Archive for March, 2012
Just got back from a week in Hong Kong, where I experienced a full-on immersion in Asian films. Officially I was there to present a paper (A God And A King: Chow Yun-Fat and Shah Ruhk Khan) at the Asian Cinema Studies Conference at Hong Kong University, but I also attended the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and saw a slew of Asian movies. For seven days I talked about, watched, and pondered the state of Chinese-language films in the 21st century. It was pretty much a perfect vacation for an Asian movie otaku like me.
Prior to this trip I hadn’t been to Hong Kong in particular or Asia in general for at least twenty years, but as soon as I got off the plane I was hit with the familiar smell of equatorial humidity. After seeing countless Hong Kong films over the past couple decades it was quite exciting to set foot back in the motherland. Not literally, of course, since my family comes from Guangzhou and Toisan, but close enough as makes no difference. When I got to my hotel room the movie on the TV was An Autumn’s Tale (1987), director Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet story of two Hong Kong transplants living in New York City. It was curious to watch a movie while in Hong Kong about the Chinese diasporic experience–I felt like I’d reversed that journey in some way, going from the U.S. to Hong Kong.
Interestingly enough, at the ACS conference I later met Stacilee Ford, the author of a monograph on An Autumn’s Tale. A historian by training, Ford also writes about Hong Kong film and she was kind enough to give a copy of her book along with a DVD of Cheung’s film. She was one of the many stellar Asian film scholars attending the conference–the legendary Gina Marchetti said nice things about my presentation; Stephen Teo politely listened to me fangirlishly blather at him; I chatted with Julia LeSage over tea and sandwiches. It was fun to wade knee-deep in Asian film studies with such an illustrious crew and to parse and analyze the movies that I spend so much of my time watching. I felt invigorated and inspired after attending the conference, as well as slightly starstruck by the company I got to keep.
I stayed in Causeway Bay, which was quite fun in an insanely busy and overcrowded way. The streets were packed until late into the night and the walls of the shopping malls were covered in massive adverts both still and moving. Although there have been tensions between mainlanders and Hongkongers in the past few months, that hasn’t prevented Huang Xiaoming’s gorgeous face from gracing huge billboards all over Causeway Bay. Other movie star faces plastered around town include Angelababy, Nicholas Tse, and Aaron Kwok (in various states of undress).
During my stay I ate several outstanding meals, from spicy lamb hot-pot with my buddy Jay (new discovery: fried fish skin), to street food dished into Styrofoam boxes on the corner of Jaffe and Fleming Street, to way too many egg custard tarts from the endless tiny bakeries lining Wan Chai Street. When I wasn’t at the conference or watching movies I walked for hours a day, up and down Hennessy Street and through Causeway Bay, taking the MTR to the insanity that is Mongkok on a weekend night, to Victoria Park on a Sunday morning with the picnicking Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers on their day off. By the fourth day the overwhelming bus fumes and secondhand cigarette smoke started to irritate my lower respiratory tract–now I understand why so many people in Asian cities sport surgical masks when they go outside.
I managed to navigate the city fairly easily, in part because English is still one of Hong Kong’s official languages, although I did spend one tedious hour wending my way through a particularly confusing set of overpasses and bridges near the Hong Kong Convention Center. Hong Kong’s public transit system is excellent and multifarious, with subway, trams, buses, and the Star Ferry all rapidly and efficiently moving its 7.1 million residents to and fro–even the escalators in the MTR stations run at a breakneck pace. While much of the city is pretty urban, its underlying natural beauty still shines through. The view from the top of the double-decker bus careening down the hill from Hong Kong University to Causeway Bay one evening was quite lovely, with the white neon lights amidst gracefully drooping banyan trees providing a enchanting contrast.
The last night I was in town, after another tasty meal, I was channel-surfing in my hotel room when I came across a random Simon Yam/Lau Ching-Wan/Roy Cheung triad movie on TV. Yam, Lau, and Cheung have of course starred in many classic Hong Kong crime films but this alas was not one of them. But the best part about watching the movie was that one of the film’s fight scenes takes place outside the President Theater, where I’d just seen Ann Hui’s new movie the day before. Those little pleasurable and surreal moments happened all week, where I came across movie locations in real life, thus heightening my fondness for Hong Kong cinema all the more. Now that I’ve been to Hong Kong after so long, I surely won’t wait another couple decades to go back again.
While waiting at the Hong Kong airport for my plane home I make a horrible discovery. I’m scamming on the free airport wi-fi and surfing the net when I randomly find out that Francis Ng is scheduled to be at the press conference for Ann Hui’s short film My Way at the Hong Kong Film Festival AND I CAN’T GO! I’m getting on a plane in 20 minutes to go back to San Francisco. I feel like a character in a TV melodrama–I should abandon my flight and run back to Hong Kong in slow motion. The plane has been delayed–maybe if I’m lucky it will be cancelled and I can stay another night. Alas for the inflexibilities of modern air travel. Wonder if there is a later flight–
(I did not take a later flight, in part because immigration wouldn’t have let me back into the airport that same day, and I did not get to see Francis Ng in person. Yet another reason to come back to Hong Kong sooner rather than later, in order to more efficiently plan my stalking of Hong Kong movie stars.)
Next up: the movies I saw, part one
Now in its thirtieth year, the San Francisco International Asian American film festival offers several treats this year, with some brand new narrative films from Asian American directors. These include features by some familiar names and one remarkable debut by a newcomer that is astoundingly assured and original, demonstrating the continued growth and expansion of Asian American cinema.
Michael Kang’s Knots is a fast-paced rom-com with great comic performances and a decidedly un-cloying script. As in his debut film, the offbeat adolescent comedy The Motel, Kang has an eye for strange yet engaging characters coping with the bizarre dynamics of dysfunctional family life. Lead actress and screenwriter Kimberly-Rose Wolter is a marriage-phobe whose weird mom and sisters are wedding planners in Hawai’i. Sung Kang (Fast & Furious; Better Luck Tomorrow) is the dreamy love interest.
Yes, We’re Open, directed by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is an entirely agreeable, sleek and charming timepass, with a clever and engaging script (by Colma’s star and screenwriter H.P. Mendoza) and winsome performances from its cast. Lynn Chen and Parry Shen play a comfortable yet slightly bored couple whose relationship has lost its groove, until they meet another couple that tantalizes them with the possibility of an open relationship. The film does a good job capturing the feel of non-tourist San Francisco, with locations at Green Apple Books, the Alemany Farmers’ Market, the Roxie Cinema, and other neighborhood locations, as well as gently lampooning foodies, hipsters, and tech geeks. I haven’t seen Parry Shen in a movie since Better Luck Tomorrow and he does a great job as the slightly neurotic male lead who is somewhat lacking in self-awareness. Lynn Chen is funny and endearing as the other half of the conflicted couple. The movie is not unlike Annie Hall or some of Woody Allen’s other earlier romantic comedies in its young urban groovester milieu, its reliance on a specific cityscape (here San Francisco instead of New York) and its lighthearted take on the foibles of contemporary relationships.
Quentin Lee turns up the melodrama with White Frog, a family tale of a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome dealing with tragic circumstances. Led by a strong performance by BooBoo Stewart (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), the cast also includes some of the best-looking teenagers I’ve seen since Beverly Hills 90210, yet the actors overcome the handicap of their beauty by turning in convincing performances. The story makes a plea for tolerance and understanding of difference, and while it tilts toward maudlin at times, director Lee’s strong direction steers it back toward steady ground. He modulates the somewhat overwrought twists of the narrative by drawing out believable and sympathetic turns from his actors, including BD Wong as the conflicted father and Joan Chen at her dreamy and vulnerable best.
Although it also delves the family dynamics of coping with a tragic loss, Patrick Wang’s In The Family is a horse of a different color. Subtle and smart, the film offers a new way of seeing that diverges radically from the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking–it clocks in at nearly 3 hours, and the majority of the film is shot in long, deep-focus master shots. However, its formal style is in no ways mannered or pretentious. The film begins with a series of long, static scenes that simply explicate the quotidian lives of Joey and Cody, an interracial gay couple living in Martin, Tennessee with their energetic and precocious young son Chip. The long lockdown takes emphasize the normalcy of their everyday life despite a family structure that falls outside of the heteronormative frame. The time that the film takes to establish their deep emotional bonds pays off later in the film as tragic circumstances as well as societal pressure conspire to destroy their idyllic home life. With a reliance on long single takes the acting had better be good and here it’s stellar, anchored by actor-director Wang as the humble yet passionate and devoted father.
In The Family is not only one of the best Asian American films I’ve seen in a long time, it’s one of the best films, period, that I’ve seen in a long time. Not to overstate the point but Wang’s compositions and his confidence in the power of the action within the frame are reminiscent of Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Although touching on several hot-button issues the film deftly sidesteps polemics and instead presents a subtly shaded, morally complex story.
Also of note: Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, his first feature-length film that centers on the Okinawan-Hawai’ian ukelele wizard. The film follows up Tad’s short docs Pilgrimage, Yellow Brotherhood, and A Song For Ourselves and, although there were no advance screeners of the film, it promises to be as brilliant and moving as Tad’s earlier work. It’s great to know that not all Asian American filmmakers aspire to making narrative films, and Tad is following in the footsteps of Loni Ding, Steve Okazaki, Renee Tajima-Pena, Christine Choy, and his own parents, Bob Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka, all seminal Asian American filmmakers whose documentaries are the gold standard for Asian American cinema. The film festival will feature a program with Tad and his parents, A Conversation with the Nakamura Family, on Saturday, Mar. 10 at 3.30p, where science will surely be dropped.
Bonus: here’s a clip of Jake Shimabukuro from the upcoming documentary playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
For tickets and a full schedule go here.