Out from the Ashes of the San Diego Asian Film Festival

sdaff-logo.jpgFinally, after a freaky week of fires, evacuations and bright red skies at night, things are settling down in San Diego, and so it is with great joy that my mind has settled and I can fill everybody in on what turned out to be the first film festival that I have ever attended. How appropriate is it for me (an Asian film fan, gladly boasting a video collection of over 3300 Chinese martial arts films – almost half of them on betamax) that my first festival was the 2007 SAN DIEGO ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL. It was also an honor to have the festival ask me to be an official blogger, providing me with a press pass, and of course now that I live in San Diego, I was there 8 days out of the week and took in about 24 films.  As they say in mandarin Chinese, “Hao” (good). 
>One of the major highlights was meeting and speaking with George Takei after he gave a 90-minute presentation to a glowing audience that was not only stuffed into Theater 6 of the Ultrastar Hazard Theatre in Mission Valley, but it was also simulcast worldwide to millions of Trekkie and HEROES fans.   Add to that the no holds barred moderator and interviewer, local news celeb and the festival’s founder Lee Ann Kim, of which you could tell that Takei was enamored with her jovial antics and poignant comments, and this was an afternoon such that, if you missed it, you missed a lot. Fortunately, I was allowed to flash the ol’ tape recorder on and get a few pics.  So once I transcribe the thing, in my next installment, I’ll share the highlights of what is dubbed as THE TREK OF GEORGE TAKEI: AN INTIMATE DISCUSSION.  Some of the stuff you may have heard before and some of the stuff was exclusive for the festival. 

Angpamana

To my fellow connoisseurs of Asian horror/sci-fi/fantasy, perhaps the biggest surprise to me at the festival was the Filipino horror film ANG PANAMA.  I had actually imagined that it would have come across with that low production schlock look, like the Chinese horror films from 30 or 40 years ago…not. <>ANG PANAMA was well directed, the acting rivaled anything I’ve seen in Hollywood horror films, and the story was gripping. What makes Asian horror films uniquely Asian is that Asian filmmakers tap into local folklore, urban legends of creatures that stalk the Asian night and tales of whisper and gore, things that have shaped the spiritual enigmas of each culture that Western moviegoers suck up like a starving vampire. Director Romeo Candido keenly tackles several legendary creatures of Filipino folklore such as duwende (dwarfs), manananggal(winged, half-bodied vampires that feed on unborn fetuses directly from the human female’s womb), aswang (liver-loving, blood-sucking monsters disguised as humans; sound like many Hollywood studio execs) and the kapre (tobacco-smoking giants that live in mango trees). The night I saw ANG PANAMA, it was I who became a vampire; the difference is that this film did not suck. One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the anting-anting, a mysterious Filipino amulet that held the key for the film’s hero to imbibe invincibility in order tackle evil. Filipino warriors of yore maintain a supernatural intention behind their fighting, which gave the warriors unceasing power; a warrior could psyche themselves up into undertaking suicidal missions with the combination of the anting-anting and the equally secretive Orascion(special prayers).  Candido adds in his own anting-anting twist that is not only creepy but is also an effective part of the story. The festival’s anime feature 5 CENTIMETERS A SECOND, the speed of which a cherry blossom petal falls to the ground, was touching as it was epic.  Through three vignettes, the movie traces the tragically soppy love life of Takaki from childhood to adulthood, which makes you stop and think if there was anyone out there that loved you but never told you and so you both missed out on the possibility of what could have been.

I'm a Cyborg But That's Okay

As I was watching the much-anticipated latest film by Korean director Park Chan-wook I’M A CYBORG BUT THAT’S OK (a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST-ish character study of the various mixed personalities that inhabit a South Korean psychiatric home), I also noticed many blank faces in the audience. Maybe it was me, but I wasn’t getting this film.  In as much as I loved the hilariously sickening machine gun sequence inside and outside the psychiatric ward, for the life of me, I could not figure out what was the point of this movie. 
This is the classic example of why you never ask a Hollywood producer like Jerry Bruckheimer (like I did on the set of ARMEGEDDON), “What is the film’s message?” He quickly snapped at me blurting, “You want a message? Get it from Western Union.”
So I relegated myself to the visual sight gags, did not look for any deep-seeded meaning in what was tossed in front of me and, when I got home, checked my mailbox for a letter and waited up for a telegram, of which neither came. 
HEAVEN IS TOO FAR AWAY was an intriguing collection of short films that dealt with what happens during the afterlife when you don’t end up in Heaven or Hell, where the calamity of the unknown infiltrates one’s very own roaming soul. 
“Egg Ghost” – a surreal Korean film about faceless female spirit clad in a draping white ghostly gown stalking and then stealing the face of some unlucky inquisitive soul – is unsettling, even though it is claymation. 
The short MU, grabbed my attention as well, a fable based on an age-old Japanese story about a traditional Japanese tattoo artist, grittily portrayed by Yutaka Takeuchi.  The beauty of shorts is that you can take “nothing” and make it something (if you watch MU, you’ll know what I am hinting at). The opening is pretty freaky because it looks like we are watching the life or death of Seiji (Takeuchi) through a tear in either a paper wall or perhaps a fleshy hole in a body left by a removed tattoo. As Seiji drifts through his nebulous existence, like Seiji, we are precariously attempting to demystify where he is and what the heck is wrong with him. 

The Victim

Since the success of THE EYE from the Pang Brothers, Thai horror movies have come out of the proverbial closet.  I haven’t seen many of them, but the festival’s nod to Thai horror’s increasing popularity freaked me out with THE VICTIM, a film that quickly gets into the nitty-gritty of ghosts and possessions, and just keeps piling on the eye-covering chills, which are further exacerbated by the constant moans and shrills of the sound track. 
Then just when you think it is over, the credits are running, these filmmakers felt the sneaky urge to get you one more time by picking out certain movie stills from the film and pointing out to you that the film was actually haunted by real ghosts as the images of shadowy faces can be seen in the background of the production stills.
It was a good spine-tingle to shudder in the end of the festival.  I’m already looking forward to next year.  If the cinematic Halloween treats are just as tasty as this year’s, I highly recommend that you grab your candy bag and come to San Diego.
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