The 10th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival
By Scott Marks
Ten years ago Lee Ann Kim had an inspiration. At that time she was president of the Asian American Journalists Association. Instead of presiding over another boring meeting with 20 or 30 journalists, she decided to do something bigger. Why not engage the larger community in issues that people care about outside of journalism? A film festival sounded like a logical idea.
For the past 10 years the San Diego Asian Film Festival has been one of our town’s cultural bright spots, bringing in hundreds of films we would otherwise never have had a chance to see. This year’s festival, which runs from Oct. 15-29 at UltraStar’s Mission Valley Cinema at Hazard Center, has doubled its length by expanding from one to two weeks.
This year’s festival turned out to be the most demanding one to date. Lee Ann spoke candidly to the Uptown News about what it takes to put on such an enormous event, as well as why she vacated her anchor chair at Ch. 10 News.
Scott Marks: This is the first year where the festival will run for two weeks instead of one.
Lee Ann Kim: Yeah. (Laughing) And I hope the only year. Don’t you think it’s crazy that we are doing it in a year when we are in the worst recession in U.S. history?
Not really. People always want entertainment, and in times like this even more so.
You’re right, but you have to think from a nonprofit standpoint. We got one film that was shipped to us from Korea. What idiots. We ask that they don’t ship it priority and they still ship it fricking priority.
And that’s just a one-way ticket.
Yeah. We have 200 films coming to us. Also, when you do double it’s exponential. I have a contracted staff, but they all have full-time jobs. Doing two weeks just puts a huge burden on everybody and on top of that it’s expensive. We decided to do it because initially we wanted to do ten days for our tenth anniversary. The way that the (theater) rental works, you have to rent by the week. Even if we did ten days there would be four or five days that are dark that we paid for. Screw it! We did the two weeks.
You were our favorite news diva at Channel 10. Why did you decide to deprive San Diego television viewers of your elan and perspicacity?
It really wasn’t…I don’t know. The timing was right. In local news the business model is suffering and a lot of the old school people who are still left and making more than six figures are at risk. Carol Lebeau left. I was part time at the time I decided to leave. They wanted me to go back full time. I was working two days a week and they wanted me to go back to work five days a week. They wanted to take away my anchoring. They wanted me to be a one-man-band reporter carrying my own camera, but they didn’t want to pay me more than the two days they were already paying me. I don’t think so. They should have just fired me or let me go, because this is really offensive. That’s just the model in which they are working now. But you know, the film festival is my newscast so I feel like I’m doing the exact same thing I was doing over there.
Yes, but it’s only two weeks out of the year.
No. We do it all year long.
But we don’t get to see you with any regularity.
That’s fine. I regularly get to see our members. It’s so interesting because everything that I have learned from news has easily transferred over to what I am doing for the (San Diego Asian) Film Foundation.
How has the festival changed in 10 years?
It’s kind of like going to high school. When you’re a freshman you don’t have that many friends and it’s kind of awkward. Every single year you get more friends, start maturing and start developing your style. By the time you’re a senior, it’s like you own the halls. We are now in our super senior year. We have collected a number of loyal patrons and members that love and respect us and don’t want to see us go away. That’s what’s happened over the past 10 years. Our programming staff has really matured. I have matured in the way that I view films. I’m still not a cinephile, but I know what works well in San Diego and with our audience.
What do we have to look forward to in the 10th Anniversary year that’s different than festivals past?
We definitely package the films better for people. For the first time we have a Asian Extreme series featuring “fringe” cinema from Japan. We have a series of films from emerging filmmakers in Taiwan. We have a North Korean series. I just found out that people do not know what is happening in North Korea. Just by chance, there were three great films that came out in the last year about the North Korean experience. We packaged that with a free panel discussion. There are an extraordinary number of films that are different and challenging and new. We have a Japanese animé from Russia. You won’t see that anywhere else.
This year, taking the economy into consideration, we are offering free films every day at 4 p.m., throughout the festival. These aren’t just ho-hum silly movies. We want people to say, “Hot damn! I can’t believe that was free. I’m going to go see another film now.” A lot of them are documentaries with filmmakers who are coming for Q-and-A’s. Our strategy this year is, on a scale of 1 to 5, how meaningful was this program to you? This is what drives our programming. How meaningful is this film for the community.
Speaking of programming, how does SDAFF go about selecting the 200 films that you will be showing this year?
Our eight programmers watched about six hundred movies. Collectively, each film has been watched by at least three people. The only exceptions are really big films from Cannes or Berlin that were recruited by our new programmer Anderson Le. He’s the head programmer of the Hawaii International Film Festival. We judge films on technique, writing, acting and viewing experience. Above all the big question is should this film be in our festival. There are certain films that might do well in New York or Paris that won’t work in San Diego without the benefit of a discussion or the filmmaker being present.
Once you have selected the movies, what is it like programming a two-week festival?
We know that every specific film has an audience. You learn certain rules by which to play. You can’t show an Indian movie on Sundays because Indians go to the temple. Or we can’t show a Korean film on Sunday afternoon because they all go to church. Vietnamese films are perfect on Sunday because they work six days a week. Take that into consideration and every single slot has also been argued over and talked about. That’s pretty much our general programming process. It’s arduous.
Do you have any big guests this year that you want to talk up?
We don’t have a lot of big guests. We have a lot of people who are emerging or up-and-coming. John Cho (“Harold and Kumar,” “Star Trek”) would probably be the biggest one.
He’s not emerging, he’s emerged!
He’s on this new ABC series and he had a five-page fashion spread in GQ Magazine. It wasn’t even editorial. It was pure fashion. We tried very hard to get some of these actors to come for the bigger pictures. Name any of the smaller indie films and the actors and directors are coming. I have always found that with our community…we had George Takei and did an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” style interview. I think at any other festival there would have been a line around the door. We barely had 75 people attend. We know that at our festival, actors are icing on the cake. People attend SDAFF for the content.
For a complete listing of movies and showtimes, visit http://sdaff.com.
Scott Marks was born and raised in some of the finest single screen movie theaters in Chicago. He moved to San Diego in 2000 and has never looked back. Scott authors the blog emulsioncompulsion.com and is co-host of KPBS-Radio’s Film Club of the Air. Please address any bouquets or brickbats to firstname.lastname@example.org.