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.

 

 

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April 7, 2019 at 6:48 am Leave a comment

New Power Generation: Jia Zhangke and Lunar New Year films 2019

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Jiang hu, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

This has been an interesting few weeks in Chinese-language cinema screenings here in the Bay. This is due in part to the recent Lunar New Year/Spring Festival holiday in China and related territories, during which a whole slew of new movies were released to capitalize on the extended vacays of most people during that time. Because of the glut in product and the large Chinese-speaking population in the Bay Area, a select few of those releases made it across the Pacific to San Francisco movie houses. Coupled with an extended series of films by one of China’s premier arthouse directors, this meant that I managed to catch many Sinophone films in the month of February.

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Cameos, Missbehavior, 2019

I started my Lunar New Year viewings with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Missbehavior, one of two Hong Kong films that made it to San Francisco in February. (Sadly, I missed the other one, Felix Chong’s action thriller Integrity, due to scheduling conflicts). Pang is Hong Kong’s 21st century bad-boy auteur who’s racked up a number of well-received hits including Isabella, Vulgaria, Aberdeen, and his Love In A Puff series that stars Miriam Cheung and Shawn Yue. Miss Behavior is a low-budget quickie that carries on in the best tradition of New Year’s films, with a big cast with many famous people making cameos, a lighthearted comic tone, and a lowbrow sensibility including an extended sequence of the glamorous Dada Chen discussing her bowel movements. Though it’s not one of Pang’s deepest or most thoughtful films (the setup involves a group of friends frantically trying to locate a bottle of breast milk) the narrative  is actually very well-constructed and it moves along at a good clip, briskly shuffling its many characters in and out and climaxing with a free-for-all in a big ol’ shopping mall after hours.

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Spectacular, The Wandering Earth, 2019

On the other end of the production-values spectrum is China’s very first foray into the big-budget science fiction genre, The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo). Based on a short story by well-known Chinese author Liu Cixin, the movie is a big, spectacular piece of moviemaking that rivals anything that Hollywood has put out lately. Although there are no aliens, the film does include huge vistas of spinning planets, individuals at peril in space and planetside, spaceships and other hardware exploding, random science-babble, and other markers of every sci-fi movie of recent vintage. The production design is also on point, portraying an Earth of the near future as dark, chaotic, and polluted (not unlike modern-day Beijing).

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Collectivism, The Wandering Earth, 2019

But at heart it’s a Chinese production, emphasizing collectivism over individuality and the importance of very long-range goals. Also of note is the absence of almost any US presence to speak of—in China’s futuristic vision everyone speaks Mandarin, Russian, French or Japanese, and most of the planetside action takes place in China or other Asian countries. A massive box office hit in China, the film grossed more than US$300 million in its first weekend of release and has gone on to an impressive haul of more than US$650 million worldwide in just under four weeks.

And on a different tip entirely was the Jia Zhangke series at SFMOMA and BAM/PFA that included Jia himself in person at two of the screenings (a delayed plane flight prevented him making a scheduled third appearance at a show earlier in the series). The series included every one of Jia’s feature films (documentaries and narratives both), as well as films by other directors that have had some direct influence on his work.

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Underbelly, Unknown Pleasures, 2002

Some of the pairings worked really well together such as the double-bill including Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), both of which looked at aimless young people wandering through life. Jia’s film explores the seamy side of China, with Jia using the under-construction highway between Datong & Beijing as a visual metaphor for the rough underbelly of China’s economic miracle. A prequel of sorts to Jia’s latest film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), it follows an emo pretty boy in love triangle with the chanteuse Qiao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, a low-rent loan shark mobster.

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Ennui, The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983

In contrast, Hou’s film is quiet and still compared to the barely restrained chaos of Jia’s movie. As opposed to the undercurrent of grinding industrial cacophony in Unknown Pleasures, the sound of lapping waves is an aural backdrop to most of the action in a small seaside town where group of young dudes hang out and try to find meaning in their lives. They eventually end up in Kaohshiung, the closest city to their tiny coastal burg, where more ennui and confusion awaits.

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Rivers and lakes, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

Other film matchups at SFMOMA were more loosely connected—for instance, according to the programmers Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) was paired with 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2009) for the sole reason that both films are about cities. Similarly, the programmers grouped I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010), Spring In A Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), three wildly disparate movies, because they are all set in Shanghai. But the smart pairing of Johnny To’s Election (2005) and Jia’s Ash Is Purest White cleverly focused on the jiang hu, the criminal underworld in both Hong Kong and China.

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Chinatown new wave, Chan Is Missing, 1982

The series also matched up Jia films with non-Asian movies, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Jia’s Xiao Wu (a show that Jia introduced himself at SFMOMA). And props for including Chinese American director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982), which evokes the nouvelle vague by way of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I’m happy that I was able to squeeze in a bunch of screenings in the mini-hiatus from editing my film, Love Boat: Taiwan, because the next four weeks or so will be solely dedicated to finishing up the movie for its world premiere in early May. More info soon on this, but please go here if you want to find out about Love Boat: Taiwan and how you can support it .

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Ash Is Purest White opens theatrically on March 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and on March 22 at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara, CNMK Fremont 8 in East Bay, and CNMK Milpitas 20 in San Jose.

March 3, 2019 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

Long Dark Road: 2019 Noir City film festival

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Party Time, Pickup On South Street, 1953

The 2019 edition of the Noir City film festival just finished another excellent run and there was a party atmosphere for the 10-day festival as the Castro Theater hosted full houses for almost every show. As usual Noir City had value-added features including live music in between some shows, screenings of rare clips and trailers, and informative and edifying introductions by Noir City founder Eddie Muller and other knowledgable film noir geeks/authors. The movies I attended were uniformly good, but a few stood out due to the significant combination of a great cast, a strong script, and excellent direction.

Some of the festival’s offerings fell a bit short on one of the three key elements above, making for less than satisfying results. For instance, legendary director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca; Mildred Pierce) helmed The Scarlet Hour (1956) with a sure hand, and the script is classic noir, about a femme fatale and her hapless sap of a boytoy who are involved in a jewel heist. But rookie actresss Carol Omhart isn’t quite up to scratch in the lead role and despite its other strong elements the film falters on her uneven performance. Conversely, The File On Thelma Jordan (1950) includes an excellent performance from Barbara Stanwyck and moody and evocative direction by Robert Siodmak but the script’s improbable plot twists diminish the film’s overall impact.

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Struggling, Nightfall, 1957

Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957) is a much more successful endeavor. Although not possessing the mournful beauty of his classic noir Out of the Past, Nightfall still showed Tourneur’s strong directorial touch. The film’s two thugs, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond, feel truly menacing and Aldo Ray as the protagonist on the run conveys a strong sense of a man struggling to keep his bearings in the shifting sands of noir-world danger. A very young Anne Bancroft is Ray’s love interest and her performance displays a strength and gravity beyond her years. The film has just the right touch of fatalistic peril and dread to keep the viewer engaged.

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Complex, Pickup On South Street, 1953

One of my favorite films of all time, Pickup On South Street (1953), was part of a trio of movies directed by Sam Fuller in this year’s festival, and it fully demonstrates a film firing on all cylinders, with acting, script, and directing all top-notch. Fuller’s kinetic directorial style and his intense, fast-paced script brilliantly complement Richard Widmark and Jean Peters’ performances as streetwise characters who are constantly maneuvering to survive. Thelma Ritter contributes a stellar performance as an aging stool pigeon, delivering a complex and emotional turn that forms the moral center of the movie.

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Sultry, The Crimson Kimono, 1957

The festival also screened Fuller’s 1957 film The Crimson Kimono, which is notable for including a Japanese American character, Joe Kojaku (played with sultry subtlety by the doe-eyed James Shigeta), in a romantic lead. The film also includes a sympathetic and mostly Orientalist-free representation of the Los Angeles JA community with Nisei characters who speak in unaccented English and who are human beings instead of exotic caricatures. The film falls a bit short, however, in its analysis of race relations as it suggests that Joe’s experiences with racist microaggressions are a figment of his imagination. SPOILER: He does get the girl, however, which for mid-1950s America was pretty revolutionary.

 

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Tense, Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a tense crime thriller produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, also possesses the magic combination of script, cast, and direction. The film shows a darker side to Belafonte’s usual upbeat persona as he plays Johnny, a nightclub singer facing dire straits due to his gambling addiction. After loan shark enforcers threaten his family with harm Johnny teams up with a couple of other shady characters including Earl, a racist from Oklahoma played by Robert Ryan, and David (Ed Begley), a fallen-from-grace cop. They three attempt to pull off a risky bank heist but the meat of the story is the strong character development of both Johnny and Earl. Director Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sand Pebbles) delves into both characters’ personal lives to give weight and heft to what’s at stake for the two. As a result the film’s climax and conclusion are exceptionally tense and gripping. Also, unlike The Crimson Kimono, racism doesn’t get a pass in this film SPOILER and in fact Earl’s flagrant bigotry is a key culprit in the failure of the heist.  END SPOILER Bonus points for supporting roles from Shelly Winters as Earl’s long-suffering girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as the sexy neighbor upstairs, as well as for the excellent score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The festival concluded with a pair of hard-boiled films from 1961. Sam Fuller’s third installation in this year’s festival, Underworld USA, is a bleak little number full of vengeance, double-crosses, and grudges. Cliff Robertson snarls his way through the film as a safecracker out to get the thugs who killed his dad some twenty years prior. With almost no redeeming characters the film is an existential ode to the shady side of life, where the only motivations are revenge and survival.

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Twisted, Blast of Silence, 1961

The festival closed with the excellent and underappreciated Blast of Silence, a low-budget gem directed with a stylish and jaded eye by Allen Baron. Baron also stars as Frankie Bono, a creepy hitman who presages Travis Bickle in his angst-ridden interior monolog and his twisted, affectless approach to killing. The film follows Frankie as he plots his next hit and depicts his sad and stilted attempts to make meaningful human contact beyond his gruesome professional responsibilities. Bleak, hard-boiled, and grim, and set in the dead of winter between Christmas and New Year’s day, Blast of Silence is like an icy slap of cold air on a winter’s day.

 

February 6, 2019 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

Shake That Brass: Amber Liu at Slim’s

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Voting with their cell phones: Amber Liu at Slim’s, 2018

Amber Liu played at Slim’s last Friday and her spunky charm was in full effect at the sold-out show. Probably best known as the soft butch rapper and singer from the Kpop girl group f(x), Amber has a solid following of her own as a solo performer, as evidenced by the enraptured crowd at her Slim’s show. Her San Francisco concert was the last stop in a short seven-city North America tour that took her to clubs in major cities including New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Opening act Justin Park put on a pleasant R&B set featuring Park’s fluid tenor and cheery personality that didn’t seem too dampened by a leg injury that limited his mobility and kept him from much dancing or moving around on stage. Throughout his short set he copiously thanked the audience for their support and otherwise gave off good vibes that warmed up the crowd for Amber’s performance. But the crowd didn’t need much encouragement to give their idol all the love and after a short break the fans were rewarded with Amber’s appearance. She got right into it by singing two of her self-composed tracks, White Noise and High Hopes, that demonstrated the poppy EDM style of most of her solo tunes. Although she made her name as a Kpop performer, at Slim’s Amber performed almost all English-language tracks, and her songs reflect a level of introspection and self-searching that goes beyond the usual pop music banality. Her pleasant and surprisingly sweet voice, combined with her engaging personality made for an easily digestible live music experience

Another nice touch was the concert’s live drummer, which really made a lot of the songs pop and differentiated Amber’s performance from her studio tracks, which like a lot of pop music these days leans a bit too much on the drum machine and trap beats. On several songs Amber was also joined by a couple backup dancers and the kicky choreo allowed her to show off her moves.

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Fans

Despite her relatively young age (26 years old) Amber is a showbiz veteran, having debuted more than nine years ago in South Korea and racking up experience in the grueling and intense Kpop scene where she not only performed with f(x) but also appeared on numerous television shows and toured extensively. This experience was in full effect in her onstage confidence and the easy banter she shared with her audience. Throughout her lively and enjoyable show Amber kept up a humorous patter that echoed the amusing and self-effacing persona she’s honed on her youtube channel. She also thanked her fans for supporting her and allowing her to be who she is, a clear reference to the gender-nonconforming identity she’s embraced from her days as a member of f(x) when she helped to queer Kpop. She also gave a little bit of Taiwanese American fanservice with a quick shoutout to the Boba Guys, San Francisco’s famous bubble tea shop.

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Amber being Amber, Slim’s 2018

Amber closed her set with her outstanding dance track Shake That Brass, which had the audience clamoring for more. Appearing one more time onstage for the encore, she belted out a cover of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, but not before humorously admitting that she’d pre-recorded a backing track in case her live performance faltered. It was during moments like that where Amber’s buoyant personality really shone through, and which made her show a fun, lively, and upbeat experience.

 

December 17, 2018 at 7:58 am 2 comments

Why LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN still matters: Romance, culture and soft power

*love boat taiwan jamie sabrina

Bringing it all back home, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Although the iconic Taiwan Love Boat, with 1200 college-aged Taiwanese American running rampant in Taipei for six weeks every summer, doesn’t really exist any more, the program is still completely relevant in today’s cultural and political climate. Because Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, has yet to agree to the “one-China” principle that claims that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, the cold war between Taiwan and China is hotting up. China is pressuring international airlines to erase the name of Taiwan from any flights to the island nation, US warships are patrolling the straits between the two countries, and more and more of Taiwan’s sparse diplomatic allies are switching support to China, the latest being El Salvador and Burkino Faso. The latter switched because of what some observers describe as “intense pressure” from China to changed alliances, leaving Taiwan with only seventeen diplomatic allies around the world.

A recent New York Times article lauded Taiwan as a new bastion of free speech in Asia, but because of the ongoing tensions with its huge and influential neighbor, Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation is anything but secure.

The bad blood between Taiwan and China goes way back, with the main source of the conflict beginning in 1949, when the Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fled from China to Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communist army. This laid the groundwork for the ongoing strife between China and Taiwan that came to a head in 1971 when the United Nations recognized the PRC over Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Enter the Taiwan Love Boat as one of Taiwan’s main forms of soft power, filling the void of Taiwan’s official diplomatic recognition in the UN and among most nations around the world.

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Soft power, 1990s style, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Soft power as defined by political scientist Joseph Nye is diplomacy through attraction and persuasion, as opposed to “hard power,” or diplomacy through coercion and strength. The Love Boat’s brand of cultural exchange, which presents a highly appealing, enticing, and sexy version of Taiwan, is in opposition to the more overt political pressure that China practices. Referring to Taiwan’s soft power push, the Brookings Institute recently stated, “Though less measurable than the number of diplomatic allies it maintains or international conferences it attends, such goodwill—or “soft power”—may prove every bit as valuable for strengthening Taiwan’s standing over the long run.”

In the late 1960s Taiwan’s government established the Expatriate Youth Language and Study Tour as an outreach program designed in part to convince Taiwanese youth in the US, Canada, and Europe to support Taiwan in its ongoing conflicts with China, and after the UN kicked Taiwan to the curb in 1971, Taiwan’s government ramped up its support for the Study Tour. Around the same time, many Taiwanese were immigrating to the US and raising families there. But parents found that their American-born kids were growing up speaking English, watching Western television, and a lot of times, marrying non-Taiwanese mates.  Thus many Taiwanese immigrants sent their American-born children on the Study Tour in hopes that they would learn more about their Taiwanese heritage and perhaps meet their ideal Taiwanese American mate.

The Study Tour’s high-minded cultural aspirations included Mandarin-language classes, martial arts, and brush painting, but the program’s popularity among young Taiwanese Americans came from another source: its reputation as an excellent place to hook up and find romance. Because of this, the Study Tour is more commonly known by its nickname, the Taiwan Love Boat. LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN looks at the multifaceted aspects the program, both as a government-sponsored cultural exchange and as a rollicking summer trip famed for romantic opportunities. The Love Boat is also an example of Taiwan’s soft power at its finest.

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Culture by day, party by night, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN investigates the ways in which the Love Boat uses soft power to gain support for Taiwan. Many Love Boat alumni who were born and raised in North America were so affected by their summer sojourn on the Love Boat that they resettled in Asia. Conversely, as a result of their involvement with the Love Boat, some Taiwanese-born counselors and staff migrated to the US and live and work there today. Other participants met on the Love Boat and eventually married. And many more continue to foster deep friendships that started decades before on the Love Boat.

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Justin Tan falling in love, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As Love Boat alumnus Justin Tan recalls,

“While I was there, I just remember I felt a very deep connection to Taiwan. I was like, ‘What is happening to me right now? Am I falling in love with this country?’ And I was, I was absolutely like falling in love with the culture, the people. To me at that time in my life it was like the coolest country ever, the Taiwanese were the coolest people ever.”

 

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Congresswoman Judy Chu, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As a content producer for the popular website buzzfeed.com, Justin Tan has a significant platform for boosting his love for Taiwan, thus increasing Taiwan’s pull on cultural trends. Perhaps more significantly to Taiwan’s government, other Love Boat alumni have risen to political influence in the US, including Congresswoman Judy Chu, who went on the Love Boat in the 1970s. She now represents the 27th Congressional district in the US House of Representatives and is a staunch supporter of Taiwan, sitting on the Congressional Taiwan Caucus. Congresswoman Chu was interviewed for LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN and will appear in the finished film.

So although it may seem like an innocuous place for Taiwanese American kids to hook up and party, in fact the Love Boat is a much more subtle and clever tool in Taiwan’s diplomatic arsenal. Lacking the economic, political, or military sway of China, Taiwan instead has chosen to achieve influence by other means. By examining the Love Boat’s efforts to win over young, impressionable Taiwanese Americans and their families, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN enlightens and educates viewers about this brilliant and subtle form of soft power diplomacy.

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On location, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN is about to wrap up production, with a shoot in Taiwan in late November of the wedding banquet of a couple who met on the Love Boat and are now getting married. We’re now in the thick of an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for postproduction and with luck the film will be completed in 2019. We need to raise at least $20,000 to hire an editor, sound designer, composer, computer graphics designer, and more, so please go here to join in supporting the film and to bring this important story to the screen. Any help is much appreciated!

October 31, 2018 at 6:11 pm 4 comments

Comes and Goes: Hyukoh at the UC Theater

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Rock, Hyukoh, UC Theater 2018. Photo: Matthew Abaya

Because BTS is currently winning at life, South Korean music agencies are sending all the acts they can over to the US to play live shows, throwing them against the wall to see if they’ll stick. This means that even the mediocre and derivative Kpop idol group Day6 is getting a North America tour, as well as South Korean dance groups like Got7 and Monsta X. Luckily, this also means that some more interesting Korean acts are also showing up stateside, including rockers Hyukoh, who recently played the UC Theater in Berkeley.

Hyukoh is billed as an indie group but that’s a bit of a misnomer, strictly speaking. They came up through the ranks in the clubs of Seoul’s Hongdae district but they’re now signed to HIGHGRND, a subsidiary of one of the biggest agencies in South Korea, YG Entertainment, which also handles the mega-super group BIGBANG. But Hyukoh’s style definitely owes a lot to the indie sound, as it leans more toward guitar-based rock than the techno EDM sound of their famous labelmates. This was in full effect at their show at the UC, a sold-out event that was packed with Asian rock aficionados of all stripes.

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Oh Hyuk, UC Theater, 2018. photo: Laurel Nakamura

Hyukoh’s been making their way across North America since mid-September and will have played a grueling seventeen shows in less than a month by the time the exit the continent on October 9. Led by frontman Oh Hyuk, the four-man band has the standard two guitar/bass/drums rock band configuration and for the most part their sound doesn’t stray far from rock conventions. What sets them apart is Oh Hyuk’s rich, growly voice and his quirky compositions, both on display at their UC show.

They began the show with a couple of their trademark emo tunes, but quickly transitioned to a set of heavier tunes that showcased their rock chops. This included Wanli, which consists of four repeated lines of Mandarin lyrics over a crashing cymbals and driving pentatonic guitar riff. They also performed my personal favorite, the jazzy uptempo jam Comes and Goes, with Oh Hyuk’s fluid and flexible tenor moving up and down his range over the confident jamming of the rest of the band.

Other highlights included their 2017 hit Tomboy, which demonstrates their more sensitive side. A delicate and emotional ballad, the song’s plaintive lament filled the UC to the rafters, with rapturous audience members crooning along to the hooky chorus.

For all of their intensity Hyukoh still remained on the mellower side of the rock spectrum, and if I have any complaint about their otherwise stellar performance it would be that it was a bit too detached for someone like myself who prefers live shows to burn hot, not slow. But for the rest of the adoring crowd Hyukoh was perfect, and everyone left the show smiling and pleased.

NOTE: In its past life the UC Theater was the movie theater where I cut my teeth on Hong Kong films every Thursday night back in the nineties and where I started my interest in Asian pop culture. So it was fun to revisit my old haunts all these years later—full circle indeed.

October 9, 2018 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

Remake/Re-Model: Alifu the Prince/ss at the Mill Valley Film Festival

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Fierce, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

Taiwan is perhaps the most queer-friendly territory in Asia, with very liberal laws that will most likely lead to the island nation to be the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in a couple years. That tolerance and welcoming for all types of sexualities is reflected in Alifu The Prince/ss, a great little movie about the various shades of queerness in Taiwan.

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Quotidian, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

The film focuses on a small group of gender non-conforming people in Taipei, centering around Alifu, the son of a Paiwan tribal leader (one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups) who is also considering gender-reassignment surgery. Alifu lives and works in Taipei as a hairdresser and the film follows their daily life in Taiwan’s capital city.

The relationship between Bamboo Chen as Sherry, a transgender woman, and Wu Peng-fang as Wu, her gruff but loving friend, also form a small but significant part of the film. Their relationship also delineates the fluidity of gender and sexuality as the longstanding platonic partners demonstrate another point along the spectrum of human relationships and identities. The film also includes short bits at the bar that Sherry and Wu own and featuring some of Taipei’s drag performers, including an ex-pat het Aussie, which reps the complexities of the city’s genderfluid community.

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Serene, Alifu The Prince/ss, 2017

Director Wang Yu-lin gets great performances out of his cast of younger as well as veteran actors and Bamboo Chen won Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Golden Horse Awards for his role as Sherry. The film’s camerawork is also quite beautiful, creating a serene, quotidian portrait of Taiwan. Wang never allows the film to become overly melodramatic despite the various conflicts and dilemmas it presents, instead opting for a more naturalistic, somewhat observational style.  The dialog, in Taiwanese Hokkien/Hoklo, Mandarin, and a bit of English, is also a nod toward Taiwan’s great cultural and linguistic diversity. Although the development of the key relationship between two of the main characters seems a bit contrived, it allows the film to conclude on an idyllic and optimistic note on a beautiful Taiwan beach.

Alifu The Princ/ess shows at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, which is also including a boatload of other great Asian films including Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, Shoplifters, Jia Zhanke’s Ash Is The Purest White, and Burning, South Korea’s Academy Award entry starring The Walking Dead’s Steve Yeun and directed by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy; Poetry). I’m heading across the Golden Gate Bridge to see these if I can, because Asian movies on the big screen are life.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct. 4-14, 2018

various venues

October 5, 2018 at 4:58 pm Leave a comment

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