San Diego Asian Film Festival 2019


The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs this week from November 7 to 16, showing a wide variety of films from around the world. But don’t get too overwhelmed by your options — our A&E writers have helpfully compiled our thoughts on many of this year’s films.

Directed by Pei-Ju Hsieh

“Heavy Craving” is a drama about Jiang Ying-Juan (Tsai Jia-yin), a passionate cook whose obesity is often criticized by those around her. In an effort to force her to lose weight, Jiang’s mother enrolls her in an intense weight-loss program. Throughout her journey to lose weight, the audience witnesses the daily cruelty Jiang faces from the remarks of others. It is only her friendships with Wu (Yao-Jen Chang), a charismatic delivery man, and Xiao-Yu (En Wei Chang), a bright transgender student at her mother’s school, that keep her hopes up. Despite her efforts, however, the weight-loss program doesn’t seem to work, and Jiang is pressured to lose more and more weight until it becomes too much to handle.

This film manages to explore the topic of body shaming with a surprising amount of nuance. Familiar examples of fat-shaming and the criticism of strangers are very realistically portrayed, to the point that it can be hard to watch. One of the best aspects of the film is its intersectionality; there is a very accurate portrayal of the ways that overweight and obese people are affected by social criticism. Jiang is not only ridiculed and bullied for her weight — she is also not taken seriously as a victim of sexual assault and is perceived by others as lacking femininity. The film also tackles such serious issues as extreme dieting and food disorders in a realistic and complex manner. That being said, I did wish that there was a greater amount of clarity and exploration of the transgender student’s story, as they only receive a small amount of focus throughout. I was, however, ultimately satisfied at the lack of an overwhelmingly optimistic ending, as it portrayed that the problems that the main characters face are serious and an ongoing, constant battle.

— Laura Hatanaka, Senior Staff Writer

Directed by Arden Rod B. Condez

It only takes one click of a button to change somebody’s life. “John Denver Trending,” the directorial debut of Arden Rod Condez, follows the disastrous fallout that occurs when a video of a 14-year-old Filipino schoolboy, John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusao), beating his classmate over a false accusation goes viral. Accused of stealing his classmate’s iPad, Cabungcal becomes targeted by his entire community.

The marks of a new director are obvious in the rough sound editing and camerawork, but the film shines through its two main characters: Cabungcal and his mother. Scenes of Cabungcal quietly and steadily bearing the vitriol of his peers are peppered with small moments of grace and heartbreak. Whether it’s through a scene where his mother is the only person to defend him or one where he symbolically fails to rub a stain out of his shirt, the film both genuinely and effectively manages to tell a story of a young boy’s pain and a society’s cruelty.

While the film delivers a striking anti-bullying message, it also cuts deep into the toxicity of call-out culture, fake news, and even the abuse of power by authorities and police officers. Yet, “John Denver Trending” works in a subtle and careful enough way that it never comes across as preachy or emotionally manipulative. It’s a film that, set in our age of social media, asks you to not only reevaluate your behavior but also the things that you read and hear. As Cabungcal writes, “Please don’t judge the book without knowing what really happened first.”

— Natalie Tran, Senior Staff Writer

Directed by Hsieh Nien Tsu

A wacky comedy with an undercurrent of romance, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Show,” is a fun watch with a good premise, but falls incredibly short of most of its goals as a film. The concept is promising from the get-go. In a “Producers”-esque gambit, a Taiwanese TV station pulls the ultimate get rich quick scheme — illegally turning low ratings into more money. The rest unfolds as you might expect. The station underfunds the shows, fires its employees, and puts a low-ranking and unpromising employee in charge. However, there is one problem: Yeh, the new and underprepared head of programming, is actually very good at his new job and uses a ragtag team of interns to try to pull the station to new heights.

While definitely entertaining, the film simultaneously does too much to easily follow the story and has too little to say to justify its more serious moments — the elements of humor and sentimentality are there, but none of the real heart. The premise itself is also severely underplayed. The most compelling story thread is tracking Yeh’s own development throughout the film, and while that’s enjoyable enough, it has little to do with the film’s original draw: its concept. This all culminates into an entirely bizarre final act, which on top of an under-directed and over-acted action sequence, attempts to make a half-hearted comment on the importance of television in viewers’ lives. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” is a zany ride and an interesting look at the world of Taiwanese television, but it ultimately fails to deliver much beyond its basic premise.

— Chloe Esser, A&E Editor

Directed by Heiward Mak

In “Fagara,” Acacia (Sami Cheng) lives a typical life working an office job until she receives a call that her father has passed away. Still resentful of her estranged father, Acacia juggles the emotions of his death along with finding out that she has not one, but two half-sisters that her father kept secret from her. Acacia, Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), and Branch (Megan Lai) seem like an unlikely trio, comprised of a travel agent, a live-streamer, and a competitive pool player. However, despite their different upbringings and lives, they may not be as different as they once thought. When the three meet for the first time, while burning their father’s funeral rites, it feels like the creation of something new within the ashes. It’s at this moment where the three promise to save their father’s fagara hotpot restaurant, and the journey begins.

Watching Acacia, Cherry, and Branch navigate their newfound friendship is heartwarming as the audience is taken to Hong Kong, China, and Japan to catch glimpses of what their respective lives were like before. The trio comes to realize that it’s not about who their father met first, married first, or ended up with; it’s about reconciliation, and living with his choices. The three sisters pick up the pieces their father left behind and put them back together; ultimately, “Fagara” captures a beautiful story of sisterhood, found family, and, of course, hotpot.

— Jahfreen Alam, A&E Editor

Directed by Valerie Soe

“Love Boat: Taiwan” is a nostalgic trip through six weeks in the lives of young adults as they navigate freedom and identity in Taiwan. The documentary-style film compiles the stories of many second-generation Taiwanese individuals who experienced the program including the director herself, Valerie Soe, and the majority of those interviewed took part in the program in either the 1990s or early 2000s. The film immerses audiences in a
palpable atmosphere of 1990s popular culture as it interweaves still photos, home videos, collages, and more recent interview footage, divided by colorful caption shots.

Discussions of these topics are made to feel all the more genuine through the recorded readings of former students’ postcards, journal entries, and letters, as they recounted what they felt during their stay in Taiwan, and how those feelings contributed to their pride over their own identities today. While at times, the editing of the different narratives is disorienting in organization, the film was ultimately successful in its ability to capture root flavors of young adulthood, with the added layer of exploring ethnic identity and its role in the other exploratory aspects of youth culture, such as alcohol use, sexuality, activism, and educational liberation.

— Marina Lee, Contributing Writer

Directed by Ko Myoung-sung

Set in post-colonial Korea, the Oriental Teahouse in Myeong-dong, Seoul finds itself wrapped up in a murder case; as the film progresses, the mystery slowly unravels to unveil Korea’s underlying political turmoil after the Korean War. Ko Myoung-sung’s “The 12th Suspect” begins through the interrogation of 11 artists and poets who happen to be in the teahouse at the time of the questioning. This tension inside of the Oriental Teahouse exponentially heightens as suspicion continues to grow and more shocking truths become uncovered. Although at first glance it may appear to closely resemble Agatha Christie’s murder mystery story “Murder on the Orient Express,” Ko’s film morphs into an unexpected yet highly contested socio-political commentary. The film’s message is greater than the murder plot the audience becomes distracted by, and this initial storyline is only the first layer viewers must peel back in order to appreciate the complexity of its message. “The 12th Suspect” provides a window into the brokenness of the country after the Korean War and the ways in which this period of struggle had detrimental ramifications for individuals on all spectrums of class, regardless of their political beliefs.

— Erin Chun, Staff Writer

Directed by Trinh Dinh Le Minh

“Goodbye Mother” is a story of warmth. From shots of steaming food to buzzing portable fans to scorching looks between lovers, Trịnh Đình Lê Minh’s debut feature looks at the warmth of love within family and romance, giving an equally deserved weight to both. The film follows Nâu Vân (Lãnh Thanh), a young man from Vietnam who has been living abroad in the States for several years and who comes back home for the anniversary of his father’s death. Excited to see home again, he decides to introduce his boyfriend Ian (Võ Điền Gia Huy) to his family — without revealing the true nature of their relationship.

Equal parts tender, earnest, and heartbreaking, “Goodbye Mother” ends up feeling like a nostalgic memory of that simple but nourishing comfort dish your mother made for you as a child. By traveling back and forth between the perspectives of Nâu and Ian, the film explores weighty themes of filial obligation and love with startling nuance. In one particularly heart-wrenching sequence, after sleeping beside each other during the night, Nâu wakes up to his phone alarm in the early morning — a reminder to move back to his own bed before his family sees the two young men together. Meanwhile, Ian may be pained by watching his boyfriend struggle with coming out, but there is empathy, understanding, and love there as well. At the same time, the film is not without comedy. Nâu’s grandmother, in all her absentmindedness and loving acceptance, is a joy to watch. Through its masterful direction, exceptional actors, and a script bursting with sincerity, “Goodbye Mother” manages to feel gentle and transcendent all at once.

— Tanya Nguyen, Senior Staff Writer

Directed by Pema Tseden

Played as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s spotlight on Tibetan films, “Balloon” is the latest marvel of director Pema Tseden’s work. The film follows a small Tibetan family and their daily lives — getting drunk, breeding goats, confronting ghosts of romantic pasts, and playing in the vast plains of the Tibetan landscape. Set in the backdrop of strict Chinese family planning policy and a local shortage of available condoms, everything takes a dramatic turn once the family’s two sons innocently steal their parents’ condoms, using them as balloons, and the mother finds herself pregnant. Additionally mediated by the death of the grandfather and a belief that he will reincarnate as the mother’s next child, Tseden brilliantly depicts the tension between tradition and the mother’s autonomy in the face of state power. Tseden’s camera, with its pallid gray palette, is both haunting and poetic, capturing the mundanity and spectacular of everyday people, confronted with great odds.

— Justin Nguyen, Senior Staff Writer

Directed by Andrea Walter

“Empty by Design” strives to evoke the disconcertion of being out of place where one should feel at home, but ultimately falls short of its target. When Eric (Osric Chau), a Manila-born Hollywood stuntman, returns to the Philippines to shoot a movie, he finds that he’s become a foreigner to a country that he once considered home. As he struggles to come to terms with this, we also begin to follow Samantha, a local returning from studying abroad who similarly feels out of place in Manila, though it’s never made clear why. She’s hinted to have had some sort of relationship that she had to leave behind, but outside of a few missed phone calls, the film doesn’t really make an effort to explain why this person has such an effect on Samantha. Gradually the film brings both Eric and Samantha together, giving glimpses into a story that could have been great, had it been developed more thoroughly. However, while it is inconsistent at points, “Empty by Design” holds many great moments that will leave the viewer reflecting on what it truly means to be at home.

— Elias Roman, Staff Writer

Directed by Andrew Ahn

Released this past February, “Driveways” is a heartfelt film that examines the nature of friendship across generations and life experiences. The film centers on a shy boy named Cody (Lucas Jaye) who is traveling with his mother, Kathy (Hong Chau), to clean out the house of her recently deceased sister. However, once they arrive it becomes clear that this already emotionally charged task will be more difficult than they anticipated, as Kathy’s sister was a hoarder. Due to her cutting ties with her sister while Cody was younger, though, Kathy is confronted with the reality of her sister’s life while simultaneously examining the nature of their relationship through the items she kept. In all of this, Cody strikes up a relationship with Del (Brian Dennehy), a retired Korean war veteran who lives in the house next door. Del immediately begins to care for Cody, and what starts with simple gestures quickly evolves into more meaningful moments. This in turn leads to a fast friendship that helps both Cody and Del reflect on their own lives and relationships with others.

What makes “Driveways” such a touching experience is its cinematography. Each scene is carefully constructed so that viewers are able to linger in the setting and the characters’ feelings according to their emotional importance. The cinematography seems to emphasize life’s smaller moments as well as its more memorable ones, allowing viewers to feel as if they’ve briefly stepped into the scenes as an invisible observer. This technique also allows the perspectives of Kathy, Cody, and Del all to be shared with the same weight. Cody is revealed to be a boy struggling with the realities of being more sensitive and thereby isolated from children his own age. Kathy’s perspective shows her life as a grieving sister, but moreover, a single mother trying her best to offer her son a childhood. The depictions of Del’s relatively lonely life as a retiree and widower offers greater understanding as to why he bonds with Cody so quickly. By showing each of these unique viewpoints in the same narrative, a well-rounded story forms and expresses its themes of love, friendship, and family all the more powerfully. Overall, this film is a must-see for San Diego Asian Film Festival attendees for its heartwarming yet poignantly real tone.

— Daisy Scott, Editor-in-Chief

All images courtesy of San Diego Asian Film Festival.