Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s latest vehicle, Cook Up A Storm (CUAS) opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a special effort to see it while it was still playing theatrically near me, thought that involved a 45-minute drive to Cupertino.
The plot is simple: Developers sponsor Paul Ahn (Jung Yonghwa), a French-trained Michelin-starred chef, in opening Stellar, a fancy-ass restaurant directly opposite Seven, a local joint run by Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) that features down-home Chinese dishes. Of course conflict ensues between the Western-trained Paul and the self-taught traditionalist Sky. Adding to the mix is Sky’s angst over his messed-up relationship with his dad Mountain (the majestic Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Paul’s girlfriend/assistant (Michelle Bai Bing).
CUAS is paced like a Hong Kong movie, which means in and out in ninety minutes, and in this case this feels really fast. I used to really love the fevered pace of Hong Kong cinema but now that I’ve gotten used to the more leisurely running times of two-hour Korean and Chinese films, or the epic three-hour slogs from Bollywood, this seems almost too rapid.
Because of the bang-bang pace of the film things feel like they’re being told in shorthand, with character development and relationships rapidly sketched out. You almost have to be psychic to realize that Paul is dating Mayo, which is indicated in a few incredibly brief shots of them holding hands and some lingering glances (apparently the steamier scenes between them ended up on the cutting room floor). The relationship between Sky and his dad fares slightly better, but only because as one of the film’s main conflicts it gets a fair amount of screen time.
The showdowns between Sky and Paul are likewise quite rapid, with the most effective one taking place in Paul’s gorgeously appointed high-tech restaurant kitchen. Here the characters are allowed to play off of each other a bit more and the scenario has a chance to breathe a bit, unlike some of the rapid-fire sequences that take place elsewhere in the film. It helps that Nic Tse and Yonghwa have a good onscreen rapport, with Yonghwa in particular doing a great job fleshing out his character with a minimum of dialog.
In some ways the film seems to struggle between wanting to be an out-and-out Hong Kong movie and needing to court the huge PRC market. Aspects of the film that hearken back to Hong Kong films of yore include the wacky costuming of some of the supporting characters, including a pair of dudes with dyed yellow fringes and the oversized glasses and frizzy hair on Tiffany Tang, as well as a subtext about gentrication and the loss of local culture to Western capital. But some key characters are underdeveloped, including Bai Bing’s Mayo, who needs to be more overtly sinister than she actually ends up being. Here a bit more of Hong Kong cinema’s over-the-top aesthetic might have served better, as Mayo is flat and one-dimensional instead of truly venal or vicious.
Anthony Wong’s Mountain Ko is similarly underwritten but King Anthony makes it work by sheer dint of his monumental acting skilz. Likewise veteran Chinese actor Ge You makes a good impression, though his part is also only briefly defined. The two old hands have a great throwaway moment in a pool hall where they clearly delineate their competitive brotherhood through just a few subtle gestures, which goes to show how acting chops can elevate a movie beyond superficiality. Alas, these moments are hard to find in the rest of the movie.
Still, as a food-porn movie the film does a good job. The food photography is quite beautiful and in particular the scenes where we follow both Paul and Sky creating their signature dishes are a lot of fun to watch. This may be due to the fact that Nic Tse is a foodie chef in real life and he prepped most of the food himself, so he seems to have a true appreciation for the way that cooking actually works. Yonghwa also acquits himself well in the cooking sequences since he looks like he knows his way around all of the high-tech gear that Paul uses. I especially enjoyed watching Paul create a fancy foie gras dish that illuminated the process as well as the product. At one point Paul adds a bit of sorbet onto the top of a dish and we see him warming the spoon slightly in order to get the frozen scoop to release cleanly, a small detail that nonetheless adds an interesting touch of realism to the proceedings.
Nic Tse wears the same grimy plaid shirt and greasy bandana through most of the film, telegraphing Sky’s realness and street cred. In contrast, Yonghwa’s flawless face and impeccable chef’s uniform add to the impression of the all-around slickness of Stellar. Yonghwa is confident and believable as a high-end chef in a fancy upscale restaurant–he knows he’s good and he’s not afraid to show it. As the leader of CNBLUE Yonghwa has a lot of swagger and he brings that swag to his portrayal of Paul, though not so much that he becomes obnoxious or overbearing. More significantly, as Paul gradually comes to appreciate the joys of Sky’s simpler cooking aesthetic, Yonghwa communicates this transformation through subtle facial expressions and physical gestures. Even though Yonghwa speaks no Chinese he succeeds in imparting Paul’s intentions non-verbally, effectively playing off of his co-stars despite the language barrier.
The whole thing is very beautiful and fun to experience but ultimately a bit superficial. I wonder if a slightly less frenetic pace might have aided the film’s exposition, but director Raymond Yip, a Hong Kong movie stalwart, seems to want to breeze through as many plot points as possible in the film’s ninety-minute running time. The result is a fun romp that could have benefitted from slowing down and adding a few more details and more character development to the proceedings. Still, it’s a good-natured and pleasant timepass. To use a sports metaphor for a food movie, the film didn’t knock it out of the park, but it didn’t strike out either.
NOTE: Originally meant for release in China during the Spring Festival/Lunar New Year holiday, CUAS was pushed back a couple weeks to avoid direct competition with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (JTTW2), Kung Fu Yoga, and a slew of other films that came out during that time. This was smart in some ways because JTTW2 has become one of the highest grossing films of all time in China, but it also means that CUAS didn’t have the no-Hollywood movies ban protecting it, in which China keeps Western films out of theaters during Spring Festival in order make room for local productions. As a result CUAS directly faced the release of the slick Hollywood production xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which features popular Chinese stars Kris Wu and Donnie Yen. Because of this, as well as so-so word of mouth and the fact that most Chinese were back at work and not going to movies once the film came out, box office for CUAS in China was thus reduced somewhat. Nonetheless CUAS managed to break the RMB100 million mark and its gross in China now stands at around RMB114 million, or around USD16 million. But unfortunately the production costs of the film were around USD34 million, so unless it does phenomenally well in other territories the film won’t make back its original budget.
Despite its cringeful pre-release marketing campaign I went into seeing The Great Wall with a semi-open mind. Zhang Yimou has directed some good films during his career and I was curious to see what he could do with US$150 million dollars. But right off the bat it was clear that despite being co-produced by one of the biggest production companies in China, Wanda Dalien (along with US-based Legendary Pictures), set in ancient China, and featuring a boatload of Chinese movie stars, this was going to be all about the white dude. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am a bit fatigued by the continuation of the white savior trope, wherein white guys rescue the benighted yellow people once again.
The film starts with a trio of European mercenaries fleeing across the Gobi desert, including Matt Damon as a character named William who speaks with a slight Irish accent, another guy who is Spanish, played by Chilean American actor Pedro Pascal, and a third guy who dies pretty quickly. Right away we know it’s going to focus on the surviving European dudes because Hollywood, and sure enough the story is told almost completely from their point of view.
The movie is seductive because it is so slick and beautifully packaged and is palatable and easy to watch. It’s seemingly respectful of Chinese culture—there are no evil Asiatic villains and several of the Chinese characters are noble and heroic, if incredibly clichéd. The film presents Chinese culture as refined and aesthetic, which is clearly meant to appeal to PRC audiences. But the narrative exists only to center the white heterosexual male perspective, so it’s no surprise that the screenplay is of course written by a white dude. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of Chinese people in the movie they in fact are mostly window dressing who exist mainly as props for the white protags. The film actually posits that there are no archers in the entire elite Chinese regiment that’s been training for sixty years who are as good as the white dude. There’s also the highly questionable plot point that China didn’t have any magnets in their possession until white people brought them. This is especially insulting considering that the Chinese were the first to document the use of magnets and magnetism around 1088 AD. I mean, wtf?
The premise that a woman could be a general in ancient China is also a male fantasy of inclusion and equality that conveniently ignores the historic patriarchy and paternalism inside and outside of China that would have made this impossible. Mulan is a believable legend because it acknowledges that a woman could only be accepted in battle if she dressed like a man.The Great Wall presents females as accepted in the military hierarchy, even to the point of one of them becoming the supreme leader of the troops. While I’m all for strong female characters, the erasure of the historical oppression of women denies the suffering women have experienced in the patriarchy. Ultimately, General Lin, the female commander in The Great Wall, is a guilt sop that pretends a history of fairness and equality that didn’t exist. I suppose I should be grateful that the chaste and muted attraction between William and Lin is unconsummated or I would have run screaming from the theater.
Everything in the film is an excuse to get Matt Damon more screen time and it’s especially frustrating to see some of the biggest stars in China in what amounts to extended cameos. If you blink you would miss Lin Genxing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, and more. In fact, seeing how ferocious Eddie Peng is in his three minutes onscreen made yearn for him, not Matt Damon, to be the protagonist of the film. Andy Lau and Jing Tian are the only Chinese actors with more than a handful of lines in the film and only the hot Asian babe in the shiny breastplate gets to have any notable character development.
Even the scary monsters that provide the main threat in the narrative are only partially baked, looking like a cross between orcs, dinosaurs, and the nasty creature from Alien. All in all, the movie is a confused mess of that fails to resolve in any satisfying way.The Great Wall is another fail from Hollywood (with an assist from Wanda Dalien, which has been trying to break into the US market for a while). Thank god CAAMfest is coming up next month to give us some movies about real Asian/Americans from our perspective, instead of the usual white-dude-centric nonsense perpetuated by this film.
The Spring Festival (aka Lunar New Year) holiday just passed in China and as a result some of the biggest films of the year have been released in the past two weeks. Jackie Chan’s newest, Kung Fu Yoga, which reteams him with director Stanley Tong (Rumble In The Bronx; Police Story 3 & 4) for the first time in many years, opened during Spring Festival, as did comedian Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut, Buddies in India, and the two films earned US$44 million and US$38.5 respectively in the opening weekend of the holiday. But the box office champ from that period, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (aka JTTW2) dwarfed those figures, bringing in $85 million and setting a record in China for a local film’s first day grosses by earning $52.5 million. Directed by Tsui Hark from a script by Stephen Chow, JTTW2 also opened with a day-and-date release in North America.
Although its take in the US was much smaller, grossing only $605,049 in it first week of release, JTTW2 averaged a respectable $9,000 per screen, which put it in the top five in that ranking (I Am Not Your Negro was number one). So Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark still have some pull in the Chinese American market, a niche that is still being mined by distributors such as China Lion, Wellgo, and Magnum Films, which handled JTTW2.
Some reviewers have panned the film but as evidenced by its record-breaking box office the Chinese filmgoing populace disagreed, and I also quite enjoyed its funhouse ride. The sequel to Stephen Chow’s 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, this one follows the further adventures of Monk Tang as he travels with Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, and his bestial buddies Pigsy and Sandy. A crazed romp through the CGI-enhanced mind of Tsui Hark, JTTW2 works just fine if you free yourself of any expectations and let the film’s madness sweep over you.
For example, Director Tsui throws in a dash of Indiaphilia in the film’s brief intro set in a tiny city on the subcontinent as well as snippets of what sounds like a remix of the soundtrack to his 1993 classic Green Snake on the audio track. He also confounds expectations by including several white people as extras in the imaginary Indian city as well as in the kingdom of Biqiu, a clever mindtwister that exemplifies Tsui’s sideways-thinking moviemaking.
Whereas the last installment in the rival Journey To The West franchise, The Monkey King, was cheaply designed and instantly forgettable, in JTTW2 the art direction by Yoshihito Akatsuka is gorgeous and goes on for miles. Among the jaw-dropping images cramming the film frame are huge floating paper-mache creatures, a man-fish shapeshifter who spends a large part of the film in his pescatorean manifestation, and elaborate, multi-textured set designs that recall the best of Hieronymus Bosch. Female characters take on a particularly hallucinogenic appearance, with elaborate coifs, fancy eyebrows, and visages that morph from the beautiful to the grotesque in a flash as when several femme fatales suddenly become huge arachnid demons.
I really liked Lin Gengxin’s take on the Monkey King, who he plays with a gangsta swagger instead of the customary simian tics. Ex-EXO member Kris Wu is fine as Monk Tang but his characterization is missing the guileless sweetness that Wen Zhang brought to the role in the previous film. The ne plus ultra evil female villain (played by Yao Chen) harkens back to Carina Lau’s formidable take as the Empress in Hark’s Detective Dee series but without Lau’s majestic imperiousness. Jelly Lin (who debuted in Stephen Chow’s 2016 blockbuster The Mermaid) as Monk Tang’s love interest Felicity is pretty and charming, but when juxtaposed with Shu Qi’s much more feisty character from the last film she seems as filmy and slight as her gauzy costume.
Tsui does a great job using IMAX 3D to immerse the viewer in the film’s universe. I’m the kind of person who went to see Inception twice just to see the stereoscopic teardrops floating through space, so I’m a sucker for the overloaded visual experience that JTTW2 delivers in spades. But if you’re hoping for character development, a coherent narrative, or emotionally connected interpersonal relationships you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. Still, it’s a lot more fun that most Hollywood CGI fests due to Tsui Hark’s unique and vivid cinematic imagination. If you’re looking for a couple hours of maniacal visual stimulation leavened with Stephen Chow’s twisted sense of humor then JTTW2 is your movie.
Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.
1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.
2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.
3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control
4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.
5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.
9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.
10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.
11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco
12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.
13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.
NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com
With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.
CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifia, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.
The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.
The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.
As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.
Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.
Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.
Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.
The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.
Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.
The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.
The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.
Three versions, You’re So Fine
POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.
I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.
UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.
Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook
Ringo Lam came off of a very extended hiatus in 2014 with Wild City, his first feature film in more than ten years. Although flawed, the film still show flashes of what made Lam’s movies great back in his heyday in the 1980s when he made classics such as City on Fire, Prison On Fire, Wild Search, and Full Contact with the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat. Lam’s second film in three years, Sky On Fire, just released in the U.S. and Hong Kong and like its predecessor it’s a mixed bag. But whereas Wild City retained some of the grit of Lam’s earlier classics, almost all of that texture has been sanded away in this new release.
Though not as dreadfully unmemorable as fellow Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s last flick, Operation Mekong (2016), which I forgot I’d even seen the moment after I left the theater, there’s a certain unnerving genericness to Sky On Fire that is discouraging. Lam used to be one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive directors, with a streetwise style that pulled no punches. Some remnants of that still remain in Sky On Fire but for the most part the film is unremarkable and anonymous. The film follows Tribo (Daniel Wu), the security chief of a medical research firm, as he uncovers corruption and malfeasance involving what the subtitles call “ex-stem cells,” a prized medical breakthrough that can cure cancer. Along the way Tribo tangles with a group of thieves led by a young dude named Ziwan (Zhang Ruo Yun) who have stolen the former stem cells, as well as various baddies out to get their hands on the coveted objects.
In Sky On Fire there are some remnants of Lam’s former mastery. Some of the action sequences are crisp and effective, including two scenes involving hand-to-hand fighting in cramped interiors. The first, which takes place in a small kitchen, features rapid-fire fight choreography that escalates rapidly and convincingly and that displays a mastery of space, movement, and editing. The second, in a narrow hallway, includes painfully realistic-looking violence including an actor’s head shattering the ceramic tiles lining the hallway’s walls.
Similarly, a car chase through the confined streets of Central makes good use of that district’s narrow, winding roads. But besides that the film has very little Hong Kong flavor, which is probably exacerbated by the international cut being dubbed in Mandarin. At first I couldn’t even tell the movie was set in Hong Kong, which is definitely not a good sign.
Sky On Fire also suffers from a convoluted plot and a very uneven tone throughout its running time. Lam makes the unfortunate decision to include a sappy cancer-patient storyline that sucks all of the life out of the narrative. It’s not helped by the fact that Amber Kuo plays the cancer patient in question since she’s a mopey drip throughout the movie. The film alternates to ill effect between the attempted pathos of her situation and the slam-bang action of the rest of the story and neither aspect of the movie meshes with the other.
By the last third of the film the wheels have completely come off as the story swerves into absurdity. The good guys end up in a fight scene in a hospital room while an incapacitated Amber Kuo lies whimpering in the bed. Suffice to say that the weapon of choice in this scene is a pole-mounted plasma bag. Following this unlikely scenario everyone including the terminal cancer patient piles into a car and speeds off, guns blazing. Luckily Tribo thoughtfully reminds everyone to buckle their seatbelts as they veer toward more vehicular mayhem. Other scenes are similarly clichéd, including a character tensely hacking something important from a desktop computer as the screen displays the download status. Can’t they just go on the cloud these days and not have to spend time breaking into an office and using a terminal? Other missteps include some very questionable CGI including fake-looking explosions and fires and a poorly matted rendering of the Sky Tower, the skyscraper where much of the action takes place.
The film wastes a lot of talent, from venerable Hong Kong character actors Wayne Lai and Philip Keung to Daniel Wu, who is stern and scowly but not terribly compelling. Idol drama star Zhang Ruo Yun in his first film role is adequate but unmemorable. Joseph Chang, on the other hand, gets it done with another strong performance. He’s shaping up to be a fine actor and here he combines a notable physicality with a sensitive intensity.
The movie also benefits from advances in digital cinematography as it looks slick and beautifully photographed. But all the pretty photography in the world can’t give the film coherence or make it connect emotionally, which is unfortunate given Ringo Lam’s past work. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to redeem himself with another, better movie sometime soon.
Sky On Fire opens Dec. 2 across North America
So the awesome new documentary, We Are X, about legendary Japanese speed metal band X Japan, dropped last week here in San Francisco. An energetic and engrossing look at one of Japan’s most popular bands, the film follows the group’s long and often tragic history, as seen through the eyes of its charismatic leader Yoshiki, the band’s drummer, pianist, composer, and mastermind.
I attended a screening of the film at Mezzanine in San Francisco, followed special performance by Yoshiki, who performed a short set including a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner (!) and held an extensive Q&A/lovefest with his adoring fans.
As a special perk I also got to meet Yoshiki backstage, where I tried desperately to control my fangirling. I got to shake Yoshiki’s hand (soft and smooth) and observe him as he chatted with his friends while a hovering videographer and a photographer documented his every move. I’m happy to report that despite his superstar status Yoshiki is a nice fellow, especially for a rock god.
The next day I got the chance to sit down with filmmaker Stephen Kijak to talk about We Are X. I’m also familiar with Kijak’s earlier film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006), so it was fun to talk with him about his experiences working with two pop music legends.
beyond asiaphilia: So what was it like to show the film to room full of fan people last night?
Stephen Kijak: Last night was amazing! We were in Austin the night before and then San Francisco last night for the screening and both cities had the most passionate fan response I think I’ve seen. Just young people, too, that had a history with the band and discovered the band as teenagers–collecting all this stuff, they had really deep knowledge of the band and a really passionate response.
BA: So what is the difference between when you show it to a general audience versus people who know every detail of the history?
SK: At the festivals, some of the fans find out and make their way, so you kind of test each audience by starting off with a, “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“, and you see how many people do an X. At Sundance, I think, maybe five?
SK: We did a festival in Moscow, the beat festival. It was all music and documentaries, and it’s a lot more accessible to the general public. We went “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“ and the whole place went up in Xs, the whole cinema. So, like, the metal heads of Russia all came to Moscow to pay homage to Yoshiki! You know, it’s one thing when it’s a screening of the film but when he’s going to appear afterwards to either take questions or play piano, it becomes a real event for the fans.
SK: Because usually, you’re seeing him on top of a drum riser with pyrotechnics and it’s a stadium show, and here he is in a movie theatre with you-
BA: Ten feet away.
SK: It’s pretty intense.
BA: He was really close. I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t breathe in that room last night.
SK: Yeah, I could not believe it, actually. It was intense last night.
BA: Yes, at one moment when he was playing the second song he paused. People were singing along–
SK: Endless Rain. Yeah.
BA: They were singing along quietly. Not loudly. Which I thought was very beautiful. And then he paused and stopped playing and they kept singing.
SK: They kept singing.
BA: It was just, like-
SK: Oh, my God, right?
BA: That was the moment. Wow. His charisma is amazing. Just amazing. But anyway, ok, we’re done squeeing here.
BA: So I actually know your other film about Scott Walker, which I really love, and again it’s kind of weird, because you’ve done the Rolling Stones movie? And the Backstreet Boys movie. Then, this X Japan movie – everybody knows who X Japan is in Asia but here they’re a little more obscure. Scott Walker is definitely obscure these days unless you’re really, really, really hip. So what are the different approaches you have when you have to deal with these incredibly famous people like the Rolling Stones versus Scott Walker?
SK: It’s all storytelling. You have to just tell a story, and that’s it. Scott Walker–I was the fanboy, you know, I was obsessed with his music. But you really have to just approach them professionally and go ok, I’m not a fanboy, I’m a professional storyteller, I need to figure out how to break this down and piece it together in the best way possible that’s going to be emotional and cinematic. I’m not just putting facts in order to tell you A, B, C, D, whatever it is. My creative approach is always that of a kid making a mixtape for his friend. The art of the mixtape was something that I tried to perfect when I was younger. I worked in a record store, I was taping songs off of records and making mixtapes for friends and wrapping them up in these little packages, and to me the movies are literally an extension of that because you have to figure out how to tell a narrative, you have to communicate it in a way that’s going to move people emotionally and half the time the technique is to imagine you’re literally making them up –
BA: You said that last night, yeah.
SK: It’s a way to work that, if you had the choice, what would be the beats, where would you go next, logically, if you were trying to craft a drama. Because you can’t let the celebrity and all that get in your way. They try to get in your way and you can’t let them.
BA: That’s my other question. Both Scott Walker and Yoshiki are quite strong characters, human beings, personalities. There must have been some push and pull with them, right?
SK: I weirdly feel that the two films are slightly similar in that you’ve got a beautiful enigma kind of hovering in the middle, which are our central characters, but they couldn’t be more opposite. Scott Walker was someone who was super-famous who, because of the shock of fame, retreated into this kind of wilderness. And he tried to surround himself with silence and he really keeps himself well-hidden and protected and really just wants the music to be the only thing you’re confronting. So our access to him was relatively limited. I think I might have had forty-five minutes to interview him, and it was the last thing I did.
BA: Weren’t you in the studio with him, though?
SK: We were in the studio. We had, like, one and a half days. We really did not have a lot of time. Which was insane, to think we had to make a whole film and he gives you just enough. But he’s a master of that economy within his music, so it kind of makes sense. Whereas Yoshiki is fully revealed at all times, you would think, it’s constant cameras. I had ten billion hours of archive to work with. He’s been having himself filmed and archived forever and it’s actually very well organized and logged. It was an open door policy. I mean, cameras everywhere, people were filming us filming him, it was kind of excessive. But at the same time he wears a mask which you need to try and chip away at.
SK: Which is a great cue to go okay, we can go all doppelganger on you and work with a lot of visual doubles and splits. It gave us a clue to a visual world we could create.
BA: Did you pull all that B-roll from his archive? All the psychedelic, dreamy stuff, was that something he shot, or did you shoot that?
SK: Well, the real psychedelic crazy stuff was probably stuff we created. We got a brilliant graphic design team that created that title sequence and all the really psychedelic sequences within the movie which are probably things we made, but we would generally make them with things we shot or from his own archive.
BA: Although there is that one part with the David Lynch footage—
SK: That was like a total surprise. I knew they had worked together and I had been combing through the logs going, where’s Lynch, where’s Lynch, and just one day it was like, box 903 and tapes one through twenty and I was like, what’s this, let’s just start looking at things, and there he is. He basically directed a music video for Yoshiki that I think kinda got shelved but it was right before he was gonna make Lost Highway so I think he was testing out a lot of tricks. Like the fire in the desert and all that stuff, but there’s Yoshiki in the middle of it.
BA: It was like, oh yeah, there’s David Lynch. Because it’s not flashy the way you put him in there! So, you make a lot of documentaries. You made a narrative a while ago but it’s been pretty much straight up docs and music docs. And it sounds like you were a big music fan when you were a kid.
SK: It’s a pocket that I like being in, I love. It motivates me. I feel like you can turn these stories around so many different ways. And each one provides unique challenges in terms of how to approach it, and they’ve all been radically different and this one especially, starting from no knowledge of the band. It was like great, I know nothing about this band, let’s hop in and take this on, you know? And the majority of those people you are trying to reach here in the West are going to be like me, like who the hell are these guys? So I can be that guy and that conduit and you can maybe see it through my eyes. Yet at the same time given the privileged access that we were allowed, what I discovered, thankfully, was that the fans are seeing a side of the band that they’ve never seen before, so it kind of works both ways.
BA: And has it screened in Japan yet?
SK: I think it’ll be February or March – I’m not a hundred percent sure.
BA: Oh, because the record is coming out.
SK: Yeah. The record is coming out and I think he kind of wanted kind of like a homecoming, with the success of the film in the States, like with the wind in his sails. I think it was very important for him. Because it would have been very easy just to make the film and release it in Japan and be done with it. But there is an aspect of this whole thing that is about trying to expand the awareness of the band just to see what kind of a success they can make of themselves outside of their comfort zone and the film is a big part of that.
BA: Is he pretty hands-on about that stuff?
SK: Yeah. He runs everything. I mean, look at the tour. There’s no artistic director. He runs everything, standing up on his drumstool, on his drum riser, dictating everything–the pyro, the lights, the screens, where the band goes, who walks down there, when things explode, when the CO2 blasts out, when the drum goes out (laughter), I mean, he’s running it all himself, all the time.
BA: He’s orchestrating it.
SK: It’s absolutely mind-boggling. So he’s got a plan. And if this ever makes this way to fans in Japan–they’ve been so patient. And we thank them for their patience. It’s coming, we haven’t forgotten about you.
BA: It’ll be interesting an experience to see how that’s received.
SK: I really just can’t wait, because we did show it at the Shanghai International Film Festival and it was in some freaking movie palace and it was off the charts– security, people rushing on the stage, screaming…
BA: Throwing dolls up there…
SK: Everything. They actually had advised him not to do a red carpet because it would be too crazy. He said, well, then I have to do a red carpet. It’s like he orchestrated the event in such a way that there would be pandemonium. But it only got people more excited. He’s a master showman.
BA: It’s interesting because I think in the movie he comes off as being this very delicate angsty person – which I’m sure he is, but what seems to me is that his personality also has an incredible steeliness to it. What you did to try to bring that out as well|? How did you balance that with his tragic life?
SK: Well I think you just have to present it. You just have to see it and draw your own conclusions. You know, we asked Pata, the guitar player, are you ever worried about him, seeing him collapsing. I mean, Pata’s been there since day one and he’s man of few words, but he winks at you and he goes, pssht, he’s not that weak. Come on. (laughter) Not that guy. Give me a break.
BA: So it’s the mask again.
SK: But there’s psychic and emotional pain and physical pain and I think there’s a really interesting relationship between the two. The physical pain helps numb what’s inside. But he carries himself in a very calm, peaceful, quiet manner outside of the realm of his rock star presentation. But he also just lets it out. And I think that’s the case with a lot of performers. The stage is where they unleash it, right?
BA: Do you think that you were able to penetrate the mask that he wanted to show you?
SK: Oh yeah. I mean, granted, it was hair and makeup for every interview, but we had to stop half the time, because he’d be crying and getting very emotional. I think once he decided he’d let me in, in a way, he was really forthcoming and I just felt a closeness in these interviews that I don’t usually get to with musicians. I mean you try to go there and sometimes you just can’t get through.
BA: How long did that take?
SK: The first interview was the day after Madison Square Garden and really we had started with that–I had no preparation. We were shooting days after we got the job, really. And so he was exhausted and kind of elated at the same time. We just sat him down for a very quick forty-five minutes and one of the first things I asked him was, what an amazing night, who do you wish could have been here to share in this experience, you know, totally loaded question – but he immediately started talking about his dad and just got really choked up. And we just went from there and I think just having him observing how we work – he was very impressed with the crew and the team, I think a lot of people who will normally shoot with him or try to approach him for interviews or anything especially in Japan are doing so with a real reserve and they put him on this pedestal, and we just had to go for it. No boundaries – I mean, it was respectful, but we were invasive. And I told him, look, we’re gonna be as obnoxious and as annoying as we can be during production and I’m going to make you uncomfortable and we’re going to cross as many lines as we can, because we can always pull it back in the edit if we need to. But let’s not be censored. If you want to make a great film, that’s kind of part of it, so… And he got it–-I think once he was in, he was all the way. Because he was resistant to making the film apparently, for years.
BA: So what was surprising to you about making this movie? What did you learn about them that you didn’t expect?
SK: Well, it was just the whole thing. It was X Japan itself. It was literally being side-stage at Yokohama Arena, literally a week after meeting him, to see them warming up – warming up – for Madison Garden with two sold-out arena shows. I had never seen anything like it in my life–just the intensity of the fans. I think that was THE most jaw-dropping, just seeing twenty thousand people X-jumping, and crying, and singing along, and just that simultaneous collective passion was at a level I had never experienced. I mean it was an actual just shock in the most beautiful way, literally just being privileged to stand right there. I’m right here, the stage is EXPLODING, there’s pyro, there’s all this stuff, and there’s just a sea of people with their little glow sticks making Xs as far as the eye can see and I was just, where am I? What has happened to me? I just couldn’t believe it.
BA: So you hadn’t witnessed Asian pop music before-
SK: Not to that level. Not to that level. I mean that was pretty awesome. Pretty awesome. It’s a question you get a lot, and it’s never just one thing, it was just kind of the totality of that experience. And then you realize what a heavy burden you have to carry. I’m sure there’s a million fans that wish they could have been in a position to tell the story.
BA: So did the moviemaking change you?
SK: I think they always change you a little bit. I know I have a lot more grey in my beard right now. But, they always change you in some way. I mean, Scott Walker had set a certain bar as an artist and he was someone I felt that I could learn lessons from in terms of how strong you have to be to be an artist and to go down a certain path. I don’t think I could ever be that strong, to go so fully into an artistic wilderness on your own and do something, though I would love to. I think sometimes economically and just logically you kind of can’t do that –
SK: But, in Yoshiki’s case, X Japan… there was such an artistic freedom. It was more about freedom, in a lot of ways. He didn’t mess with us at all and literally, the film was 90% finished, accepted into Sundance, and then we showed him a cut. He gave us that much kind of leeway.
BA: Did you get feedback after that?
SK: A little bit. But it really, it was so minor, because the film was done. There was kind of no going back after a point, so it was a bit of a risk. I think what I took away from his kind of artistic project that allowed us to push it that far visually and emotionally. You kind of feed on the artist and their aesthetic world–that’s kind of how I try to then put that back into the film and try to make sure it’s all calibrated in a way that feels like the music and feels like the show and has a visual aspect that rises to the level of the subject, you know. And it was that kind of excessive freedom that I think he brings to his art that really fueled us and let us really stretch out and do something different with it.
BA: Did you feel like he was collaborating with you?
SK: Oh yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. You know, he says, “Oh, I was too busy to mess with you,” Because he is really on the go all the time. But he said to him it was just a level of trust, so he couldn’t be involved because it’s too painful. He says it a lot and it’s a good story but I do buy it because I’ve seen it in action–he could hardly edit the DVD of the Last Live concert, you know. He said it took him three or four years to finish it because he would watch five minutes and he’d have to go cry and take a break. And that’s one show, forget about the whole career.
BA: Did you ever find a barrier or a wall that he wouldn’t let you through? Like when you asked him about why Taiji got thrown out, and he said, “I’m not telling.”
SK: Those aren’t necessarily walls or barriers, there are just certain things that you know, if he’s not gonna answer, he’s not gonna answer. And we’ve never got an even off the record, that’s one he’s going to take to his grave. Which is fine. I think we need to leave a little mystery intact.
BA: Cool. So you’re still in love with this movie?
SK: I love this movie. I love this movie. I can’t remember – was it Picasso, they asked him, what’s your favorite painting, he says, “the last one, or the next one,” or whatever it is. It’s only in the last few weeks of really showing it to a lot of diverse audiences where you’re really feeling the impact of it. And your perception of it keeps changing. But, yeah, I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of it. I love it. Which I said about the Backstreet Boys movie, and I love that movie. (laughter) But this one’s just like another level. There’s just something other about this one. It was more of a challenge and I just think it’s visually one of the most stunning things I’ve done yet. I had such great collaborators, like really great collaborators, behind the camera and the graphics team, my editorial team… Everyone just knocked it out on this one. I love it.