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San Diego Asian Film Festival 2014

San Diego, my hometown, is not only the summer superhero party central with San Diego Comic-Con in July, it is also the host of the San Diego Film Festival from Nov. 6-15. That's actually longer than the American Film Institute's Film Festival (Nov. 6-13).

Because I was up in Hollywood at the AFI Fest, I have written reviews of some screeners kindly sent to me by the festival's very persuasive Brian Hu, Artistic Director of Pacific Arts Movement, presenters of the festival. He might not be Dr. Who, (Try the San Diego Gaslamp district in July for any one of those Whos), but if you're in San Diego next year or can borrow a TARDIS, he and his crew can surely steer you toward interesting times. Here's a sample of what they had screening this year.

"Blue Bustamante": George Bustamante (Joem Bascon) is feeling the immigrant worker blues. This isn't pre-world War II, but 1990. He’s left his pouty wife June (Dimples Romana) and his only child Kiko (Jhiz Deocareza) to work in Japan. Yet the engineering position doesn't pan out. Luckily, George ends up finding a job as a stunt man in a rip-off of the Power Rangers. This five-some is Force Five and George plays the blue one, but is too embarrassed to confess to his wife and son that he's fallen from a white collar job to a low skill worker on a very low budget TV series. Director Miko Livelo who co-wrote the script with John Elbert Ferrer embraces the confines of a low budget and then exploits it to poke fun at knock-off TV series and their flimsy sets and ersatz actors. The script doesn't quite get Japan right and there are some problems with logic (Would you hire someone illiterate and barely able to speak any of the local language as an engineer?) Yet there's an easy-going humor that may carry this for those who have fond memories of the Power Rangers or are still Power Ranger geeks. The movie Won four award at the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. In Tagalog and Japanese with English subtitles.

"Fuku-Chan of Fukufuku Flats”: Depending upon your pronunciation, you might think that this title is something you can't say in polite company. However, in Japanese the four-lettered word f**k, is actually pronounced differently. In this case, the fuku stands for 福 or “good fortune.” Yet fuku also means to mope. What we have here is three single men who live in Fukufuku (double happiness) Flats. The men are far from happy.  Fuku-chan is the 32-year-old Tatsuo Fukuda (Miyuki Oshima). The auspiciously named flats is really a run-down apartment building that he has been living in since he moved to Tokyo after his junior high school graduation. His work isn't especially inspiring, but he paints hand-made kites and flies them for fun and mediates between two other single men in the complex. In another part of Japan, a young woman's desire to become a photographer and be less ordinary results in a disaster when she finally meets the art photographer she admired. Told that she has bad karma, the woman, Chiho (Asami Mizukawa), remembers a mean prank she once played and sets out to find forgiveness from Fukuda and change her karma. For those of us who were targeted by the mean girls and boys in school, this is a thoughtful look at life's choices and consequences. In Japanese with English subtitles.

“A Hard Day”: The Korean name for this movie translates as “Take It to the End” and our protagonist Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) isn’t sure where things will end up. We’ve all had bad days, but Go is a homicide detective who has just committed a homicide on the way to his mother’s funeral. Although he manages to hide the body, he also dishonors his mother’s memory. At work, he’s also under the gun because his squad is corrupt and has now come under investigation. As the squad members moan and whine and consider betraying each other, Go gets mysterious phone calls—someone saw the car accident and tries to blackmail him. Director Kim Seong-hun has created a tense and moody thriller where everything feels dark and gritty as if all the homicide detectives are creatures that have just crawled out from under a muddy rock and can’t wait to embrace the darkness of their souls again in those hidden places. The movie was show at Cannes under Director’s Fortnight. The movie has been nominated for seven Grand Bell Awards by the Motion Pictures Association of Korea, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. In Korean with subtitles. This movie also screened at the AFI Film Festival 2014.

“The Iron Ministry”: The actual translation of the title in Japanese and Chinese of the title is “Railroad” or literally “Iron Road.” This has nothing to do with a political organization type of ministry, but follows the rhythms of people traveling on the railroads in China. Having just come back from Japan where I used the bullet train, there is a world of difference between Japan and China. My rail journeys in the U.S. have been limited to short jaunts between Chicago and Urbana or Los Angeles and San Diego, so I’m sure that gives me an urban view of rail travel, but I somehow doubt that Americans bring great pots of recently butchered meat on to the train and then quietly trim layers of fat off in a long sheet. The sheet of fat is then neatly folded up, likely to be reserved for some use. Of course, not all of the travel is like that. Some people board the train carrying great baskets suspended on either end of a long thick pole. Most of the baskets are filled with vegetables. We also get to see people seated in first class or the crowded enough to have people sitting in the aisles economy class. There are short interviews in Chinese and we learn that some people are traveling to find better job opportunities or to visit a festival. At 82 minutes, the documentary still feels a little long. Some of the shots could have easily been cut out, but undoubtedly we are only seeing a small percentage of what was shot over a three-year period. The documentary received a Harrell Award at the Camden International Film Festival. The documentary was also shown at the AFI Film Festival 2014. In Chinese with English subtitles.

"The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”: If you're a Japanese anime fan and especially if you love Hayao Miyazaki and the films from Studio Ghibli, this is a must-see. Director/writer Mami Sunada was allowed into the studio while Miyazaki was working on what would be his last animated feature, "The Wind Rises." At the same time, Studio Ghibli's co-founder, Isao Takahata, was working on "The Tale of Princess Kaguya." "Kaguya" was released on 23 November 2013 while "The Wind Rises" was released in July of the same year. The main character in "Wind" is actually voiced by a famous animator, Hideaki Anno ("Neon Genesis Evangelion") who previously worked for Miyazaki on “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind." We get to see and hear about Anno’s casting as well as his break into animation under Miyazaki. Besides learning about the concerns and technical aspects of "Wind," we hear Miyazaki comments from time to time about the long period of time Takahata is taking with his project (which if you see it you won't be disappointed). Sunada also allows the camera to linger on the cats that share life with Miyazaki because after all, his inspiration for that catbus came from somewhere. In Japanese with English subtitles.

"Limited Partnership": In 1975, two men were married in Boulder, Colorado. It was an amazing act at the time and it was the beginning of of a long journey of love. The persistence of these two is heartbreaking. The two men were not both Americans and this made their union even more difficult. Filipino-American Richard Adams and Australian Tony Sullivan were one of the first same-sex couples to be legally married and because Sullivan was not an American citizen, their union also posed a problem for the American Immigration and Naturalization Service which denied Sullivan a green card as the spouse of an American because the couple was told via an official letter: "You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots." The couple then sued the U.S. government and filed the first federal lawsuit for equal treatment for same-sex marriages. Only one of them lived to see where we are now, but the U.S. government never succeeded in separating them. Director Thomas G. Miller brings us their story through interviews and archival photos and movie clips because these two men were pioneers and not quiet about their concerns and were heroes in the gay and lesbian communities nationwide. This documentary is worth watching to see just how far we have come and how hard it was for these two and others. If you have any doubts that a same-sex union can be as real and as tender as a heterosexual marriage, this should be proof enough. Of course, we shouldn't need proof. What we need is more love and writers Kirk Marcolina with Miller fully recognize this. I didn't know that Asian Pacific Islanders Americans were very much a part of this story and helped set history, making this doc one that should be on everyone's list for Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month. The movie won the Audience Award at the Aspen Filmfest, the Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival and the HBO Films Best Producer Award at the Savannah Film and Video Festival.

"Man from Reno": When a guy slyly puts the moves on you and becomes too friendly too fast, red lights should be flashing in your head. Yet say you're lonely and in a foreign country, traveling by yourself for whatever reason. You haven't been able to speak your native language for days, maybe weeks. Wouldn't you greet a fellow country man or woman like an old friend? That's what happens when famous mystery writer Aki (Ayako Fujitani) suddenly disappears from a scheduled book tour. She meets the attractive Akira (Kazuki Kitamura) and they begin a fling, but when he disappears, she has a real mystery on her hands. Somehow, her Akira is tied up with another man who is connected to a small-town sheriff (Pepe Serna) and a car deserted in the fog. Director Dave Boyle ("White on Rice") sets a deliberate pace and doesn't up the spookiness level of this tale by taking turns into the supernatural. Instead, everything could exist in real life, the kind of real life we'd rather think is just the stuff of movies. Written by Boyle, Joel Clark and Michael Lerman, this is a story that looks into the gray areas of celebrity, friendship and life in a foreign country. This isn't Jessica Fletcher territory, but much murkier, taking place in the deep fog of loneliness and shifting populations. The movie won the Jury Award at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas and Best Dramatic Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

"Meet the Patels" is an engaging documentary told with some shaky cam and microphones-displayed amateurish cinematography (by Geeta V. Patel). All that is fully embraced and excused by the cute intercut animated interviews with the focal point of the film--Ravi V. Patel. Geeta is Ravi's sister and this first-generation twosome are on a journey with their parents back to India, part of an annual pilgrimage that has taken a dire turn for two reasons: 1) Ravi has broken up with his long-time girlfriend and 2) thus he has no real defense against the marital aspirations of his parents and cousins. He has not, to be clear, ever told his parents about his very white girlfriend but that secret no longer exists as an invisible forcefield buffer. At 29, Ravi knows who he is but also recognizes that he is caught between his Indian world at home and in India and his American world and he can’t continue to keep them compartmentalized. He also looks at the arranged marriage between his parents and realizes that this long-held tradition can't be so easily dismissed. In Gujarati and English with English subtitles.

"The Songs of Rice": This is a documentary with very little explanation, but instead, director Uruphong Raksasad trusts the viewer to enjoy the scenery and the rhythms of life of planting, raising and harvesting rice in Thailand. Of course, rice is very different from wheat and requires wetlands that need to be plowed. Not all of what you'll see will qualify as either pastoral or exotic. You will see the beautiful landscape transformed by seasons of growth and there are wonderful scenes of dancing. Yet there are also scenes that might not be suitable for small children or those with queasy stomachs. Thailand is a poor country and sometimes you need to take protein where you can find it and that includes the rats found and killed in the fields of rice. However, it's likely that if you worked on a farm or were raised by someone who was, this won't phase you too much. It wasn't so long ago that San Diego was mostly farmland, covered with citrus orchards and tomato and cucumber fields. This documentary from the Netherlands but made in Thailand won an FIPRESCI Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. In Thai with English subtitles.

"Telos: The Fantastic World of Eugene Tssui": Science fiction fans, this is an architect that you've seen in your dreams. He might have worked for a studio, but he really wants to work for real people and make permanent structures. Did America miss this generation's Antoni Gaudi? If you understand that reference and if Barcelona is on your bucket list for that reason, you should catch this documentary about the 59-year-old maverick architect. Tssui admits he is trying to change the world and bases his designs on nature and explains why he dislikes the concept of buildings as boxes. Although he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, he is currently based in Emeryville, Ca. He has been able to construct several residential homes, including that of his parents in Berkeley and he's also built the Watsu School at Harbin Hot Springs and, of course, his firm's headquarters.

"Uzumasa Limelight": Most Japanese men and women don't know how to wear kimonos and few men are comfortable enough in the traditional Edo period clothes to be able to walk in them, let alone fight with swords. Working in period dramas takes certain skills. According to the introductory sequence of this movie, there were men who specialized in dying in period pieces (kirare yaku) and lived in Uzumasa (Kyoto) which was considered the Hollywood of Japan. When the jidageki (period) movies and TV shows declined and the golden age of chanbara (sword-fighting dramas) was over, these workers are out of work. Yet who really goes into the movies hoping to be an extra? This movie deals with one particular kirare yaku, Kamiyama (Seizō Fukumoto), who has made a living by dying spectacularly, but now must find another job to support himself. A young girl, Satsuki (Chihiro Yamamoto), becomes his disciple and he trains her in this dying art of dying, bringing renewed attention to the chanbara genre. Crisply directed by Ken Ochiai, this nostalgic movie deals with traditions, economic survival and those damned kids at theme parks. The movie won a Best Feature Cheval Noir award for the director and a Jury Prize for Best Actor (Seizō Fukumoto) at the Fantasia Film Festival. In Japanese with English subtitles.

While AFI is walkable, the SDAFF is not, covering several venues throughout San Diego County including the Reading Cinemas in the Gaslamp District, the University of San Diego (Shily Theatre), the University of California San Diego (Calit2 Atkinson Hall Auditorium), San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, Arclight Cinemas in La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla and La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.

Opening night featured "Revenge of the Green Dragons" which has already been reviewed on this website. If you can’t board a TARDIS, keep the festival in mind for next year. The festival has something for all budgets. This year, tickets for opening and closing nights were $12-$15. Other tickets ranged from $10-$15 and there were special deals like a festival 4-pack for $44 or an all festival pass for $250. There were plenty of free programs as well. For more information about next year’s programs, visit and connect with the Pacific Arts Movement through social media or subscribe to their newsletter.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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