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

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Goo Hara, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

No dating clause, Blackpink

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

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

Bundling, Super M, 2019

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

As the New York Times notes,

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

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

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

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Zero sum game, Sulli

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

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

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

Yonghwa, Sulli, Jo Kwon, Inkigayo, 2011

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

 

November 25, 2019 at 7:29 am Leave a comment

Dreaming In Fantasy: Sunset Rollercoaster at Slim’s

Indie pop fans, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

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

Smooth and fluid, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

Mullet and Nautica, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

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

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

Lose Yourself: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 39

Seder Masochism, 2019

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

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

Fun, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, 2019

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

Obtuse, My Polish Honeymoon, 2019

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

Iconic, Seder Masochism, 2018

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

Clever, Tel Aviv On Fire, 2019

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

 

 

 

 

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

Forever Waiting: SFFILM’s Hong Kong Cinema series

Full circle, Tracey, 2018

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

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

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

Sensitive, Tracey, 2018

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

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

Agency, The Lady Improper, 2018

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

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

Elliptical, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2017

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

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

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

Ride The Lightening: 2019 San Francisco Documentary Festival

Cassandro the Exotico!, 2019

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

Anti-slick, Cassandro the Exotico! 2019

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

Moving, 17 Blocks, 2019

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

Meta, Framing DeLorean, 2019

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

Anarchic, Murder In The Front Row, 2019

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

Kicky, I Want My MTV, 2019

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

Glorious, Motherload, 2019

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

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

Marry The Night: 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Stylized, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

NOTE: Because of the crunch of completing Love Boat: Taiwan for the past six months or so I’m very behind on my postings here. Starting with this entry I’m going to try to catch up as best I can with the backlog, so apologies for the anachronistic timings.

This past March I took my first trip back to Hong Kong in nearly two years, after I spent last year dealing with a life-threatening illness, for the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Because this year there were no weekday matinee screenings, with programming most days beginning after 6pm, my screening schedule was somewhat less frenetic than in past years, but I still saw many great movies in just under a week of viewing. In no particular order here are some of the films I caught.

 

g affairs

Sharper, G-Affairs, 2019

G-Affairs (2019), Lee Cheuk-pan’s directorial debut, is an interesting amalgamation of styles and tropes from past and present Hong Kong cinema, but with a sharper edge than many recent commercial films from the territory. Sex, crime, violence, and corruption permeate the proceedings as this bleak and nihilistic view of Hong Kong society follows several characters including a corrupt cop (Chapman To), a world-weary prostitute (Huang Lu), and a troubled teenaged student (Hanna Chan) whose teacher sexually exploits her. The film implicates those with power and authority who continually fail the younger characters, suggesting the betrayal of Hong Kong’s youthful dreams in the decades following the 1997 handover.

 

First-Night-Nerves

Backstage, First Night Nerves, 2019

A completely different sort of Hong Kong movie, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves (2019) is an excellent example of what used to be called a women’s film, with a female-centric plot and strong women characters. Sleek and assured, Kwan’s backstage drama, his first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Cantopop divas Sammi Cheng and Gigi Lai as rival actresses. The film includes clever dialogue that references the tensions between Hong Kong and China and harkens back to the heyday of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

 

EverybodyKnows

Complex, Everybody Knows, 2019

Everybody Knows (2019), Asghar Farhadi’s latest joint, is as usual full of moral ambiguity and complexity but a bit more plotty than his other films, including his Oscar-winners A Separation and The Salesman. A family reunion at a wedding in Spain dredges up past secrets and unresolved conflicts that come to a head when the daughter of one of the attendees is kidnapped. As usual Farhadi creates finely drawn, complex and ambiguous characters full of flaws and virtues, and draws out excellent performances from his cast, most notably the outstanding turn by Javier Bardim. His co-star and fellow international star Penelope Cruz is also good, although at times a bit too florid in her rendering of a mother desperately seeking her disappeared daughter. The screening I attended at HKIFF proved why seeing movies in a theater will always be superior to watching them online as the audience was totally into the film and gasped and laughed at the plot twists and reveals, thus enacting that ineffable cinema viewing experience.

 

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Iconic, Barber Takes a Wife, 1947

The festival also featured a clutch of four restored films starring the iconic Shanghainese actress Li Lihua. I was able to catch two of them including Barber Takes a Wife, a beautiful and charming screwball comedy from 1947. Full of snappy clothes and snappy dialog, led by the queen of the arched eyebrow Li Lihua, who is vivacious and charismatic, the film reflects the sheen and sophistication of pre-revolution Shanghai.  In contrast, Bright Day (dir. Cao Yu, 1948) is full of social realism. There’s a bit too much exposition at the start but the movie eventually resolves itself well. Li is not quite as radiant as in Barber Takes a Wife but she is nonetheless lively and engaging. Director Cao’s background was in theater and the film is somewhat less cinematic than it could be, though there are flashes that are more filmic in the use of camera, lighting, and editing.

 

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Pranking, Hidden Man, 2018

After my viewing of Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man (2018) at the film festival I thought it was a mess of a movie and I feel asleep despite (maybe because of) the film’s overblown action and hyperactive structure? Eddie Peng plays a similar role as Lee Byung-Hun in the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, a returning expat who fled to the US as a child to escape violence and who is on a mission to avenge the deaths of those close to him. But I thought that Hidden Man never found its focus and jumped maniacally from person to place to topic, and that the characters were shallowly drawn. I also thought that the anachronistic cultural references and puns seemed forced and overly smirky.

But although I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it, on the recommendation of Ross Chen from lovehkfilm.com I watched it again on the plane ride back home from Hong Kong. Somehow it was better the second time around once I realized that Jiang Wen is a big joker who is pranking his audience throughout the movie. Some of the action choreography is quite good too and Eddie Peng looks good with his shirt off. And the way the film casually kills off major characters is very interesting, as if Jiang is making a mockery of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

eight taels

Vulnerable, Eight Taels of Gold, 1989

The festival also included a focus on the legendary Hong Kong actor, producer, director, and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who is probably most famous for his collaborations with his “brothers” Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in classic martial arts films such as The Prodigal Son, Wheels On Meals, and Project A. I caught his starring turn in Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet drama Eight Taels of Gold (1989), which is really the best movie ever. Touching, vulnerable, and beautifully directed by Cheung, the film showcases Sammo’s acting chops as he plays a Chinese expat who’s spent many years in the US whose relationship with his cousin (Sylvia Chang) becomes complicated when he accompanies her to her wedding in their home village in China. Poignant, emotional, and humanistic, the film focuses on different side of Hung that contrasts with his more familiar comedic martial arts/action persona.

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Bold, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

Xiang Zi’s debut feature, A Dog Barking At The Moon (2019) is a stylized film that also has strong characters and an interesting plotline about a Chinese woman returning home to her dysfunctional family. Zi makes some bold stylistic choices, including theatrical interludes and overly mannered camera placements, and for the most part they work as they are self-conscious without being distracting. However, the narrative is very full and includes repressed sexual longing, homophobia, and cult indoctrinations, among other angsty developments. But the mother’s attraction to the cult and her ultimate motivations are believable and the Zi’s risky directorial decisions work more often than they don’t.

A_Long_Goodbye-trailerSM111

Conventional, A Long Goodbye, 2019

A Long Goodbye (2019), a family melodrama from Japan, is stylistically the opposite of A Dog Barking At The Moon. Director Nakano Ryota’s film, which follows a family as its patriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, is conventionally presented and relies on strong acting and invisible direction for its impact. Leaning towards tearjerker, it skates close to melodrama without actually fully falling into the abyss.

vardabyagnes

Groundbreaking,Varda by Agnes, 2019

Fittingly, the last film I saw at this year’s festival was Varda by Agnes (2019), which was a brilliant and prescient elegy to the groundbreaking nouvelle vague filmmaker wherein Varda herself looks back on her long and storied career. As well as being a noted director Varda was also an accomplished photographer and visual artist—later in life she worked in multi-channel media installations. I saw this a day after Varda’s death and it was an outstanding self-tribute that provided a fascinating look into the director’s creative process.

Postscript: As I write this in June 2019 the people of Hong Kong have been protesting and demonstrating against a draconian extradition law that may be a turning point in the territory’s relationship with its overlords in Beijing. Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its “one country, two systems” existence, which has already been severely diminished, or will Beijing further erode the civil liberties of the restive region? As the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past couple weeks have proven, Hong Kong isn’t going down without a fight.

June 15, 2019 at 5:29 am Leave a comment

Whispering Waves: Hush at Bottom of the Hill and Elephant Gym at Slim’s

hush, Bottom of the Hill, 2018

Because its huge and influential neighbor China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, the island nation effectively exists in diplomatic limbo. Taiwan therefore continues to use soft power to try to gain global support in its battle to maintain its sovereignty. The uptick in interest in Taiwanese food in the US is no accident, as evidenced by the recent feature spread on eater.com as well as the incursions of Taiwanese chains such as the upscale bakery 85 degrees. Like South Korea’s successful marketing of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, the government of Taiwan is also supporting these forms of creative and culinary diplomacy as Taiwan works to maintain support around the world in the face of continued reunification pressures from its massive neighbor across the strait.

As part of this, Taiwanese indie rock is starting to be a thing outside of Taiwan. South By Southwest’s lineup has for several years included Taiwan Beats, a showcase for Taiwanese bands playing at the influential rock festival. Notably, this program is sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, a sure sign of the government’s acknowledgement of the influence of pop culture in increasing Taiwan’s profile and sway internationally. The organization Taiwanese Waves has since 2016 organized a show in Central Park’s SummerStage program featuring a selection of Taiwanese indie bands. Taiwanese Waves has also arranged tours for some of these groups, and including a couple of shows here in San Francisco, with the singer hush last fall at Bottom of the Hill and math rock darlings Elephant Gym last month at Slims.

Fey, hush, Bottom of the Hill, 2018

hush (birth name Chen Jia-wei) falls squarely into the shoegazer genre, with introspective and somewhat cerebral songs that utilize a dreamy midtempo beat. But hush’s appealingly expressive vocals elevate the his sound beyond the emo. His sweet pure high notes showcased in his upper register and his somewhat fey stage persona made for an engaging performance. Hush was ably backed up by rocking combo of guitars, bass, and drums, with a bit of synthesizer and electronic drum pads thrown into the mix, demonstrating the vitality of Taiwan’s indie rock scene.

Math rock band Elephant Gym is a very different animal than Hush (sorrynotsorry) and their vibrant show at Slim’s captured their engaging stage persona. At first listen Elephant Gym may just seem like jazz fusion (polyrhythmic, unusual time signatures, mostly instrumental) but the ferocity of their live show demonstrated the differences between the genres. Elephant Gym puts on a great show and they definitely put the rock into math rock.

e gym from valerie soe on Vimeo.

Led by bassist KT “Tif” Chang, the trio also includes Tif’s brother Tell Chang and drummer Chia-Chin Tu. The Chang siblings’ mom trained them in classical music and the band has been active since 2012 (with a brief yearlong hiatus in 2014 to allow for compulsory military service), gaining popularity in indie rock circles in Taiwan and throughout Asia. Their US debut took place in 2017 at SummerStage in New York City and their performance at Slim’s was the final show of their first US tour, which also included a stopover at this year’s Taiwan Beats showcase at South by Southwest.

Muscular, Elephant Gym, Slim’s, 2019

Throughout their set at Slim’s they kept up a charming patter in fairly serviceable English, with Tif casually swigging what may have been beer and Tell rolling his eyes at his sister’s antics. But when they got into a groove they shook the house with their bass-driven, angular rock music, surging through several fluid and muscular polyrhythmic numbers. By the end of their set they had the audience cheering for more as Tif moved front and center, flailing wildly on her bass as the band charged through their nimble and energetic closing songs.

Elephant Gym sold out all of their shows on this US tour and hopefully their success portends more indie Taiwanese bands making the trek across the Pacific. Global recognition of Asian rock music is on the upsurge and it’s great to see Taiwan sending some of their best over to the States.

 

 

April 7, 2019 at 6:48 am 1 comment

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