Fest expands San Diego Asian film scene

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SAN DIEGO -- A week after inking a deal to direct Universal's "Fast and Furious 4" with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, director Justin Lin opened the San Diego Asian Film Festival with his Bruce Lee-themed mockumentary "Finishing the Game."

The screening -- attended by the film's stars Dustin Nguyen, Roger Fan and MC Hammer -- was among the highlights of the eighth annual SDAFF, which got under way Oct. 11 and closed Thursday with the New York Koreatown crime film "West 32nd Street." On hand for the closer was the film's star John Cho, who was recently cast as Sulu in Paramount's upcoming "Star Trek" remake; also at the fest, George Takei, who originated the role of Sulu, was honored with a lifetime achievement award.

"Long before I saw any Asian faces on TV, there was George Takei," festival executive director Lee Ann Kim said.

Kim said SDAFF's modest size might limit the festival's market potential, but she insisted that this was never the goal.

"We can't compete with Pusan or Sundance, so why waste our energy on trying to make our festival a marketplace when we already have something special going on?" she said. "We wanted to bring people in the community together and get them interested in talking about culture and diversity in San Diego, because there really was no place for them to do that."

In 1999, after connecting with film students at UC San Diego, she realized that a film festival might be the answer. "They told me about this Asian-American cinema network," she said. "I didn't even know such a thing existed."

Now, eight years later, the festival has frequent sellouts to not only Asians but also non-Asians. "This is my dream come true because otherwise we are just preaching to the choir," Kim said.

Over the years, the attendance has reached critical mass, so Kim has been developing an interactive online presence. "In five to 10 years I see an integration of our festival around the world via the Internet; a 'festival on demand' in which audiences, for possibly a fee, can watch films being shown at our festival and be able to sit in on Q&As with the filmmakers, live or on tape."

This year, several events streamed live online, including opening-night red carpet interviews and a discussion with Takei. Kim said the online experiment might be working: "We had people from Barbados and New Zealand e-mailing us, saying, 'Hey, we are watching your film festival, and we didn't even know it existed.' "

This year's festival winners include Lisette Flanary's documentary "Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula" and Stephane Gauger's drama "Owl and the Sparrow."
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