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

By storm, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzziest, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Changing culture, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Rose is currently showing at theaters across the US.

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

If This Was A Movie: October Film Festival roundup

On trend, CAAMfest Forward Drive-In night

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

Charming, Definition Please, 2020

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

Emotionality, Coming Home Again, 2020

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

Streetwise, Takeout Girl, 2020

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

Fun and kicky, Chosen Fam, 2020

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

Sharky, Bulge Bracket, 2020

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

Ruby, 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, 2020

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

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

Skillful, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, 2020

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

Legendary, Road to Ladakh, 2003

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

October 15, 2020 at 7:48 am Leave a comment

Don’t Say Goodbye: Favorite CNBLUE live performances

I just published Have A Good Night: CNBLUE, Band Music, and the Uses of Live Performance in K-pop, my first article in the burgeoning field of CNBLUE studies, in the book The Future of Live Music (Bloomsbury, 2020) and to celebrate that achievement as well as to give the article more context I came up with a list of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.

Since CNBLUE is in the midst of reconfiguring from a quartet to a trio and since I wrote the article prior to that in 2019, this post is a bit of a time capsule. The band members were in the army from 2018-2020 and haven’t released any new music since 2017, but more significantly, they had a bad breakup with their guitarist Lee Jonghyun in 2019 due to his involvement with various controversies, so the band is definitely in transitional mode. But their live shows are legendary and as I wrote in my Bloomsbury essay, “In some ways CNBLUE’s drive to excel as live musicians stems from these early perceptions as they have striven to prove their musical legitimacy despite their idol roots.” Since then they’ve gone far beyond that early expectation and have become one of the premiere live performing acts in the world.

With the departure of Jonghyun, who wrote and sang many of their classic songs and whose guitar playing was an indispensable element of their singular sound, CNBLUE is a now different band than the one that performed in the clips below. But nonetheless this post is a tribute rather than an elegy to their prodigious output in the past ten years, as the remaining three members have promised to continue on. As I researched this post I realized that the setlist from one of their classic concerts from 2012, 392 Live, is almost completely different than their setlist from their last tour, Starting Over, in 2017, with only four songs overlapping in both shows. This indicates that although it won’t be easy to move on without Jonghyun, they are capable of remaking themselves almost completely and starting fresh with new material. I’m optimistic that once COVID-19 restrictions on live performances begin to ease up, CNBLUE will resume touring and will light up the sky again with their live shows.

It was pretty challenging narrowing down the list to just 15 clips and in truth the best way to experience CNBLUE live (besides going in person to one of their actual performances) is to watch an entire concert from start to finish, since they are masters of creating setlists and the pacing in their shows is designed for maximum effect. But for those who would like more of a guided tour, here in chronological order is a curated selection of some of my favorite live CNBLUE performances.


1. Hey You, Blue Night in Seoul, 2012
A much heavier version of this song than the studio recording, beginning with each member showing off their instrumental chops. This performance demonstrates their ability to turn even a fluffy pop song into what they call DSM, or dark, sexy metal.


2. Tattoo, You and I, 2012
I can imagine the horror of people who randomly tuned in to this performance on South Korean television during the performance of this ode to sexual obsession. Jung Yonghwa pants and moans into the microphone, thrusts his hips into his guitar, and gets on his knees and headbangs at the climax (and I don’t use that word lightly) of this song.


3. I Don’t Know Why, MTV Unplugged, 2012
CNBLUE shows off their acoustic chops and vocal harmonies in this unplugged concert for MTV Japan, and they really jam on the booming dreadnought guitars. The lyrics are also a good example of Yonglish, Yonghwa’s singular approach to the English language.


4. Y Why, Wave in Osaka, 2014
Slowed down slightly from its original studio version, this performance is a stellar example of CNBLUE’s trademark deep, dark, sexy metal, including Yonghwa’s growling and soaring rock vocals, Kang Minhyuk’s heavy, heavy foot on the drums and a wailing guitar solo by Jonghyun.


6. Lady, Summer Sonic, 2014
The ultimate rave up song and one of CNBLUE’s fastest paced, this tune has been staple in their setlists since its release in 2014. It’s a firestarter of a song and includes a supple bassline by Lee Jungshin. You can literally hear the audience going insane at the end of this version.


5. I’m Sorry, Summer Sonic, 2014
Playing at one of Japan’s premiere music festivals in the heat of the Japanese summer, this performance of their iconic rock track I’m Sorry includes a sweaty AF Yonghwa capping the song with his signature octave-jumping wail. Bonus: a jamming version of Lady, plus a rendition of their sweet sweet 2014 hit song Can’t Stop.


7. Loner, Yu Hui Yoo’s Sketchbook, 2015
An EDM version of their famous debut track, updated with synthesizer, this is one of the first live CNBLUE clips that I saw and the one that started me on this long, crazy journey. It’s also interesting to see the band coiffed and made up instead of sweaty and disheveled like they are in most of their live concerts and it’s pretty clear why they were recruited as idols back at the start of their careers. Even in front of a sedate studio audience they exude sheer energy and blinding charisma, which in combination with their good looks is deadly.


8. Catch Me, FNC Kingdom in Japan, 2015
Just rock. Absolutely electrifying.


9. Lie, We’re Like A Puzzle, 2016
One of CNBLUE’s many vocal duets–here they perform this midtempo rock tune in both Korean and Japanese. It’s a great example of their musical virtuosity on all counts, with the spotlight on Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s perfectly balanced, emotional vocals.


10. Radio, Our Glory Days in Nagoya, 2016
Although pretty much every live version of this song is great, Yonghwa is in fine form in this one, bopping on top of the piano, across the stage and into the audience. He ends up lying flat on his back at the end of the song exchanging a cappella vocal riffs with the audience.


11. LOVE, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
This jazzy rendition one of their sprightly earlier hits shines in the band’s locked-in performance, from Minhyuk’s rat-a-tat-tat drum rolls though Jonghyun’s fluid lead guitar lines, overlaid by Yonghwa’s energetic vocal improvisations and capped off by a monster rock break two-thirds of the way through the song.


12. Wake Up, Between Us in Bangkok, 2017
Wake Up is CNBLUE’s version of a jam band song and the live performances of this song features am extended call-and-response between the band and the audience, Yonghwa and Jonghyun swapping improvised guitar riffs, Yonghwa’s screaming high notes, and endless false endings. The longest version recorded, from Between Us in Seoul, lasts more than 16 minutes, which is pretty impressive for a song that was originally less than 3 minutes in its studio version.

This 2017 fancam is a fragment of a much longer version and demonstrates some of the maniacal improvisational hijinks that typically take place during the song. For a full version go here.


13. Eclipse, Starting Over in Yokohama, 2017
This performance builds beautifully, starting with Jonghyun’s sweet, clear vocal and acoustic guitar. The gradual additions of piano, drums, bass, and Yonghwa’s ragged lead guitar perfectly complement the smooth lightness of Jonghyun’s voice, showcasing CNBLUE’s balanced combination of vocals, guitar, harmony, and beats.


14. Between Us, Arirang I’m Live, 2017
This explosive tune usually brings the house down in 15,000 seat arena shows so CNBLUE performing it here live in front of a tiny crowd is absolutely earth-shattering.


15. Young Forever, Between Us in Seoul, 2017
Besides earworm pop tunes and spectacular rock anthems, CNBLUE also specializes in emotional bops including Glory Days and Book, two of their more recent Japanese releases. Young Forever falls into that category as well and this performance shows off the band’s stellar songcrafting and live chops. A gorgeous roundelay of a song, with three main parts that repeat and overlay each other, this live version beautifully showcases the lovely interplay of the various elements of the song, including layered vocal harmonies, changes in dynamics, and a cappella harmonizing, and which features the plaintive lament “Can we go back/but there’s no way back.”

For further exploration, there are many full CNBLUE concerts on youtube. My favorite full concert is Starting Over, from 2017, and my favorite short concert is FNC Kingdom 2017, which is also the last live with all four members and which demonstrates their ability to whip an audience into a frenzy.

July 28, 2020 at 7:56 am 4 comments

Fire in the Rain: Sewing In The Time Of Coronavirus

The Asian American Documentary Network, aka A-doc, just launched a new series of short clips as part of its Storytelling Initiative, with my clip, Sewing In The Time of Coronavirus, its first featured microdoc. This little short explains how I’ve been spending my time since the shelter-in-place order in California took place almost two months ago.

 

Since mid-March I’ve been sewing masks with a sewing circle called the Auntie Sewing Squad, started as a facebook group by performance artist Kristina Wong. Around that time we were both noodling around with the idea of sewing cloth facemasks and when Kristina started the group we had about a dozen members. Fast forward to now and the squad now has more than 500 all-volunteer members. We make masks for frontliners including hospital workers, grocery workers, farm workers, delivery people, nursing home staff and patients, and anyone else who doesn’t have the means or access to get facemasks and who are working in risky situations. Lately we’ve been sending a lot of masks (more than 1500 a week) to Native American tribes such as Navaho Nation (which has been very hard hit in part because they don’t always have access to running water for hand-washing and so forth), Zuni, Blackfeet, Round Valley and other tribes.

Neutrals

I’ve made about 125 masks since I started, but some Aunties in the group have made more than 500 each. Some of them have high-powered sergers or industrial machines but most of us are using the family Singer or Kenmore to crank out our masks.

Jewel tones

Even though it’s a lot of work (I can make about 3-4 masks an hour), it’s for a good cause so I’m happy to do it. And other people have been very supportive, too. Several people sent me a bunch of lanyards and at one point I think I had about 300 of them floating around my house before I disbursed them to other sewists. Other people have donated their fabric stash. And I’m eaten a sick amount of donated cookies, lemon bars, marmalade, and other treats that folks have given out to support those of us sewing.

Fury

Sewing masks has been a positive way to deal with my ongoing fury at the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week I had a sore throat for several days and I was worried I’d gotten COVID19. But I was able to get a test and it came up negative, since I’m one of the lucky people in this country with good healthcare. I’m trying to share my privilege with others who aren’t as lucky as I am so that we can all get through this epidemic, and making masks is a means to do that.

Ten with tails

If you’re looking for a way to support our efforts here’s how you can help out:

  • fabric donations (100% woven lightweight cotton preferred)
  • sewing machine loan or donation
  • cutting fabric
  • conference and film festival lanyards
  • making tasty snacks and meals. especially seeking in Northern California, though we have Aunties all over the US
  • fresh fruits & veggies from your garden
  • veggie starts to plant
  • filthy lucre (venmo givekristinawongmoney for postage and sewing supplies and gayleisa for food and snack supplies)

contact: vsoe@sfsu.edu

BONUS: Here’s the song this post is named after, by Jung Yonghwa. It’s all about maintaining hope in times of despair. I wrote more about it here.

Lyrics (translated from Japanese; original English in italics)

We are the fire in the rain

(Fire in the rain)

In my eyes Even now, sad news in one corner of the world

The rain won’t stop. The blue tears fall from my eyes

 

Tell me what can I do I don’t know why I was born

How much? I don’t know why

A polka-dot pattern on the window. Towards the other side of the cloud

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

When I ’m taking you higher I set your heart on fire

When I ’m taking you higher I set your heart on fire

 

In your arms Even if you lose everything

A flower that stays quietly in your heart

 

Tell me what can I do. I don’t know why I was born

How much I don’t know why

An umbrella in the palm of your hand

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

(When I ’m taking you higher) You should make a move

Because you live only once

(I set your heart on fire) You should catch a wave

Everything will go well

(When I ’m taking you higher) An indelible hope. Connected thoughts

(I set your heart on fire) The answer is: No one knows

 

Someday even if the storm that swallows everything. Even if the light does not reach

Somewhere let’s light up the heart, let’s go together, beyond the night sky

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

It’s not a miracle, go to fate (Go the way that you believe)

Stars in the sky Let me keep on burning

A fiery dance that never ends fiesta

 

When I ’m taking you higher (I ’m taking you higher)

I set your heart on fire (I set your heart on fire)

When I ’m taking you higher (Yeah um)

I set your heart on fire (It never ends fiesta)

When I ’m taking you higher It never ends fiesta

NOTE: Yonghwa’s former bandmate Lee Jonghyun’s nickname was “Burning.” He’s left the group following a series of controversies so this may be Yonghwa’s final tribute to CNBLUE’s guitarist of ten years.

May 7, 2020 at 4:44 am 1 comment

The Endless Melody: Jung Yonghwa’s Feel the Y’s City album review

Evolution, Jung Yonghwa

CNBLUE’s leader Jung Yonghwa finished up his mandatory military service in the South Korean army last November and since then he’s been reemerging in Asia’s music and entertainment scene. Feel the Y’s City, his third solo Japanese album, just dropped recently and it shows Yonghwa’s continued evolution as an artist as he moves farther and farther from his Kpop idol roots.

The album’s lead track, The Moment, is an astoundingly joyous song, exploding with optimism and hope. Considering that Yonghwa recorded this just after he’d just gone through one of the darkest periods of his career it’s amazing that he was able to infuse such sheer happiness and hope into this track. This one is pure jazz at its most swinging, and it mixes up some killer changes over a driving piano riff, vibes, and blaring horns. Before he entered the military Yonghwa mentioned his admiration for the soundtrack to the film LaLa Land and The Moment definitely takes its inspiration from that style of midcentury jazz-based pop music. But Yonghwa is a better singer than either Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone and his smooth and swinging, powerful vocals drive the song. He effortlessly travels from his warm lower register up to a sweet falsetto.

The lyrics are mostly in English, with a smattering of phrases in French that seem be taken from a French For Beginners handbook, but he does a great job of rhyming in two languages that are not native to him. Although his French is delivered with a decidedly flat American accent, at one point he cleverly rhymes champagne, display, parlez, and café, which is pretty impressive for someone writing not in his first language. Throughout the song he further randomly throws in other French phrases, including a curious line that reads “Let’s get away and find ourselves la vie en rose, encore,” which sounds a bit like he strung together all of the French words he knew to make a lyric. Later in the song he shouts, “C’est la vie!” again not quite matching the proper use of the term. But it’s not bad for someone writing for the first time in French. I’m a bit surprised he didn’t include “mon petit chou” somewhere but that probably didn’t properly scan.

The next track, Summer Night In Heaven, continues the curious admixture of even more languages. Back in August I wrote a note to myself saying, “I have no doubt that Yonghwa can write a genius city pop song if he wants to,” and sure enough, Summer Night In Heaven is it. The song opens with a throwback guitar riff that emulates the crackly scratches of a vinyl record, followed by an outstanding bit of whistling that leads into Yonghwa’s relaxed, funky vocals. The lyrics are all pretty much about his blissed-out vacations to Hawai’i, and the song’s gently loping beat echoes his Zen experiences there. The track also includes a pleasant bit of Yonghwa scatting over a guitar interlude, a skill he showed off at his last concert tour before enlisting back in 2018.

The chorus demonstrates the polyglot scenario in his busy brain as he mashes up English, Spanish, Hawai’ian, and Japanese.

Summer night in heaven. Don’t you know the reason?

Groovin’ to the soul playground of freedom

Loco Ala Moana Forever I wanna

Uchiyosete kaesu shiosai no kōrasu (The chorus of the tide rushing back)

This somewhat random assemblage of languages, charmingly sung without regard to proper accenting or syntax, still manages to work, conveying the joyful and relaxing, utterly optimistic worldview that Yonghwa seems to be cultivating since his discharge from the army last year.

Continuing in that upbeat vein, the next track, She Knows Everything, is a sweet, simple pop song that’s the definition of a catchy earworm bop. The track is  a streamlined throwback to ‘90s new jack swing, anchored by Yonghwa’s gorgeous falsetto. The song’s hooky chorus features Yonghwa’s lovely flutelike upper register as he sings, “I’m in trouble/In Good Trouble,” showing off his effortless, silky vocal range. Here the completely English lyrics sweetly outline a charmed relationship:

When my words get fumbled

Sometimes I’m misunderstood

Before I trip and stumble

She knows how to catch me long before I hit the ground

Once again Yonghwa invokes the Minnesota sound made famous by Prince, with a bright synthesizer jamming over the songs danceable beats.

In Jellyfish Yonghwa uses an upbeat dance track to emulate the backstabbing, duplicitous entertainment world that he inhabits. The song was recorded while he was enduring a particularly vicious witchhunt and Yonghwa shows a remarkable self-awareness for his situation at the time, questioning his own complicity in the trap that he’s in. Although Yonghwa is too polite to say it, the song clearly is about his adopted hometown of Seoul, where he’s spent most of his professional life and where he’s experienced his greatest successes and his greatest betrayals.

The fully electronic instrumentation adds a metallic tang to the song, and the song’s ringing, manufactured beats mesh perfectly with Yonghwa’s raspy purr of a voice. Although beautiful and seductive, the song is completely artificial and false, reinforcing the lyrics which describe being crushed, empty, deluded, and trapped. They also clearly describe the seductiveness and lure of the entertainment world, which Yonghwa envisions as a warm bath of oblivion and deception.

I am bathing in the light of the moon
Always floating
With all the jellyfish in bloom
They are shining in the dark, closing in
Hiding poison
I’m deeper in the city’s womb

The entire song vibrates with mendacity, but Yonghwa doesn’t shy away from his own attraction to the bright lights of fame and fortune, realizing that jellyfish are beautiful but potentially deadly and choosing to tangle with them can be fatal.

There’s a risk I could take when I touch you
Get paralyzed by your sting
Stimulus leads to hallucination
I’d sacrifice for anything

The next track, Fire & Rain, is a dreamy midtempo jam that opens with Yonghwa climbing from midrange to head voice in a beautifully sung acapella phrase. The song then kicks into a powerful dance groove. Yonghwa croons in and around the beat, his understated phrasing and intonation emphasizing the melancholy yet hopeful lyrics (in Japanese and English, with a “fiesta” thrown in for good measure).

We ’re the fire in the rain

hibiku ame no oto daichi ni utai inochi o naraseba fukinukeru kaze seimei no

Breathing moeru yō ni

(Sing on the earth/The Breathing of Life)

Although a very different song, the mood is reminiscent of Yonghwa’s 2014 composition for CNBLUE, Like A Child, as the music and lyrics create a hypnotic ambiance that suggests hope amongst despair.

Melody is a gorgeous slice of orchestral pop, with some lovely half-step progressions that elevate the chorus. Again Yonghwa’s stellar vocals shine, as he runs up and down his range with a fine falsetto at the end of the song, and the song’s arrangement of cascading strings over a lilting piano interweaves beautifully with Yonghwa’s passionate singing. This track was also one of the five recorded before enlistment and released while Yonghwa was in the army and it reflects his desire to continue making music no matter what difficulties or obstacles he faces.

Sekaijuu ni saita Harmony mamoritai yo kienai you ni

Sugite yuku toki no naka de kawaranai you ni

Kiitetai yo towa ni ima doko ni ite mo

Hibikaseyou Baby owarinonai Melody

(I want to protect the harmony that bloomed all over the world, so it doesn’t disappear

So it doesn’t change within this advancing time

I want to listen to it forever, wherever you are now

Let it resound, baby, the endless melody)

At the time he recorded this song there was some doubt as to whether Yonghwa would continue making music so this song holds significant meaning, rededicating his pledge to himself, his bandmates, and his fans to keep going with his career.

The two tracks that immediately follow Melody were also recorded during the controversies prior to Yonghwa’s enlistment and both reflect the state of mind he was in during that crazy time.

Brothers is a straight-up rock song, with power chords and a wailing guitar riff that clearly emulates the style of Yonghwa’s longtime collaborator and bandmate Lee Junghyun (who is currently exiled from CNBLUE following his tangential association with the Burning Sun controversy). In this song Yonghwa also pays tribute to Oasis, one of his favorite bands, as the track has a distinctly Britpop sound to it. The lyrics brilliantly set up the song’s premise, starting with the everyday conflicts that occur between close mates and friends.

Screaming at each other again

We never seem to click,

We’re fighting all of the time

Surrounded by tension and strain

So sick of all your jokes

This stark honesty demonstrates an understanding of the complexities of a longstanding relationship and show Yonghwa’s maturity of thought. As in Letter, despite ups and downs, working through and resolving these struggles ultimately creates an strong and lasting relationship.

The chorus reverses the conflicts introduced in the first verse, revealing the deep bond forged from such conflicts.

When you told me your dreams

And your ambitions

Something crushed inside of me

I see right through you the same

Same way you see right through me

Goin’ back when I found my soul brother

So we’ll never be apart

The song takes on an extra poignancy now that the rest of CNBLUE’s members are returning from their military service. Although Yonghwa has declared that CNBLUE will go on, he’s been mum on whether or not the band’s future includes their erstwhile lead guitarist. Interestingly, while Yonghwa has recently expressed his desire to play rock music again, Brothers is the only track on the album that prominently features guitar, suggesting that he’s waiting for CNBLUE (in whatever formation) to come back in order to get his rock groove on.

Letter, a midtempo love song, also explores an up-and-down relationship that in some ways is a metaphor for Yonghwa’s sometimes problematic relationship with his fans and his career. Yonghwa belts the song effortlessly, infusing the track with a gentle and melancholy longing. He adds a few delicate and powerful trills to the chorus, hitting a sweet crescendo before the song’s soulful denouement. (go here for a more detailed analysis of this track)

The last track on the album, Livin’ It Up, returns to the big-band jazz sound of The Moment. Somewhat more saccharine and less substantial that the other track it nonetheless clearly conveys the mood and meaning Yonghwa intended, which he states is a tribute to the joys of New York City. The song is a throwback to midcentury popular jazz tunes and would be right at home in a Fred Astaire MGM joint, with its lyrics describing “Falling falling snow,” the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. Somewhere in there there’s a thesis about the pervasiveness of the myth of American exceptionalism in the South Korean imaginary but that’s a discussion for another day.

All in all this is a solid outing and demonstrates Yonghwa’s continued interest in making music that he finds interesting and engaging, rather than what the market dictates. It shows his continued development as an artist rather than an idol or pop star, as he keeps going farther afield from current commercial pop music. Though some of the tracks such as Jellyfish and Fire & Rain are completely on trend, others such as the jazzier cuts are much quirkier and less radio-friendly. As well as his infatuation with big band and jazz, he’s recently stated his fondness for the Indian dream pop duo Parekh & Singh and he’s covered a snippet of a song by the alt-country duo Dan + Shay on his instagram, so his tastes run a wide gamut of pop music.

Not unlike the way he slices and dices several different languages in one song, Yonghwa synthesizes his musical influences in sideways and unexpected ways and it’s very fun following what his fevered mind comes up with. Yonghwa was about to start his latest Japan tour this week but due to the coronavirus crisis those dates have been pushed back until April at the earliest or we’d surely be hearing even more remixes and rearrangements of his music. He’s repeatedly stated that he writes his songs with live performances in mind, so hopefully we’ll soon be able to hear what new directions he’s taking his current batch of tunes. I’m hoping someone plays some Ornette Coleman for him soon as I’d love to hear what happens when he hears some really mindblowing free jazz. A girl can dream—

BONUS: a clip of the new live arrangement of CNBLUE’s Face To Face, originally recorded as a straight-up Motown style jam. Here Yonghwa completely reworks it, and all cutie-pie clowning aside, this is an absolutely killer arrangement of this song, mixing Latin beats, tempo changes, jazz breaks, and some dope strings.

UPDATE: As of March 10, Feel The Y’s City has scored big on the charts throughout much of Asia. In its first day of release on Feb. 26, all five of the new tracks from the album were in the top ten on Japan’s daily Recochoku Kpop/World music chart, with a sixth track, Letter, at number 50.

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Three tracks, She Knows Everything, Summer Night in Heaven, and Welcome to the Y’s City, swept the top three for two consecutive weeks (Mar. 2 and 9) on China’s weibo New Asia Song Asia-Pacific chart. As noted on weibo, “The whole song has a cool summer feeling from the melody to the voice. There is a sense of playing on the beach.”

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The album also charted high on iTunes in several countries, reaching the top 5 in eight countries and topping the charts in Macau and Hong Kong. The album even made it to number 32 on the worldwide iTunes chart, which isn’t bad considering there was absolutely no promotion outside of Asia.

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Yonghwa’s new South Korean variety show, K-Trot In Town, also scored very high ratings in its debut episode, reaching 14.9% in the second half of its broadcast. So despite a few bumps including the postponement of his Japan concerts in March, Yonghwa’s re-entry following his discharge from the military for the most part is going well. But in the mercurial world of South Korean entertainment that could change in a flash. Here’s hoping that things continue to go smoothly, especially once the rest of CNBLUE gets out of the army later this month.

March 6, 2020 at 9:30 am 1 comment

Cold Dark World: Noir City 18 at the Castro Theater

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Passion and despair, Salon Mexico, 1949

Noir City, one of my favorite local film festivals, had its eighteenth iteration last month and this time around the programming focused on international noir films, with films from ten countries giving a sampling of crimes of passion and despair from around the world.

This year’s festival was festive as usual, with big crowds for most of the shows I went to,  including the usual noir denizens in their wingtips and peplum jackets—the venerable Castro Theater is the perfect venue for the midcentury-centric event. The international scope of the festival also meant that the live performances in between films included tango dancers and Mexican cantantes. Another highlight was the appearance of poster woman and Ms. Noir City 2020 Victoria Mature, a noted chanteuse who is also the daughter of actor Victor Mature. Closing night featured Victoria performing a song with custom lyrics dedicated to Noir City founder and host-with-the-most Eddie Mueller. Eddie contributed his trademark pleasant and affable enthusiasm and encyclopedic noir knowledge in his introductions to the films and his love for the genre was infectious.

The festival opened with a brand-new 35mm restoration (supported by Noir City’s parent organization, the Film Noir Foundation) of the Argentine film The Beast Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir, 1952), directed by Román Viñoly Barreto, a moody, gritty, and surreal journey about a man seeking revenge for the killer of his young son. The film is full of beautiful visuals that looked great in the restoration, including a motif of crashing waves that ultimately pays off in the final shot.

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Charismatic, Jean-Claude Belmondo,  Finger Man (Le Doulos), 1962

Saturday evening’s double-bill included Jean-Pierre Melville’s Finger Man (Le Doulos, 1962), a spare and existential crime joint, with an understated and charismatic turn by Jean-Claude Belmondo. A bit plotty, the film nonetheless captures Melville’s trademark world-weary ennui.

In contrast, the second half of the program, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (Melodie En Sous-Sol, 1963), is a fun and jazzy heist film starring Alain Delon as a tempermental manchild and Jean Gabin as his mentor in crime. The film kicks off with a snazzy credit sequence, and the finger-poppin’ Mancini-esque score together with Delon and Gabin’s charismatic turns makes for an engaging and enjoyable experience, concluding with some excellent tension in the climactic final scene.

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Feral, The Housemaid (Hanyo), 1960

Kim Ki-young’s classic South Korean film The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960) is an expressionistic angsty ride featuring a feral housemaid wreaking havoc on a middle-class family. The film first reveals the titular character smoking forbidden cigarettes in a closet and things go downhill from there as she then beats a rat half to death with a kitchen utensil and makes creative use of a bottle of poison. The housemaid’s wilding is exemplified by the way she licks her lips whenever she sees the hot but powerless object of her desire, the family’s hapless father/husband who is unable to stop the destruction of his household. One of my favorite shots in the film occurs when the camera focuses on the husband as he writhes in deathly ecstasy on an upright piano while the housemaid clings to his thigh, an image that effectively encompasses the twisted symbiosis of their relationship.

Lee Man-Hee’s Black Hair (Geomeun Meori, 1964) is a more standard underworld film with a lot of moody lighting and camerawork and an outstanding performance by Moon Jeong-suk as a fallen woman trying to find dignity in her reduced lot in life. The film wanders a bit through a tortured love triangle but is held together by Moon’s sympathetic performance.

Zbynêk Brynych’s . . . And The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (… A Paty Jezdec Je Strach, 1965), Czechoslovakia’s contribution to the festival, is absurdist and slightly surreal, a cool, intellectual look at the Nazi occupation of Prague as a metaphor for the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia.

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Atmospheric, Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu), 1958

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964) and Toshio Masuda’s The Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu, 1958) from Japan comprised one of the strongest double bills in the festival. Pale Flower contains several Japanese crime film motifs including flower card games, yakuza in snazzy sport coats, a mysterious woman, and a fateful attraction. The Rusty Knife follows a former gangster as he struggles to escape the dark past that keeps creeping up on him. Moody and atmospheric, the film includes an angsty turn by the legendary Ishihara Yūjirō, as well a cocky performance by Kobayashi Akira as as his idiotic sidekick. The tale of a man whose hapless friend ultimately drags him down is classic noir.

From Mexico, Roberto Gavaldón Night Falls (La Noche Avanza, 1952) features one of the most reprehensible characters to grace the silver screen and his utter lack of redeeming qualities had me dying to see his comeuppance. SPOILER: he gets it, followed by a most satisfying coda.

Emilio Fernández’ Salon Mexico (1949) follows a Mildred Pierce-esque plot as Mercedes, a cabaratera (prostitute/bar girl) sacrifices her integrity to support her virginal sister. The film includes a great performance by Miguel Inclan as Mercedes’ devoted hangdog cop boyfriend who attempts to protect her from her sleazy loser pimp.

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Zbigniew Cybulski, Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant), 1958

Andrzej Wajda’s classic Polish noir Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant, 1958) follows an underground resistance fighter (Zbigniew Cybulski, aka the Polish James Dean) during one eventful day as he goes from a botched assassination to falling in love to meeting his fate at the end of the day. The film’s beautiful sound design and cinematography was heavenly to see on the big screen at the Castro and was a fitting end to Noir City 18. It was a pleasure to eat too much delicious Castro Theater popcorn and consume ten days worth of glorious noir from around the world, and I left the theater satiated and happy.

 

February 20, 2020 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Kick Out The Jams: Ip Man 4: Finale film review

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Ip Man 4: Finale

I finished grading this morning so this afternoon I treated myself to a screening of Ip Man 4: Finale, the final installment of the popular series about the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster. It’s not the greatest movie but it was a decent way to pass a couple hours.

The film’s title fittingly features the number four, a homonym for death in Chinese, as the movie opens with Ip Man being diagnosed with throat cancer. He’s also dealing with his rebellious teenage son who just got kicked out of school for brawling. When Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee sends him an invite to a tournament that he’s appearing in in the US he uses the opportunity to scout for a stateside school for his son to attend.

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Curiously wide, Ip Man 4: Finale

As with many Hong Kong movies supposedly set in the US, many of the small details are off. The film is set in San Francisco but is obviously shot somewhere else. The streets of Chinatown are curiously wide and lacking in hills and I swear the gates of the army barracks reminded me of the Beijing Film Academy. Curiously, although most of the dialog is in Cantonese, one of the major supporting characters speaks Mandarin and his daughter is played by a hapa actress, Vanda Margraf. (We never see her mom in the film so who knows, maybe dad had a German wife). The evil and racist white schoolgirl bully (who is literally named Becky) and her mother occasionally slip up in their American accents. One of the bad guys, a karate master, seems to be played by an Asian actor despite having a Western name. And the main bad guy, a racist Marine officer, is a complete caricature. It doesn’t help that the actor playing him ruthlessly chews the scenery.

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Serene, Donnie Yen and Wu Yue, Ip Man 4: Finale

Nonetheless, Donnie Yen manages to make the film much more than just another movie about Chinese underdogs versus oppressive white overlords. Ip Man is the role that he was born to play and he imbues the martial arts master with a convincing grace and presence. In a lot of his earlier roles Donnie tended toward an annoying arrogance but Ip Man’s somber humility keeps that in check, and his serene reserve effectively contrasts with his explosive martial arts moves. The action choreography by Yuen Woo Ping is top-notch, including a great little bit with a glass lazy susan and a teacup. Much of the martial arts is wire-free and some of the hand-to-hand fighting is convincingly bone-crunching. Danny Chan reprises his role from Ip Man 3 as Bruce Lee and he’s fairly good at mimicking Bruce’s mannerisms, from swiping his nose with his thumb to his trademark swagger. Some of his more advanced fighting moves seem to be doubled but all in all he’s inoffensive in the role.

In an interesting example of how the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have touched every aspect of life in the city, pro-democracy demonstrators are boycotting this film due to producer Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen and Danny Chan’s pro-Beijing comments. The Hollywood Reporter notes,

Wong has made his pro-China stance known especially in recent years, having organized a fund for an anti-Occupy Central organization in 2014 and vocally criticized the democratically voted best film win of the politically controversial Ten Years at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2015, calling the movie’s triumph at the ceremony “a huge mistake” and “a joke” despite it being the consensus of film industry members. Yen, who played the eponymous character in the film series, shared the stage and sang with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a gala commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover in 2017 and issued a statement early this year reasserting “the determination of the motherland” after his fans in China was outraged by his attendance of an event hosted by German clothing brand Philipp Plein, which was allegedly involved in an incident deemed “insulting” to China a dozen years ago. Meanwhile, Chan, who plays Bruce Lee in the latest movie, has been outspokenly supportive of the Hong Kong police, posting on social media that police should not “go easy on any [protesters]” nor “let anyone of them go.”

Due to the boycott the film has suffered at the Hong Kong box office, taking in just $660,000 in its first week of release and coming in second to the latest Star Wars movie.

 

December 29, 2019 at 3:53 am 2 comments

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

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Goo Hara, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

No dating clause, Blackpink

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

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

Bundling, Super M, 2019

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

As the New York Times notes,

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

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

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

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Zero sum game, Sulli

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

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

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

Yonghwa, Sulli, Jo Kwon, Inkigayo, 2011

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

 

November 25, 2019 at 7:29 am 3 comments

Dreaming In Fantasy: Sunset Rollercoaster at Slim’s

Indie pop fans, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

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

Smooth and fluid, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

Mullet and Nautica, Sunset Rollercoaster, 2019

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

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

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

Lose Yourself: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 39

Seder Masochism, 2019

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

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

Fun, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, 2019

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

Obtuse, My Polish Honeymoon, 2019

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

Iconic, Seder Masochism, 2018

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

Clever, Tel Aviv On Fire, 2019

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

 

 

 

 

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

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