San Diego Asian Film Festival 2020

The San Diego Asian Film Festival returned on October 23 to 31 as one the consistently largest exhibitions of Asian American and international cinema in the United States. The festival transitioned to a predominately digital experience for their 21st edition, providing accommodations and safety measures for COVID-19. Celebrate these acclaimed films with Arts and Entertainment, as we highlight our top picks from the festival. For more information on these films or the festival, visit sdaff.org.

“LOVE AND DEATH IN MONTMARTRE”
Directed by Evans Chan

“Love and Death in Montmartre” is a documentary film about the queer Taiwanese author, Qiu Miaojin, and her post-mortem role catalyzing queer movements in her home country. Interspersing reduced shutter-speed surrealism with a dynamic set of interviews, director Evans Chan explores the author through a variety of proximities. These range from a UC San Diego professor engaging with Miaojin’s work through translation, to one of her admiring French professors, to her closest and oldest friends. Within the foreboding frame that the author took her own life at the age of 26, the film paints a picture of a brilliant woman aiming to control multiple self-truths. These include assurance in her attraction to other women, yet immense loathing toward these expressions of passion. 

Partially told in voiceovers reading from Miaojin’s letters, the film examines her fierce determination to create works of art externalizing her truths, and strengthens the audience’s empathy with the complexity of her convictions. This is furthered by each interview, as Miaojin’s impact on people — regardless of how close they were to her — is palpable and eternal. Individuals were visibly overcome with emotion when speaking about her work, and it is both incredibly moving and painful to witness the longevity of her legacy when the author herself lived such a momentary life. Watch this documentary to feel, and to feel deeply, and to cautiously avoid romanticization. As Miaojin’s former classmate interprets her warning, “repressed emotions, once unleashed, could annihilate lives” (Chan).

— Marina Lee, Staff Writer

“STRAY”
Directed by Elizabeth Lo

“Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog,” reads the opening card of Elizabeth Lo’s “Stray.” Diogenes’ quote frames the rest of the 2020 documentary as it follows the daily routines of three stray dogs — Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal — in present-day Turkey. As viewers, we silently follow on the heels of the trio as they roam the urban streetscape of Istanbul searching for food, places to sleep, and companionship in both humans and other dogs.

It is clear they are wholly independent creatures in the way they weave naturally through cars and feet, oblivious to the bustling lives of those around. In every scene we hear the humdrum of human life: a couple arguing over Instagram, people watching political commentary on TV, women marching and protesting. But these snippets of society are treated by the film with equal, if even less, importance to moments where one dog chases a cat or another sniffs at a trash bag. With a camera that hugs the ground and audio in which people’s voices blend and fade into other sights and sounds, “Stray” slowly but masterfully shows the human world through the eyes and ears of a dog.

But “Stray” is not a condemnation of human behavior. We see a strong communal concern for the stray dogs; people feed them, name them, and even defend them from harm. Rather, Lo’s film prompts us to think about how to better protect the vulnerable. Parallels are drawn between the dogs and a group of young Syrian refugees as both groups eke out a living on the streets. By filming them without resorting to showing animal abuse or poverty porn, “Stray” brings compassion and respect to the unseen perspectives of society. 

In the end, the dogs in “Stray” remain free; they are never lost or missing. They belong to nobody but themselves, and this is both a strength and a right that we as humans can better practice for ourselves and others.

Natalie Tran, Senior Staff Writer

“EXPORT MY LOVE”
Directed by Jinglin Li

Jinglin Li’s documentary “Export My Love” follows matchmaker Jany Murphy in Boston as she coaches Chinese women through international online dating. Murphy, who is happy in her fourth marriage, believes that marrying abroad can be the turnaround for Chinese women who are often shunned due to the stigma that surrounds divorce and widowhood. Most of her clients are unable to speak English, but the language barrier is merely a small obstacle — Jany’s assistance with translating messages, writing WeChat texts, and presenting clients as knowledgeable about American culture are invaluable tools to the women she helps. 

“Export my Love” is a voice for Chinese women who are silenced by their position in society. It was eye-opening to watch these unique, individual women learn English and get coached through romantic interactions on WeChat — a sign of their commitment to their children — as they focus on finding fathers for them and creating stability during their school years. Moreover, the struggles of each woman is put into the context of the trials and tribulations of Jany’s overarching life story: a single mother escaping dangerous relationships to ultimately find love and safety with her current husband. Jany’s unwavering spirit and compassion for others in the face of struggle is inspiring, and the film does the important and necessary job of humanizing these women and drawing attention to the issues they face due to cultural stigmas. 

Deyshna Pai, contributing writer

“DEATH OF NINTENDO”
Directed by Raya Martin

“Death of Nintendo,” directed by Raya Martin, follows a group of young teens during the 1990s in the Philippines. The story is about the coming of age of Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.), Kachi (John Vincent Servilla), Mimaw (Kim Oquendo), and her brother Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla). The film takes on the usual coming of age movie tropes like young love, rejection, bullies, and general hormonal outbursts, and while these tropes are obviously not new, what made this movie stand out to me is how it tackles the cultural aspects of the time, the presentation, and how much I found myself relating to the film.

Early on, the movie establishes the idea of masculinity in the boys through actions and rituals considered to be masculine. These examples include smoking, looking at Playboy Magazines, and masturbating. However, the ritual that brings the boys fully into manhood is circumcision. Paolo initially shows hesitation to get the circumcision performed, but after an argument with his mother, he concludes that he needs to undergo this process in order to become a man. As a result, Paolo, Kachi, and Gilligan set off on their journey (with Mimaw tagging along) to find the barrio doctor to perform the ritual. 

Now, in contrast to the boys in the movie, the movie establishes that the girls’ coming of age tend to revolve around reproduction. The first instant of this is when Mimaw attempts to befriend Paolo’s love interest, Shiara (Elijah Alejo), and Shiara tries to explain a game called “kisses,” where a girl puts a pink bead and blue bead in a piece of cotton to see how many children they will have. 

The movie had a colorful yet muted color scheme, and whether it was Paolo’s room filled with video games and toys, or the hut at the base of Mt. Pinatubo that the group stayed in after the circumcision, every shot is satisfying to look at. Another aspect I enjoyed was the attention to the role of video games in the movie, and one of the details I really appreciate in this regard were the TVs in the movie. In most movies, the graphics on the TV are produced using a green screen and usually have clear graphics. In “Death of Nintendo,” however, the graphics on the TV were faded and discolored, and looked to be recorded with an actual camera of the time. Additionally, I also appreciated the role of the Nintendo Famicom in the film, as it represented the childhood of the group, and plays a pivotal role in the development of Paolo. When his mother takes his Famicom, his childhood, he feels the need to become a man, leading him to his journey. At the end of the film, the whole group plays with the Famicom one last time before the boys play on the Sega Genesis as they wait for Mimaw to come down with her luggage, representing the new stage of their life.  

While “Death of Nintendo” uses the same tropes of most coming of age movies, it uses them in a way that fits the social context of the time and makes for an entertaining watch.

Hector Arrieta, Senior Staff Writer

“ARCHIVING TIME”
Directed by Lu Yuan-chi

“I work with film.” Hearing that, one might immediately think of directors, actors, and other glitzy professions. To the people tasked with archiving film, this is the problem. As important as filmmakers are to creating culture, film archivists are vital to preserving culture.

“Archiving Time,” a 2020 documentary by Lu Yuan-chi, shows the laborious work of film preservationists and restorationists at the Taiwan Film Institute. Retrieving, sorting, and labeling hundreds upon hundreds of film reels is a tedious and time-consuming activity in itself, but the real effort is seen during the restoration process. Archivists wear masks and gloves and perform minute and precise alterations to celluloid strips like surgeons with scalpels. They also act as sound engineers, chemists, and digital artists. All of this work adds up. Restoring 10 minutes of film takes a month. High operating costs and a lack of space do not help and ultimately limit the Institute to restoring a few feature-length films a year.

Given this snail-like pace of work, film archivists seem to be the most patient people in the world. But in reality, they work with a massive pressure — time itself. It is a race against the clock as reels deteriorate, and once a reel begins to have an infamous vinegar smell, it becomes too late to save. It is heartbreaking to see when a worker enters a storage room containing thousands of film reels and is hit by the overwhelming smell of vinegar, knowing that there are thousands of reels that are dying before ever being restored.

As a result, film archivists try not to be emotional or biased when preserving films. When trying to decide what makes a film valuable or significant, they come to no satisfying conclusions. They treat all films the same, as cultural relics. Their selflessness and dedication to their work is admirable. 

So what is the fruit of their labor? “Archiving Time” highlights the restoration process of a black-and-white version of the National Anthem, one that used to play before movie screenings in theaters many decades ago. Once completed, the archivists showed the final product to a room of older people. According to these people afterwards, the restoration gave them back a collective childhood memory they had forgotten. It is for these moments that make the work of film archiving so culturally important and why ultimately greater appreciation and financial support is needed for their work.

Natalie Tran, Senior Staff Writer

“MOGUL MOWGLI”
Directed by Bassam Tariq

The summation film of 2020’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, Bassam Tariq’s debut feature film “Mogul Mowgli” follows the British Pakastani rapper Zed, played by the actor and film’s co-writer Riz Ahmed, as a sudden autoimmune disorder forces him to engage deeper in conversations regarding his culture. The film showcases thought-provoking concerns from immigrants of color regarding the significance of their names, and the refusal to cater to whiteness by sacrificing their own culture. These conversations are interjected into the lyrics of his raps, which become more and more abstract and profound each time, and into scenes of familial dialogue. For example, Zed’s whitewashing of his own name is a point of contention for the family, as he argues that he is empowered through the reclamation of his new nickname. However, his family compels him to process his reasoning deeper, as they find the roots of several of his behaviors to be seeded in an ingrained self-bias. As the film progresses through his gradual unearthing of the core aspects of his identity, the film is constantly bombarded with live performances of his slam poetry-like raps, and these jarring interruptions reflect the very essence of the film’s message itself: combative thoughts with one’s own identity is often an exhausting and disconcerting experience, but a necessary one, in order to confront both societal and inner misconceptions about culture and self. 

Hemmy Chun, A&E Editor

Images courtesy of Asian Movie Pulse and the San Diego Asian Film Festival.

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