By Dr. Craig D. Reid
In less than a week, in what USA Today says is one of the Top 10 things to do in San Diego, the 19th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (aka SDAFF 2018), which is the second biggest Asian Film Festival in North America, will be screening 160+ films from 20+ countries to open your eyes to genre’s of Asian films you’ve never seen that will fry your minds and touch your hearts in ways you never thought possible.
In Part 1, we learned via an interview with Kent Lee, the executive director of The Pacific Arts Movements (Pac-Arts) and SDAFF, his perspectives on the goals of Pac-Arts and the festival, how they’re intertwined, his views on measuring success of the goals and what he feels is the most important aspect of his work. He additionally described what’s in the works for next year’s SDAFF 20th anniversary, how you can make a film in honor of the festival and this year’s latest way to bring Asian communities and audiences together, their inaugural Film-to-Table program, which covers the food part of this article’s title. Yet what about the martial arts and Whaaat?. Artistic director Brian Hu fills us in with more cool stuff than an ice cream at the North Pole.
Note: I’ve interviewed Hu every year since he became artistic director and to me, his recommendation always end up on my “must see” film list and I have never been let down by the judgment of this jolly ole soul.
Since the major theme of this year’s Opening and Closing Night films is Asian food, Korea’s Little Forest and the Japanese/French/Singaporean’s Ramen Shop, respectively, in honor of writers that would describe Hong Kong’s fant-Asia films, a new genre of martial arts (MA) starting in 1983 with the Tsui Hark directed Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain using Chinese cuisine, I will follow suit for SDAFF’s three MA films.
Thus, this triumvirate of MA films elicits menus of succulent Chinese palatable tastes, beautifully wrapped into a spring role of luscious flavors sure to visually eviscerate your eyes leaving you screaming for seconds and thirds. Between the bookends themed meals of magnificence, lay the staple foundation of Asian food, rice, a metaphor for the historical staple of Asian cinema, kung fu and samurai epics.
And speaking of Tsui, what better way is there than to have the second evening kickoff with Tsui’s latest, CGI spectacle of fant-Asia pageantry, a film specifically shot in 3D but released outside of China in 2D, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (DD3). Hu joyfully says, “It’s sleuth and palace intrigue, a Tsui classic filled with visual and kinetic extravaganza in 3D no less. Tsui has made a career of making fun hybrid films. I saw the 2D version and could tell by the way the action was orchestrated this would be much more fantastic in 3D. I requested 3D, they hooked me up and this is now the 3D, North American premier of the film. It’s hard to get these kinds of films because they have lives outside of the film festival. We want to find ways to make them more viable to our audience, finding a way to show it anew.”
DD3 continues where the previous installment, Rise of the Sea Dragon ends. Empress Wu Zetian is incensed when her husband bestows upon Dee (Mark Chao) the coveted weapon Dragon Taming Mace. Wu orders Dee’s sworn blood brother Yu Chi (William Feng) to retrieve the Mace by working with the devious Mystic Clan, so named by their overwhelming weapons and black magic powers. Wu is also in cahoots with the feared Wind Warriors, who have unspeakably psychotic sorcery skills and are lead by the Emperor hating Faceless Warrior who brandishes a head suffocating weapon. This film is crazier than if when the Apollo 11 landed back on Earth in 1970 and the first responders were dressed in Planet of the Ape costumes. BTW, that’s a major hint about what happens in the finale battle between good vs. evil beyond evil.
What’s the next delightful martial arts meal at SDAFF restaurant? The Donny Yen starring Big Brother, though it’s not a film about wall to wall action but it’s action is walk to wall caring about the youth in Hong Kong. Hu notes, “Throughout the movie, there’s documentary scenes shots of teens in Hong Kong woven into this seemingly popcorn entertainment. It’s about what do we do about the fact that these people in our society are not being taken care of. Yen’s character takes care of these students. It’s a utopian kind of fantasy that’s using marital arts to get people there.”
Directed by Kam Kai-ka, Yen plays former US Marine Henry Chen who returns to Hong Kong to be a teacher at his former school on a mission to find himself, which deepens as he helps five wayward kids find themselves, find their parents and with a little typical Yen rough, tumble and bash, save the school from going under due to land grabbers, under achieving students and gangster ne’er do wells. For kung fu film enthusiasts, you’ll wonder how can he wield his fists and feet like a compass, ruler and calculator, weapons of math destruction, so they can add up to a positive message where kids don’t turn to violence to solve their issues.
This year’s Festival Guide cover features bright red peony flowers, I wonder if that’s a MA film hint that the third film is a samurai film. I mean, who can forget actress Junko Fuji’s Red Peony Gambler film series (1968-1972). As Hu posits, “This mysterious, deadly flower, the color, to me, it promises some kind of mystery.”
The final spice to be added to SDAFF’s martial meal is director Shinya Tsukamoto’s first venture into his country’s samurai traditions with Killing, a Shinto-esque, dynamic reflection of a samurai’s relationship with his sword as after the multi-folding process of steel gives birth to a samurai sword, it so proffers young warrior Tsuzuki to enter a new fold in life…killing. Yet is he ready to follow the code where obligation supersedes guilt and loyalty repudiates antipathy?
Hu adds, “He’s young and dreamt of being a samurai and now he realizes, ‘I have to kill people now?’ Though philosophical, it has crushing action and it doesn’t shy away from violence but it serves a purpose to show what’s going on in the head of a person who’s discovering violence.
“Overall, we’ve specifically found martial arts films that expand our ideas of the worlds that marital arts can intersect with.”
Which comes to the “Whaaat?” section of films, movies you never saw coming, yet you’d be glad to investigate them as based on Hu’s cinematic flavor and reputation as a artistic director that takes risks, you know they’ll be wild and woolly to witness and watch.
As an artistic director, when I ask Hu if he tries to predict what audiences are looking for he confidently shares, “I’ve learned to not worry about what the audience or what they’re looking for. If I play enough kinds of films, people will find a movie for them. So instead of playing just narrower kinds of film and crowd-pleasers to sell mainstream audience, we’ll play in-between films for different kinds of reasons that can be oriented toward different source audiences interests more kinds of people to be our potential audiences.
“Example, this film Blowin Up is about a Japanese American judge who adjudicates sex works cases. It’s potentially niche but it can work for anybody. In making that decision, to me, if only 50 people show up, that’s not a failure. People who wouldn’t come to our festival might with this kind of film. The more types I have, I can hit more potential bigger audiences. You never know if there’s an audience that’s been waiting their entire lives to see a specific film to have a different connection to us after the festival. It’s how I justify these films and that’s what encourages me to take big risks.
Yet a film like Blowin Up, also fulfills another purpose that is inherent at any SDAFF, and that is how movies can address current issues important to Asian American communities. Hu describes that the Japanese American judge who lives in Queens, has many people who are sexworkers that come through her courtroom are also lower income black women and undocumented immigrants from China adding, “We often don’t do films about undocumented Asians. It’s a major issue because many Asian communities want to pretend it doesn’t exist and it also makes them look bad and not a model minority any more. But for us to acknowledge that it does exist then how do we address this issue in a humane and productive way?
“Well these are common experience among Asian Americans and African Americans, so we can see eye-to-eye and help each other with. There are people with different power levels to do so, social worker, translators. It’s an amazing world for the translators because they have to translated legal language to undocumented Chinese people. It’s a big topic in our society and Asian Americans are a big part of that story too.”
In the documentary section of the festival, there are several films that have a flavor of transnational Asian American politics that deal with stories of Asian Americans going to Asia and because of their unique abilities, responsibilities or opportunities, they can do things in Asia that the local couldn’t. In a sense, that’s also another way of investigating issues in American Asian communities.
Call Her Ganda is about a Filipino American who because he’s an American journalist and an outsider, he has a different platform compared to the local Filipino reporters. This affords him a better opportunity to get some answers about why a Filipino transwoman who was murdered by a US Marine in the Philippines can’t be charged for murder…in at least a regular way.
Hu also brings up another politico themed documentary, To Kill Alice, that is as disturbing as it is engaging. It’s about a Korean American woman from Orange County who can use her American passport to visit North Korea while her South Korean colleagues can not. After she visits N. Korea and writes a book about it, the S. Korean government said it is one of the most important books of our time. Then like many a country full of fear, hatred and not willing to listen to the other side, things blow up in her face when the S. Korean right wing media gets a hold of the story.
Hu shares, “It’s a fascinating, in a sadistic way, film to watch because it’s uniquely a Korean American story because it could only happen to a Korean American. The right wing media labels her as a communist sympathizer and wants to take her down.”
Accusations fly, fake news abounds and her life is in danger and Alice has to absorb the Korean and American right wings at the same time. A crippled bird doesn’t begin to describe what she has to endure. Small minds breed big problems.
This year’s festival also highlight two incredibly amazing films for reason you would never guess. Dead Souls and Bread Factory that are 506 and 242 minutes long, respectively. Yes you read that right, Dead Souls, which is about those who lived through the anti-rightist campaign in China of the late 1950s during the early years of the communist regime under Mao Tse-tung, is an eight and a half our movie. Whaaat? aptly describes not only the length of the film but also the heartbreaking subject matter that no one, accept the few survivors of those dangerous times, know anything about.
With a contemplative face, Hu elucidates, “I saw this film at Cannes. It’s tiring, requires endurance, the endurance it takes to be a historian, a grandchild talking to their grandparents for a long time. Is endurance love or respect? This is film says I respect the people I’m talking too.
“We having elderly Chinese talking about their past which in itself is very uncommon. Of all the people who went through that, how many survived, how many have survived up until now and how many of those are willing to talk? Given the magnitude of how important it is for this history to be told, preserved…it’s not just a documentary or chronicle, it’s an archive. You don’t have see the whole thing, it’s about just being with it.
“There’s a scene where one is wandering in a dessert, punches the ground and human bones are still there. No one bothered to bury them, clean it up or even erase this history. Down the road are farms, where the bones are strewn about. It’s quite an experience and work of cinema in terms of what you learn about what happened. It’s shocking.
Yet there’s a balance to this undoubtedly exhausting and almost necessary truth we all need to recognize from a past of immeasurable human suffering, a reminder that at any moment someone’s political ideals can rupture millions of innocent lives…and that ironically comes from the freedom aspect of the Taiwanese Film Showcase (TFS), which is held at UCSD (University of California, San Diego).
Created by Hu and now in it’s 7th year partnership with SDAFF, TFS has proudly and merrily become the largest annual presentation of Taiwanese cinema outside of Asia, where the showcase highlights the diversity of perspectives, language, stories and genres by shorts and feature-length filmmakers in Taiwan today.
Hu excitedly shares, “This year’s showcase has the first film that is directed by a Mainlander. There are films on the mainland that are about Taiwan stories, but this one is a little bit sneakier than those. Eight years ago director Ying Liang made a film that got him in trouble with the censors in China, so he fled to Hong Kong, he became a dissident artist in exile and could never see his family again accept on skype, Unless…
“Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese can go to Taiwan as tourists. A Family Tour is about a dissident filmmaker who leaves his mom behind. She’s on a mainland tour bus in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the Hong Kong family follows the bus and stops at the same landmarks. It’s a Kaohsiung tourist video and it’s also a powerful, deep moving story about a family torn apart realizing this might the last time they see each other.”
Hu next explains that there is something totally new this year and that it has to do with technology. He segways that many folks don’t go to theaters anymore and so this part of the showcase is to expand the film experience in a way that it’s going to evoke all of the senses, adding, “Back in the 1890s you would duck when you saw a train come by, yet it was a full body experience. But now we’re so used to it being a small thing on your phone, something you keep at your distance when you’re doing your laundry or something. How can be we get you back to that immersive feeling…virtual reality from Taiwan.”
This part of the program features two, 10-minute shorts on VR goggles that will be available for viewing on a first come, first serve basis at UCSD’s Price Center Theater, Friday, 11/9 from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm, Saturday, 11/10 from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm and Sunday, 11/12 from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
Hu reveals, “One film is called Your Spiritual Temple Sucks and mocks how temples in Taiwan are used by people when they have relationship problems and the other, The Train Hamasen, is about Taiwan history told in one breath, dreamy and experimental. Imagine being surrounded by a story. If you can look at 360 degrees, how can a director know if you’re watching the right thing at each moment to tell a story. They tell you all the different cues that are planted visually and with sound. It’s really innovative and technologically savvy.”
And speaking of cues, Hu strongly recommends to see Long Days Journey into Night. I can tell from his face he really wants to discuss it but is holding back and simply shares, “It’s classic theater, film noir, in the ilk of Vertigo (1958). The first half of the film is in 2D, then it cues you when to put on your 3D glasses. This film is unlike any experience you’ve ever had watching a movie. It’s a technically and embodied experience. Wow.”
His final comment, “To me, this is what makes this festival pretty special!”
For information regarding films, dates, times and venues, and other cool stuff about SDAFF 2018, please visit https://sdaff.org/2018/.