Positive spirit runs through San Diego Asian Film Festival


The San Diego Asian Film Festival, now in its 19th year, will strike an upbeat tone with its opening and closing selections. Each screening will be followed by a party featuring dishes inspired by the food-related films. The centerpiece entry is an affirmative documentary celebrating forward-looking, science-minded teens.

“There are so many bad vibes in the air,” said festival artistic director Brian Hu. “We’re not shying away from serious elements, but it is nice to recalibrate on Day One. All three films are pretty positive. That must have been what we were craving, and we hope the audience has been craving that, too.

“At the same time, we want to remind people that much is at stake. We want to think globally when many are looking inward.”

It would be hard not to think globally when attending the festival, which runs from Nov. 8-17. With screenings in six theaters across the city, it will feature 160 films from 20 countries in 28 languages or dialects. Just the opening, closing and centerpiece films are vivid examples of the variety.

“Little Forest,” a 2018 cinematic version of a popular manga, launches the series on Nov. 8 at Balboa Park’s San Diego Natural History Museum. Yim Soon-rye, a well-established director in South Korea, will discuss her film after the screening.

“She doesn’t get a lot of profile outside of Korea,” Hu said. “To honor her as a creative force, we also will show her 2001 film ‘Waikiki Brothers.’ This new film, ‘Little Forest,’ is about making meals out of what you have – local ingredients, planting your own food.”

At the after-party, the “film-to-table” event will feature the cooking of San Diego’s Chi family, which has several area restaurants including Dduriba, Bing Haus and Grandma’s Tofu. In similar fashion, for the closing night’s “film-to-table” event, also at the Natural History Museum, Zen Modern Bistro will serve dishes inspired by “Ramen Shop.”

Focused on immigration and the importance of food in preserving culture, director Eric Khoo follows a Japanese chef on his search for his Singaporean mother’s soup recipe.

The centerpiece film, “Inventing Tomorrow” a U.S.-made documentary by Laura Nix, will screen at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley on Nov. 11. It’s about teens from various countries pursuing environmental projects for the world’s largest science fair. Hu said watching “Inventing Tomorrow” gave him a lot of hope.

“At the fair, you see teens from different countries talking about to each other about their projects,” Hu said. “What better allegory for our festival than that – working across political and religious lines in such a sweet, innocent way? I hope these are the kids who will lead the world.”

The festival’s Taiwan Showcase, which has been held in conjunction with the University of California at San Diego for the last seven years, will feature two virtual reality films. Screenings are at the UC San Diego Price Center Theater and are free for UC San Diego students, faculty and staff members.

Hu – whose parents are from Taiwan and have returned there to live – has written a book to be released this month about cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He called the fact that UCSD approached the festival about collaborating on Taiwanese cinema was “fortuitous.”

“Together we can dig more deeply into Taiwan,” he explained, adding that professors write the showcase into syllabi or offer it as extracurricular credit.

“If you watch all the films in the showcase, you can get a real feel for Taiwan. We’ve gained a little fame among Taiwan’s filmmakers that this is a place to show your work. We respect what they’ve done and they trust their films will be handled with care.”

The two virtual reality films to be screened are Lai Kuan-Yuan’s “The Train Hamasen” and John Hsu’s comedy, “Your Spiritual Temple Sucks.”

Among the festival’s many not-to-be-missed films is famed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” which won the 2018 Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In the Asian-American Panorama section, Patrick Wang’s two-part “A Bread Factory” explores a community arts space threatened by gentrification.

“We don’t screen just one genre,” Hu said. “That’s the bedrock - the collectivity of different spirits and world views. We’ve been around 19 years in the independent sphere. These filmmakers have little to lose so they make the movies they want to make.

“Of the 160 films we screen, half of them are submissions. We get about 500 submissions. The others are found by us doing recruiting, going to festivals. Some are too new to be submitted or they just played Toronto which just ended. The marketing team hates me because I often hold them up so I can get a recent film.”

Titles of the short-films groupings include “Animation Sensation,” “Not Safe for Wussies” and “Reel Voices.” “Reel Voices” is a collection of shorts created by San Diego high school students who participated in the festival’s annual filmmaking summer camp.

The festival, which is organized by the nonprofit Pacific Arts Movement, has expanded from six to seven venues this year, adding Edwards Mira Mesa Stadium.

“This is very important to us,” Hu said. “A lot of Asian Americans live in Mira Mesa, which is tough to get in and out of. For us, as a socially minded organization, we should be where they are at. This is part of our mission: to bring the festival to the neighborhood.”

Wood is a freelance writer.

The 19th San Diego Asian Film Festival

When: Nov. 8-17Where: UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley (headquarters), 7510 Hazard Center Drive No. 100, and five other theaters in San DiegoTickets: $12 general admission; $40 opening and closing nights; $15 centerpiece film; $60 festival six-pack; $195 all-festival badge. Student, military, senior and group discounts available. Some programs, including all weekday programs at 4 p.m., are free.Phone: (619) 400-5911Online: