Deeper Into Movies: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 42

A Reel War: Shalal, 2022

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival just completed its 2022 run, which marked a return to in-person programming after two pandemic years during which the festival was almost exclusively online. As usual the programming spanned a wide range of genres and films. 

Banal, Karaoke, 2022

The festival opened with the Israeli narrative, Karaoke, which looks at a middle-aged Tel Aviv married couple whose lives are upended when a swinging bachelor moves into the penthouse of their apartment building. The film is a subtle study of a seemingly banal and ordinary couple, unobtrusively revealing its story with restraint and insight. There’s a whisper of queerness that’s too understated to be called a twist but the information adds complexity to the overall effect of the film.

White saviorism, Haute Couture, 2021

Another narrative, Haute Couture, is much more conventional and much less successful in its storytelling. Although beautifully shot and nicely acted, the film lacks much depth in its characterizations and is at its core deeply problematic. The story follows Esther, a seamstress in the Dior fashion house who meets Jade, a streetwise young French Arab woman, and takes her under her wing by giving her an apprenticeship at Dior. Though on the surface Haute Couture seems forward-looking by including actual Arab characters in a film set in France, most of the characters’ various cultural identities are plot devices that are quickly skimmed over, including a token trans character who primarily serves as window dressing.  Even Esther’s Jewish identity is quickly introduced but ultimately irrelevant to her actions. Esther also utters some pretty egregiously racist comments, but the film uses the old trope of including an even more racist character to make Esther seem less offensive by comparison. Structurally, the movie races from one contrived plot point to the next, and Jade’s worshipful acceptance of her “rescue” from her ghetto roots reeks of white saviorism.

More successful were several documentary and essay film selections in the festival. JFF Director of Programming Jay Rosenblatt is a noted experimental filmmaker (his most recent accolade being an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Documentary) so it’s no surprise that the festival included films that depart from the standard narrative or documentary fare.

Visceral, My Name Is Andrea, 2022

Oakland resident Pratibha Parmar’s My Name Is Andrea explores the life and legacy of radical feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin’s a controversial figure and has been reduced to a cartoon character over the years so revisting her work is a revelation, and the film showcases her charismatic presence and her unrelenting examinations of misogyny in contemporary US culture. Parmar re-enacts key moments in Dworkin’s life as played by several different actors including Ashley Judd and Christine Lahti, interspersed with archival footage of Dworkin herself in all her astute, well-spoken, and passionate glory. The film is visceral, gripping and ultimately brilliant and makes a strong case for the continued relevance of Dworkin’s perspective and theories on violence against women—she ain’t wrong, people.

Driven, Bernstein’s Wall, 2022

A more conventional documentary, Bernstein’s Wall (dir. Douglas Tirola) looks at the life of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein as told almost exclusively in Bernstein’s own words. The film is archival archival archival, with Tirola taking a trove of footage and shaping it into a cohesive, engaging narrative. Although Bernstein himself never spoke publicly about his queerness, the film also includes excerpts from private missives between various intimates including mentor Aaron Copeland, Bernstein’s siblings, and his depressed wife, who describes herself as “the governess.” Nicely done and eminently watchable, the movie paints a respectful picture of Bernstein as a driven, ambitious, and somewhat frustrated artist whose consuming career may not have been very kind to some of the people closest to him.

Erasure, A Reel War: Shalal, 2022

In A Reel War: Shalal, director Karnit Mandel describes her experience trying to track down the whereabouts of the lost film archives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that were seized by Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war. This incisive essay film emphasizes the importance of images in cultural memory and the way that cultural erasure and forced amnesia act as a forms of imperialism.

Complicit, Babi Yar: Context, 2022

Babi Yar: Context, focuses on the genocide of the Jews in Ukraine during World War II. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (winner of the JFF Freedom of Expression Award) makes the case that residents of Ukraine were complicit in one of the most infamous Nazi atrocities, the 1941 massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews who over the course of two days were shot and buried in the Babi Yar ravine near the city of Kyev. The film, which is completely without narration, tells its story exclusively through archival footage and a reconstructed sound design. Although the evidence is circumstantial, Loznitsa deftly makes the argument for Ukranian complicity through footage such as the hero’s welcome that Nazi officials recieved in Ukraine and cheerful Ukranian women and children digging mysterious trenches. These are later followed by chilling testimony of both Jewish survivors and German perpetrators of the executions who described the massive scale of death.  Although the film skirts toward atrocity porn, it nonetheless makes a cogent argument for the Ukranian collaboration in the “holocaust by bullets” that occurred at Babi Yar.

August 13, 2022 at 4:09 am Leave a comment

Love Fool: Fire Island at Frameline46 Film Festival

Beacon for the future, Fire lsland, 2022

I recently caught Fire Island, Andrew Anh’s latest feature film, at the Frameline Film Festival here in San Francisco. As always the festival is the leadup to Pride Weekend, which is the last weekend of June and which culminates in the massive and legendary San Francisco Pride Parade. One of the most memorable Frameline screenings that I attended took place in 2013 on the same day that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. That night the Castro district was packed with joyous revelers celebrating the decision and we had to fight our way through crowds thronging the streets to get into the movie theater. 

As fate would have it, the screening of Fire Island at Frameline also occurred right around the time of another landmark Supreme Court case, but this time it was night before the grim and regressive decision that reversed the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the US.  As I write this I can barely articulate my sorrow and rage and my continued despair as the US slides further toward fascism.  Now that Roe v Wade has been overturned, Fire Island is either a beacon for the future or a time capsule of a way of life that will be threatened soon.

Hedonistic, Fire Island, 2022

The film itself is delightful—a queer Asian American reworking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set on the titular island that follows a friend group of five QTPOC who arrive at the legendary gay vacation mecca for a week of fun and frolic. Joel Kim Booster grounds the film as Noah, the pretty, somewhat jaded narrator of the story, with Bowen Yang as his sweetly vulnerable bestie Howie. Conrad Ricamora is droll and deadpan as Noah’s romantic foil,  the upright and slightly repressed Will. James Scully as Charlie, Howie’s earnest love interest, is appropriately dorky and starry-eyed, with slightly absurd windswept hair. Margaret Cho as the lesbian den mother as usual lights up the screen. Most definitely a fun and kicky romcom, the film captures Fire Island’s cruisy, hedonistic vibe with many scenes of sleek beautiful cuties gyrating at underwear parties and swimming pools. Though the film casts a somewhat critical eye on the young, hairless, slender gay male standard of beauty, one of my quibbles about the movie is its lack of a lot of body diversity.  But the film does critique the shallowness of the Fire Island scene and it doesn’t shy away from exploring the racism and classism Howie and Noah et al face in the snobby, mostly white Fire Island milieu. 

Collectivist, Fire Island, 2022

Most significantly, Fire Island emphasizes the community minded mentality of Noah and Howie’s BIPOC chosen family. As director Andrew Ahn mentioned in the Q&A following the screening at the Castro, whereas David, the protagonist of his first feature film Spa Night, was pretty solitary, in Fire Island it’s all about the importance of supporting your tribe and *SPOILER* the film’s last scene interrupts Will and Noah’s first kiss to reestablish those collectivist connections. Fire Island is the saucy, community minded queer Asian American romcom we’ve all been waiting for and it’s great to see director Ahn successfully make the jump from indie film world to more mainstream productions. We need strong and articulate Asian American and queer voices like Ahn’s in Hollywood in order to combat the oppressive forces  in the US that want to obliterate the progress toward liberation and justice that our communities have made in the past fifty years. 

Note: There’s another melancholic aspect of this screening. The management of the Castro has recently been taken over by Another Planet Entertainment which plans to use the theater as a mixed-venue with an emphasis on live music. Will this be the last film I see there before the seats are ripped out and the floor is leveled? Over the years I’ve spent countless hours there watching movies so the possibility that the Castro will no longer primarily be a cinema is endlessly sad. There is movement afoot to prevent this, however, but whether the effort will succeed is yet unknown.

July 9, 2022 at 4:35 am Leave a comment

I Don’t Take A Break, I Break Bricks: Rhetorical And Poetic Devices In CNBLUE Lyrics

Wordsmithing

So since I’ve been spending the past 10 days in a quarantine hotel in Taipei as part of the social experiment that is Taiwan’s COVID-10 response, I have a lot of time on my hands. Around the fifth day of my quarantine I came across a twitter thread with examples of rhetorical devices in Taylor Swift lyrics, which inspired me to adapt the idea to a list of rhetorical and poetic devices in CNBLUE’s lyrics. CNBLUE’s leader and chief songwriter Jung Yonghwa, who writes in English and Japanese (in collaboration with Japanese translators) as well as his native Korean, has a distinctive way with words and it was interesting to analyze the craft he puts into his wordsmithing. I’m no rhetorician so some of my examples might not be quite right but I had a good time doing a deep dive into the lyrics of my favorite band.

Lyrics in translation from Korean or Japanese are in italics. All others are in their original English. All lyrics by Jung Yonghwa unless otherwise noted. A version of this originally appeared as a twitter thread. Some lyrics are from solo releases by Yonghwa. Many translations courtesy of justjyh.com

1. ALLITERATION: the succession of words with similar sounds

“Let’s stay sober tonight”

–Stay Sober

2. ANAPHORA: the repetition of a word or phrase in successive clauses.

“I think of you at the blowing wind
I think of you at the dazzling sunlight”

–Can’t Stop

“My heart stops at this cold love, my heart breaks into pieces
My breath stops at this sick love, my breath slowly dies”

–Cold Love

“Love is meant to be cruel

Love is meant to be piercing

Love is meant to be like fire”

–Love Is

3. ANTANACLASIS: The repetition of a word within a phrase or sentence in which the second occurrence utilizes a different meaning from the first.

I don’t take a break, I break bricks

–Ryu Can Do It

4. ANTIMETABOLE: The repetition of words in successive clauses in transposed order.

I see right through you the same
Same way you see right through me

–Brothers

5. APOSTROPHE: any instance when the speaker talks to a person or object that is absent from the poem.

Hello Hello Hello Mr.KIA

Don’t be such a snob

Don’t get on the high horse, man

–Mr. KIA

6. ASSONANCE: The repetition of similar vowel sounds in neighboring words.

“You shine a light so bright that it’s blinding
Like a firework that’s blooming in the sky”

–Summer Dream

7. ASYNDETON: the omission of conjunctions from a phrase or sentence.

“People become enemies, piercing, ripping, disappearing”

–Checkmate

8. BLASON: describes the physical attributes of a subject, usually female.

“It’s the stain of your lipstick

On the glass that you share with

Slowly crossin’ your legs

As you’re playin’ with your hair”

–Make You Mine

9. ENJAMBMENT: a line break that interrupts the flow of a sentence

“Slowly tracin’ all the droplets
As they’re drippin’ off your hair it’s

So amazing how you find

Another way to blow my mind”

–Make You Mine

10. EPISTROPHE (aka epiphora): the repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases or verses.

“Can’t you be my light?

 Please be my light”

–Lonely Night

“Geunal geunal geunal geunal geunal

11. EPIZEUXIS: The repeated use of a word for vehemence or emphasis, generally in the same sentence.

“That day, that day, that day, that day, that day”

–One Fine Day

 “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know who I am who I am who I am”

–Till Then

12. EXTENDED or SUSTAINED METAPHOR; the use of a single metaphor or analogy throughout a poem.

“If life is nothing but a party
Your name is on the marquee”

–Life Is A Party

“Even if there are speed bumps to slow me down
I have to speed up again

I keep stopping, when I start to go, I stop again
I raise the speed but you tell me to stop”

–Navigation

 “We’re like a puzzle

I want to put them together

Fitting vivid-colored pieces with each other”

–Puzzle

 “Because the heart can act like a mirror

In a reflection of one another

The pieces coming together make the world brighter”

–Mirror

“Even sweet rest is utterly bitter survival”

13. HYPERBOLE: The use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.

“Even sweet rest is utterly bitter survival”

–Royal Rumble

“On the blackest of the nights

My heart burns blacker than the night”

–Tattoo

14. HYPERCATALECTIC: having an extra syllable or syllables at the end of a metrically complete verse

“It’s time of the season
I just wanna breathe it in”

–Summer Dream

15. HYPOCATASTASIS: An implied comparison or resemblance that does not directly name its referent (an implied SIMILE or METAPHOR).

“The streets of Paris speak to me”

–The Moment

16. INTERNAL RHYME: two rhyming words juxtaposed inside of the line

“What can I do to get you through

And make you change your mind?”

–Someone Else

17. LETTER-FOR-LETTER SPELLING

“D.I.A.M.O.N.D girl”

–Diamond Girl

18. METAPHOR: A comparison which directly relates one thing to another unrelated thing.

“Every night’s a breath of life when the city never sleeps”

–Life Is A Party

 “We are the fire in the rain”

–Fire and Rain

 “I’m your navigation”

–Navigation

19. METONYMY: the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is associated

“Only black and white, like the piano”

–Still
20. ONOMATOPOEIA: a word that sounds like the noise it describes

“Tick tock when I see you”

–Face To Face

21. PARALLELISM: the usage of repeating words and forms to give pattern and rhythm to a passage, either to juxtapose contrasting ideas or connect similar ideas.

“’Cause when I’m with you
You’re not with me”

–Someone Else

When I see you I can’t breathe, I need to see you to breathe”

22. PARADOX: a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true

“When I see you I can’t breathe, I need to see you to breathe”

–Between us

23. SIMILE: A stated comparison (usually formed with “like” or “as”) between two dissimilar things.

“Something in the way that you laugh is like a sunflower”

–Summer Dream

 “Like a child

Just like heaven”

–Like A Child

“Like the water drops that soak the dry earth

You filled my insecure heart”

–Glory Days

“My past times are on film like a movie star”

–27 Years

 “I can feel your lips settle down on mine like a butterfly”*

–Daisy

*lyric by Lee Jungshin
24. SLANT RHYME: two words located at the end of a line of poetry themselves end in similar—but not identical—consonant sounds or syllable

“Don’t know how to describe

What’s going on inside”

–The Moment

 “Can you let me breath?

Can you let me dream?”

–Lonely Night

“Every day is a miracle

The colors are a spectacle”

–Summer Dream

25. CONCEIT: a typically unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose appeal is more intellectual than emotional

“People told me nothing’s easy, that’s why I go hard”

–Ryu Can Do It

 “When the cloud covers the sky

And stars have closed their eyes”

–Supernova

 “So I’m drunk by noisy sights”

–Jellyfish

April 2, 2022 at 9:51 am Leave a comment

You’re Playing Me Like A Fiddle: CNBLUE’s Wanted album review

Pure pop, Love Cut, CNBLUE, 2021

Wanted, CNBLUE’s latest release, dropped this past October and as usual it’s solid all around. On this EP CNBLUE is going back to the 80s when power pop, punk rock’s cheerful sibling, ruled the world, or at least my playlist at the time. Wanted is a textbook example of what Nick Lowe dubbed Pure Pop—simple, upbeat, cleverly crafted pop songs. Once you hear a power pop classic such as 99 Luftballons, Back Of My Hand (I’ve Got Your Number), Starry Eyes, or Attitudes it never leaves your backbrain and the same is true of CNBLUE songs. This five-song EP is power pop at its finest, anchored by Jung Yonghwa’s reliably stellar songwriting and vocals. 

Whereas their 2020 release, Re:Code, was moody and introspective, Wanted is bright and buoyant. It’s a throwback to CNBLUE’s earliest releases, with an added sophistication to their musicianship and songwriting. The lead track, Love Cut, is a fun and fabulous blend of so many things, including muscular stride piano runs, twangy, evocative guitar licks, brassy Mexican horn flourishes, a supple bassline, and world-class whistling that pays homage to countless Western soundtracks of yore. The track is a little bit Sparks, a little bit Ennio Morricone, a little bit Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and all CNBLUE. Yonghwa’s triplets in the pre-chorus and a swinging, half-time bridge that breaks up the beat makes this song all the more kicky and surprising. 

Interestingly enough, if the lyrics are read straight up they’re fairly grim, as they lament a toxic relationship gone bad. Taken at face value the bridge reads as some serious stuff:

From the beginning

We were broken

Without a word, you trampled me

I used to laugh and cry at your words

But I’m not that person anymore

But Yonghwa’s plaintive, mournful delivery is almost parodic, like a sad clown miming sorrow. The rest of the track’s upbeat, fast-paced delivery and sassy instrumentation and production further flips the script, making the song’s seemingly overwrought storyline melodramatic and satirical. 

Yonghwa also manages some fine and impressive bilingual lyrics. Whereas his very early attempts at writing in English resulted in a peculiar not-quite-there use of the language, here he’s able to seamlessly integrate English and Korean. The second line of the first verse has a killer bilingual Internal slant rhyme (Love or not/animyeon jangnangam) and another equally outstanding example shows up in the pre-chorus (lyrics originally in English in italics)

O ireon That’s my fault

tto igeon nae jalmot

The translation also works perfectly:  

Oh, no, That’s my fault

Like how this is my fault as well

This is insanely clever and complex wordplay in two different languages.

Vertiginous, Love Cut, CNBLUE, 2021

The music video fits the song like a glove and in fact the song almost feels like a soundtrack it’s so cinematic. The deadpan way that Yonghwa and Jungshin lipsync their lines, the zooming, vertiginous camerawork, and the smooth-as-silk surfaces of the members’ faces are a video game come to life and it all perfectly matches the song’s inventive instrumentation. With this track CNBLUE is having a lot of fun, tossing out musical references at a mile a minute and behaving like animatronic versions of themselves on screen. The MV’s climax, where the band members whip out their deadly weapons which turn out to be–scissors? underscores the song and the MV’s self-reflexive, surreal, and witty presentation. The whole thing is a ridiculously entertaining simulacra that’s as fun to watch as it is to listen to. 

In contrast to Love Cut’s dense, fat production, 99%, the second track, is stripped down to its most necessary elements, but the tune itself is so catchy that it doesn’t need much embellishment. I like the way the track gradually adds elements: guitar, drums, vocals, bass. Yonghwa’s singing is completely on trend as he spits staccato vocals just like everyone’s favorite trap singers. This breezy little number is the epitome of the perfect three-minute pop song and it promises to be completely amazing live.

Following 99%’s sharp, spiky groove, the third track, Hold Me Back, shifts gears to a more relaxed Bruno Mars-esque R&B sound, anchored by Yonghwa’s suave and effortless vocals. The only track written by bassist Lee Jungshin (Yonghwa penned the other four), the song’s finger-snapping, silky vibe boasts a laid-back beat by drummer Kang Minhyuk and a sleek pre-chorus piano and bass riff. Yonghwa’s vocals shine once again as he glides smoothly between his rich midrange to a sweet falsetto.

The next track, Nothing, is a throwback to vintage CNBLUE as this energetic tune sounds a bit like an updated version of their 2012 hit Hey You. The track’s intro is a jazzy guitar, in part to transition from the smooth slow jam of Hold Me Back. This impeccable and well-thought out flow from one track to the next is another feature of CNBLUE releases. Minhyuk’s light and powerful, intricate drumming is one of the highlights of this track. The original Korean title, Teori, literally translates to “bullshit,” demonstrating Yonghwa’s more relaxed attitude toward maintaining his previously perfect pop idol persona.

On Nothing as well as Love Cut Yonghwa has figured out how to best showcase Lee Jungshin’s voice. Whereas on last year’s Blue Stars track from Re:Code Jungshin’s lines were pretty close in tone and range to Yonghwa’s own, here the focus is on Jungshin’s lower, more growly baritone register, which contrasts more clearly with Yonghwa’s light tenor. One of the highlights of early CNBLUE songs was the interplay between Yonghwa’s and former guitarist Lee Jonghyun’s voices, so it’s nice to see that happening more successfully on this EP. 


The album closes with the wistful and sweet midtempo ballad Time Machine, which creates an entire mood out of the simplest chord progression. Yonghwa’s mostly known for his power vocals but on this track he highlights the softer qualities of his voice. He gently croons most of the song, hitting a sweet high note in the bridge. Like the best pop music this track does exactly what it needs to do, no more, no less. It could have been cheesy or overwrought but in CNBLUE’s capable hands it’s instead beautiful and affecting.

The song’s repeated refrain, “Everything is the same, only time and the two of us have changed,” evokes a dreamy nostalgia. The sentiment is not unlike Yonghwa’s earlier ballad One Fine Day, with the singer lamenting the loss of love, but here the mood is sadness and remembrance as opposed to the fresh, searing pain of the first song. The feelings are still there but perhaps burnished by time and distance and the song’s soft, sweet melody echoes that feeling. The little bit of flute embellishing the last few bars of the song adds a lilting  conclusion to the track.

One thing that stood out for me when I saw The Sparks Brothers documentary last year was the intelligence and care that Ron and Russell Mael put into their music. I feel like CNBLUE is the same—they are always making interesting, creative decisions about their music and they are thoughtful, imaginative, and rigorous in their craft. Not everything they do is a slam-dunk success but they are constantly making informed, intentional decisions about what they put out into the world. That to my mind is the definition of an artist. 

December 2, 2021 at 6:39 am 2 comments

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

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