Posts filed under ‘movies’

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 5 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

Starlit Night: 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Favorite, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935


I think it’s safe to say that Yasujirō Ozu is one of my favorite film directors. At one point some years back I binged on all the Ozu films I could find, focusing mostly on his midcentury classics, but I really love almost all of his movies that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. So it’s nice to see that this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is including one of his later black-and-white silents, An Inn In Tokyo (1935), as part of its lineup.

The film follows a down on his luck widower and his two young sons as the father tries to find a job in prewar Tokyo. With the paltry income they scrape together catching stray dogs the trio has a daily choice of sleeping in an inn or eating, while the father searches in vain for employment. In their travails they cross paths with a young mother and her daughter who are in similar dire straits.

Geometric, An Inn In Tokyo, 1935

Although relatively early on in Ozu’s career the film still has many of the hallmarks of his aesthetic including a deeply humanistic and empathetic worldview, focusing on the gentle and deep bonding among family members. Severel of Ozu’s formal tics are already in evidence as well including his geometric compositions and his use of full-face camera address. The film utilizes more camera movement than his later movies, primarily using a gliding pan that follows the action of his characters through the landscape.

Ozu also draws out sympathetic, effective performances from his cast, from both the adult and child actors, and captures several beautiful interplays between them. A particularly nice scene early on in the film features the food-deprived father and sons miming eating and drinking their favorite dishes and beverages, including sake, in the middle of the field. The playful longing in their actions coupled with the sweetness of their family bonding creates a charming and sad moment.

Queen, The Saga Of Gösta Berling, 1924

In addition to the Ozu, as usual this year’s Silent Film Festival includes several other gems. These include another Japanese silent film that sounds very different from An Inn In Tokyo, Tomu Uchida’s crime film Policeman (1933), Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey To Happiness (1929), which looks at life in a seedy Weimar Republic- tenement, and the epic 200-minute long The Saga Of Gösta Berling (1924, dir. Mauritz Stiller), which was queen Greta Garbo’s first starring role. As usual all screenings include live musical accompaniment.

Brilliant, Battling Butler, 1926

Closing out the festival on June 3 is Battling Butler (1926), by another one of my favorite directors, Buster Keaton. The film features The Great Stoneface’s brilliant physical comedy combined with his typical underdog fish-out-of-water lead character. Seeing Keaton on the big screen is always a treat so this one is not to be missed.

23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival

May 30-June 3, 2018

Castro Theater

San Francisco CA 94114

 

June 1, 2018 at 6:53 am Leave a comment

Thinking Out Loud: 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival

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Paternalism, Angels Wear White, 2017

The San Francisco International Film Festival is in full swing right now and as usual the fest has a great lineup of world cinema. Although my viewing schedule was very truncated due to life circumstances I still had a quality film festival experience over the first weekend.

 

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Compassionate, The Third Murder, 2017

I started my mini-marathon with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, The Third Murder. As per usual Kore-eda goes directly to the psychological heart of his characters, examining their motivations without judgment or prejudice. In The Third Murder a seemingly straightforward homicide investigation takes several unpredictable turns and eventually leads down many unexpected paths. Almost every character presents an unreliable point of view, contributing to the many shades of gray of complicity and blame. Yet Kore-eda emphasizes the compassionate over the judgmental and the film’s open-ended conclusion questions assumptions of guilt and innocence.

The Third Murder is beautifully lit and shot, with Kore-eda using gliding zooms and slow pans to delineate the cinematic space. The film also makes great use of reflection and mirroring to suggest complicity and transference of guilt, since almost everyone in the film lies at one point or another. Performances are also on point, led by the ever-awesome Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance? The Eel) as the man accused of murder, and the dapper Fukuyama Masaharu (Like Father, Like Son) as the lawyer assigned to the case who begins to doubt everything and everybody as the film progresses.

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Vulnerable, A Man of Integrity, 2017

I continued my festival viewing with A Man Of Integrity, by Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof has been arrested in his home country and banned from making films, so A Man Of Integrity was shot on the down-low in a wintry northern area of Iran. The film is a bitter and intense drama about a family settled in a remote Iranian village that comes face to face with the town’s intractable corruption and cronyism. The delicate and vulnerable goldfish that they farm become a metaphor for the family’s tenuous status in the town, and the film is grounded in strong and intense performances by Reza Akhlaghirad and Soudabeh Beizaee as the couple who stand up to corruption in the village.

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Power dynamics, Angels Wear White, 2017

Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White also looks at corruption and power dynamics, this time in a seaside village in China. It’s a gripping narrative about the aftermath of an assault on two schoolgirls and the reverberations of that crime on its small-town location. Director Qu captures the precarious position of the female characters in the film, most of whom are suffering under a sexist and paternalistic system, and she brings out great performances from both the adults and the preteen and teenage actors. Also of note is the film’s excellent editing which moves the story along at a steady and assured pace.

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Obscured, The White Girl, 2017

The White Girl features some beautiful cinematography by the legendary cameraman Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express), who co-directed the film with Jenny Suen. Set in one of the last fishing villages in Hong Kong, the film follows a young woman known for her very pale complexion that she protects religiously, supposedly due to her allergy to sunlight. Along the way she encounters a mysterious dude (Joe Odagiri) who lives in a ruined building that is also a camera obscura. Added to mix is an evil developer who wants to pave over the cute fishing village and a subplot involving the white girl’s mother, a famous singing star who long ago abandoned her partner and daughter. The film is heavy with allegory about Hong Kong’s current struggles with China and is a little too elliptical for my taste, but it’s always a pleasure to hear Cantonese dialog.

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Struggles, Minding The Gap, 2018

I rounded off my viewings with Bing Liu’s Minding The Gap, which blends character-driven verite with personal documentary. The film follows Liu and two of his skateboarding friends who talk about surviving life in Rockford, a picturesque city about 1.5 hours outside of Chicago that in fact suffers from a high crime rate, most of which is due to domestic violence. The film becomes cathartic for its three distinct and sympathetic characters, including Liu himself, revealing the struggles each encounters in reconciling their painful histories with their current lives. It’s the kind of humanistic doc that Kartemquin Films (which executive-produced the film) is known for, their most famous film being Hoop Dreams. Minding The Gap is good, solid documentary filmmaking that isn’t afraid to touch on difficult topics like alcoholism, wife beating, and child abuse.

Also upcoming this week—the US premiere of John Woo’s latest actioner Manhunt, which may or may not be a return to his past heroic bloodshed glory, Sandi Tan’s personal documentary Shirkers, Hong Sang Soo’s latest Claire’s Camera, and Lee Anne Schmitt’s essay film Purge This Land, among many other cinematic treats.

for tickets and more information go here 

 

April 12, 2018 at 9:41 pm Leave a comment

Dark Entries: The Great Buddha + and Mainland Noir: Chinese Crime Films

Peering, Pickle and Belly Button, The Great Buddha+, 2017

Film noir is a global cinematic genre and this month in San Francisco we’ve got the chance to see some excellent Chinese-language noir films.

From Taiwan comes The Great Buddha+, which was nominated for Best Feature Film at the 2017 Golden Horse awards and won the Grand Prize at the 2017 Taipei Film Festival. The film follows a couple middle-aged downmarket worker dudes, Pickle and Belly Button, respectively a security guard and a junk collector/trash-picker, as they go about their quotidian lives. The pair live in provincial Taiwan and they aimlessly look at porn, eat unappetizing packaged food, and otherwise try to fill their fairly boring evenings. One night their television goes on the fritz so they opt to watch dashcam footage from Belly Button’s boss’s fancy car, mostly for the prurient interest of listening to said boss’s trysts with various women. This eventually leads them down a path that they did not expect.

Shot mostly in gleaming black and white, with the exception of a few key passages from the dashcam that are rendered in oversaturated lurid color, the film explores relationships between the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, and boss and worker. The pecking order is clear. Women are sexualized and powerless. Poor people are disenfranchised and powerless. Pickle and Belly Button are powerless modern-day serfs working for their bosses. And those in power can get away with murder.

This wistful and morose worldview is leavened with a healthy dose of dark humor, including writer-director Huang Hsin-yao’s wry voiceover commentary in vulgar Taiwanese. Simply yet cleverly structured, the film has a laconic fatalism found in many classic noirs from around the world.

Bitter, Black Coal Thin Ice, 2014

Also running through Feb. 25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is the series Mainland Noir: Chinese Crime Films, which focuses on recent films from the PRC. Included is Black Coal Thin Ice (2014), an excellent noir set in Heilongjiang Province in the far northeast of China. The film follows a bitter ex-cop wearily investigating a cold case and starring one of Taiwan’s best young actresses, Guey Lun Mei, as a black widow character who is more than what she seems. Bleak and twisty, the film explores the darker side of China.

Absurd, Free and Easy, 2017

The five-film miniseries also includes director Geng Jun’s absurdist black comedy Free and Easy, which won a Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. I’ve already got my tickets and I’m gonna be there for sure.

 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

February 7, 2018 at 10:57 pm 1 comment

Get Ur Freak On: Favorite Movies of 2017

My favorite films from 2017 made the list for a variety of reasons but these are the movies I most enjoyed from last year. Three of the films were theatrically released in 2016 but I viewed them first at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) in 2017 so I’m including them here. I saw Get Out and The King on plane flights, but the rest I watched in a cinema somewhere. Listed in no particular order.

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Pulchritude, Jung Yonghwa and Nicholas Tse, Cook Up A Storm, 20171

1. Cook Up A Storm: This film is on the list for the purely aesthetic pleasure of seeing Jung Yonghwa’s perfect features on the big screen. There’s also a lot of nice food porn cinematography but the movie itself is quite lightweight and if it didn’t star my boy Yonghwa (as well as the equally photogenic Nicholas Tse) I’m not sure I would have even given it the time of day. But I’m a big fan of pulchritude so I’m putting it on my list.

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Emo, Lee Byung Hun, The Fortress, 20172.

2. The Fortress: Lee Byung Hun rehabilitates his public image completely in Hwang Dong Hyuk’s absorbing and emo historical about a famously tragic moment in Korean history. While Lee is brilliant as the courtier who must make an unbearable moral choice the rest of the cast is also excellent, including Kim Yoon Seok as Lee’s counterpart, the equally conflicted royal advisor who also pays a heavy price for his decisions.

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Wary, Song Kang Ho, A Taxi Driver, 2017

3. A Taxi Driver: Song Kang Ho is solid as usual in director Jang Hoon’s retelling of the 1980 Gwang Ju uprising, in which the repressive government brutally put down student protestors in the southern Korean city. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the political ramifications of the story it’s still very character-driven, as Song’s wary taxi driver gradually comes around to the side of justice and truth. Bonus points for a dope car chase that turns spunky taxicabs into vehicles for the resistance.

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Indistinguishable, Jung Woo Sung, The King, 2017

4. The King: The third South Korean film on this list attests to the strength and diversity of that country’s commercial film industry. Han Jae Rim’s brutal and cynical political thriller, in which the gangsters are indistinguishable from the lawyers and politicians supposedly opposing them, includes a great performance from rising star Ryu Jun-yeol, who also had a strong supporting role in A Taxi Driver.

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Complicit, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

5. Mon Mon Mon Monsters: Giddens Ko’s horror film/teen movie presents a nightmare high school scenario where no one is innocent and everyone is complicit. As he stated in his introduction to the film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, who is the real monster in the movie?

 

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Fierce, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

6. I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck’s doc about the legendary James Baldwin shines when it connects the dots between past and present racism in the U.S. Although Samuel Jackson’s does a fine job narrating the film, he is easily upstaged by archival footage of Baldwin himself fiercely speaking out about race, politics, and the historical and contemporary struggles of African Americans. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Tensions, Justin Chon, Gook, 2017

7. Gook: Justin Chon’s indie gem presents the Korean American perspective on sa-i- gu, the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the Wind, Powell, Koons, and Briseno, the four police officers caught on video beating motorist Rodney King. Chon miniaturizes the conflicts of the time and his film effectively captures the racial tensions of that moment in time.

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Lovely, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2017

8. Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me: An outstanding essay film directed by João Botelho, one of the influential Portuguese film director’s protégés. The film looks at the relationship between the late director and Botelho and concludes with a lovely restaging of one of Oliviera’s unfinished silent films.

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Ellipses, Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahad Hosseini, The Salesman, 2017

9. The Salesman: Director Asghar Farhadi creates another humanistic look at moral ambiguity and human frailty. As in A Separation (2011), his use of narrative ellipses and architectural metaphors is masterful, as is his ability to draw out strong and sympathetic, vividly shaded performances from his cast. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Unexpected, Window Horses, 2017

10. Window Horses: Another excellent animated feature from Ann Marie Fleming (The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, 2003), this time following a young Iranian-Chinese Canadian poet named Rose as she travels to her father’s home country for a poetry festival. Yes! Totally fun, unexpected and imaginative, with a gorgeous blend of hand-drawn and digitally generated animation.

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Bleak,Tadanobu Asano, Harmonium, 2017

11. Harmonium: an utterly bleak family drama in the tradition of Tokyo Sonata, Koji Fukada’s movie shows the catastrophic consequences of a few bad life decisions. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at CAAMfest.

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Bravura, Youth, 2017

12. Youth: Feng Xiaogang’s look at a theater troupe in Cultural Revolution China uses a familiar trope of the youth romance film—the awkward country bumpkin outsider rebuffed in her attempts to join an elite, more sophisticated group–to cleverly investigate the deeper political and social elements dividing the country at the time. Utilizing his familiar bravura filmmaking style, including swooping camerawork and intense and masterfully conducted battle scenes, Feng never loses his focus on the impact of great historical events and social movements on ordinary human beings.

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Unease, Terry Notary, The Square, 2017

13. The Square: Ruben Ostlund kicks up the social commentary a notch from Force Majeure (2014), and The Square is an even better film about male anxiety and weakness than its predecessor. Ostland is a master at inverting cinematic conventions and manipulating sound, image and editing to create maximum awkwardness, discomfort and unease.

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Horrors, LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out, 2017

14. Get Out: A brilliant brilliant movie that proves that commercial genre films can be as significant as any other art form in capturing the zeitgeist of a moment in time and place. Director Jordan Peele utilizes the horror genre to reveal the true horrors in the U.S., where racism and oppression lie just below the surface of seemingly benign everyday gentility.

January 23, 2018 at 7:33 am Leave a comment

Rebel Without A Pause: Why we need GOOK

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The Korean American view, GOOK, 2017

Just caught a matinee of Justin Chon’s film GOOK at the Alamo Drafthouse here in San Francisco. Although the movie is a bit rough around the edges for the most part it’s an absorbing and successfully mounted film that focuses on the Korean American perspective of a particularly fraught moment in US history.

The film follows Eli and Daniel, a pair of Korean American brothers who run a small and funky shoe store in Paramount, an unincorporated area bordering South Central Los Angeles. It’s set during the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of the four LAPD officers caught on camera beating unarmed motorist Rodney King, but most of that action takes place offscreen. Instead the film miniaturizes the conflicts that occurred during that time, focusing on a small group of individuals repping for the entire city of Los Angeles. Several times characters refer to action taking place in South Central but aside from a few digitally added columns of smoke on the distant horizon we don’t actually see any widespread violence. This is no doubt in part due to the film’s indie budget which probably precluded any large-scale set pieces of buildings on fire or shit getting fucked up. So we get a couple broken windows, some beatdowns, a few guns being fired into the air, and other incidents that gesture toward the greater unrest without actually staging any of the mass devastation and destruction that took place during that time.

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Time and place, GOOK, 2017

Justin Chon does a good job with his actors (himself included) and demonstrates that he has an eye for time and place in the worn-out, working class neighborhood he places his story in. He’s also got the 1990s kicks fetish down pat as one of the narrative threads turns on the acquisition of several pairs of expensive sneakers. The film’s art direction also works hard, with baggy jeans, overalls, and asymmetrical jheri-curl hairstyles capturing the period’s fashion sensibilities. Although I have some issues with the resolution of the character arc of Kamilla, the young African American teen who befriends Eli and Daniel, for the most part Chon directs with a steady hand and maintains a tone of tense wariness in the film’s multiethnic milieu.

And like MOONLIGHT, which the film in some way resembles, there are no white people in the movie, which attests to the racial and social stratification that led to the explosion of tensions in 1992 following the verdict that acquitted Officers Powell, Wind, Koons, and Briseno of beating Rodney King. Instead the film tells its story from a Korean American POV, one which has for the most part been lacking in mainstream depictions of the 1992 unrest. This omission is especially glaring considering the fact that the Korean American community suffered huge property losses during the unrest and that sa-i-gu, or April 29, is considered a watershed moment in the Korean American community.

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Important, GOOK, 2017

Even in the 21st century the focus on a Korean American perspective is especially important, and this was all the more apparent to me after watching the ads and trailers that preceded GOOK’s screening at the Alamo. The cinema is a hipster haven located in what used to be a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and I counted exactly one non-white person in the many trailers for the various indie films in the upcoming schedule. Likewise, the ironic midcentury aesthetic of the found footage in-house announcements were decidedly not very diverse. One short clip featured an all-white group of young people from the early 1960s dancing to African American style choreography. This moment was presented without a hint of irony and its glaring cultural appropriation felt decidedly tone-deaf.

So even though I feel like I say this a lot, it clearly bears repeating. Unconscious Eurocentric bias makes it all the more important to support films like GOOK. Now more than ever, as Trumpism threatens to turn back the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement and its struggles for equality and social justice, we have to keep decentering the master narratives of white hegemony and bring Asian American voices to the fore.

September 5, 2017 at 4:23 am 3 comments

Lucid Dream: Randall Okita’s THE LOCKPICKER and Asian American Narrative Films

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Apart from the pack The Lockpicker, 2016

It’s been nearly twenty years since the New York Times declared that 1998 was the year of Generasian X filmmakers, following an uptick that year in narrative feature films by Asian Americans. Since that time uncountable Asian American filmmakers have released narrative features, including Justin Lin’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, Gene Cayajon’s THE DEBUT, and Jennifer Phang’s ADVANTAGEOUS, to name just a few. So by now Asian Americans have pretty much mastered the art of the commercial narrative feature film.

So what separates Randall Okita’s feature film debut, THE LOCKPICKER, from the pack? While there are certainly Asian American features that are more artistically innovative, too often they simply rehash Hollywood filmmaking conventions. I like seeing Asian Americans in romantic comedies or horror movies as much as the next person but I want see some filmic inventiveness in the mix as well. On that count THE LOCKPICKER delivers, as it differs in both style and execution from a lot of the product coming from Asian American directors these days.

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Emotionally true, The Lockpicker, 2016

Okita created the film, which follows the everyday experiences of a solitary teenager, in collaboration with students at a Toronto-area high school and most of the performers are first-time actors. This includes the film’s lead actor, Keigian Umi Tang, whose performance is as emotionally true and vibrant as anything I’ve seen on screen lately. Okita’s collaborative and improvisational filmmaking style leads to a textured and nuanced portrait of teen despair that rings truer than most cinematic depictions of adolescence.

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Rollercoaster, The Lockpicker, 2016

The film’s somewhat unstructured narrative also echoes the mercurial rollercoaster of teen life, where every event is potentially calamitous and every encounter can explode into violence. Yet despite its fraught subject matter the film is understated and finely drawn. Okita brings a layer of sensitivity and subtlety to a potentially overwrought subject matter that’s rare and notable, especially for a debut feature. The film represents a step forward in the development of Asian American filmmaking.

NOTE: I use the term Asian American filmmaking as a genre, not a geographic locator, since Okita’s film is set in Canada.

The Lockpicker | Official Trailer | HD from Randall Lloyd Okita on Vimeo.

originally posted on in media res: a media commons project

July 31, 2017 at 10:18 pm Leave a comment

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