San Diego Asian Film Festival returns

New director, same good quality

Wayne Wang on the set of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
  • Wayne Wang on the set of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

The Pacific Arts Movement’s San Diego Asian Film Festival breezes through town this week and for the first time in its 17-year history, festival founder Lee Ann Kim will not be in the driver’s seat. Kim stepped down as executive director last September, handing over the reins of power to a familiar face to festivalgoers.

A strong voice in the Asian-American community, Kent Lee has been involved with PacArts since 2010, when he first started as a special events volunteer. Four years later, Lee joined the Board of Directors and in no time assumed the Sinatra seat as Chairman of the Board.

Not unlike Kim, Lee’s mission is to serve San Diegans by developing community engagement efforts. It’s up to festival programmer, Brian Hu, to supply the art. One look at this year’s lineup and it’s obvious that when it comes to quality, little has changed.

UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center

7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley

Per usual, Hu forwarded a passel of personally selected viewing choices my way. The first one to hit the screen was Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm. Koreeda (After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking) has yet to let us down, with each subsequent film providing one emotionally enriching experience after another. The screening copy had more brands than a rustler’s herd. I quit after ten minutes. Koreeda deserves better. After the Storm screens twice at UltraStar Mission Valley — Friday, November 4 at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday November 5 at 6:05 p.m.

Next up was Creepy, the latest thriller from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (The Cure, Tokyo Sonata) and a perfect double-bill with Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs. The story starts out on an all-too-familiar path. A detective shot in the line of duty retires from the force, only to be pulled back into service to help tackle an unsolved missing-persons case that occurred six years earlier. It isn’t until we’re introduced to the cop’s new neighbor, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), that the film begins to live up to its title. Kagawa moves like a marionette whose strings have been irrevocably entangled, his contorted facial expressions delivering shudders with each subsequent line reading. Creepy plays UltraStar Mission Valley on Saturday November 6 at 8:25 p.m. and Wednesday, November 9 at 8:55 p.m.

Digital Gym Cinema

2921 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park

Hu’s comment above the next screening link read, “My favorite of the new films, the one that just won the Golden Lion at Venice, and that stands tall at 3 hours and 45 minutes.” I’m halfway through Lev Diaz’s monumental (so far) The Woman Who Left. Forgive me for setting aside a general proclivity toward sportsophobia, but the wistful Chicagoan in me couldn’t resist watching the trio of World Series games played in Wrigley Field. What I’ve seen of the film possesses such austere black-and-white imagery; part of me thinks this one demands the big-screen treatment. The Woman Who Left screens Wednesday, November 9 at 2 p.m. at UltraStar Mission Valley and Friday, November 11 at 12:30 p.m. at the Digital Gym.

Did I mention that this year brings a special guest? It’s none other than Wayne Wang, the celebrated director of such films as Chan Is Missing, The Center of the World, and The Joy Luck Club. Wang may not have been the first director to shatter Asian-American stereotypes — that honor probably goes to Sam Fuller — but as my friend Erik Rosenbluh observed, “Chan Is Missing was the first all Asian-American film I saw where people didn’t speak in offensive accents.”

While it’s far from his best work, given the recent talk of walling out immigrants, there isn’t a better time to revive Eat a Bowl of Tea, a period romcom about an American-born Chinese man and the difficulty he undergoes when bringing his Asian-born bride to America. Part history lesson, part exploration of Chinese traditions and legacies, the film plays better today than on its initial release. Wang will be on hand to introduce a new director’s cut of Eat a Bowl of Tea when it screens at UltraStar Mission Valley, Saturday, November 5 at 1:25 p.m.

Hu also recommends Harmonium, which won an award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; Old Stone, a “cold-ass noir from China”; Cheerful Wind, an early curio from Hou Hsiao-hsien, “back when he was making romantic comedies”; and in tribute to the late Abbas Kiarostami, a 35mm screening of masterwork A Taste of Cherry.

For more information visit sdaff.org.

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