The 2020 San Diego Asian Film Festival

Sean Gilman
Oct 24, 2020 · 9 min read

The San Diego Asian Festival has has in recent years become one of North America’s premiere showcases for Asian film, arguably surpassing the Vancouver Film Festival’s Asian program and the New York Asian Film Festival in terms of diversity and quality, as well as quantity. Because I’ve been stuck in my house with my children for the past. . . seven? eight? months, I haven’t been able to cover VIFF and NYAFF, or the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts, as I have in recent years. I’ve caught a few movies that played at them here or there, but one of the great joys of the last few movie years for me has been the few weeks spent covering these festivals, invariably finding classics I didn’t know existed (a Kamikaze Taxi or Bullet Ballet) along with low-profile indie films no one else bothers to watch that end up high on my year-end lists, earning me essential film critic coolness points (Hit the Night or Love and Goodbye and Hawaii or Hanagatami). I haven’t quite been able to do that with this year’s SDAFF, but I did catch up with four films I hadn’t seen before, and if you combine those with the six films in their program that I’d already seen, still just a small sample of their total offerings, you’ve got what is easily the best post-quarantine, small festival lineup I’ve seen this year. The festival is running online now through Halloween.

The Woman Who Ran

My SDAFF was pretty much evenly split between big names and newcomers. Three of them premiered pre-COVID at Berlin: new films from Hong Sangsoo, Tsai Ming-liang and Jia Zhangke. The Hong is The Woman Who Ran, which I discussed with Evan Morgan a few weeks ago at the Notebook when it played at the New York Film Festival. It’s the next step in his collaborations with actress Kim Minhee, one that has proven to be the most unpredictable, and arguably most fruitful phase of his career. It might even be a culmination of this phase, as I theorize in that discussion, combining the various thematic and stylistic threads of the preceding half dozen movies into one beguilingly simple and whole. Or it might not. Who’s to say where the future of Hongian cinema may lead.

Days

Tsai Ming-liang is a director every bit as consistent, some might say repetitive, as Hong Sangsoo, and it’s a joy to see him back in the feature film game after years of making shorts and non-fiction films. Days is, among all the movies I’ve seen this year, probably the one I most wish I could have seen in a theatre, with an audience. Not just for the fact that Tsai’s movies, with their long still takes and careful compositions play better on a giant screen where there are no distractions (I can’t go ten minutes here with interruption by either cats or kids), but also because one of the perverse thrills of seeing Tsai in a theatre is feeling the palpable disgruntlement of the festival-goers who had no idea what to expect. A sold-out crowd grumbling, if not walking out in disgust, at the final two shots of Stray Dogs is one of my favorite VIFF memories. I very much wonder how they would have reacted to the centerpiece sequence of Days.

That sequence, a long sexy massage, is one of the most lovely in Tsai’s work. Lee Kang-sheng, apparently reprising the role of Hsiao-Kang, a lonely cinephile in Taipei with a sore neck, hires Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) to give him a massage. It ends happily, literally, but bittersweetly. The two men, as traced over the film’s first hour, are equally alone in the city, wordlessly carrying-on about their days (cooking food, staring at the rain, walking around). They share a moment, and though it ends it lingers in the form of a song, a music box Hsiao-Kang gives to Non that plays the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight. Tsai, at his peak, was always a little bit ironic, a little distanced from the powerful emotions his films tap into, hiding them behind slow-motion dark comedy or minimalist obscurity. There’s a purity to the heartbreak in Days I’ve never felt from him before.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue and other Jia Zhangke Documentaries

SDAFF has paired Jia Zhangke’s latest film with his two lesser known mid-2000s documentaries, Dong and Useless. Dong was a companion piece to his 2005 film Still Life. In fact, the documentary, about artist Liu Xiaodong, preceded the fiction film, as Jia was inspired to write the latter after filming Liu in the Three Gorges Dam area. Jia’s cousin Han Sanming, the star of Still Life who has small parts in most of Jia’s other features, is one of the subjects Liu paints during the film. Divided in half, partly in the Three Gorges area and partly in Bangkok, Dong is mostly content to watch Liu at work and listen to him talk about art and life. But the film wanders off on tangents in both sections, as if Jia simply got bored and went in search of other subjects to think about. Useless, from 2007, is a little more focused, if ultimately no less frustrating. A story in three parts about the fashion industry, a long opening section details a designer’s scheme to create a line of clothes inspired by poverty, then the film pulls back to observe the workers who create the clothes and actually live in the kind of poverty the designer aestheticizes. It’s unclear exactly where Jia’s sympathies lie: to me the film is a scathing indictment of the cluelessness of the artistic class, others may disagree.

While Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue shares with Dong and Useless a focus on Chinese artists, in this case a series of writers, structurally it more properly belongs with his more well-known documentaries, 24 City and I Wish I Knew. All three track Chinese history from the 1930s through the Anti-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, and into the capitalist present. Like I Wish I Knew, Swimming spirals out from its central location (Shanghai in the former, Jia’s hometown of Fenyang and Shanxi province in the new one) as it moves forward in time, migrating across the country with its artist-workers but somehow always finding its way back home. Each of the films is a collection of interviews, with Jia’s sense of composition and pacing bolstering what could be just another boring talking-head documentary. But where 24 City adds a layer of meta-fiction (actors playing workers, workers recreating a famous Lumière short) and I Wish I Knew features melancholy interstitial moments of Zhao Tao wandering through the modern city, Swimming is almost too-bluntly literal in its realization of what has long been one of the primary themes of Jia’s work: the ways in which people turn personal stories into history, and the ways those stories do and do not conflict with the ones a nation wants to tell about itself.

My Prince Edward and We Have Boots

I reviewed Norris Wong’s My Prince Edward for InReview Online a few weeks ago when it played the New York Asian Film Festival. And I reviewed We Have Boots at the Notebook when it premiered at Rotterdam in early February. Both films are contenders for that ‘small movie I loved that no one else has seen’ slot on my favorite films of the year list. My Prince Edward is anchored by another fascinating performance from pop star Stephy Tang, building on her work in Chapman To’s The Empty Hands a few years ago, and in a much better film. Wong’s story of a woman’s indecision in committing to her fiancé (while she has to go through the bureaucratic hassle of dissolving her marriage of convenience to a Mainlander) has obvious echoes in Hong Kong’s political situation, but its mood of in-betweenness, of a life put on hold indefinitely, is no less resonant everywhere else in the world right now.

Evans Chan’s documentary We Have Boots was about as up-to-date as a theatrical documentary can get when I saw it, including events that happened mere weeks earlier. But now, eight months later, it seems like it all took place a lifetime ago. It’s a messy, anarchic chronicle of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests centering on court cases involving several of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella movement in 2017 and 2018 and including the new round of protests in 2019. As energetic and cacophonous as the protests themselves, the film reveals a movement less coherent than its opponents would argue, but united around the basic idea that a polity’s citizens should have a say in their governance. When I saw it earlier this year, there was still some degree of hope about the movement. Now, after first COVID and then the imposing of a draconian “national security” law on the Hong Kong populace, I imagine the film plays much differently.

Be Water and The Paper Tigers

Bao Nguyen’s Be Water aired this summer as a 30 for 30 ESPN documentary. It’s a story about Bruce Lee, more or less the official story about him as told by the Lee family and interpreted through the lens of what Lee means to the Asian American community. It’s packed with great archival material, but it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about Lee, a fascinating figure who could be approached from a number of different angles (not the least of which would be his impact on Hong Kong and the protests chronicled in We Have Boots, which merit only a passing aside in Nguyen’s film). A more interest take on Lee’s legacy, especially among the Asian American diaspora can be found in Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers, a story about three middle-aged former kung fu students who reunite to find out who, if anyone, killed their estranged master.

It’s a more subdued riff on Gallants, a decade-old Hong Kong film that combined nostalgia for cheap kung fu films with comic book special effects and a scene-stealing performance from icon Teddy Robin Kwan to become one of the decade’s best and most popular films (it came in fourth in the LoveHKFilm Best of the 2010s poll). The Paper Tigers trades in that films zaniness for a more realistic vision of middle-age, one dominated as much by fatigue as anything else. Alain Uy in particular brings a strong tired-dad energy to his performance as the one-time leader of the kung fu trio, now just trying to get by with his estranged ex-wife and son while shrugging off the revenge narrative that seemingly everyone wants to pin on him. The film’s comedy lies in the rhythm of its leads’ interactions, less hilarious than charming, and in their confrontations with a high school rival, a white guy who takes the ideology and mythology of kung fu much more seriously than they do. The fights are quite good — Tran counts Corey Yuen as a mentor, though their grounded realism bears little similarity to Yuen’s gonzo choreography. The film has some all-too-brief glimpses of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, further exploration of which would have given the film a grounding in a specific place and time, making more tangible the ways in which martial arts, and Bruce Lee’s vision of a universal kung fu, have filtered through American culture in ways both comic (the white guy) and productive (the standard ‘bettering one’s self through sports’ theme the film ultimately settles for).

Archiving Time

Finally, a festival wouldn’t be complete with an arts doc of some type. Every year at VIFF I go out of my way to catch something out of the critical mainstream, some kind of documentary about dance or painting or tea ceremonies. SDAFF provides this look at the Taiwan Film Institute’s restoration lab, a mellow 70 minutes with the craftspeople who work so diligently to preserve our rapidly deteriorating cinematic heritage. There’s nothing too technical involved (and I’m sure there’s people out there who quibble with their restoration work — there always is), but the film hit a strong nostalgic nerve for me simply with the way it captures the sound of film as it runs through projectors, or the ways the various workers respond to its smells (the dreaded vinegar syndrome of decomposition). It’s been almost a decade since I was last in a projection booth and what I miss most about it are those sensations, the whirs and the crackles and the smells. There’s no end in sight to this quarantine, but I very much hope to see film again someday.