With this past year’s economic climate, most of America’s major Asian Film Festivals in the United States have drastically cut their programs, showcase fewer films and run for fewer days. The New York Asian Film Festival, which has been around for almost 30 years scaled back their program from last year’s eight days, to this year’s two and a half days. Even the powerhouse Los Angeles Asian Film Festival had major cutbacks. But the only Asian Film Festival in the country to go beyond the call of cinematic duty to support Asian made films and Asian filmmakers is the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which started in San Diego, CA, October 15th, and still has one more week of fantastically far-out and freaky frightening Fant-Asia films to go. So essentially, this festival is running for a whopping 14 days and is featuring 200+ films from 20 countries. This says a lot about the organizers and their passion to not bow to the economy but to put themselves out there to show the world that Asian film is worth the time and effort.
A new program added this year is the SDAFF Extreme series, four fantastically far-out and freaky frightening films (not a typo folks, but a wee bit of déjà vu) that is worth getting out here just for this quartet that will be music to the ears for Fant-Asia film fans. First off there’s the “What? Are you kidding me?” Japanese ALF meets HELLO KITTY, an a-mews-ing feature NEKO RAMEN TAISHO (aka PUSSY SOUP). If you’ve heard of the 1960s FELIX THE CAT cartoon, then please sing the following to the same cadence of the famous TV animated series. “Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful, cat, whenever he gets in a fix he reaches into his ramen bowl of trix. Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat, you’ll watch the noodle contest, your eyes will freak, your mind will squint with “huh?”, watching Taisho fall in love with a…cat?” The Taisho cat puppet living in the real human universe is so pathetically bad, up there with the pets.com dog puppet, that it’s really just rip-roaring to watch.
Part blaxploitation, part spaghetti Western and part chambara (samurai sword fighting film), AFRO SAMURAI: RESURRECTION is all Japanese anime as Afro Samurai and his mudslide brother Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) are en route to find the holder of the second head band. In the wacky samurai world of Afro, whoever owns the second headband can challenge the holder of the first headband, and not before. The holder of the first headband is Sio (voice of Luck Liu), a deranged, sexy femme fatale trying to resurrect Afro’s dead father and use the father to kill Afro. What is engaging about the film is picking out the various Japanese samurai films that have perhaps influenced AFRO SAMURAI. Parallels from the LONE WOLF AND CUB, WICKED PRIEST and HANZO THE RAZOR series came to mind. But the one that even the director Leo Chu and producer Eric Garcia did not see, was that Ninja Ninja sounded like Donkey from the SHREK cartoons. Jackson undoubtedly “burro-ed” the voice to prod at Eddy Murphy’s Donkey character but did so without being an ass.
DETROIT METAL CITY, is Japan’s interpretation of over the top Fant-Asia ecstasy of action milieued into a surreal social environment of death metal and head bangers as Soichi (Ken’ichi Matsuyaama) accidentally goes into a music audition to sing songs about pop tarts and rainbows and get challenged by Gene Simmons to hell-spawn himself into dark music to destroy all bands. Will it be the KISS of death or the kiss of success?
The final SDAFF Extreme is for “surreal” a blood-gore fest for a feast at the festival full of frenetic and frantically fearful feeding frenzies as the title says it all, VAMPIRE GIRL VS. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL. Filled with blood-lusting sucking vampires, a frazzled and freaky Frankenstein girl, hip hopping homicidal nurses, insanely insane mad scientists, and new and improved Japanese ways to disembowel and dismember puny humans, it’s just a simple but crazzzzy love story gone awry.
Lee Ann Kim, a first generation Korean American and the executive director of the San Diego Film Foundation, which she founded in 2000 with the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego, talks about the challenges of doing the banner year 10th anniversary and why during such difficult economic times it was decided to go all out when film festivals globally are cutting back. “At the beginning of the year we had to make a decision,” Kim shares, “Doing a 10th anniversary with so many films and with the economy being so hard, we had to decide on whether we keep it small or go all out, balls to the wall. Although all the other festivals scaled back big time, we have a reputation and because this is our milestone year, the 10th year, we decided to go two weeks.”
Besides the SDAFF Extreme program what other ways are there to indulge yourself with the latest and coolest Asian cinemateque creations in horror, anime and more, at San Diego’s hippest film festival? If you thirst for more femme fatale vampire there is THIRST, a South Korean dark comedy about a priest turned vampire. Zatoichi returns to the big screen, or should I say Zatoichi-ette in the form of ICHI, an ERA (equal right amendment) version of the classic Japanese chambara film series Zatoichi. But instead of burning her bra like the women in the 1970s ERA movement, Ichi will be burning her opponents with some slice and dice, human vegematic swordswoman ship.
Oh yeah, beware of STRANGE BREW. Although it is the title of a very famous song, one of the Cream of the crop from the 70s, this is a collection of twisted tales from the cream of the crop shorts submitted to the festival. There’s also the southern California premiere of K-20, a Japanese fantasy actioner with a $20 million price tag that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as Hikichi Endo who is approached by the mysterious K-20 to do a job that puts him in harms way where he must hunt down K-20, before the police gun down Hikichi. MUSHI-SHI is about a “bugcatcher” who heals victims of supernatural creatures, a character who could have been useful to the astronaut who discovers the truth about clones in the Japanese futuristic angst driven story THE CLONE RETURNS HOME.
Although the SDAFF is an international film festival with a yearly increase in non-Asian audiences, they have held on to their identity as an Asian Film Festival rather than switch their name as Kim offers a few parting words. “For me,” she beams with glee, “I really appreciate it when I walk into a film and see lot of non-Asians watching the films. Many people have asked me change the name of the festival, saying you can’t grow if you don’t change it to the International Film Festival. They feel that this is just for Asians, and I say not. I feel if I change the name we are giving in to what they want us to do. What is wrong with it being Asian? Asian encompasses such a vast amount of the world. I feel it is our purpose to open ourselves up to the largest community possible, because our mission is to connect them to a human experience, regardless of who you are or where you are from.”
For information in regard to the films, dates and times, how to get to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center where the films are being shown, and other cool stuff about the SDAFF please visit www.sdaff.org.
Furthermore, for those who can’t get out to the festival, many of these Fant-Asia films are available for purchase at www.hkflix.com, as well are many of the martial arts films that are also being featured at the festival such as Donnie Yen’s YIP MAN and John Woo’s RED CLIFF, both films having their West Coast Premiere at the festival. (Check out the Film Festival program guide for the complete martial arts film listing.)
Three final cool notes about the festival that are totally impressive: Perhaps a small thing, but I’ve noticed over the years that audiences often bring their own kinds of snacks into the films, now that is something you never see in movie theaters; this year the festival offers for the first time an interactive booth, where filmgoers can get a free “Qi Reading” for their health and well being; and a final important thing, each year the SDAFF raises awareness and supports worthy causes during the films’ screening, this year their causes being Water Conservation and the Fold a Prayer Cancer Awareness Campaign. Bravo, bravo and bravo.