San Diego Asian Film Festival spans genres in 150-plus films from 20 countries


To say the 18th San Diego Asian Film Festival offers variety is a Technicolor understatement. Genres range from horror, comedy and drama to documentaries and animated movies. Characters include lovers, veterans and teens to extraterrestrials and monsters.

The largest Asian film festival on the West Coast, SDAFF will present more than 150 films from 20 countries in 30 languages in six local venues from next Thursday to Saturday, Nov. 18.

“If you’re a lover of indie film, you’ll see it here,” said Kent Lee, executive director of Pacific Arts Movement (Pac Arts), the nonprofit that presents SDAFF. “If you want Hollywood-type blockbusters from Asia, it will be here. Half of our audience is non-Asian. You can find a little bit of everything.”

The opening and closing films of the festival will be shown at the Natural History Museum’s Kaplan Theater in Balboa Park. Both events will feature food prepared by local chefs during the screenings.

SDAFF’s opener will be “Oh, Lucy,” a comedy about a middle-aged woman in Tokyo who leaves her dull office life for San Diego (unfortunately, Los Angeles subbed for our city).

“A Better Man,” the closing film, will be shown Nov. 17. The intensely personal documentary is by Attiya Khan, who films a conversation between herself and her real-life, former abusive boyfriend.

“Their remembrances are so different,” said Brian Hu, Pac Arts’ artistic director and SDAFF’s cinema selector-in-chief. “When I was at the Cannes Film Festival, I saw no movie that came up to the emotional level of ‘Better Man.’ It’s a very timely piece. Attiya will be here, and it’s bound to be powerful.”

Anyone who has followed #starringJohnCho and #starringConstanceWu online knows that these viral campaigns have encouraged leading roles for Asian-American actors in Hollywood. Both actors will appear (onscreen only) at SDAFF. Wu has a major role in the lesbian-centric ensemble comedy “The Feels.”

“This proves Constance can be a lead,” Hu said. “The film’s director is not Asian. Why can’t other people believe that these two could star in feature films?”

Two John Cho movies will screen at SDAFF. One is a world premiere of a new restoration of “Shopping for Fangs,” a comedic thriller about four intriguing Asian-American 20-somethings (take notice, fans of LGBT cinema and werewolves).

In the indie drama “Columbus,” Cho plays a character who tries to sort out his relationship with his ailing father as he develops an intimate friendship with a young woman.

“That’s something so familiar to all of us,” Hu noted. “Most actors have had family and romantic relationships on screen. Why can’t John Cho? Here, we’re showing ‘Fangs’ from 1997 and ‘Columbus’ from 2017. This is definitely #starringjohncho.”

The jampacked festival’s red-carpet awards gala is on Nov. 11. Other highlights include podcast panels, which will be recorded onsite. One podcast will feature Hu, his co-host, Ada Tseng, with guest — and SDAFF founder — Lee Ann Kim.

The festival continues even after closing night. On Saturday, Nov. 18, four movies will be screened at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts.

If there’s an overriding theme to the festival, Hu said, it is nostalgia, survival and home. He points to this year’s logo, designed by Carolyn Ramos, as representing this theme.

“We have gotten a lot of positive response to the logo,” he said. “The rice cooker is a symbol of family. In a way, it’s an inside joke. Rice is a staple in all Asian cultures. Asia is so diverse, but this seems universal.

“I like the logo because it’s a little retro with the neon lights. We want to be pop-culture savvy. Rice cookers haven’t been a part of mainstream pop culture. Why not?”

Focus on veterans

“This year we have a trio of war films,” said SDAFF Artistic Director Brian Hu. “I don’t plan those things, but it’s exciting when there are trends. These three films are from different perspectives and from different countries. But they all demonstrate the more universal feelings of sacrifice and how society treats veterans after they come home.

“One’s made in Micronesia (“Island Soldier”) and has a San Diego connection,” Hu explained. “Another, ‘My Enemy, My Brother,’ follows two men who fought against each other in the Iran-Iraq war and become friends after relocating to Vancouver.”

The third veteran-themed film is “Youth,” which explores China’s Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese war through the eyes of a young dance troupe.

Screenings will be held at UltraStar Mission Valley

  • “Island Soldier,” Nov. 13 (with the filmmaker)
  • “My Enemy, My Brother,” Veterans Day, Nov. 11 (with the two veterans featured in the film)
  • “Youth,” Nov. 15, Nov. 16

18th San Diego Asian Film Festival

When: Thursday, Nov. 9, to Saturday, Nov. 18

Where: UltraStar Mission Valley, SDAFF’s home base, 7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley, plus five other venues throughout San Diego.

Tickets: $10 to $12 general admission; $8 panels; $40 opening and closing night films; $60 festival six-pack; $295 all-festival pass. Discount prices for Pac Arts members. Check website for free programs.

Phone: (619) 400-5911


Potluck Podcast Collective

The Potluck Podcast Collective, a group of podcasters who discuss all things Asian American, will be at SDAFF on Saturday, Nov. 11. These live-recording events will allow the audience to observe and participate in podcasts before they are aired.

Wood is a freelance writer.

Wood is a freelance writer.