10 of Our Favorite Short Films At SDAFF 2019
It’s often such a shame that shorts programs generally get shafted by the general nature of film festivals. That’s just usually how it goes. Next to feature-length films directed by more established filmmakers and the promise of an invested, complete story, it’s easy for most curated short programs to go unseen. Interestingly enough, the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) had a unique way of ensuring that at the very least, many of the films would be filled up: by offering free admissions for half of their shorts programs.
But don’t mistake the lack of an admission fee for lack of quality–all of the shorts, and by extension, short film programs, that I saw were excellently curated by the festival programmers. The shorts that I saw inspired, moved, excited, and in some cases contained the most interesting films of the festival. When SDAFF 2020 arrives next year, know that I’ll be opting for more of the short programs in place of feature-length films.
Here are my picks for the best short films that I saw during the 2019 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Short film programs attended: She Experiments, An Escape Room of One’s Own, Get Out!, Animation: Jumping the Line, Temp Life. I tried to get into Last Night in Hawai’i, but it was at capacity! That’s on my hit list for next year.
“Kiss of the Rabbit God” (2019), dir. Andrew Thomas Huang
Would it be bold for me to say that “Kiss of the Rabbit God” was not only my favorite short film of the festival… but also the best film that I saw at SDAFF? It’s almost ridiculous how Huang’s film is able to evoke such lush feelings of hesitant, bursting emotion in only 14 minutes. But it makes sense–Huang, who has directed music videos for years, knows just how important visuals are to a good story. All of that experience pays off tenfold in Huang’s first narrative short film, resulting in a rushing, visually stylistic delight.
When Matt, a Chinese American restaurant worker is visited by a mysterious red-haired figure, subdued passions are explored. Drawing upon the legend of the “Rabbit God,” the Chinese patron saint of homosexuality, “Kiss of the Rabbit God” has equal amounts of mystery, beauty, and confidence. Driven by choked, stylistic tension and Huang’s own experience in dealing with his queerness, “Kiss of the Rabbit God” is a must-watch for any film fan. If there’s any film that deserves your attention, it’s this one.
“My American Surrogate” (2019) dir. Leslie Tai
I’ll confess: I don’t know much about surrogacy. In fact, I didn’t even know that it was so common–hundreds of people in the US opt to use a surrogate mother each year. So it comes as a shock to me that Leslie Tai’s short documentary, “My American Surrogate,” treats the prospect of surrogacy with such a light-hearted approach as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
For people like me, the film is shocking proof of how far technology has come, and it’s more mindblowing than anything. Tai’s documentary follows Qiqi, a Chinese woman in the business of selling US surrogacy services to hopeful elites in the mainland before deciding to undergo the procedure herself. What results is an eye-opening look at the process of surrogacy–from choosing an American surrogate all the way to the birth of the baby (yes, you’ll see an actual, unedited birth here). Tai’s choice to follow the often jolly, ever-smiling Qiqi creates a lighthearted tone despite showcasing the impressive technological advances of the medical world. It’s also surreal watching an American woman give birth to a Chinese baby in such a way that seems like it could be taken out of a science fiction film. But make no mistake: this is real life.
“Clam Dog” (2019), dir. Jeannie Nguyen
How can a film that looks so beautiful be so nasty? Just ask Jeannie Nguyen, whose comedy short film “Clam Dog” manages to gross you out with its implications while remaining a colorful treat for the eyes. The film follows mobile food delivery worker–think Postmates or Doordash–Trang (Ngoc Anh Hà) as she hops from place to place delivering food to seedy Los Angeles customers. But what is she to do when she discovers a cook doing something… unspeakably nasty to a hot dog that she’s supposed to deliver? “Clam Dog” could thus either be gag-inducing or raucously hilarious… depending on your taste in comedy.
But what really makes “Clam Dog” stand out is Nguyen’s knack for world-building. Here, Los Angeles is smeared in grime and shit, creating an unreal world that is hopefully far from the truth. Major props should be given to the set designer–it’s their contributions that truly make this film work. Complete with a dumbed-down cast of dim food service workers, singing cashiers, glory-seeking YouTubers and a best friend who is up to try anything, “Clam Dog” is uncomfortably hilarious and has to be one of the strangest films that I’ve ever seen. You’ll never look at a takeout hot dog the same way again.
“The Love Motel” (2018), dir. Henry Chen
In East Asia, queerness is still a difficult concept for many older folks to accept. There’s a sense of conservative thought that doesn’t mesh well with the radical ideologies that stem from many Asian countries. Case in point: to date, Taiwan is still the only East Asian country to legalize gay marriage (itself ironically explored in another short film at SDAFF, “From the Other Side” dir. Bob Yang and Frederico Evaristo). So it’s even more timely that Henry Chen’s debut short “The Love Motel,” which takes place in Taiwan, spotlights that struggle for acceptance despite that milestone achievement for the country. For some youth, even though the country has accepted that LGBTQ people should have rights, their immediate family members might not be on the same page.
“The Love Motel” follows a Taiwanese woman (Teresa Daley) who has recently come out as a lesbian to her parents. While her father seems to have accepted his daughter for who she is, her mother isn’t so easily convinced. Shunned by her mother, she is forced to take refuge in one of the country’s love motels, an unofficially designated place where outcasts live. Unaccepted, lost, and unloved, the protagonist’s psychological trauma materializes in the form of auditory hallucinations and terrifying visions. Coming out isn’t as easy as just saying the words. For first-time director Chen, “The Love Motel” does a great job of visualizing the protagonist’s fears about her stringent mother. Shadowy visuals blur the line between reality and illusion–making it seem that the world is collapsing around her. Tinged with horror elements and gorgeous cinematography, “The Love Motel” is memorable in its take on the mental toll of acceptance from the people that you love the most.
“Air Conditioner in Panmunjeom” (2018), dir. Lee Tae-hun
The best comedies are the ones that can smartly make fun of a real-world situation by poking fun at it… and no other film did it better than Lee Tae-hun’s “Air Conditioner in Panmunjeom.” When a South Korean repairman is invited to the DMZ to fix an air conditioner on the South Korean border, tensions run high. Will something as simple as a routine procedure reignite the war between North and South Korea? In Lee’s take, it’s certainly possible.
Eventually devolving into chaos and eventually hilarity, “Air Conditioner in Panmunjeom” delights its audience by playing with its buffoonish characters–the easily frightened repairman, the unreasonably stubborn South Korean general (who risks going to war over a broken air conditioner?), and the trigger-happy North Korean opposition. It’s also terrifying to think that this kind of situation actually wouldn’t be too far-fetched from the truth–plausibility works well in making Lee’s vision come to life. Though the film plays with some unnerving moments of tension that will make you feel truly bad for the repairman caught in the cross-fire, the sheer absurdity of it all will have you laughing out loud in the theater.
“Détourning Asia/America with Valerie Soe” (2019), dir. by Mila Zuo
Lectures are not the most exciting things to watch. Take it from any university student. But video essays? Yes, please–I’ll gladly take those any day of the week. Director Mila Zuo seems to have figured out that secret to success because although “Détourning Asia/America with Valerie Soe” is definitely a lecture disguised as an experimental short film, it’s wildly entertaining.
Decorated with flashy graphics and aesthetic figures, Zuo’s FaceTime chat with Asian American writer, director, and producer Valerie Soe (whose own documentary Love Boat: Taiwan has recently been hitting all the AsAm film festivals this year) reveals talking points about Asian American representation in the media that are worth pondering. The whole thing is framed as an impromptu interview on Zuo’s faux MacBook desktop setup complete with sidelined interruptions from apps, memes, and internet notifications–which makes the film all the more interesting. These distractions serve to amplify Soe’s words by demonstrating a larger point about what she’s talking about–from Internet memes to flawed representations–visually cueing topics of discussion while proving Soe’s talking points. There’s a ton going on here that’s hard to completely grasp in one go. Maybe that’s Zuo’s point–to allow her viewer to continuously return to the video again and again while Soe hammers in her points.
If all of my lectures were framed in this way, I’d fall asleep in class waaaaay less often.
“I Think She Likes You” (2019), dir. Bridey Elliott
In actress-turned-director Bridey Elliott’s “I Think She Likes You,” what starts off as a sexy threesome turns into a full-on whirlwind of emotion–leaving tears, happiness, and love in its wake. Screened as the LGBTQ+ program’s only bisexually themed short film, “I Think She Likes You” succeeds in establishing the likability and conflicting dynamics of its three main characters Jake (Josh Fadem), Julia (Teresa Lee), and Justine (Christine Medrano) early on. As the night plays out in an awkward and endearing way, all three eventually come to realize what they truly want–leading to a full-on emotional explosion that comes out of left-field. Throw in some exaggerated physical comedy and hilarious one-liners, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
“Prom Time!” (2019), dir. Jessica Liu
What happens when Judy (Leann Lei), a Chinese American mother, accidentally drugs herself on of her daughters’ prom night? Sexual fantasies. Sexual fantasies are what happens.
Jessica Liu’s short film “Prom Time!” stands out in how it bridges the disconnect between a Chinese mother and her snack-loving (seriously, there’s a lot of snacks), dismissive daughters. That comes in the form a hallucinatory, pink-lit sequence where Judy imagines herself in her daughter’s shoes and scoping out the class hunk (Everett Tucker) that her daughters have fawned over for so long for herself. Overall, “Prom Time!” is a strange film with interesting ideas–highlighted by sound motifs, Chinese herbalism, and some stylish retro wear. All of those elements, when put together, creates a film so strange and so memorable that I’m still thinking about it to this day. *
“Movements” (2019), dir. Dahee Jeong
There are some films that make you go, “Excuse me?” There are other films that make you think, “What?”. And then there are films like “Movements” that just leave you entirely speechless.
It’s so hard trying to describe Dahee Jeong’s animated short film that I’m not even going to bother. Instead, take my word that it’s a film that delights with its cast of quirky recurring characters (a zippy dog, a weathered old tree, and a normal girl) through different experimental tests. No, there’s no clear narrative that ties “Movements” together other than a few bookended words that signal the beginning and end of a scene, but it’s captivating nevertheless. Instead, it succeeds in making you feel empty–minuscule in the grander scale of things–happy, and confused all at the same time. Now that’s something new.
“The Wheel Turns” (2018), dir. Sang Joon Kim
Sang Joon Kim’s “The Wheel Turns” has the grandest vision overall and probably the one with the most potential to transition into a Hollywood film. It’s hard to say how Kim managed to make a 13-minute film more engrossing than most big-budget animated films, but he’s done it. All of the hallmarks of a winning film is there–the whimsicality of humans unexpectedly turning into frogs, the creation of an epic dystopian world, and a soft style of animation remains a pleasure to look at. The story also relies heavily on telling its tale through action (only the homeless man has lines), which allow the film’s brushed animation to truly shine in the film’s wildly imaginative sequences. Although at times there’s a loss of fluid frames that stalls the pacing of the film, the film’s impressive animators end up executing the director’s grandiose ideas to the best of their ability. What results is an eye-opening spectacle that promises much more than 13 minutes of your time.
This article is part of From the Intercom’s coverage of the 2019 SDAFF.
*Jessica Liu’s “It’s Prom Time!” preceded the Saturday screening of Richard Wong’s Come as You Are and was not part of a curated short film program.