San Diego Asian Film Festival returns to theaters

a man and woman sitting on separate chairs not communicating
A scene from the movie “7 Days” which will open the 2021 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
(Eduardo Fierro)

For over 20 years, the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) has had no shortage of highlights.

There was the time that the festival screened a short film from a director named Chloé Zhao, offering audiences a glimpse into a new talent who would go on to direct the Oscar-winning film, “Nomadland.”

There was also the time, at one of the early iterations of the festival, that it hosted the U.S. premiere of “Memories of Murder,” a film from a little-known South Korean director named Bong Joon-ho. Yes, the same director who went on to direct “Parasite.”

There was also the 2011 screening of Patrick Wang’s “In the Family,” which went on to be hailed by critics and is now considered a LGBTQ classic.

“That’s what we’d really like people to recognize,” says Brian Hu, the Artistic Director artistic director of Pacific Arts Movement (PacArts), the local organization behind SDAFF. “We pride ourselves on trying to be on the forefront of new talent throughout Asia — people who are pushing the boundaries of cinematic language, messing around with genres.”

Still, Hu is quick to point out that it’s not just international features and documentaries that will screen at the festival, which takes place at various venues throughout San Diego beginning Thursday. The festival also includes cinema from Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that, as PacArts Executive Director Kent Lee puts it, helps “bring people together over shared stories.”

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“During COVID-19, we all saw this alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment, racism and xenophobia,” Lee says. “Yes, we are a media arts organization, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have some responsibility and the ability to bring communities together, both within the work that we do and beyond it.”

For both Lee and Hu, the film festival’s return this year to in-person screenings after last year’s virtual festival is a cause for celebration on multiple fronts.

“For us, it’s recognizing that it’s been almost two years of living under COVID-19; recognizing that in that time frame there’s been a rise in anti-Asian hate, and that as we return to in-person programming this year, it’s more than just bringing people back to theaters for fun and films,” says Lee. “It’s recognizing that this is one of those rare opportunities where we can uplift and empower communities through these experiences of what they see together and the discussions they’ll have. That, more than ever, we feel like it’s a critical moment that we provide that space.”

As the creative director of PacArts and the principle curator of the films chosen for SDAFF, Hu sees in-person screenings as essential to the organization’s overall mission.

“We also want people to have conversations. We want to select the films that have people talking in the lobby,” says Hu, who adds that he loves to “eavesdrop in the back” of the theater to see how people react to the films he’s selected. “People’s reactions are a reflection of their humanity. Because we’ve been so sheltered from that for over a year, the craving has been there. There’s a craving for strangers. There’s something about being in the theater with others where we’re all anonymous, but we’re all anonymous together. My reaction to a film, the tears that I’m shedding, some stranger is shedding the same tears too.”

With over 130 films from over 20 countries — including 22 premieres and 15 West Coast premieres, some of which will be followed by Q&As with cast and crew —audiences have a wide variety of films to choose from. These are some of the highlights:

“7 Days”

Hu describes SDAFF’s opening night film as an “accessible and charming” Indian romcom that speaks to our current moment. Directed by Roshan Sethi, the story takes place during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It centers on Ravi and Rita, who are having an awful first date and are set to part ways when the news comes in that people should shelter-in-place and mass transit shuts down. It’s likely this will be the first time audiences see a film that directly addresses the pandemic. Hu says the premise, while funny, is still a “rom-com that has to adapt to this new social circumstance.”

Screens 7 p.m. Thursday at the San Diego Natural History Museum, 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park.


This will be San Diego audiences’ first chance to see the fantastical thriller from acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “Cemetery of Splendour”). The film, which takes place in Bogotá, Colombia, and stars Tilda Swinton, centers on a woman investigating a mysterious sound — and was influenced by the director’s own experience with Exploding Head Syndrome, which is a sleep disorder. The film won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the trailer looks downright eerie. Hu says Weerasethakul “could film a movie on Mars and we’ll play it.”

Screens 5:10 p.m. Saturdayand 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 at Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley, 7510 Hazard Center Drive #100, Mission Valley.

A scene from Josef Kubota Wladyka's film, "Catch the Fair One."
A scene from Josef Kubota Wladyka’s film, “Catch the Fair One.”
(Courtesy of Pacific Arts Movement)

“Catch the Fair One”

The centerpiece film of the SDAFF also has a trailer that is chill-inducing mostly thanks to star and co-writer Kali “K.O.” Reis’ performance as a boxer searching for her missing sister after receiving the news that she was kidnapped by human traffickers. Directed by Polish/Japanese-American director Josef Kubota Wladyka the story is about a Native American, which Hu says is ultimately “a film about allyship” and a “gripping drama of physical and emotional tenacity in the face of society’s worst.”

Screens 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 at Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley, 7510 Hazard Center Drive #100, Mission Valley.

“All About My Sisters”

The West Coast premiere of the documentary film about Chinese director Wang Qiong’s family is both a tender and confrontational reflection on China’s one-child policy. Qiong was recently listed in Filmmaker magazine as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Cinema,” and Hu says that of all the films this year from emerging artists, she “is definitely a talent that will be going somewhere.”

Screens 6:35 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3 at Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley, 7510 Hazard Center Drive #100, Mission Valley.

A scene from "Drive My Car," the closing film at the 2021 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
A scene from “Drive My Car,” the closing film at the 2021 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
(Courtesy of Pacific Arts Movement)

“Drive My Car”

The closing night film from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Happy Hour,” “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”) won Best Screenplay at Cannes this year and is Japan’s official submission for the Best International Feature prize at the Academy Awards. Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami (“Kafka on the Beach”), the film centers on a widowed actor who forms an unlikely bond with a female chauffeur tasked with driving him around. Hu calls the film a perfect closer because “it’s a very complete sort of movie” and an arthouse film that “lands in San Diego with a bit of stature.”

Screens 6:30 and 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5 at Angelika Film Center & Café, 11620 Carmel Mountain Road, Carmel Mountain.

Reel Voices Shorts

The SDAFF will screen dozens of short films and documentaries throughout the week, but the annual Reel Voices showcase will be the place to view young local talent. Selected from PacArts’ documentary filmmaking programs for local teens, the nine short films range from comedic to serious.

Says Hu: “Most kids these days grew up with cameras, so it’s now not so much focused on the technical aspects of filmmaking, but asking them new cutting edge questions like: Why are you making films? How do you make films that engage your community? What does it mean to make socially relevant films? That’s not what they’re learning when they’re picking up their iPhones. That’s not what TikTok is teaching them.”

Screens 12 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 at Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley, 7510 Hazard Center Drive #100, Mission Valley.

San Diego Asian Film Festival

When: Various times from Thursday through November 6

Where: Various venues throughout San Diego County

Tickets: Free to $16 for individual screenings; $60 for six-pack of films; $195 to $295 for all-fest pass (includes front-of-line privileges, receptions and award gala admission, and commemorative program).