Posts filed under ‘asian american studies’
Everyone’s favorite local festival starts this week with a slew of film screenings, food parties, and musical events. The fest includes treats such as the world premiere of the legendary Rea Tajiri’s newest experimental doc, Lordville, as well as Golden Gate Girls, Louisa Wei’s feature length study of Chinese American film director Esther Eng, who worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s, and The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated personal doc that’s a harrowing look at the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, told with intricately designed miniature tableaux populated by rough-hewn clay dolls.
Though by no means exhaustive, herewith is a small selection of some of the festival’s other highlights.
This family drama out of Singapore has been racking up a bunch of awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the Golden Horse awards. The plot concerns a middle-class Singaporean couple with a rambunctious 11-year-old son who hire a live-in Filipino housekeeper. Shot in Ann Hui-styled realism, the film shows the struggle of ordinary people caught in the global economic crisis. None of the characters in the film are exempt from the human cost of corporatization, as the OWF maid has a young son back in the Philippines and must moonlight as a hairdresser to make ends meet, while her Singaporean employers hold a series of oppressive, soul-crushing office jobs. Everyone is ground up by the relentless gears of global capitalism—will their humanity remain intact?
A Picture of You
JP Chan’s debut feature (he’s directed a bunch of short films) is a sharply drawn slice of life about a brother and sister, Kyle and Jen, who return to their late mom’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside to pack it up after her passing. Despite the potentially maudlin subject matter, director Chan infuses the film with levity—the tense and familiar bickering between the siblings rings pretty true as once in their mom’s house the two revert to old patterns of behavior. As they’re packing up they find out a bit more about their mom than they might want to know, which leads to more tension and bickering. Chan draws out amusing performances from his cast, lead by Andrew Pang as the sardonic brother and Jo Mei as the discombobulated sister. Also good are Lucas Dixon as Jen’s dorky white guy boyfriend, and Teyonah Parris from Mad Men who plays Jen’s BFF with endearing geekiness. The movie is a bit like a Wes Anderson film (without the twee and annoying stylistic tics) in the way that it delves into the quirkiness of interpersonal familial relationships without sentiment or melodrama.
In yet another Singaporean narrative, two lonely kids befriend each other at their strict middle school. Syafiqah’s absent parents have left her with her indifferent grandmother. Huat lives with his strict father and his mentally handicapped younger sister. The two become friends despite Syafiqah being the good girl and Huat the outcast who’s bullied by the other kids. The scenes where the two kids play joyfully in an aquaduct on the edge of the town contrast beautifully with the rigid, doctrinaire atmosphere of the schoolroom, where corporal punishment is routine and the students dutifully recite facts and numbers without analysis or critical thinking. Huat is imaginative and creative and so doomed to fail in this educational and social system. The adults are either cruel,abusive, or absent and the only affection and tenderness the two children find are with each other. Writer-director Wong Chen Hsi, who grew up in Singapore but who went to USC film school, draws out quite wonderful performances from her two young leads who effectively convey the stubbornness, rebellion, and confusion of their pre-adolescent characters. The film sports some impressive wide-screen cinematography and has a subtle and effective sound design, with the sound of Singapore’s relentless equatorial rain becoming a metaphor for the muffling of dissent in the school and in society. The film is a poignant and moving indictment of the stifling of difference within the modern Singaporean social system.
Lisette Marie Flanary’s documentary Na Kamalei: Men of Hula was a huge hit on the Asian American film festival circuit a few years back, so it’s no wonder someone else has decided to further mine the trials and tribulations of male hula dancers. The Haumana follows Johnny Kealoha (competently played by Tui Asau), a cheesy, alcoholic Waikiki lounge singer who’s bastardized his native Hawai’ian heritage for the aim of fleecing tourists. Yet despite Johnny’s apparent lack of hula street cred, on her deathbed Johnny’s mentor recruits him to tutor a group of high school male hula dancers for the big show. The movie follows Johnny as he strives to whip his motley crew of hula dancers into dancing trim while rediscovering his cultural roots. A feel-good, let’s-put-on-a-show hula movie with lots of pretty boys and nice scenery, The Haumana touches briefly on some of the social issues facing Hawaii but it’s not a particularly dark or gritty movie and it never really strays far from afterschool-special territory. Of note is Kelly Hu in a small role as a barkeep–for some reason she looks absolutely dreadful. She’s badly lit and sports unflattering chola eyebrows and a frizzy frightwig blow-out. But Tui Asau in the lead role is cute and dimply, and the young dude hula dancers, each with their own representative backstory, are about as sexy and cut as you can get. What more could you ask for?
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
A good, solid portrait of long-time Detroit civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, this documentary traces Boggs’ journey from a middle-class daughter of a Chinese American restaurateur to her 1960s activism in the Black Power movement and through the present day. Now in her late nineties, Boggs is as cogent and cognizant as ever and speaks eloquently about her involvement with the struggle for self-determination in Detroit’s African American community and beyond. Although the pace of the film lags a bit after a dynamite first half, the film captures the thoughtful intellectualism that has driven Boggs’ work for nearly seventy years, and director Grace Lee (no relation, ha) effectively blends personal narrative, historical documentation, and Boggs’ own thoughtful ruminations in an engrossing and informative package.
The highest grossing Thai film of all time and a big hit across several Asian territories, Pee Mak is a comedic remaking of a classic Thai ghost story in which a beautiful apparition romances her besotted, living husband. Here the fable is played for laughs, and the film owes a lot to Stephen Chow movies, 90s Hong Kong ghost story films, and the Three Stooges as it utilizes physical shtick and nonsense situations for its laffs. The movie follows four hapless idiots who determine that their friend’s beautiful wife may be a more than she seems. Hilarity ensues, but the broad slapstick lacks Chow’s ingenious blend of crude physical shtick, perfect comedic timing, rapid-fire wordplay, and cinematic finesse. While classic Hong Kong ghost stories certainly were often full of idiotic slapstick and mo lei tau nonsense they also had imaginative cinematography, creative art direction, and the divine action choreography of masters like Ching Siu Tung, not to mention the well-honed comedic chops of actors like the late great Wu Ma to support their pratfalls. Pee Mak’s cast mostly mugs and screeches its way through the exposition, supported by wacky haircuts and toothblack. I wanted to love this movie but after about 30 minutes I wearied of the clueless, somewhat repetitious antics of the various characters.
March 13-23, 2014
San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland
Carlos Villa’s beautiful new show, Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates, at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art (MCCLA) is a selective survey of his work, and the show is a great introduction to Villa’s formal, thematic, and stylistic range. The show’s title is indicative of the diversity of the work from Villa’s long career, which has spanned more than seven decades.
As Filipino American cultural critic Theo Gonsalves notes, some art historians as well as some Asian American Studies scholars have had a hard time placing Villa’s wide-ranging body of work. As a Filipino American, Villa has never shied from referencing his cultural heritage in his work, most notably in his striking, large-scale cloaks of feathers, bone, shells, hair, and other evocative organic materials. But Villa also has a large body of non-representational pieces that don’t easily fit into culturally specific pigeonholes, which puzzles the more literally minded multiculturalists among us. However, his ability to move easily between culturally rooted work and work that less directly references his cultural background is perhaps what best defines Villa as an Asian American artist. As Stuart Hall famously notes in his essay, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,” and the variety of approaches in Villa’s work speaks to that constantly evolving state of becoming. The current show at MCCLA is an excellent example of the broad scope of Villa’s ongoing concerns.
Upon entering the gallery at MCCLA the viewer hears a recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” sung by manong Freddy, one of the tenants of the original International Hotel who was involved in the long and bitter struggle to save that Manilatown landmark. The audio track immediately locates Villa’s work in Filipino America and reinforces the deep cultural connection that informs all of his work. Other suggestions of Pinoy culture are found in Where My Uncles Went West, a tall, shallow rectangular box with geometric white lines painted on a black background–both the box and the lines resemble doorframes, suggesting the entrances and exits of the immigrant experience. The side panels of the piece also pay tribute to the various journeys of the manong in their travels from the Philippines and throughout the U.S., with inscriptions including “Cebu to Fresno” and “Watsonville from Honolulu” suggesting the travels of first-generation Filipino Americans in their search for itinerant labor. Centered between the door-shaped geometric lines is a porkpie hat, another significant element of manong culture. Here Villa evokes the transitions and translocations faced by those Filipino immigrants from the early 20th century, suggesting both their origins as well as their destinations.
The show also includes a sampling of Villa’s earlier work, including some beautiful geometric studies on paper as well as photographs of several plywood sculptures that presage some of the work that makes up the bulk of the MCCLA show. A series of large-scale, hand-built wooden boxes marked with carefully drawn lines on colored backgrounds, this body of work is a good example of the way that Villa’s non-representational pieces echo the concerns found in his more culturally specific work.
The boxes at the MCCLA show are hinged panels that are displayed in the gallery’s center. The viewer is able to circumnavigate the boxes, seeing both their painted and etched “front” as well as the structural supports of the “back,” thus evoking packing crates, suitcases, and other forms associated with transiency and migration. Beautifully hand-etched with precise, closely spaced parallel lines, these pieces are displayed ajar, both opening and closing, echoing the transitional mindset of many immigrants.
Like Ruth Asawa, another great Asian American artist of the same generation whose carefully crafted non-representational work defies easy categorization, Villa is biliterate and bicultural, belonging in many worlds and utilizing a multitude of frames of reference. By refusing to fit neatly into a single, simple classification, Villa’s work redefines what it means to be an artist, a Filipino American, and an American.
Carlos Villa: Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates
August 13- October 5, 2011
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art
2868 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map)
An Evening with Carlos Villa
September 17, 6:30-9:30p / FREE Admission
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art
Join Carlos Villa and distinguished guests for a night of storytelling and dialogue, as we celebrate the release of Villa’s new monograph, Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces, edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves.
Just got back from a weekend at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival in Washington DC. This is the second time I’ve attended the festival (the first time being in 2007 when the fest screened Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male) and, as with my last visit, it was totally great. Although I had to take the red-eye from SFO and could only attend one day, I saw all three of Saturday’s programs, which pretty much satisfied my Asian American film jones.
The DCAPA staff are an especially fun and friendly bunch and they always put on a great festival with lots of bang for your buck, with this year being no exception. Staff member Grace even cooked up a bunch of delicious snacks for the closing night reception, including ginger oatmeal cookies, edamame hummous, and K-food mini-tostadas with kimchee salsa.
The closing night film, The Things We Carry, was a gritty and heartfelt little drama about a pair of Korean American sisters coping with their fucked-up crackhead mom. The movie did an especially good job of capturing the rundown, seedy side of LA, with lonely and forlorn drug addicts puking their guts out in mini-mall parking lots. Though the film occassionally flirted with melodrama, the hard-ass lead performance by Alyssa Lobit kept the film from veering into pathos. Lobit also wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay and the film was produced by her sister Athena and executive-produced by their dad, so it was a family affair all the way.
My short film, The Oak Park Story, screened with Finding Face, an intense agit-prop documentary feature about acid burn attacks on women in Cambodia. Though it wandered a bit in its focus, it still managed to convey a gripping urgency about these crimes, which are growing in number since the high-profile attack on 17-year-old karaoke starlet Tat Marina in 1999. Marina and her family are the focus of the film as both she and her brother, the swoonfully intense Tat Sequndo, attempt to bring the perpetrators (including Cambodia’s Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha) to justice.
The day after the festival closed I got to play tourist in DC, visiting the National Gallery to see the amazing Chester Dale collection, which included a huge number of paintings by brand-name Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Cassat, and Monet. I also hiked over to see the Washington Monument in all of its erect glory, then trekked to the far end of the reflecting pool to cool my heels on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans of all shapes and colors snapped photos and posed with Honest Abe.
I ended up at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which I’d never seen in person before. The Memorial is arguably the most famous artwork by an Asian American in this country so it’s been on my list of places to visit. Arriving there near the end of a balmy early autumn day, I was impressed by the simple, poignant power and beauty of the piece. Several people there were clearly there to find the names of lost loved ones, somberly pausing in front of the polished black granite. Seeing it in person, I was struck not only by how long and tall the memorial is, but by how small names are rendered and how very many of them there are. It’s amazing exactly how much space more than 58,000 names can take up, even when engraved in pretty small text. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Lin’s design that the piece conveys at once the enormity of the loss of life as well as each individual behind that monstrous sacrifice.
It’s significant to remember that back in the early 80s when her design was first selected, Lin was vilified by conservatives as an inappropriate choice for the memorial due to her Chinese background (Ross Perot called her an “egg roll”), since, of course, that was pretty close to being a gook, right? Doubters also wanted to install a more traditionally representative memorial instead of Lin’s minimalist design and because of that sentiment, Frederick Hart’s abysmally banal bronze statue of three noble soldiers mars the entrance to the memorial. But despite the naysayers, Lin put up an epic fight to preserve the integrity of her original design and, nearly 30 years down the line, Lin is a renowned artist, the memorial is a landmark, and the haters have been proven dead wrong. Glad I was able to finally see the results of Lin’s persistant vision, and glad it still resonates today.
Bonus beats: The Avengers, legendary San Francisco punk band, performs “The American In Me,” Winterland, 1978