xia film that truly is, at the end of the day, a numbers game. No, this isn’t to say that the film is a gamble, instead Call of Heroes ups the ante as it liberally borrows from the likes of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and the countless Shaw Brothers films that featured bands of heroes associated with the Five Ancestors of Shaolin, the Five Elders of Shaolin, the Ten Tigers of Shaolin, the Ten Tigers of Canton and of course the 108 Heroes of Liang Shan Marsh. Where similar to all of these films, the core of each movie strongly centers around strong heroes, bands of brothers and mouth watering weapon and Chinese pugilistic mayhem choreography to die for. The kind of things that SDAFF’s artistic director Brian Hu looks for when searching for martial arts films to knock out SDAFF audiences.
Hu professes, “I’m always first and foremost interested in choreography, how the camera treats the choreography and the choice issues of action that the great directors and action choreographers use and how they picture it in a way that’s thrilling for audiences. Stories are important too…well (delayed giggle)…I wouldn’t even go that far…I would say momentum is important in action films and action carries that momentum. Also, does the martial arts have ambitious new ways to tie the characters in with history? There’s a lot of untapped story lines out there in martial arts films still waiting to be made.”
I agree. A film about how 128 Shaolin monks armed with guans saved the Ching Dynasty in 1685 by defeating hordes of Russian invaders that spread South into China to a point comparable to if Canada invaded American down to St. Louis, begs to be made.
Directed by Benny Chan and starring Ching Wan Lau and Wu Jing, Heroes takes place in 1914, after the collapse of the Ching Dynasty. It’s a yarn about the law abiding and morally beleaguered lawman Yang (Ching) stationed in the small, forsaken ordinary city of Pu Cheng who whips into a shape a band of shabby mercenaries to help him battle a psychotic warlord who wants Yang to hand over the warlord’s crazed, blood thirsty imprisoned son. If that doesn’t happen, blood lust shall rain down upon Pu Cheng like hungry tigers on a fenceless cattle farm. Only one inmooovable party can survive.
Back in 2000, when Lee Ann Kim was putting together the first SDAFF, Sammo Hung was telling me on the set of CBS’s Martial Law that if the fights are good in kung fu films, even if the story is not good, audiences will come out to watch. But what if there’s a good story behind the fights? Sixteen years and 16 festivals later, Sammo’s action direction in Heroes features spell binding fight choreography as he weaves in his magic with panache, flair, eye-popping wild stunts and set pieces that include basket case craziness and frenetic finale, mountain top frenzy that’s sure to freak folks out. He just made a good film great.
What’s with the new pitching change I alluded too in the opening paragraph? Earlier this year Pac-Arts/SDAFFs fearless leader Lee Ann retired and two months ago a new executive director, Kent Lee, was drafted, a choice that initially threw me for a curve. Kent recently and candidly spoke with me about his background in film and his Asian heritage.
He shares, “I’m a first generation Chinese American. If someone asked me what am I, I’d say I’m an American, born here, raised here, lived in Southern California my whole life and didn’t get ingrained with the cultural elements. I speak a little Cantonese and mandarin, only in the household, can’t read or write Chinese, and I couldn’t connect with myself as being Chinese from a cultural standpoint. In my college days, I decided that I wasn’t going to pursue anything specifically that was Asian.”
When I asked Kent what was the first Asian or Asian themed film that he ever saw and how did that affect him he said that as a kid, his parents didn’t let me watch much film or TV, so he grew up without many cultural references adding that the only thing he saw on TV was Hong Kong drama shows every Sunday. He adds, “Yet after college, my girlfriend (now his wife) who ended up working for Pac-Arts as a volunteer, introduced me to Lee Ann so I volunteered for Pac-Arts too.
“I can’t recall any first Asian film I saw. I do remember seeing Jackie Chan before Bruce Lee but don’t remember which film, yet I felt the excitement of what I was seeing and thought that was very cool. It’s funny (wee giggle), I can’t even remember any first film I saw at SDAFF because for me, part of the experience here wasn’t just the films but finding out that for some reason it was so easy to connect with people who were here for the festival. I realized they weren’t just coming for the film but coming together as part of a social gathering and social experience.
“My work background is in non-profit and before I came here I was at the Boy Scouts of America for nine years doing fund raising, development finance. So after I worked here for a couple of years, when Lee Ann retired, I figured by having a non-profit management background, loving the organization, believing in the work that we’re doing to open people’s minds in a positive manner, it’s a lot of fun and certainly socially invigorating as well…I expressed my interest in the position and here I am.”
Kent leans back, takes a bite of his banquette sandwich, a swig of water and explains that because over the years he never participated in Asian organizations, he found that SDAFF was a way to connect with him being Asian. And although he has no film background, never studied film and has no knowledge of film, thus averring the importance of Hu, he posits, “I think because by growing up not being exposed to pop culture and film, during my high school years and beyond, whenever I saw things on TV and theaters I was entranced, could feel the emotion, relate to the stories and would walk away from a film thinking a lot about them. So coming to SDAFF and sharing in that experience and sharing it with others who were interested and had an Asian background, it was a very unique experience for me. It gave me a sense of family around the people and I really love what Pac-arts and SDAFF are doing and what they stand for.”
Back to the second big martial arts hitter at the festival. It turns out to be the all important closing night film, something we can all look forward to and something this year’s presidential election can’t split the country’s or audience’s glee in watching the film. In fact, by the time we watch Mifune: The Last Samurai, not to be confused with Tom Cruise’s notion that perhaps a white dude should be the last samurai, we’ll have a new President where for one side of the equation a little hara kiri may be in the books.
All kidding apart, Mifune pays powerful tribute to the legendary and first Asian film star that received international fame and notoriety decades before Bruce Lee, Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920-97), who along with renowned director, the Emperor of Japanese film Akira Kurosawa, solidified the golden era of Japanese cinema, making chambara (sword fighting films) an important part of global cinema history. In a touch of beautiful serendipity, I saw my first samurai film at a Drive-in in upstate New York in 1973, Mifune’s Red Sun (1971), which was followed immediately by the first kung fu film I ever saw, Lee’s Fists of Fury (1973), a movie that literally saved my life. It was a most glorious night.
Directed by Steven Okazaki, narrated by Keanu Reeves and rich with archive footage, the documentary focuses on six of Mifune’s greatest film achievements as well as stories about his birth in China and his subsequent role as a Japanese soldier stationed in China, his accidental introduction into film created by an alcoholic temper tantrum and precious interview material from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Though nearly 20 years after his death, with his gruff disposition, searing eyes and facial frown, Mifune is still the quintessential samurai actor, character and caricature of all time. With his love for fast cars, quick to the drink and never turning down a fight (often times doing all three at the same time), in a heartbeat he would have blended in well with the Hollywood hard men of the times.
For information regarding the films, dates and times, how to get to the UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center and other venues where the films are being shown, please visit http://festival.sdaff.org/2016/schedule/. One of the cool things the festival has, and it’s something that no other film festival in the world does, is that there will be an interactive booth from Saturday, November 5 through Monday, November 7, where filmgoers can get rid of any stress or pain in the body within three minutes and find out what the core issues are behind the pain and stress.
In closing, Kent shares that he’s still discovering his role in the next chapter of the Pac-arts movement and at the moment, it’s also a learning process for him and probably for everyone around him on how they can successfully continue to carry on the work that Lee Ann started. He asserts, “But we also must look ahead and chart new paths, to insure that we stay relevant and serve the audience, filmmakers and the arts that we showcase.”
Like any good marriage, it’s not always about looking at each other but looking in the same direction, and new executive director Kent Lee is definitely on that path and most certainly shares the same love, respect and passion for Asian film as all the others involved in Pac-Arts and SDAFF do. Everything seems to be in safe hands.