16th Annual - SDAFF LogoWe’ve just finished Halloween, gained an extra hour on the proverbial space time continuum and El Nino is going to hit Southern California with inclemency worse than Sharknado 4. What more could possibly make So-Cal the place to be? As nature warns Pacific Coast residents to buy flood insurance, San Diego announces the arrival anon of  the 16th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which will flood the city with 130+ films from 20 Asiatic countries over a 10-day period, November 5-14. Of note, SDAFF is now considered to be the largest showcase of Asian cinema on the West Coast and this year’s festival is featuring some far out fantastical films.

Though Korean American Lee Ann Kim, the Pacific Arts Movement and SDAFF’s founder and executive director, has parlayed more of the SDAFF’s film programming into the hands of artistic director Brian Hu, in this time of more correct eating habits, she’s become somewhat of a cinematic vegetarian. Kim tranquilly analogizes, “My involvement in the festival is that there are so many ingredients in the salad and I’m basically the dressing…once it’s tossed, it tastes fantastic. I connect the dots and make sure that people have the right resources and right direction.”

The Assassin - 1One of this year’s directions is the heralded return of SDAFF’s love affair with fant-Asia films, the only festival this year that will deliver movies wrapped in a glorious array of genres that is sure to rock your soul, craze your brain and increase your blood pressure to 150/freaked out. To me, the ultimate in fant-Asia is cutting edge period piece, martial arts extravaganzas, and what better film is there to begin the fant-Asia aspect than with a movie in the running for an Academy Award for best foreign language picture, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015). Other times this has happened for kung fu films is with King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). The difference being for Taiwanese auteur director Hou, is that he received the Best Director award at Cannes this year for Assassin, as accolade-giving critics worldwide have averred that it’s not your typical wu xia epic.

With Taiwanese roots and in his fifth year with SDAFF, Chinese American Hu gleefully elaborates, “In the past we’ve tried to show martial arts films that promote different kinds of artistry, like special effects, wire work, use of 3-D and of course fight choreography. So we can see how these filmmakers are thinking when it comes to this genre and how they can do something innovative with it.

The Assassin -2 -yin-niang“Audiences will watch this film because it has such a bad-ass title. Yet it’s a film that’s daring as it almost has no action, almost no dialogue, almost no story, but it has an incredible amount of visual beauty and powerful ways of developing characters through peeking at them. As you watch it, you get a feeling that this is probably what it looked like during the Tang Dynasty and what it was like to spend 10 minutes with someone from that era. Martial arts films are typically wall-to-wall action, but Assassin reminds us that action happens in the context of loneliness, sadness and social pressures that lead you into a dark corner. Hou says that assassins get in there really close, kill, then get out of there and that’s it. No posing. This is what makes this a beautiful film.”

Sounds to me like the fights are what we used to see in old Akira Kurosawa samurai films and in the Shaw Brothers auteur director Chu Yuan’s kung fu classics of the 1970s. If you’ve seen Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), the big finale duel is one simple sword-slashing strike to his opponent’s heart.

Deadman InfernoYakuza vs. Zombies pretty much samuraizes what to expect with the Xtreme Japanese film Deadman Inferno or as it is called in Japanese, Z Island. Z stands for Zeni, a place where opposing families of yakuzas, promiscuous karate teen girls, a dorky doctor, a reggae-rocking angler and a castaway cop all attempt to Gilligan Island around running zombies…and in a nutshell, zat is zee problem.

Hu shares that it’s been a while since SDAFF has screened this kind of film mainly because the genre is clichéd, extremely misogynistic and they just kept piling up to the point that their novelty wore off. “However,” he joyfully reveals, “Deadman is hilarious and touching, because it’s about a family coming together because of zombies and they’re all forced to stand up for each other. In regard to this genre of films, there’s a lot of funny and random humor in Deadman and it’s also the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s not as ultra violent like past productions but it gives you all the kicks you need.”

TheWhisperingStar_mainWEB-1540x866According to Hu, Asian cinema isn’t always known for sci-fi fantasy film, so what happens is that fantasy now seeps into other genres. The Japanese film Whispering Star is about a delivery-robot who goes all UPS (Unidentified Person in Space) and browns from planet to planet dropping off packages for human clients. Roosting behind her intergalactic console like a delivery pigeon waiting to send messages via tweets, delivery fem-bot fantasizes about the world of humans, so close in parallel dementia, yet so far apart in space and far away in each others memories.

Then there’s the Korean romantic fantasy Beauty Inside that poses the scenario; imagine waking up every morning with a different face and then imagine falling in love with somebody, only to know that their first impression will be the last. It’s Groundhog Day (1993) meets 50 First Dates (2004). The Korean comedic fantasy Wonderful Nightmare spices with Heaven Can Wait (1978) gimchi when a city’s top attorney dies in an accident, but is given a second chance at life if she can trade places with an ordinary mother for one month.

20-USE-COVERWEB-1540x866Hu posits, “Whispering Star is really an art film that uses sci-fi to express it’s own idea of humanity. Beauty Inside is a Korean romantic comedy, which these days are a dime a dozen, but they use a fantasy scenario to liven up the genre. It’s a high concept, geek gimmicky set up and asks the question, if you’re a different face everyday, how can you go on a second date? Yet it’s such an achievement in direction because the director had to orchestrate so many performances as one character and make them seem like one character by so many different actors…man, woman, old and young…and then make us feel that we are watching the same person. It’s an incredible way of having us empathize with a certain perspective of love and how we as the audience spend time with a character that must ask herself, ‘Can I fall in love with someone that has a different face every day.’ To have us empathize with this kind of romantic possibility is so brilliant.”

Love and Peace copyKorea strikes again with a body switching Heaven can Wait (1978) thematic device in Wonderful Nightmare, with a Seoul twist where Gangnam Style is perhaps more popular that Chubby Checker’s The Twist. And speaking of music let’s not forget Japan’s Love and Peace. Hu chimes in, “This film converges on the rock operas of the 1970’s and ’80s…there’s something very sci-fi-ish with David Bowie, and this film evokes all of that with it’s Japanese sensibility of fraudness. Yes, it has talking turtles, cats and all kinds of other things that can talk too. It’s a lot of fun, it’s bonkers, and has great music. Director Sion Sono wrote the songs himself and it’s something he’s wanted to do for decades.”

Finally, three and a half fant-Asia films on the fringe. Directed by Vietnamese American Viet Nguyen, the comedy horror thriller Crush the Skull is about a couple in love that needs some fast cash and thus they break into a house that has no exit, no cell phone reception and no explanation for the torture pit they discover. Hu smilingly shares, “It’s seriously scary, wickedly off-kilter, and the funniest Asian American film in years.”

Atomic-Heart_10small-1500x866Don’t look now, but Iran explodes into the festival with director Ali Ahmadzade’s surreal loose comedy where fantasy and sci-fi seep into the film in a highly unusual way…it’s a blast but not a bomb. Atomic Heart is about two drunk party girls trying to drive home after a big night on the town who fail miserably as laced with Farsi trash talking, they have a zany run-in with a Saddam Hussein look-a-like but a saving run-out with a George Clooney doppleganger. It’s a culture that’s out of our minds and world, but a film that gets into our hearts and soul.

Beware the oleo…wait that’s butter…I mean the olio of the experimental, hybrid documentary of Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin that spreads contemporary and future Singapore like margarine on toast. With a queer eye from a 2066 cult member surviving guy that melds with a Malay cinema actress, the Shaw Brothers studios, and enforcers, and  exiles/ghosts, and activists…oh my, who are all ineptly but affably infantile, Snakeskin may rattle your thoughts and constrict your mind so much that I recommend you take an anti-hissss-tamine to the theater.

SWAP-770x433And finally the Filipino film Swap, which is not so much a fant-Asia film as it is a suspense thriller that is a must see for filmmakers looking for something uniquely edgy with cinematic savvy not often seen in film history. Hu explains, “This is a weird story. As it turns out, in one night I was watching two Filipino films both of which were single take movies. One wasn’t successful but with Swap, something new was  happening here. There’s been single take films but this one is full of flashbacks and dream sequences. You can only imagine how the actors are rapidly changing clothes off screen and getting sets ready on the run. The filmmakers will be at the festival and we all want to know how many takes did it take to get it right. The crazy thing is, Swap is based upon the director’s own history of being a kidnapped baby back in the ’80s.”

Fearless festival leader Kim adds, “How does this experience of being kidnapped as a child manifest it’s way into such a film? You have to say to yourself that these artists, don’t just do it for fun but do it because they have to do it…they have to do it.”

Deadman Inferno-2For information regarding films, dates and times, and how to get to their respective venues please visit One neat thing that SDAFF has, and it’s something that no other film festival in the world does, is that there will be an interactive booth from Saturday, November 7 through Monday, November 9, where filmgoers can get a free Chi Reading for their health and well being.

Kim’s final words, “Over the years, I’ve noticed that our audiences, like life-changing, inspiring and uplifting stories. Who doesn’t? They do well at the festival and that tells me that we have the right audience because our organization is not only here to entertain and inspire, but to also build a more passionate society, and part of that is to give inspiration, and to expose audiences and open their minds to more new experiences. I’ve been through multiple generations of people here at Pac-arts and I’m grateful for this work, and I believe I’m in the right place at the right time right now. The people that we have here are so special to me and this festival is our love letter to the community.”

Wes Craven dead at 76

Wes Craven, father of Freddy Krueger, has passed away. The writer-director helmed a variety of horror films, thrillers, and some non-genre work during a career that stretched from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in 1972 to MY SOUL TO TAKE in 2010. Other titles included THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, SHOCKER. After a career ebb, he bounced back in the late 1990s with the SCREAM trilogy.

His most seminal work, however, was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), which unleashed dream-demon Freddy Krueger on the world. The film launched a franchise that led to multiple sequels, a short-lived TV series, and a 2010 remake. Craven was at times critical of the direction in which the character was taken in later films; after the original film, he was directly involved only with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, a self-referential film, in which Craven appeared as himself, while his creation seemed hell-bent upon penetrating the “real” world.

Craven died of a brain cancer. He was 76. Variety has details.

Psycho Gothic Lolita (2010) – review

Blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot.

Psycho Gothic LolitaPSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is one of those films that must be seen to be believed – which is not the same as saying it “must” or even “should” be seen. Essentially, this is a vaguely futuristic, Japanese rip-off of KILL BILL, with a nod toward a Tokyo fashion trend that you can probably surmise from the title, filled with sound and fury but signifying very little. It’s not all bad, but the good parts can – and pretty much do – fit into the trailer.

After a briefly glimpsed exterior suggesting we’re in one of those gloomy movie worlds that might be the future or just an alternate reality, PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA gets immediately down to business, with its title character graphically killing a bunch of people in a nightclub before facing off with the female owner in a vengeful duel to the death.

Just in case you’ve never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie, I will not pause to explain that this sequence is essentially a reprise of the Crazy 88 episode from KILL BILL, VOLUME 1. I will also pause to explain that, individually and/or collaboratively, director Go Ohara and writer Hisakatsu Kuroki are no Quentin Tarantino. Taking cues only from the over-the-top violence, they do not bother to replicate KILL BILL’S time structure; instead, after the initial carnage, they settle into the monotonous rhythm of a bad porno movie, in which every scene of spewing bodily fluids is alternated with a dull dialogue scene that “advances” the “plot.”

Which amounts to this: Yuki (Rina Akiyama” and her father Jiro (Yurei Yanagi) are seeking revenge for the murder of Yuki’s mother. They talk about this during the plot scenes, without every really saying anything important. There is no trail of clues they seem to be following, nor any particular long-term strategy; they’re just plugging away at this one killing at a time. One presumes they are working their way up the pecking order of villains until they get to numero uno, but it scarcely matters.

Consequently, after the first ten minutes, you’ve pretty much seen the movie; everything else is repetition, except insofar as the fight scenes can upgrade the insanity with ever more outrageous invention, some of which are, admittedly, worth a chuckle (such as an umbrella that shoots like a rifle).

The gore effects – the real star of the show – are, of course, way - way way beyond belief, which is good, because the watery read geysers are too fake to induce nausea, allowing us to laugh as Yuki slices and dices her way through her various targets.

There is a tiny break in the monotony when one of Yuki’s victims is being attacked by some thugs for unexplained reasons: Yuki must first kill the attackers before killing her victim. I guess the irony of her “rescuing” someone only to kill him is supposed to be amusing, but the effect would have been more effective if this had been the opening scene, before we knew what to expect from her.

The movie picks up a bit when Yuki confronts another young, hot female warrior, whose weapon serves double-duty as a cell phone, allowing her to chat with her boyfriend during the no-holds-barred death duel. It’s not much, but when you’re in a desert, any drop of water feels like an oasis.

In the last reel we get a “development” that is no doubt intended to suggest that there really is a “plot” to be developed: we finally learn the motivation of the murderers who killed Yuki’s mother. It has something to do with mom being  a demon or something, whose energy of power the murders wanted (don’t quote me on this – the exposition was so perfunctory that I couldn’t bring myself to commit the details to memory).

This leads to the big finish, in which Jiro is kidnapped and put on a guillotine, forcing Yuki into a situation in which she figurative fights with one hand tied behind her back – or in this case, one hand holding a rope to prevent the blade from dropping on her father’s neck.

That this sounds suspenseful is a testament to my poor writing skills, which if they were up to par would clarify that the absurdity of the sequences utterly squelches any rooting interest. As Yuki battles back and forth, advancing and retreating, the blade goes up and down so many times that when it finally does fall, the inevitably has been forecast for what seems like hours, and the only emotional response is relief that an overextended sequence has finally come to an end. (And no, this does not count as a spoiler, because even without reading this, you would have seen what was coming long before it happened.)

Anyway, Yuki kills the bad guys, but in the way of Japanese films, we’re left feeling that maybe that’s not a good thing, because there was that demonic aspect to her mother, which – who knows? – might be hereditary or something. And anyway, Yuki’s an orphan now, and it’s not as if her mission in life has really helped her develop the skills to make friends, so she’s rather a lonely soul. But at least she still looks good in that Gothic Lolita garb, so what the hell, right?

Yup, it's the future all right.

Yup, it's the future all right.

The denoument provides another glimpse of a gloomy exterior, which reminds us that PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is supposed to be something other than mundane in its setting, even though much of it looks as if it was shot on locations available to any student filmmaker (gymnasiums, warehouses, empty roads), often with available sunlight. At least the interiors occasionally show some stylization, with Bavaesque colors proudly beamed across the screen quite regardless of realistic light sources.

PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is apparently part of a a Japanese splatter sub-genre that includes such titles as TOKYO GORE POLICE. The unabashed exploitation zeal of these films – in which blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot – has a certain charm – but not nearly enough to sustain a feature. We’d really all be much better off if the fight scenes from these films were repurposed as three-minute YouTube videos.

PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA (U.S home video title; a.k.a., GOSU RORI SHOKEININ ["Gothic & Lolita Psycho"], 2010). Directed by Go Ohara. Written by Hisakatsu Kuroki. Cast: Rina Akiyama, Ruito Aoyagi, Minami Tsuikui, Misaki Momose, Asami, Yukihide Benny, Jonny Caines. 88 mins.

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