Don’t Say Goodbye: Favorite CNBLUE live performances

I just published Have A Good Night: CNBLUE, Band Music, and the Uses of Live Performance in K-pop, my first article in the burgeoning field of CNBLUE studies, in the book The Future of Live Music (Bloomsbury, 2020) and to celebrate that achievement as well as to give the article more context I came up with a list of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.

Since CNBLUE is in the midst of reconfiguring from a quartet to a trio and since I wrote the article prior to that in 2019, this post is a bit of a time capsule. The band members were in the army from 2018-2020 and haven’t released any new music since 2017, but more significantly, they had a bad breakup with their guitarist Lee Jonghyun in 2019 due to his involvement with various controversies, so the band is definitely in transitional mode. But their live shows are legendary and as I wrote in my Bloomsbury essay, “In some ways CNBLUE’s drive to excel as live musicians stems from these early perceptions as they have striven to prove their musical legitimacy despite their idol roots.” Since then they’ve gone far beyond that early expectation and have become one of the premiere live performing acts in the world.

With the departure of Jonghyun, who wrote and sang many of their classic songs and whose guitar playing was an indispensable element of their singular sound, CNBLUE is a now different band than the one that performed in the clips below. But nonetheless this post is a tribute rather than an elegy to their prodigious output in the past ten years, as the remaining three members have promised to continue on. As I researched this post I realized that the setlist from one of their classic concerts from 2012, 392 Live, is almost completely different than their setlist from their last tour, Starting Over, in 2017, with only four songs overlapping in both shows. This indicates that although it won’t be easy to move on without Jonghyun, they are capable of remaking themselves almost completely and starting fresh with new material. I’m optimistic that once COVID-19 restrictions on live performances begin to ease up, CNBLUE will resume touring and will light up the sky again with their live shows.

It was pretty challenging narrowing down the list to just 15 clips and in truth the best way to experience CNBLUE live (besides going in person to one of their actual performances) is to watch an entire concert from start to finish, since they are masters of creating setlists and the pacing in their shows is designed for maximum effect. But for those who would like more of a guided tour, here in chronological order is a curated selection of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.


1. Hey You, Blue Night in Seoul, 2012
A much heavier version of this song than the studio recording, beginning with each member showing off their instrumental chops. This performance demonstrates their ability to turn even a fluffy pop song into what they call DSM, or dark, sexy metal.


2. Tattoo, You and I, 2012
I can imagine the horror of people who randomly tuned in to this performance on South Korean television during the performance of this ode to sexual obsession. Jung Yonghwa pants and moans into the microphone, thrusts his hips into his guitar, and gets on his knees and headbangs at the climax (and I don’t use that word lightly) of this song.


3. I Don’t Know Why, MTV Unplugged, 2012
CNBLUE shows off their acoustic chops and vocal harmonies in this unplugged concert for MTV Japan, and they really jam on the booming dreadnought guitars. The lyrics are also a good example of Yonglish, Yonghwa’s singular approach to the English language.


4. Y Why, Wave in Osaka, 2014
Slowed down slightly from its original studio version, this performance is a stellar example of CNBLUE’s trademark deep, dark, sexy metal, including Yonghwa’s growling and soaring rock vocals, Kang Minhyuk’s heavy, heavy foot on the drums and a wailing guitar solo by Jonghyun.


6. Lady, Summer Sonic, 2014
The ultimate rave up song and one of CNBLUE’s fastest paced, this tune has been staple in their setlists since its release in 2014. It’s a firestarter of a song and includes a supple bassline by Lee Jungshin. You can literally hear the audience going insane at the end of this version.


5. I’m Sorry, Summer Sonic, 2014
Playing at one of Japan’s premiere music festivals in the heat of the Japanese summer, this performance of their iconic rock track I’m Sorry includes a sweaty AF Yonghwa capping the song with his signature octave-jumping wail. Bonus: a jamming version of Lady, plus a rendition of their sweet sweet 2014 hit song Can’t Stop.


7. Loner, Yu Hui Yoo’s Sketchbook, 2015
An EDM version of their famous debut track, updated with synthesizer, this is one of the first live CNBLUE clips that I saw and the one that started me on this long, crazy journey. It’s also interesting to see the band coiffed and made up instead of sweaty and disheveled like they are in most of their live concerts and it’s pretty clear why they were recruited as idols back at the start of their careers. Even in front of a sedate studio audience they exude sheer energy and blinding charisma, which in combination with their good looks is deadly.


8. Catch Me, FNC Kingdom in Japan, 2015
Just rock. Absolutely electrifying.


9. Lie, We’re Like A Puzzle, 2016
One of CNBLUE’s many vocal duets–here they perform this midtempo rock tune in both Korean and Japanese. It’s a great example of their musical virtuosity on all counts, with the spotlight on Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s perfectly balanced, emotional vocals.


10. Radio, Our Glory Days in Nagoya, 2016
Although pretty much every live version of this song is great, Yonghwa is in fine form in this one, bopping on top of the piano, across the stage and into the audience. He ends up lying flat on his back at the end of the song exchanging a cappella vocal riffs with the audience.


11. LOVE, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
This jazzy rendition one of their sprightly earlier hits shines in the band’s locked-in performance, from Minhyuk’s rat-a-tat-tat drum rolls though Jonghyun’s fluid lead guitar lines, overlaid by Yonghwa’s energetic vocal improvisations and capped off by a monster rock break two-thirds of the way through the song.


12. Wake Up, Between Us in Bangkok, 2017
Wake Up is CNBLUE’s version of a jam band song and the live performances of this song features am extended call-and-response between the band and the audience, Yonghwa and Jonghyun swapping improvised guitar riffs, Yonghwa’s screaming high notes, and endless false endings. The longest version recorded, from Between Us in Seoul, lasts more than 16 minutes, which is pretty impressive for a song that was originally less than 3 minutes in its studio version.

This 2017 fancam is a fragment of a much longer version and demonstrates some of the maniacal improvisational hijinks that typically take place during the song. For a full version go here.


13. Eclipse, Starting Over in Yokohama, 2017
This performance builds beautifully, starting with Jonghyun’s sweet, clear vocal and acoustic guitar. The gradual additions of piano, drums, bass, and Yonghwa’s ragged lead guitar perfectly complement the smooth lightness of Jonghyun’s voice, showcasing CNBLUE’s balanced combination of vocals, guitar, harmony, and beats.


14. Between Us, Arirang I’m Live, 2017
This explosive tune usually brings the house down in 15,000 seat arena shows so CNBLUE performing it here live in front of a tiny crowd is absolutely earth-shattering.


15. Young Forever, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
Besides earworm pop tunes and spectacular rock anthems, CNBLUE also specializes in emotional bops including Glory Days and Book, two of their more recent Japanese releases. Young Forever falls into that category as well and this performance shows off the band’s stellar songcrafting and live chops. A gorgeous roundelay of a song, with three main parts that repeat and overlay each other, this live version beautifully showcases the lovely interplay of the various elements of the song, including layered vocal harmonies, changes in dynamics, and a cappella harmonizing, and which features the plaintive lament “Can we go back/but there’s no way back.”

For further exploration, there are many full CNBLUE concerts on youtube. My favorite full concert is Starting Over, from 2017, and my favorite short concert is FNC Kingdom 2017, which is also the last live with all four members and which demonstrates their ability to whip an audience into a frenzy.

July 28, 2020 at 7:56 am 4 comments

Fire in the Rain: Sewing In The Time Of Coronavirus

The Asian American Documentary Network, aka A-doc, just launched a new series of short clips as part of its Storytelling Initiative, with my clip, Sewing In The Time of Coronavirus, its first featured microdoc. This little short explains how I’ve been spending my time since the shelter-in-place order in California took place almost two months ago.

 

Since mid-March I’ve been sewing masks with a sewing circle called the Auntie Sewing Squad, started as a facebook group by performance artist Kristina Wong. Around that time we were both noodling around with the idea of sewing cloth facemasks and when Kristina started the group we had about a dozen members. Fast forward to now and the squad now has more than 500 all-volunteer members. We make masks for frontliners including hospital workers, grocery workers, farm workers, delivery people, nursing home staff and patients, and anyone else who doesn’t have the means or access to get facemasks and who are working in risky situations. Lately we’ve been sending a lot of masks (more than 1500 a week) to Native American tribes such as Navaho Nation (which has been very hard hit in part because they don’t always have access to running water for hand-washing and so forth), Zuni, Blackfeet, Round Valley and other tribes.

Neutrals

I’ve made about 125 masks since I started, but some Aunties in the group have made more than 500 each. Some of them have high-powered sergers or industrial machines but most of us are using the family Singer or Kenmore to crank out our masks.

Jewel tones

Even though it’s a lot of work (I can make about 3-4 masks an hour), it’s for a good cause so I’m happy to do it. And other people have been very supportive, too. Several people sent me a bunch of lanyards and at one point I think I had about 300 of them floating around my house before I disbursed them to other sewists. Other people have donated their fabric stash. And I’m eaten a sick amount of donated cookies, lemon bars, marmalade, and other treats that folks have given out to support those of us sewing.

Fury

Sewing masks has been a positive way to deal with my ongoing fury at the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week I had a sore throat for several days and I was worried I’d gotten COVID19. But I was able to get a test and it came up negative, since I’m one of the lucky people in this country with good healthcare. I’m trying to share my privilege with others who aren’t as lucky as I am so that we can all get through this epidemic, and making masks is a means to do that.

Ten with tails

If you’re looking for a way to support our efforts here’s how you can help out:

  • fabric donations (100% woven lightweight cotton preferred)
  • sewing machine loan or donation
  • cutting fabric
  • conference and film festival lanyards
  • making tasty snacks and meals. especially seeking in Northern California, though we have Aunties all over the US
  • fresh fruits & veggies from your garden
  • veggie starts to plant
  • filthy lucre (venmo givekristinawongmoney for postage and sewing supplies and gayleisa for food and snack supplies)

contact: vsoe@sfsu.edu

BONUS: Here’s the song this post is named after, by Jung Yonghwa. It’s all about maintaining hope in times of despair. I wrote more about it here.

Lyrics (translated from Japanese; original English in italics)

We are the fire in the rain

(Fire in the rain)

In my eyes Even now, sad news in one corner of the world

The rain won’t stop. The blue tears fall from my eyes

 

Tell me what can I do I don’t know why I was born

How much? I don’t know why

A polka-dot pattern on the window. Towards the other side of the cloud

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

When I ’m taking you higher I set your heart on fire

When I ’m taking you higher I set your heart on fire

 

In your arms Even if you lose everything

A flower that stays quietly in your heart

 

Tell me what can I do. I don’t know why I was born

How much I don’t know why

An umbrella in the palm of your hand

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

(When I ’m taking you higher) You should make a move

Because you live only once

(I set your heart on fire) You should catch a wave

Everything will go well

(When I ’m taking you higher) An indelible hope. Connected thoughts

(I set your heart on fire) The answer is: No one knows

 

Someday even if the storm that swallows everything. Even if the light does not reach

Somewhere let’s light up the heart, let’s go together, beyond the night sky

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

It’s not a miracle, go to fate (Go the way that you believe)

Stars in the sky Let me keep on burning

A fiery dance that never ends fiesta

 

When I ’m taking you higher (I ’m taking you higher)

I set your heart on fire (I set your heart on fire)

When I ’m taking you higher (Yeah um)

I set your heart on fire (It never ends fiesta)

When I ’m taking you higher It never ends fiesta

NOTE: Yonghwa’s former bandmate Lee Jonghyun’s nickname was “Burning.” He’s left the group following a series of controversies so this may be Yonghwa’s final tribute to CNBLUE’s guitarist of ten years.

May 7, 2020 at 4:44 am 1 comment

The Endless Melody: Jung Yonghwa’s Feel the Y’s City album review

Evolution, Jung Yonghwa

CNBLUE’s leader Jung Yonghwa finished up his mandatory military service in the South Korean army last November and since then he’s been reemerging in Asia’s music and entertainment scene. Feel the Y’s City, his third solo Japanese album, just dropped recently and it shows Yonghwa’s continued evolution as an artist as he moves farther and farther from his Kpop idol roots.

The album’s lead track, The Moment, is an astoundingly joyous song, exploding with optimism and hope. Considering that Yonghwa recorded this just after he’d just gone through one of the darkest periods of his career it’s amazing that he was able to infuse such sheer happiness and hope into this track. This one is pure jazz at its most swinging, and it mixes up some killer changes over a driving piano riff, vibes, and blaring horns. Before he entered the military Yonghwa mentioned his admiration for the soundtrack to the film LaLa Land and The Moment definitely takes its inspiration from that style of midcentury jazz-based pop music. But Yonghwa is a better singer than either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone and his smooth and swinging, powerful vocals drive the song. He effortlessly travels from his warm lower register up to a sweet falsetto.

The lyrics are mostly in English, with a smattering of phrases in French that seem be taken from a French For Beginners handbook, but he does a great job of rhyming in two languages that are not native to him. Although his French is delivered with a decidedly flat American accent, at one point he cleverly rhymes champagne, display, parlez, and café, which is pretty impressive for someone writing not in his first language. Throughout the song he further randomly throws in other French phrases, including a curious line that reads “Let’s get away and find ourselves la vie en rose, encore,” which sounds a bit like he strung together all of the French words he knew to make a lyric. Later in the song he shouts, “C’est la vie!” again not quite matching the proper use of the term. But it’s not bad for someone writing for the first time in French. I’m a bit surprised he didn’t include “mon petit chou” somewhere but that probably didn’t properly scan.

The next track, Summer Night In Heaven, continues the curious admixture of even more languages. Back in August I wrote a note to myself saying, “I have no doubt that Yonghwa can write a genius city pop song if he wants to,” and sure enough, Summer Night In Heaven is it. The song opens with a throwback guitar riff that emulates the crackly scratches of a vinyl record, followed by an outstanding bit of whistling that leads into Yonghwa’s relaxed, funky vocals. The lyrics are all pretty much about his blissed-out vacations to Hawai’i, and the song’s gently loping beat echoes his Zen experiences there. The track also includes a pleasant bit of Yonghwa scatting over a guitar interlude, a skill he showed off at his last concert tour before enlisting back in 2018.

The chorus demonstrates the polyglot scenario in his busy brain as he mashes up English, Spanish, Hawai’ian, and Japanese.

Summer night in heaven. Don’t you know the reason?

Groovin’ to the soul playground of freedom

Loco Ala Moana Forever I wanna

Uchiyosete kaesu shiosai no kōrasu (The chorus of the tide rushing back)

This somewhat random assemblage of languages, charmingly sung without regard to proper accenting or syntax, still manages to work, conveying the joyful and relaxing, utterly optimistic worldview that Yonghwa seems to be cultivating since his discharge from the army last year.

Continuing in that upbeat vein, the next track, She Knows Everything, is a sweet, simple pop song that’s the definition of a catchy earworm bop. The track is  a streamlined throwback to ‘90s new jack swing, anchored by Yonghwa’s gorgeous falsetto. The song’s hooky chorus features Yonghwa’s lovely flutelike upper register as he sings, “I’m in trouble/In Good Trouble,” showing off his effortless, silky vocal range. Here the completely English lyrics sweetly outline a charmed relationship:

When my words get fumbled

Sometimes I’m misunderstood

Before I trip and stumble

She knows how to catch me long before I hit the ground

Once again Yonghwa invokes the Minnesota sound made famous by Prince, with a bright synthesizer jamming over the songs danceable beats.

In Jellyfish Yonghwa uses an upbeat dance track to emulate the backstabbing, duplicitous entertainment world that he inhabits. The song was recorded while he was enduring a particularly vicious witchhunt and Yonghwa shows a remarkable self-awareness for his situation at the time, questioning his own complicity in the trap that he’s in. Although Yonghwa is too polite to say it, the song clearly is about his adopted hometown of Seoul, where he’s spent most of his professional life and where he’s experienced his greatest successes and his greatest betrayals.

The fully electronic instrumentation adds a metallic tang to the song, and the song’s ringing, manufactured beats mesh perfectly with Yonghwa’s raspy purr of a voice. Although beautiful and seductive, the song is completely artificial and false, reinforcing the lyrics which describe being crushed, empty, deluded, and trapped. They also clearly describe the seductiveness and lure of the entertainment world, which Yonghwa envisions as a warm bath of oblivion and deception.

I am bathing in the light of the moon
Always floating
With all the jellyfish in bloom
They are shining in the dark, closing in
Hiding poison
I’m deeper in the city’s womb

The entire song vibrates with mendacity, but Yonghwa doesn’t shy away from his own attraction to the bright lights of fame and fortune, realizing that jellyfish are beautiful but potentially deadly and choosing to tangle with them can be fatal.

There’s a risk I could take when I touch you
Get paralyzed by your sting
Stimulus leads to hallucination
I’d sacrifice for anything

The next track, Fire & Rain, is a dreamy midtempo jam that opens with Yonghwa climbing from midrange to head voice in a beautifully sung acapella phrase. The song then kicks into a powerful dance groove. Yonghwa croons in and around the beat, his understated phrasing and intonation emphasizing the melancholy yet hopeful lyrics (in Japanese and English, with a “fiesta” thrown in for good measure).

We ’re the fire in the rain

hibiku ame no oto daichi ni utai inochi o naraseba fukinukeru kaze seimei no

Breathing moeru yō ni

(Sing on the earth/The Breathing of Life)

Although a very different song, the mood is reminiscent of Yonghwa’s 2014 composition for CNBLUE, Like A Child, as the music and lyrics create a hypnotic ambiance that suggests hope amongst despair.

Melody is a gorgeous slice of orchestral pop, with some lovely half-step progressions that elevate the chorus. Again Yonghwa’s stellar vocals shine, as he runs up and down his range with a fine falsetto at the end of the song, and the song’s arrangement of cascading strings over a lilting piano interweaves beautifully with Yonghwa’s passionate singing. This track was also one of the five recorded before enlistment and released while Yonghwa was in the army and it reflects his desire to continue making music no matter what difficulties or obstacles he faces.

Sekaijuu ni saita Harmony mamoritai yo kienai you ni

Sugite yuku toki no naka de kawaranai you ni

Kiitetai yo towa ni ima doko ni ite mo

Hibikaseyou Baby owarinonai Melody

(I want to protect the harmony that bloomed all over the world, so it doesn’t disappear

So it doesn’t change within this advancing time

I want to listen to it forever, wherever you are now

Let it resound, baby, the endless melody)

At the time he recorded this song there was some doubt as to whether Yonghwa would continue making music so this song holds significant meaning, rededicating his pledge to himself, his bandmates, and his fans to keep going with his career.

The two tracks that immediately follow Melody were also recorded during the controversies prior to Yonghwa’s enlistment and both reflect the state of mind he was in during that crazy time.

Brothers is a straight-up rock song, with power chords and a wailing guitar riff that clearly emulates the style of Yonghwa’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Lee Junghyun (who is currently exiled from CNBLUE following his tangential association with the Burning Sun controversy). In this song Yonghwa also pays tribute to Oasis, one of his favorite bands, as the track has a distinctly Britpop sound to it. The lyrics brilliantly set up the song’s premise, starting with the everyday conflicts that occur between close mates and friends.

Screaming at each other again

We never seem to click,

We’re fighting all of the time

Surrounded by tension and strain

So sick of all your jokes

This stark honesty demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of a longstanding relationship and show Yonghwa’s maturity of thought. As in Letter, despite ups and downs, working through and resolving these struggles ultimately creates an strong and lasting relationship.

The chorus reverses the conflicts introduced in the first verse, revealing the deep bond forged from such conflicts.

When you told me your dreams

And your ambitions

Something crushed inside of me

I see right through you the same

Same way you see right through me

Goin’ back when I found my soul brother

So we’ll never be apart

The song takes on an extra poignancy now that the rest of CNBLUE’s members are returning from their military service. Although Yonghwa has declared that CNBLUE will go on, he’s been mum on whether or not the band’s future includes their erstwhile lead guitarist. Interestingly, while Yonghwa has recently expressed his desire to play rock music again, Brothers is the only track on the album that prominently features guitar, suggesting that he’s waiting for CNBLUE (in whatever formation) to come back in order to get his rock groove on.

Letter, a midtempo love song, also explores an up-and-down relationship that in some ways is a metaphor for Yonghwa’s sometimes problematic relationship with his fans and his career. Yonghwa belts the song effortlessly, infusing the track with a gentle and melancholy longing. He adds a few delicate and powerful trills to the chorus, hitting a sweet crescendo before the song’s soulful denouement. (go here for a more detailed analysis of this track)

The last track on the album, Livin’ It Up, returns to the big-band jazz sound of The Moment. Somewhat more saccharine and less substantial that the other track it nonetheless clearly conveys the mood and meaning Yonghwa intended, which he states is a tribute to the joys of New York City. The song is a throwback to midcentury popular jazz tunes and would be right at home in a Fred Astaire MGM joint, with its lyrics describing “Falling falling snow,” the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. Somewhere in there there’s a thesis about the pervasiveness of the myth of American exceptionalism in the South Korean imaginary but that’s a discussion for another day.

All in all this is a solid outing and demonstrates Yonghwa’s continued interest in making music that he finds interesting and engaging, rather than what the market dictates. It shows his continued development as an artist rather than an idol or pop star, as he keeps going farther afield from current commercial pop music. Though some of the tracks such as Jellyfish and Fire & Rain are completely on trend, others such as the jazzier cuts are much quirkier and less radio-friendly. As well as his infatuation with big band and jazz, he’s recently stated his fondness for the Indian dream pop duo Parekh & Singh and he’s covered a snippet of a song by the alt-country duo Dan + Shay on his instagram, so his tastes run a wide gamut of pop music.

Not unlike the way he slices and dices several different languages in one song, Yonghwa synthesizes his musical influences in sideways and unexpected ways and it’s very fun following what his fevered mind comes up with. Yonghwa was about to start his latest Japan tour this week but due to the coronavirus crisis those dates have been pushed back until April at the earliest or we’d surely be hearing even more remixes and rearrangements of his music. He’s repeatedly stated that he writes his songs with live performances in mind, so hopefully we’ll soon be able to hear what new directions he’s taking his current batch of tunes. I’m hoping someone plays some Ornette Coleman for him soon as I’d love to hear what happens when he hears some really mindblowing free jazz. A girl can dream—

BONUS: a clip of the new live arrangement of CNBLUE’s Face To Face, originally recorded as a straight-up Motown style jam. Here Yonghwa completely reworks it, and all cutie-pie clowning aside, this is an absolutely killer arrangement of this song, mixing Latin beats, tempo changes, jazz breaks, and some dope strings.

UPDATE: As of March 10, Feel The Y’s City has scored big on the charts throughout much of Asia. In its first day of release on Feb. 26, all five of the new tracks from the album were in the top ten on Japan’s daily Recochoku Kpop/World music chart, with a sixth track, Letter, at number 50.

recochoku 2.26.20

Three tracks, She Knows Everything, Summer Night in Heaven, and Welcome to the Y’s City, swept the top three for two consecutive weeks (Mar. 2 and 9) on China’s weibo New Asia Song Asia-Pacific chart. As noted on weibo, “The whole song has a cool summer feeling from the melody to the voice. There is a sense of playing on the beach.”

weibo 66 copy

The album also charted high on iTunes in several countries, reaching the top 5 in eight countries and topping the charts in Macau and Hong Kong. The album even made it to number 32 on the worldwide iTunes chart, which isn’t bad considering there was absolutely no promotion outside of Asia.

itunes

Yonghwa’s new South Korean variety show, K-Trot In Town, also scored very high ratings in its debut episode, reaching 14.9% in the second half of its broadcast. So despite a few bumps including the postponement of his Japan concerts in March, Yonghwa’s re-entry following his discharge from the military for the most part is going well. But in the mercurial world of South Korean entertainment that could change in a flash. Here’s hoping that things continue to go smoothly, especially once the rest of CNBLUE gets out of the army later this month.

March 6, 2020 at 9:30 am 1 comment

Cold Dark World: Noir City 18 at the Castro Theater

Salon Mexico002

Passion and despair, Salon Mexico, 1949

Noir City, one of my favorite local film festivals, had its eighteenth iteration last month and this time around the programming focused on international noir films, with films from ten countries giving a sampling of crimes of passion and despair from around the world.

This year’s festival was festive as usual, with big crowds for most of the shows I went to,  including the usual noir denizens in their wingtips and peplum jackets—the venerable Castro Theater is the perfect venue for the midcentury-centric event. The international scope of the festival also meant that the live performances in between films included tango dancers and Mexican cantantes. Another highlight was the appearance of poster woman and Ms. Noir City 2020 Victoria Mature, a noted chanteuse who is also the daughter of actor Victor Mature. Closing night featured Victoria performing a song with custom lyrics dedicated to Noir City founder and host-with-the-most Eddie Mueller. Eddie contributed his trademark pleasant and affable enthusiasm and encyclopedic noir knowledge in his introductions to the films and his love for the genre was infectious.

The festival opened with a brand-new 35mm restoration (supported by Noir City’s parent organization, the Film Noir Foundation) of the Argentine film The Beast Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir, 1952), directed by Román Viñoly Barreto, a moody, gritty, and surreal journey about a man seeking revenge for the killer of his young son. The film is full of beautiful visuals that looked great in the restoration, including a motif of crashing waves that ultimately pays off in the final shot.

6034topDoul

Charismatic, Jean-Claude Belmondo,  Finger Man (Le Doulos), 1962

Saturday evening’s double-bill included Jean-Pierre Melville’s Finger Man (Le Doulos, 1962), a spare and existential crime joint, with an understated and charismatic turn by Jean-Claude Belmondo. A bit plotty, the film nonetheless captures Melville’s trademark world-weary ennui.

In contrast, the second half of the program, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (Melodie En Sous-Sol, 1963), is a fun and jazzy heist film starring Alain Delon as a tempermental manchild and Jean Gabin as his mentor in crime. The film kicks off with a snazzy credit sequence, and the finger-poppin’ Mancini-esque score together with Delon and Gabin’s charismatic turns makes for an engaging and enjoyable experience, concluding with some excellent tension in the climactic final scene.

the-housemaid-19601_3356

Feral, The Housemaid (Hanyo), 1960

Kim Ki-young’s classic South Korean film The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960) is an expressionistic angsty ride featuring a feral housemaid wreaking havoc on a middle-class family. The film first reveals the titular character smoking forbidden cigarettes in a closet and things go downhill from there as she then beats a rat half to death with a kitchen utensil and makes creative use of a bottle of poison. The housemaid’s wilding is exemplified by the way she licks her lips whenever she sees the hot but powerless object of her desire, the family’s hapless father/husband who is unable to stop the destruction of his household. One of my favorite shots in the film occurs when the camera focuses on the husband as he writhes in deathly ecstasy on an upright piano while the housemaid clings to his thigh, an image that effectively encompasses the twisted symbiosis of their relationship.

Lee Man-Hee’s Black Hair (Geomeun Meori, 1964) is a more standard underworld film with a lot of moody lighting and camerawork and an outstanding performance by Moon Jeong-suk as a fallen woman trying to find dignity in her reduced lot in life. The film wanders a bit through a tortured love triangle but is held together by Moon’s sympathetic performance.

Zbynêk Brynych’s . . . And The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (… A Paty Jezdec Je Strach, 1965), Czechoslovakia’s contribution to the festival, is absurdist and slightly surreal, a cool, intellectual look at the Nazi occupation of Prague as a metaphor for the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia.

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Atmospheric, Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu), 1958

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964) and Toshio Masuda’s The Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu, 1958) from Japan comprised one of the strongest double bills in the festival. Pale Flower contains several Japanese crime film motifs including flower card games, yakuza in snazzy sport coats, a mysterious woman, and a fateful attraction. The Rusty Knife follows a former gangster as he struggles to escape the dark past that keeps creeping up on him. Moody and atmospheric, the film includes an angsty turn by the legendary Ishihara Yūjirō, as well a cocky performance by Kobayashi Akira as as his idiotic sidekick. The tale of a man whose hapless friend ultimately drags him down is classic noir.

From Mexico, Roberto Gavaldón Night Falls (La Noche Avanza, 1952) features one of the most reprehensible characters to grace the silver screen and his utter lack of redeeming qualities had me dying to see his comeuppance. SPOILER: he gets it, followed by a most satisfying coda.

Emilio Fernández’ Salon Mexico (1949) follows a Mildred Pierce-esque plot as Mercedes, a cabaratera (prostitute/bar girl) sacrifices her integrity to support her virginal sister. The film includes a great performance by Miguel Inclan as Mercedes’ devoted hangdog cop boyfriend who attempts to protect her from her sleazy loser pimp.

Ashes-and-Diamonds

Zbigniew Cybulski, Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant), 1958

Andrzej Wajda’s classic Polish noir Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant, 1958) follows an underground resistance fighter (Zbigniew Cybulski, aka the Polish James Dean) during one eventful day as he goes from a botched assassination to falling in love to meeting his fate at the end of the day. The film’s beautiful sound design and cinematography was heavenly to see on the big screen at the Castro and was a fitting end to Noir City 18. It was a pleasure to eat too much delicious Castro Theater popcorn and consume ten days worth of glorious noir from around the world, and I left the theater satiated and happy.

 

February 20, 2020 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Kick Out The Jams: Ip Man 4: Finale film review

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Ip Man 4: Finale

I finished grading this morning so this afternoon I treated myself to a screening of Ip Man 4: Finale, the final installment of the popular series about the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster. It’s not the greatest movie but it was a decent way to pass a couple hours.

The film’s title fittingly features the number four, a homonym for death in Chinese, as the movie opens with Ip Man being diagnosed with throat cancer. He’s also dealing with his rebellious teenage son who just got kicked out of school for brawling. When Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee sends him an invite to a tournament that he’s appearing in in the US he uses the opportunity to scout for a stateside school for his son to attend.

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Curiously wide, Ip Man 4: Finale

As with many Hong Kong movies supposedly set in the US, many of the small details are off. The film is set in San Francisco but is obviously shot somewhere else. The streets of Chinatown are curiously wide and lacking in hills and I swear the gates of the army barracks reminded me of the Beijing Film Academy. Curiously, although most of the dialog is in Cantonese, one of the major supporting characters speaks Mandarin and his daughter is played by a hapa actress, Vanda Margraf. (We never see her mom in the film so who knows, maybe dad had a German wife). The evil and racist white schoolgirl bully (who is literally named Becky) and her mother occasionally slip up in their American accents. One of the bad guys, a karate master, seems to be played by an Asian actor despite having a Western name. And the main bad guy, a racist Marine officer, is a complete caricature. It doesn’t help that the actor playing him ruthlessly chews the scenery.

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Serene, Donnie Yen and Wu Yue, Ip Man 4: Finale

Nonetheless, Donnie Yen manages to make the film much more than just another movie about Chinese underdogs versus oppressive white overlords. Ip Man is the role that he was born to play and he imbues the martial arts master with a convincing grace and presence. In a lot of his earlier roles Donnie tended toward an annoying arrogance but Ip Man’s somber humility keeps that in check, and his serene reserve effectively contrasts with his explosive martial arts moves. The action choreography by Yuen Woo Ping is top-notch, including a great little bit with a glass lazy susan and a teacup. Much of the martial arts is wire-free and some of the hand-to-hand fighting is convincingly bone-crunching. Danny Chan reprises his role from Ip Man 3 as Bruce Lee and he’s fairly good at mimicking Bruce’s mannerisms, from swiping his nose with his thumb to his trademark swagger. Some of his more advanced fighting moves seem to be doubled but all in all he’s inoffensive in the role.

In an interesting example of how the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have touched every aspect of life in the city, pro-democracy demonstrators are boycotting this film due to producer Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen and Danny Chan’s pro-Beijing comments. The Hollywood Reporter notes,

Wong has made his pro-China stance known especially in recent years, having organized a fund for an anti-Occupy Central organization in 2014 and vocally criticized the democratically voted best film win of the politically controversial Ten Years at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2015, calling the movie’s triumph at the ceremony “a huge mistake” and “a joke” despite it being the consensus of film industry members. Yen, who played the eponymous character in the film series, shared the stage and sang with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a gala commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover in 2017 and issued a statement early this year reasserting “the determination of the motherland” after his fans in China was outraged by his attendance of an event hosted by German clothing brand Philipp Plein, which was allegedly involved in an incident deemed “insulting” to China a dozen years ago. Meanwhile, Chan, who plays Bruce Lee in the latest movie, has been outspokenly supportive of the Hong Kong police, posting on social media that police should not “go easy on any [protesters]” nor “let anyone of them go.”

Due to the boycott the film has suffered at the Hong Kong box office, taking in just $660,000 in its first week of release and coming in second to the latest Star Wars movie.

 

December 29, 2019 at 3:53 am 2 comments

Stars Falling From The Sky: Sulli, Hara, and Compressed Modernity

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Goo Hara, 2019

NOTE: I started writing this a few weeks ago but didn’t get around to finishing it. Sadly, it’s become relevant again as another Kpop star, Goo Hara, took her life yesterday at the age of 28. I’m now posting this updated version.

On Oct. 14, 2019, Kpop superstar Sulli died by her own hand, bringing into focus the troubles often faced by young performers in a high-pressure industry. She was 25 when she died and had been working in the South Korean entertainment business for more than ten years, debuting in 2008 at age 14 as a teen actor. Soon thereafter she joined the girl group f(x), which was one of the most popular Kpop groups of its era.

Sulli’s funeral, from her brother’s social media post, 2019

Like her fellow Kpop star Kim Jonghyun, who committed suicide in December 2017, Sulli suffered from clinical depression. But perhaps a more pressing factor in her death was the constant cyberbullying she endured for much of her career. She didn’t fit into the mold of the demure, proper South Korean female and she was mercilessly raked over the coals by an unforgiving Korean press and public for her every move. This along with her fragile mental health without a doubt contributed to her decision to end her life.

This highlights the troubling dark side of fandoms in South Korea and around the world. Female celebrities in particular suffer from slut shaming, body shaming, and general hatred and derision in the internet age as anonymous keyboard warriors gang up and exacerbate a mob mentality, playing judge and jury to anyone they deem guilty of transgressing or offending their sensibilities.

No dating clause, Blackpink

Although Western stars such as Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus have come under scrutiny for their various romantic misadventures, they haven’t suffered the same accusations of impropriety as have Kpop idols. This is in part because the private lives of South Korean pop stars are much more strictly controlled and regulated. Some idols, including girl group Blackpink, who made a splash at Coachella this year, have no-dating clauses written into their contracts (Blackpink’s ban expired in 2019). Many fans also uphold this standard, often insisting that their favorite idols remain single (although many date in private) so as not to disturb the fantasy of their availability as romantic partners.

But another unpleasant aspect of the idol life is a direct result of the neoliberal competition that is consuming the entertainment world, especially in South Korea. As I’ve noted in the past, idol groups regularly compete for trophies on popular weekly music programs for their newest single releases. These shows pit each group against each other in what are basically popularity contests, with winners determined by youtube and other online streaming numbers, live voting, and other metrics that have little to do with quality and everything to do with quantity. Groups with the biggest and most active fandoms win and those with smaller followings lose, full stop. This has recently translated over to the US, with the wildly popular group BTS originally gaining traction in the west by winning the Billboard social media award back in 2017, which was based on the number of mentions on twitter and other platforms. From there BTS has built up a vast following that has pushed the group to great popularity around the world. Whether or not their music actually warrants this I won’t say, but their success has led to other South Korean groups attempting similarly splashy debuts in the US.

Bundling, Super M, 2019

On Oct. 13 the Kpop group SuperM’s first album debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 200. However, detractors have noted that the sales for the album may have been artificially inflated by several tactics by the group’s labels, SM Entertainment and Capital Records. These include bundling the album with concert ticket sales and funneling all sales worldwide through US distributors, defying Billboard’s regulations that state that only US sales count toward its charts. This is borne out by the fact that SuperM’s album did not chart on Spotify or iTunes, suggesting that the Hot 200 number one was unfairly manipulated.

As the New York Times notes,

“The (Super M) CD version came in eight packaging variations, one for each member of the group (plus a “united” version), which included a variety of posters and collectible cards. The group’s fans took to social media to display the many versions they acquired.

“The 1st Mini Album” was also available as part of more than 60 sales bundles for merchandise and concert tickets, which featured items like T-shirts enabled with augmented reality: point a smartphone at the shirt using a special app, and the SuperM member pictured on it becomes animated. Tactics like these have become increasingly common, but also raised concerns in the industry about distorting the weekly charts”

But Super M didn’t invent bundling. As the NY Times further observes. “Taylor Swift offered four deluxe versions of her album “Lover” at Target stores, while the metal band Tool sold 88,000 CDs in its first week as part of a $45 foldout package that included a four-inch HD video screen.”

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Zero sum game, Sulli

Whatever the truth may be, the excessive focus on quantity as the determinant of success is a contributing factor to the online bullying and harassment that many fans practice. Kpop fans regularly participate in vicious fanwars, tearing down perceived competitors who they see as threats to their idols’ success. Sulli and others may have been caught in the crossfire of this excessive zero sum game attitude, as fans believe that their favorites can only succeed at the expense of the failure of their rivals. It’s an ugly and unpleasant mentality that is a direct result of neoliberalism and global capitalism, which privileges measurable commercial success rather than more ephemeral and subjective metrics such as artistic achievement and appeal.

It’s also a result of what Chang Kyung-Sup calls compressed modernity, or the rapid-fire pace of modernization that South Korea has experienced in the past 50 years. Chang notes, “Compressed modernity is a civilizational condition in which economic, political, social and/or cultural changes occur in an extremely condensed manner.” These changes often cause great stresses in a society and in individuals that may account for the dysfunctional bullying of Sulli and others who are perceived as operating outside of societal norms. Goo Hara was also the victim of slut-shaming and cyberbullying resulting in part from a vindictive campaign by an ex-boyfriend who threatened to release sex videos of the star that he had recorded without her permission. She had also been targeted earlier by the South Korean media for her dating history, which in Kpop idol world is verboten. Yet these are all results of South Korea’s compressed modernity, a result of the highly stressful effects of the country’s rapid economic rise in the past fifty years.

So although many Western observers like to claim that South Korean culture and society is to blame for the deaths of these young stars, in fact the root causes are globally endemic. It’s easy to point the finger at South Korean society, or at Kpop, or at Korean fans or netizens, but these are only symptoms of a much more widespread malaise, a worldwide neoliberal economic system in which hypercompetitiveness pits us all against each other and in which individual achievement is valued over empathy, compassion, or collective well-being. Sulli, Hara, and many others are simply victims caught up in the vicious and exploitative cogs of this system.

Yonghwa, Sulli, Jo Kwon, Inkigayo, 2011

NOTE: This is the fifth person in three years that Jung Yonghwa has personally known or worked with who has committed suicide. Yonghwa knew Kim Jonghyun as a fellow second-generation Kpop star and in 2015 both Jonghyun and Yonghwa had successful solo debuts. In 2009 Yonghwa co-starred with Hara on the reality show Korea Ecosystem Rescue Centre: Hunters. In 2011 Yonghwa co-hosted the music show Inkigayo with Sulli. In 2014 Yonghwa worked with actor Kim Sung-min on the K-drama The Three Musketeers. Kim later committed suicide in 2016.  And in 2016 Chinese actor and singer Qiao Renliang killed himself, in part because of cyberbullying. Qiao had attended a CNBLUE concert in 2013 and was a fan of the band, and after his death Yonghwa posted a shocked notification on his weibo. Being personally touched so many times by suicide can’t be good, and speaks to the ripples of trauma that these tragedies create. Despite their seemingly charmed lives this demonstrates the great stress popular entertainers such as Yonghwa are under.

 

November 25, 2019 at 7:29 am 3 comments

Dreaming In Fantasy: Sunset Rollercoaster at Slim’s

Indie pop fans, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

Taiwan’s indie music scene is alive and well and we’ve been lucky to be able to see many of its leading proponents here Stateside lately. Recently coming through San Francisco were city pop practictioners Sunset Rollercoaster and they put on an energetic show in front of a sold-out house at Slim’s. The crowd was full of cute Asian indie pop fans speaking drawly Mandarin and the vibe was definitely chill.

Opening the show was Eyedress, aka Idris Vicuña, a Pinoy from Manila by way of Arizona and California. Eyedress teamed up with a rhythm section consisting of a live bass player and a laptop supplying the beats. Ranging from murky pop tunes to more punky songs, Eyedress cranked out a short and lively set that got the crowd going.

Smooth and fluid, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

After a nice quick break Sunset Rollercoaster took the stage and the sextet quickly engaged their fans. The band performed both funky instrumentals and English-language songs featuring vocalist and leader Tseng Kuo-Hung, who also kept up a charming patter in English. Although they include a lot of jazzy elements in their set Sunset Rollercoaster isn’t quite manic or obsessive enough about time signatures to be to be math rock, but they do share a similar sound to their compatriots Elephant Gym, who also played Slim’s a few months back. Rather than the jagged and acrobatic time signature changes of Elephant Gym, Sunset Rollercoaster’s switches are smooth and fluid and never interfere with the danceable beats the band lays down. Drummer Lo Tsun-Lung kept a steady and relaxed beat, and saxophonist Huang Hao-Ting easily moved between tenor and soprano, lending a mellow, Kenny G feel to the proceedings. With synthesizer fills by Wang Shao-Hsuan and a bit of throwback cowbell over a bed of bass and guitar, occasionally amped up by a lively guitar solo, the band created a pleasant and agreeable sound.

Mullet and Nautica, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

As with the other Taiwanese indie bands I’ve seen, Sunset Rollercoaster’s fashion choices reflected their laid-back aesthetic. Their nerdwear attire included flowery baggy button-down shirts, culottes and khakis. Leader Kuo had a particularly idiosyncratic two-toned mullet and another member sported a throwback red, white, and blue Nautica jacket and white athletic shoes.

The enthusiastic crowd recognized most of the band’s tunes, swaying to the beat and at times lustily singing along. During their last song, an upbeat rendition of their single track I Know You Know I Love You, vocalist Kuo busted out the falsetto and the crowd cheered happily. After ingesting Sunset Rollercoaster’s funky, dreamy bops everyone went home smiling and content.

November 4, 2019 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

Lose Yourself: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 39

Seder Masochism, 2019

NOTE: this is my 200th post after more than ten years of blogging. At the time I started writing it back in 2008 I only wanted a place to fangirl over Francis Ng, but this blog has become much more than that in the decade plus since I started writing it. Since then I’ve won a major art writing award for the blog and several of the entries here have become full-blown scholarly essays and articles that have been published in academic journals and books. By constantly and consistently writing and posting here I’ve been able to hone my writing skills, develop my voice, and improve my chops in critical analysis. Who knew?

This year’s Jewish Film Festival has come and gone and I was fortunate enough to catch a few choice programs. The festival is one of the most highly attended in San Francisco, which is quite an accomplishment for a town that hosts a major film festival every month. But the Jewish consistently shows quality programs that demonstrate the breadth of what is considered a Jewish film. This is evident right up front with the festival’s trailer, which asks the question, What makes a film Jewish?

Fun, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, 2019

The festival opened with Fiddler : A Miracle of Miracles (dir. Max Lewkowicz), a fun and diverting if somewhat overstuffed film about the iconic Broadway musical. The film crams in a huge amount of information and covers a lot of territory, both figuratively and literally, as it touches on performances of Fiddler in places such as Japan and Thailand, as well as its origins on Broadway in New York City. Some of the elements are less successful than others, such as a very brief appearance by British Indian director Gurinder Chadha, who pops in and pops out in the blink of an eye. The film also spends a fair amount of time focusing on Jerome Robbins and his involvement with the original Broadway production of the musical but seems to quickly skim over the background of other creatives responsible for the play, including Jerry Bock and Joe Stein. Although overly encylopedic and ambitious and loaded with tons of performance footage spanning decades, the film is a nonetheless a charming celebration of a cultural icon that started the festival out on a very festive note indeed.

Obtuse, My Polish Honeymoon, 2019

My Polish Honeymoon (dir. Elise Otzenberger) is a less unsuccessful cinematic outing. Although the premise is interesting—a young Jewish Parisian couple returns to Poland in search of the traces of their families in the wake of the Holocaust—the film’s execution is lacking. The lead character, Anna, is unsympathetic and Judith Chemla fails to bring much warmth or complexity to her character. Arthur Igual, however, is engaging and funny as Anna’s husband Adam. Though it tries for emotional meaning the uneven pacing and somewhat obtuse narrative, with random supporting characters added at the last minute, ultimately makes the film fall flat.

Iconic, Seder Masochism, 2018

Seder Masochism, (dir. Nina Paley) is a kaleidoscopic animated feature that uses pop songs past and present to illustrate the story of Moses and the flight of the Jews from Egypt. Although I mostly was able to follow along I have to admit that my memory of the iconic story from way back in Sunday school is somewhat hazy. I remember the plagues, the Red Sea, the burning bush, and so forth, but I’m clearly not the target audience for this film. I really enjoyed Paley’s animation of an interview with her father that ostensibly is about Passover traditions which amusingly wanders into Paley’s failure to graduate from college and other diversions. Although many of the musical numbers were fun and engaging there was a certain sameness to some of them that diminished their impact. However, one of the later sequences that outlined religious wars from antiquity to modern day was absolutely brilliant.

Clever, Tel Aviv On Fire, 2019

The festival’s centerpiece, Tel Aviv On Fire (dir. Sameh Zoabi) is a clever and highly entertaining film that reframes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of a soap opera, the television genre that is popular around the world, from Mexican telenovelas to Korean dramas to Turkish serials. The film follows Salem (Kais Nashef), a novice screenwriter who through happenstance and lucky timing manages to become a writer on a popular Palestinian soap opera. The show is shot in Ramallah and Salem must pass through the checkpoint every morning and night to get to and from his home in East Jerusalem. Along the way he encounters an Israeli officer named Asi (Yaniv Biton) with strong opinions about the direction of everyone’s favorite Palestinian soap opera, the titular Tel Aviv On Fire, and the two end up inadvertently colloborating on the plot and outcome of the popular show. The film gently sends up soap opera tropes, as well their addictive appeal among audiences on both sides of the checkpoint, and Nashef and Biton display their excellent comic timing as the screenwriter and the soldier who bond over hummus and melodrama. The film deftly explores thorny issues facing Israel and Palestine with wit and humor, combining wry and winning performances with a clever script.

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2019 at 3:55 am Leave a comment

Forever Waiting: SFFILM’s Hong Kong Cinema series

Full circle, Tracey, 2018

SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong cinema series happened this weekend and it’s a really interesting look at the state of the territory’s movie industry today. Included were the edgy neo-noir G-Affairs, the character-driven feel-good sports movie Men on the Dragon, and Pang Ho-Cheung’s irreverent Lunar New Year quickie Miss Behavior, among a selection of other films.

This year’s series was held at the Roxie Theater in the Mission and for me it was full circle since I saw my very first of many many Hong Kong movies, A Chinese Ghost Story, at the Roxie on the big screen back in the late 1980s. But the Hong Kong movie world has changed immeasurably from 1986 to 2019 and those changes are reflected in the programming at this year’s Hong Kong cinema series.

Although Hong Kong cinema has had its share of ups and downs since its heyday in the 1990s, ironically that may have led more opportunities for creative exploration. Though the high-powered star system might no longer exist there are still great films being made that go beyond Hong Kong’s iconic crime film, wuxia, and martial arts genres. This year’s showcase is perhaps indicative of a renaissance in Hong Kong’s filmmaking community that is less about glitzy commercial films and more about developing a healthy independent film scene. This is especially true since co-productions with China are so heavily controlled by the PRC’s censorship board. Though there may be less money for non-co-productions that focus on the local Hong Kong audience, in some ways these films are a truer reflection of Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural milieu and it’s good to see younger filmmakers leading the way.

Sensitive, Tracey, 2018

Jun Li’s Tracey follows the story of a middle-aged man who comes out to his friends and family about being transgender. The movie sensitively explores the topic and is driven by outstanding performances by veteran actors Philip Keung as Tai-hung/Tracey and Kara Wai as Anne, his stricken wife. Keung is excellent as the transperson who is finally realizing she can become who she really is. I’ve always liked Keung as one of Hong Kong’s stalwart character actors but he’s really next level in Tracey, with his sensitive and mobile face expressing a world of hurt and wonder. Wai likewise sketches a complex portrayal of a character that in lesser hands could have easily been one-dimensional and the two of these powerhouse actors are at their best when in their intense scenes together. Wai also has nice moments with Ng Siu Hin (Mad World; Ten Years) as Tai-hung and Anne’s son, a young man who ostensibly advocates for sexual freedom and understanding but who has to confront his own biases when the abstract becomes concrete in his own father’s situation.

The film is somewhat episodic and it sometimes feels like first-time feature film director Li is hoping to cram a lot of ideas into a two-hour film. But his ambitious debut speaks to a thoughtful and restless creativity that wants to say a lot, which in less sensitive and sympathetic hands might have been a simplified, dumbed down, or sensationalized film.

Agency, The Lady Improper, 2018

Jessey Tsang’s The Lady Improper looks at questions of female sexuality, agency, and control. Lead performer Charlene Choi got her start as one half of the mega-superstar singing duo The Twins but she’s since become one of Hong Kong’s most reliable leading ladies in her selection of challenging and complex roles. In The Lady Improper she again has chosen a film that pushes boundaries as Choi plays Siu Man, an unhappily married woman who takes control of her unsatisfying life

Throughout the film director Tsang emphasizes the importance of Siu Man taking charge of her life, as opposed to letting others control her. She stands up to family criticisms, changes her career path, addresses her insecurities about physical intimacy, and ultimately decides how her life should be. In this way Tsang’s perspective as a female filmmaker is clear, as she portrays the answers to her protagonist’s dilemmas as reliant on Siu Man, not on outside forces. The film’s depiction of Siu Man’s empowerment is deeply feminist in its insistence on the importance of women deciding for themselves the path their lives will take.

Elliptical, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2017

CODA: though not a Hong Kong film, I capped off my weekend by seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2017). The film was in limited release here in the States a few months ago but I was in editing hell and missed it, so I was glad for the chance to see it on the big screen and in 3D at the venerable Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Suffice to say that the film didn’t disappoint in its surreal portrayal of a brooding man searching for a mysterious woman, which is of course a classic noir theme. Here director Bi puts a decidedly Chinese spin on it, locating the story in Kaili City, located in the landlocked and somewhat economically depressed southeastern province of Guizhou. Bi uses local dialect, a gorgeous lighting design, and an elliptical narrative structure to suggest the ennui and dislocation of his characters. The film concludes with an outstanding 59-minute-long single-take unedited shot, screened at the Castro in 3D, that may or may not be a dream sequence and that includes cow skulls, ping pong, spooked horses, characters flying, and fireworks among many other amazing images that combine to evoke an altered state. The sequence is totally rad and totally breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema and not on my laptop or on the back of an airplane seat.

CODA2: Hong Kong stalwart Herman Yau’s latest action movie The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is also playing at my multiplex this weekend so I’m going to try to see it too. Way to round off a great weekend of movie-watching!

July 15, 2019 at 9:40 pm Leave a comment

Ride The Lightening: 2019 San Francisco Documentary Festival

Cassandro the Exotico!, 2019

Round two of my film festival travels from the past few months. Although it’s been running annually since 2001, for some reason I’ve never attended San Francisco Documentary Festival before, due in part to the general glut of film festivals of all stripes in San Francisco. DocFest, as it’s more popularly known, is one of several organized by the San Francisco IndieFest throughout the year—in addition to this and the original IndieFest the others being the horror-focused fest Another Hole In The Head and the SF Indie Shorts Festival.

Anti-slick, Cassandro the Exotico! 2019

Opening night film Cassandro the Exotico! (dir. Marie Losier) focused on the life and career of the openly gay lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, better known by his ring name Cassandro, who was born and raised in El Paso. The film follows Cassandro as he considers winding down his career following nearly 40 years and many injuries after his start in the ring at age 15. The film frankly discusses Cassandro’s struggle with addiction, pain, and facing homophobia and he is a fascinating and engaging main character. Losier shot the film on 16mm and the movie’s rough, anti-slick aesthetic perfectly meshes with Cassandro’s gritty backstory. At times there is a visible hair in the gate, which at first is a distraction but then becomes part of the film’s mis en scene. After seeing way too many formulaic PBS-style docs at some of the film festivals I’ve been screening at it’s nice to see something with a looser, more original look and feel.

Moving, 17 Blocks, 2019

17 blocks (dir. Davy Rothbart) is verité-style doc following the Sanford-Durants, an African American family who live just seventeen blocks from the US Senate building in Washington DC. Rothbart beautifully structures more than 20 years of footage, shot in large part by the family itself, into a moving portrait of survival and strength. Although the film is powerful and effective and advocates for stronger gun control laws, it only lightly touches on some of the broader structural causes for the Sanford-Durant family’s problems including toxic masculinity, racism, and white supremacy. Despite the reference to the US Senate in the film’s title the film is oddly apolitical and the family’s problems exist in a bit of a vacuum. I would like to have seen a bit more context for the problems the family faces.

Meta, Framing DeLorean, 2019

Framing DeLorean (dirs. Don Argott and Sheena Joyce) is a slick and clever re-presentation of the case of automobile impresario John Delorean, with documentary interview footage interspersed with reenactments of key moments in Delorean’s career as played by Alec Baldwin and other actors. It’s sort of high-concept meta but it works, and the film has just the right amount of irreverence to propel the story.

Anarchic, Murder In The Front Row, 2019

Murder in the Front Row: The Bay Area Thrash Metal Story (dir. Adam Dubin) a bit rough around the edges but it’s full of the DIY energy of the 1980s East Bay thrash scene that spawned metal legends such as Metallica, Megadeth, Death Angel, Slayer, and Exodus, among others. The film’s structure wanders a bit and to the casual observer less familiar to the various personalities the interviewees may hard to keep track of as they move rapidly from band to band. The film also glosses over some of the darker elements of the story such as Dave Mustaine’s substance abuse problems as one of the factors for his dismissal from Metallica and the random property destruction recalled by many of the interviewees (which I understand is because rock and roll, but come on). The film never escapes being fannish and unlike the best music docs doesn’t go into some of the more sociological reasons for the popularity of the genre. But as a former Bay Area punk it was fun for me to watch since the thrash scene at the time ran in parallel circles to the hardcore scene that I inhabited, and the film captures a lot of the anarchic energy of the time.

Kicky, I Want My MTV, 2019

In contrast to the nihilistic feel of Murder In the Front Row, I Want My MTV (dirs. Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop) is a slick, fast-paced, fun and kicky doc that hits all the high points of the history of the groundbreaking cable channel, including hair metal, Michael Jackson, Madonna, race, misogyny, and even a touch of whiteness. The film explores a time when rock was still king, now more than 35 years ago, connecting the Monkees, Top of the Pops, and A Hard Day’s Night, although it doesn’t touch on earlier other antecedents like Hollywood musicals. Very professionally executed, the film moves from MTV’s humble and somewhat chaotic beginnings to its utter dominance in the late 80s, demonstrating how music videos at the time affected the commercial pop music industry, and concludes with youtube effectively ending MTV’s symbiotic relationship with the music videos it engendered. The film is pretty focused on black and white America, with only a tiny glimpse of Psy at the very end, and lacks contextualization, relying on personal anecdotes to tell its story. Not that the movie has to be a scholarly treatise but there’s been a ton of critical and cultural analysis has been done on MTV and its effects that the movie doesn’t really address. But it’s a fun ride nonetheless and the movie is loaded with crowd-pleasing archival clips.

Glorious, Motherload, 2019

Motherload, Liz Canning’s affectionate tribute to the world of cargo bikes, delves into the appeal of bicycle-based transportation and how it could change the world. Canning effectively weaves her personal experiences of discovering the glories of bike transport into a broader story of the growth of bicycles as a means of combatting climate change and other environmental crises and while a tad utopic, the film should be very popular with the biking crowd.

July 1, 2019 at 7:40 am Leave a comment

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