Love Is The Only Way (愛是唯一): Taiwan Showcase at Frameline 45

Fluidity, Unnamed

Frameline 45 is in full swing and this year’s festival marks a return to limited in-person screenings, along with a full slate of programs available to stream online.

This year’s program includes a segment focusing on films from Taiwan. The first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage, Taiwan is one of the most queer-friendly countries in the region, as evidenced by its large and popular Pride parade every year. 

Futuristic, As We Like It

Frameline 45 includes several features and shorts from the island country, including the gender-bending Shakespeare adaptation As We Like It (揭大歡喜), directed by Hung-i Chen and Muni Wei. Loosely based on As You Like It, The Bard’s iconic cross-dressing play,  the film takes place in a slightly futuristic Ximending, one of Taipei’s artsy hipster neighborhoods, which in the film is a no-internet, gender-free zone.  In a twist on the Shakespearean tradition of excluding women from performing on the stage, the entire cast is female. The players are cute and charming queer folks working on relationship issues and the film’s mood and tone are a sweet celebration of finding true love. 

Poignant, Dear Tenant

On a much more poignant tip is Dear Tenant (親愛的房客), directed by Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑), which is a delicate and sensitive story of a man caring for his dead lover’s son and sick mother. When the mother passes away the legal complications of his unclear status act to prevent him from continuing to care for the son. The film is nicely wrought, with sensitive performances from the leads including Mo Tzu-yi (莫子儀), and  Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳), both of whom acting awards at the 57th Golden Horse Awards last year, as well as Runyin Bai as the 9-year-old You-Yu. Neither overly sentimental nor melodramatic, this dramatic narrative explores the gray areas of the law and biases against gay couples when the custody of a child is involved.

Smoldering, Undercurrent

The short film program Taiwan Shorts, which is streaming for free, includes four films that are very different from each other. Unnamed (未命名) directed by Gao Hong & Chang Chun-Yu looks at the fluidity of queer identity through a naming conceit, with fun performances from the two young leads. Taiwan Pride for the World (世界驕傲在台灣), directed by Larry Tung, documents Taipei’s 2020 Pride Parade which due to the COVID-19 pandemic was possibly the only one to take place in the world that year. At the time Taiwan had a very low incidence of coronavirus and LGBTQ+ organizers there decided to hold a parade in honor of those around the world who couldn’t. Since then Taiwan’s COVID-19 situation has reversed so it’s bittersweet to view this film from a June 2021 perspective.

Hidden (迷藏), directed by Kuo Hsuan-Chi, follows a young teenage boy as he struggles to navigate the waters of his sexuality while trying to avoid predatory online hookups and catfishers. Undercurrent (宵禁), directed by Weng Yu-Tong, is almost dialog-free, creating a moody, smexy atmosphere. The film follows the smoldering cigarettes and smoldering desires of two young men playing cat-and-mouse during martial law in Kaoshiung.

Each of these films gave me the Taiwan feelz, as they emphasize the specific culture, language, geography, and architecture of Taiwan. The films include shots of the distinctive tile-covered buildings, the humidity and fog, the green mountains, the scooter-covered streets, and the neighbors bringing garbage out to the garbage truck in pink plastic bags, which are details that all scream Taiwan. The films are a window into Taiwan’s singular vibe and delineate the many distinctive elements that make up the island nation. 


All films in the Taiwan showcase, which also includes Arvin Chen’s outstanding 2013 romcom Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,  will be streaming through June 27, 2021 on Frameline’s online platform.

June 23, 2021 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

I’m Sorry: The Low Point in Sell Your Haunted House

Fierce, Sell Your Haunted House, 2021

SPOILER ALERT: for up to Episode 13

I’m currently watching the outstanding South Korean drama Sell Your Haunted House, the fantasy thriller about a badass female exorcist and her conman partner, which is now airing on KBS2 and on various online international platforms. In addition to stellar performances by the cast, a strong script and excellent direction, killer art direction, and finely tuned worldbuilding, I’ve been impressed by the show’s impeccable demonstration of storytelling skills. 

The low point, Sell Your Haunted House, 2021

Right now the drama is at what is usually referred to as the low point or the crisis point in classic story structure. It’s the moment in the narrative when the main characters are facing their most difficult challenge and when the situation seems most dire. In the case of Sell Your Haunted House, Hong Ji-Ah (played with fierce and cool conviction by Jang Nara) has just discovered the truth about her mother’s death and she’s so shook that she’s decided to quit exorcising and abandon her past life. She also seems to be cutting ties with two of her most important relationships, with her business partner and mentor Secretary Joo and with her “special psychic” Oh In-Beom (a charming and lovely Jung Yonghwa). In other words, she’s rejecting all human contact and running away because her world has crumbled around her, which is a classic reaction to the low point in a narrative. 

Unrequited, Sell Your Haunted House, 2021

Of course she probably won’t actually run away and stop being an exorcist, as is shown later in the episode by her returning to help her distraught neighbor send off her dead son’s unrested spirit. She also reconciles with In-Beom, though she claims it’s for the sake of expediency, not because she’s permanently accepted him back into her life. But the last three episodes of the show will lead to the final confrontation with the bad guy, the evil real estate developer who’s the reason for most of the havoc in the story. This also follows classic storytelling form, as the low point usually precedes the narrative’s climactic events. Sell Your Haunted House has so far been flawlessly paced and plotted and I fully expect that its conclusion will be deeply satisfying, in no small part because the writers understand how storytelling works. Because the bones of the plot are so solid and the show is rooted in a strong narrative structure, I’m pretty sure that the grand finale will deliver. Now the only question is, will the main leads hook up at the end? Or will their potential romance be unrequited? Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing how the writers wrap it all up.

Watch Sell Your Haunted House on VIki, Viu, and Kocowa

May 29, 2021 at 6:22 am 4 comments

Save It For Later: 2021 SFFILM Festival

Sing Me A Lullaby, 2020

Before COVID-19 upended our lives I was a big-screen film snob. Living in San Francisco, with its year-round calendar of world-class film festivals as well as rep theaters such as the Pacific Film Archive, the Roxie, and the Castro, it was easy to consume a steady diet of a huge range of cinematic treats solely in movie theaters. All of that changed with the pandemic, and as we enter the second year of the age of coronavirus pretty much all film festivals have shifted online. The SFFILM Festival’s 2021 edition was no exception, and as usual it presented a broad spectrum of international programming. Though my time was very impacted I was able to catch several outstanding movies.

Quixotic, A Leave, 2021

I really enjoyed South Korean director Lee Ran-hee’s impressive debut feature, A Leave, which is a small slice of life about an out-of-work laborer who’s been suing his former employer for the past five years. While manning a protest station in Seoul with a few other diligent souls his daughters who are living apart from him in a Seoul exoburb have entered their teen years and grown up without him. When he returns home for a brief week he cleans the house, fixes the sink, does itinerant labor at a small furniture-making shop and gradually re-enters his family’s life. But his duty as a protestor calls him back to Seoul despite his older daughter’s pleas for him to abandon his quixotic cause. Gritty and realistic, this humanistic portrait shows the crushing weight of workers who live hand to mouth in a neoliberal economy. 

Delicate, Radiograph of A Family, 2021

Also outstanding was Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani’s personal documentary, Radiograph of A Family. Tracing her parents’ relationship starting in the 1960s from their meeting in Switzerland, when her father, who was educated in the West, met her mother, who was younger than her husband, more conservative and more religious. The film follows their lives together in both Europe and Iran, where her mother became a  teacher and an activist during the Islamic revolution. Using archival footage and photographs, home movies, and fictional and non-fictional dialog Khosrovani creates a delicate, fascinating portrait of a family caught up in great historical events. 

Observational, Cuban Dancer, 2020

Roberto Salinas’ unobtrusive observational documentary Cuban Dancer follows aspiring ballet dancer Alexis Valdes from age 15 from his home in Cuba to the US where he trains in Florida at a private dance academy. The film includes some failures and some successes as Alexis adjusts to his life in a very different environment from the nurturing world he left behind in Cuba, as he gradually learns English and makes friends in the US. This is the third documentary I’ve seen about Cuban performing artists  this year, the other two being the outstanding Los Hermanos/The Brothers and the somewhat more pedestrian but still enjoyable Soy Cubana. Cuban Dancer falls somewhere in between the two of them, as it lacks the cultural and political context of Los Hermanos but has a sturdier and more compelling narrative than Soy Cubana. Postscript: Alexis Valdes went on to attend the San Francisco Ballet School and is now an apprentice dancer in the company. 

Culture, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, 2021

The festival also included several mid-length films with running times between 30-50 minutes. Created as promotional material for his album of the same name, hip hop artist Topaz Jones’ essay film Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is structured around replicating the Black ABCs, the iconic flashcards created in the 1970s by a pair of Black educators in Chicago in an attempt to center African American culture. Jones’ film similarly focuses on the Black experience, blending archival footage, staged vignettes, and interviews with Black intellectuals.  Tiffany Hsiung’s mid-length documentary, Sing Me A Lullaby, follows her mother Ru Wen’s journey back to Taiwan to find her own mother who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old. This emotional doc captures the sense of loss and longing among exiles as it traces Ru Wen’s poignant story. 

Engaging, Skies of Lebanon, 2020

The last film I managed to see was Chloé Mazlo’s narrative feature, Skies of Lebanon. Charming and inventive, the film follows the lives of Joseph, a Lebanese rocket scientist and  Alice, a Swiss expat who moves to Lebanon in the 1950s to escape her oppressive family life. Joseph and Alice fall in love and marry, raising their daughter in 1960s Lebanon among a large and affectionate family.  Beginning in 1975, the long destruction of the Lebanese Civil War takes its toll and gradually most of Alice and Joseph’s extended family flees Beirut, including her beloved daughter Mona. Like Radiograph of A Family, this film looks at the effect of history’s upheavals on everyday individuals. Director Mazlo is a French Lebanese  animator and artist and Skies of Lebanon, her first feature film, uses claymation, subtle CGI, theatrical devices, magic realism, and surrealism, as well as some really beautiful, economical storytelling, to spin its engaging tale. 

Though I appreciate the ease of viewing that comes with streaming films at home on my laptop it’s still no substitute for watching movies in a theater with a crowd of like-minded cineastes. Still, until it’s safe for us all to go back to the cinema, I appreciate SFFILM’s thoughtful and varied programming. It’s a balm in a year of deprivation.

May 11, 2021 at 6:37 am Leave a comment

Born by Irreproachable Gorgeousness: 2021 SXSW Online, part two: Music Festival

Otoboke Beaver

Trying to make sense of the vast number of musical performances I witnessed at this year’s SXSW Online music festival is a fool’s errand so I’m just going to highlight some of the things that have stuck with me in the weeks after the event. 

Although there was no shortage of guitar-based indie rock bands from around the world, SXSW also included some really great performers from other musical persuasions. 

Intense, Dasom Baek

The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Foundation showcase included Dasom Baek, a traditional instrumentalist who incorporates electronic loops into her work. Her set included loops produced by a Korean wooden flute, the daegeum, and the sound of water swished in a metal bowl, overlaid with passages played on a smaller wooden flute.  Seated cross-legged on the floor and washed by a single moving beam of light that was at times tinged green or blue, Baek’s set was understated, elegant, and intense.

On a louder, more post-rock tip, Jambinai combined guitars, a trap set, and electronic loops with traditional Korean instruments including the zither-like geomungo, the two-stringed haegeum, and the reedy, metallic taepyeongso, and wordless, softly keening vocals. They worked up a good head of steam in their dark, metal set.

Awesome sauce, Haepaary

Another Korean act of note was Haepaary, a duo that blended traditional Korean singing styles with electronic beats to create a mesmerizing, evocative atmosphere. Featuring a very big drum and dreamy vocals adapted from 15th-century royal shrine music, Haepaary’s set was pure awesome sauce.

Relaxed, Enno Cheng

I went into SXSW with the intention of seeing this year’s edition of Taiwan Beats, which showcases indie music from the island nation, and I wasn’t disappointed. Each of the four acts performed in iconic locations in Taiwan and each brought their unique sound and style to their presentation. Vocalist Enno Cheng performed in the mountains of Taiwan, combining her clear, relaxed vocals with understated instrumentation and very subtle synth backings. Interestingly enough, she wore running shoes with her flowing red skirt, not unlike her compatriot KT Chang from Elephant Gym.

I was especially happy that power-punk quartet FireEx was included in the Taiwan Beats showcase, since they had been slated to tour the US last year pre-pandemic and their concert in San Francisco had been on my calendar before COVID killed live music last year. To honor Taiwan’s laborers they staged their set in a factory in the southern port city of Kaohsiung and their performance was interspersed with cutaways of workers doing their thing.

Among other things, FireEx is famous for writing and performing “Island’s Sunrise,” the anthem to the 2014 Sunflower student movement, and they sing mostly in Hoklo Taiwanese dialect. Similarly, the titles of their songs from their SXSW setlist reflected their revolutionary stance. They kicked off with the straight-ahead rock tune Stand Up Like A Taiwanese, followed with the double time beat of Don’t You Fight, which starts with guitar solo and features lead singer Sam’s ragged but clear vocals. The chorus further demonstrates their fiery stance.

Don’t you fight, don’t you fight

It’s a brand new revolution

Time is running out, so let’s go fight

The song shows off their musicality and features a brilliant little break at the end.

The crunchy guitar and deep, heavy bass of Keep on Going, with its strong urgent vocals, subtle harmonies, and crisp drumming, finished off their energetic, anthemic set. This is the music of a people who don’t want to be oppressed by a dictatorship anymore. 

Mellow, The Chairs

Following FireEx was The Chairs, a retro-pop combo who performed in an indoor shrimping-fishing venue. Having spent some time shrimping in Taipei I can attest to its authentic Taiwan vibe and it was a fitting location for The Chairs’ mellow, jazzy set, with their sweet three-part harmonies and acoustic and electric guitar sound. Dressed in neat suit jackets over turtlenecks and collared shirts with white shoes, The Chairs sang in both Mandarin and English, demonstrating how next level Taiwan is.

Thrashy, Drinking Boys and Girls Choir

East London’s Damnably Records showcase was one the best of the lot that I watched, featuring five artists from Asia. The set of the South Korean skate punk trio Drinking Boys and Girls Choir was literally shot in a garage, which all made sense considering their clean, sharp, thrashy sound. The group consists of two girls on drums and guitar and a guy bass player and their sound vaguely resembles the Shaggs on speed. Their Busan compatriots, the quartet Say Sue Me, performed in their practice room which was dressed to look like a suburban living room. Driven by the bass, they played some nice mid-tempo surfy power pop.

Lo fi, Hazy Sour Cherry

Japanese indie power pop quartet Hazy Sour Cherry’s set was fun, poppy, and light. Consisting of four members from Tokyo’s indie scene who play spare, lofi guitar-based pop, they say their biggest influences are the Beatles and it shows. The Damnably showcase also included Grrrl Gang from Indonesia. Another fun power pop group, their sound, with its melodic, plaintive vocals, is mildly riot girlesque, though softer than classic punk. 

Muscular, Otoboke Beaver

The highlight of Damnably’s showcase was the all-girl combo Otoboke Beaver, the superb punk band from Japan lead by lead vocalist Accorinrin, whose powerful throaty growling drives the band’s muscular sound. The band’s set was a perfect mix of party dresses and speed thrash.

Corrido, Janine

I also loved Marca Unica’s showcase of Música Regional Mexicana, the first in the history of SXSW. These cool Spanish-language groups performed in what looked like an auto dealership, with fancy rims on the wall and flanked by two all-black vehicles. From Houston’s South Side, Equilibrio, billed as trap corrido, mixed plaintive narcocorrido harmonies, dual guitars, and some gorgeous tuba runs. My Spanish skills are very lacking, but their emotion came through in the singing. Solo vocalist Janine was backed by a nine-piece mariachi band including guitarron, horns, and strings, and her set highlighted her big, beautiful corrido vocals. 

Yoiking, Ozas

Another nicely organized showcase was Northern Expo, which highlighted performers from the north of Norway. Northern Expo really tried to cinematically tie together the performances as the showcase traversed a snow-covered city from street level to a tram to a mountaintop. 

The showcase opened with a street-level performance by Ozas, a duo of sisters Anine and Sara Marielle from the indigenous Sámi people who performed their excellent yoiking (traditional Sámi singing) backed by a sideman on a double-necked acoustic guitar. The film then followed the rapper Oter, riding in a car through the snowy streets while showing off his intense flow as he spit rhymes over metal beats. 

Lilting, I See Rivers

Oter ended up at a tram station, where the showcase transitioned to the performance of I See Rivers, This female duo on guitar and what looked like an electronic autoharp had a fun, quirky neo-folk pop sound with sweet, lilting soprano harmonies.

Once the tram reached the top of the lift the scene cut to the last band, Heave Blood and Die, who performed their 90s-style grunge rock on the rooftop of the building. As indicated by the name, theirs is a more traditional rock style, with screamo vocals over a guitar-bass-drums sound. Props to this showcase for being both musically and cinematically engaging.

Comfy, The F16s

A few other acts scattered throughout the massive music festival program also caught my eyes and ears. The F16s, from Chennai, India, played a lively, engaging indie rock set. Lead vocalist Josh Fernandez has a nice range, with good, deep low notes and a sweet raspy falsetto. A fun detail of their set was their bassist sitting comfortably on the floor with the rest of the band ranged around him on sofas or standing up. I’m not sure why but this seemed metaphorical for the casual, comfy mood of their set.

Sinous, Altin Gun

I also really liked Dutch-Turkish psych rock band Altin Gün. They had a good groove with electronic and guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, along with an electric oud and a doumbek, the ubiquitous Turkish hand drum, combining sinuous polyrhythms with some funky grooves to create a memorable sound. 

Digital, Theon Cross

Also of note was UK jazz artist Theon Cross, who played lead tuba (!) over a funky afrobeat groove. Cross also appeared as a digital avatar at the SXSW’s virtual reality showcase, offering an alternative to live performance in the time of COVID-19.

Fun, Teke::Teke

I also enjoyed the off-kilter set of Teke::Teke, a seven-piece Japanese combo based in Montreal. Led by Maya Kuroki’s growly vocals, they have a fun electric enka sound.  

Bombastic, Millenium Parade

Another big ol’ group, Tokyo-based Millennium Parade, had what seemed like ten people on stage. A collaboration between musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, designers, and producers, their big, messy, bombastic funkiness includes two trap sets, a sax, synths, and a rapper and several vocalists as well as a dude on a megaphone. The epitome of chaotic good, Millennium Parade produced a full gorgeous sound, with pentatonic scale vocal processing, rapping, horns, and an animated video backdrop with dancing and swimming babies, expanding brains, and electronic singing fetus in VR headset. It’s P-Funk + city pop for the 21st century. 

This is only about half of all the acts that I watched at SXSW which combined with the film festival ate up a good portion of my life for five days back in March. Though it doesn’t replace the thrill of experiencing live music, SXSW Online helped to ease some of the pain of the cessation of live performances during this pandemic year. Here’s hoping this online iteration of SXSW is an aberration and that next year’s SXSW will be back to live music in person in all its loud and messy glory.

May 8, 2021 at 5:50 am Leave a comment

Talent Is An Asset: 2021 SXSW Online, part one: Film Festival

Wit, The Sparks Brothers, 2021, photo: Sparks

When the COVID-19 tsunami hit the U.S. back in March 2020 Austin’s SXSW film and music festival was one of its first casualties. The entire event was dependent on live performances and screenings and with the country going into lockdown there was no chance it could happen that year, so the whole shebang was cancelled outright. But subsequent film festivals began pivoting to fully online and this year SXSW was an entirely online event, including films, music, conference panels, and networking. Luckily for me, this format also gave me the chance to attend my first SXSW and I ingested a huge amount of content from the comfort of my own home. Because of the sheer volume of performances that I consumed Imma split my review into the film side and the music side, starting with the cinematic treats I watched. 

Brilliance, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, 2021

The festival included two documentaries about influential and innovative pop stars that have flown somewhat under the mainstream radar. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche looked at the life of the leader and vocalist of the legendary UK punk band X-Ray Spex. As a baby punk back in the 80s one of the best things about early punk and new wave was the presence of women of color such as Pearl E. Gates, Pauline Black from Selecter, and Poly Styrene. Poly was not only a punk icon but also a woman of color icon and it was great for me to have a Black woman role model who could belt it out with the best of them. The film traces Poly’s meteoric brilliance as the leader of X-Ray Spex at age 19, as well as her struggles with mental illness and her involvement with the Hare Krishna sect later in life. Told from the POV of her daughter Celeste Bell, who is credited as the film’s co-writer and co-director, the film interweaves her narration with a plethora of archival footage and photos. As a mixed-heritage child (or half-caste, the term that was in common usage at the time) raised by a single mother in 1960s Britain, Poly (nee Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) faced a fair amount of casual racism and ostracization. The film shows the range of Poly’s artistic endeavors outside of her singing career, including several passages from her journals (read by Ruth Negga), as well as her unique and idiosyncratic fashion sense which she developed in her teens and which she highlighted in her years as the face of X-Ray Spex. Celeste Bell’s somewhat mournful narration adds a gravitas to the film as she searches for the truth of her mother’s life and legacy. But throughout it all the story is driven by the power of Poly’s clarion voice and poetic vision. 

Off-kilter, The Sparks Brothers, 2021

The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Baby Driver) explores the iconic cult band Sparks, utilizing a ton of archival footage, interviews with the band’s many admirers including Bjork, Giorgio Morodor, Todd Rundgren, and many more, accompanied by Sparks’ excellent and eclectic pop music. Emulating the cheeky and off-kilter attitude of its subjects, the film follows Russell and Ron Mael, the two brothers who founded Sparks, from their childhood in Southern California through their long and winding musical career. The film captures the brothers’ sardonic style as seemingly British invasion cult darlings (belied by their SoCal roots) with their first hit in the UK, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, through their survival in the fickle world of rock music in the more than four decades since. I’ve always been a fan of Sparks and their unique and twisted pop stylings, led by Russell Mael’s dramatic and operatic high tenor and Ron Mael’s sophisticated keyboards and songwriting, so this movie was a fascinating look at their career trajectory. Always ahead of the pop music curve, the film demonstrates the Mael brothers’ influence on disco, new wave, EDM, synth pop and much more. It also shows how their highly visual and cinematic presentation, with the more traditionally rock styled Russell contrasting with Ron’s odd Hitler/Chaplin persona, made them a perfect fit for the MTV era, when they scored their new wave hits The Number One Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock. Throughout the film their wit and intelligence shine through.

Relentless, The United States vs. Reality Winner, 2021

Two other docs in the festival looked at politics and current events. The United States vs. Reality Winner is a procedural agitprop doc ala CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning film about Edward Snowden, another famous whistleblower. Snowden even makes an appearance in this film, as do several other commentators who contextualize Winner’s case. The film follows Winner’s mom as she tries to get a fair trial for her daughter who has had the book thrown at her for exposing Russia’s influence on the 2016 US presidential elections. As with CitizenFour and other films of its ilk, The United States vs. Reality Winner has a definite opinion and relentlessly pursues it.

Ambiguity, In The Same Breath, 2021

In contrast, Nanfu Wang’s documentary In The Same Breath, which looks at the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and in the US, is all about doubt and questioning and its lack of clear answers reflects the confusing times we’re still enmeshed in.Included in the film is some stunning security camera footage of the very earliest days of the pandemic in Wuhan that shows how quickly the virus spread and how unprepared health officials were in their initial response. The film beautifully expresses the ambiguity and uncertainty of the COVID-19 era while sounding a warning about the inherent untrustworthiness of governments both in China and the US.

Filipino AF, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, 2021

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Dante Basco’s directorial debut, is in some ways a spiritual successor to the iconic 2001 Asian American film The Debut. That movie, which starred Dante and also included appearances by his three brothers Dion, Derek, and Darion and sister Arianna, is much beloved in the Filipino American community for its lighthearted look at FilAm culture, traditions, and identity. The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is is similarly Filipino AF and it was interesting to watch more than 20 years after The Debut made its premiere. It’s set in Pittsburg, CA and loosely revolves around an upcoming wedding in a big-ass Filipino family. Many Bascos were involved in the making of this film, including the four Basco brothers in lead roles, with narration by Arianna. The film is a bit rough around the edges and never transcends its sitcom aesthetic, but all four brothers are talented performers and each does well in their respective vignettes. Their agile comic timing and ability to hold the screen makes me wonder why their careers didn’t take off after the success of The Debut, but as usual the answer is probably racism. A humorous side note: one of the characters is in a depressive funk which he deals with by composing atonal electronic music that sounds a bit like some of the stuff I heard at the SXSW music festival.

Empathy, Águilas, 2021

I also caught a couple excellent short films of the many that were included in the festival. Águilas, by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre, follows a group of volunteers who scour the Sonoran desert near the Arizona border looking for the remains of those who have died attempting to migrate on foot to the US. A short, intense look at those who carry out this grim duty, the film is suffused with empathy for the people who have lost their lives traveling from their home countries as well as those who search for their last remains.

Snapshot, Red Taxi, 2021

Red Taxi, by an anonymous director, utilizes interviews with cab drivers on both sides of the Hong Kong-Shenzen border that were shot during the massive 2019 Hong Kong protests. The short documentary provides an interesting contrast between the pragmatic hopefulness of the Hong Kong cabbies and their PRC counterparts, who for the most part don’t have much sympathy for people of Hong Kong who were speaking out against the government at the time. It’s an interesting snapshot of the times and shows the divide in opinion on either side of the border without judging or taking sides. It’s also telling that the director has chosen to be anonymous, reflecting fears of the oppressive new National Security Law in Hong Kong that effectively punishes residents for speaking out in any way against the Beijing regime.

Next up: Part two, in which I attempt to encapsulate the huge number of international performers I saw on the music side of this year’s SXSW.

April 12, 2021 at 6:25 am Leave a comment

The Beautiful Ones: Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at BAM/PFA

Cinematic, The Hand, 2004

A cinematic treat dropped at the end of 2020 as the Lincoln Center in New York launched World of Wong Kar Wai, its retrospective of mostly 4K restorations of Hong Kong New Wave auteur Wong Kar Wai. The bulk of the series has traveled to various venues including the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, where nine films are currently available for online viewing through February 28, 2021. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is also showing seven films from the series through Feb. 25, 2021, including a  screening of In The Mood For Love on Valentine’s Day at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in. Although it’s great that the films are available to view in all of their restored 4K glory, it’s bittersweet that audiences aren’t able to watch them on the big screen where they belong due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the US.

Struggles, As Tears Go By, 1988

I watched the BAM/PFA series in chronological order, and it was interesting to see the development of Wong’s signature style. His debut feature, As Tears Go By (1988), is a gangster film that stars Andy Lau Tak-Wah as Wah, a low-level triad in Mongkok who is constantly vexed by his triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose struggle with toxic masculinity conventions leads to much rash and insecure behavior. 

Although the film loosely follows the trajectory of classic gangland films such as Mean Streets, in which the poor life decisions of one character leads to the downfall of his sworn brother, Wong’s filmmaking style had already begun to establish itself. The audacity of some of the shots, such as the focus on the sharpness of Andy Lau’s jawline or the beauty of a cigarette burning blue in the dark, heralds Wong’s trademark visual characteristics, as does his use of slow motion action, neon lights and silhouettes. The film also includes the breathtaking sexiness of Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in their underwear wrestling on a bed in a hotel room, another element of Wong’s emerging style as he begins to sketch out his aesthetic.

Charisma, Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong’s stylistic elements came into sharper focus with his second feature, Days of Being Wild (1990). It’s a bit overwhelming to have a film populated with so many gorgeous movie stars at their physical peak, led by the sheer charisma and stunning beauty of Leslie Cheung in his prime and it really should be illegal to be that good-looking. Carina Lau holds her own as the feisty bar girl who gets involved with him. Maggie Cheung is mostly mopey and jilted in this one, though by the end of the movie she’s found her peace. Andy Lau is once again shockingly good-looking and photogenic–never has such a bone structure been so lovingly photographed. Jacky Cheung again plays the sad sack best friend, but here he’s much more restrained and nuanced. The movie closes with the famous mystery scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in a very small hotel room preparing to go somewhere where he’ll need two packs of cigarettes and a deck of cards. 

Charming, Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) is still as fresh and exciting as the first time that I saw it more than 25 years ago. Light and airy, quirky and charming, with pitch-perfect performances, it captures Hong Kong’s day-to-day life without malice or darkness. Wong’s film explores the transience of life and the fleeting relationships in a big city where anything can happen and the world is open and free. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle establishes the iconic Wong Kar-Wai look with his lighting design alternating between the moody, neon-lit style of the first story and the bright, natural lighting of the second story. Once again Wong’s cast of topline movie stars, including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigette Lin Ching-Hsia, Faye Wong, and  a 20-year-old Takeshi Kaneshiro, adds glamor and razzle-dazzle to the film. 

Incandescent, Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995) is a much messier and less compact film than Chungking Express, full of neon lights, dutch angles, and rain-slicked streets. If Chungking Express was Wong’s renaissance masterpiece then Fallen Angels  is his baroque turn, where all of his directorial tics are turned up to eleven. Karen Mok is in it too briefly and Leon Lai too much, but as in Chungking Express Takeshi Kaneshiro is quirkily incandescent. His character’s story is good enough to stand alone, with able support from a wacky Charlie Yeung and Chan Man-lei as his stalwart dad. 

Complex, Happy Together (1997)

Although as full of visual bravado as Fallen Angels, Happy Together (1997) is a stronger film because its character development is more complex. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is at his angsty best, conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions with a few flashes of his eyes, while Leslie Cheung is devastatingly effective as his mercurial lover. A gorgeous, moody film full of humanity, compassion, and sadness, this is Wong at his poetic best.

Elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008)

Trippy and elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) holds up better than I recall from my initial viewing when the film was first released. All of the beautiful people are in this one (except for Andy Lau), including Jacky, Brigette, Charlie, Maggie, Carina, both big and little Tony, and Leslie as the lead character and narrator. Side note: why didn’t Heavenly King number four (Aaron Kwok) ever make an appearance in a Wong Kar-Wai movie? Too short and stocky? These things keep me up at night.

The odd narrative works if you let go of any expectation of linearity and it’s now quite amusing to see so many A-listers with their million-dollar faces obscured by matted hair, but there you go. Although when the film was first released martial arts purists were horrified by the blurry camerawork that wasted Sammo Hung’s action choreography, now it seems to all fit together with the tangled hair and blowing sands and Christopher Doyle’s grainy, oddly saturated cinematography. 

Star-crossed, In The Mood For Love (2000)

In The Mood For Love (2000) is perhaps Wong’s most acclaimed film, and justly so. All elements of the movie, from mise en scene to acting to cinematography to direction and editing, are stellar, led by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s performances as star-crossed lovers. As with all of the 4K restorations in the series the digital remaster is sharp and beautiful, with the film’s saturated jewel tones shining through.

Magnetic, 2046 (2004)

2046 (2004) is an example of what happens when a filmmaker is given an unlimited budget and full artistic freedom as the movie is obtuse, too long by at least thirty minutes, and could jettison its entire science fiction framing device. However, the main part of the film, set in the late 1960s and a loose sequel to In The Mood For Love, is great, with Tony Leung now a womanizing cad following his failed relationship in the earlier film. Zhang Ziyi as his call girl lover is dynamic and magnetic, matching Tony’s acting chops beat for beat . Along the way Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong make appearances, though their characters don’t have much arc to speak of. 

Unrequited, The Hand (2004)

The BAM/PFA and the Roxie series both include the little-seen one-hour film The Hand (2004), which was a revelation to me as it was the only film in the program that I hadn’t yet seen. Originally released as part of the three-part omnibus Eros (along with segments by Michelangelo Antonioni and and Stephen Soderbergh), The Hand is a gorgeous meditation on class and gender divisions and unrequited love, and  Wong goes all in with his cheongsam fetish. Gong Li as a courtesan falling on hard times and Chang Chen as her longtime admirer are amazing and the opening scene that the film takes its name from is a stunningly kinky set piece. The film makes a strong argument that Wong Kar-Wai should only make films set in the 1960s as the evocative art direction, from hair to costumes to set design, is on point and breathtaking. 

Although this series emphasizes his auteurship, Wong Kar-Wai didn’t operate in a vacuum. His work was nurtured by the strongest film industry in Asia at the time, one that churned out hundreds of movies every year that were exported all over the region. In some way Wong’s films gave an entre into Hong Kong cinema to snobby cineastes who might have disdained genre directors like John Woo or Tsui Hark. This retrospective brings back memories of that brief shining moment when Hong Kong was the center of the cinematic world. It’s especially melancholy to consider through the lens of 2020/21, when the city has been so drastically changed by China’s brutal repression of free speech there. 

Existence Is Longing: Wong Kar Wai

Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive

December 11, 2020–February 28, 2021

Roxie Virtual Cinema

Available until February 25

World of Wong Kar Wai

Roxie Cinema

San Francisco

Drive-in screening of In The Mood For Love

Sunday, Feb. 14, 7pm

Fort Mason Flix

January 23, 2021 at 7:07 am 2 comments

Then, now and forever: CNBLUE’s Re-Code album review

Urin gwageo hyeonjae miraee isseo

CNBLUE’s new EP, Re-Code, dropped recently, and it’s the band’s first South Korean release in more than 3 ½ years, with the members spending much of that period serving their mandatory 20-month Korean military service. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge for CNBLUE during that time, including a major personnel shakeup, and their latest release pivots hard toward a new musical sensibility. Unlike their last Korean release, 7ºCN,  back in 2017, Re-Code features more acoustic guitars and no trap beats, a development that is not on trend at all in the pop music world and which to my mind is wholly refreshing. One of the tracks even features a spot of whistling and for the most part there are no electric guitar solos. 

This is going to be an epic post since it’s CNBLUE’s first Korean release in nearly four years. In particular I’m gonna do a deep dive into the title track, Then, Now, and Forever, as it’s an exemplary piece of pop music that explores unhappiness and depression in an notably grown-up way. The song is a driving, midtempo rock song that’s a raw and delicate expression of the vulnerability and numbness that comes from trying to forget and to continue living despite loss and insecurity, and for me it conjures up all the feels during this year of COVID-19. 

The syncopated tick-tocking guitar riff that opens the track, overlaid with a delicate woohooo melisma before the start of the verse establishes the dreamy, sad tone for the song. This carries through into the verse, which sets the stage with its melancholy lyrics. (trans. @buin_jungshin, FNC entertainment)

Oneul nalssi malgeum

(The weather today is sunny)

Ohueneun meokgureum

(But there will be dark clouds in the afternoon)

Nae maeumeun gyesok biga naeril yejeong

(I expect it will keep raining in my heart)

Then the meter of the lyrics doubles in a singsong beat, echoing the childlike reference to friends and playing.

Chingudeura mianhae

(I’m sorry, friends)

Oneuldo nan ppajilge

(I’m going to sit out again today)

Neohui mameun aneunde

(I know how you feel)

Sigan jogeumman jullae

(But won’t you give me some time)

Gyesok mami sseuril yejeong

(I expect to still be heartbroken)

This wistful beginning then charges into the intensity of the pre-chorus and after that the song doesn’t look back as it travels through its heartbreakingly fraught emotional territory.

At the beginning and the end of the day

Now, at the thread of parting

We are bound together, tangled

Like a knot

Some days I’m fine

Sometimes I miss you like crazy

Sometimes I hate you so much

Again

The ebb and flow of the song’s structure is also a refreshing change from the mechanized beats of most pop music these days. There are several pauses, including between the first pre-chorus and the chorus and after the bridge, which allow the song to breathe in a human rhythm that is absent in pop songs that use a preset drum track. This gives the song life and power, expanding and elongating the song’s tempo and giving it a lovely, fluid aliveness that meshes perfectly with the instrumentation of guitars, organ, drums and bass. 

Backbone

Drummer Kang Minhyuk and bassist Lee Jungshin supply a strong, steady backbone for the track and their reliable work does a lot of heavy lifting in the song. The rapid ratatat drum that underscores the first line of the chorus also elevates the emotion from the pre-chorus, and the church-like organ riff, the guitars, and the flowing bassline create a Spectoresque wall of sound that drives the song’s intensity. Whereas the chorus churns along mostly in a major key, the final repetition of the hook (urin gwageo hyeonjae miraee isseo) ends the song on three notes (G, D, Bflat to A) that form a perfect G minor chord, lending a melancholy and longing to the outro. The track’s final flourish on the piano closes the song like a caress, a beautiful moment of stillness after the passionate, driving beat of the second half of the song.

UPDATE: This amateur musicologist just realized a key element of the song that I’d missed before, which is the switching between two time signatures. The song’s verse and prechorus is in 6/8 time, which creates a looping, circular mood that accentuates the sensation of being trapped or stuck in a rut. The chorus and bridge then switch to 4/4 time, lending an urgency and drive to that section of the track. Swapping smoothly between the two time signatures is one of the things that makes the song feel fresh and unpredictable and which emphasizes the tune’s emotive power.

Credit must also be given to Jung Yonghwa’s effortlessly virtuoso vocal performance on this track. He goes from a breathy whisper to throbbing sustains to a clear falsetto to belting in the blink of an eye, imbuing each line with emotion and meaning and exploiting the dynamic range of his voice to mesh perfectly with the song’s swings from sadness to frustration to deep mourning. He’s developed his voice into a powerful and evocative instrument and his control over it is flawless. The chorus includes a sweet falsetto immediately followed by another belt, which is no mean feat, and more vocal fireworks occur at the end of the bridge where he lets loose with a gorgeous descending vocal run that literally stops the song in its tracks. This is closely followed by another breathy vocal fill that leads to full-out belting during the last chorus. Throughout the song Yonghwa’s performance embodies and elevates the song’s emotional core. Watching live recordings of the song further reveals his control and range as he navigates the complexities of the song in real time with ease. 

Nobody but you

The song’s beautifully crafted structure, Yonghwa’s virtuoso vocals, its emotionally charged, poetic lyrics, and the buzzing rock guitar and throwback Hammond organ over the pulsing backbeat all make for highly satisfying listening on many different levels. Although it can be read as a simple breakup song between lovers, to anyone familiar with the past four years of CNBLUE’s existence the song means much more. Despite great popularity for most of their careers, starting with their highly successful debut in 2010, things fell apart for the  members around 2016 when the South Korean media attached various controversies to the band. Former lead guitarist Lee Jonghyun left the band in mid-2019 under a cloud of controversy, and a long silence about the issue followed, even after the rest of the members were discharged from the army in March 2020. Because of COVID-19 their normally busy touring schedule ceased, which only led to more speculation about their future. So this song, released more than a year after Yonghwa’s military discharge, is the first public statement they’ve made about their status as a band.

Mournful

Though the song might not specifically be about their former band member it’s definitely about the loss of their past musical existence and in some ways, about the end of their youth. Many of CNBLUE’s past songs feature vocal duets between Yonghwa and Jonghyun and Jonghyun’s guitar playing played a very prominent role in defining their musical color. Many of those songs would now be very difficult to play live, so if nothing else CNBLUE may be mourning the loss of their excellent and extensive back catalog. 

The album’s other tracks are also outstanding and it’s notable how different they are from one another. The second track, Til Then, is a musical palate-cleanser after the intensely mournful rock groove of Then, Now, and Forever. Opening with a lively round of whistling followed by a mellow acoustic guitar riff, the melody’s upbeat mood is nonetheless belied by the angsty lyrics. (trans: @cnbstaraccord)

I’m not allowed to laugh out loud

I’m not allowed to express my mood

“Don’t get cocky with me”

I get it, I’m okay with anything

Laughing like you’re happy in this world

Sounds like another world’s story 

It’s a slightly depressing peek into Yonghwa’s constrained life as a South Korean idol and celebrity where every move is controlled and any mistake can have grave professional and personal consequences. The somewhat grim lyrics exist at odds with the light, perky music, reflecting the cheerful facade over the dark interior life that the song recounts.

As with Yonghwa’s solo Japanese release earlier this year,  Re-Code includes a city pop track, In Time. The song harkens back to the lounge/jazz/disco hybrid genre made popular in Japan and other parts of Asia in the 1970s and 80s and exemplified by tracks such as Mariya Takeuchi’s Plastic Love, Naoko Gushima Candy, and Tatsurō Yamashita’s Love Space, and by modern-day practitioners like Taiwan indie band Sunset Rollercoaster. Like classic city pop, In Time is beautiful, lush, and sweet, with a supple bassline and a gorgeous synth break at the bridge. Yonghwa utilizes a breathy, light vocal style that includes a divine falsetto in the chorus and a nice high belt in the bridge. The song has a sweet, sad air of memory and regret, with lyrics that again describe a longing for someone missing or gone.

I’m living in you

But no matter how hard I look 

You’re nowhere to be seen

I’m breathing in your traces 

But you’re not here

The fourth track, Winter Again, includes one of my favorite of Yonghwa’s little vocal traits. It’s a distinctive vibrating resonance that his voice hits when he sings a certain high note, when the rasp in his voice perfectly aligns with the note he’s singing, and that’s in full effect in the song’s chorus. It’s just a short sustain of a slight high note and it’s not loud or powerful or particularly flashy, but when it happens it’s riveting.

The song’s lyrics, free-written in a stream-of-consciousness style, seem at first to be about the banalities of everyday life. But on closer inspection they’re actually an extended metaphor for the deceptiveness of daily perceptions. (trans: @cnbstaraccord)

It’s warm inside the room

Looking out the window it seems warm (outside) too

The human heart is like this too

(So) the wind was this cold

The mundane details of the lyrics mesh perfectly with the simple, country-rock guitar sound, performed by CNBLUE’s frequent sideman and studio musician extraordinaire Jung Jae-pil 정재필. Jung also plays on two other tracks, Then, Now, and Forever, and Til Then, filling in in lieu of the band’s former lead guitarist.

The album’s last track, Blue Stars, was written with the band’s loyal fans in mind. An upbeat, jaunty tune, the song is made up of a mix of nonsense syllables, easy Korean phrases and lyrics in English that are designed for singing along no matter what your language skills. After the moodiness of the first four songs it’s a nice, lively way to end the album on a more optimistic note. The entire EP is like one big therapy session and this song is the equivalent of a group hug. After processing the angst and melancholy of the past few years this track points the way to potentially better days. Or as noted in Then, Now, and Forever

I hope we are happy now

It would be nice if we were happy now

I bet an ordinary day will come to me again

We’re here then, now and forever

(trans. @buin_jungshin)

To have CNBLUE come back with this new, glorious release now, after this impossible year of COVID-based deprivation, is like a beam of hope that signals better times to come. It hits different for those of us who have been living the restricted, maddening life that is COVID-19 in the United States, and it’s so much more meaningful seen through that lens. As always, in this new album CNBLUE has created resonant, relevant, and beautiful music.

November 25, 2020 at 9:15 am 3 comments

Queen of Hearts: An interview with Yellow Rose producer Cecilia R. Mejia

By storm, Yellow Rose, 2020

Yellow Rose (dir. Diane Paragas) is currently in the midst of its theatrical run in the US after taking the Asian American film festival circuit by storm in 2019. I talked with producer Cecilia R. Mejia about the film’s significance to herself and to the Asian American community at large.

BA: So it’s pretty exciting, to get theatrical distribution.

CM: When we got bought by Sony, it was exciting. And then with COVID, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but Sony said, we’re gonna do it anyway. So it’s been like a little weird, because we don’t know what the box-office numbers would have been if people felt safer to go to cinemas. But conversely, we also don’t know if they would have put us in that many theaters if COVID wasn’t happening.

BA: It’s funny because I had a film (Love Boat: Taiwan) that was playing at a lot of the same festivals as Yellow Rose, and it was always sold out before I could get a ticket. And it always won all the awards. I remember saying, “Yellow Rose is playing with my movie again–oh, well, there goes all the awards!” (laughs)

I teach Asian American film history, so that’s another reason I was super excited about this movie, because it’s a Fil-Am film, And the last Filipino American movie that I remember being in theaters might have been The Debut back in like 2000.

CM: I think they they also did it themselves–they self-distributed.

BA: That’s right, so it’s different because you got a major distribution deal. Are you the first Filipino American film to do that? Probably HP Mendoza did more like an indie route. He definitely wasn’t with Sony.

CM: I think it’s safe to say that we’re the first by major studio, so it’s super exciting to have that backing.

Music, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: What do you think contributed to you being able to get that kind of deal?

CM: I think some of it was the music. What makes our our film quite different is there’s the added element of the music and Sony also does music, so they also have the soundtrack that they’re pushing. I think what was appealing to them was, here’s this really interesting story about a community that’s never really seen on screen, and there is this element of country music, which is very popular.

BA: And Lea Salonga is in it too, right?

CM: Yes, she’s probably the most well-known Filipina in the world, along with Manny Pacquiao. She has a huge following. I think people really fall for Eva (Noblezada) too. People say to me, I feel like we’ve found a star.

BA: I’ve only heard good things about the movie. I mean, a film can be popular, but there’s always someone who’s hating on it. And I’ve never heard any hate for this movie.

CM: I know! We had a great festival run. We couldn’t have asked for a better opening than at Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival.

BA: How do you feel about like this giant Asian American film festival circuit? And how did that help out with getting more visibility for the movie?

CM: I think it helped a lot. I actually studied Asian American Studies in school, but I hadn’t really collaborated that much with other groups outside of Filipino Americans. And I thought, “I need to do that.” I feel like if we had been in those big festivals (like Tribeca), the film might not have been embraced the way that it was or understood the way that it was. It was just embraced by every community that we showed it in. And I just feel like it was nice to introduce some of our people and our crew members to the world of Asian film festivals because they hadn’t been part of any of that.

So I think I think it helped us because it gave us this boost and it helped build this community. I think the traction that we were getting at every festival was getting some buzz–people were talking about our film. Every time we were we were somewhere there was so much buzz.

BA: Yes, I think it was the buzziest movie last year at Asian American film festivals.

Buzziest, Yellow Rose, 2020

CM: Yes, and around this time of the year the festivals seem to all be around the same time. We had to divide and conquer–Diane was in Hawaii and San Diego. And I went to Philadelphia, Vancouver, Houston. It was like this whole circuit. And it was interesting, because we were all texting each other, “I think we won!”

BA: When you made the movie, I can’t imagine that you thought that it would be so popular. Do you remember what you were thinking when you started working on the film? Why did you decide you wanted to do this story?

CM: The backstory was that I have been working on this for almost a decade with Diane (Paredes), the director and writer. She herself has been working on this for more than 15 years and she had just sort of given up at some point and started her career as a commercial director, did a documentary. And then she decided,  “I want to tell the story.” I was working with the Philippine American Legal Defense Fund at the time, was just out of grad school and I wanted to embed myself more in the public policy world. I was also working in and out of the UN, signing up people for DACA and working with Jose Antonio Vargas. And Diane came to our office to do research. She said, “I’m doing a film on an undocumented Filipino immigrant who loves country music,” and she showed me the look book. And I was so intrigued by it, because I’ve always been a lover of films, especially indie film. I didn’t think it was possible for me to infiltrate or be part of that world. So when she was showing it to me, I was really fascinated–I had never met a Filipino filmmaker before. So she asked me, “Do you want to do help me do research on it?”

So I was helping her and it snowballed. I was working on a really short documentary about undocumented Filipino immigrants who were detained, which we used as research. And then we were writing grants, and I was helping her reach out to the Filipino community and reaching out to different people. As the years were rolling on I started working as a full-time producer with her.

You mentioned The Debut–I had never seen a film that represented us since The Debut. I was waiting for something like that and so that was one of the driving forces for me–the whole backstory of a girl trying to find a home and understanding that experience from that perspective. So my goal was always to get the movie made, that was always kind of in my brain.

Changing culture, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: Is there anything else that you personally really have gotten out of this experience? How has it changed your life?

CM: If I hadn’t worked on this film think I probably would be in some sort of government position, or heading towards public policy. But I’ve come to realize, especially in the last three years working with PJ (Raval) that there’s this medium of art and activism that is quite powerful. And if you watch someone like PJ navigate what he’s doing with his documentary Call Her Ganda, you see the impact of it. So this whole experience has helped me define where it is I want to go. It’s melded the things that I love most, as far as work is concerned–art, education, and philanthropy.

I think for most people film is a medium that reaches almost everyone. Whereas in public policy, you have to play politics more, and it’s also such a huge system. And you have to be like an ambassador or someone who works closely with  an ambassador to get anything really done, otherwise, you’re just sort of kind of moving the machine and absorbing information. Whereas I think with film you’re able to do stuff quicker.

BA: Even though it takes like five years to finish a movie. (laughs)

CM: It’s not just this whole traditional medium of film, but art in general, I think, that has a way of changing culture in a way that nothing else can.

My goal is for people to leave the theater after watching this film and changing the way they think about immigration and about how they experience the Filipino community.

Education, Yellow Rose, 2020

BA: Is there anything else you want to add before we finish?

CM: Yeah, there’s this. There was a review we’d read early on that was clearly written by a white woman. And she said that Yellow Rose was a white savior type of movie, because we have a lot of white characters. And I thought that was such an unfair comment, because I don’t think she did the research about who was behind the film. I also thought it was a dangerous review, because it also deters people from wanting to see the film, and supporting a community like ours, supporting filmmakers like Diane. So I thought, you know, how dangerous and irresponsible for a reviewer to do that. I don’t think people know the Filipino community, which is why maybe she said that, because she has no familiarity with it. So maybe since this month is Filipino American History Month, people maybe need educate themselves on who the Filipino American community is.

We had generally great reviews for the most part, but when I read that review, I thought, maybe because she saw Sony was behind it, maybe she didn’t know the backstory of how long it took for this movie and that it was actually the Filipino community that that funded this film. Or how historic it is to put Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga in one film together, and someone like Princess Punzalan who’s an icon to the Filipino community, and the fact that Diane is the director and writer, and that this was a Filipino American-led film.

I think that that’s that’s something that mainstream viewers can’t understand, why it’s so important that these movies are there for us. It means more than just paying money for a ticket and watching something. We have our hearts and souls invested in these films.

BA: I just I just feel like every Asian American film that gets finished is like a miracle, honestly.

CM: Yeah, And I hate that some people say, well, we already had The Farewell. So literally, there’s that (Asian American film) for this decade. We’re two totally different stories!

Yellow Rose is currently showing at theaters across the US.

October 30, 2020 at 5:05 am Leave a comment

If This Was A Movie: October Film Festival roundup

On trend, CAAMfest Forward Drive-In night

After all hell broke loose in the U.S. back in March one of the first film festival casualties of the COVID-19 crisis was South By Southwest (aka SXSW). Scheduled to open on March 16, it was impossible for the festival to pivot to online immediately and so the entire event was jettisoned. Other film festivals that had been scheduled in the chaotic couple months following were postponed or canceled outright, but those that were slotted a bit later in the year gradually began to pivot and now, as the pandemic enters its seventh month here in the U.S., most festivals are fully online. In addition, some of the previously postponed festivals are also launching programming, leading to an embarrassment of moviegoing riches. This month alone includes CAAMfest Forward, which just started on Oct. 14 and runs until Oct.18, the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is currently running until Oct. 18, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival, which runs Oct. 23-25.

Charming, Definition Please, 2020

CAAMfest Forward’s centerpiece presentation, Definition Please, directed by and starring Sujata Day (The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl; Insecure) is a charming and pleasant effort, with the film’s main strength being Sujata’s ability to keep the tone of the film light and consistent. The narrative swerves a bit, though, touching on mental illness, sibling relationships, and familial obligations, but it’s anchored by Sujata’s pitch-perfect, likeable performance. It’s also nice to see a film set outside of a major urban area that nonetheless has a majority Asian cast, which speaks to to the the changing demographics of the Asian American community.

Emotionality, Coming Home Again, 2020

Veteran director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing; The Joy Luck Club) has recently gone from directing Hollywood blockbusters to more intimate, personal film projects and with his most recent film, Coming Home Again, he’s hit his stride. Based on a New Yorker essay by Korean American writer Chang Rae-Lee, the film follows a Korean American man who returns to his childhood home to care for his cancer-stricken mother. With gorgeous cinematography by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) and a nicely calibrated performance by Justin Chon, the film has an understated emotionality that avoids veering into melodrama.

Streetwise, Takeout Girl, 2020

Takeout Girl (dir. Hisonni Johnson) is a bit like Starsky and Hutch episode updated to the 21st century but it’s engaging nonetheless. At first Hedy Wong, who also co-wrote the film, seems too pretty and has way too much eye makeup for the part she’s playing but as Tara, the titular takeout girl, she never wavers from her wary, streetwise persona. Ultimately the film is fun to watch in a cheesy, genre way, full of drug labs, junkies, and shiny, silver-plated pistolas. Although the motivation for the film’s climax is completely contrived, it allows the movie to end in a blaze of angsty glory.

Fun and kicky, Chosen Fam, 2020

CAAMfest Forward also includes the first several episodes of Natalie Tsui’s web series Chosen Fam, a fun and kicky look at a group of QTPOC hipsters in San Francisco. The show features engaging performances from its multi-culti cast and a smexy attitude that’s echoed by its bright, color-saturated art direction.

Sharky, Bulge Bracket, 2020

Bulge Bracket (dir. Christopher Au), another episodic drama in the festival, is full of finance-bro characters that slip into cliché, but Jessika Van as the new gal navigating the sharky waters of a high-powered investment bank and Feodor Chin as the company boss both turn in solid performances. It’s hard to care a lot about the motivations of the Wall Street characters, though, as they pretty much are greedy bastards who primarily live to make a lot of money.

Ruby, 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, 2020

CAAMfest Forward is also on trend as it includes two drive-in movie nights. The first, an Oct. 14 opening night program, included Lea Salonga In Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a performance film starring the Filipino American Broadway diva, and 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, a documentary following Bay Area rapper Ruby Ibarra’s trip back to the Philippines for a short concert tour. The resurrection of the drive-in movie is one of the most pleasant unintended consequences of the COVID shelter-in-place era and this program, at the Fort Mason Flix Center, was a lot of fun. Fort Mason’s venue has been running for a few months now and the operation is smooth and easy to access, with clean indoor bathrooms, a small concessions stand (with popcorn!) and food trucks. And when my battery died from running the car radio during the double bill, Fort Mason staff immediately popped the hood on my vehicle and gave me a jump. The second drive-in movie night, on Oct. 15, will include screenings of two Hong Kong films directed by women, My Prince Edward (dir. Norris Wong Yee-Lam, 2019) and Ann Hui’s drama A Simple Life (2011), which cleaned up at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards when it was first released.

The Mill Valley Film Festival also has several drive-in movies on its schedule, next to the lagoon at the Marin Civic Center. The film that I saw, the Robert DeNiro/Tommy Lee Jones comedy, The Comeback Trail (2020, dir. George Gallo), was really dreadful, but the viewing experience itself was pleasant. MVFF had many helpful volunteers directing traffic (thought there was a bit of a traffic jam exiting after the screening) and their spotless portapotties are sanitized after every use. The next film I’m scheduled to see, the biodoc The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, will almost certainly be better than the DeNiro film.

Skillful, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, 2020

Also of note from MVFF is Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s lovely documentary, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, which looks at Afro-Cubano sibling musicians Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán. Virtuoso violinist Ilmar immigrated from Cuba to the U.S. decades before, while his younger brother Aldo a gifted pianist, remained in Cuba. The film follows the brothers as they attempt to record an album together despite political and geographic challenges. Los Hermanos effortlessly weaves together its images with its gorgeous score (composed by Aldo), using the soundtrack to drive and elevate the narrative. One of my favorite bits in the film mirrors Aldo and Ilmar’s struggles to find each other at their respective airports in Cuba and New York City, a small and humorous element that exemplifies Jarmel and Schneider’s skillful portrayal of the brothers’ relationship with each other. The movie also turns an affectionate lens on Cuba, depicting the island nation awash in vibrant pastel light.

Legendary, Road to Ladakh, 2003

Also upcoming on the Bay Area film cinemagoing docket is the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival. Free and fully online this year, the festival includes a tribute to the legendary actor Irffan Khan (The Lunchbox; Life of Pi) who recently passed away from cancer.

October 15, 2020 at 7:48 am 1 comment

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

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