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10 Films and Events to See at the San Diego Asian Film Festival

The festival's 20th year includes a handful of firsts including a spotlight on Tibet and the first festival-produced film
Quyên Nguyen-Le's The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard introduces us to the City Heights mortuary workers who help refugee families grieve. | Photo courtesy of SDAFF

By J. Carlos Rico

The 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), presented by the Pacific Arts Movement brings more than 170 films in 40 languages from 29 countries at eight local venues. The largest collection of Asian cinema outside of New York turns 20 this year, takes in San Diego November 7-16. Here is our top 10 list of shows and events not to miss, in order of first showing.

1. Opening Night

For the first time in the festival’s 20-year run, it will be featuring films produced by the festival. Opening night will be showcasing The Paradise We Are Looking For, the first feature-length documentary commissioned by Pacific Arts Movement. This documentary film will bring audiences together to get to know neighborhoods in the county with historical Asian-American Pacific Islander roots. This kick-off event takes place at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on November 7 at 5:30 p.m. with a pre-screening reception. An after party will follow the screening of the documentary.

2. Taiwan Film Showcase

For the eight-consecutive year, the festival presents the Taiwan Film Showcase, the largest annual spotlight on Taiwan cinema in North America. Every year the showcase highlights the diversity of perspectives, languages, stories, and genres by filmmakers in Taiwan today. All six screenings will be at UCSD Price Center from November 9-11.

3. Shorts for Shorties

The first weekend morning of the festival brings a collection of international short films for kids. These five films feature short stories that are intended to empower and excite the next generation of bright, young dreamers and achievers. This showing is free for all ages and will play at UltraStar Mission Valley on November 9 at 11 a.m.

4. Awards Gala and After Party

Often described as the Asian-American Golden Globes, the SDAFF Awards Gala is the most celebrated evening of the film festival. The red-carpet event brings together more than 500 entertainment, business, and community leaders to celebrate the festivals top independent films, enjoy spectacular live entertainment, and meet celebrity guests. All proceeds benefit Pacific Arts Movement and year-round educational programs, such as Reel Voices—a documentary filmmaking program that empowers local high school students to become socially-conscious storytellers. The gala and after party takes place at the US Grant on November 9 starting at 5 p.m.

5. Centerpiece Film

This year’s centerpiece film is a romantic comedy and a switch from the more topical films the SDAFF has featured in the past during this time slot. Straight Up follows Todd, a gay man in his 20s, who think his love life is absolutely dead. His OCD fear of bodily fluids may be the culprit. But maybe he’s…straight? After a therapist plants the possibility he’s not who the world thinks he is, Todd decides to date like a bro, failing miserably until he meets Rory, a neurotic, struggling actress and fellow OCD enthusiast. This quirky and sharply-funny comedy plays at UltraStar Mission Valley on November 10 at 6:55 p.m.

6. Reel Voices

This is the world premiere of Pacific Arts Movement’s high school documentary program. Reel Voices empowers local high school youth and tackles topics such as self-love, intergenerational trauma and cultural identity, in stories that are both personal and deeply relevant to the broader San Diego community. This year there will be 11 short films. They will be on display at UltraStar Mission Valley on November 10 at 12 p.m. and are free to the public.

7. Spotlight on Tibet

For the first time, the SDAFF will present a rare opportunity to experience films from Tibet. Three films will be on display—from classics, new masters, and emerging voices from the Tibetan diaspora—November 8 and 10 at UltraStar Mission Valley. We suggest Rituals of Resistance, a portrait of three different Tibetans in exile. One of those Tibetans is the co-director’s own mother, who now lives in San Diego, who could only relive childhood memories of her siblings through home videos. That is until she secretly takes an extremely dangerous visit to a distant Tibetan village in the mid-2000s.

8. Virtual Reality

For the second year in a row, a virtual reality film will be featured at the SDAFF. Water Melts takes you to the shores of Asia. In a touching portrait of romance and healing, beachgoers experience a temporary space between life and death that can only bring out the most awkward behavior. This free screening will be shown at the UltraStar Mission Valley on November 9 and 10.

9. Free Films at 4 p.m.

All films starting at 4 p.m. on weekdays during the festival are free. I recommend In the Land of Lost Angels, a story about two Mongolian-American friends in Los Angeles who need to get rich quick to help their families. Their plan is kidnapping and extortion of a wealthy son, but soon turns into a seven-day heist gone wrong. In the Land of Lost Angels is showing on Wednesday, November, 13 at UltraStar Mission Valley.

10. Closing Night

This year the 20th annual SDAFF ends with To Live To Sing on November 16 at the San Diego History Museum. This film centers on Zhao Li, who lives for Sichuan opera but knows not everyone does. Only the elderly show up for her theater’s performances. Meanwhile, the performers in her troupe have their eyes on more lucrative and modern stagecraft. So, when Zhao Li receives the devastating news that her theater is about to be demolished by the government, she keeps it a secret, not simply to protect troupe morale, but to delay everyone’s inevitable departure. Closing night tickets also include pre-screening reception and after party.

10 Films and Events to See at the San Diego Asian Film Festival

Quyên Nguyen-Le’s The Morning Passing on El Cajón Boulevard introduces us to the City Heights mortuary workers who help refugee families grieve. | Photo courtesy of SDAFF

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