Question: What is 140 films from 15 countries at six different theaters, shown over 10 days (Nov. 3-12), with opening and closing nights in Sherwood Auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla?
Answer: It’s the 17th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) and it looks exciting! The festival will feature films from the USA, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Iran, Thailand and South Korea with 12 movie premieres and several directors and actors attending screenings.
If you’ve not watched modern-day Asian films before, you are in for a rewarding surprise. They are generally very different from the high-budget, extreme-action, special effects-dominated movies coming from Hollywood. They put more emphasis on people, relationships, emotions, the unusual, the diverse ... and there is a lot more film-making experimentation going on.
This year’s festival kicked off Oct. 3 at the “Brick” on Old Decatur Road in Liberty Station with a “Chew The Scene” food-tasting event. Lee Ann Kim, festival founder and executive director for the past 16 seasons before retiring, came to the mic and joked, “I am surprised to see that there are so many people here tonight!”
Although everyone misses her enthusiastic leadership, the festival continues to grow under the new leadership of Kent Lee, who was appointed after a nationwide search. Lee is actually a local who worked his way up through the ranks from the starting point of festival volunteer. He leaves a position as a marketing director for the Boy Scouts of America to assume the helm of SDAFF.
Lee said his goals for the festival are to promote Asian films, involve more people in film-making, and bring the community together through movie-going to counter the cultural trend toward isolation in virtual reality.
Brian Hu continues his role as festival artistic director. He’s the guy who watches all the films submitted for consideration and selects the ones that will be shown. He is very passionate about his job.
Hu said the 2016 festival theme is more somber than past themes, with a nod to the issues of global immigration and the upcoming presidential election. “This year’s theme, ‘To defy expectations,’ is about the global quest of people to be their own person, despite expectations. People are saying, ‘I don’t want any limitations placed on me,’ and, ‘If you won’t give us opportunities, we will go get them ourselves,’ ” he said.
“You can see this theme represented in this year’s logo, which shows a young Iranian woman with a multicolored hijab, or head scarf. She is wearing sunglasses and lipstick. She is saying, ‘I respect my traditional culture, but I am looking to the future. I want equal opportunity.’”
The image comes from the film, “Sonita,” which is about a female Afghan teen living in Iran who wants to be a rapper and speaks out against the oppression of women. It screens 6:35 p.m. Nov. 7 at UltraStar Cinemas in Mission Valley, 7510 Hazard Center Drive, the Festival’s home base.
“Our theme also points to Hollywood,” Hu continued, “where Asians are under-represented. Asians are saying, ‘If you won’t give us jobs, we will make our own movies’ and that is what they are now doing.”
Pass the popcorn
Opening night for the festival will be at Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3 with the screening of “The Tiger Hunter,” by Lena Khan, who will be present. It takes place in 1979 when Sami has just arrived in the USA from India with a leisure suit, a new job, and a suitcase full of expectations. He will lose two of these three things within hours of touching down, so it’s going to take grit, ingenuity and some hilarious friends to help him get back on his feet. If the stars align, he may still be able to impress his sweetheart back in India.
Closing night is also set for Sherwood Auditorium with a film called “Mifune: The Last Samurai.” It is an 80-minute documentary by Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki, made in the United States and Japan. Okazaki pays tribute to samurai star Toshiro Mifune and to the samurai film, one of Japan’s major contributions to world cinema. Prior to the 7 p.m. screening, Friday, Nov. 11, there will be two additional festival movies at 2 and 4:15 p.m.
The centerpiece film, “AKA Seoul,” will screen at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at UltraStar Cinemas. This made-in-the-USA film by Jon Maxwell is about five Korean adoptees who arrive in Seoul where their complex identities emerge from interaction with the city.
Hu recommends a few more gems: “Taste of Cherry,” made in Iran in 1997, screening as a tribute to the late filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami; “Train to Busan,” an entertaining Korean zombie movie; “After the Storm,” a bruised heart detective flick; “Random Acts of Legacy,” a documentary based on old home movies; and “The Last Princess,” which centers on the last princess of Korea.
Other noteworthy festival events include: a black-tie gala in the Gaslamp District; two locally sponsored films “The Longest Journey” and “Never Forget"; several nights of short films; a tribute to Taiwanese films at UC San Diego’s Calit2 Atkinson Hall; a day of screenings in the historic La Paloma Theater in Encinitas; plus films at The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in Balbao Park and the Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Boulevard.