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Fun and Games: Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons and The Guillotines film reviews

Journey-to-the-West-2013-Movie-Image

Don’t mess with Sun Wukong, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

I recently had the chance to view two of last year’s top box-office draws from China, both of which are Hong Kong/China co-productions helmed by A-list Hong Kong directors. Both Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons are flashy, expensive commercial spectacles, but one shows much more directorial flair and cohesion of vision than the other.

Although it has about as much in common with the classic Chinese text as did A Chinese Odyssey, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s last riff on the Monkey King legend (which is to say, not a whole lot), Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is still a brilliant film nonetheless. The narrative follows Zhang Wen, a callow and ineffectual demon hunter being chased by a much more competent and coincidentally beautiful demon hunter, Duan, (Shu Qi) who keeps futilely throwing herself at him. As with A Chinese Odyssey, the movie has a philosophical bent hidden under its humor, as Zhang Wen tries to balance between greater and lesser love while struggling to maintain his chastity in the face of earthly temptation (aka Duan).

Don't mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Don’t mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Chow Sing-Chi is in top directorial form with this one, mixing up pathos, slapstick, crude humor, and CGI. His singular cinematic vision is in full effect, starting with a long set piece involving a fish demon that takes its cue from Jaws, Super Mario Brothers, and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. Stephen Chow’s great gift is his visual virtuosity, his skill with deadpan absurdity, and his ability to draw out great comic performances from his actors. Although some of the CGI animals are a bit cartoonlike, some images are sheer genius, such as the brilliant and beautiful image of a bodhisattva gazing over the curve of the earth from outer space.  Shu Qi is also outstanding, by turns fierce, giddy, and charming as the demon hunter smitten by her younger colleague. She and Huang Bo, as one incarnation of the Monkey King, have an outstanding improvisational moment late in the film as Sun Wukong teaches Duan how to dance.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is essentially a very long backstory to its supposed inspiration about the Monkey King and his travels. The film has become the highest grossing Chinese-language film in China to date, so a sequel is now in the works, hopefully with some acting role for Chow as well (he doesn’t appear in this one). Quite possibly the second film will more closely follow the classic story, though with Stephen Chow that’s never a guarantee.

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

The Guillotines is another redux of a classic Chinese story, this time remaking Master of the Flying Guillotine, the seminal 1970s kung fu movie that starred Jimmy Wang Yu and the titular spinning metal decapitation machine. While director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) infuses the film with a dusty, gritty feel and some fun fighting sequences, the movie still somehow falls short. The Guillotines follows an elite band of Imperial assassins who find themselves entangled in court politics and who are forced to flee the vengeance of the new regime. Starring 21st century movie idol youngsters including Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Ruan, and Shawn Yue, (who hail from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively), The Guillotines was the number one film in China for a couple weeks before rapidly dropping off the box office charts. Despite its roots as an action film the movie is a bit of a downer as, aside from the thrilling opening sequence full of blood and fancy CGI, the assassins don’t actually get to demonstrate much of their prowess with the weapon that is their namesake.

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Director Lau is an outstanding cinematographer and his camerawork and compositions make great use of light, shadow, and dust, but despite bromances between the various handsome and brooding characters, the film’s tale of betrayal and brotherhood is somehow less compelling than it should be. Continuing to stake his claim as the movie king of the future, Taiwanese popstar and Golden Horse award-winner Ethan Ruan shows some charisma as the Guillotine with a past. The ordinarily dapper Huang Xiaoming, recently seen as the young Chow Yun Fat counterpart in The Last Tycoon, is less effective as the renegade Guillotine, in part due to his ill-advised beard, flowing hair, and sacrificial, Christ-like demeanor. Still, the movie is an enjoyable time-pass and, with Andrew Lau’s high-caliber cinematography and production design, it’s probably pretty stunning to look at on the big screen.

Both films show the continued integration of Hong Kong and China’s commercial film interests. If mainland money means that Stephen Chow keeps making movies, then I’m all for it, since in Journey To The West he seems to have maintained a firm grip on his singular aesthetic. But the flip side of HK/China co-production is good-looking but unsatisfying big-budget movies like The Guillotines. With all of the high-end competition from commercial cinema product from Hollywood, Bollywood, China, or beyond, a movie has to have a more than slick good looks to stand out from the crowd.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons

Blu-ray disc now available from yesasia.com

The Guillotines

Opens June 14

Presidio Theater in San Francisco

June 8, 2013 at 3:38 pm Leave a comment

More Than This: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Last Life in the Universe_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Mythic, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).

Last Life in the Universe 3_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Desultory, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery,  suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.

Headshot 2_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Kino Lorber

Merit-making, Headshot, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2011

Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.

Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.

Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

April 4-21, 2013

Pen-ek Ratanaruang in Person April 4 and 7, 2013

Full schedule and tickets here.

April 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm Leave a comment

Teenage kicks: Battle Royale and Girlfriend Boyfriend film reviews

Don’t make me, Battle Royale, 2001

Two very different movies about adolescent angst are now playing in the Bay Area. Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary Battle Royale (2001) has its long-delayed U.S. theatrical premiere at the San Francisco Film Society and the Taiwanese flick Girlfriend Boyfriend is rolling out in selected theaters around the country, including here in San Francisco.

My older kid was born around the time Battle Royale was first came out so I missed it back in 2001—this is the first time I’ve seen Fukasaku’s brilliant and infamous swan song. Aside from scattered festival and one-night screenings BR’s never had a theatrical release in the U.S. until now, but with the popularity of The Hunger Games (much inferior, by the way), it’s now getting a limited release. After more than a decade, Battle Royale doesn’t disappoint—it’s everything it’s cracked up to be and more. The concept may be sensationalist (a game where 15-year-old kids fight to the death) but the movie itself is much more than exploitation. This is economical storytelling at its best.

Director Fukusaku draws out great performances from his teenage cast, quickly and effectively sketching out their complicated relationships in a few rapid strokes. The fact that the students aren’t strangers but classmates with prior emotional relationships only adds to the frisson, and their adolescent dilemmas—who’s crushing on who, which girls are the top clique, how the popular and the excluded kids get on—are magnified to a fatal pitch by the movie’s premise. Most of us can totally relate to the situation, which adds another layer to the vicarious experience—who among us didn’t fantasize about taking an Uzi to a particular mean girl or mindless bully?

Emotional frisson, Battle Royale, 2001

Fukasaku is masterful in executing (sorry) each vignette and the pacing and plot are spot on. The scene where the five happy schoolgirls suddenly turn their machine-guns on each other is amazing moviemaking at its best, particularly since it’s perfectly set up. The story arc of cold-hearted beyotch Mitsuko is also particularly brilliant as her backstory slowly reveals a much deeper motivation than plain self-interest or villainy. Not just simple exploitation, this is smart, smart stuff.

Although there have been a ton of extreme movies since its first release that go far beyond BR’s violence, Battle Royale’s slaughter always has an impact because the characters are more than simple cannon fodder. What Park Chan-Wook understands and Takashi Miike still doesn’t get is that an audience’s attachment to a character heightens the effect of the gore. Which is why the fact that the plight of (mostly) unwilling killers in BR has such a great effect—their backstories add meaning and that meaning adds a punch that goes beyond the visceral to the emotional.

Three in one, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

Youthful angst takes a totally different turn in Girlfriend Boyfriend (GF BF), China Lion’s latest China/U.S. day-and-date release. GF BF is a slick drama with an unusual love triangle about Taiwanese youth coming of age in the last couple decades of the 20th century. The movie is nicely restrained and avoids veering toward excess even when the narrative steers over melodramatic waters.

The opening sequence, a present-day boxer rebellion of sorts at a Taiwanese girls school, frames the main story, which takes place mostly in 1980s & 90s Taiwan. Mabel (Guey Lun-Mei ), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughn), and Liam (Joseph Chang) are best friends in high school during the waning days of KMT martial law. The movie follows them as they come of age during the Wild Lily student movement of the early 90s and through their lives as young adults. The film touches lightly on youth uprisings of the 1990s but those events are really only a backdrop to the love story and mostly serve as a metaphor for the youthful rebellion of the protagonists.

All three leads are quite good—Joseph Chang resembles a young Simon Yam (i.e., ridiculously good-looking) and is effective as the conflicted Liam. Guey Lun-Mei has been one of my favorite young actors lately and she holds her own as the pivot of the triangle. British-Taiwanese actor Rhydian Vaughn, last seen rocking a mullet as one of the gangsta boys in the ‘hood in Monga, is charming and goofy with his million-dollar smile.

Joseph Chang and Rhydian Vaugh, pretty boys, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

The movie makes some interesting points about sexuality, although the story arc of one of the main characters grappling with his desire is a bit mopey for my tastes. His angsty. quasi-closeted behavior, however, is offset by the out-and-proud queerness of one of the supporting characters.

As noted by my buddy Anita, the movie was shot on film (though digitally projected) and the cinematography is aces, with some gorgeous, incandescent shots. The look of the film transmutes smoothly from the dull green utilitarianism of the 1980s Taiwanese high school to the glowing sheen of millennial Taipei. The three leads age convincingly, with the aid of various wigs and hairstyles, with Guey in particular conveying the brashness of late teenhood through a more sober early adulthood.

August 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm 2 comments

Better Things: 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Pissed off, Gandhu, 2012

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival opens tonight at the Roxie Theater and as usual it’s a great chance to see movies that might never again get local theatrical screenings. The festival has gotten more global since its modest inception back in 1998, and this year’s lineup includes three Asian-themed features that demonstrate the SFIFF’s wide range of programming.

From India, director Q’s Gandhu (which roughly translates as “asshole,” “loser,” or “idiot’) is a punk rock, black-and-white opus that follows the daily misadventures of the title character. Gandhu wanders the mean streets of Kolkata with a perpetual scowl, existing in a nihilistic limbo as he fails to connect with most of humanity. Interspersed throughout the movie are short musical rants where Gandhu rails against the injustices in his life and generally blows off steam. Billed as “anti-Bollywood,” the movie is a fun, scruffy alternative to the glitzy, monolithic Hindi-language film industry.

Cake frosting or psychosis? Monsters Club, 2011

Monsters Club deals with a crazed Japanese Unabomber who sees dead people. Bad boy filmmaker Toyoda Toshiaki became interested in Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto and out of that interest grew this dark meditation on life, death, suicide, technology, society and the state. Main character Ryuichi lives in an isolated, snow-covered mountain cabin where he bathes in an icy outdoor shower, cooks spartan meals of cabbage and brown rice, and builds deadly bombs in cigar boxes that he mails to entertainment and journalism CEOs. Yet despite its focus on a mad bomber the film isn’t action-packed—rather, it’s more like a voayge inside the head of the disturbed protagonist. After a visit from his younger sister Ryoichi begins to have visions of his dead brothers, one of whom committed suicide and the other who died in a motorcycle accident. The film’s stark white snowy landscape reflects the vastness of Ryoichi’s psychic anomie as he tries to come to grips with his own violent reaction to what he perceives as the corruption of modern society.

Girljock, No Look Pass, 2011

No Look Pass (dir. Melissa Johnson) follows Emily Tay, Burmese American basketball star for the Harvard women’s team, as she deals with pressures both on and off the court. Included in these are living up to the expectations of her immigrant Burmese parents, who hope she’ll marry rich and settle down after college. Emily’s got other plans, however, including romances with a cheerleader and a female soldier she meets in Germany while playing in the European leagues after graduation. The movie starts strong as Emily deals with the various challenges of her last year in college, but loses steam once she graduates and the narrative moves to Europe. The film also gives short shrift to the Asian American aspects of Emily’s story–at one point she states, “If it were up to me I’d rather be white,” but this startling statement isn’t really followed up. The film also discusses her Burmese parents’ flight from their homeland but doesn’t do much significant investigation into how their refugee experience might impact their aspirations for their children. Instead we see them as stereotypically demanding Asian parents, with (tiger) mom always scowling disapproval despite her daughter’s amazing accomplishments. There are, however, some excellent behind-the-scenes sports moments as we get to witness Emily’s Harvard coach and her coach in Germany both screaming profanities at their respective teams, a tactic that they apparently use to motivate their players.

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival

Feb. 9-23, 2012

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-3327

(415) 863-1087 ‎

http://sfindie.festivalgenius.com/2012/

February 10, 2012 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

Too Much Heaven, Part Three: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Buzz Chung, astronaut, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days.  Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.

Punished

A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.

Moral choices, Anthony Wong and Richie Jen, Punished, 2010

Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.

In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.

Meeting cute, Gao Yuan Yuan and Daniel Wu, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, 2011

Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.

Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

Choices, Teddy Robin and Ella Koon, Merry-Go-Round, 2010

Merry-Go-Round

Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.

Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”

Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.

Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.

Shoemaking, Simon Yam and Sandra Ng, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

Echoes of the Rainbow

A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.

The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.

Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.

Ass-kicking, Sandra Ng, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible

A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.

Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.

Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).

Hong Kong Cinema

Sept. 23-25, 2011

San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema

1746 Post Street, San Francisco

San Francisco

full schedule and film descriptions here

September 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm 1 comment

Too Much Heaven, Part Two: City of Life and Death and Detective Dee reviews

Andy Lau, sleuthing, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.

City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010

My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing).  City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.

Civilians, City of Life and Death, 2010

At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.

As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.

Atrocities, City of Life and Death, 2010

Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.

A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010

Andy Lau investigates, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.

Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.

Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.

Phatasmagoria, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.

At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.

Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.

City of Life & Death

opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011

Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema

601 Van Ness Ave.

San Francisco, CA 94102

(415) 267-4893

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

now showing

Landmark Embarcadero Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 267-4893

Landmark Shattuck Cinema

2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 464-5980

September 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm 3 comments

Too Much Heaven: Shaolin, My Kingdom, and Love In Space movie reviews

Aaron Kwok and Rene Liu in zero-gee, with chocolate, Love In Space

For those of us lucky enough to be in the Bay Area, San Francisco is going to be an epicenter of theatrical Chinese-language film screenings as in the next couple months we are about to get slammed by a profusion of movies from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Two film festivals plus several open-run screenings will be taking place in the last part of 2011, giving us sinophile film otaku many chances to partake of our favorite addiction on the big screen. In fact, there are so many Chinese-language movies playing in the next couple months that this is the first of at least three posts on the subject, with upcoming entries on two more movies from Hong Kong and China next week, as well as two film festivals sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) respectively focusing on Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With China’s increasing financial clout and the subsequent meteoric rise in the Chinese film industry (64 percent growth last year, to US$1.6 billion; 526 films produced in 2010, up 15%; and 6,000 new cinemas planned for next year) we are witnessing a new era of Chinese-language films.  For better or worse the Chinese film industry has grown exponentially in the past decade and with the inexorable integration of the finest talents from the Hong Kong film industry, Chinese cinema has evolved from the arthouse-oriented political allegories of the 20th century to highly accessible commercial fare like the three films releasing this week. Shaolin, My Kingdom and Love In Space, opening in the U.S. on Sept. 9, represent the new paradigm of Chinese filmmaking and their appearance in U.S. theaters, along with and other upcoming Hong Kong and Chinese releases, heralds a trend toward increased Chinese theatrical releases in this country. These three recent Chinese-language films, one from Hong Kong and two from mainland China, also reflect the trend toward Hong Kong-China co-productions, as all three are cross-pollinated projects with talent both from Hong Kong and “the North.”

Andy Lau and Wu Jing, monks, Shaolin

Now playing at the Four-Star Theater (and also playing at the San Francisco Film Society’s New People theater on Sept. 28-29) is Shaolin, director Benny Chan’s historical martial arts film involving warlords, monks, and lots of kung fu. Shaolin is an exhilarating big-budget spectacle that captures a lot of the fun of classic 1990s HK moviemaking—although the producers claim the movie is a tribute to Jet Li’s debut film from 1986, the storyline doesn’t have a lot to do with that old-school kung fu classic, aside from having a cadre of righteous, kick-ass monks defending the honor of the legendary martial arts stomping ground. This Shaolin is set in the Republican era of the early 20th century when ruthless warlords duked it out for domination of their various fiefdoms. Superstar (and my favorite Heavenly King) Andy Lau ably anchors the film as an ambitious warlord who tragically learns the error of his ways. He’s aging beautifully, and that aquiline nose and perfect jawline look as photogenic now as they did twenty-five years ago. Nicholas Tse as Andy’s adversary is a bit less effective, overacting his way through his villainous role decked out in shiny black boots and an evil sneer. Wu Jing leads a group of crack martial artists as awesome Shaolin monks defending their sacred turf. Jackie Chan’s supporting role as the temple cook provides him a fun little fight scene, as Chan uses woks, cleavers, and other kitchen implements to showcase his trademark comic kung fu style.  

Also outstanding is Cory Yuen’s fantastic action choreography, which includes a furious fight on wheels during a nighttime horse and carriage chase through the city as well as excellent hand-to-hand martial arts with bad-ass monks showing off their mad skilz, armed only with wooden staffs or their bare hands against rifle-carrying bad guys. As with many Chinese co-productions these days there are also the obligatory sadistic European actors maniacally giggling their way through senseless destruction. Fan Bing Bing (not to be confused with Li Bing Bing) is effective as Andy Lau’s wife, though she mostly just bats her eyes and weeps.

The film’s scenery, art direction, and cinematography are all top-notch–if this is the future of Hong Kong films then I’m all for it. Veteran HK director Benny Chan does a great job scaling up and the movie blends the big-budget production values of recent mainland films with the heart and emotion of Hong Kong movies.

Han Geng, popstar, with porkpie, My Kingdom

Two other films from China also open up Stateside today from distributor China Lion, which has been putting out series of monthly day-and-date releases of Chinese commercial films. The lineup has been a somewhat random and diverse slate of pics including 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (officially banned in China but a massive hit in Hong Kong), the weepy Shu Qi/Liu Ye melodrama A Beautiful Life, and the Chinese Communist Party epic Beginning of the Great Revival.

Its release postponed a month due to the success of 3D Sex & Zen, My Kingdom is an action melodrama played out against the backdrop of classical Chinese opera. The film has the typically high production values of current commercial Chinese films and nicely recreates 1920s Shanghai, with great art direction and cinematography. But the 90-minute movie is very slight in comparison with the big kahuna of Chinese opera movies, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. While Chen’s film was a vast, emotionally wrenching epic writ large across twentieth-century Chinese history, My Kingdom focuses on a much smaller story of love, revenge, and opera.

Yuen Biao and staff, My Kingdom

The movie also suffers from the callowness of its lead performers, with Sinopop idols Wu Chun and Han Geng cast as Yi-Long and Er-Kui, sworn brothers trained as “opera warriors.” Although Wu occasionally works up to a good smolder, the wide-eyed Han seems a bit overwhelmed by his role and never really seems like a man consumed by a desire for vengeance. Barbie Hsu is adequate as the opera troupe’s lead actress but she’s not convincing as a diva, much less one desired by most of the male cast. The three leads also are less than stellar in their opera performances, and the choreography in some of these scenes is also pretty uninspired. The exception is when the fabulous Yuen Biao, one of Jackie Chan’s “brothers,” shows up at the beginning of the movie in a brief role as the Yi-Long and Er-Kui’s sifu. Both his acting and his footwork demonstrate Yuen’s genuine Chinese opera training, and showcase “big brother” Sammo Hung and Chin Kar-lok’s fluid and efficient action choreography.

The film’s producers were clearly aiming for the youth market, but the singers cast here are not quite up to the task of driving the emotional, convoluted plotline. Especially miscast is the floppy-haired actor who plays a scheming policeman–the actor looks about 22 years old and his haircut seems to be channeling Justin Bieber. However, the movie is an interesting example of the ongoing integration of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese commercial film productions, with Hong Kong stalwarts such as Yuen and Hung teaming up with their younger mainland co-stars.

Also from China Lion is Love In Space, the only modern-day film of the three on the docket this week. Love In Space follows the romantic adventures of three sisters, an actress, an artist, and, yes, an astronaut, in Bejing, Sydney, and orbiting around the planet. This fun and fanciful little film reflects co-director Wing Shya’s whimsical fashion photography–it also stars a slew of pop stars (including three generations of male idols–Aaron Kwok, Eason Chan, and Jing Boran) who are put to better effect than their compatriots in My Kingdom.

Guey Lun-Mei and Eason Chan get wacky, Love In Space

Most effective are Cantopop king Eason Chan and Guey Lun-Mei (who kicked ass in Dante Lam’s crime thriller The Stool Pigeon) who play a garbageman and his germ-phobic love interest. Both Chan and Guey have mobile, expressive faces and excellent comic timing, and their story is the most fun and engaging to follow. Also good, though a bit more twee, are Angelbaby and Jing Boran as a movie-star-in-hiding and her spunky, watermelon-selling suitor. Oddly enough, the least compelling story features Rene Liu and Heavenly King Aaron Kwok as estranged lovers working together on a space station. The space-station set and the constantly revolving camerawork suggest a rom-com Solaris, and the soundtrack even features The Blue Danube waltz from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the storyline is predictable and Liu and Kwok’s performances are unconvincing. However, the movie as a whole is a delightful confection and a far cry from the dour political allegories of Chinese filmmakers from the 20th century.

Next week will find Indomina Pictures continued U.S. rollout of Tsui Hark’s blockbuster Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, as well as the World War II drama The City of Life and Death. Relativity Media also recently announced a deal with SAIF Partners and IDG China Media to produce and distribute Chinese films for the international market. With more product comes the need for more consumers and, although the billion-person Chinese market is a good start, the Chinese film industry sees more income ripe for the picking in the international market. As an Asian film aficionado I see no reason to complain–seeing movies on the big screen beats torrenting any day. It will also be interesting to see how the demands of the international market further affect the look and feel of Chinese cinema in the 21st century.

Shaolin

Four-Star Theater

4 Star Theater

2200 Clement Street

San Francisco

(415) 519-8716

NOTE: live perfomance by Shaolin monks, Friday, Sept. 9, 8p, free

 Love in Space and My Kingdom

AMC Loews Metreon

16101 Fourth Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

(888) 262-4386

AMC Cupertino Square 16

10123 North Wolfe Road

Cupertino, CA 95014

(888) 262-4386

September 9, 2011 at 11:38 pm 7 comments

Identity: Chico & Chang and Stephanie Syjuco

Hipster Pig, Pablo Cristi, 2011, plaster, denim, fake gold, and wood

In the late 1990s I vividly recall visiting a class at UC Berkeley to show my work, after which one of the students, a nice Asian American kid, came up to me and said, “I really liked your videos, but are you really interested in all of that identity stuff?” Nearly 15 years later, my students at SF State see Jabbawockeez, and Harry Shum Jr. on their Tivo all the time, and Far East Movement is topping the charts, yet simultaneously they’re dealing with Hollywood’s stubborn refusal to abandon whitewashing (Akira, anyone?) and the teabaggers retro-paranoid siege mentality, while some people continue to deny that Mickey Rooney’s yellowface turn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s is racist. So I’m not completely convinced that identity politics are obsolete, and I’m happy to see young artists of color still examining issues of race, culture, and representation.

Chico & Chang, 2011, installation view, Intersection 5M, San Francisco

Two recent San Francisco shows look at Multiculturalism 2.0. Intersection 5M’s newest show, Chico & Chang: A Look at the Impact of Latino and Asian Cultures on California’s Visual Landscape, deals with this crazy transitional time we’re living in, examining the inexorable demographics shifts in this country and the unexpected ways that U.S. culture is changing to reflect that shift. Organized by Intersection’s indomitable visual artists program director Kevin Chen, this chock full of energy and good information and includes several choice tidbits that bring multiculturalism into the current millennium.

Right up front is Pablo Christi’s clever and arresting Hipster Pig. A life-size mounted patchwork denim hog’s head with gilded chicken-foot necklace, Christi’s sculpture critiques the new snout-to-tail foodie movement that fetishes consuming every bit of the butchered animal.

I immediately recognized the chicken foot adorning the pig’s neck since my dad loved sucking down those bones long before Anthony Bourdain made it trendy. Likewise my grandmother’s stockpot was full of necks, wings, feet, and chicken heads, which horrified her grandchildren but made for excellent soup. Who knew that she and Pops were such culinary trailblazers? I’m sure they was just trying to save a buck, whereas the foodies that Christi critiques are making bank selling bone marrow and fish cheeks to gullible upscale consumers. Funny how poor people eating fish stomach don’t make it onto The Food Network very often.

Carry On, Ana Teresa Fernandez, 2011, detail, mixed media

Ana Teresa Fernandez’ installation Carry On possesses an immediate visual appeal. Fernandez has created a kitchen tableau with all objects, including floor, walls, furnishings, food packaging, clothes, ironing board, and crucifix, covered in the fabric from the plaid plastic shopping bags usually found on the arms of the ladies on the 30 Stockton and the 14 Mission. Not unlike applying an “ethnic plastic bag” filter onto a photoshopped picture, the immediately recognizable pattern of the installation’s surfaces cleverly underscores Chico & Chang’s curatorial premise. By pointing out the ubiquity of said plastic bags in both Asian and Latin American communities, Fernandez’ project speaks volumes about the Asian/Latino cultural intersections and iterates Asian and Latino influences on U.S. culture at large.

Charlene Tan’s Silent Labor investigates a more poignant topic, examining an overlooked aspect of immigrant life in the U.S., as well as the global impact of our hyperconsumerist society.

Tan notes in her artist’s statement,

When I was 14 a family friend gave us an old traditional Chinese-style table. We swooned because my family had just bought a new home and we needed furniture. As we unpacked the table piece by piece my younger brother and I noticed handprints in dust on the finished surfaces. Thinking nothing of it, we chirped about the small size of the hands, thinking it was an errant child playing in the storeroom. Then, we saw small handprints in wood stain and shellac. Our hearts sank when we realized the hands smaller than ours built our table. Silent anger laced with guilt took over; we could be these unknown workers.

Silent Labor, Charlene Tan, 2011, (sculpture on floor), wood, mirror plexi, shellac, latent print powder

In her piece Tan references this experience, replicating a black IKEA-style table under which she has placed a large mirror. Nothing amiss is evident on the tabletop, but below, visible only in the mirror’s reflection, are small handprints on the underside of the table. Tan’s piece is a subtle commentary on the hidden human cost of the cheap imported goods that power the U.S. economy.

RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest, 2011, Stephanie Syjuco, installation view, archival Epson photo prints mounted on lasercut wood, hardware, platforms, crates

Just up the street at Catherine Clark Gallery, Stephanie Syjuco’s  “RAIDERS: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (Selections from the A_____ A__ M_____), is an outstanding prank on art collecting, orientalism, and intellectual property. Syjuco downloads reproductions of collectibles from the Asian Art Museum’s website, blows them up life-size, and mounts them on propped-up plywood backing. Her sly commentary is simultaneously visually appealing, intellectually stimulating, and culturally relevant.

As a refugee of 1990s multiculturalism I’m glad to see both Chico & Chang andSyjuco’s work moving the practice forward. Both shows forgo being simple cultural celebration or definition in their astute, relevant, 21st century views of racial and cultural representation.

Bonus beats: Identity, by X-Ray Spex, with the late, lamented Poly Styrene on lead vocals, ca. 1978

Chico & Chang: A Look at the Impact of Latino and Asian Cultures on California’s Visual Landscape

June 11 – Aug 20, 2011

Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Gallery Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 12-6pm, FREE

(415) 626-2787 x109

Stephanie Syjuco: Raiders

June 4 – July 16, 2011

Cathering Clark Gallery

150 Minna Street

San Francisco CA 94105

July 17, 2011 at 7:07 am Leave a comment

Another Tear Falls: RIP John Walker, 1942-2011

The Walker Brothers pose for you, 1965

Last week saw the death of John Walker (nee Maus), of the 1960s pop trio The Walker Brothers. Most pop music fans know the Walkers primarily as an early chapter in the book of vocal god Scott Walker’s career, who came into his own later in that decade with a string of baroque and eclectic solo albums that showcased his legendary baritone. But the Walker Brothers came first in the Scott Walker chronology, and in some ways Scott would never have gotten far without John and his pitch-perfect vocal harmonies.

The Walker Brothers clawed their way up the show business ladder in the early sixties in Los Angeles, as the house band at the West Hollywood nightclub Gazzarri’s, where they set the record for most consecutive performances. Their first recordings were covers of generic tunes like Do Wah Diddy which were mostly indistinguishable from the slew of other LA power pop songs released at the time.

The Walker Brothers, in shades, 1966

But once the Walkers crossed the pond to England their fortunes changed. There they refined their style, honing a hybrid sound that included Spectoresque wall-of-sound arrangements, blue-eyed soul, and John and Scott’s powerful, otherworldly harmonies. With this successful formula they hit their stride and had a series of chart-topping hits including Love Her, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, Make It Easy On Yourself, and My Ship Is Comin’ In. Scott’s dramatic lead vocals got the lion’s share of the spotlight, but John’s equally strong and evocative harmonies made the Walker Brothers recordings transcendent.

Scott’s retreat from public life and his late-career forays into deep experimentalism ensured that the Walkers would never again sing together live, and thankfully precluded any latter-day golden oldies reunions. But nearly fifty years after their debut, the Walkers’ eerily beautiful vocal consonance is still astoundingly affecting. Despite their obscurity in this century, Scott and John Walker arguably were the best vocal duo in American rock music.

Herewith are a few selections that illustrate the Walkers’ gorgeous song stylings.

Make It Easy On Yourself, 1965, written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David, arranged by Johnny Franz
Scott’s serpentine lead vocals drive this tune, but John’s descant makes it soar. Note: the audio quality is wonky on this clip but the video images of the young and tender Walkers is worth a watch.

Land of A Thousand Dances, 1966
John shows that he was a much better dancer than Scott, who looks miserably out of sorts in this live performance on German television.

Love Minus Zero, 1966
Another clip from German tv, with the Walkers prettily rendering Bob Dylan’s sprightly tune.

Stay With Me, Baby, 1966
Scott and John wail in perfect harmony in this densely layered slice of soul.

No Regrets, 1975, written by Tom Rush
A delicate and poignant country-tinged tune, again with impeccable harmonies by Scott and John.

Make It Easy On Yourself, 2009
A solo version by John, displaying his clear, lovely intonation.

May 16, 2011 at 4:48 am 2 comments

Give Me Everything: Hasan Elahi, Gaye Chan, Stephanie Syjuco, and the New Gift Economy

Hiding In Plain Sight, Hasan Elahi, 2011, Intersection 5M

Did a mini gallery crawl a couple weeks ago and saw three interesting shows that got me to thinking all about commodification, ownership, late capitalism and various other pet topics. I started out at SFMOMA’s First Tuesday–my press pass somehow lapsed last year and I haven’t been able to bring myself to shell out the double-digit entrance fee to the museum, so I was happy to take advantage of the gratis admission. I wanted to check out Stephanie Syjuco’s awesome Shadowshop project one more time (as a participating artist I was able to get into the members’ opening for free back in November) to buy a print of one of Indigo Som’s Chinese Restaurant series. Syjuco’s simple yet brilliant concept gave local artists a place to sell their wares within the confines of a mainstream art institution and hundreds, if not thousands, of items from postcards to paintings to objets d’art (including DVDs of The Oak Park Story–only $25!) were on sale in a compact fifth floor space on the way to SFMOMA’s posh rooftop sculpture gallery. All proceeds went directly to the artists and Syjuco’s insertion into the museum of an intermediary-free site for sales cleverly undercut the art world’s hypercommodified system of exchange. Plus it was a good place to pick up some excellent deals on outstanding work by San Francisco’s best artists.

Shadowshop, Stephanie Syjuco, 2011, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Since it was free and since I had a bit of time on my hands I also popped into Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and The Camera Since 1870 and checked out Nan Goldin’s famous photo series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, here presented as a large-scale slide show projected on the wall of the gallery. It was fun and entertaining to revisit this seminal piece and to see New York’s hipster underground in all its naked, lustful glory screened huge on the SFMOMA wall. Goldin’s piece has aged relatively well since it’s 1986 debut, though its soundtrack and its almost exclusively Caucasian denizens were decidedly 20th century. I was especially amused to see the slide show’s coda, which declared that each version of the limited edition show was unique, its scarcity thus insuring its worth on the art market.

Hiding In Plain Sight, Hasan Elahi, 2011, Intersection 5m

SFMOMA’s emphasis on the unique specialness of the individual art work contrasted beautifully with the anti-commodification concept of Hasan Elahi’s excellent multimedia installation, Hiding In Plain Sight, at Intersection for the Arts’ brand-spanking new digs, Intersection 5M, just down the street in the former Chronicle building at 5th and Mission. After Elahi was detained by Homeland Security in 2002 on suspicion of terrorist activities he began obsessively photographing his everyday activities and uploading the snapshots to his website, trackingtransience.net.

A wall of small monitors in the installation at Intersection showed random images, constantly downloaded from Elahi’s server, of the thousands of photos of toilets, airports, takeout dinners, cups of coffee, and other bland, quotidian details of Elahi’s everyday existence. A bank of flat-screen monitors on an adjacent wall scrolled Elahi’s daily credit card transactions. The volume and detail of the images and information, uploaded daily by Elahi, document his every move and cleverly defeat any attempt to imply illicit activities by Elahi. As he notes in an interview with Wired magazine, “I’ve discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away.” Elahi also made a quick guest appearance on the Colbert Report where he and Stephen amiably mixed it up.

Free Grindz, Gaye Chan, 2011, Southern Exposure Gallery

I then hopped over to the Mission to Southern Exposure’s On The Ground exhibit. Curated by SF artist Weston Teruya, the show includes several pieces by artists dealing with location and place. Once again issues of capitalism and commodification cropped up, notably in Hawai’i-based artist Gaye Chan’s Free Grindz, an element of Chan’s ongoing project Eating In Public, which explores issues around land use and centers on retaking the commons from both private and public interests. In Chan’s installation at Southern Exposure she presented a brief history of various edible weeds found on O’ahu, along with seeds, recipes and identifying photos, all displayed on the expanded shipping crate in which the materials traveled from Hawai’i. Viewers were free to take as many seeds and recipes as they liked, and to (literally) disseminate the plants and information without cost.

Both Elahi’s freely accessible photos and Chan’s gift economy seed distribution project are stark counterpoints to the art-market imposed preciousness of Nan Goldin’s slide show at SFMOMA. While both Elahi images and Chan’s seeds are available to anyone who wants them, Goldin’s can be seen only by those who can afford the museum’s admission, and owned only by those wealthy enough to purchase one of her limited editions. Although Goldin’s work is still aesthetically relevant, its means of distribution is decidedly archaic. In this era of the democratization of information and the erosion of intellectual property rights, will the art world still be able to control access to the objects and images that drive its market?

Shadowshop

through Sun. May 1, 2011

SFMOMA

151 Third Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

Monday – Tuesday: 11:30am -5pm
Wednesday: closed
Thursday: 11:30am – 8:45pm
Friday – Sunday: 11:30am – 5pm

Hiding In Plain Sight – A Solo Exhibition by Hasan Elahi

through Sat. Ap. 23, 2011

Intersection 5M

925 Mission Street (@ 5th)

San Francisco, 94103.

Tuesday-Saturday, 12-6PM. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

On The Ground

through Sat. Ap. 23, 2011

Southern Exposure Gallery

3030 20th Street (@ Alabama)

San Francisco, CA 94110

Tuesday – Saturday, 12:00 – 6:00 pm

April 21, 2011 at 6:15 am Leave a comment

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