Posts filed under ‘movies’

Love Is The Only Way (愛是唯一): Taiwan Showcase at Frameline 45

Fluidity, Unnamed

Frameline 45 is in full swing and this year’s festival marks a return to limited in-person screenings, along with a full slate of programs available to stream online.

This year’s program includes a segment focusing on films from Taiwan. The first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage, Taiwan is one of the most queer-friendly countries in the region, as evidenced by its large and popular Pride parade every year. 

Futuristic, As We Like It

Frameline 45 includes several features and shorts from the island country, including the gender-bending Shakespeare adaptation As We Like It (揭大歡喜), directed by Hung-i Chen and Muni Wei. Loosely based on As You Like It, The Bard’s iconic cross-dressing play,  the film takes place in a slightly futuristic Ximending, one of Taipei’s artsy hipster neighborhoods, which in the film is a no-internet, gender-free zone.  In a twist on the Shakespearean tradition of excluding women from performing on the stage, the entire cast is female. The players are cute and charming queer folks working on relationship issues and the film’s mood and tone are a sweet celebration of finding true love. 

Poignant, Dear Tenant

On a much more poignant tip is Dear Tenant (親愛的房客), directed by Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑), which is a delicate and sensitive story of a man caring for his dead lover’s son and sick mother. When the mother passes away the legal complications of his unclear status act to prevent him from continuing to care for the son. The film is nicely wrought, with sensitive performances from the leads including Mo Tzu-yi (莫子儀), and  Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳), both of whom acting awards at the 57th Golden Horse Awards last year, as well as Runyin Bai as the 9-year-old You-Yu. Neither overly sentimental nor melodramatic, this dramatic narrative explores the gray areas of the law and biases against gay couples when the custody of a child is involved.

Smoldering, Undercurrent

The short film program Taiwan Shorts, which is streaming for free, includes four films that are very different from each other. Unnamed (未命名) directed by Gao Hong & Chang Chun-Yu looks at the fluidity of queer identity through a naming conceit, with fun performances from the two young leads. Taiwan Pride for the World (世界驕傲在台灣), directed by Larry Tung, documents Taipei’s 2020 Pride Parade which due to the COVID-19 pandemic was possibly the only one to take place in the world that year. At the time Taiwan had a very low incidence of coronavirus and LGBTQ+ organizers there decided to hold a parade in honor of those around the world who couldn’t. Since then Taiwan’s COVID-19 situation has reversed so it’s bittersweet to view this film from a June 2021 perspective.

Hidden (迷藏), directed by Kuo Hsuan-Chi, follows a young teenage boy as he struggles to navigate the waters of his sexuality while trying to avoid predatory online hookups and catfishers. Undercurrent (宵禁), directed by Weng Yu-Tong, is almost dialog-free, creating a moody, smexy atmosphere. The film follows the smoldering cigarettes and smoldering desires of two young men playing cat-and-mouse during martial law in Kaoshiung.

Each of these films gave me the Taiwan feelz, as they emphasize the specific culture, language, geography, and architecture of Taiwan. The films include shots of the distinctive tile-covered buildings, the humidity and fog, the green mountains, the scooter-covered streets, and the neighbors bringing garbage out to the garbage truck in pink plastic bags, which are details that all scream Taiwan. The films are a window into Taiwan’s singular vibe and delineate the many distinctive elements that make up the island nation. 


All films in the Taiwan showcase, which also includes Arvin Chen’s outstanding 2013 romcom Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,  will be streaming through June 27, 2021 on Frameline’s online platform.

June 23, 2021 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

Talent Is An Asset: 2021 SXSW Online, part one: Film Festival

Wit, The Sparks Brothers, 2021, photo: Sparks

When the COVID-19 tsunami hit the U.S. back in March 2020 Austin’s SXSW film and music festival was one of its first casualties. The entire event was dependent on live performances and screenings and with the country going into lockdown there was no chance it could happen that year, so the whole shebang was cancelled outright. But subsequent film festivals began pivoting to fully online and this year SXSW was an entirely online event, including films, music, conference panels, and networking. Luckily for me, this format also gave me the chance to attend my first SXSW and I ingested a huge amount of content from the comfort of my own home. Because of the sheer volume of performances that I consumed Imma split my review into the film side and the music side, starting with the cinematic treats I watched. 

Brilliance, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, 2021

The festival included two documentaries about influential and innovative pop stars that have flown somewhat under the mainstream radar. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche looked at the life of the leader and vocalist of the legendary UK punk band X-Ray Spex. As a baby punk back in the 80s one of the best things about early punk and new wave was the presence of women of color such as Pearl E. Gates, Pauline Black from Selecter, and Poly Styrene. Poly was not only a punk icon but also a woman of color icon and it was great for me to have a Black woman role model who could belt it out with the best of them. The film traces Poly’s meteoric brilliance as the leader of X-Ray Spex at age 19, as well as her struggles with mental illness and her involvement with the Hare Krishna sect later in life. Told from the POV of her daughter Celeste Bell, who is credited as the film’s co-writer and co-director, the film interweaves her narration with a plethora of archival footage and photos. As a mixed-heritage child (or half-caste, the term that was in common usage at the time) raised by a single mother in 1960s Britain, Poly (nee Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) faced a fair amount of casual racism and ostracization. The film shows the range of Poly’s artistic endeavors outside of her singing career, including several passages from her journals (read by Ruth Negga), as well as her unique and idiosyncratic fashion sense which she developed in her teens and which she highlighted in her years as the face of X-Ray Spex. Celeste Bell’s somewhat mournful narration adds a gravitas to the film as she searches for the truth of her mother’s life and legacy. But throughout it all the story is driven by the power of Poly’s clarion voice and poetic vision. 

Off-kilter, The Sparks Brothers, 2021

The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Baby Driver) explores the iconic cult band Sparks, utilizing a ton of archival footage, interviews with the band’s many admirers including Bjork, Giorgio Morodor, Todd Rundgren, and many more, accompanied by Sparks’ excellent and eclectic pop music. Emulating the cheeky and off-kilter attitude of its subjects, the film follows Russell and Ron Mael, the two brothers who founded Sparks, from their childhood in Southern California through their long and winding musical career. The film captures the brothers’ sardonic style as seemingly British invasion cult darlings (belied by their SoCal roots) with their first hit in the UK, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, through their survival in the fickle world of rock music in the more than four decades since. I’ve always been a fan of Sparks and their unique and twisted pop stylings, led by Russell Mael’s dramatic and operatic high tenor and Ron Mael’s sophisticated keyboards and songwriting, so this movie was a fascinating look at their career trajectory. Always ahead of the pop music curve, the film demonstrates the Mael brothers’ influence on disco, new wave, EDM, synth pop and much more. It also shows how their highly visual and cinematic presentation, with the more traditionally rock styled Russell contrasting with Ron’s odd Hitler/Chaplin persona, made them a perfect fit for the MTV era, when they scored their new wave hits The Number One Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock. Throughout the film their wit and intelligence shine through.

Relentless, The United States vs. Reality Winner, 2021

Two other docs in the festival looked at politics and current events. The United States vs. Reality Winner is a procedural agitprop doc ala CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning film about Edward Snowden, another famous whistleblower. Snowden even makes an appearance in this film, as do several other commentators who contextualize Winner’s case. The film follows Winner’s mom as she tries to get a fair trial for her daughter who has had the book thrown at her for exposing Russia’s influence on the 2016 US presidential elections. As with CitizenFour and other films of its ilk, The United States vs. Reality Winner has a definite opinion and relentlessly pursues it.

Ambiguity, In The Same Breath, 2021

In contrast, Nanfu Wang’s documentary In The Same Breath, which looks at the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and in the US, is all about doubt and questioning and its lack of clear answers reflects the confusing times we’re still enmeshed in.Included in the film is some stunning security camera footage of the very earliest days of the pandemic in Wuhan that shows how quickly the virus spread and how unprepared health officials were in their initial response. The film beautifully expresses the ambiguity and uncertainty of the COVID-19 era while sounding a warning about the inherent untrustworthiness of governments both in China and the US.

Filipino AF, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, 2021

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Dante Basco’s directorial debut, is in some ways a spiritual successor to the iconic 2001 Asian American film The Debut. That movie, which starred Dante and also included appearances by his three brothers Dion, Derek, and Darion and sister Arianna, is much beloved in the Filipino American community for its lighthearted look at FilAm culture, traditions, and identity. The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is is similarly Filipino AF and it was interesting to watch more than 20 years after The Debut made its premiere. It’s set in Pittsburg, CA and loosely revolves around an upcoming wedding in a big-ass Filipino family. Many Bascos were involved in the making of this film, including the four Basco brothers in lead roles, with narration by Arianna. The film is a bit rough around the edges and never transcends its sitcom aesthetic, but all four brothers are talented performers and each does well in their respective vignettes. Their agile comic timing and ability to hold the screen makes me wonder why their careers didn’t take off after the success of The Debut, but as usual the answer is probably racism. A humorous side note: one of the characters is in a depressive funk which he deals with by composing atonal electronic music that sounds a bit like some of the stuff I heard at the SXSW music festival.

Empathy, Águilas, 2021

I also caught a couple excellent short films of the many that were included in the festival. Águilas, by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre, follows a group of volunteers who scour the Sonoran desert near the Arizona border looking for the remains of those who have died attempting to migrate on foot to the US. A short, intense look at those who carry out this grim duty, the film is suffused with empathy for the people who have lost their lives traveling from their home countries as well as those who search for their last remains.

Snapshot, Red Taxi, 2021

Red Taxi, by an anonymous director, utilizes interviews with cab drivers on both sides of the Hong Kong-Shenzen border that were shot during the massive 2019 Hong Kong protests. The short documentary provides an interesting contrast between the pragmatic hopefulness of the Hong Kong cabbies and their PRC counterparts, who for the most part don’t have much sympathy for people of Hong Kong who were speaking out against the government at the time. It’s an interesting snapshot of the times and shows the divide in opinion on either side of the border without judging or taking sides. It’s also telling that the director has chosen to be anonymous, reflecting fears of the oppressive new National Security Law in Hong Kong that effectively punishes residents for speaking out in any way against the Beijing regime.

Next up: Part two, in which I attempt to encapsulate the huge number of international performers I saw on the music side of this year’s SXSW.

April 12, 2021 at 6:25 am Leave a comment

The Beautiful Ones: Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at BAM/PFA

Cinematic, The Hand, 2004

A cinematic treat dropped at the end of 2020 as the Lincoln Center in New York launched World of Wong Kar Wai, its retrospective of mostly 4K restorations of Hong Kong New Wave auteur Wong Kar Wai. The bulk of the series has traveled to various venues including the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, where nine films are currently available for online viewing through February 28, 2021. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is also showing seven films from the series through Feb. 25, 2021, including a  screening of In The Mood For Love on Valentine’s Day at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in. Although it’s great that the films are available to view in all of their restored 4K glory, it’s bittersweet that audiences aren’t able to watch them on the big screen where they belong due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the US.

Struggles, As Tears Go By, 1988

I watched the BAM/PFA series in chronological order, and it was interesting to see the development of Wong’s signature style. His debut feature, As Tears Go By (1988), is a gangster film that stars Andy Lau Tak-Wah as Wah, a low-level triad in Mongkok who is constantly vexed by his triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose struggle with toxic masculinity conventions leads to much rash and insecure behavior. 

Although the film loosely follows the trajectory of classic gangland films such as Mean Streets, in which the poor life decisions of one character leads to the downfall of his sworn brother, Wong’s filmmaking style had already begun to establish itself. The audacity of some of the shots, such as the focus on the sharpness of Andy Lau’s jawline or the beauty of a cigarette burning blue in the dark, heralds Wong’s trademark visual characteristics, as does his use of slow motion action, neon lights and silhouettes. The film also includes the breathtaking sexiness of Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in their underwear wrestling on a bed in a hotel room, another element of Wong’s emerging style as he begins to sketch out his aesthetic.

Charisma, Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong’s stylistic elements came into sharper focus with his second feature, Days of Being Wild (1990). It’s a bit overwhelming to have a film populated with so many gorgeous movie stars at their physical peak, led by the sheer charisma and stunning beauty of Leslie Cheung in his prime and it really should be illegal to be that good-looking. Carina Lau holds her own as the feisty bar girl who gets involved with him. Maggie Cheung is mostly mopey and jilted in this one, though by the end of the movie she’s found her peace. Andy Lau is once again shockingly good-looking and photogenic–never has such a bone structure been so lovingly photographed. Jacky Cheung again plays the sad sack best friend, but here he’s much more restrained and nuanced. The movie closes with the famous mystery scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in a very small hotel room preparing to go somewhere where he’ll need two packs of cigarettes and a deck of cards. 

Charming, Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) is still as fresh and exciting as the first time that I saw it more than 25 years ago. Light and airy, quirky and charming, with pitch-perfect performances, it captures Hong Kong’s day-to-day life without malice or darkness. Wong’s film explores the transience of life and the fleeting relationships in a big city where anything can happen and the world is open and free. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle establishes the iconic Wong Kar-Wai look with his lighting design alternating between the moody, neon-lit style of the first story and the bright, natural lighting of the second story. Once again Wong’s cast of topline movie stars, including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigette Lin Ching-Hsia, Faye Wong, and  a 20-year-old Takeshi Kaneshiro, adds glamor and razzle-dazzle to the film. 

Incandescent, Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995) is a much messier and less compact film than Chungking Express, full of neon lights, dutch angles, and rain-slicked streets. If Chungking Express was Wong’s renaissance masterpiece then Fallen Angels  is his baroque turn, where all of his directorial tics are turned up to eleven. Karen Mok is in it too briefly and Leon Lai too much, but as in Chungking Express Takeshi Kaneshiro is quirkily incandescent. His character’s story is good enough to stand alone, with able support from a wacky Charlie Yeung and Chan Man-lei as his stalwart dad. 

Complex, Happy Together (1997)

Although as full of visual bravado as Fallen Angels, Happy Together (1997) is a stronger film because its character development is more complex. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is at his angsty best, conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions with a few flashes of his eyes, while Leslie Cheung is devastatingly effective as his mercurial lover. A gorgeous, moody film full of humanity, compassion, and sadness, this is Wong at his poetic best.

Elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008)

Trippy and elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) holds up better than I recall from my initial viewing when the film was first released. All of the beautiful people are in this one (except for Andy Lau), including Jacky, Brigette, Charlie, Maggie, Carina, both big and little Tony, and Leslie as the lead character and narrator. Side note: why didn’t Heavenly King number four (Aaron Kwok) ever make an appearance in a Wong Kar-Wai movie? Too short and stocky? These things keep me up at night.

The odd narrative works if you let go of any expectation of linearity and it’s now quite amusing to see so many A-listers with their million-dollar faces obscured by matted hair, but there you go. Although when the film was first released martial arts purists were horrified by the blurry camerawork that wasted Sammo Hung’s action choreography, now it seems to all fit together with the tangled hair and blowing sands and Christopher Doyle’s grainy, oddly saturated cinematography. 

Star-crossed, In The Mood For Love (2000)

In The Mood For Love (2000) is perhaps Wong’s most acclaimed film, and justly so. All elements of the movie, from mise en scene to acting to cinematography to direction and editing, are stellar, led by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s performances as star-crossed lovers. As with all of the 4K restorations in the series the digital remaster is sharp and beautiful, with the film’s saturated jewel tones shining through.

Magnetic, 2046 (2004)

2046 (2004) is an example of what happens when a filmmaker is given an unlimited budget and full artistic freedom as the movie is obtuse, too long by at least thirty minutes, and could jettison its entire science fiction framing device. However, the main part of the film, set in the late 1960s and a loose sequel to In The Mood For Love, is great, with Tony Leung now a womanizing cad following his failed relationship in the earlier film. Zhang Ziyi as his call girl lover is dynamic and magnetic, matching Tony’s acting chops beat for beat . Along the way Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong make appearances, though their characters don’t have much arc to speak of. 

Unrequited, The Hand (2004)

The BAM/PFA and the Roxie series both include the little-seen one-hour film The Hand (2004), which was a revelation to me as it was the only film in the program that I hadn’t yet seen. Originally released as part of the three-part omnibus Eros (along with segments by Michelangelo Antonioni and and Stephen Soderbergh), The Hand is a gorgeous meditation on class and gender divisions and unrequited love, and  Wong goes all in with his cheongsam fetish. Gong Li as a courtesan falling on hard times and Chang Chen as her longtime admirer are amazing and the opening scene that the film takes its name from is a stunningly kinky set piece. The film makes a strong argument that Wong Kar-Wai should only make films set in the 1960s as the evocative art direction, from hair to costumes to set design, is on point and breathtaking. 

Although this series emphasizes his auteurship, Wong Kar-Wai didn’t operate in a vacuum. His work was nurtured by the strongest film industry in Asia at the time, one that churned out hundreds of movies every year that were exported all over the region. In some way Wong’s films gave an entre into Hong Kong cinema to snobby cineastes who might have disdained genre directors like John Woo or Tsui Hark. This retrospective brings back memories of that brief shining moment when Hong Kong was the center of the cinematic world. It’s especially melancholy to consider through the lens of 2020/21, when the city has been so drastically changed by China’s brutal repression of free speech there. 

Existence Is Longing: Wong Kar Wai

Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive

December 11, 2020–February 28, 2021

Roxie Virtual Cinema

Available until February 25

World of Wong Kar Wai

Roxie Cinema

San Francisco

Drive-in screening of In The Mood For Love

Sunday, Feb. 14, 7pm

Fort Mason Flix

January 23, 2021 at 7:07 am 2 comments

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

By storm, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzziest, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Changing culture, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education, Yellow Rose, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Rose is currently showing at theaters across the US.

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

If This Was A Movie: October Film Festival roundup

On trend, CAAMfest Forward Drive-In night

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

Charming, Definition Please, 2020

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

Emotionality, Coming Home Again, 2020

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

Streetwise, Takeout Girl, 2020

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

Fun and kicky, Chosen Fam, 2020

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

Sharky, Bulge Bracket, 2020

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

Ruby, 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, 2020

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

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

Skillful, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, 2020

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

Legendary, Road to Ladakh, 2003

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

October 15, 2020 at 7:48 am 1 comment

Fire in the Rain: Sewing In The Time Of Coronavirus

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

 

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

Neutrals

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

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

Fury

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

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

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

contact: vsoe@sfsu.edu

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

Lyrics (translated from Japanese; original English in italics)

We are the fire in the rain

(Fire in the rain)

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

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

 

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

How much? I don’t know why

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

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

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

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

 

In your arms Even if you lose everything

A flower that stays quietly in your heart

 

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

How much I don’t know why

An umbrella in the palm of your hand

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

Singing to the earth. Breathing life

Burning steps. The fiesta never ends

 

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

Because you live only once

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

Everything will go well

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

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

 

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

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

 

We ’re the fire in the rain

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

Stars in the sky Let me keep on burning

A fiery dance that never ends fiesta

 

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

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

When I ’m taking you higher (Yeah um)

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

When I ’m taking you higher It never ends fiesta

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

May 7, 2020 at 4:44 am 2 comments

Cold Dark World: Noir City 18 at the Castro Theater

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Passion and despair, Salon Mexico, 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feral, The Housemaid (Hanyo), 1960

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

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

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

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Atmospheric, Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu), 1958

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

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

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

Ashes-and-Diamonds

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

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

 

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

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

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Ip Man 4: Finale

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

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

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Curiously wide, Ip Man 4: Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

December 29, 2019 at 3:53 am 2 comments

Forever Waiting: SFFILM’s Hong Kong Cinema series

Full circle, Tracey, 2018

SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong cinema series happened this weekend and it’s a really interesting look at the state of the territory’s movie industry today. Included were the edgy neo-noir G-Affairs, the character-driven feel-good sports movie Men on the Dragon, and Pang Ho-Cheung’s irreverent Lunar New Year quickie Miss Behavior, among a selection of other films.

This year’s series was held at the Roxie Theater in the Mission and for me it was full circle since I saw my very first of many many Hong Kong movies, A Chinese Ghost Story, at the Roxie on the big screen back in the late 1980s. But the Hong Kong movie world has changed immeasurably from 1986 to 2019 and those changes are reflected in the programming at this year’s Hong Kong cinema series.

Although Hong Kong cinema has had its share of ups and downs since its heyday in the 1990s, ironically that may have led more opportunities for creative exploration. Though the high-powered star system might no longer exist there are still great films being made that go beyond Hong Kong’s iconic crime film, wuxia, and martial arts genres. This year’s showcase is perhaps indicative of a renaissance in Hong Kong’s filmmaking community that is less about glitzy commercial films and more about developing a healthy independent film scene. This is especially true since co-productions with China are so heavily controlled by the PRC’s censorship board. Though there may be less money for non-co-productions that focus on the local Hong Kong audience, in some ways these films are a truer reflection of Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural milieu and it’s good to see younger filmmakers leading the way.

Sensitive, Tracey, 2018

Jun Li’s Tracey follows the story of a middle-aged man who comes out to his friends and family about being transgender. The movie sensitively explores the topic and is driven by outstanding performances by veteran actors Philip Keung as Tai-hung/Tracey and Kara Wai as Anne, his stricken wife. Keung is excellent as the transperson who is finally realizing she can become who she really is. I’ve always liked Keung as one of Hong Kong’s stalwart character actors but he’s really next level in Tracey, with his sensitive and mobile face expressing a world of hurt and wonder. Wai likewise sketches a complex portrayal of a character that in lesser hands could have easily been one-dimensional and the two of these powerhouse actors are at their best when in their intense scenes together. Wai also has nice moments with Ng Siu Hin (Mad World; Ten Years) as Tai-hung and Anne’s son, a young man who ostensibly advocates for sexual freedom and understanding but who has to confront his own biases when the abstract becomes concrete in his own father’s situation.

The film is somewhat episodic and it sometimes feels like first-time feature film director Li is hoping to cram a lot of ideas into a two-hour film. But his ambitious debut speaks to a thoughtful and restless creativity that wants to say a lot, which in less sensitive and sympathetic hands might have been a simplified, dumbed down, or sensationalized film.

Agency, The Lady Improper, 2018

Jessey Tsang’s The Lady Improper looks at questions of female sexuality, agency, and control. Lead performer Charlene Choi got her start as one half of the mega-superstar singing duo The Twins but she’s since become one of Hong Kong’s most reliable leading ladies in her selection of challenging and complex roles. In The Lady Improper she again has chosen a film that pushes boundaries as Choi plays Siu Man, an unhappily married woman who takes control of her unsatisfying life

Throughout the film director Tsang emphasizes the importance of Siu Man taking charge of her life, as opposed to letting others control her. She stands up to family criticisms, changes her career path, addresses her insecurities about physical intimacy, and ultimately decides how her life should be. In this way Tsang’s perspective as a female filmmaker is clear, as she portrays the answers to her protagonist’s dilemmas as reliant on Siu Man, not on outside forces. The film’s depiction of Siu Man’s empowerment is deeply feminist in its insistence on the importance of women deciding for themselves the path their lives will take.

Elliptical, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2017

CODA: though not a Hong Kong film, I capped off my weekend by seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2017). The film was in limited release here in the States a few months ago but I was in editing hell and missed it, so I was glad for the chance to see it on the big screen and in 3D at the venerable Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Suffice to say that the film didn’t disappoint in its surreal portrayal of a brooding man searching for a mysterious woman, which is of course a classic noir theme. Here director Bi puts a decidedly Chinese spin on it, locating the story in Kaili City, located in the landlocked and somewhat economically depressed southeastern province of Guizhou. Bi uses local dialect, a gorgeous lighting design, and an elliptical narrative structure to suggest the ennui and dislocation of his characters. The film concludes with an outstanding 59-minute-long single-take unedited shot, screened at the Castro in 3D, that may or may not be a dream sequence and that includes cow skulls, ping pong, spooked horses, characters flying, and fireworks among many other amazing images that combine to evoke an altered state. The sequence is totally rad and totally breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema and not on my laptop or on the back of an airplane seat.

CODA2: Hong Kong stalwart Herman Yau’s latest action movie The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is also playing at my multiplex this weekend so I’m going to try to see it too. Way to round off a great weekend of movie-watching!

July 15, 2019 at 9:40 pm Leave a comment

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.

eight taels

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.

vardabyagnes

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.

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

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