Posts filed under ‘asian american’
CAAMfest is just around the corner so I’m posting a few quick recos to help people wade through the massive program. As usual this year the festival is screening more than 100 films, plus music and food events, so finding your bliss can be a daunting process. Here are a few things that I’ve seen that I like. Get your tickets while they’re hot—they’re going fast!
The Tiger Hunter, dir. Lena Khan
A sweet and amusing comedy set in the 1970s about an Indian guy who moves to the US to make his fortune, The Tiger Hunter is a crowd-pleaser that’s set as the CAAMfest opening night movie. Danny Pudi is appealing and genial as the son of the titular tiger hunter and the ensemble cast brings a goofy charm to the rest of the film. Speaking as someone who grew up in that inglorious decade I can also say that the 70s art direction is totally on point.
The Lockpicker, dir. Randall Okita
Randall Okita’s teen angst drama made my best-of list for 2016 and I’m sticking by that decision. Asian American narrative film directors have pretty much mastered the art of mimicking Hollywood movies these days, but The Lockpicker is a different animal altogether. Raw, unstructured, and brutally honest in its examination of some of the worst aspects of adolescence, the film is anchored by a charismatic and emo performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang. As I’ve said before, as a parent of teenagers this movie terrified me in its depiction of the casual cruelty of ennui-stricken youth.
Chee and T, dir. Tanuj Chopra
Tanuj Chopra’s latest flick is a wacky ride through the wilds of Palo Alto with a couple slightly sketchy desi dudes who exist on the fringes of Silicon Valley’s tech wonderland. Funny and frantic, with typical Tanuj Chopra hijinks including hallucinogenic drugs, ethically questionable characters, and surprising individuals who are not what they seem to be.
AKA Seoul, dir. Jon Maxwell
An intriguing look at the experiences of a handful of twentysomething Korean adoptees as they return to Seoul to search for some of the answers to their family histories. Along the way they discover that uncovering the truth may not always be the best way to determine your destiny and that detours don’t necessarily mean derailment on the track tracks of life (wut?).
Basha Man, dir. Daniel Chein
A perceptive look at the conflict between capital and culture, this short documentary profiles a young tour guide and performer in a small village in western China. The film explores the difficulties in maintaining a cultural heritage in a rapidly commodifying world.
Bruce Takes Dragon Town, dir. Emily Chao
Returning to Taiwan during Ghost Month takes on extra significance for a Taiwanese American filmmaker tracing her family’s migrations. This short experimental doc gets bonus points for featuring clips of the obscure Francis Ng film Banana Spirit.
It Is What It Is, dir. Cyrus Tabor
This short experimental documentary uses home movies, archival footage, and a personal narrative that attempts to unlock family secrets across generations and between continents. Dreamy, sad, and perplexing, with a blurry sheen of flawed memories that demonstrates the difficulties in finding the line between truth and fiction.
Death In A Day, dir. Lin Wang
A brief look at a significant moment in a young boy’s life, this sharply observed short narrative, told from the boy’s point of view, is full of subtlety and symbolism.
Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which looks at the struggles of a young Korean American man in Los Angeles coming to grips with his queerness, at first may seem like a throwback to pre-Stonewall “gay=guilt” cinematic tropes. But rather than a retrograde portrayal it instead represents a step forward in queer filmic representations, recognizing the significance of intersectional identities found in LGBTQ people of color.
Spa Night is a thoughtful and nuanced movie that goes beyond a lot of queer cinema’s current trend toward hot makeout sessions interspersed with romantic melodrama. Back in the day when New Queer Cinema took off back in the 1990s with movies like Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche 1994), The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Münch, 1991), and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), among many others, it was important to show queer sex onscreen since it had been silenced and suppressed for so long. At that time just the act of boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing signaled a radical moment. But now it’s almost become a cliché—I wrote a couple years ago about how every film I saw at Frameline Festival included the obligatory buffed dudes/cute chicks in tank tops stripping off and faking same-sex sex. Even mainstream television has queer couples tongue-locking all the time, so although homophobia remains rampant in US culture at large, it’s not as rare as it was back in the nineties to see LGBT coupling onscreen.
So in some ways Spa Night may seem relatively tame in relation to mainstream queer cinema (and it’s great that there is a such a thing, btw). Instead of a standard coming-out story where boy or girl announces his or her queerness to the world and such announcement is revelatory and life-affirming, Spa Night presents a much more layered and densely observed look at a young Korean American man’s gradual recognition of his sexuality. The film’s realization of the main character’s mixed feelings, confusion, and shame may seem like a reversion to the old days when any gay character was a tragic homosexual destined for unhappiness and grief. But Spa Night acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is not the end of confusion but often just the first step to self-realization.
The film depicts the complexities of a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality within a traditional Korean immigrant family. Set mostly in a bathhouse in Los Angeles’s Koreatown the film is not without several steamy suggestions of gay longing and desire, but for the most part the action is implied rather than explicit. David, the main character played by Joe Seo, grapples with maintaining a balance between his family obligations and the burgeoning realization of his sexual desires. Presented without judgment or blame, the film instead simply delineates David’s attempts to fulfill his family duties and his parents’ wishes for him to marry and carry on the family name while gradually recognizing his own sexual identity. The film recognizes David’s struggle to reconcile these sometimes oppositional forces. It also acknowledges that the simple pre- and post-coming out binary may not work within the bounds of a non-Western cultural context, as David’s filial piety, family responsibilities, cultural expectations, and other culturally specific concerns come into play.
Although it may not seem as edgy as its predecessors in New Queer Cinema in fact Spa Night is a step forward for the genre. The film recognizes the very different tensions that queer Asian Americans may face as they balance a multiplicity of identities, histories, and expectations.
Two one-act plays based on a couple short stories by Filipino American author and Bay Area native Lysley Tenorio are currently up at the American Conservatory Theater’s swanky new black box theater in the old Strand movie house in the mid-Market district. As we hopped off of BART and walked a half block up to the theater I felt like I was in a real city, one with functional public transit and a lively street life, instead of the rapidly sanitizing tech-bro haven that San Francisco is becoming. But I digress–
Both of the one-acts that comprise Monstress are set in the Bay Area, though both are historical pieces. Veteran scribe Philip Kan Gotanda penned the first play, Remember The I-Hotel, and Sean San Jose, former performing arts director of Intersection for the Arts, wrote the second, Presenting . . . the Monstress! Gotanda’s piece begins with a short segment set during the infamous 1977 eviction night at the International Hotel, which all Asian Americanists know was the last bastion of the former ten-block Manilatown just next to downtown San Francisco and abutting Chinatown. Two elderly Filipino tenants, Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) and Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) prepare to vacate the single-room apartments that have been their homes for more than forty years. As the two shave and dress, they remember their youth in San Francisco back in the 1930s when Fortunado first arrived from the Stockton asparagus fields as a young man and met Vicente at a taxi-dancing joint. The play follows the trajectory of their friendship as they become friends, work together as bellhops at a fancy Nob Hill hotel, and pursue romance and the American dream. Along the way they meet up with a Midwestern girl named Althea (Kelsey Venter) and, as they run up against the harsh and brutal realities of racism, learn the limits of their freedoms in a pre-civil rights U.S.
As always Gotanda has a keen ear for dialog and for the small gestures that create a fully fleshed out character. Vicente and Fortunado’s roles are delineated through their playful banter with each other, the way that Vicente swaggers and shadow-boxes across the stage, and the mournful longing embodied in Fortunado’s glances at his best friend. Though the narrative sticks fairly closely to Tenorio’s original short story, in bringing it to the stage Gotanda enhances some of its small details. For instance, story has a throwaway line about Wisconsonite Althea and Vicente sharing butter and olive sandwiches with one one of their nights out. Gotanda expands this to a short but humorously telling exchange that illustrates the cultural differences between the Filipino characters and the American-born girl.
The sound design of the play is very evocative, anchored by several Tagalog pop songs crooned by a torch singer (Melody Butiu) that punctuate and enhance the dramatic action. Key among those songs is the classic love ballad Da Hil Sayo, which is also included in Curtis Choy’s documentary, The Fall of the I-Hotel. The play also opens and closes with a sound clip from Choy’s film as the voice of one of the activists protesting the I-Hotel eviction warns demonstrators that the police are on the way to the hotel. Gotanda and director Carey Perloff thus link the play’s action to the legendary acts of resistance from the I-Hotel demonstrations, bringing to life the struggles and injustices faced by the first generation manongs who made their home in the I-Hotel. The set of Remember The I-Hotel includes a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows behind which significant action occurs, and the audience is thus reminded of the historical events that took place in 1977 just beyond the walls and down the street from the Strand.
Remember the I-Hotel is a sublime and moving piece of work that, with the expansion of a few dance numbers or songs, could easily become a full-length play. The lead performers are excellent, with Vicente and Fortunado convincingly aging from young and sprightly twenty-year olds to elderly men in their seventies. Lydia Tanji’s 1930s costume design is right on the money, from the sharp tailoring of Vicente’s suits to the flower-print dresses worn by the female characters.
The same cast also appears in the second one-act of the evening, with playwright Sean San Jose taking a lead role. Presenting . . . the Monstress! follows the tale of a low-budget Filipino movie director named Crackers Rosario and his leading lady, Reva Gogo, who specialize in no-budget monster movies. Somehow the pair end up in San Mateo CA collaborating with an Ed Woodian director from the U.S. named Gaz Gazman who has a similar interest in creating cinematic schlock.
Set in the 1970s, Monstress features even more impressive costuming by Lydia Tanji including a powder blue leisure suit, neon green floral shirt and matching lime slacks, and suede platform shoes. The tone of this play is much lighter and more comical than Gotanda’s, with a pair of wisecracking queer Filipino commentators narrating the action. Melody Butiu anchors the play as the wide-eyed Reva who is simultaneously dazzled by and wary of the glamour of low-budget moviemaking in the U.S. Yet despite its wacky flashiness the play ends like I-Hotel with a wistful sense of longing and loneliness and as such the two one-acts complement each other nicely. Both are excellent interpretations of Tenorio’s evocative source material and both are great examples of the talent in the Bay Area Asian American literary and theater arts scenes.
Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is upon us once again and it’s a monster. Now in its thirty-eight edition, the festival includes dozens of films from around the world screening over nearly two weeks at several venues around town.
This year’s Asian/American contingent includes about a half-dozen feature films and a smattering of shorts from Asia, the U.S, and the U.K. But this year is also all about George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and, more recently, a social media rockstar who’s the recipient of the 2014 Frameline Award and the subject of the festival’s centerpiece presentation, To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer Kroot (whose last project, It Came From Kuchar, similarly documented another queer media icon, underground filmmaker George Kuchar).
George Takei also has a small but significant cameo in David Au’s debut feature, Eat With Me, which also screens at this year’s festival. It’s been more than twenty years since The Wedding Banquet looked at gayness in the Asian American community and Eat With Me hews closely to the themes and concerns of that influential Ang Lee joint. The story follows the relationship between indeterminate Asian American mom Emma, played by Sharon Omi, and her grown son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), a cook at a nondescript Chinese restaurant, as Emma comes to terms with her own homophobia while Elliot finds a way to make his sexuality okay with his family and culture.
Although the film is somewhat soft around the edges, it’s secret weapon is Sharon Omi, who is a treasure—a veteran of Asian American theater companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, she’s always had an impish grin and a dead-on sense of comic timing that’s in full effect in this movie. Although the film is in no way revolutionary, Omi’s performance completely rocks. The rest of the cast is also solid and director Au pulls some charming performances from them, though they’re pretty much coming-out-film stock characters–Elliot the gay son is at odds with his mom; Ian, Elliot’s too-good-to-be-true love interest, is hot, sensitive, and has a sexy British accent; and next-door-neighbor divorcee/yogini Maureen (Nicole Sullivan of MADtv) is the quirky and offbeat. It’s also nice to see another Asian American acting stalwart, Ken Narasaki (and Omi’s real-life husband), in a small role as Emma’s curmudgeonly spouse.
The film also includes the reliable motif of cute boys tearing off their tank tops and snogging at regular intervals during the film. Just like you can expect a song and dance number every thirty minutes in a Bollywood movie, in gay indie films you can pretty much set your watch by when the attractive lead characters will start a makeout session, and Eat With Me is no exception, as Elliot strips down and hooks up on a regular basis throughout the movie.
The rest of the Frameline fest is chock full of film-watching delights that will surely consume the next eleven days of my life. Along with the Kenji Mizoguchi series at the Pacific Film Archive that also starts this Thursday, the World Cup in Brazil, and the A’s and Giants duking it out for the best record in baseball, my summer vacation is shaping up just fine.
June 19-29, 2014
Castro, Victoria, Victoria Theaters in San Francisco
Elmwood Rialto in Berkeley
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
Another year, another San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, except now it’s been rebranded as CAAMfest, which certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than the previous moniker. The festival has added a tagline (film, music, food) that’s a nod to the increased presence of the audio and gustatory arts, but it doesn’t mean that movies are taking a backseat. As per usual there are more than a hundred new Asian and Asian American flicks in this year’s festival—below are a few preview picks.
I don’t need to tell you that this is a great Cinderella story, but filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong has taken the familiar material and shaped a charming and inspiring documentary about everyone’s favorite Asian American underdog. Jeremy Lin turns out to be funny, self-aware, and loquacious and Leong uses his longstanding access to his subject (he started shooting the film when Lin was at Harvard) to great effect. Interviews with Lin’s friends and family members, home videos of the budding basketball prodigy, and great coverage of the actual Linsanity phenomenon makes this a super-fun, captivating movie. The movie also touches on the racism and discrimination faced by Lin, the NBA’s first Asian American superstar, as well as Lin’s devout Christianity, but Lin is such a self-effacing guy and Leong so skillfully handles these elements that they work seamlessly into the whole picture.
A solid film noir set in Manila and directed by Filipino American Ron Morales (Santa Mesa, 2008), Graceland looks at the repercussions of the kidnapping of a pair of young girls. Dark and moody, the film questions the morality of its various characters and, like the best noirs, no one is above scrutiny, everyone is guilty, and everyone has something to hide. The cast is lead by a nervous, sweaty performance by Arnold Reyes as the desperate father trying to save his daughter and who has many hard choices to make. The film also indicts the sex trade, corrupt policemen, and shady politicians—this is classic hardboiled stuff and well worth a look.
When The Bough Breaks
Ji Dan’s verite documentary about a poor Chinese family living in a hovel on the outskirts of Beijing examines the effects of China’s rapidly expanding economy, which has ironically left many in dire economic and social straits. The father is a laborer, the daughters are adolescents trying to find money for themselves and/or their preteen brother to go to a decent school (one “sponsor,” a sick elderly man, offers to fund their education if they’ll sleep with him), and upward mobility is nowhere to be found. As if that wasn’t enough, Dad is a tyrannical drunk who verbally abuses his family at any opportunity, Mom is angry and fed up, and the teenagers are already learning to psychologically torment each other. Plus, the family’s eldest daughter has gone missing for some years after being lured into prostitution by the false promise of a factory job folding cardboard boxes. Overlong, somewhat shapeless, and leaning toward poverty porn, the film is interesting nonetheless due to the tenacity of the two younger daughters who grimly soldier on in the face of a bleak existence.
When Night Falls
Another film set in China, this narrative examines the notorious case of a young man who is driven to commit murder by that country’s oppressive police force. Ai Wei Wei made a documentary about the same case, but this film focuses on travails of the man’s mother as she tries to unravel her son’s unfortunate fate. The movie is composed primarily of long, stationary shots that emphasize the delicate action within the frame, lending a sense of oppression, immediacy, and intimacy to the film.
Also of note in the fest: Debbie Lum’s sharp and observant documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which is all about white dudes with yellow fever (full review here); The Land of Hope, Sion Sono’s second feature set in the Fukashima tsunami zone (full review here); the omnibus film Beautiful 2012, which includes Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s short narrative My Way, starring Francis Ng as a transgendered woman (!) (full review here), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest dreamwork, The Mekong Hotel. The festival is also presenting a brief retrospective of director Royston Tan, including Old Romances, his documentary elegy to old-time Singapore, the maniacal musical 881, and his debut feature 15, which looks at teenage angst, Singaporean-style. I’ll be interviewing the director onstage live at the Pacific Film Archive following the screening of 15, so be there!
March 14-24, 2013
San Francisco and Berkeley, CA
full schedule and ticket information here.
Just attending the vernissage for a couple of excellent new shows at the San Jose Museum of Art. It was a bit of a drive from my San Francisco homebase but both exhibitions were well worth the gas and time traveled to get there.
Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography is a survey of work from Chinese artists that looks at the rapidly changing social, cultural, and political landscape of the world’s most populous nation. As I was just in Southern China last fall I was particularly looking forward to seeing the show, and it didn’t disappoint. Ranging from street photography to portraiture to manipulated digital images, the show is a good cross-section of recent work that includes artists from urban centers such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai as well as those from farther-flung provinces like Sichuan and Fujian.
Much of the work in the show addresses China’s rapidly changing society, looking at toxic waste, overdevelopment, industrial pollution, westernization, cultural appropriation, and the reclamation of Chinese history and culture amidst the onslaught of modernization. Several of Rising Dragon’s artists deal head-on with China’s environmental degradation and destruction. Yao Lu’s New Landscapes series depicts what at first glance appears to be traditional Chinese landscape paintings, with pastoral scenes of mountains enshrouded by mist and clouds. Upon closer examination, however, these images turn out to be photographs of the massive mounds of garbage covered in green netting that can be found throughout China.
Similarly, Wen Fen’s series Sitting On The Wall documents the impact of China’s accelerated urbanization. Shot in the same location over the course of more than a decade, Wen’s photographed a schoolgirl sitting on a wall overlooking the once-distant Haikou cityscape. As the years pass the skyscrapers become larger and move closer to the girl until the wall is torn down and the nearest building sits right on the edge of the frame.
Liyi + Liubo’s photographs take a more whimsical look at China’s social landscape, with their staged tableaux inspired by headlines from China’s infamously sensationalist tabloid newspapers. Self-explanatory titles include Failing to Steal Anything, a Thirteen-year-old girl Sets Fire to Classmate’s Home; Karaoke Hostess Forced To Drink Intoxicant, Now Under Police Investigation; and An Escapee Being Chased Dropped Through The Top Floor of a Building and Scared Everyone.
An unintended irony of the exhibition is the siting of Rising Dragon in Silicon Valley—the high-tech industry has outsourced much of its manufacturing to China, thus possibly contributing to the overly rapid industrialization that has lead to the destruction of China’s environment and the breakdown of its social structures. By addressing these and other aspects of 21st-century China, the show is a good primer on new photography from that country and demonstrates the ongoing vitality and innovation of its art scene.
Also on view at the SJMA is New Stories From The Edge of Asia: This/That, a show of Asian American artists organized by SJMA’s senior curator Monica Ramirez-Montagut. Included in this exhibition is a mini-retrospective of work by San Francisco’s own MOB/Mail Order Brides, aka Jenifer Wofford, Eliza O. Barrios, and Reanne Estrada, aka Baby, Neneng, and Imaculata. The MOB were there in person to introduce their newest project, Manananggoogle, that links the world of Silicon Valley women with the manananggal, the Filipino mythological creature that, among other things, eats the hearts of human fetuses. The MOB attempt to reclaim the myth of the manananggal by parallelling its often-misunderstood image with misogynistic stereotypes of female corporate executives. As always, the Brides exploit their singular brand of humor, irony, and cosplay to examine what it means to be pinay.
Also notable is Landless In Second Life, Tran T. Kim-Trang’s three-channel video project that utilizes the popular online platform to look at biculturalism and filial piety. In a kind of virtual version of hell bank notes, Tran builds an online dream home for her deceased mother, populating it with avatars from her immediate family and with icons from both the U.S. and Vietnam.
The show also includes an installation of The Heart’s Mouth by Erica Cho, a sleek narrative film about love, gender, and identity, and some of Mike Lai’s continued explorations of his Bruce Lee fetish. This included a performance piece during the opening reception that pitted Aztec dancers against Lai’s oversized Bruce Lee Fists of Fury puppets in a volleyball/dodgeball tournament played out on a floor-sized map of the United States.
All in all the two shows nicely complement each other. Each deals with culture, politics, identity, and race from both sides of the Pacific, with wit, style, and humor.