Posts filed under ‘movies’

Marry The Night: 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Stylized, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

NOTE: Because of the crunch of completing Love Boat: Taiwan for the past six months or so I’m very behind on my postings here. Starting with this entry I’m going to try to catch up as best I can with the backlog, so apologies for the anachronistic timings.

This past March I took my first trip back to Hong Kong in nearly two years, after I spent last year dealing with a life-threatening illness, for the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Because this year there were no weekday matinee screenings, with programming most days beginning after 6pm, my screening schedule was somewhat less frenetic than in past years, but I still saw many great movies in just under a week of viewing. In no particular order here are some of the films I caught.

 

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Sharper, G-Affairs, 2019

G-Affairs (2019), Lee Cheuk-pan’s directorial debut, is an interesting amalgamation of styles and tropes from past and present Hong Kong cinema, but with a sharper edge than many recent commercial films from the territory. Sex, crime, violence, and corruption permeate the proceedings as this bleak and nihilistic view of Hong Kong society follows several characters including a corrupt cop (Chapman To), a world-weary prostitute (Huang Lu), and a troubled teenaged student (Hanna Chan) whose teacher sexually exploits her. The film implicates those with power and authority who continually fail the younger characters, suggesting the betrayal of Hong Kong’s youthful dreams in the decades following the 1997 handover.

 

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Backstage, First Night Nerves, 2019

A completely different sort of Hong Kong movie, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves (2019) is an excellent example of what used to be called a women’s film, with a female-centric plot and strong women characters. Sleek and assured, Kwan’s backstage drama, his first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Cantopop divas Sammi Cheng and Gigi Lai as rival actresses. The film includes clever dialogue that references the tensions between Hong Kong and China and harkens back to the heyday of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

 

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Complex, Everybody Knows, 2019

Everybody Knows (2019), Asghar Farhadi’s latest joint, is as usual full of moral ambiguity and complexity but a bit more plotty than his other films, including his Oscar-winners A Separation and The Salesman. A family reunion at a wedding in Spain dredges up past secrets and unresolved conflicts that come to a head when the daughter of one of the attendees is kidnapped. As usual Farhadi creates finely drawn, complex and ambiguous characters full of flaws and virtues, and draws out excellent performances from his cast, most notably the outstanding turn by Javier Bardim. His co-star and fellow international star Penelope Cruz is also good, although at times a bit too florid in her rendering of a mother desperately seeking her disappeared daughter. The screening I attended at HKIFF proved why seeing movies in a theater will always be superior to watching them online as the audience was totally into the film and gasped and laughed at the plot twists and reveals, thus enacting that ineffable cinema viewing experience.

 

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Iconic, Barber Takes a Wife, 1947

The festival also featured a clutch of four restored films starring the iconic Shanghainese actress Li Lihua. I was able to catch two of them including Barber Takes a Wife, a beautiful and charming screwball comedy from 1947. Full of snappy clothes and snappy dialog, led by the queen of the arched eyebrow Li Lihua, who is vivacious and charismatic, the film reflects the sheen and sophistication of pre-revolution Shanghai.  In contrast, Bright Day (dir. Cao Yu, 1948) is full of social realism. There’s a bit too much exposition at the start but the movie eventually resolves itself well. Li is not quite as radiant as in Barber Takes a Wife but she is nonetheless lively and engaging. Director Cao’s background was in theater and the film is somewhat less cinematic than it could be, though there are flashes that are more filmic in the use of camera, lighting, and editing.

 

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Pranking, Hidden Man, 2018

After my viewing of Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man (2018) at the film festival I thought it was a mess of a movie and I feel asleep despite (maybe because of) the film’s overblown action and hyperactive structure? Eddie Peng plays a similar role as Lee Byung-Hun in the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, a returning expat who fled to the US as a child to escape violence and who is on a mission to avenge the deaths of those close to him. But I thought that Hidden Man never found its focus and jumped maniacally from person to place to topic, and that the characters were shallowly drawn. I also thought that the anachronistic cultural references and puns seemed forced and overly smirky.

But although I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it, on the recommendation of Ross Chen from lovehkfilm.com I watched it again on the plane ride back home from Hong Kong. Somehow it was better the second time around once I realized that Jiang Wen is a big joker who is pranking his audience throughout the movie. Some of the action choreography is quite good too and Eddie Peng looks good with his shirt off. And the way the film casually kills off major characters is very interesting, as if Jiang is making a mockery of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

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Vulnerable, Eight Taels of Gold, 1989

The festival also included a focus on the legendary Hong Kong actor, producer, director, and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who is probably most famous for his collaborations with his “brothers” Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in classic martial arts films such as The Prodigal Son, Wheels On Meals, and Project A. I caught his starring turn in Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet drama Eight Taels of Gold (1989), which is really the best movie ever. Touching, vulnerable, and beautifully directed by Cheung, the film showcases Sammo’s acting chops as he plays a Chinese expat who’s spent many years in the US whose relationship with his cousin (Sylvia Chang) becomes complicated when he accompanies her to her wedding in their home village in China. Poignant, emotional, and humanistic, the film focuses on different side of Hung that contrasts with his more familiar comedic martial arts/action persona.

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Bold, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

Xiang Zi’s debut feature, A Dog Barking At The Moon (2019) is a stylized film that also has strong characters and an interesting plotline about a Chinese woman returning home to her dysfunctional family. Zi makes some bold stylistic choices, including theatrical interludes and overly mannered camera placements, and for the most part they work as they are self-conscious without being distracting. However, the narrative is very full and includes repressed sexual longing, homophobia, and cult indoctrinations, among other angsty developments. But the mother’s attraction to the cult and her ultimate motivations are believable and the Zi’s risky directorial decisions work more often than they don’t.

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Conventional, A Long Goodbye, 2019

A Long Goodbye (2019), a family melodrama from Japan, is stylistically the opposite of A Dog Barking At The Moon. Director Nakano Ryota’s film, which follows a family as its patriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, is conventionally presented and relies on strong acting and invisible direction for its impact. Leaning towards tearjerker, it skates close to melodrama without actually fully falling into the abyss.

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Groundbreaking,Varda by Agnes, 2019

Fittingly, the last film I saw at this year’s festival was Varda by Agnes (2019), which was a brilliant and prescient elegy to the groundbreaking nouvelle vague filmmaker wherein Varda herself looks back on her long and storied career. As well as being a noted director Varda was also an accomplished photographer and visual artist—later in life she worked in multi-channel media installations. I saw this a day after Varda’s death and it was an outstanding self-tribute that provided a fascinating look into the director’s creative process.

Postscript: As I write this in June 2019 the people of Hong Kong have been protesting and demonstrating against a draconian extradition law that may be a turning point in the territory’s relationship with its overlords in Beijing. Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its “one country, two systems” existence, which has already been severely diminished, or will Beijing further erode the civil liberties of the restive region? As the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past couple weeks have proven, Hong Kong isn’t going down without a fight.

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June 15, 2019 at 5:29 am Leave a comment

New Power Generation: Jia Zhangke and Lunar New Year films 2019

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Jiang hu, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

This has been an interesting few weeks in Chinese-language cinema screenings here in the Bay. This is due in part to the recent Lunar New Year/Spring Festival holiday in China and related territories, during which a whole slew of new movies were released to capitalize on the extended vacays of most people during that time. Because of the glut in product and the large Chinese-speaking population in the Bay Area, a select few of those releases made it across the Pacific to San Francisco movie houses. Coupled with an extended series of films by one of China’s premier arthouse directors, this meant that I managed to catch many Sinophone films in the month of February.

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Cameos, Missbehavior, 2019

I started my Lunar New Year viewings with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Missbehavior, one of two Hong Kong films that made it to San Francisco in February. (Sadly, I missed the other one, Felix Chong’s action thriller Integrity, due to scheduling conflicts). Pang is Hong Kong’s 21st century bad-boy auteur who’s racked up a number of well-received hits including Isabella, Vulgaria, Aberdeen, and his Love In A Puff series that stars Miriam Cheung and Shawn Yue. Miss Behavior is a low-budget quickie that carries on in the best tradition of New Year’s films, with a big cast with many famous people making cameos, a lighthearted comic tone, and a lowbrow sensibility including an extended sequence of the glamorous Dada Chen discussing her bowel movements. Though it’s not one of Pang’s deepest or most thoughtful films (the setup involves a group of friends frantically trying to locate a bottle of breast milk) the narrative  is actually very well-constructed and it moves along at a good clip, briskly shuffling its many characters in and out and climaxing with a free-for-all in a big ol’ shopping mall after hours.

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Spectacular, The Wandering Earth, 2019

On the other end of the production-values spectrum is China’s very first foray into the big-budget science fiction genre, The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo). Based on a short story by well-known Chinese author Liu Cixin, the movie is a big, spectacular piece of moviemaking that rivals anything that Hollywood has put out lately. Although there are no aliens, the film does include huge vistas of spinning planets, individuals at peril in space and planetside, spaceships and other hardware exploding, random science-babble, and other markers of every sci-fi movie of recent vintage. The production design is also on point, portraying an Earth of the near future as dark, chaotic, and polluted (not unlike modern-day Beijing).

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Collectivism, The Wandering Earth, 2019

But at heart it’s a Chinese production, emphasizing collectivism over individuality and the importance of very long-range goals. Also of note is the absence of almost any US presence to speak of—in China’s futuristic vision everyone speaks Mandarin, Russian, French or Japanese, and most of the planetside action takes place in China or other Asian countries. A massive box office hit in China, the film grossed more than US$300 million in its first weekend of release and has gone on to an impressive haul of more than US$650 million worldwide in just under four weeks.

And on a different tip entirely was the Jia Zhangke series at SFMOMA and BAM/PFA that included Jia himself in person at two of the screenings (a delayed plane flight prevented him making a scheduled third appearance at a show earlier in the series). The series included every one of Jia’s feature films (documentaries and narratives both), as well as films by other directors that have had some direct influence on his work.

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Underbelly, Unknown Pleasures, 2002

Some of the pairings worked really well together such as the double-bill including Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), both of which looked at aimless young people wandering through life. Jia’s film explores the seamy side of China, with Jia using the under-construction highway between Datong & Beijing as a visual metaphor for the rough underbelly of China’s economic miracle. A prequel of sorts to Jia’s latest film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), it follows an emo pretty boy in love triangle with the chanteuse Qiao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, a low-rent loan shark mobster.

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Ennui, The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983

In contrast, Hou’s film is quiet and still compared to the barely restrained chaos of Jia’s movie. As opposed to the undercurrent of grinding industrial cacophony in Unknown Pleasures, the sound of lapping waves is an aural backdrop to most of the action in a small seaside town where group of young dudes hang out and try to find meaning in their lives. They eventually end up in Kaohshiung, the closest city to their tiny coastal burg, where more ennui and confusion awaits.

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Rivers and lakes, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

Other film matchups at SFMOMA were more loosely connected—for instance, according to the programmers Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) was paired with 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2009) for the sole reason that both films are about cities. Similarly, the programmers grouped I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010), Spring In A Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), three wildly disparate movies, because they are all set in Shanghai. But the smart pairing of Johnny To’s Election (2005) and Jia’s Ash Is Purest White cleverly focused on the jiang hu, the criminal underworld in both Hong Kong and China.

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Chinatown new wave, Chan Is Missing, 1982

The series also matched up Jia films with non-Asian movies, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Jia’s Xiao Wu (a show that Jia introduced himself at SFMOMA). And props for including Chinese American director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982), which evokes the nouvelle vague by way of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I’m happy that I was able to squeeze in a bunch of screenings in the mini-hiatus from editing my film, Love Boat: Taiwan, because the next four weeks or so will be solely dedicated to finishing up the movie for its world premiere in early May. More info soon on this, but please go here if you want to find out about Love Boat: Taiwan and how you can support it .

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Ash Is Purest White opens theatrically on March 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and on March 22 at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara, CNMK Fremont 8 in East Bay, and CNMK Milpitas 20 in San Jose.

March 3, 2019 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

Long Dark Road: 2019 Noir City film festival

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Party Time, Pickup On South Street, 1953

The 2019 edition of the Noir City film festival just finished another excellent run and there was a party atmosphere for the 10-day festival as the Castro Theater hosted full houses for almost every show. As usual Noir City had value-added features including live music in between some shows, screenings of rare clips and trailers, and informative and edifying introductions by Noir City founder Eddie Muller and other knowledgable film noir geeks/authors. The movies I attended were uniformly good, but a few stood out due to the significant combination of a great cast, a strong script, and excellent direction.

Some of the festival’s offerings fell a bit short on one of the three key elements above, making for less than satisfying results. For instance, legendary director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca; Mildred Pierce) helmed The Scarlet Hour (1956) with a sure hand, and the script is classic noir, about a femme fatale and her hapless sap of a boytoy who are involved in a jewel heist. But rookie actresss Carol Omhart isn’t quite up to scratch in the lead role and despite its other strong elements the film falters on her uneven performance. Conversely, The File On Thelma Jordan (1950) includes an excellent performance from Barbara Stanwyck and moody and evocative direction by Robert Siodmak but the script’s improbable plot twists diminish the film’s overall impact.

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Struggling, Nightfall, 1957

Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957) is a much more successful endeavor. Although not possessing the mournful beauty of his classic noir Out of the Past, Nightfall still showed Tourneur’s strong directorial touch. The film’s two thugs, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond, feel truly menacing and Aldo Ray as the protagonist on the run conveys a strong sense of a man struggling to keep his bearings in the shifting sands of noir-world danger. A very young Anne Bancroft is Ray’s love interest and her performance displays a strength and gravity beyond her years. The film has just the right touch of fatalistic peril and dread to keep the viewer engaged.

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Complex, Pickup On South Street, 1953

One of my favorite films of all time, Pickup On South Street (1953), was part of a trio of movies directed by Sam Fuller in this year’s festival, and it fully demonstrates a film firing on all cylinders, with acting, script, and directing all top-notch. Fuller’s kinetic directorial style and his intense, fast-paced script brilliantly complement Richard Widmark and Jean Peters’ performances as streetwise characters who are constantly maneuvering to survive. Thelma Ritter contributes a stellar performance as an aging stool pigeon, delivering a complex and emotional turn that forms the moral center of the movie.

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Sultry, The Crimson Kimono, 1957

The festival also screened Fuller’s 1957 film The Crimson Kimono, which is notable for including a Japanese American character, Joe Kojaku (played with sultry subtlety by the doe-eyed James Shigeta), in a romantic lead. The film also includes a sympathetic and mostly Orientalist-free representation of the Los Angeles JA community with Nisei characters who speak in unaccented English and who are human beings instead of exotic caricatures. The film falls a bit short, however, in its analysis of race relations as it suggests that Joe’s experiences with racist microaggressions are a figment of his imagination. SPOILER: He does get the girl, however, which for mid-1950s America was pretty revolutionary.

 

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Tense, Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a tense crime thriller produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, also possesses the magic combination of script, cast, and direction. The film shows a darker side to Belafonte’s usual upbeat persona as he plays Johnny, a nightclub singer facing dire straits due to his gambling addiction. After loan shark enforcers threaten his family with harm Johnny teams up with a couple of other shady characters including Earl, a racist from Oklahoma played by Robert Ryan, and David (Ed Begley), a fallen-from-grace cop. They three attempt to pull off a risky bank heist but the meat of the story is the strong character development of both Johnny and Earl. Director Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sand Pebbles) delves into both characters’ personal lives to give weight and heft to what’s at stake for the two. As a result the film’s climax and conclusion are exceptionally tense and gripping. Also, unlike The Crimson Kimono, racism doesn’t get a pass in this film SPOILER and in fact Earl’s flagrant bigotry is a key culprit in the failure of the heist.  END SPOILER Bonus points for supporting roles from Shelly Winters as Earl’s long-suffering girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as the sexy neighbor upstairs, as well as for the excellent score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The festival concluded with a pair of hard-boiled films from 1961. Sam Fuller’s third installation in this year’s festival, Underworld USA, is a bleak little number full of vengeance, double-crosses, and grudges. Cliff Robertson snarls his way through the film as a safecracker out to get the thugs who killed his dad some twenty years prior. With almost no redeeming characters the film is an existential ode to the shady side of life, where the only motivations are revenge and survival.

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Twisted, Blast of Silence, 1961

The festival closed with the excellent and underappreciated Blast of Silence, a low-budget gem directed with a stylish and jaded eye by Allen Baron. Baron also stars as Frankie Bono, a creepy hitman who presages Travis Bickle in his angst-ridden interior monolog and his twisted, affectless approach to killing. The film follows Frankie as he plots his next hit and depicts his sad and stilted attempts to make meaningful human contact beyond his gruesome professional responsibilities. Bleak, hard-boiled, and grim, and set in the dead of winter between Christmas and New Year’s day, Blast of Silence is like an icy slap of cold air on a winter’s day.

 

February 6, 2019 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

Why LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN still matters: Romance, culture and soft power

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Bringing it all back home, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Although the iconic Taiwan Love Boat, with 1200 college-aged Taiwanese American running rampant in Taipei for six weeks every summer, doesn’t really exist any more, the program is still completely relevant in today’s cultural and political climate. Because Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, has yet to agree to the “one-China” principle that claims that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, the cold war between Taiwan and China is hotting up. China is pressuring international airlines to erase the name of Taiwan from any flights to the island nation, US warships are patrolling the straits between the two countries, and more and more of Taiwan’s sparse diplomatic allies are switching support to China, the latest being El Salvador and Burkino Faso. The latter switched because of what some observers describe as “intense pressure” from China to changed alliances, leaving Taiwan with only seventeen diplomatic allies around the world.

A recent New York Times article lauded Taiwan as a new bastion of free speech in Asia, but because of the ongoing tensions with its huge and influential neighbor, Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation is anything but secure.

The bad blood between Taiwan and China goes way back, with the main source of the conflict beginning in 1949, when the Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces fled from China to Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communist army. This laid the groundwork for the ongoing strife between China and Taiwan that came to a head in 1971 when the United Nations recognized the PRC over Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. Enter the Taiwan Love Boat as one of Taiwan’s main forms of soft power, filling the void of Taiwan’s official diplomatic recognition in the UN and among most nations around the world.

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Soft power, 1990s style, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

Soft power as defined by political scientist Joseph Nye is diplomacy through attraction and persuasion, as opposed to “hard power,” or diplomacy through coercion and strength. The Love Boat’s brand of cultural exchange, which presents a highly appealing, enticing, and sexy version of Taiwan, is in opposition to the more overt political pressure that China practices. Referring to Taiwan’s soft power push, the Brookings Institute recently stated, “Though less measurable than the number of diplomatic allies it maintains or international conferences it attends, such goodwill—or “soft power”—may prove every bit as valuable for strengthening Taiwan’s standing over the long run.”

In the late 1960s Taiwan’s government established the Expatriate Youth Language and Study Tour as an outreach program designed in part to convince Taiwanese youth in the US, Canada, and Europe to support Taiwan in its ongoing conflicts with China, and after the UN kicked Taiwan to the curb in 1971, Taiwan’s government ramped up its support for the Study Tour. Around the same time, many Taiwanese were immigrating to the US and raising families there. But parents found that their American-born kids were growing up speaking English, watching Western television, and a lot of times, marrying non-Taiwanese mates.  Thus many Taiwanese immigrants sent their American-born children on the Study Tour in hopes that they would learn more about their Taiwanese heritage and perhaps meet their ideal Taiwanese American mate.

The Study Tour’s high-minded cultural aspirations included Mandarin-language classes, martial arts, and brush painting, but the program’s popularity among young Taiwanese Americans came from another source: its reputation as an excellent place to hook up and find romance. Because of this, the Study Tour is more commonly known by its nickname, the Taiwan Love Boat. LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN looks at the multifaceted aspects the program, both as a government-sponsored cultural exchange and as a rollicking summer trip famed for romantic opportunities. The Love Boat is also an example of Taiwan’s soft power at its finest.

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Culture by day, party by night, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN investigates the ways in which the Love Boat uses soft power to gain support for Taiwan. Many Love Boat alumni who were born and raised in North America were so affected by their summer sojourn on the Love Boat that they resettled in Asia. Conversely, as a result of their involvement with the Love Boat, some Taiwanese-born counselors and staff migrated to the US and live and work there today. Other participants met on the Love Boat and eventually married. And many more continue to foster deep friendships that started decades before on the Love Boat.

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Justin Tan falling in love, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As Love Boat alumnus Justin Tan recalls,

“While I was there, I just remember I felt a very deep connection to Taiwan. I was like, ‘What is happening to me right now? Am I falling in love with this country?’ And I was, I was absolutely like falling in love with the culture, the people. To me at that time in my life it was like the coolest country ever, the Taiwanese were the coolest people ever.”

 

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Congresswoman Judy Chu, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

As a content producer for the popular website buzzfeed.com, Justin Tan has a significant platform for boosting his love for Taiwan, thus increasing Taiwan’s pull on cultural trends. Perhaps more significantly to Taiwan’s government, other Love Boat alumni have risen to political influence in the US, including Congresswoman Judy Chu, who went on the Love Boat in the 1970s. She now represents the 27th Congressional district in the US House of Representatives and is a staunch supporter of Taiwan, sitting on the Congressional Taiwan Caucus. Congresswoman Chu was interviewed for LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN and will appear in the finished film.

So although it may seem like an innocuous place for Taiwanese American kids to hook up and party, in fact the Love Boat is a much more subtle and clever tool in Taiwan’s diplomatic arsenal. Lacking the economic, political, or military sway of China, Taiwan instead has chosen to achieve influence by other means. By examining the Love Boat’s efforts to win over young, impressionable Taiwanese Americans and their families, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN enlightens and educates viewers about this brilliant and subtle form of soft power diplomacy.

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On location, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN is about to wrap up production, with a shoot in Taiwan in late November of the wedding banquet of a couple who met on the Love Boat and are now getting married. We’re now in the thick of an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for postproduction and with luck the film will be completed in 2019. We need to raise at least $20,000 to hire an editor, sound designer, composer, computer graphics designer, and more, so please go here to join in supporting the film and to bring this important story to the screen. Any help is much appreciated!

October 31, 2018 at 6:11 pm 4 comments

Hey You: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 38

Sammy being Sammy, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

The film festival cavalcade rolls on with the arrival of the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this week at theaters around the Bay. This year’s lineup includes a plethora of great films about Jewishness in all its incarnations.

Valentine, Love, Gilda, 2018

The opening night film, LOVE, GILDA, is a valentine to famed Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, tracing her life from childhood until her untimely death at age 43 from ovarian cancer. It’s a fond tribute to the hilarious comedian who earned fame on SNL as an original cast member back in the 1970s. The film exhaustively covers Gilda’s life from her comfortable upbringing in Detroit through her years as a member of seminal comedy troupes such as Second City and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and into her years as a star following her television debut on SNL.

Laraine & G, Love, Gilda, 2018

Using lots and lots of archival footage and photos, plus audio of Gilda’s own voice supplemented by readings of her journal by comedy folks such as Amy Poehler, the movie also includes interviews with co-stars including Martin Short, Laraine Newman, and Chevy Chase. Interestingly, there is no interview specifically done for the film with actor Gene Wilder, her widower, although he appears in archival footage. The film most vividly comes alive during clips of Radner’s brilliant and charming comedy routines on SNL and elsewhere, which demonstrate her spot-on comic timing and her genius in improvisational and physical comedy. Yet despite the poignancy of Radner’s life, including a struggle with eating disorders and her losing battle with cancer, my heartstrings were not quite plucked.

Baby Sammy, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

The closing night film, SAMMY DAVIS JR: I GOTTA BE ME, is a bit more successful in capturing the essence of its famous subject. Growing up in the 1970s my main memory of Davis was as a Vegas-style entertainer who was not at all hip compared to, say, Blue Oyster Cult, Prince, or Thin Lizzy, so my appreciation of Davis’s great gifts didn’t come until later in life. This fast-paced doc goes a long way toward rectifying any ignorance about Davis’s awesomeness as a supremely talented poly-hyphenate trailblazer who broke social and cultural barriers long before it was easy or trendy to do so. Davis was a brilliant tap dancer, an accomplished song stylist, a talented actor, and a celebrity living large with some of the biggest stars in midcentury America.

The pack, Sammy Davis, Jr: I Gotta Be Me, 2018

From his beginning as a child vaudeville performer, Davis’s career spanned much of the 20th century and included movies, television, theater, and concerts. The film expertly tells the tale of his larger-than-life life, with copious clips, recordings and photos and interviews with A-listers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis, Dionne Warwick, and many more whose lives Davis touched. The film also discusses the racial barriers that Davis faced and in many cases confronted head-on and broke through, including bullying in the military in World War II, his presence as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and his then-controversial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt. The film is fast-paced and expertly constructed and hardly seems able to keep up with the sheer breadth of achievement of its titular subject as he demonstrates everything from mad impersonation skilz to steezy sartorial choices, along with his singing, dancing, performing, and otherwise embodying legendariness.

Boosted, The Man Who Stole Banksy, 2018

Other highlights from the festival include a screening of BUDAPEST NOIR, co-sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation; THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY, a doc about an intrepid West Bank cabbie in who beat the infamous street artist at his own game; THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS, a restoration of a long-lost silent film that was recently found in flea market in Paris; THE WALDHEIM WALTZ, a documentary about Austria’s former president and Nazi-in-chief Kurt Waldheim; and SATAN & ADAM, a film many years in the making that explores the relationship between two very different musicians. I’m also looking forward to a screening of the 1933 pre-code classic BABY FACE, since I try to take advantage of every opportunity to see Barbara Stanwyck on the big screen. Once again, San Francisco proves that it’s a great town for film-watching, with the SF Jewish Film Festival one of the best places this summer to see movies beyond your run-of-the-mill multiplex blockbuster.

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 38

July 19-August 5, 2018

various locations throughout the Bay Area

 

 

July 21, 2018 at 2:48 am Leave a comment

Once You Get Started: Frameline 42 Film Festival

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Tapestry, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Like Hong Kong, San Francisco is an excellent city for film-viewing, and with Frameline (official title: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival) in full swing this week I suddenly feel like there are not enough hours in the day to see all of the movies I want to see. But I’m valiantly carrying on despite the burden of sorting through and prioritizing the festival’s ridiculously stacked schedule. A few highlights from my Frameline viewings this week include three outstanding documentaries and a narrative that demonstrate the high bar of the festival’s stellar programming this year.

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Mixing it up, Yours In Sisterhood, 2018

Irene Lusztig’s documentary Yours In Sisterhood has a simple premise. Back in the 1970s thousands of women wrote letters to Ms. Magazine, the premiere mainstream feminist publication of the day, but due to space restrictions only a handful of those letters were published. The rest reside in an archive at Radcliffe University that Lusztig accessed some years ago. From that archive she chose about 300 letters and then found women from the same locales as the original writers to re-read the letters on camera—from those 300-odd readings she chose twenty-seven for the film. The results are a brilliant tapestry of 1970s feminism and the resonances from that era to the present day. Lusztig presents the first several of the re-readings straight up to the camera without commentary, then gradually embroiders this format, showing the responses of the modern-day readers to their 1970s counterparts’ missives. A handful of the letters are reread by their original authors as well, including a particularly poignant coming-out letter written by a woman who was sixteen in the 1970s. After reading her letter she recalls how at the time she thought that being queer meant that she would be lonely all her life and that she would never marry or have children. Happily, this bleak prediction did not come to pass as the woman reveals that in the intervening years she and her longtime partner have raised two children and are well-liked in their small-town community.

Lusztig also provides a bit of dyke fanservice by including lesbian author Deena Metzger reading her 1970s letter onscreen, which was cheered loudly at the Frameline screening I attended. A minor quibble: the film includes only one Asian American woman and one Latina, which I understand reflects the mostly-white demographics of the Ms. Magazine readership back in the day. But other than that Lusztig does a great job mixing up the optics of the film and presenting a diverse range of points of view.

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Imbalance of power, Call Her Ganda, 2018

PJ Raval’s documentary Call Her Ganda follows the case of the murder of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude, who was killed in a fit of gay panic by US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. Despite being convicted of the crime Pemberton was shielded from imprisonment by the US government, much to the outrage of the Filipino populace in general and the transgender community in particular. Raval’s film explicates the fraught history of the United States and the Philippines, using Laude’s case as an example of history of colonialism and the imbalance of power between the two countries. The film’s gliding camerawork effectively captures the glowing lights of Olongapo City by night and its hodgepodge of street markets, as well as the utilitarian bleakness of US military bases in the Philippines, which has long been exploited by the US due to its strategic location in the Pacific theater.

By focusing on the grassroots activism surrounding Laude’s murder Raval’s film recalls seminal Asian Pacific American documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin? and The Fall of the I-Hotel which similarly depict the empowerment of the API community in the face of systemic injustices.

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Vibrant, When The Beat Drops, 2018

Jamal Sims’ exuberant documentary When The Beat Drops is a vibrant celebration of bucking, or j-setting, a dance form originating in the black gay community in Atlanta. Based on moves from female cheerleading squads at historically black colleges and universities, in particular the cheer squad from Jackson State University, bucking primarily takes place in gay clubs throughout the south and southeast United States.

The movie helps to explode definitions of what makes a man and the fluidity of the various characters is breathtaking and effortless. It’s beautiful to see men so confident in their maleness that they are able to demolish the gender binary and let the many facets of their identity shine through. Added to that are some dope AF dance sequences, in clubs, in competitions, and en la calle, that strikingly depict the dynamism and creativity of the j-setting scene. I especially love the fact that the bucking competitions shown in the film are judged by some of the female cheer squad members whose routines j-setting pays homage to.

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Perspective, Retablo, 2018

Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo is a beautifully told narrative that further explores the boundaries of masculinity, this time through the lens of a Peruvian family in the Andes. Delgado-Aparicio beautifully uses the cinematic grammar to underscore the mindset of Segundo, his young protagonist, who inadvertently finds out an uncomfortable truth about his father Noe. Noe is a master artisan who is training Segundo to create retablos, three-dimensional tableaux that act as family portraits, as devotionals, and as representations of significant events in their small Andean village. In the first part of the film Segundo’s worldview is stable and stationary, framed almost exclusively in master shots, which echoes the proscenium framing of the Noe and Segundo’s retablos. Once Segundo learns about his father’s clandestine trysts with other men the film’s framing and editing become more jagged and abrupt, reflecting Segundo’s unsettled state of mind. Delgado-Aparicio’s limited use of conventional tight shots and point-of-view shots in the first part of the film also pays off when he finally frames a key moment in the film in close-up from Segundo’s vantage point. The impact is shattering, reflecting the moment’s effect on Segundo’s previously limited perspective.

Retablo also explicates the village’s cultural taboos around same-sex relationships by emphasizing the hypermasculinity of Segundo’s friend Mardonio, whose bragaddocio possibly masks his insecurity about his own sexuality. Segundo and Mardonio enact a classic homoerotic triangle with local shopowner Felicita as Mardonio crudely sexualizes Felicita in order to deny his attraction to Segundo. The film’s dialog in both Spanish and Ayacucho Quechua, one of the most widely spoken Andean dialects in Peru, also lends an immediacy to the film.

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Intimate, We The Animals, 2018

Still to come this week at Frameline: big, showy titles including those focusing on queer superstars Emily Dickinson (Wild Nights With Emily), Alexander McQueen (McQueen)and Robert Mapplethorpe (Mapplethorpe), the Chloë Grace Moretz vehicle The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and the closing night doc Studio 54, about the legendary New York City disco of the same name, the ever-popular shorts programs Fun In Girls Shorts and Fun In Boys Shorts, and smaller, more intimate movies such as the Sundance favorite We The Animals and the UK/Spain co-production Anchor And Hope, (starring #HarryPotter alumna Natalia Tena). I’m hoping to make it to most of these shows since I love me a good film festival, and this year’s Frameline is one of the best.

June 21, 2018 at 7:15 am Leave a comment

Both Ends Burning: Crossroads festival of artist-made films and video

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Over this past weekend I caught a few shows at the Crossroads film festival that demonstrated a much more culturally integrated state of affairs in the experimental film world than had existed back when I was a pup. I’ve complained in the past about #ExperimentalFilmSoWhite but I’m happy to report that this year’s festival had a good range of makers from many different ethnic backgrounds. Similarly, it’s still somewhat rare to see straight-up art films in most Asian American film festivals, despite the active production of AA experimentalists for many decades, so it’s nice to see AA art films included in the mix.

Jun Okada has posited that some years ago the dominant AA film festival powers-that-be chose to focus on community-based narrative and documentary filmmakers rather than experimental filmmaking, especially on the West Coast. But when I was coming up as a young video artist back in the day there were several other Asian American experimentalists making work then including Janice Tanaka, Rea Tajiri, Stuart Gaffney, and Shu Lea Cheng, to name just a few, who did get a lot of play in AA festivals. However, only rarely were those artists included in mainstream art film programming and fests.

Singular, Highview, Simon Liu and Warren Ng, 2017

So it’s great that Crossroads’ Saturday night show featured Simon Liu and Warren Ng’s Highview, a gorgeous four-projector piece with live guitar accompaniment. Highview’s live performance emphasized the singular appeal of celluloid, with the rapid-fire clattering of the 16mm projectors adding a percussive backbeat to Ng’s dreamlike guitar line. Liu’s projections capture Liu’s memories of Hong Kong, with the film’s green and red palette evoking the former Crown Colony’s characteristic neon-lit nightscape. The project’s imagery includes hand-processed footage, faces that gradually appear and fade away, and cityscapes and starry nights, with a textural, visceral visuality grounded in place and history.

Resistance, Fluid Frontiers, 2017, Ephraim Asili

Although the Crossroads shows that I saw were heavily on the abstraction tip, there were some pieces that managed to mix in some content and social critique along with all of the visual manipulations. Ephraim Asili’s Fluid Frontiers incorporates readings of Black Power texts overlaid with images of significant African American sites in Detroit and an audio reenactment of Harriet Tubman’s biography, creating an impressionistic portrait of that city’s legacy of resistance and activism.

Direct action, The Sun Quartet, 2017, Colectivo Los ingrávidos

Mexico City artists Colectivo Los ingrávidos tetralogy The Sun Quartet uses as a jumping-off point the disappearance of forty-three student activists to comment on Mexico’s political and cultural tensions and to advocate for direct action in combating injustice and oppression. Peggy Ahwesh’s The Falling Sky ironically repurposes footage from Taiwan’s Next Media animated news sequences to comment on the foibles of the human condition.

The festival was a great opportunity to see a wide sampling of international experimental film and video, but although the filmmakers included represented a breadth of cultural backgrounds the festival’s audience was still predominantly white. After kicking it at CAAMfest, Third I South Asian, and other AZN-focused festivals it was a bit of shock to re-enter the mainstream artworld’s decidedly un-diverse universe. Of course this is not something only seen at Crossroads, since the art world is still mostly a playground for the white educated upper middle class. So I’m glad to see Crossroads drawing in a wider cultural spectrum of filmmakers, as this can only enrich and improve the experimental film world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 12, 2018 at 7:10 am Leave a comment

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