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San Diego Asian Film Festival 2021 sampler

Reviews of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Inside the Red Brick Wall, and Islands

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: dramatizing the Droste Effect at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: dramatizing the Droste Effect at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Thank heavens for this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, if for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to showcase quality over Hollywood’s latest regurgitation. The Festival runs October 28 through November 6. What follows this week and next is but a small sampling of the 130 shorts and features contained in SDAFF 2021. For more information visit: https://sdaff.org/2021

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

There is no such thing as a bad genre, just filmmakers quick to yolk science fiction with horror before proceeding to add an appreciable amount of gore that covers for their innate inability to tell a story without the special effects vital to keeping impressionable minds coming back for more. Anyone with a camera mount, a little GoPro, a lot of imagination (and in this case an infinite supply of extension cord) could carry it out. It’s the difference between gimmickry and experimentation; everything that follows the title card was executed in one take and in real time. (I did detect what appeared to be a near-imperceptible transitory cut during one of the film’s many stairway steeplechases, but several slo-mo playbacks still left me uncertain.) Ever get lost in a television show? Kato (Kazunari Tosa), a cafe owner who occupies a flat above the store, bounds the flight of stairs home from work to find his face on the computer screen FaceTiming from the restaurant monitor and claiming to be placing the call two minutes in the future. Scurrying down the stairs, he reenacts the conversation, only this time a friend stops by and is instantly sucked into the surrealism. Is it a dream? Perhaps a friend pulling a prank, or maybe even a clone?

Place

UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center

7510 Hazard Center Drive, San Diego

More likely than not, it’s screenwriter Makoto Ueda and director Junta Yamaguchi coming up with a unique way of telling a story that mirrors itself every two minutes. My hope that the duo would pull it off without inserting any form of weaponry was eventually dashed, but not before I was fully immersed in both the characters and the unusualness of their situation. (The bloodletting didn’t amount to much more than a squirt of ketchup.) Some things are best left to a viewer’s imagination. The film’s biggest drawback is its need to provide viewers with a concrete explanation. It’s uncertain that a second viewing would withstand a test of logic, but as an endeavor to dramatize the Droste Effect — an image recursively appearing within itself — I can’t think of another film quite like this. Screens: October 31 at 5:30 pm and November 1 at 8:05 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley

Inside the Red Brick Wall

It had the makings of a sequel — Tiananmen Square Massacre II — written all over it. What began as Operation Dawn, a citywide strike intended to shut down Hong Kong’s traffic grid, ended in days of dissent among students of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University that culminated in police brutality. The goal was to peacefully protest the government’s controversial plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. Make no mistake, this was an organized protest: resisters arrived armed with pink gas masks and carrying umbrellas in the event a water cannon was aimed in their direction. Through a bullhorn they announced themselves to the police as a group of civil protesters who, given the choice, would not be risking their lives. For the students, it was one failed escape attempt after another, with the cops more interested in making arrests than they were in enabling a peaceful exodus. (Officers were initially overheard joking that they were headed to Poly U to kill cockroaches.) The film is a hard sell, particularly in light of last year’s violent unrest, followed by the Capitol insurrection that kicked off 2021. Forgive me for reducing upheaval to a generic pigeonhole, but the architectural facade that gives the film it’s title adds an air of Alcatraz to what could easily be mistaken for a compelling prison picture. (I half expected to hear a copper cry, “Come out with your hands up, Rocky, or it’s curtains for you!”) Like every celluloid prison break worth the money, protesters were divided into two groups: those willing to take the risk and those who deem the risk too great. The protest dragged on for over a week, with police stationed at the harbor on the lookout for students making their escape through the sewer system. This is the antithesis of a talking head documentary: only one participant is interviewed on camera, a protester insisting that he’s willing to die for the cause, but would prefer to do so with cameras rolling so his sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain — or worse, go unnoticed by the media. The interview ends with the camera pulling back to reveal his bow and arrow at the ready. In the eyes of many, the words “media” and “fake news” have become synonymous. The direction is attributed to Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, and credit must be paid to the kamikaze camera people who risked life and limb by putting themselves in the middle of this conflict to illuminate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Screens: November 2 at 8:10 pm and November 4 at 7:55 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley.

Islands

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a mama’s boy, an Ontario immigrant pushing 50 and still living under his parents’ roof. There’s no better time than now for him to start looking for a woman to replace his folks in the event of their death. His fragile mother Alma (Vangie Alcasid) gently ribs Joshua in front of his brother: what chance does she have of becoming a grandmother with a son who has never had a girlfriend? (Her baby has been in love many times, but no one has yet returned the favor.) Like many Filipinos, family is his life. When he’s not working as a school janitor, he devotes every waking hour to his parents, praying for their health and taking them to dance class. Other than the taste of candy corn and circus peanuts, nothing causes the gag reflex to kick in quicker than the sight of a senior showing up for Christmas dinner clad in an Elvis suit. (A musical tribute would have given just cause for an early exit.) There’s also the looming question of “Who’s gonna kick off first?” to add a slap of morbidity. I’m happy to have persevered. Mom is the first to check out; a tumble down the basement steps leaves Joshua to act as his father Reynaldo’s (Esteban Comilang) caregiver. It’s when dad starts questioning the whereabouts of his late wife that his son begins to doubt his ability to look after the rapidly deteriorating man. Joshua is terrified of women, as evidenced by his encounter with cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) at Alma’s funeral. Joshua and his brother greet her, but it’s the younger sibling who does all the talking. Having quit his day job to look after Reynaldo — and seeing how Marisol just happens to be a caregiver by profession — Joshua offers her work for however long she decides to stay in Canada. So far, it sounds like a Hallmark Channel original. It isn’t until first time writer-director Martin Edralin begins to explore the depths of Joshua’s mundane singularity that a person of interest begins to surface. He places a cloth over the statue of Joseph and Mary before going to bed, much the same way one would cover a parakeet cage. (I’m guessing he does it thinking it will prevent the icons from looking on as he pleasures himself, a habit so blindingly chronic that on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Joshua’s brother gifts him with a masturbatory aid.) With Marisol living under his roof, the depths of Joshua’s love brings him to stop eating out of a takeout bag, toss his cigarettes, and for a moment reconsider a career in dental hygiene. What he can’t wrap his mind around is the concept of incest. Many will no doubt interpret the curtain shot as a parting dose of upbeat reassurance. My half-empty-glass perspective reveals a portrait of a man drowning in a solitary hell and loving it. Screens: November 4 at 7:40 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley.

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Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: dramatizing the Droste Effect at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: dramatizing the Droste Effect at this year's San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Thank heavens for this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, if for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to showcase quality over Hollywood’s latest regurgitation. The Festival runs October 28 through November 6. What follows this week and next is but a small sampling of the 130 shorts and features contained in SDAFF 2021. For more information visit: https://sdaff.org/2021

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

There is no such thing as a bad genre, just filmmakers quick to yolk science fiction with horror before proceeding to add an appreciable amount of gore that covers for their innate inability to tell a story without the special effects vital to keeping impressionable minds coming back for more. Anyone with a camera mount, a little GoPro, a lot of imagination (and in this case an infinite supply of extension cord) could carry it out. It’s the difference between gimmickry and experimentation; everything that follows the title card was executed in one take and in real time. (I did detect what appeared to be a near-imperceptible transitory cut during one of the film’s many stairway steeplechases, but several slo-mo playbacks still left me uncertain.) Ever get lost in a television show? Kato (Kazunari Tosa), a cafe owner who occupies a flat above the store, bounds the flight of stairs home from work to find his face on the computer screen FaceTiming from the restaurant monitor and claiming to be placing the call two minutes in the future. Scurrying down the stairs, he reenacts the conversation, only this time a friend stops by and is instantly sucked into the surrealism. Is it a dream? Perhaps a friend pulling a prank, or maybe even a clone?

Place

UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center

7510 Hazard Center Drive, San Diego

More likely than not, it’s screenwriter Makoto Ueda and director Junta Yamaguchi coming up with a unique way of telling a story that mirrors itself every two minutes. My hope that the duo would pull it off without inserting any form of weaponry was eventually dashed, but not before I was fully immersed in both the characters and the unusualness of their situation. (The bloodletting didn’t amount to much more than a squirt of ketchup.) Some things are best left to a viewer’s imagination. The film’s biggest drawback is its need to provide viewers with a concrete explanation. It’s uncertain that a second viewing would withstand a test of logic, but as an endeavor to dramatize the Droste Effect — an image recursively appearing within itself — I can’t think of another film quite like this. Screens: October 31 at 5:30 pm and November 1 at 8:05 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley

Inside the Red Brick Wall

It had the makings of a sequel — Tiananmen Square Massacre II — written all over it. What began as Operation Dawn, a citywide strike intended to shut down Hong Kong’s traffic grid, ended in days of dissent among students of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University that culminated in police brutality. The goal was to peacefully protest the government’s controversial plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. Make no mistake, this was an organized protest: resisters arrived armed with pink gas masks and carrying umbrellas in the event a water cannon was aimed in their direction. Through a bullhorn they announced themselves to the police as a group of civil protesters who, given the choice, would not be risking their lives. For the students, it was one failed escape attempt after another, with the cops more interested in making arrests than they were in enabling a peaceful exodus. (Officers were initially overheard joking that they were headed to Poly U to kill cockroaches.) The film is a hard sell, particularly in light of last year’s violent unrest, followed by the Capitol insurrection that kicked off 2021. Forgive me for reducing upheaval to a generic pigeonhole, but the architectural facade that gives the film it’s title adds an air of Alcatraz to what could easily be mistaken for a compelling prison picture. (I half expected to hear a copper cry, “Come out with your hands up, Rocky, or it’s curtains for you!”) Like every celluloid prison break worth the money, protesters were divided into two groups: those willing to take the risk and those who deem the risk too great. The protest dragged on for over a week, with police stationed at the harbor on the lookout for students making their escape through the sewer system. This is the antithesis of a talking head documentary: only one participant is interviewed on camera, a protester insisting that he’s willing to die for the cause, but would prefer to do so with cameras rolling so his sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain — or worse, go unnoticed by the media. The interview ends with the camera pulling back to reveal his bow and arrow at the ready. In the eyes of many, the words “media” and “fake news” have become synonymous. The direction is attributed to Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers, and credit must be paid to the kamikaze camera people who risked life and limb by putting themselves in the middle of this conflict to illuminate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Screens: November 2 at 8:10 pm and November 4 at 7:55 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley.

Islands

Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a mama’s boy, an Ontario immigrant pushing 50 and still living under his parents’ roof. There’s no better time than now for him to start looking for a woman to replace his folks in the event of their death. His fragile mother Alma (Vangie Alcasid) gently ribs Joshua in front of his brother: what chance does she have of becoming a grandmother with a son who has never had a girlfriend? (Her baby has been in love many times, but no one has yet returned the favor.) Like many Filipinos, family is his life. When he’s not working as a school janitor, he devotes every waking hour to his parents, praying for their health and taking them to dance class. Other than the taste of candy corn and circus peanuts, nothing causes the gag reflex to kick in quicker than the sight of a senior showing up for Christmas dinner clad in an Elvis suit. (A musical tribute would have given just cause for an early exit.) There’s also the looming question of “Who’s gonna kick off first?” to add a slap of morbidity. I’m happy to have persevered. Mom is the first to check out; a tumble down the basement steps leaves Joshua to act as his father Reynaldo’s (Esteban Comilang) caregiver. It’s when dad starts questioning the whereabouts of his late wife that his son begins to doubt his ability to look after the rapidly deteriorating man. Joshua is terrified of women, as evidenced by his encounter with cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) at Alma’s funeral. Joshua and his brother greet her, but it’s the younger sibling who does all the talking. Having quit his day job to look after Reynaldo — and seeing how Marisol just happens to be a caregiver by profession — Joshua offers her work for however long she decides to stay in Canada. So far, it sounds like a Hallmark Channel original. It isn’t until first time writer-director Martin Edralin begins to explore the depths of Joshua’s mundane singularity that a person of interest begins to surface. He places a cloth over the statue of Joseph and Mary before going to bed, much the same way one would cover a parakeet cage. (I’m guessing he does it thinking it will prevent the icons from looking on as he pleasures himself, a habit so blindingly chronic that on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Joshua’s brother gifts him with a masturbatory aid.) With Marisol living under his roof, the depths of Joshua’s love brings him to stop eating out of a takeout bag, toss his cigarettes, and for a moment reconsider a career in dental hygiene. What he can’t wrap his mind around is the concept of incest. Many will no doubt interpret the curtain shot as a parting dose of upbeat reassurance. My half-empty-glass perspective reveals a portrait of a man drowning in a solitary hell and loving it. Screens: November 4 at 7:40 pm @ UltraStar Mission Valley.

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