Rebel Without A Pause: Why we need GOOK

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The Korean American view, GOOK, 2017

Just caught a matinee of Justin Chon’s film GOOK at the Alamo Drafthouse here in San Francisco. Although the movie is a bit rough around the edges for the most part it’s an absorbing and successfully mounted film that focuses on the Korean American perspective of a particularly fraught moment in US history.

The film follows Eli and Daniel, a pair of Korean American brothers who run a small and funky shoe store in Paramount, an incorporated area bordering South Central Los Angeles. It’s set during the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of the four LAPD officers caught on camera beating unarmed motorist Rodney King, but most of that action takes place offscreen. Instead the film miniaturizes the conflicts that occurred during that time, focusing on a small group of individuals repping for the entire city of Los Angeles. Several times characters refer to action taking place in South Central but aside from a few digitally added columns of smoke on the distant horizon we don’t actually see any widespread violence. This is no doubt in part due to the film’s indie budget which probably precluded any large-scale set pieces of buildings on fire or shit getting fucked up. So we get a couple broken windows, some beatdowns, a few guns being fired into the air, and other incidents that gesture toward the greater unrest without actually staging any of the mass devastation and destruction that took place during that time.

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Time and place, GOOK, 2017

Justin Chon does a good job with his actors (himself included) and demonstrates that he has an eye for time and place in the worn-out, working class neighborhood he places his story in. He’s also got the 1990s kicks fetish down pat as one of the narrative threads turns on the acquisition of several pairs of expensive sneakers. The film’s art direction also works hard, with baggy jeans, overalls, and asymmetrical jheri-curl hairstyles capturing the period’s fashion sensibilities. Although I have some issues with the resolution of the character arc of Kamilla, the young African American teen who befriends Eli and Daniel, for the most part Chon directs with a steady hand and maintains a tone of tense wariness in the film’s multiethnic milieu.

And like MOONLIGHT, which the film in some way resembles, there are no white people in the movie, which attests to the racial and social stratification that led to the explosion of tensions in 1992 following the verdict that acquitted Officers Powell, Wind, Koons, and Briseno of beating Rodney King. Instead the film tells its story from a Korean American POV, one which has for the most part been lacking in mainstream depictions of the 1992 unrest. This omission is especially glaring considering the fact that the Korean American community suffered huge property losses during the unrest and that sa-i-gu, or April 29, is considered a watershed moment in the Korean American community.

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Important, GOOK, 2017

Even in the 21st century the focus on a Korean American perspective is especially important, and this was all the more apparent to me after watching the ads and trailers that preceded GOOK’s screening at the Alamo. The cinema is a hipster haven located in what used to be a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and I counted exactly one non-white person in the many trailers for the various indie films in the upcoming schedule. Likewise, the ironic midcentury aesthetic of the found footage in-house announcements were decidedly not very diverse. One short clip featured an all-white group of young people from the early 1960s dancing to African American style choreography. This moment was presented without a hint of irony and its glaring cultural appropriation felt decidedly tone-deaf.

So even though I feel like I say this a lot, it clearly bears repeating. Unconscious Eurocentric bias makes it all the more important to support films like GOOK. Now more than ever, as Trumpism threatens to turn back the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement and its struggles for equality and social justice, we have to keep decentering the master narratives of white hegemony and bring Asian American voices to the fore.

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September 5, 2017 at 4:23 am 2 comments

Lucid Dream: Randall Okita’s THE LOCKPICKER and Asian American Narrative Films

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Apart from the pack The Lockpicker, 2016

It’s been nearly twenty years since the New York Times declared that 1998 was the year of Generasian X filmmakers, following an uptick that year in narrative feature films by Asian Americans. Since that time uncountable Asian American filmmakers have released narrative features, including Justin Lin’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, Gene Cayajon’s THE DEBUT, and Jennifer Phang’s ADVANTAGEOUS, to name just a few. So by now Asian Americans have pretty much mastered the art of the commercial narrative feature film.

So what separates Randall Okita’s feature film debut, THE LOCKPICKER, from the pack? While there are certainly Asian American features that are more artistically innovative, too often they simply rehash Hollywood filmmaking conventions. I like seeing Asian Americans in romantic comedies or horror movies as much as the next person but I want see some filmic inventiveness in the mix as well. On that count THE LOCKPICKER delivers, as it differs in both style and execution from a lot of the product coming from Asian American directors these days.

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Emotionally true, The Lockpicker, 2016

Okita created the film, which follows the everyday experiences of a solitary teenager, in collaboration with students at a Toronto-area high school and most of the performers are first-time actors. This includes the film’s lead actor, Keigian Umi Tang, whose performance is as emotionally true and vibrant as anything I’ve seen on screen lately. Okita’s collaborative and improvisational filmmaking style leads to a textured and nuanced portrait of teen despair that rings truer than most cinematic depictions of adolescence.

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Rollercoaster, The Lockpicker, 2016

The film’s somewhat unstructured narrative also echoes the mercurial rollercoaster of teen life, where every event is potentially calamitous and every encounter can explode into violence. Yet despite its fraught subject matter the film is understated and finely drawn. Okita brings a layer of sensitivity and subtlety to a potentially overwrought subject matter that’s rare and notable, especially for a debut feature. The film represents a step forward in the development of Asian American filmmaking.

NOTE: I use the term Asian American filmmaking as a genre, not a geographic locator, since Okita’s film is set in Canada.

The Lockpicker | Official Trailer | HD from Randall Lloyd Okita on Vimeo.

originally posted on in media res: a media commons project

July 31, 2017 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

Wake Up, Wake Up: CNBLUE live at Budokan concert review

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Fangirling, Shake Shake, CNBLUE at Budokan, May 17-18, 2017

I recently joined the cult of CNBLUE so when I lived this spring in Hong Kong I made a side trip to Tokyo to attend my very first CNBLUE concerts. For the dedicated CNBLUE fanbase, going to a live show is like making a pilgrimage to Mecca and the band is famed for putting on amazing performances. I’m happy to report that they did not disappoint. They demonstrated exactly why their live shows are so popular, as they are consummate musicians and showmen.

The concerts were held at Nippon Budokan, the music hall in Tokyo that’s hosted many a legendary show. CNBLUE plays there on the regular and they clearly understand the significance of performing in that hallowed venue. On Day One they came onstage with guns blazing, playing an incredibly explosive set of high-energy songs including their latest Korean single BETWEEN US, followed in quick succession by RADIO, PUZZLE, and I’M SORRY, which are some of their fastest paced and hardest rocking tracks. This combination was ridiculously incendiary, and there was an unbelievable amount of energy crackling off the stage. Band leader Jung Yonghwa was obviously hyped up as he seemed to literally burst onto the stage and continually ran around and jumped up and down nonstop for those first twenty minutes, soaking through his shirt by the third song. At several points it seemed like he would bounce off the stage he was so excited.

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Incendiary, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

Following this rock-based opening they rapidly switched gears, going into an EDM-based set that showed off their recent forays into electronica. One of the things that makes CNBLUE concerts work so well is the pacing and the attention to detail in the set list, as well as the way that the band seamlessly integrates the elements of each song. In this set during the smexy midtempo dance track WHEN I WAS YOUNG guitarist Lee Jonghyun played a riff from SUPERNOVA, the song that immediately followed, which musically linked the two songs and created a seamless transition between them. The song immediately following SUPERNOVA was DOMINO and it was interesting to hear the two songs back-to-back since they share a similar chord structure. However, they sound quite different from each other, again demonstrating wide CNBLUE’s musical range. While DOMINO is a spare, synthesizer-based, beat-heavy track, SUPERNOVA is more lush and trip-hoppy.

The band also keeps things fresh by re-arranging their hits and adding in songs they’ve never played live before and this tour is no exception. Old favorites I’M SORRY, IN MY HEAD, and FEELING all got makeovers, and two older songs from their back-catalog, STILL and ANGEL, made their live-show premieres. They also played two different set lists on each of the two nights, for a total of 28 different songs over the two nights. This prodigious amount of music kept both the band and the audience on their toes and with encores both shows ran nearly three hours each.

Post-show, rotating stage, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 18, 2017

Despite the length and intensity of the performances the band did a great job keeping the energy level quite high throughout both nights. After literally hundreds of live shows both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are pros so they are all about sustaining their voices and not running out of steam. There were definitely moments where Yonghwa passed up on a really high note and let the backing track or the backup vocals carry on. This allowed him to save his voice for the more high-impact moments like his famous high-pitched wail at the end of I’M SORRY, which brought the house down, or the impossibly long sustained note at the crescendo of CAN’T STOP. CNBLUE is literally in it for the long run, both in their concerts and in their career, so it’s all about creating a great show, not necessarily showing off vocal gymnastics. Yonghwa has blown out his voice at least once before in past years so he’s learned how to pace himself, and now he knows how to give just enough to make songs work.

Which is not to say that he didn’t put out a huge amount of energy in both of the shows. On the first day his shirt was soaked through almost from the start because he was belting out songs and playing guitar and piano as well as tossing the mic in the air and running around the stage nonstop. He is very light on his feet and made an amusing show of tiptoeing around the various speakers and monitors around the stage, doing little dances, running all over the main and extended stages, and leaping up and down onto the stage, the risers, and into the walkways between the stage and the audience.

Beauty queen, Shake Shake, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia&chifang

Yonghwa also took full advantage of the round revolving center stage, at times perching on the edge like a beauty queen as it spun slowly around, the audience egging him on as he waved and posed. Although security guards shadowed his every move in case any overly enthusiastic audience member decided to jump the barriers and do a tackle, Yonghwa seemed to trust the audience, as if he realizes that he has nothing to fear from his fans. The other band members are also comfortable and charismatic onstage as well, showing their veteran performance chops even in a large venue like Budokan.

Unlike their appearances on South Korea’s televised music shows, it was also clear at Budokan that they were playing live, although some songs that featured strings or synthesizers had backing tracks. In particular Lee Jonghyun’s guitar was mixed up nice and high so his crisp, precise guitar runs came through loud and clear. Drummer Kang Minhyuk is also a monster, with the ability to range from hard rock to more delicate and subtle pop songs. He also works the electronic drum pads really well, seamlessly integrating his technique into the more EDM-esque tunes. Lee Jungshin is solid on the bass, and he and Minhyuk make up a strong, versatile rhythm section. Yonghwa held it down on rhythm guitar, though there were several times he sang without an instrument, the better to run around the stage.  He also played synthesizer and piano and his piano intros were particularly lovely to hear.

Interestingly, the setlists from the two nights didn’t include any ballads, as most of the songs were mid to uptempo, ranging from melodious EDM-laced tunes to hardcore rock songs. What they also did not include either night were some of the more downbeat and introspective tunes they’d played in last year’s tours, including ROYAL RUMBLE, YOUNG FOREVER, and BE ALRIGHT. They seem to be emphasizing the positive these days and looking forward again, whereas during OUR GLORY DAYS, the tour immediately following last year’s controversy, they still seemed be processing the entire ordeal.

The wave, Shake Shake, CNBLUE  live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

The shows at Budokan were very collaborative between the audience and the band and in that way differed from most other live shows I’ve been to, which are mostly one-sided affairs with the performer performing and the audience listening. Aside from the requisite “throw your hands up” there’s not a huge amount of interplay at your standard rock concert. At CNBLUE’s Budokan shows the audience became an integral part of the performance, with band members spending long swaths of time talking directly to the audience (Yonghwa in particular seemed to enjoy sharing his thoughts) and with the audience singing along to every song, and in many songs serving as the chorus. CNBLUE designs their songs with their live shows in mind and Yonghwa has stated that he writes some parts of his songs specifically for the audience to sing in concerts. The band also stopped playing music for a good ten minutes while they made the audience do the wave, which I hadn’t experienced at a music show before. Their level of interplay with the audience was probably the most interactive I’ve ever seen at a concert and the show felt like a true collaboration between the band and the audience.

There’s an art to writing a good set list and Yonghwa, who’s also in charge of this aspect of the show, has mastered this invisible but crucial aspect to their live shows as well. He’s clearly involved from the micro to the macro level of each show, from composing most of the songs to singing lead to playing multiple instruments.

Running the show, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 cr. celia& chifang

CNBLUE plays the concert hall, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 18, 2017 

But his real instrument is the audience, which he conducts like an orchestra. He often directly addressed them or prompted them to sing lines from songs or to cheer or clap along. Probably the most extreme example of this was the call-and-response portion of WAKE UP. While the trusty Kang Minhyuk kept a rapid beat on the bass drum Yonghwa played a variety of licks on his guitar that the audience then mimicked. He also shouted, whispered, shrieked, and screamed the song’s refrain and the audience likewise echoed him. This went on for a good ten minutes, with Yonghwa making the audience roar or fall completely silent with just a gesture. It’s an amazing thing to witness his ability to bring a full house of 15,000 people to complete silence or complete chaos by merely waving his hands. He plays the concert hall like a fiddle.

Yonghwa takes control, FOXY, CNBLUE live at Budukan, May 17, 2017. cr. silodoan

Yonghwa also runs the show onstage as well. Videos clearly show him directing the band on stage and he frequently cues the his bandmates by calling their names or gesturing or nodding toward them, and you can see their non-verbal communication throughout the show. During the intro to FOXY, when Yonghwa sensed that the audience wasn’t hyped up enough he elevated the mood by bellowing “FIRE!” making the energy in the arena immediately shoot up and creating a lot of heat between the band and the audience.

Yonghwa has a performance style that switches from playful and cheeky to focused and intense in a split second. What makes this so brilliant is that he understands that it’s all a performance and that he’s playing the part of “rock star.” That doesn’t keep him from making it the best rock star performance ever, but he follows some of his most clichéd moves such as lying flat on his back playing his guitar or belting out an octave-jumping wail with a broad smile and laughter. He’s completely meta as Yonghwa the star, and in that way he’s in line with artists such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince, all of whom understood the performativity of their roles, or what music scholar David Shumway calls “the constructedness of the rock star and the crafting of the rock performance.” Shumway was talking about Bowie but he could easily be referring to Yonghwa as well.

Precision, CNBLUE live at Budokan, May 17, 2017

In some ways CNBLUE carries a particularly Kpop aesthetic into its concerts, which means, not unlike the highly choreographed dancing Kpop is famous for, that they are incredibly precise with their performances. The Budokan shows ran like a well-oiled machine and when they were truly locked in their performances soared. This was evident in their seamless renditions of songs such as RADIO, a fast-paced tune that relies on rapid-fire vocal swapping and complex breaks and meter shifts. That they could effortlessly perform this song with such meticulous coordination, with Yonghwa additionally climbing on top of his piano, running up and down the length of the stage, and leaping over amps and monitors, is a testament to their musical virtuosity. After touring intensively for so many years CNBLUE can probably play some of their songs in their sleep by now, but instead of becoming lackadaisical or rote their shows have only increased in ferocity, which was clearly evident at Budokan.

I credit that in no small part to Yonghwa’s drive and vision as a leader, and CNBLUE’s committment to their craft. They’ve taken what could have been an ordinary Kpop group and turned it into a real musical entity. CNBLUE is smart and dedicated enough to follow Yonghwa’s lead and they’ve spoken in the past of how they draw inspiration from him and emulate him, challenging themselves to be the best that they can be. Having a visionary leader, whether in sports or music or any other practice that requires teamwork and dedication, is a wondrous thing that can make individuals push themselves beyond their perceived limitations. CNBLUE has that leader, who is willing to work beyond his limits and constantly change and evolve. This is a true gift, and to be able to inspire others to do well is a rare gift as well.

However, Yonghwa would be nothing without his bandmates, which was abundantly clear in the Budokan shows where CNBLUE worked together as a unit and where each element was indispensable to the success of the performance. When they were locked in they were a powerhouse, on both the high-energy rock songs such as IN MY HEAD or I’M SORRY, as well the more introspective tunes like the gorgeous duet LIE. Anyone who thinks that Yonghwa can be as effective without his mates has no comprehension of how a band works or how music is created collaboratively. It’s the synthesis of the individual parts meshing together that makes successful music, and CNBLUE demonstrates that most ably. They are a team, a band, a group, not just individuals who happen to play under the same banner, and the way that they perform together seamlessly has been honed over almost a decade of working with each other, living with each other, and getting to know each other. It’s not something that can be replicated with anonymous session players or interchangeable studio musicians. Each supports the other and the beauty of their music is the interplay between them. Although Yonghwa has had a successful and acclaimed solo release (with his second due in July), and Jonghyun has also released a solo album, their work with CNBLUE is remarkable, significant and unique. This kind of magical synergy only comes from musicians who are deeply in sync with each other and who are dedicated to their music.

Burning down the house, CNBLUE live in Seoul June 5, 2017

CNBLUE just played a pair of live shows in Seoul, after an absence from the stage in South Korea of more than a year and a half, and by all reports those concerts were a whole nother level of explosiveness. While they certainly left it all out on the stage in the shows I saw in Japan, apparently in Seoul they completely burned down the house in front of their hometown audience. Local critics marveled at the dynamic energy of their performances and observed that they have moved beyond simply being an idol group and are true musicians and artists now. CNBLUE also created a lot of buzz at their recent appearance at KCON in New York, which may plant the seed for a broader international audience base.

This is a good sign and hopefully will enable them to grow beyond their KPop origins, which will most definitely aid in their longevity. Band leader Yonghwa has also started to diversify his financial interests, investing in an expensive retail building in the tony Cheongdongdam district in Seoul and establishing his own entertainment company. These steps will enable them to escape the clutches of FNC, their management agency, once their contract expires in 2021 and once they’ve all completed their mandatory military duties. Along with their innate talent, their increasing musical and performing skills, and their tenacity and hard work, this may enable them to play together for many years to come.

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 am 10 comments

Cinémania: 2017 Hong Kong International Film Festival part one

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Human horror, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

I’ve been in Hong Kong for more than a month now on the second leg of my Fulbright Fellowship for Love Boat: Taiwan and I’ve been taking advantage of as much of the city as I can. I scheduled my visit to coincide with the start of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and I managed to catch a whole slew of screenings during the run of the festival. HKIFF has a full slate of international offerings but as an Asian film fanperson I focused mostly on films from that region, with a couple of notable exceptions.

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Koo jai, Hong Kong International Film Festival opening night, 2017

I started my HKIFF journey as a press member on the red carpet for the opening night film, Love Off The Cuff. The event was surprisingly not that glamorous, in part because the latest crop of Hong Kong movie actors don’t have the shine of the legendary performers of yore. Although Miriam Yeung, Shawn Yu, and Louis Koo added some star power, somehow Elena Kong and Stephanie Au are just not in the same league as Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat or Andy Lau.

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Susan Shaw Siu Yam-Yam kills it, Hong Kong International Film Festival opening night, 2017

The awesome Susan Shaw Siu Yam-Yam killed it on the red carpet, however, showing the young ones how it’s done.

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Anthony Wong Chau-sang up close and personal, Hong Kong International Film Festival. 2017

I also got to breathe the same air as Anthony Wong Chau-sang a bit later in the festival, so that was pretty exciting. Anthony’s definitely got some presence, and I was amused to note his beautiful manicure with clear glossy nail polish. Alas, Francis Ng was not among the stars making an appearance at the festival this year so my fangirl day of reckoning still has to wait.

Here are capsule reviews of some of the films I saw:

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Jimmy & Cherie continued, Love Off The Cuff, 2017

Love Off The Cuff, 2017, dir. Pang Ho-Cheung,This is the third installment of the popular franchise that started with Love In A Puff and continued with Love In The Buff. The film is the further adventures of Cherie and Jimmy, the on-again-off-again couple played by Miriam Yeung & Shawn Yue. Here the pair have settled down and cohabitated, but as usual they deal with issues in their romantic relationship. The film is somewhat loosely structured and banks a lot on chemistry between the two lead actors, which fortunately is very strong. Miriam and Shawn feel like they know each other intimately and they’re very comfortable together onscreen. The movie includes a lot of Pang Ho-Cheung filmmaking tics, including fantasy sequences, big rubber monsters, vulgarity and profanity, poop jokes, condom jokes, blowjob jokes, pubic hair jokes and jokes about Miriam Yeung’s glorious colored hair. Unlike Love In The Buff, which was partially set in Beijing, this film very rooted in Hong Kong, as expressed in the abundance of local slang and the familiarity with Hong Kong’s everyday culture.

The film’s need to create dramatic tension relies on a questionable misunderstanding that hinges on Cherie’s ongoing relationship anxiety, but after many years together, what seemed realistically cautious seven years ago now just feels neurotic and needy on Cherie’s part. Jimmy character has grown but Cherie’s character is stuck and unable to move on. The movie also suggests that her anxiety is all based on her ticking maternity clock, which feels a bit retro in the 21st century. All in all the film is not quite as fun and kicky as the first installment and not as complex and angsty as the second, but it’s still pretty amusing.

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Bad romance, 77 Heartbreaks, 2017

77 Heartbreaks, 2017, dir. Herman Yau

77 Heartbreaks features a similar couple dynamic to Love Off The Cuff, featuring a responsible woman fed up with her childlike boyfriend. I had a bit of a hard time believing that the lead pair in the movie really dated for ten years, since Charlene Choi seems really young and Pakho Chau looks like he’s a 24-year-old skateboarder, not a lawyer in his thirties. Herman Yau’s direction is professional and assured, of course, but the film doesn’t stray far from romantic dramedy conventions. In a brief performance Anthony Wong Chau-Sang boosts up the few scenes he’s in, making the movie come alive, but otherwise the film is somewhat glossy and superficial. Sadly, since I had jet lag I nodded off during the most important part of the movie, which was an extended cameo by Francis Ng. Sometimes I just can’t catch a break.

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Just kiss already, Soul Mates, 2016

Soul Mates, 2016, dir. Derek Tsang

This is a Hong Kong-China co-production that feels Taiwanese, except without the unrestrained sexuality of the best Taiwanese romantic dramas. The film includes a very circumspect love triangle, including hints of curiously muffled same-sex attraction. No lesbians wanted in this co-production, despite several scenes where the two leads discuss bra sizes and scrutinize each other’s boobs in the bathroom. I wanted to tell the girls to just kiss already, but there is no actual consummation of their very close relationship. Both of the young actresses are quite good, and the two won a rare (unprecedented?) shared Golden Horse award for Best Actress for their performances.

 

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Looking for peace, Mad World, 2016

Mad World, 2016, dir. Wong Chun

A drama that follows the relationship between a bipolar man and his long-estranged father, the film features excellent performances by Shawn Yue and Eric Tsang as the son and father. The film sustains its intensity throughout and is bleak and unrelenting without being oppressively so. Although there are several opportunities to do so the film never veers into melodrama, instead opting for a relatively unsensationalized look at mental illness and its stigma in Hong Kong. Charmaine Sheh also quite good as Shawn Yue’s girlfriend who self-medicates with Jesus.

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Passionate and relevant, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

I Am Not Your Negro, 2016, dir. Raoul Peck

Wow, mind blown—-a passionate, relevant, important piece of work.. This is amazing documentary stitches together Hollywood movies, archival footage, news footage, and the brilliant words of James Baldwin. Although Samuel L. Jackson’s reading of Baldwin’s words is excellent, the real Baldwin matches him with his fiery, intelligent, and articulate appearances, most significantly in a clip from the 1960s from The Dick Cavett Show. Given the horrific state of affairs in race relations in the U.S. right now, this film was almost too much for me to watch since it’s so, so relevant. Technically the film is a gem, with some really nice use of archival footage and Hollywood movies.

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Untold and unseen, The Salesman, 2016

The Salesman, 2016, dir. Asghar Farhadi

This is another brilliant drama from Asghar Farhadi, who won his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for this one. As in A Separation (2011), in this film Farhadi does an impeccable job demonstrating moral ambiguity and the impossibility of clearly delineating between good and bad. I love his use of architecture and the metaphor of a crumbling building to signify the shaky ethical grounds we all stand on in day-to-day life. Farhadi is the master of the untold and the unseen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks and speculate about the events of the narrative. This is smart, smart filmmaking, grounded in strong and passionate performances from the lead and supporting cast. What seems like a family melodrama becomes a metaphor for the moral and ethical challenges we all face in daily life.

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Wacky, What A Wonderful Family, 2016

What A Wonderful Family, 2016, dir. Yoji Yamada

Veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada’s slapstick comedy looks at the exploits of a wacky Tokyo family as they face an emotional crisis in their midst. The house was full with about 1500 people when I saw this and the audience loved this shtick, which was replete with poop jokes and a very slightly morbid sense of humor. This is probably not surprising coming from a territory that spawned Chicken and Duck Talk and Stephen Chow, as this film was a Japanese version of classic Cantonese comedies, with its focus on interpersonal foibles and bodily functions. More TV sitcom than deep cinematic experience, it was nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.

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Realization, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2016

Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2016, dir. João Botelho

This is a really nice essay film about the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira which was directed by one of Oliveira’s protégés. The film mixes up archival footage, and other cinematic flotsam in a fascinating and often unexpected way, seamlessly integrating into Oliveira’s own film work It concludes with a realization of Oliviera’s last unfinished script, a poignant rumination on the bitter life of a young prostitute.

 

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Burning silhouette, 1981

Ana Medieta short film programme, 1971-81, dir. Ana Mendieta

This program featured several short films by the late lamented Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. It’s nice to see some old-school experimental film/performance art in a major film festival so hat’s off to HKIFF for including this. The shorts showed a good range of Mendieta’s work, which only accentuates the tragedy of her early death (by falling out of a window after an argument with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre). Mendieta’s work is very kinetic, so seeing film documentation of her performances is very satisfying, especially those works involving fire. There’s something utterly fascinating about watching things burn.

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Cruelty, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017,

Mon Mon Mon Monsters 2017, Giddens Ko

My film festival viewings ended with the world premiere of Giddens Ko’s newest film and it did not disappoint. A teen drama cum horror movie, this is a harrowing piece of work that touches on bullying, peer pressure, and the depths of human inhumanity in a seemingly ordinary secondary school. Although this is clearly a commercial genre film Giddens manages to work up some truly horrifying moments of teenage cruelty. The conclusion of the film is a mic drop to end all mic drops. This one is destined to make a sensation all over the Asian box office.

May 14, 2017 at 4:44 am Leave a comment

When I See You I Can’t Breathe/I Need To See You To Breathe: CNBLUE’s 7°CN Album Review

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Rockin’ the EDM, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

CNBLUE’s latest Korean release, the six-song mini-album 7°CN, dropped on March 20 and it’s possibly the best thing they’ve put out in the past couple years. It’s also a giant step forward in their creative development, with the addition of electronic elements to their signature rock sound.

A few times in their career CNBLUE has made quantum leaps in their musical development and artistry. RE: BLUE, their first album that was completely self-composed, was an explosive and radical departure from their earlier, more KPop-styled Korean releases. Their 2014 Korean mini-album, Can’t Stop, also demonstrated massive growth in their musical development. With 7°CN the band once again has catapulted far beyond their preceding releases, opening up an almost unfathomable artistic distance between this album and their last one.

CNBLUE dipped its toes into EDM on their 2015 release 2gether, as well as on some of their Japanese albums (including the standout tracks Still and Radio, both from Wave), but with 7°CN they are all in on the electronica. Yet at the same time the band manages to retain a strong rock feel on the album, attesting to their increasing skill as composers, producers, and musicians. In this release they get some help from a new collaborator, US-based producer Justin Reinstein, whose past credits include Kpop acts Vixx and SF9, and Japanese pop legends Arashi, among others. Reinstein brings a glossy sheen to the record that brightens and freshens up the usual CNBLUE sound. The result is a strong new direction for the band that fits organically with their established sound.

There’s a definite sense of urgency in this release that was absent in their past few albums. On their last two Korean releases, 2gether and BLUEMING, band leader Jung Yonghwa seemed content to noodle around, experimenting with various styles and types of instrumentation, but this release has a laser focus to it. It’s almost as if Yonghwa has started to count down the days until his military enlistment (sometime in 2018) and he’s realized he has no time to waste any more.

This is very evident in the title track, Between Us (Korean title, Confused), which is a gorgeous, powerhouse piece of pop music. Here the urgency is particularly palpable as the songs starts in medias res, charging directly into the driving chorus before returning to the verse, as if Yonghwa doesn’t want to take any chances with losing listeners. Unlike the leisurely buildup of their 2014 track, Can’t Stop, which begins slowly and then gradually hit its full stride, Between Us goes straight for the jugular right away. The result is thrilling, and as the song builds the effect only becomes more exhilarating.

The track’s dense production includes both electronic drums and a trap set, roaring rock guitar licks, several layers of vocals, and a thundering bass line, creating a veritable wall of sound. This echoes the intensity of feeling expressed in the lyrics, which describe the uncertainty of a couple on the edge of falling in love. Interestingly, the lyrics were co-written by a woman, with some smartly expressed paradoxes including “when I see you I can’t breathe/I need to see you to breathe,” and the vulnerability in them is in sharp contrast to the strong downbeat and buzzy guitar riff that drive the song. Likewise, the slight discordance of the close harmonies in the final chorus underscores the confusion of the track’s Korean title.

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Exhilarating, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

As in the best CNBLUE tracks the small embellishments enhance the sound beautifully, such as the intricate piano and cymbal fills during the song’s pre-chorus. Also effective is the contrast between is the song’s quieter sections, including a couple smooth passages sung by Lee Jonghyun and a passionately belted bridge by Yonghwa, with the driving beat of the chorus. By the end of the track Yonghwa is wailing away in an ecstatic fervor, Kang Minhyuk’s drums are double-timing, the guitar and bass are blazing, and the entire song is clicking away on all cylinders. It’s an irresistible slice of pop music.

The second track, It’s You, leans more toward the pop side of things, and sounds a bit like some of the songs on CNBLUE’s last Japanese release EUPHORIA. But whereas that album’s production style is a stripped-down throwback to 1960s soul, here Yonghwa and co-writer and co-producer Reinstein fatten up the mix with finger-snapping, a hooky refrain, a bit of horns and piano, a brief rap in English, and the catchphrase “oh baby girl, it’s you,” as well as a smattering of synthesizer and some vocal processing. The result is a fresh, bouncy earworm of a track.

One of the pleasures of CNBLUE’s music is the interplay between Yonghwa’s and Jonghyun’s vocals and the third track, Calling You, is a stellar example of this. The song features the two singers effortlessly swapping lead vocals and kicking some gorgeous falsetto. The old-school Hammond organ and rhythmic, wah-wah pedal guitar riff, and some jazzy chromatic shifts add to the rich, fat sound of the track.

When I Was Young, the fourth track (composed by Jonghyun), is another standout cut. Once again liberally making use of the electronica side of the pop music spectrum, this sexy and slinky track mixes up trap beats, dubstep, and Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s smooth and effortless, soulful vocals. Yonghwa manages some of his most assured and inspired singing here, ranging from full-throated belting to sultry crooning. The lyrics belie the track’s smexy feel, however, as they are a lament to lost youth. Although heavy on the EDM, CNBLUE’s rock roots come through in the track’s anthemic chorus, a fuzzy, distorted guitar riff, and a deep deep bass line.

Bassist Lee Jungshin, who recently started publishing songs, adds another solid tune to his repertoire, the sweet uptempo ballad Manito (Secret Friend). Yonghwa makes great use of the song’s simplicity to improvise around and over its basic melody, showing off his ability to embellish and elevate a simple composition.

Closing out the EP is the Korean version of Royal Rumble, one of the standout tracks from EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s Japanese release from last fall. The track features a polyrhythmic Latin beat coupled with Yonghwa’s haunting vocals. Although both the Japanese and Korean lyrics follow the same basic premise, of the experiences of a fighter forced to do constant battle in a never-ending competition, the Korean lyrics are actually much bleaker than the Japanese translation. Whereas the tagline of the Japanese version ended with somewhat hopeful line “nevertheless I dream on,” the Korean version (which I assume Yonghwa directly wrote) has no such redemptive words, closing instead with “maybe I want to end it too.” I’m hoping Yonghwa means ending his musical career and not something even darker and more hopeless. The structure of the song also complements the despair of the lyrics as the beat of the song moves along briskly while the vocal line moves in half-time. During the verse Yonghwa sings slightly behind the beat, which also contributes to the sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In their seven-years-plus since their 2009 debut CNBLUE’s songcraft has become increasingly skillful in that time and both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are now masters of the three-minute pop song. Likewise, the demands of both their accelerated release schedule and their constant touring have strengthened their vocal technique. Yonghwa in particular is in another realm now with his varied and accomplished singing on every track. His voice is now incredibly strong and supple, ranging from a sultry purr in the lowest parts of his range on When We Were Young to a high tenor on Calling You and his passionate and expressive dynamics on Between Us are the engine that powers that song.

Ironically, even though this may be one of their strongest and most accomplished releases to date, its sales have been the poorest of their career in South Korea, their home country. The album has done well internationally, topping iTunes charts in nine countries around the world and garnering almost universally positive and in some cases rave reviews. Yet in South Korea CNBLUE continue to be prophets without honor in their own country as neither the song nor the album have been particularly well-received.

There are several reasons why this might be, chief amongst those being the fickle, youth-driven South Korean pop music market, as well as the lingering damage from the bad PR the band suffered last summer due to the incompetence of their agency, FNC entertainment, in the handling of insider-trading accusations. FNC also seems to have been caught by surprise with the middling reception of one of their headliner acts, as publicity and promotions in SK have been scanty. Recent CNBLUE releases have also had lackadaisical support from FNC but CNBLUE’s overall popularity during those times made up for the agency’s indifference. But after last summer’s controversy it’s a brand new world, and seven years in Kpop is an eternity, so even reliably popular senior groups like CNBLUE have been losing market share to the latest hot new acts.

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Slowly dawning, CNBLUE, Inkigayo, 2017

Watching CNBLUE make the rounds of the Kpop music shows this past week has been an interesting experience. Since their digital sales have been lower than usual they have no chance of winning any of the trophies on these programs, so their performances have been somewhat meaningless. Added to that is the fact that they are mostly hand-syncing on these programs—they certainly give it their best, but since they are used to the much more invigorating experience of playing live in their concerts, being on Kpop shows has got to be a little bit less than exciting for them. I think it’s starting to dawn on them that they might not need Kpop or commercial success in South Korea to keep making their music. They’ve topped charts all over Asia and have even cracked the Billboard Top Ten World Music charts with this release, so maybe South Korea is beginning to become irrelevant to them. Although it’s sad they’re not appreciated in their home country these may be the hard facts.

It may be the start of their transition from a Kpop group to a real touring band, which is probably better for them in the long run. Their abilities and appeal are undeniable so I hope they can expand their base beyond the unappreciative South Korea music market. I’ve been following popular music for decades and CNBLUE’s talent is a rare and special thing. CNBLUE creates pop of the highest order and it would be criminal for their surpassingly excellent music not to be heard and appreciated by a wider global audience.

Bonus beats: In case you need convincing that Between Us is a great song, here’s a piano cover of it. Even without all the fancy overdubs the bones of this tune are so solid. This is amazing songwriting, people. Listen and weep.

March 29, 2017 at 10:08 pm 3 comments

Keep Your Head To The Sky: 2017 CAAMfest

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Angsty emo, The Lockpicker, 2016

CAAMfest is just around the corner so I’m posting a few quick recos to help people wade through the massive program. As usual this year the festival is screening more than 100 films, plus music and food events, so finding your bliss can be a daunting process. Here are a few things that I’ve seen that I like. Get your tickets while they’re hot—they’re going fast!

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Wood paneling and wide ties, The Tiger Hunter, 2016

The Tiger Hunter, dir. Lena Khan

A sweet and amusing comedy set in the 1970s about an Indian guy who moves to the US to make his fortune, The Tiger Hunter is a crowd-pleaser that’s set as the CAAMfest opening night movie. Danny Pudi is appealing and genial as the son of the titular tiger hunter and the ensemble cast brings a goofy charm to the rest of the film. Speaking as someone who grew up in that inglorious decade I can also say that the 70s art direction is totally on point.

The Lockpicker, dir. Randall Okita

Randall Okita’s teen angst drama made my best-of list for 2016 and I’m sticking by that decision. Asian American narrative film directors have pretty much mastered the art of mimicking Hollywood movies these days, but The Lockpicker is a different animal altogether. Raw, unstructured, and brutally honest in its examination of some of the worst aspects of adolescence, the film is anchored by a charismatic and emo performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang. As I’ve said before, as a parent of teenagers this movie terrified me in its depiction of the casual cruelty of ennui-stricken youth.

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Sunkrish looking fly, Chee and T, 2016

Chee and T, dir. Tanuj Chopra

Tanuj Chopra’s latest flick is a wacky ride through the wilds of Palo Alto with a couple slightly sketchy desi dudes who exist on the fringes of Silicon Valley’s tech wonderland. Funny and frantic, with typical Tanuj Chopra hijinks including hallucinogenic drugs, ethically questionable characters, and surprising individuals who are not what they seem to be.

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Search for self, AKA Seoul, 2016

AKA Seoul, dir. Jon Maxwell

An intriguing look at the experiences of a handful of twentysomething Korean adoptees as they return to Seoul to search for some of the answers to their family histories. Along the way they discover that uncovering the truth may not always be the best way to determine your destiny and that detours don’t necessarily mean derailment on the track tracks of life (wut?).

Basha Man, dir. Daniel Chein

A perceptive look at the conflict between capital and culture, this short documentary profiles a young tour guide and performer in a small village in western China. The film explores the difficulties in maintaining a cultural heritage in a rapidly commodifying world.

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Francis cameo, Bruce Takes Dragon Town, 2015

Bruce Takes Dragon Town, dir. Emily Chao

Returning to Taiwan during Ghost Month takes on extra significance for a Taiwanese American filmmaker tracing her family’s migrations. This short experimental doc gets bonus points for featuring clips of the obscure Francis Ng film Banana Spirit.

It Is What It Is, dir. Cyrus Tabor

This short experimental documentary uses home movies, archival footage, and a personal narrative that attempts to unlock family secrets across generations and between continents. Dreamy, sad, and perplexing, with a blurry sheen of flawed memories that demonstrates the difficulties in finding the line between truth and fiction.

Death In A Day, dir. Lin Wang

A brief look at a significant moment in a young boy’s life, this sharply observed short narrative, told from the boy’s point of view, is full of subtlety and symbolism.

March 8, 2017 at 7:16 am Leave a comment

Pulling Mussels From A Shell: Cook Up A Storm movie review

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Testing the edge, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s latest vehicle, Cook Up A Storm (CUAS) opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a special effort to see it while it was still playing theatrically near me, thought that involved a 45-minute drive to Cupertino.

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Mano a mano, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The plot is simple: Developers sponsor Paul Ahn (Jung Yonghwa), a French-trained Michelin-starred chef, in opening Stellar, a fancy-ass restaurant directly opposite Seven, a local joint run by Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) that features down-home Chinese dishes. Of course conflict ensues between the Western-trained Paul and the self-taught traditionalist Sky. Adding to the mix is Sky’s angst over his messed-up relationship with his dad Mountain (the majestic Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Paul’s girlfriend/assistant Mayo (Michelle Bai Bing).

CUAS is paced like a Hong Kong movie, which means in and out in ninety minutes, and in this case this feels really fast. I used to really love the fevered pace of Hong Kong cinema but now that I’ve gotten used to the more leisurely running times of two-hour Korean and Chinese films, or the epic three-hour slogs from Bollywood, this seems almost too rapid.

Because of the bang-bang pace of the film things feel like they’re being told in shorthand, with character development and relationships rapidly sketched out. You almost have to be psychic to realize that Paul is dating Mayo, which is indicated in a few incredibly brief shots of them holding hands and some lingering glances (apparently the steamier scenes between them ended up on the cutting room floor). The relationship between Sky and his dad fares slightly better, but only because as one of the film’s main conflicts it gets a fair amount of screen time.

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Staredown, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The showdowns between Sky and Paul are likewise quite rapid, with the most effective one taking place in Paul’s gorgeously appointed high-tech restaurant kitchen. Here the characters are allowed to play off of each other a bit more and the scenario has a chance to breathe a bit, unlike some of the rapid-fire sequences that take place elsewhere in the film. It helps that Nic Tse and Yonghwa have a good onscreen rapport, with Yonghwa in particular doing a great job fleshing out his character with a minimum of dialog.

In some ways the film seems to struggle between wanting to be an out-and-out Hong Kong movie and needing to court the huge PRC market. Aspects of the film that harken back to Hong Kong films of yore include the wacky costuming of some of the supporting characters, including a pair of dudes with dyed yellow fringes and the oversized glasses and frizzy hair on Tiffany Tang, as well as a subtext about gentrification and the loss of local culture to Western capital. But some key characters are underdeveloped, including Bai Bing’s Mayo, who needs to be more overtly sinister than she actually ends up being. Here a bit more of Hong Kong cinema’s over-the-top aesthetic might have served better, as Mayo is flat and one-dimensional instead of truly venal or vicious.

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Ge You, chops, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Anthony Wong’s Mountain Ko is similarly underwritten but King Anthony makes it work by sheer dint of his monumental acting skilz. Likewise veteran Chinese actor Ge You makes a good impression, though his part is also only briefly defined. The two old hands have a great throwaway moment in a pool hall where they clearly delineate their competitive brotherhood through just a few subtle gestures, which goes to show how acting chops can elevate a movie beyond superficiality. Alas, these moments are hard to find in the rest of the movie.

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Yonghwa cooking with gas, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Still, as a food-porn movie the film does a good job. The food photography is quite beautiful and in particular the scenes where we follow both Paul and Sky creating their signature dishes are a lot of fun to watch. This may be due to the fact that Nic Tse is a foodie chef in real life and he prepped most of the food himself, so he seems to have a true appreciation for the way that cooking actually works. Yonghwa also acquits himself well in the cooking sequences since he looks like he knows his way around all of the high-tech gear that Paul uses. I especially enjoyed watching Paul create a fancy foie gras dish that illuminated the process as well as the product. At one point Paul adds a bit of sorbet onto the top of a dish and we see him warming the spoon slightly in order to get the frozen scoop to release cleanly, a small detail that nonetheless adds an interesting touch of realism to the proceedings.

Nic Tse wears the same grimy plaid shirt and greasy bandana through most of the film, telegraphing Sky’s realness and street cred. In contrast, Yonghwa’s flawless face and impeccable chef’s uniform add to the impression of the all-around slickness of Stellar. Yonghwa is confident and believable as a high-end chef in a fancy upscale restaurant–he knows he’s good and he’s not afraid to show it. As the leader of CNBLUE Yonghwa has a lot of swagger and he brings that swag to his portrayal of Paul, though not so much that he becomes obnoxious or overbearing. More significantly, as Paul gradually comes to appreciate the joys of Sky’s simpler cooking aesthetic, Yonghwa communicates this transformation through subtle facial expressions and physical gestures. Even though Yonghwa speaks no Chinese he succeeds in imparting Paul’s intentions non-verbally, effectively playing off of his co-stars despite the language barrier.

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Nic knife, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The whole thing is very beautiful and fun to experience but ultimately a bit superficial. I wonder if a slightly less frenetic pace might have aided the film’s exposition, but director Raymond Yip, a Hong Kong movie stalwart, seems to want to breeze through as many plot points as possible in the film’s ninety-minute running time. The result is a fun romp that could have benefitted from slowing down and adding a few more details and more character development to the proceedings. Still, it’s a good-natured and pleasant timepass. To use a sports metaphor for a food movie, the film didn’t knock it out of the park, but it didn’t strike out either.

NOTE: Originally meant for release in China during the Spring Festival/Lunar New Year holiday, CUAS was pushed back a couple weeks to avoid direct competition with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (JTTW2), Kung Fu Yoga, and a slew of other films that came out during that time. This was smart in some ways because JTTW2 has become one of the highest grossing films of all time in China, but it also means that CUAS didn’t have the no-Hollywood movies ban protecting it, in which China keeps Western films out of theaters during Spring Festival in order make room for local productions. As a result CUAS directly faced the release of the slick Hollywood production xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which features popular Chinese stars Kris Wu and Donnie Yen. Because of this, as well as so-so word of mouth and the fact that most Chinese were back at work and not going to movies once the film came out, box office for CUAS in China was thus reduced somewhat. Nonetheless CUAS managed to break the RMB100 million mark and its gross in China now stands at around RMB114 million, or around USD16 million. But unfortunately the production costs of the film were around USD34 million, so unless it does phenomenally well in other territories the film won’t make back its original budget.

UPDATE: More than a year after its initial theatrical release, COOK UP A STORM has become a bit of a viral sensation on various social media platforms. On several facebook posts alone the film has many thousands of views and shares. So although the film only did middling business when played in cinemas in China it’s gotten a new lease on life online. The best things in life are free–

February 19, 2017 at 1:54 am 4 comments

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