Treasure Trove

SDAFF's 2021 Spring Showcase

San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase begins its long awaited 10th edition tomorrow (virtually of course) after having the 2020 event canceled due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the flagship festival that presents over 150+ films every November, Spring Showcase (streaming April 23 - May 2) focuses on a smaller selection of higher profile genre and non-fiction efforts from around the world. Check out the full slate here.

Before I was employed by Pacific Arts Movement, producers of the festival, I attended Spring Showcase religiously as a patron. The programming by my good friend and colleague Brian Hu has always been top notch, and often featured local premieres of films by some of the great international auteurs (Johnnie To, Hong Sang-soo, Hirokazu Koreeda to name a few) whose work was almost never projected theatrically in San Diego.

While the 2021 program lacks the presence of such international heavy hitters, it beautifully represents the breadth and scope of Asian and Asian America storytelling across different mediums. There is no better proof of this than the inclusion of a great mini-series entitled The Real Thing based on the popular manga by Mochiru Hoshisato. While most other festivals have screened director Koji Fukada’s latest in a 228-minute feature cut, it will be presented here in its original, immersive serialized 10-episode format that premiered on Japanese television.

Strangely circular and beguiling, The Real Thing follows corporate salaryman Tsuji (Win Morisaki) who keeps crossing paths with Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), a compulsively untrustworthy and perpetually broke young woman currently embroiled in bad financial and emotional relationships with various predatory men. Many of their early interactions involve Ukiyo in some state of distress or escape, with Tsuji trying to piece together exactly why. As a result, his humdrum 9-5 life becomes suddenly upended by constant uncertainty.

Epic love stories tend to explore the extreme highs and lows of a given relationship, but The Real Thing exists more in the grey area between fondness and hate, a place where unexplainable attraction fuels constant anxiety. With each passing episode, the couple grows increasingly winded by changing circumstances, jealousies, and narrative revelations that complicate any chance of traditional happiness. So in effect, Fukada’s effort is a marathon made up of sprints, where the small details of story and character threaten to derail a larger sense of romantic momentum at play.

Multiple times throughout The Real Thing, an opportunistic but fair yakuza named Wakita observes Tsuji and Ukiyo’s self-destructive exploits and says, “I love watching a dumb couple crash and burn.” Despite the surface-level harshness of such a statement, there’s also a great deal of beauty to his blunt sentiment. People may act irrationally and stupidly while falling in love, but they’re also handing themselves over to a whirlwind process that can take forever and rarely makes sense. The bravery of this never-ending endurance is ultimately what makes The Real Thing so moving.

Majid Majidi’s Sun Children offers up an entirely different depiction of young characters under pressure. Concerned with the raging epidemic of child labor abuses currently occurring in Iran, the film centers on a gang of street kids who are tasked by their underworld employer to pose as students in order to find buried treasure hiding under a local school.

The conviction and excitement with which these exploited boys embrace their ridiculous mission speaks to the devastating power dynamic that adults leverage in order to get children to do their dirty work. Ali (Roohollah Zamani), the gang’s leader, wears this determination on his face in nearly every scene, and despite long odds and ample proof to the contrary, believes that carrying out his duties is his only way toward finding salvation.

Majidi’s films have long dealt with how experiences of suffering children symbolically indict society’s failures at large. He had two major art house hits in Children of Heaven (1997) and The Color of Paradise (1999), mostly because these portraits of Iranian life were far simpler and more accessible thematically than the films made by his peers Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami.

But Sun Children finds Majidi presenting something closer to resolve when it comes to the character of Ali, an earnest young man who understands the disappointment of fabricated hope all to well. Nevertheless, he embraces the necessity of purpose and improvisation even when trying to navigate the pitfalls of fairy tales constructed by adults with ulterior motives. Somehow someway, this kid’s going to make it.

There’s very little doubt in Anthony Banua-Simon’s excellent documentary Cane Fire that cinema as an art form was the pivotal magic trick which helped solidify the colonialist and corporate institutions of Kauai, Hawaii. Instead of compartmentalizing his many topics of interest, the filmmaker weaves together a precise history of Hawaiian resistance against an economic and cultural occupation by sugar plantation barons whose enterprises eventually spread to tourism and real estate. Through the memories and perspectives of Banua-Simon’s own family members and interviews with locals, we see how labor unionization, local film production, and shifts in land rights have all helped shape the often uneven social landscape of modern Kauai.

Clocking in at only 88-minutes, I was struck by the effortless of Cane Fire’s epic approach. It’s a beautifully edited piece that explores a range of dense and complicated topics. Even more impressively, Banua-Simon doesn’t shy from honestly exploring the traumatizing parallels he finds between how Hawaiians have been depicted on screen and how modern social inequities carry on that disenfranchisement to this day.

On Sunday, April 25th at 430pm PST, there will be a free live Q&A with the director Anthony Banua-Simon. All Live Q&As are free and available to view via multiple platforms, including the official FacebookTwitch, and YouTube accounts for Pacific Arts Movement. 

San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase runs from April 23-May 2.

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