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The Show Stoppa: Kristina Wong’s The Wong Street Journal

Nuance, The Wong Street Journal, 2015

Nuance, The Wong Street Journal, 2015

I don’t know if I’ve ever met Kristina Wong face to face but she’s very present in my various newsfeeds. So as is often the case with 21st century social media relationships, at least in a facebook-friends kind of way it seems like I know her. Thus it’s only appropriate that her new solo show, The Wong Street Journal, opens with a quick discussion of her online presence and how its addictive quality has affected her life. Although eighty minutes isn’t all that long in the cosmic scheme of things, during the length of her performance Wong deftly illustrates the difference between superficial twitter wars and a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of various trigger topics like race, colonialism, white privilege and savior mentality, or what she dubs “nuance versus likes.” At the same time Wong is never didactic, preachy, or monotonous and skillfully keeps the show bubbling along at a fast and funny pace. Bursting at the seams with imagination and powered by Wong’s energetic performance, the show breaks down its subject matter with wit, humor, and intelligence.

Despite its title, the show doesn’t have a lot to do with the stock market—instead it’s an amusing travelogue to Northern Uganda, where Wong confronts her (yellow) savior complex and her honorary white person status. After a rapid introduction outlining Wong’s social media addiction and her lust for likes, the 80-minute show follows Wong as she travels to Africa for a quick artist’s residency at an NGO that gives micro-grants to women in the region. There she encounters underground hiphop producers, community activists, and the changing state of Uganda after its decade-long civil war. The story moves along rapidly, driven by Wong’s engaging and slightly neurotic but always self-aware persona as she comes to grips with her first-world privilege while inadvertently recording a rap album that later climbs the charts in Uganda.

Rappin', The Wong Street Journal, 2015

Rappin’, The Wong Street Journal, 2015

Wong’s gift for lightly and intelligently dealing with hot-button topics like the tumultuous history of Northern Uganda and misperceptions of Africa as a region (which she outlines via the saga of celebrities adopting babies from various countries on the continent), makes The Wong Street Journal highly accessible yet continuously thought-provoking. Wong includes a brief but very useful explanation of white privilege for those who might need it, and which seems especially relevant post-Charleston, followed by the amusing revelation that in Uganda Wong is considered white.

Sewing woman, The Wong Street Journal, 2015

Sewing woman, The Wong Street Journal, 2015

She makes the most of her low-fi aesthetic, most prominently evidenced in the show’s fun and clever felt props and backdrops which include big red felt hashtags and a rolling scroll of felt scenery of Uganda complete with removable velcro’d animals, and which are sewn by Wong herself (proven by the sight of Wong assiduously sitting at a sewing machine fabricating fake dollar bills before the start of the show). There are also a few well-placed bits of video and audio supplementing the story but for the most part it’s all Wong all the time as she fills the stage with her kinetic and engaging, high energy performance.

As Wong notes, the show is all about delving deeper into a subject than a cursory facebook thread can do, proving the value in taking action in real life instead of being glued to the screen night and day. As someone whose primary visual aesthetic experiences are mediated (that is, I watch a lot of movies) it’s always fun for me to see live theater and Wong’s show is one of the most original that I’ve witnessed in a while. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in her ongoing performative observations.

June 30, 2015 at 4:56 pm Leave a comment

This Is How We Do It: Two Thumbs Up at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival and now in the midst of a successful theatrical run in Hong Kong, Two Thumbs Up (dir. Lau Ho-leung ) is a pleasurable timepass with a slapdash absurdist energy that carries it past its shortcomings. It’s also notable for being the second Hong Kong theatrical release this year starring Francis Ng (after Triumph In The Skies), who has mostly been AWOL in the former Crown Colony as he’s been trolling the more lucrative waters of the mainland China film industry for the past few years.

Two Thumbs Up is a caper film about a bunch of low-end crooks who devise the brilliant plan of rehabbing one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red-top mini-buses into a police van and then using it for various larcenous purposes. In particular they aim to intercept a shipment of corpses on the way to the PRC that have illicitly been stuffed with smuggled cash. All goes well until they encounter a second group of crooks with the exact same plan.

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

This one comes favorably handicapped since it has a number of points that make me predisposed to like it:

  • Stars Francis Ng, which to anyone reading this blog should be patently obvious
  • Also stars Simon Yam, another fan favorite around here
  • Dialog in very vulgar Cantonese
  • Cheap, low-budget digital effects that in no way attempt to represent reality
  • Shot in remote, deserted rural nighttime Hong Kong locations to save money and to avoid the local constabulary
  • Includes hyperlocal references like a Softie ice cream truck
  • Slyly refers to the mainlander infestation of Hong Kong, substituting “cockroaches” for “locusts.” NOTE: This bit has apparently been trimmed from the PRC release in order not to offend mainland audiences and thus cut into any potential profit.
  • Garish and ugly, brightly colored polyester costumes
  • The awesome mullet and perm respectively sported by the usually dapper Francis Ng and Simon Yam
  • Rambling and illogical script that hearkens back to improvised Hong Kong comedies of old
  • Sentimental affection for losers, ex-cons, lowlifes and “scum” (the film’s polite translation for pook gai) who are secretly heroic
  • Cynical sneer of gangster gal, played by Christie Chen, who resembles a low-rent Guey Lun-Mei

The movie is a pretty lightweight bit of entertainment that hits its main thematic point pretty hard and pretty often (hoodlums can be heroes too!) but the delight comes in the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having as they run through their familiar paces. The veteran foursome playing the crooks, including Francis, Simon, Mark Cheng, and Patrick Tam, have great chemistry and almost every early scene with them merrily devolves into very loudly shouted Cantonese expletives. Like The Avengers (except not) they each rock individual and distinctly tacky outfits, highlighted by Francis Ng’s amazing extra-long mullet, green fringed jacket, and cowboy boots. Leo Ku as the serious and dedicated cop who uncovers their scheme is a good foil for the cursing and hamboning of the main cast, as is Philip Keung as the leader of the rival gang of crooks.

Some knowledge of Hong Kong film history also helps grease the viewing experience as the movie is rife with self-referential in-jokes and fan service moments. At one point early on in the film Francis Ng’s character (alternately known as Big F or Lucifer, depending on your translation) shows off his mad bowling skilz the local alley where he and his posse are killing time and plotting their big heist. Francis affects his patented swagga not after offing a rival triad but after successfully bowling a strike, which references his many years of gangsta leans throughout the past 20-odd years of Hong Kong movie history. Likewise it’s fun to see Simon Yam playing against his usual suave and debonair type as a frumpy loser with a bad perm living in a subway tunnel.

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

The main foursome are also particularly amusing the first time they stroll out of the van in their policeman drag, with their non-compliant hairstyles and mack-daddy posture, their hats low over their eyes and thumbs slung into their belt loops belying their attempts to pass as respectable coppers. The veteran actors also make their characters likeable enough that once the crew is separated and in jeopardy the audience is actually invested in the fates of the four of them. These little touches make the movie work and goose up an otherwise pretty silly premise.

Although the movie isn’t without many plot holes, directorial obviousness, and failures in narrative logic, the engaging performances of the cast, supplemented by very silly CGI, editing, and art direction, make for a pleasant and entertaining day at the races. It’s certainly no Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled but it’s not as horrible as a lot of Hong Kong product these days either, and at this point in time I’ll take what I can get.

April 20, 2015 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

The Glamorous Life: Human Capital film review

Longing in the dark, Human Capital, 2013

Longing in the dark, Human Capital, 2013

So there was a brief frisson of recognition amongst my film and art pals this morning to the video of Swedish director Ruben Östlund reacting to the news that his film Force Majeure hadn’t been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though it was pretty cheeky of Östlund to assume his film was a shoo-in, a lot of us artist types could totally relate to his mild freakout in a New York City hotel room (“Don’t undress!” pleaded his companion) as he faced this unexpected diss. Since constant rejections are part of the film/art world game, I definitely had a sympathy flinch or two when I watched the clip on my newsfeed. Östlund has since said that his reaction was sincere, (though some observers think he was pranking, especially since the video showed up on his production company’s youtube channel), but whether or not his mancrying was staged or spontaneous, it wasn’t too far from how I’ve felt many a time in the past. Of course, only five films from around the world get nominated and most do not, so Östlund is in plenty good company.

Social foibles, Human Capital, 2013

Social foibles, Human Capital, 2013

Another great movie that didn’t get nominated for the Oscar is Human Capital, Italy’s entry into the foreign-language sweepstakes. Opening this weekend, the movie is a cleverly structured look at class, privilege, greed, and desire in contemporary Italian society. The film opens with a quick sequence of events in which a bicyclist is hit by a car on a lonely country road, with the car’s driver continuing on without stopping. The movie then flashes back six months to deconstruct the events leading up to the hit-and-run from the various points of view of several key players including Dino, a scruffy social climber who mortgages his house to buy into a shady hedge fund, Carla, the anxious wife of said hedge fund’s unctuous manager Giovanni, and Serena, Dino’s teenage daughter who is involved with Carla and Giovanni’s spoiled son Massimiliano. Along the way the film touches on the social and economic divides within Italian society and the price that some people are willing to pay in order to advance themselves.

The film is sleek and fast-moving, efficiently weaving together the disparate versions of the story into a satisfying whole. Director Paolo Virzi has a sharp eye for social foibles and finds a lot of bone-dry humor in the characters’ dire situation. One amusing scene in which a group of catty drama aficionados critique the state of contemporary theater arts demonstrates Virzi’s knack for quickly and clearly delineating character traits and interpersonal tensions. He also elicits uniformly solid performances from his cast, lead by newcomer Matilde Gioli’s levelheaded turn as Serena—also good are veteran actors Fabrizio Bentivoglio as the cluelessly ambitious Dino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mournful, jittery Carla. Though based on a novel originally set in Connecticut, the story makes an effective transition to the suburbs of Milan, with Giovanni’s luxe marble villa, complete with indoor swimming pool and private tennis courts, contrasting with the Dino’s messy middle-class abode.

Moral center, Human  Capital, 2013

Moral center, Human Capital, 2013

Director Virzi uses the multiple-point-of-view narrative technique, popularized in Kurosawa’s Rashoman back in the 1950s, to underscore the vast chasm between the stratified social classes in contemporary Italy. All of the characters believe in the veracity and reliability of their perspectives and for the most part can’t see beyond their own noses, suggesting a lack of empathy that contributes to social anomie. The exception to this is Serena, whose great sympathy for the plight of others makes her the moral center of the film. Virzi privileges her perspective by concluding the film’s fractured narrative structure with Serena’s point of view, which adds a small spark of hope that humanity might still rise up from the depravity, greed, and selfishness embodied by the other characters in the film.

A quick tip: this week is the start of the 13th Noir City Film Festival at the glorious Castro Theater in San Francisco. The ten-day festival is chock full of treats, many projected from 35mm prints. Favorite noir actors including Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and directors Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Robert Siodmak, among many others, have films in the program, which is always a great time. Don’t miss it—I certainly won’t.

Human Capital

Opens January 14,

Landmark Opera Plaza, San Francisco

California Film Institute, San Rafael

Noir City 13

January 14-24, 2015

Castro Theater

San Francisco

January 17, 2015 at 4:31 am Leave a comment

The Ferguson Masterpost: How To Argue Eloquently & Back Yourself Up With Facts

valeriesoe:

I’m in Asia right now so I’m viewing the Ferguson grand jury verdict aftermath from afar, but this article is an outstanding resource for talking about all the issues around it. I can’t add too much more to it since it’s thorough and comprehensive.

Originally posted on [smut & sensibility]:

Introduction From The Curator

Note (11/29/14 at 8:00 PM EST): Holy moly, this got a ton of traction. Thanks to all the folks sharing, commenting, and helping us correct typos, inaccuracies, and the like! Keep it coming! Also please note that comments are moderated to filter out spam & I’m not on my computer 24/7, so responses and updates will not be immediate. We’d love to hear what you’re doing with this information, so definitely let us know of success stories in talking to family-members, using it in lesson-plans, and the like.

The only kind of bombs I fully support are truth-bombs, and that’s why I’ve come together with a group of POC and select White allies to write this post. We feel it’s critical to have conversations about social justice loudly, noticeably, personally as well as systemically, and eloquently*—in this case, specifically around Ferguson, #stoptheparade, #BlackLivesMatter, #IndictAmerica, and…

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November 30, 2014 at 1:11 am Leave a comment

In The Still of the Night: Hong Kong Cinema film series

Plaid and pensive, The Golden Era, 2014

Plaid and pensive, The Golden Era, 2014

2014 was a pretty good year for Hong Kong movies and this year’s Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual film series from the former crown colony, reflects this uptick in cinematic quality. Recent output from brilliant directors Ann Hui, Pang Ho-Cheung and Fruit Chan are part of the mix, superstars Chow Yun-Fat, Tang Wei, Nicholas Tse, and Louis Koo (twice) are featured players, and the films run the gamut from crime thriller (Overheard 3) to youth romance (Uncertain Relationships Society) to wuxia pian (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) and beyond. The series also includes a twentieth-anniversary screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious slice of Hong Kong-meets-the-Nouvelle Vague, Chungking Express, which is definitely worth a watch on the big screen. A few other highlights follow.

From Vegas To Macau (dir. Wong Jing) is a cheesy quasi-sequel to Hong Kong’s many, many successful gambling comedy movies from the 1980s and 90s. Although luminaries including Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Andy Lau Tak-wah made their mark in gambling epics from that time, one of the pillars of the genre is God of Gamblers (1989), starring Chow Yun-Fat and directed by Wong Jing. In From Vegas To Macau Chow and Wong reunite in an attempt to resurrect their glory days, and by extension the glory days of Hong Kong movies, and the current film is a reminder of the best and worst of those times. In the plus column is Chow cutting loose in a wacky Hong Kong comedy, which helps to counter his mostly disappointing 10-plus years sojourn to Hollywood and which enables him to regain his crown as the Chinese god of actors. Appearing in the sidekick role, Nicholas Tse is an earnest straight man, and Chapman To overacts mightily to insure that Cantonese-language cinema’s laff-riot slapstick tradition continues.

Fung jai and Fat gor, From Vegas To Macau, 2014

Fung jai and Fat gor, From Vegas To Macau, 2014

For anyone who’s only familiar with Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic work as a soulful gangster in John Woo movies (and who haven’t seen him as a childlike amnesiac in the original God of Gamblers), this zany farce should be an eye-opener, as Chow turns on the high-pitched giggle and the crazy dance moves as a Ken, the godly gambler/con man at the center of the film. Watching a Wong Jing movie is kind of like blindly sticking your hand into a big mysterious barrel—you never know what random trash you’re going to pull out, and From Vegas To Macau is no exception. Wong strings together a series of vignettes and set pieces without regard to narrative logic, each scene clashing violently with the the others, and the tone of the film swings from action to slapstick to farce, with kung fu, booby-traps, CGI-enhanced card-shuffling, and fat-chick jokes all a part of the overstuffed mix. While it’s not a good movie in any sense of the word, its manic energy and illogical construction combined with the spectacle of Chow Yun-Fat goofing his way through a typical Hong Kong comedy makes it a decent timepass.

Written, The Golden Era, 2014

Written, The Golden Era, 2014

At the other end of the cinematic spectrum is Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, starring Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) as iconographic Chinese author Xiao Hong, who worked during the Republican era in China (she was born in 1911 and died in 1942) and who was one of the first modern-day female writers in the country to gain recognition. The film is beautifully made, with a lot of money evident in the stunning cinematography, costumes, and art direction, and boasts an excellent cast, but at three hours it’s overly long and at times glacially paced. The film makes liberal use of direct address, including an opening speech by Xiao Hong herself as she announces her birth and death dates, adding a self-reflexive layer to the narrative structure. Tang Wei is thoughtful and arresting as Xiao Hong, who was born into a patrician Chinese family but subsequently lived in poverty and uncertainty for much of her short life. However, her performance lacks a sense of agency and ferocity that a more intense actor might have brought to the role. In addition, those viewers unfamiliar with Xiao Hong’s body of work might be at a loss as to her significance, although many of the supporting characters repeatedly attest to her importance in China’s literary canon. Still, it’s interesting to see what director Hui has done with a generously budgeted film set in historical mainland China, since much of her oeuvre have been in the vein of A Simple Life or The Way We Are, which are much more quickly sketched stories deeply rooted in contemporary Hong Kong. Although there are stylistic differences between those movies and this one, Hui’s filmic intelligence shines through, as she’s made a smart and intriguing picture about the intersections of history, art, politics, and creativity.

Life in miniature, Aberdeen, 2014

Life in miniature, Aberdeen, 2014

Splitting the difference between Wong Jing and Ann Hui is Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen, which is an engaging look at contemporary Hong Kong through the lens of several intertwined relationships. The film follows the lives of the members of two related families, including a thirty-something actress/model (Gigi Leung) who is transitioning from her ingénue stage to something less well-received; her husband (Louis Koo), who is concerned that their daughter isn’t as pretty as he thinks she should be; his sister (Miriam Yeung), who’s obsessed with her fraught relationship with her late mother; and her husband (Eric Tsang), a doctor who’s making time with his receptionist. Intercut with these various subplots are a beached whale, unexploded WWII ordnance in the heart of Hong Kong, fantasy sequences with larger-than-life lizards, and Taoist funeral rituals. By interweaving these disparate elements director Cheung examines notions of beauty, fame, family, and loyalty amidst the backdrop of modern-day Hong Kong. The film continues in the vein of much of Cheung’s past work exploring Hong Kong life and relationships, which range from the brilliantly satirical Vulgaria to the rom-com Love In A Puff to the dark and disturbing Isabella.

In some ways Aberdeen recalls the glory days of UFO, the United Filmmkaers Organization production house that back in the 1990s was responsible for a slew of dramedies including Dr. Mack; Heaven Can’t Wait; Tom, Dick, and Hairy; and Twenty Something. UFO movies were smarter and less formulaic than the typical commercial Hong Kong output of the time and starred early 1990s superstars like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fei, Karen Mok, Jordan Chan, and Anita Yuen, all of whom were looking for prestige projects that were a break from Kong Kong’s usual kung-fu historicals or generic crime movies. Aberdeen carries on in this tradition, which stars current A-listers Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Eric Tsang, and Gigi Leung, as well as appearances from Hong Kong movie vets Ng Man-tat and Carrie Ng, in a quality production by a name-brand director. For the most part, although flawed, Aberdeen is infinitely more intelligent and watchable than much recent commercial Hong Kong cinema and gives its cast members a good opportunity to stretch out and to exercise their acting chops.

Hong Kong Cinema runs from Nov. 14-17, 2014 at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco. Go here for ticketing and full schedule.

November 11, 2014 at 3:25 am Leave a comment

Cool Like That: Who We Be book review

WWB_cover

Jeff Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press), dropped last week and it arrives as the United States is in the midst of another particularly fraught period of racial politics. As recent events in Ferguson, MO have indicated, Chang’s book argues that we as a country and a culture are a long way from becoming the post-racial society supposedly heralded by the election of Barack Obama, yet despite the seemingly dire straits that we’re in, all is not hopeless. In WWB Chang recounts the effects of the changing demographics in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, from desegregation through multiculturalism to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and beyond, investigating the ways in which visual culture intersects with current and historical events.

WWB is an amazing tome, encompassing topics as broad as the civil rights movement and as focused as Budweiser’s “Wassup” ad campaign. The book is an outstanding look at the ways in which we as a people in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have moved through a sea change of perceptions, representations, and reflections of racial relations.

Beginning in the 1960s, Chang’s book interweaves topics as diverse as the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the subprime mortgage scandal, Occupy Wall Street, and the psychology of advertising. Chang focuses on a range of culture creators including cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comic strip Wee Pals featured a multiracial cast of kids, Faith Ringgold, an early advocate for the Black Arts Movement, Daniel Martinez, known for his performance art/museum tag/culture bomb from the 1993 Whitney Bienniel, and Shepard Fairey, designer of both the Andre The Giant “Obey” street art campaign and the 2008 Obama “Hope” image.

Jeff Chang in situ, photo Keith Villaluz

Jeff Chang in situ, photo Keith Villaluz

Chang does a great job exploring the ways in which real life, visual art, and commerce interact and influence each other. For instance, Chang explores a proto-multiculti Coke ad campaign from the early 70s that tried to latch onto the youth culture and nascent ethnic studies movement of the time but that didn’t mention any of the harsher realities of, say, the Watts riots. Another section of the book drills down into the racism and elitism of the 1980s and 90s New York visual arts scene, including a particularly culturally tone-deaf incident surrounding the white artist responsible for “The Nigger Drawings.” Chang closely examines this volatile period during which contemporary arts gatekeepers like the New York Times, gallery directors, and curators were forced to confront their biases against creative work by artists of color and queer artists, which reached a crescendo during the controversial 1993 Whitney Bienniel, which was vilified by the art establishment as “a theme park of the oppressed.” Chang then discusses the ways in which these so-called culture wars in turn lead to the commercialized multiracialism of the United Colors of Benetton “Colors” magazine and ad campaign.

Chang also astutely looks at what he calls “the paradox of the post-racial moment,” wherein the U.S can elect Barack Obama president, yet still has trouble reconciling Obama’s biracial identity. Chang’s analysis is particularly keen when exploring the current confused state of race relations in the U.S., describing what he calls the tendency for many people to be “colormute,” that is, to avoid talking about race for fear of being accused of racism. He ironically notes the convoluted logic behind those who frown on discussing race in any way, stating, “If bad people had used race to divide and debase . . . then good people would be polite to never acknowledge race at all. It was better not to say anything than to risk being seen as a racist.”

Chang concludes his book with two contrasting case studies–a detailed look at George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that addresses the citizenship status of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. while children. By juxtaposing these two cases Chang emphasizes the fact that, while the Martin killing demonstrates that the U.S. remains far from being a post-racial society, there is still reason for hope, as seen in the increased activism by immigrant youth of color under the DREAM Act.

Chang’s writing is clear and accessible, and his analysis is thoughtful, concise, and innovative. Though by no means a dis on the theory queens among us (and you know who you are), after recently wading through a few visual culture publications, it’s a pleasure and a relief to read an author who writes with clarity without sacrificing intelligent intellectual commentary. Who We Be is a significant and essential addition to the study of contemporary U.S. art, culture, and politics.

Jeff Chang is on a book tour to promote WWB! Find out more here.

October 28, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

Que Caramba Es La Vida: Mill Valley Film Festival 2014

 

Maria del Carmen , Que Caramba Es La Vida, 2014

Maria del Carmen, Que Caramba Es Mi Vida, 2014

The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2014 edition starts this weekend and as per usual it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances by the likes of Hilary Swank, Jason Reitman, Billy Joe Armstrong, Ellie Fanning, Laura Dern, Metallica, and many more Hollywood glitterati. The program also boasts an outstanding lineup of documentaries, including several by local filmmakers, so the reasons for driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (or the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, depending on your homebase) are manifold.

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

This year the festival is spotlighting Spanish-language cinema from around the world, including the excellent documentary Que Caramba Es La Vida, an intriguing portrait of the fierce and talented women mariachis of Mexico City. Directed by veteran German filmmaker Doris Dörrie, the movie documents the experiences of several female performers working to make a mark in a field dominated by men. The film is shot mostly verite-style with no narration, as each of the women describes how she came to be a mariachi and why she continues in the business. Some come from mariachi families, with parents or grandparents who performed before them, while others are the first in their families to perform. A particularly compelling story is that of Maria del Carmen, a mariachi singer who lives with her single mom and young daughter in a small apartment in Mexico City. Del Carmen’s mother recalls that even as a girl, her daughter Maria had a voice “that went right through you,” and this is pretty apparent after hearing del Carmen soulfully belt out a couple songs in the Plaza Garabaldi, which is home to scores of mariachi bands plying their trade every night. The film depicts del Carmen’s everyday performance prep routine, as her mom and daughter help her with her makeup and hair, as well as revealing her concerns for her daughter’s future as a female growing up working-class in Mexico. The movie also follows Las Pioneras, a group of older female mariachi groups whose members who are now in their sixties and seventies and who started out as mariachis in the 1950s as teenagers and young women. The last quarter of the movie follows the Dia de los Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, neatly contextualizing the mariachi tradition. Que Caramba Es La Vida effectively looks at some of the social and cultural milieu surrounded the women, including the effects of drug dealers, misogyny, poverty, and crime on their ability to keep performing.

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Mexican music of a different sort is profiled in For Those About To Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rock journalist and first-time director Alejandro Franco narrates his very accessible portrait of the popular Mexico City guitar duo, from their roots in the capital listening to thrash and heavy metal like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer as teenagers. Both subjects are fluent in English and were raised in middle-class Mexican families, so their stories for the most part are very different from their mariachi counterparts in Dörrie’s film. The film is a standard biopic of a successful musical outfit so, unless you’re a big Rodrigo y Gabriela fan, the movie is less compelling than Dorrie’s movie. The film starts out strong, quickly and succinctly contextualizing the Mexico rock music scene, but bogs down in the middle as it becomes a fairly  linear recounting of R&G’s career.Although the film is about musicians, one of its shortcoming is that there isn’t actually enough of R&G’s music in the earlier part of film, so if you’re unfamiliar with the duo you might not know what the fuss is all about. The film makes the mistake of telling and not showing, which weakens its impact—there are a lot of talking heads explaining things and not enough things happening instead. Whereas Que Caramba takes place on the streets and in the plazas of Mexico City, For Those About To Rock happens mostly in recording studios, backstage, and at clubs, and concerts, and is more of a fannish tribute about legend-building than an incisive look at the duo. There is also not much dramatic tension—the director refers to the story as a “fairy tale’ and it’s presented as such, with R&G destined to achieve their rock star ambitions. The viewer learns very little about either musician’s personal life or any deep, compelling reasons for why they make music other than “it’s fun”, and the film lacks a strong sense of a cultural context for who they are and where they came from. The film ends with about ten minutes of live concert footage that only underscores the relative paucity of music in the rest of the film, which may be enough of a reason for admirers of Rodrigo y Gabriela to watch the film.

The Mill Valley Film Festival eleven days beginning on Oct. 2 in various theaters in and around Mill Valley. Go here for complete schedule and ticket information.

October 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

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