Posts filed under ‘the oak park story’

The American In Me: DC APA Film Festival and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

Reflecting, Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, 2010

Just got back from a weekend at the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival in Washington DC. This is the second time I’ve attended the festival (the first time being in 2007 when the fest screened Snapshot: Six Months of the Korean American Male) and, as with my last visit, it was totally great. Although I had to take the red-eye from SFO and could only attend one day, I saw all three of Saturday’s programs, which pretty much satisfied my Asian American film jones.

Grace & food, DCAPA Film Festival closing night party, 2010

The DCAPA staff are an especially fun and friendly bunch and they always put on a great festival with lots of bang for your buck, with this year being no exception. Staff member Grace even cooked up a bunch of delicious snacks for the closing night reception, including ginger oatmeal cookies, edamame hummous, and K-food mini-tostadas with kimchee salsa.

The closing night film, The Things We Carry, was a gritty and heartfelt little drama about a pair of Korean American sisters coping with their fucked-up crackhead mom. The movie did an especially good job of capturing the rundown, seedy side of LA, with lonely and forlorn drug addicts puking their guts out in mini-mall parking lots. Though the film occassionally flirted with melodrama, the hard-ass lead performance by Alyssa Lobit kept the film from veering into pathos. Lobit also wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay and the film was produced by her sister Athena and executive-produced by their dad, so it was a family affair all the way.

Tat Marina, before and after, Finding Face, 2009

My short film, The Oak Park Story, screened with Finding Face, an intense agit-prop documentary feature about acid burn attacks on women in Cambodia. Though it wandered a bit in its focus, it still managed to convey a gripping urgency about these crimes, which are growing in number since the high-profile attack on 17-year-old karaoke starlet Tat Marina in 1999. Marina and her family are the focus of the film as both she and her brother, the swoonfully intense Tat Sequndo, attempt to bring the perpetrators (including Cambodia’s Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha) to justice.

Image capturing, Lincoln Memorial, 2010

The day after the festival closed I got to play tourist in DC, visiting the National Gallery to see the amazing Chester Dale collection, which included a huge number of paintings by brand-name Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Cassat, and Monet. I also hiked over to see the Washington Monument in all of its erect glory, then trekked to the far end of the reflecting pool to cool my heels on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Americans of all shapes and colors snapped photos and posed with Honest Abe.

I ended up at Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which I’d never seen in person before. The Memorial is arguably the most famous artwork by an Asian American in this country so it’s been on my list of places to visit. Arriving there near the end of a balmy early autumn day, I was impressed by the simple, poignant power and beauty of the piece. Several people there were clearly there to find the names of lost loved ones, somberly pausing in front of the polished black granite. Seeing it in person, I was struck not only by how long and tall the memorial is, but by how small names are rendered and how very many of them there are. It’s amazing exactly how much space more than 58,000 names can take up, even when engraved in pretty small text. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Lin’s design that the piece conveys at once the enormity of the loss of life as well as each individual behind that monstrous sacrifice.

Vets, Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, 2010

It’s significant to remember that back in the early 80s when her design was first selected, Lin was vilified by conservatives as an inappropriate choice for the memorial due to her Chinese background (Ross Perot called her an “egg roll”), since, of course, that was pretty close to being a gook, right? Doubters also wanted to install a more traditionally representative memorial instead of Lin’s minimalist design and because of that sentiment, Frederick Hart’s abysmally banal bronze statue of three noble soldiers mars the entrance to the memorial. But despite the naysayers, Lin put up an epic fight to preserve the integrity of her original design and, nearly 30 years down the line, Lin is a renowned artist, the memorial is a landmark, and the haters have been proven dead wrong. Glad I was able to finally see the results of Lin’s persistant vision, and glad it still resonates today.

Bonus beats: The Avengers, legendary San Francisco punk band, performs “The American In Me,” Winterland, 1978

October 19, 2010 at 6:09 am 9 comments

Picture This: 2010 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

Illuminated curtain, Great Star Theater, A Moment In Time, Ruby Yang, 2010

I’m not sure that the nice Chinese American ladies sitting behind me during the screening of James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen’s Lessons Of The Blood, shown last Tuesday as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), knew exactly what they had signed up for when the bought their tickets. They had been behind me in line outside of the Sundance Kakuki Cinema, chatting amiably in English and Toi San, and I heard them mention that the film was “about the Nanking massacre” and that it had “won some kind of award in Europe.” As the film progressed and drew the audience deeper into its horrific tale, the ladies began to gasp and groan in dismay since Hong & Jin’s movie is not for the faint of heart and tells its story in chilling detail. Not unlike when I see a particularly brilliant horror flick, I found myself overwhelmed with dread and anxiety by the end of the movie, all the more so since its story is drawn from facts and history.

Germ warfare victim, Lessons Of The Blood, James Hong & Yin-Ju Chen, 2010

The film outlines the infamous series of war crimes commonly known as ‘the rape of Nanking,” but as told by Hong & Chen it’s quite a bit more. Unflinchingly graphic in its description of the various atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Nanjing during World War II, it also included several stomach-turning closeups of festering wounds found on the now-elderly survivors of the germ warfare unleashed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1940s. Lessons Of The Blood, however, is more than sensationalized propaganda or simple polemics. It’s also an impressively crafted film, using found footage from propaganda films, newsreels, Hollywood movies, television news, and other filmic detritus, as well as a disturbing and ominous soundtrack, coupled with modern-day interviews with Chinese wartime survivors (who willingly reveal their various scars and disfigurations). The result is a haunting condemnation of both the historical crimes as well as the modern-day complicity that implicates us all. Needless to say, watching this movie was hella intense.

Lessons Of The Blood was one of the strongest films from this year’s action-packed SFIAAFF. Although once again I spent more time at the parties than watching movies (in part because so many shows sold out), I managed to catch A Moment In TimeRuby Yang & Lambert Yam’s luminous elegy to San Francisco Chinatown movie houses. The film is a comprehensive look at the ways the Great Star, the World, the Bella Union, and the Mandarin theaters were in days of yore the glue that held together the Chinese community, beginning in the 1920s and continuing until their collective demise in the mid-1990s. I myself had the privilege of seeing several classic Hong Kong films with my buddy Patrick at both the World and the Great Star (including a strange and awesome double bill of the violent shoot’em up Big Bullet and the weepy melodrama Comrades: Almost A Love Story) and I can attest to the downscale utilitarianism of both of those movie houses. But there’s nothing like seeing a Chinese-language film with a roomful of Chinese people who are eating cuttlefish, smoking, and chattering incessantly in Cantonese during the show, and Yang and Lam’s movie captures that sensation exactly. One patron interviewed described his entire family including young children attending 9.30p Saturday night shows for 25 cents total, the kids running up and down the aisles and the parents gossiping and eating chicken wings and melon seeds until all hours.

Cell phone a-go-go, Tehran Without Permission, Sepedeh Farsi, 2008

I also caught a screening of Tehran Without Permission, shot surreptitiously on a cell phone in the months running up to the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Although I was dog-tired from attending my own world premiere and reception for The Oak Park Story earlier that day, Sepedeh Farsi’s verite documentary held my attention throughout its 80-minute run time. Through subtle and succinct vignettes the film captures the mood and attitude of citizens of Tehran, with small details and comments presaging the upheavals that would occur in a few months hence.

Deepika Padukone & Saif Ali Khan, just another impossibly gorgeous Bollywood couple, Love Aaj Kal, 2009

I also made time to see the festival’s annual Bollywood at the Castro movie, Love Aaj Kal, although it was the fourth film of a long day of movie-going. I have a soft spot for this program since it was at last year’s festival that I caught my very first Shah Rukh Khan movie, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which spurred my obsessive love for SRK in particular and for Bollywood movies in general. Love Aaj Kal, alas, does not star Shah Rukh Khan but the hot and charming Saif Ali Khan makes an acceptable substitute. Paired with the doe-eyed and astoundingly pretty Deepika Padukone, Saif plays dual roles as a modern-day commitment-phobic NRI in Britain and a noble and lovestruck suitor in the 1960s Punjab. The film deftly shuttles back in forth in time between these two stories, drawing parallels and distinctions between the romances from each period. A well-made and satisfying love story with some excellent dance sequences, the film is a great example of high-quality Hindi-language commercial moviemaking—in other words, a fun and rewarding bit of Bollywood entertainment.

I also passed by a rush line full of excited teens waiting for the special appearance of youtube darlings kevjumba, wong fu, nigahiga and timothy delaghetto. The youth were madly texting and tweeting as they waited to see their favorite internet stars in the flesh, but tickets were, alas, impossible to come by since the show had sold out as soon as it was announced. It was nice to see the next generation of SFIAAFF fans out in force, which hopefully augers well for the continued health and well-being of Asian American filmmaking.

Filmmakers Felicia Lowe & the late, great Loni Ding, 2009. photo: Jay Jao

NOTE: This year’s fest was dedicated to the memory of the force of nature known as Loni Ding, the legendary Asian American filmmaker and educator who a few weeks ago died at age 78 from complications from a serious of strokes. Loni was one of the fiercest and most amazing people on the planet and her energy, dedication, and sheer determination guided her filmmaking, which included seminal documentaries like Ancestors In America and The Color of Honor. She always had a kind word and a smile for younger filmmakers like myself and made us feel like we were doing something significant in our work. She was the moral center of the Asian American film community and she will be sorely missed.

March 24, 2010 at 6:28 am Leave a comment

Working Day & Night: Run-up to The Oak Park Story WIP screenings

Veasina Thang & Khlot Ry break it down, The Oak Park Story, 2009

Veasina Thang & Khlot Ry break it down, The Oak Park Story, 2009

I’ve been on a little blogging hiatus for a few weeks because I’ve been furiously working on my latest movie, a documentary called The Oak Park Story. Filmmaking is my primary creative outlet, and in the past I’ve produced a bunch of experimental videos and short documentaries, although I’ve been less prolific since having kids. I’ve managed to put together a few micro-shorts since entering parenthood, but this new flick is the longest and most involved project I’ve worked on in many a year. The film just had two work-in-progress screenings almost back-to-back, so I’ve been cranking on the Final Cut Pro full time for more than a month.

I was lucky enough to get a residency this year from the San Francisco Film Society’s Filmhouse program, which provides free office space for selected film projects. They gave me a nice sunny little room down on the Embarcadero near Pier 39 where I’ve parked my iMac, my scanner, and my collection of hard drives for the past five months or so. It’s great to have a room of my own, away from my messy house, with a free parking space and ready access via streetcar to the Ferry Plaza building. I’m afraid I’ve spent way too much money on Taylor’s Automatic Refresher’s divine hamburgers and sweet potato fries, Out The Door’s excellent wonton noodle soup, and Blue Bottle’s outstanding drip coffee. But I’ve also managed to be pretty productive as far as my movie is concerned and I was able to knock out a reasonable facsimile of a film in time for both screenings.

Khlot Ry, Oak Park tenant, The Oak Park Story, 2009

Khlot Ry, Oak Park tenant, The Oak Park Story, 2009

The documentary is all about an amazing coalition of tenant-activists at the Oak Park Apartments in Oakland’s San Antonio district who rose up against their exploitative landlord. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico, refugees from Cambodia, and faith-based activists who lived at Oak Park for more than a decade all came together to fight back against the negligent landlord and the crummy living conditions he foisted on them. After a three-year battle the tenants won a landmark settlement of nearly a million bucks. My collaborator, Russell Jeung, was one of the live-in activists at Oak Park and was in residence there for ten years. He and I interviewed nearly twenty people, and collected hours of archival footage and reams of documents, photographs and other ephemera from Oak Park and since April we’ve been stitching it all together in the editing studio.

In the two or three weeks leading up to the screenings I was in the studio non-stop from morning to night. I made myself stand up and do triangle pose every so often to battle the muscular damage I was causing by endlessly sitting hunched over my computer screen. I blew out the speakers in my 20-year-old Sony NTSC monitor, no doubt hastening its demise by running it continuously for too many hours on end. Sometime around the end of last week, just before the second of our W-I-P screenings, my neck got a permanent crick in it and I had to take Advil to get to sleep at night. My massage therapist told me that I’d twisted my vertebrae out of alignment from cranking my head in one direction too long (note: she fixed it).

But the movie is shaping up pretty well, and the feedback from both of the screenings was invaluable. After working on the film for so long and so intensively I had very little perspective left, so hearing responses from an impartial audience was great. I got rid of some of the confusing parts, added some more backstory, and otherwise was able to tighten up the movie considerably after hearing what people had to say at the screenings.

Camilo Landau & Carne Cruda sing it

Camilo Landau & Carne Cruda sing it

I also got a big boost from Camilo Landau’s awesome advice and help with the soundtrack. Camilo is a former student of mine (when he was in high school!) who’s now a grown-up and a professional musician and producer. He’s based in Oakland and, along with his uncle Greg Landau, runs Round Whirled Records, which puts out music by a bunch of great local bands including Fuga, Quetzal, Omar Sosa, and Carne Cruda, Camilo’s own combo. Camilo’s been a brilliant resource and I was able to use lots of the music he sent my way on the film’s soundtrack.

We’re in the home stretch with the film, and we have a couple of grant applications out there that will cover some of our postproduction, if we get them (which is always iffy, considering the perennially tough competition for indie movie funding). So we’re also soliciting our social networks and asking family, friends, associates and anyone who wants to support a good cause to contribute to the completion of the movie. We’ve even got fiscal sponsorship, so any donation is tax-deductible. So if anyone wants to help out a worthy project, please think about giving us some support. We’ve got some nifty premiums (t-shirts, dvds, tickets to the premiere) just like public television, though no coffee mugs or tote bags.

Okay, shameless pitch and self-promotion over. Back to regularly scheduled programming soonest.

For donations, here’s the link to the paypal information. You can also send a check—in either case be sure to note that the money is for The Oak Park Story.

UPDATE: Here’s a brief clip from the film:

August 12, 2009 at 6:14 am 7 comments


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