Every cinephile wants to experience something special, singular, and rare in their collective pursuit of all things cinema. But most importantly, all of us want to experience it first. If you’re an obsessive consumer of movies living in America’s most beautiful city, San Diego, CA, in this sense life can be tough. Ignoring the multiplexes for a moment, there aren’t many local theatrical sanctuaries catering to our daily cravings for film, let alone providing something special, singular, and rare. Reading about East Coast screenings, European festival runs, and auteur-driven retrospectives on the Internet only confounds the emotional pain. Our local Landmark Cinemas valiantly programs challenging works like Enter the Void or the latest Janus reissue, and library screenings give exposure to under-seen documentary and foreign films. But there’s always a sense that we’re late to the party, arriving after everyone else is drunk off the Kook-Aid. My lifelong response has been annual trips up to Los Angeles to visit LACMA or the American Cinematheque, a shared ritual with a few devoted friends who also feel the necessity of seeing movies like The Conformist on the big screen or watch a Budd Boetticher triple feature. But these experiences only whet the appetite for something more, something new, something first.
Thankfully, each fall brings a reminder that all hope is not lost for San Diegans lusting after vibrant cinematic satisfaction. The San Diego Asian Film Festival, now in its 11th year of operation, remains one of those titanic regional events where San Diego’s movie lovers can experience a plethora of special and rare screenings over the eight-day schedule. Run by the fine folks at the San Diego Asian Film Foundation, the 2010 Festival will showcase a wide variety of genres, most notably Hong Kong action (opening-night film Legend of the Fist, Bodyguards and Assassins), horror (Yoga), and extreme cinema (Robogeisha, Alien vs. Ninja). As always, the festival will also provide a pivotal focus on documentary, most importantly in a sidebar program of films dealing with the issue of transracial adoption (A Brand New Life, Resilience). A few well-known festival circuit films will be making their San Diego premieres, most importantly Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His past Lives, Chuan Lu’s epic war film City of Life and Death, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s oddity Air Doll. A number of short-film programs give local filmmakers and students an opportunity to see their films theatrically, and industry panels, special events, and parties will complement the impressive programming schedule.
Throughout my coverage, I’ll be focusing primarily on fiction films and documentaries, specifically the way regional genre films establish a relationship between political ideology and aesthetic devices and the changing modes of nonfiction films.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 2010)
From its opening-night selection of Andrew Lau’s epic period piece Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, one can only glean that the SDAFF programmers wanted to give their target audience exactly what they want. Starring the always-flexible Donnie Yen, Legend of the Fist delivers a roundhouse kick to Chinese historiography, contextualizing the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong through the melodramatic lens of high-powered revenge and seedy deception. The film’s initial Saving Private Ryan-style battle sequence exists solely to show the prolific kung fu skills of Chinese laborer Chen Zhen (Yen), who aids the French war machine against the advancing Germans by single-handedly annihilating a platoon of machine-gunners. The kinetic movement of Yen’s body jumping through the air is only overwhelmed by his raging violence, slicing the enemy combatants to smithereens with two bayonets (imagine a John Woo-like hero but with knives instead of Berettas). The message is clear: When enraged, China can decimate anyone it pleases.
From here, Director Andrew Lau immediately jumps from the universal conflict of WWI to Hong Kong circa 1925, positioning Chen Zhen as the beating heart of the rebels warring against the brutal Japanese occupation forces threatening to destroy Chinese way of life. Espionage, betrayal, and murder infuse every heightened frame, as Lau attempts to weave both an intricate examination of historical record with an intimate portrait of a man who becomes his country’s version of a superhero (Chen dons a Kato-like outfit to fend off the Japanese). The narrative trajectory changes on a dime, shuffling between romance picture, spy film, and kung fu mosaic without any real transition. For a while, this schizophrenic filmmaking makes Yen’s sobering seriousness feel palpable, especially during a dynamic action scene on a rainy street between assassins, police, and bodyguards.
But Legend of the Fist never slows down enough to get the smaller moments right, as Lau’s camera is always tilting or panning in sweeping camera moves. This manic visual approach works well in the bloody hand-to-hand combat sequences, highlighting Yen’s ability to combine brutality with grace. Even when Yen is absent, like during the daring assault by Chinese rebels on a Japanese stronghold, Lau’s tactical direction allows the set piece to organically evolve within a constantly shifting environment. But the over saturation of style takes its toll, and by the time Chen battles the diabolically evil Japanese general in a ridiculously anticlimactic finale, the film’s thematic message of Chinese unity has been rendered completely moot.
Ideologically, Legend of The Fist never flinches from positioning China and its people as ambitious guerillas fighting an uncaring, unflinching Japanese monster. This Chinese empowerment against other Asian political systems, as well as the British colonialists who are always portrayed as ignorant buffoons, gives much of the film a fascinatingly concise political slant. Yet Lau revels in Hong Kong action aesthetics to convey this message instead of developing these characters beyond martyrs or avengers. The final shot (ripped from any Batman comic) is astoundingly simplistic and equally lame, a sudden exclamation point on a film already brimming with hyperbole and rhetoric. By the end of Legend of the Fist, the film has dished out so many suggestive punches to the head its power as political cinema, and action cinema for that matter, suffers irrefutable damage.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs from October 21 to 28. For more information, click here.