If you’re a major fan of Asian films, and in San Diego in November, home of the world famous Sea World, Lego Land and San Diego Zoo, then perhaps that buzz behind you isn’t a bee swarm filled with rage and angrily chasing you or a man doing the 10,000 bee kung fu skill (a real technique) with rapid arm-sweeping fury. If you listen carefully, that electric fix of an eclectic mix is the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which USA Today lists as another top 10 reason why you should visit San Diego.
The festival’s more than a collection of Asian-themed films, it’s a social phenomenon geared toward giving non-Asians a better-rounded taste of Asian filmmaking. The festival has become a local symbol of unity, a way to bring together San Diego and southern California’s many different Asian American communities, who don’t always see themselves as a single entity compared to African American and Hispanic communities.
Each year, one can indulge themselves with the latest and coolest Asian cinemateque creations in all genres like fant-Asia films, wuxia or kung fu movies, which in previous years has included Jet Li’s Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) Though a non martial arts film, Jet Li’s moving performance as the father of an autistic child in Ocean Heaven (2010) was an audience hit at San Diego Asian Film Festival.
From it’s 2000 start, when first generation, Korean American Lee Ann Kim with soul and a cool fire personality, and help from the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego founded the San Diego Asian Film Foundation (renamed Pacific Arts Movement (Pac-Arts) in 2012), SDAFF has become the most important exhibition of Asian Cinema on the U.S. West Coast and second largest Asian film festival in North America.
Also known as Fearless Leader, Kim, who retired from Pac-Arts in 2016, shares that the festival is a means to bring people of all different backgrounds together, Asian and non-Asian, and do so by bringing in diverse, well-rounded and top-notch quality films. Though an Asian Film Festival, she wanted to be all inclusive for everybody. In 2006, 15-20% of the audience was non-Asian…today it’s 45%.
Kim adds, “Yet for Asian American communities, when these films are seen on the big screen, they create a sense of empowerment and cultural pride, which they daily don’t get to experience due to the lack of diversity in mainstream TV and Hollywood films. Our film festival helps us to redefine what it means to be Asian American and we’re still trying to figure that out in America because the mentality is such that we identify with the country we come from, the language our parents spoke, rather than seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters, and as Americans first.”
Since SDAFF’s debut, they’ve showcased martial arts (MA) films that have also been piggy backed within other genres like animation, horror, sci-fi, police stories, shorts, historical, documentaries and drama out of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the U.S. It was the first Asian American festival to screen Brunei’s first feature film ever produced, Yasmine (2014), a story about a Muslim teenage girl learning silat as a way to deal with and understand life.
San Diego Asian Film Festival became a world-class festival during the 2009’s devastating economic climate, where when the country’s top Asian and non-Asian film festivals drastically cut their programs, SDAFF didn’t. The 30-year-old N.Y. Asian Film Festival cut their normal 8-Day festival to less than three days and the powerhouse L.A. Asian Film Festival only ran for eight days showcasing 183 films. Yet against economic logic, SDAFF ran for 14 days and featured 200+ films from 20 countries. Global media recognized this achievement as proof positive that Kim’s passion exceeded the safe approaches made by other festival organizers and showed the world that Asian film is worth their time, finances and effort.
Kim reflects, “We have a reputation and since it was our milestone 10th anniversary, we decided not to go small but balls to the wall all out. I wanted it to be a thriving festival.”
Although the first Chinese kung fu film ever made, Ding Jun Mountain (1905), was shot in China, it wasn’t until March 21, 1973 that mainstream America witnessed Chinese kung fu cinema with Korean director Chung Chang-wha‘s Shaw Brothers film Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer). How cool was it that with the 40th Anniversary of this legendary film, Chung received a Lifetime Achievement Award at SDAFF 2012.
Kim relates, “It’s such a dichotomy, because for years members of our community and ourselves have fought the stereotype that Asian film is not just about kung fu. It’s the first thing many people think of when they think of Asian films. Yet to honor somebody who helped start the kung fu craze in North America was worthy because he started people’s true interest in Asian culture and got Hollywood thinking that Asian films can make money in the States. 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.”
When it comes to MA films chosen for the festival, kung fu film fan, with Taiwanese root and in his seventh year as SDAFF’s artistic director, Brian Hu, gleefully relates, “We try to show MA films that promote different kinds of artistry, like special effects, wire work, 3-D and fight choreography, so we can see how innovative the filmmakers are in the genre. I’m foremost interested in choreography, how the camera treats the choreography, the choice issues of action the great directors and action choreographers use, how they picture it in a way to thrill audiences, how the action carries the film’s momentum and how the MA has ambitious new ways to tie the characters in with history.”
Kim portends, “Though MA films aren’t the heart of our mission, they help the mission by bringing in people who probably wouldn’t come to the festival. So we hope they’ll cross over and pick something that may not be MA but something culturally enriching.”
In regard to first generation Chinese American Kent Lee and why he became the new executive director for Pac-Arts and SDAFF he avers, “Apart from films, people are coming together as part of a social gathering and social experience. When Lee Ann retired, with my non-profit management background, loving the organization and what they stand for, and believing in how they open people’s minds in a positive manner, I expressed my interest in the position and here I am. It’s fun, socially invigorating and it gives me a sense of family.”
San Diego Asian Film Festival is the only film festival in the world that has an interactive Qi Healing booth where a renowned chi healer gives patrons free qi readings and shares how to improve ones health and well being.
As has become normal, San Diego Asian Film Festival 2017 boasted 150+ cinematic curiosities from 20+ countries. This year’s MA films? S. Korea’s The Villainess, Hong Kong’s Louis Koo and Tony Jaa starring Paradox (choreography by Sammo Hung), Japan’s Shinjuku Swan II and two classic animated shorts from China, Pigsy Eats Watermelon (1958) and The Little Sister of the Grasslands (1965).
Kim closes, “I’ve been through multiple generations of people here at Pac-Arts and I’m grateful for this work. The people that we have here are so special to me and this festival is our love letter to the community.”