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SDAFF 2021 Blog

Destination Home: A Look Back With Lee Ann Kim

October 1, 2021

As we return to an in-person festival, Pac Arts’ founder Lee Ann Kim dips down memory lane, recalling SDAFF’s long and spirited life at UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas  

While many people are drawn to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the San Diego Asian Film Festival has grown its influence and audiences in a space that is arguably one of the most unpretentious movie theaters in town. Tucked away beneath a transient strip mall located in the belly of Mission Valley is the no-frills UltraStar—once known as the Mann 7, and, for a brief time, Madstone Theatres and Digiplex Mission Valley. 

Each time I descend from Hazard Center Drive, walking down the cement stairs and through the glass doors, the familiar UltraStar “funk” gets to me every time: that smell of burnt, stale popcorn and what I think may be some kind of air freshener or carpet cleaner. Whatever it is, it smells like home. 

This is where strangers have become friends, and friends have become family. Where many tears of joy and anguish were shed. Where meaningful experiences and spirited conversations changed lives. This is where we gave birth to San Diego’s cultural hub for Asian American cinema. 

We first came here in 2001—just two weeks after 9/11—to open our second annual festival with Anurag Mehta’s American Chai, set in New York of all places. It was clear after the terrorist attack that our community needed a safe place to heal, to access authentic stories that build empathy, and to deepen our understanding of the vast Asian Pacific Islander diaspora. To achieve that vision, we had to be more than just a film festival. We had to become a destination. 

Thanks to the fact that UltraStar remained locally owned, the level of flexibility and autonomy that we were given over the years is quite shocking. Not only did we take over four screens, we also took over the hallways, lobby, projection booth, and storage room. Lord have mercy, the number of boxes that we dumped into storage was frightening. I cannot imagine any other theatre that would tolerate our mountains of film programs, festival T-shirts, director’s chairs, giveaways, posters, banners, two way radios, tables, drapes, piping, snacks, and literally a wall of beer. 

That’s what it takes to bring the festival to life. We had to physically transform the lobby into a welcoming, and dare I say, charming space that buzzed with live acoustic musicians, vendors hawking hip t-shirts and DVDs of Hong Kong films, festival staff passing out choco pies and shrimp chips, palm readers, bone marrow campaigners, zombies, casino prize wheels, and hamsters. 

We did our best to make our films into full experiences, generating excitement through many themed receptions, including the annual LGBTQ night where crafty volunteers would convert the lobby into a fabulous rainbow of sparkles; an 80s dance party complete with neon lace, mullets, and an homage to Run-DMC; and a tailgate barbeque for the documentary In Football We Trust. We even brought in ping pong tables for competitive table tennis to celebrate the film Top Spin

And of course, we now have our own Hall of Fame: celebrities who have come through our doors, including Sandra Oh, Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, George Takei, Sung Kang, Ken Jeong, Kelly Hu, Tamlyn Tomita, Joan Chen, Dustin Nguyen, Leonardo Nam, Nancy Kwan, and even MC Hammer.

As exciting as it was to meet many of these stars in person, to me, the true stars were and always will be our beloved filmmakers. Without them, there would be no films, no audience, no festival at the UltraStar. Over the years, we have welcomed hundreds of filmmakers from around the world, who traveled from as far away as Iran, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, with many more from around the U.S. We were thrilled that one of them—documentary filmmaker Grace Lee—shot a scene for her film The Grace Lee Project inside the lobby of the Ultrastar. 

I always fretted over what filmmakers thought of our humble space, considering that many of them have traveled to much fancier festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and the spectacular Busan International Film Festival, around which the city literally rebuilt itself, even constructing a multi-million dollar global cinema center. 

The UltraStar did eventually undergo a facelift with comfy leather seats and a beer and wine bar. But for the first dozen years or so of SDAFF, the theater was simply run-down with low ceilings, stained carpets, and broken seats, which were sometimes covered in black trash bags and duct tape. The A/C was fickle, and let’s not even talk about the state of the bathrooms. 

But what the space lacked in luxury, the festival staff compensated with heart and care, offering an intimate festival with high quality programming and thoughtful Q&As. Fancy doesn’t matter when the experience is meaningful. 

Over the last twenty years, we have been through so much in this beloved space. We bid farewell to 35mm films in lieu of digital projection. We also said goodbye to members of our family including Associate Festival Director George Lin, Development Director Cynthia Kashiwagi, lifetime member Connie Nguyen, and Joseph Balan, one of our most gregarious volunteers, who met his fiance at SDAFF. 

Their memories will always be connected to this space, and this space will always be connected to my heart.

—Lee Ann Kim, founder and former executive director of Pacific Arts Movement

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