Every fall, San Diego gets treated to a multitude of film festivals—so many, in fact, that it's easy to get overwhelmed. But if you're a movie lover, the San Diego Asian Film Festival's diverse programming schedule is pure catnip. The festival's 14th edition runs Thursday, Nov. 7, through Saturday, Nov. 16, at various theaters, particularly Digiplex Mission Valley Cinemas.
With more than 140 films spread over five specific sections, the 2013 festival (SDAFF) will represent artistic perspectives from a variety of countries around the world. The opening-night (Finding Mr. Right) and closing-night (Documented) films were highlighted in CityBeat's Sept. 25 Fall Arts issue, but they represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Most notable is the "Masters" sidebar, featuring the latest work from some of the most well-respected Asian filmmakers working today. My favorite of this impressive group is Jafar Panahi's masterpiece, Closed Curtain, a striking and sometimes surreal jaunt between documentary and fiction that follows a persecuted filmmaker attempting to work through his latest project while hiding out in a seaside villa.
This marks the second time the Iranian director has defied his national government and made a film since receiving a 20-year ban from his chosen profession. While Closed Curtain is indeed a direct reflection of Panahi's own frustration with these crippling artistic limitations (the camera never ventures outside), it's not a film without hope, best expressed in its final shot, which hints at life beyond the walls of imprisonment.
Also in the Masters section is A Touch of Sin, Chinese maestro Jia Zhang-ke's savage indictment of the social contradictions plaguing modern China. Split between four loosely connected tales of murder and revenge (all based on actual reported events), Jia's film explores the economic and cultural shifts that have created a national crisis of institutional failure and violence.
A Touch of Sin is a major departure for Jia, who, in most of his previous narratives and documentaries, has taken a more restrained razor to the artifice of his country's rampant corruption and collusion.
Two very different Filipino films challenge the viewer to see the world anew, with all its broken parts visible to the naked eye. The first is Lav Diaz's four-hour-plus Norte, the End of History, a ravishing look at philosophical posturing and moral rot. The other is Raya Martin's How to Disappear Completely, a synthesizer-scored supernatural thriller that slows down one girl's descent into madness to the point of pure abstraction. Both are essential viewing.
Complex films exist elsewhere in SDAFF's programming, as well. The "Asian American Panorama" showcases strange and beguiling stateside products. The highlight is Jiyoung Lee's Moral Sleaze, a rare cinema oddity that embraces its amateurish qualities to reveal the heinous pretentiousness of fraudulent art making. You won't find a more winning (and strangely evocative) performance than Lee's lead turn as the underappreciated girlfriend of an arrogant filmmaker making a movie shot entirely on an iPhone.
The "Discoveries" section is equally flush with films primed for the more adventurous viewer. My favorite is the tense Iranian drama Trapped, about a young med student who finds herself knee deep in a public dispute after her roommate is arrested. Not only does the film call to mind Asghar Farhadi's brilliant moral tales About Elly and A Separation, it explores the circular nature of disloyalty and greed that rips a nation's confidence apart.
Finally, a few more recommendations to circle on your festival schedule: Johnnie To's rip-roaring slapstick comedy Blind Detective (not to mention a second chance at seeing the Hong Kong director's Drug War), Dante Lam's MMA action flick Unbeatable, the coming-of-age tale Ilo Ilo from Singapore and Jason DaSilva's moving documentary When I Walk.