san diego international film fest 2020 featuring asian stories

stories of resilience are highlighted in these 8 short films

The 2020 San Diego International FilmFest was all virtual this year! Well, mostly. Like 80% ish. These year’s selection of Short Films were all direct and to the point, featuring stories from various cultures and storytelling. Here are the Asian shorts.

Last year’s main Asian film find was the now Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 2020: PARASITE which I first saw on October 2019. That experience included being waitlisted two nights before because of full capacity in both showings. The showing I went to received a standing ovation. All of that was before COVID of course. Now, it’s the Virtual Fest above where you can just click a Theater and you can access a library of films for LIVE and On-Demand viewing.

Day Two – Friday, 10/16: This is the official asienne list for the best in Asian and Asian American storytelling in short films: a digestible list of 8 short films with a strong plot and even stronger (and more resilient) characters. Last year’s coverage was limited and it didn’t cover all the Asian-made films, so this year’s list is a bit more detailed.

***It’s still very important to note that a lot of productions may still not have made it in the full cut below because some productions are Asian-helmed with Asian filmmakers in the background, and not the screen. So, it was harder to distinguish them in specific since the guidebook didn’t really specify the filmmakers’ Asian backgrounds, you know? They definitely do count but it was just more difficult to distinguish who’s Asian just by looking at their name. So the list below still isn’t as full a list as I would like. This is just a head’s up. With all that said: This list is probably missing less than five films at most.

First Theme: SHORT AND SWEET

CHEN CHEN (22 min)

This has got to be one of the best shots in film I’ve ever seen. The simplicity of this intimate moment.

This emotionally powerful film is dedicated to the director, Kargo Chen’s brother.

In this short film, Chen’s older brother has cerebral palsy. Chen takes care of him while their mother is away. In between his swimming lessons and his social life, Chen looks after his older bro by: feeding him, giving him a bath and changing his clothes and diapers.

This one is a major tear-jerker. Their bond is just one to witness and the comic antics they get up to along the way; including Chen’s huge revelation about his older bro. This is one to cherish for its subtlety in challenging society’s thoughts on what it views and labels as “normal”.

Second Theme: TWISTED HUMOR

IN IT TOGETHER (6 min)

WARNING: graphic images of meat being butchered are shown. I wish I had a trigger warning. It was way too graphic for me.

So much happens in such a short amount of time! It’s such a deep commentary about…something.

It’s supposedly a tale about an unhealthy relationship but I haven’t quite figured out yet what that relationship is. Is this about a butcher and her customer buying meat – and the amount of energy it took the female butcher to chop the pork only to end with her and the customer making intense eye contact?

Or is this about the butcher and the meat she butchered?


A WOMAN’S PLACE: FEMALE SHORTS PROGRAM

LET’S EAT!

Does technology connect us or does it disconnect us from our loved ones?
(c) Paraluman Productions

Filipino American director Leah Lombos puts an emphasis on the Filipino family tradition of eating (dinner) together in her gut-wrenching new short – featuring the Filipino national/cultural meal that is Sinigang. It’s refreshing to see a Fil-Am woman directing a story about a Fil-Am woman in an international film festival of all places! This is a first I’ve seen in SDIFF about Filipino stories (unless there was something amiss from last year, please feel free to comment).

So the story goes: A Filipino American family tries to have a meal together with the parents wishing their daughter was more present. We fast-forward over the years as she grows up and her phone takes over her life with social media, calls and texting. At the dining table. In front of her parents. In a Pilipino household???

Did I already mention that this movie features the Filipino national/cultural meal: Sinigang?

It just goes to show how food and having meals together really connects the Pilipino pamily, ha?


 NOVENA

Teresa’s mother lights a prayer candle in NOVENA.

The film’s official description is: Teresa is caught in the middle of her responsibilities to family and moving forward into adulthood. Novena explores the cultural specificity of Filipino Catholic grieving customs and familial intimacy. 

NOVENA is a portrait of grief in the Filipino lens which heavily incorporates family and religion – and the complications this brings to an Americanized upbringing/adolescence.

Side note: This one’s probably the most relatable. Too relatable tbh.


And now, here are the Drama and Comedy Shorts. The highlights. These are mostly about heartbreaking and gut-wrenching international dramas from Asian countries with Asian leads. And then there is one great comedy to top off the night.

📸SDIFF2020 from the official guidebook

DRAMA

LIAN

Is helping others always a good thing? new short film LIAN poses the question | (c) Akanga Film Asia

A film by Darren Teo, LIAN is a story about a family of three hiding in a container of a stowaway ship and the dad is hurt. There is no background context given other than they’ve been in the container long enough for the girl to know where the ship’s kitchen is. She’s been smuggling food from the ship’s kitchen to her family.

We learn that she’s 13-years-old. As we’re introduced to her, we see that she’s looking for ice cream for her little brother. There’s more to the story, however. There is a twist about how they got into the container and why they’re there in the first place.

It’s ultimately a story about choices and sacrifice. Is helping others always a good thing?

The young leading girl can act, that’s for sure. The story and the direction is gripping. It hooks you right from the start.


THE PRESENT (Palestine)

What do you think their anniversary Present is?

I just. Need. To. Get. To. My. House!” is probably one of the most haunting lines I’ve ever heard. The delivery of that line is enough to break your heart.

Yusef just wanted to buy an anniversary present for his wife. So, he takes his young daughter, Yasmine shopping out in the West Bank. With the extreme weather conditions, the long trek uphill and checkpoints, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit.

We’re also seeing a glimpse of how the little girl views everything that her father has to endure just to get home.

With a runtime of about 22 minutes, 10 minutes of that will leave you to the edge of your seat.


SOUKOON (Beirut)

Mariam just wants to break free.

Mariam is tired. She wakes up: Tired. Exasperated. She has societal obligations she’d like to break free from. There are rules she’d like to break but she can’t seem to get help from anyone. On top of that, very few women around her want to help her.

This short is a daring portrait of a woman who so badly wants to break free from her “norm” and her place outside of her society. To take back control of her own life: her body, her rules.

The acting is really something to watch as you can really feel her dilemma – legally, ethically and “morally”. The freedom that Mariam wants to grab versus her “deemed” societal obligation.

P.S. I hope she made it. I hope she’s happy.


All these dramas feature high-caliber acting and solid plots. There were multiple times I wished these were full-length features, but the full effect of their message was meant to be conveyed in just that short amount of time. That was the whole point and they all did so beautifully. I quickly realized that extending it would defeat the purpose and the impact of short storytelling. Shout out to the last two: 1) FEELING THROUGH featuring real life deaf-blind actor Robert Tarango and 2) UMAMA which was just absolutely heart-wrenching.


COMEDY

comedian Danny Pudi changes his character Deepak’s name to be more American and he becomes “Derek”…at least, as can be seen on his coffee cup…but did they spell it right this time?

COFFEE SHOP NAMES

In this quick-witted comedy by Danny Pudi (Community), we see three Indian colleagues having a typical office-day chat in a coffeeshop. Except today, they’re talking about changing their names to be more “American”: Deepak is Derek, Sathya is Scott and Rakhi is actually Rachel now. They each have an intricate background story for their newfound coffeeshop aliases and we are shown the very colorful lives of their alternate identities taking on a life of its own. It’s a very amusing watch and a breath of fresh air especially after the long line of heavy Dramas above.

(/end Day Two coverage)

PART TWO is found here.

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