Hey You: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 38

Sammy being Sammy, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

The film festival cavalcade rolls on with the arrival of the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this week at theaters around the Bay. This year’s lineup includes a plethora of great films about Jewishness in all its incarnations.

Valentine, Love, Gilda, 2018

The opening night film, LOVE, GILDA, is a valentine to famed Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, tracing her life from childhood until her untimely death at age 43 from ovarian cancer. It’s a fond tribute to the hilarious comedian who earned fame on SNL as an original cast member back in the 1970s. The film exhaustively covers Gilda’s life from her comfortable upbringing in Detroit through her years as a member of seminal comedy troupes such as Second City and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and into her years as a star following her television debut on SNL.

Laraine & G, Love, Gilda, 2018

Using lots and lots of archival footage and photos, plus audio of Gilda’s own voice supplemented by readings of her journal by comedy folks such as Amy Poehler, the movie also includes interviews with co-stars including Martin Short, Laraine Newman, and Chevy Chase. Interestingly, there is no interview specifically done for the film with actor Gene Wilder, her widower, although he appears in archival footage. The film most vividly comes alive during clips of Radner’s brilliant and charming comedy routines on SNL and elsewhere, which demonstrate her spot-on comic timing and her genius in improvisational and physical comedy. Yet despite the poignancy of Radner’s life, including a struggle with eating disorders and her losing battle with cancer, my heartstrings were not quite plucked.

Baby Sammy, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

The closing night film, SAMMY DAVIS JR: I GOTTA BE ME, is a bit more successful in capturing the essence of its famous subject. Growing up in the 1970s my main memory of Davis was as a Vegas-style entertainer who was not at all hip compared to, say, Blue Oyster Cult, Prince, or Thin Lizzy, so my appreciation of Davis’s great gifts didn’t come until later in life. This fast-paced doc goes a long way toward rectifying any ignorance about Davis’s awesomeness as a supremely talented poly-hyphenate trailblazer who broke social and cultural barriers long before it was easy or trendy to do so. Davis was a brilliant tap dancer, an accomplished song stylist, a talented actor, and a celebrity living large with some of the biggest stars in midcentury America.

The pack, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

From his beginning as a child vaudeville performer, Davis’s career spanned much of the 20th century and included movies, television, theater, and concerts. The film expertly tells the tale of his larger-than-life life, with copious clips, recordings and photos and interviews with A-listers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Dionne Warwick, and many more whose lives Davis touched. The film also discusses the racial barriers that Davis faced and in many cases confronted head-on and broke through, including bullying in the military in World War II, his presence as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and his then-controversial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt. The film is fast-paced and expertly constructed and hardly seems able to keep up with the sheer breadth of achievement of its titular subject as he demonstrates everything from mad impersonation skilz to steezy sartorial choices, along with his singing, dancing, performing, and otherwise embodying legendariness.

Boosted, The Man Who Stole Banksy, 2018

Other highlights from the festival include a screening of BUDAPEST NOIR, co-sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation; THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY, a doc about an intrepid West Bank cabbie in who beat the infamous street artist at his own game; THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS, a restoration of a long-lost silent film that was recently found in flea market in Paris; THE WALDHEIM WALTZ, a documentary about Austria’s former president and Nazi-in-chief Kurt Waldheim; and SATAN & ADAM, a film many years in the making that explores the relationship between two very different musicians. I’m also looking forward to a screening of the 1933 pre-code classic BABY FACE, since I try to take advantage of every opportunity to see Barbara Stanwyck on the big screen. Once again, San Francisco proves that it’s a great town for film-watching, with the SF Jewish Film Festival one of the best places this summer to see movies beyond your run-of-the-mill multiplex blockbuster.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 38

July 19-August 5, 2018

various locations throughout the Bay Area

 

 

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July 21, 2018 at 2:48 am Leave a comment

Once You Get Started: Frameline 42 Film Festival

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Tapestry, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Like Hong Kong, San Francisco is an excellent city for film-viewing, and with Frameline (official title: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival) in full swing this week I suddenly feel like there are not enough hours in the day to see all of the movies I want to see. But I’m valiantly carrying on despite the burden of sorting through and prioritizing the festival’s ridiculously stacked schedule. A few highlights from my Frameline viewings this week include three outstanding documentaries and a narrative that demonstrate the high bar of the festival’s stellar programming this year.

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Mixing it up, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Irene Lusztig’s documentary Yours In Sisterhood has a simple premise. Back in the 1970s thousands of women wrote letters to Ms. Magazine, the premiere mainstream feminist publication of the day, but due to space restrictions only a handful of those letters were published. The rest reside in an archive at Radcliffe University that Lusztig accessed some years ago. From that archive she chose about 300 letters and then found women from the same locales as the original writers to re-read the letters on camera—from those 300-odd readings she chose twenty-seven for the film. The results are a brilliant tapestry of 1970s feminism and the resonances from that era to the present day. Lusztig presents the first several of the re-readings straight up to the camera without commentary, then gradually embroiders this format, showing the responses of the modern-day readers to their 1970s counterparts’ missives. A handful of the letters are reread by their original authors as well, including a particularly poignant coming-out letter written by a woman who was sixteen in the 1970s. After reading her letter she recalls how at the time she thought that being queer meant that she would be lonely all her life and that she would never marry or have children. Happily, this bleak prediction did not come to pass as the woman reveals that in the intervening years she and her longtime partner have raised two children and are well-liked in their small-town community.

Lusztig also provides a bit of dyke fanservice by including lesbian author Deena Metzger reading her 1970s letter onscreen, which was cheered loudly at the Frameline screening I attended. A minor quibble: the film includes only one Asian American woman and one Latina, which I understand reflects the mostly-white demographics of the Ms. Magazine readership back in the day. But other than that Lusztig does a great job mixing up the optics of the film and presenting a diverse range of points of view.

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Imbalance of power, Call Her Ganda, 2018

PJ Raval’s documentary Call Her Ganda follows the case of the murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude, who was killed in a fit of gay panic by US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. Despite being convicted of the crime Pemberton was shielded from imprisonment by the US government, much to the outrage of the Filipino populace in general and the transgender community in particular. Raval’s film explicates the fraught history of the United States and the Philippines, using Laude’s case as an example of history of colonialism and the imbalance of power between the two countries. The film’s gliding camerawork effectively captures the glowing lights of Olongapo City by night and its hodgepodge of street markets, as well as the utilitarian bleakness of US military bases in the Philippines, which has long been exploited by the US due to its strategic location in the Pacific theater.

By focusing on the grassroots activism surrounding Laude’s murder Raval’s film recalls seminal Asian Pacific American documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin? and The Fall of the I-Hotel which similarly depict the empowerment of the API community in the face of systemic injustices.

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Vibrant, When The Beat Drops, 2018

Jamal Sims’ exuberant documentary When The Beat Drops is a vibrant celebration of bucking, or j-setting, a dance form originating in the black gay community in Atlanta. Based on moves from female cheerleading squads at historically black colleges and universities, in particular the cheer squad from Jackson State University, bucking primarily takes place in gay clubs throughout the south and southeast United States.

The movie helps to explode definitions of what makes a man and the fluidity of the various characters is breathtaking and effortless. It’s beautiful to see men so confident in their maleness that they are able to demolish the gender binary and let the many facets of their identity shine through. Added to that are some dope AF dance sequences, in clubs, in competitions, and en la calle, that strikingly depict the dynamism and creativity of the j-setting scene. I especially love the fact that the bucking competitions shown in the film are judged by some of the female cheer squad members whose routines j-setting pays homage to.

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Perspective, Retablo, 2018

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo is a beautifully told narrative that further explores the boundaries of masculinity, this time through the lens of a Peruvian family in the Andes. Delgado-Aparicio beautifully uses the cinematic grammar to underscore the mindset of Segundo, his young protagonist, who inadvertently finds out an uncomfortable truth about his father Noe. Noe is a master artisan who is training Segundo to create retablos, three-dimensional tableaux that act as family portraits, as devotionals, and as representations of significant events in their small Andean village. In the first part of the film Segundo’s worldview is stable and stationary, framed almost exclusively in master shots, which echoes the proscenium framing of the Noe and Segundo’s retablos. Once Segundo learns about his father’s clandestine trysts with other men the film’s framing and editing become more jagged and abrupt, reflecting Segundo’s unsettled state of mind. Delgado-Aparicio’s limited use of conventional tight shots and point-of-view shots in the first part of the film also pays off when he finally frames a key moment in the film in close-up from Segundo’s vantage point. The impact is shattering, reflecting the moment’s effect on Segundo’s previously limited perspective.

Retablo also explicates the village’s cultural taboos around same-sex relationships by emphasizing the hypermasculinity of Segundo’s friend Mardonio, whose bragaddocio possibly masks his insecurity about his own sexuality. Segundo and Mardonio enact a classic homoerotic triangle with local shopowner Felicita as Mardonio crudely sexualizes Felicita in order to deny his attraction to Segundo. The film’s dialog in both Spanish and Ayacucho Quechua, one of the most widely spoken Andean dialects in Peru, also lends an immediacy to the film.

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Intimate, We The Animals, 2018

Still to come this week at Frameline: big, showy titles including those focusing on queer superstars Emily Dickinson (Wild Nights With Emily), Alexander McQueen (McQueen)and Robert Mapplethorpe (Mapplethorpe), the Chloë Grace Moretz vehicle The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and the closing night doc Studio 54, about the legendary New York City disco of the same name, the ever-popular shorts programs Fun In Girls Shorts and Fun In Boys Shorts, and smaller, more intimate movies such as the Sundance favorite We The Animals and the UK/Spain co-production Anchor And Hope, (starring #HarryPotter alumna Natalia Tena). I’m hoping to make it to most of these shows since I love me a good film festival, and this year’s Frameline is one of the best.

June 21, 2018 at 7:15 am Leave a comment

Both Ends Burning: Crossroads festival of artist-made films and video

Los proyectors

Over this past weekend I caught a few shows at the Crossroads film festival that demonstrated a much more culturally integrated state of affairs in the experimental film world than had existed back when I was a pup. I’ve complained in the past about #ExperimentalFilmSoWhite but I’m happy to report that this year’s festival had a good range of makers from many different ethnic backgrounds. Similarly, it’s still somewhat rare to see straight-up art films in most Asian American film festivals, despite the active production of AA experimentalists for many decades, so it’s nice to see AA art films included in the mix.

Jun Okada has posited that some years ago the dominant AA film festival powers-that-be chose to focus on community-based narrative and documentary filmmakers rather than experimental filmmaking, especially on the West Coast. But when I was coming up as a young video artist back in the day there were several other Asian American experimentalists making work then including Janice Tanaka, Rea Tajiri, Stuart Gaffney, and Shu Lea Cheng, to name just a few, who did get a lot of play in AA festivals. However, only rarely were those artists included in mainstream art film programming and fests.

Singular, Highview, Simon Liu and Warren Ng, 2017

So it’s great that Crossroads’ Saturday night show featured Simon Liu and Warren Ng’s Highview, a gorgeous four-projector piece with live guitar accompaniment. Highview’s live performance emphasized the singular appeal of celluloid, with the rapid-fire clattering of the 16mm projectors adding a percussive backbeat to Ng’s dreamlike guitar line. Liu’s projections capture Liu’s memories of Hong Kong, with the film’s green and red palette evoking the former Crown Colony’s characteristic neon-lit nightscape. The project’s imagery includes hand-processed footage, faces that gradually appear and fade away, and cityscapes and starry nights, with a textural, visceral visuality grounded in place and history.

Resistance, Fluid Frontiers, 2017, Ephraim Asili

Although the Crossroads shows that I saw were heavily on the abstraction tip, there were some pieces that managed to mix in some content and social critique along with all of the visual manipulations. Ephraim Asili’s Fluid Frontiers incorporates readings of Black Power texts overlaid with images of significant African American sites in Detroit and an audio reenactment of Harriet Tubman’s biography, creating an impressionistic portrait of that city’s legacy of resistance and activism.

Direct action, The Sun Quartet, 2017, Colectivo Los ingrávidos

Mexico City artists Colectivo Los ingrávidos tetralogy The Sun Quartet uses as a jumping-off point the disappearance of forty-three student activists to comment on Mexico’s political and cultural tensions and to advocate for direct action in combating injustice and oppression. Peggy Ahwesh’s The Falling Sky ironically repurposes footage from Taiwan’s Next Media animated news sequences to comment on the foibles of the human condition.

The festival was a great opportunity to see a wide sampling of international experimental film and video, but although the filmmakers included represented a breadth of cultural backgrounds the festival’s audience was still predominantly white. After kicking it at CAAMfest, Third I South Asian, and other AZN-focused festivals it was a bit of shock to re-enter the mainstream artworld’s decidedly un-diverse universe. Of course this is not something only seen at Crossroads, since the art world is still mostly a playground for the white educated upper middle class. So I’m glad to see Crossroads drawing in a wider cultural spectrum of filmmakers, as this can only enrich and improve the experimental film world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 12, 2018 at 7:10 am Leave a comment

Starlit Night: 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Favorite, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935


I think it’s safe to say that Yasujirō Ozu is one of my favorite film directors. At one point some years back I binged on all the Ozu films I could find, focusing mostly on his midcentury classics, but I really love almost all of his movies that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. So it’s nice to see that this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is including one of his later black-and-white silents, An Inn In Tokyo (1935), as part of its lineup.

The film follows a down on his luck widower and his two young sons as the father tries to find a job in prewar Tokyo. With the paltry income they scrape together catching stray dogs the trio has a daily choice of sleeping in an inn or eating, while the father searches in vain for employment. In their travails they cross paths with a young mother and her daughter who are in similar dire straits.

Geometric, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935

Although relatively early on in Ozu’s career the film still has many of the hallmarks of his aesthetic including a deeply humanistic and empathetic worldview, focusing on the gentle and deep bonding among family members. Severel of Ozu’s formal tics are already in evidence as well including his geometric compositions and his use of full-face camera address. The film utilizes more camera movement than his later movies, primarily using a gliding pan that follows the action of his characters through the landscape.

Ozu also draws out sympathetic, effective performances from his cast, from both the adult and child actors, and captures several beautiful interplays between them. A particularly nice scene early on in the film features the food-deprived father and sons miming eating and drinking their favorite dishes and beverages, including sake, in the middle of the field. The playful longing in their actions coupled with the sweetness of their family bonding creates a charming and sad moment.

Queen, The Saga Of Gösta Berling, 1924

In addition to the Ozu, as usual this year’s Silent Film Festival includes several other gems. These include another Japanese silent film that sounds very different from An Inn In Tokyo, Tomu Uchida’s crime film Policeman (1933), Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey To Happiness (1929), which looks at life in a seedy Weimar Republic- tenement, and the epic 200-minute long The Saga Of Gösta Berling (1924, dir. Mauritz Stiller), which was queen Greta Garbo’s first starring role. As usual all screenings include live musical accompaniment.

Brilliant, Battling Butler, 1926

Closing out the festival on June 3 is Battling Butler (1926), by another one of my favorite directors, Buster Keaton. The film features The Great Stoneface’s brilliant physical comedy combined with his typical underdog fish-out-of-water lead character. Seeing Keaton on the big screen is always a treat so this one is not to be missed.

23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival

May 30-June 3, 2018

Castro Theater

San Francisco CA 94114

 

June 1, 2018 at 6:53 am Leave a comment

I Can’t Live Without You: Jung Yonghwa’s Special Forces

Resolve

CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa’s latest solo single, LETTER, dropped on May 21 last week, which is a bit odd considering that he’s been in the army for the past couple months, but the circumstances surrounding his enlistment in early March were anything but ordinary. He entered the military under a white-hot spotlight but still managed to keep his dignity and poise despite the intense scrutiny he was under the time. This is evidenced by the release of this latest single, which for all intents and purposes probably would not exist without Yonghwa’s resolve and strength of character.

Happier days

2017 was a fine year for Yonghwa and CNBLUE, full of music and accomplishments, and the band seemed to be leaving the ugly spectre of 2016 behind. In the beginning of January 2018 things continued to go along smoothly, with Yonghwa’s successful variety show Island Trio just completing its first season and another, TalkMon, just starting. Yonghwa was appointed an honorary ambassador to the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics and had booked several dates for his solo Asia tour into the early spring. There were hints of a CNBLUE comeback in South Korea as well as in Japan and CNBLUE members were riding the wave of each playing leading roles in popular Korean dramas the year before.

Character assassination

Then out of the blue on January 18 came a blind item in the South Korean media accusing the leader of a popular idol band of receiving preferential treatment in admissions to graduate school at Kyung Hee University. After several hours of frenzied speculation the idol turned out to be Yonghwa, but his purported crime was almost laughable. Instead of taking his entrance interview on campus at KHU, due to his busy schedule one of the college’s professors went to Yonghwa’s studio at FNC Entertainment, his agency, and interviewed him there. No big deal, right? Unfortunately the press played this up as a sin on the level of killing and eating the president’s daughter on live television and Yonghwa was vilified for several days for what was essentially a clerical error. The press dug up and revealed his confidential entrance test scores (he did pretty well, actually, getting a 98 out of 100 on the practical score because DUH he’s a professional musician), Korean netizens ruthlessly scrutinized his intentions for wanting to go to grad school, and the general public assailed his honesty and assassinated his character by suggesting that he went through the back door in order to gain admission to KHU. This despite the fact that out of the eight people who applied to the program, all eight were admitted, and that KHU had to ask Yonghwa several times to apply since they were short of students. All of this speculation took place over a few days and in the meantime Yonghwa’s character was viciously attacked and his professional reputation was seriously damaged. He was edited out of a couple television shows he’d recorded earlier and the last two shows of his solo tour were cancelled.

And to add insult to injury, on January 26 Yonghwa announced that he was enlisting in the army effective March 5, so all of his future events were effectively ended. Whether punitive or not on the part of the South Korean government, this clearly was a surprise. As an ambassador for the Pyeongchang Paralympics, which began March 9, Yonghwa would surely have been prominently featured.

Pre-shitstorm

The chain of events was astoundly swift and the shitstorm was intense. It seemed like one minute Yonghwa was posing for pictures with the president of South Korea and the next he was being accused of cheating, lying, and avoiding military service, all within about a week.

But although the judgment in the press was rapid and cruel, Yonghwa didn’t waste a lot of time moping around. Apparently once he knew of his enlistment date he went into creative overdrive, with the results being a pair of completely revamped concerts held in Seoul the weekend before he entered the army and the recording of five new songs, complete with music videos. These songs are scheduled to be released one at a time until his enlistment ends in early December 2019, and LETTER is the first of these. He also participated in the creation of a photobook, wrote the lyrics for a song for his labelmates AOA, recorded 90 short voice messages to be released weekly for fans, and recorded at least one new song with CNBLUE. In some ways this rigorous work schedule must have been a respite from the insanity of the Korean press savagely slandering him every day. It was probably a relief to retreat to the bliss of his studio where he could create music in peace instead of having to deal with the endless recriminations of the relentlessly pursuing media.

LETTER, the new single, is a lovely and understated track, with Yonghwa’s controlled yet emotional delivery carrying the song. It’s deceptively simple, with a spare arrangement of strings, piano, drums, percussion, and vocals, but the song’s structure and build are outstanding. Yonghwa sings the song’s plaintive first verse to a straightforward piano accompaniment, then jumps immediately into a hooky earworm where he belts the refrain, alternating the English phrase “I can’t live without you” with Japanese lyrics. The somewhat lower pitch of the song adds to its melancholy, especially in the last line of the chorus, which features a particularly sweet and melodic vocal run ending in a subtle octave jump. Yonghwa’s rich, husky vocals are spot on as he easily hits the chorus’s high notes after purring the softer lines of the verse, throwing in a bit of delicate falsetto as well as some growly lower tones. He knows exactly how to express emotion with his voice without resorting to gimmicks or over-singing.

The song’s lyrics outline an ill-fated romance between a couple who alternate between affection and quarreling, yet at the end of the song Yonghwa affirms his commitment to the relationship despite its troubles. This reflects a maturity and growth in thinking from his past compositions such as COLD LOVE (2014), which laments a lost relationship without hope of reconciliation, or LALALA (2013), which expresses regret for a recent breakup. The ambivalence of the love story in some ways reflects Yonghwa’s love/hate relationship with the South Korean press and public, with his agency, and with his career, all things that benefit him but which also have hurt him terribly.

Prodigious

Like many very talented people Yonghwa makes what he does look effortless. But unfortunately the flip side of this is that people don’t appreciate the amount of work it actually takes for him to do what he does, so a lot of his labor goes unrecognized. As an example, even during that dire month or so when the South Korean press was excoriating him on a daily basis he managed to produce a huge amount of work. Yet judging from the quality of his final concerts just days before enlisting as well as the beautiful simplicity of his new single he managed to keep up his superhuman standard of excellence despite the immense stress he was under. In part his prodigious amount of work during that time was probably a coping mechanism during the chaos of those final six weeks after his enlistment was announced, as a balm against the haters who were attacking him as well as an FU to those trying to destroy him. Rather than backing down or giving up he instead doubled down on his creative output.

Yonghwa enlisted on March 5 and after he finished his five weeks of basic training he did well enough to be recruited for South Korea’s special forces, an elite commando regiment that trains much more intensively than standard troops. In recent history only one other South Korean celebrity, Lee Seung Gi, has qualified to be admitted to the special forces, although another notable alumnus is current South Korean president Moon Jae-In. While most idols are content to spend their mandatory military service in the regular forces, Yonghwa instead committed to this much more difficult and rigorous regiment, which is stationed right near the border between North and South Korea and which is a part of South Korea’s first line of defense against any threat’s to the country’s security, including that of its restive neighbor. This is no cushy desk job or civil service position—it’s hardcore military training in the coldest part of the country, not far from the DMZ, and under harsh and exacting conditions. By choosing the special forces Yonghwa is shutting down anyone who slandered him during his recent controversy or who doubted his desire to serve his country.

The real deal

It may be surprising to the casual observer that a Kpop idol would choose such a difficult path but Yonghwa is very driven and this gives him the chance to further test himself to his limits. Also, according to some accounts serving in the regular South Korean military can be a bit monotonous, filled with a lot of tedious physical tasks, whereas the special forces is the real deal. Yonghwa is an intense person who is easily bored so he might prefer hard training as opposed to just killing time in the regular military.

I also wonder if Yonghwa is harboring a little bit of rage at how he was treated by in South Korea before his enlistment. It couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow all of the abuse he endured, but he’s not the type to lash out at others, so this gives him a socially acceptable outlet for any anger or frustration he might be feeling, allowing him to forget his past troubles and to focus on the special forces’ intensive training.

Stronger

The special forces will also make him physically stronger, which can be interpreted as a way of making himself less vulnerable in order to defend himself against the crazy industry he’s in. Maybe he’s also figuring out that being the good boy and playing by the rules is no protection and that it’s useless to try to be perfect—respectability politics never work so he has to learn to fend for himself.

It couldn’t have been easy for Yonghwa to go away in the middle of such a fruitful period in his career. There is not enough time in the world for a person like him to accomplish all he wants to do and to have his time cut short so abruptly is a cruel blow. As a creative person I know the utter frustration of having to abandon a project halfway through, or to have something cut short without coming to fruition. It’s almost like a physical pain, a halt, an abrupt and unnatural end when something can’t be completed, and Yonghwa’s two-year military service may seem like a long hiatus for an artist in the midst of making work.

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Military man

But two years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Fashions in pop music go by in an instant but those with true talent withstand and transcend trends. Yonghwa and CNBLUE have already proven that they are more that just a flash in the pan and they have the drive, the skills, and the ability to be around for a long, long time.

Will Yonghwa be the same lighthearted person he used to be once when he comes back from the army? Onstage he radiates an infectious joyousness—will he lose the playfulness that makes his live performances so magical? Will the military make him stern and hard-bitten? I think not, but he may carry with him some of the grief and sadness from his recent hardships. But although the bright-eyed boy may disappear, the man to come will be stronger and bolder and will shine more brilliantly than ever.

UPDATE: As of Aug. 7, 2018 the other three members of CNBLUE have enlisted as well. CNBLUE becomes the first Kpop group to all enlist together in the same year and by doing so they’ve made sure their hiatus is only about two years. There has also been some kind of re-calculating in the South Korean military that’s shortened the time for all those currently serving, so Yonghwa’s return date has moved up about a month, to early November 2019. The other three members should be back shortly after that, around March 2020, so it won’t be too long before CNBLUE returns to the stage together. Great news all around.

UPDATE 2: To put Yonghwa’s whole university admissions brouhaha into context, here’s a bit of background. It was basically a made-up controversy to cover up the real political scandal when former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was about to be arrested for corruption, right around the time that South Korea was ramping up to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. When the world’s attention was about to focus on South Korea the country’s powers-that-be wanted to divert attention away from any taint of political scandal, especially since President Park Geun-hye had just been arrested and charged with corruption the year before in 2017.  So as is often the case with idols and Kpop stars when the public needs to be distracted from various wrongdoings by the government or the wealthy business sector, South Korea’s media threw Yonghwa under the bus.

May 26, 2018 at 7:38 am 8 comments

Thinking Out Loud: 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival

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Paternalism, Angels Wear White, 2017

The San Francisco International Film Festival is in full swing right now and as usual the fest has a great lineup of world cinema. Although my viewing schedule was very truncated due to life circumstances I still had a quality film festival experience over the first weekend.

 

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Compassionate, The Third Murder, 2017

I started my mini-marathon with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, The Third Murder. As per usual Kore-eda goes directly to the psychological heart of his characters, examining their motivations without judgment or prejudice. In The Third Murder a seemingly straightforward homicide investigation takes several unpredictable turns and eventually leads down many unexpected paths. Almost every character presents an unreliable point of view, contributing to the many shades of gray of complicity and blame. Yet Kore-eda emphasizes the compassionate over the judgmental and the film’s open-ended conclusion questions assumptions of guilt and innocence.

The Third Murder is beautifully lit and shot, with Kore-eda using gliding zooms and slow pans to delineate the cinematic space. The film also makes great use of reflection and mirroring to suggest complicity and transference of guilt, since almost everyone in the film lies at one point or another. Performances are also on point, led by the ever-awesome Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance? The Eel) as the man accused of murder, and the dapper Fukuyama Masaharu (Like Father, Like Son) as the lawyer assigned to the case who begins to doubt everything and everybody as the film progresses.

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Vulnerable, A Man of Integrity, 2017

I continued my festival viewing with A Man Of Integrity, by Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof has been arrested in his home country and banned from making films, so A Man Of Integrity was shot on the down-low in a wintry northern area of Iran. The film is a bitter and intense drama about a family settled in a remote Iranian village that comes face to face with the town’s intractable corruption and cronyism. The delicate and vulnerable goldfish that they farm become a metaphor for the family’s tenuous status in the town, and the film is grounded in strong and intense performances by Reza Akhlaghirad and Soudabeh Beizaee as the couple who stand up to corruption in the village.

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Power dynamics, Angels Wear White, 2017

Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White also looks at corruption and power dynamics, this time in a seaside village in China. It’s a gripping narrative about the aftermath of an assault on two schoolgirls and the reverberations of that crime on its small-town location. Director Qu captures the precarious position of the female characters in the film, most of whom are suffering under a sexist and paternalistic system, and she brings out great performances from both the adults and the preteen and teenage actors. Also of note is the film’s excellent editing which moves the story along at a steady and assured pace.

white girl

Obscured, The White Girl, 2017

The White Girl features some beautiful cinematography by the legendary cameraman Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express), who co-directed the film with Jenny Suen. Set in one of the last fishing villages in Hong Kong, the film follows a young woman known for her very pale complexion that she protects religiously, supposedly due to her allergy to sunlight. Along the way she encounters a mysterious dude (Joe Odagiri) who lives in a ruined building that is also a camera obscura. Added to mix is an evil developer who wants to pave over the cute fishing village and a subplot involving the white girl’s mother, a famous singing star who long ago abandoned her partner and daughter. The film is heavy with allegory about Hong Kong’s current struggles with China and is a little too elliptical for my taste, but it’s always a pleasure to hear Cantonese dialog.

4 smiling 2 2

Struggles, Minding The Gap, 2018

I rounded off my viewings with Bing Liu’s Minding The Gap, which blends character-driven verite with personal documentary. The film follows Liu and two of his skateboarding friends who talk about surviving life in Rockford, a picturesque city about 1.5 hours outside of Chicago that in fact suffers from a high crime rate, most of which is due to domestic violence. The film becomes cathartic for its three distinct and sympathetic characters, including Liu himself, revealing the struggles each encounters in reconciling their painful histories with their current lives. It’s the kind of humanistic doc that Kartemquin Films (which executive-produced the film) is known for, their most famous film being Hoop Dreams. Minding The Gap is good, solid documentary filmmaking that isn’t afraid to touch on difficult topics like alcoholism, wife beating, and child abuse.

Also upcoming this week—the US premiere of John Woo’s latest actioner Manhunt, which may or may not be a return to his past heroic bloodshed glory, Sandi Tan’s personal documentary Shirkers, Hong Sang Soo’s latest Claire’s Camera, and Lee Anne Schmitt’s essay film Purge This Land, among many other cinematic treats.

for tickets and more information go here 

 

April 12, 2018 at 9:41 pm Leave a comment

Dark Entries: The Great Buddha + and Mainland Noir: Chinese Crime Films

Peering, Pickle and Belly Button, The Great Buddha+, 2017

Film noir is a global cinematic genre and this month in San Francisco we’ve got the chance to see some excellent Chinese-language noir films.

From Taiwan comes The Great Buddha+, which was nominated for Best Feature Film at the 2017 Golden Horse awards and won the Grand Prize at the 2017 Taipei Film Festival. The film follows a couple middle-aged downmarket worker dudes, Pickle and Belly Button, respectively a security guard and a junk collector/trash-picker, as they go about their quotidian lives. The pair live in provincial Taiwan and they aimlessly look at porn, eat unappetizing packaged food, and otherwise try to fill their fairly boring evenings. One night their television goes on the fritz so they opt to watch dashcam footage from Belly Button’s boss’s fancy car, mostly for the prurient interest of listening to said boss’s trysts with various women. This eventually leads them down a path that they did not expect.

Shot mostly in gleaming black and white, with the exception of a few key passages from the dashcam that are rendered in oversaturated lurid color, the film explores relationships between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, and boss and worker. The pecking order is clear. Women are sexualized and powerless. Poor people are disenfranchised and powerless. Pickle and Belly Button are powerless modern-day serfs working for their bosses. And those in power can get away with murder.

This wistful and morose worldview is leavened with a healthy dose of dark humor, including writer-director Huang Hsin-yao’s wry voiceover commentary in vulgar Taiwanese. Simply yet cleverly structured, the film has a laconic fatalism found in many classic noirs from around the world.

Bitter, Black Coal Thin Ice, 2014

Also running through Feb. 25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is the series Mainland Noir: Chinese Crime Films, which focuses on recent films from the PRC. Included is Black Coal Thin Ice (2014), an excellent noir set in Heilongjiang Province in the far northeast of China. The film follows a bitter ex-cop wearily investigating a cold case and starring one of Taiwan’s best young actresses, Guey Lun Mei, as a black widow character who is more than what she seems. Bleak and twisty, the film explores the darker side of China.

Absurd, Free and Easy, 2017

The five-film miniseries also includes director Geng Jun’s absurdist black comedy Free and Easy, which won a Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. I’ve already got my tickets and I’m gonna be there for sure.

 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

February 7, 2018 at 10:57 pm 1 comment

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