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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 incorporated 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.

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September 5, 2017 at 4:23 am 2 comments

Cinémania: 2017 Hong Kong International Film Festival part one

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Human horror, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

I’ve been in Hong Kong for more than a month now on the second leg of my Fulbright Fellowship for Love Boat: Taiwan and I’ve been taking advantage of as much of the city as I can. I scheduled my visit to coincide with the start of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and I managed to catch a whole slew of screenings during the run of the festival. HKIFF has a full slate of international offerings but as an Asian film fanperson I focused mostly on films from that region, with a couple of notable exceptions.

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Koo jai, Hong Kong International Film Festival opening night, 2017

I started my HKIFF journey as a press member on the red carpet for the opening night film, Love Off The Cuff. The event was surprisingly not that glamorous, in part because the latest crop of Hong Kong movie actors don’t have the shine of the legendary performers of yore. Although Miriam Yeung, Shawn Yu, and Louis Koo added some star power, somehow Elena Kong and Stephanie Au are just not in the same league as Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat or Andy Lau.

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Susan Shaw Siu Yam-Yam kills it, Hong Kong International Film Festival opening night, 2017

The awesome Susan Shaw Siu Yam-Yam killed it on the red carpet, however, showing the young ones how it’s done.

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Anthony Wong Chau-sang up close and personal, Hong Kong International Film Festival. 2017

I also got to breathe the same air as Anthony Wong Chau-sang a bit later in the festival, so that was pretty exciting. Anthony’s definitely got some presence, and I was amused to note his beautiful manicure with clear glossy nail polish. Alas, Francis Ng was not among the stars making an appearance at the festival this year so my fangirl day of reckoning still has to wait.

Here are capsule reviews of some of the films I saw:

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Jimmy & Cherie continued, Love Off The Cuff, 2017

Love Off The Cuff, 2017, dir. Pang Ho-Cheung,This is the third installment of the popular franchise that started with Love In A Puff and continued with Love In The Buff. The film is the further adventures of Cherie and Jimmy, the on-again-off-again couple played by Miriam Yeung & Shawn Yue. Here the pair have settled down and cohabitated, but as usual they deal with issues in their romantic relationship. The film is somewhat loosely structured and banks a lot on chemistry between the two lead actors, which fortunately is very strong. Miriam and Shawn feel like they know each other intimately and they’re very comfortable together onscreen. The movie includes a lot of Pang Ho-Cheung filmmaking tics, including fantasy sequences, big rubber monsters, vulgarity and profanity, poop jokes, condom jokes, blowjob jokes, pubic hair jokes and jokes about Miriam Yeung’s glorious colored hair. Unlike Love In The Buff, which was partially set in Beijing, this film very rooted in Hong Kong, as expressed in the abundance of local slang and the familiarity with Hong Kong’s everyday culture.

The film’s need to create dramatic tension relies on a questionable misunderstanding that hinges on Cherie’s ongoing relationship anxiety, but after many years together, what seemed realistically cautious seven years ago now just feels neurotic and needy on Cherie’s part. Jimmy character has grown but Cherie’s character is stuck and unable to move on. The movie also suggests that her anxiety is all based on her ticking maternity clock, which feels a bit retro in the 21st century. All in all the film is not quite as fun and kicky as the first installment and not as complex and angsty as the second, but it’s still pretty amusing.

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Bad romance, 77 Heartbreaks, 2017

77 Heartbreaks, 2017, dir. Herman Yau

77 Heartbreaks features a similar couple dynamic to Love Off The Cuff, featuring a responsible woman fed up with her childlike boyfriend. I had a bit of a hard time believing that the lead pair in the movie really dated for ten years, since Charlene Choi seems really young and Pakho Chau looks like he’s a 24-year-old skateboarder, not a lawyer in his thirties. Herman Yau’s direction is professional and assured, of course, but the film doesn’t stray far from romantic dramedy conventions. In a brief performance Anthony Wong Chau-Sang boosts up the few scenes he’s in, making the movie come alive, but otherwise the film is somewhat glossy and superficial. Sadly, since I had jet lag I nodded off during the most important part of the movie, which was an extended cameo by Francis Ng. Sometimes I just can’t catch a break.

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Just kiss already, Soul Mates, 2016

Soul Mates, 2016, dir. Derek Tsang

This is a Hong Kong-China co-production that feels Taiwanese, except without the unrestrained sexuality of the best Taiwanese romantic dramas. The film includes a very circumspect love triangle, including hints of curiously muffled same-sex attraction. No lesbians wanted in this co-production, despite several scenes where the two leads discuss bra sizes and scrutinize each other’s boobs in the bathroom. I wanted to tell the girls to just kiss already, but there is no actual consummation of their very close relationship. Both of the young actresses are quite good, and the two won a rare (unprecedented?) shared Golden Horse award for Best Actress for their performances.

 

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Looking for peace, Mad World, 2016

Mad World, 2016, dir. Wong Chun

A drama that follows the relationship between a bipolar man and his long-estranged father, the film features excellent performances by Shawn Yue and Eric Tsang as the son and father. The film sustains its intensity throughout and is bleak and unrelenting without being oppressively so. Although there are several opportunities to do so the film never veers into melodrama, instead opting for a relatively unsensationalized look at mental illness and its stigma in Hong Kong. Charmaine Sheh also quite good as Shawn Yue’s girlfriend who self-medicates with Jesus.

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Passionate and relevant, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

I Am Not Your Negro, 2016, dir. Raoul Peck

Wow, mind blown—-a passionate, relevant, important piece of work.. This is amazing documentary stitches together Hollywood movies, archival footage, news footage, and the brilliant words of James Baldwin. Although Samuel L. Jackson’s reading of Baldwin’s words is excellent, the real Baldwin matches him with his fiery, intelligent, and articulate appearances, most significantly in a clip from the 1960s from The Dick Cavett Show. Given the horrific state of affairs in race relations in the U.S. right now, this film was almost too much for me to watch since it’s so, so relevant. Technically the film is a gem, with some really nice use of archival footage and Hollywood movies.

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Untold and unseen, The Salesman, 2016

The Salesman, 2016, dir. Asghar Farhadi

This is another brilliant drama from Asghar Farhadi, who won his second Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for this one. As in A Separation (2011), in this film Farhadi does an impeccable job demonstrating moral ambiguity and the impossibility of clearly delineating between good and bad. I love his use of architecture and the metaphor of a crumbling building to signify the shaky ethical grounds we all stand on in day-to-day life. Farhadi is the master of the untold and the unseen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks and speculate about the events of the narrative. This is smart, smart filmmaking, grounded in strong and passionate performances from the lead and supporting cast. What seems like a family melodrama becomes a metaphor for the moral and ethical challenges we all face in daily life.

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Wacky, What A Wonderful Family, 2016

What A Wonderful Family, 2016, dir. Yoji Yamada

Veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada’s slapstick comedy looks at the exploits of a wacky Tokyo family as they face an emotional crisis in their midst. The house was full with about 1500 people when I saw this and the audience loved this shtick, which was replete with poop jokes and a very slightly morbid sense of humor. This is probably not surprising coming from a territory that spawned Chicken and Duck Talk and Stephen Chow, as this film was a Japanese version of classic Cantonese comedies, with its focus on interpersonal foibles and bodily functions. More TV sitcom than deep cinematic experience, it was nonetheless a crowd-pleaser.

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Realization, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2016

Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2016, dir. João Botelho

This is a really nice essay film about the great Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira which was directed by one of Oliveira’s protégés. The film mixes up archival footage, and other cinematic flotsam in a fascinating and often unexpected way, seamlessly integrating into Oliveira’s own film work It concludes with a realization of Oliviera’s last unfinished script, a poignant rumination on the bitter life of a young prostitute.

 

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Burning silhouette, 1981

Ana Medieta short film programme, 1971-81, dir. Ana Mendieta

This program featured several short films by the late lamented Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. It’s nice to see some old-school experimental film/performance art in a major film festival so hat’s off to HKIFF for including this. The shorts showed a good range of Mendieta’s work, which only accentuates the tragedy of her early death (by falling out of a window after an argument with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre). Mendieta’s work is very kinetic, so seeing film documentation of her performances is very satisfying, especially those works involving fire. There’s something utterly fascinating about watching things burn.

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Cruelty, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017,

Mon Mon Mon Monsters 2017, Giddens Ko

My film festival viewings ended with the world premiere of Giddens Ko’s newest film and it did not disappoint. A teen drama cum horror movie, this is a harrowing piece of work that touches on bullying, peer pressure, and the depths of human inhumanity in a seemingly ordinary secondary school. Although this is clearly a commercial genre film Giddens manages to work up some truly horrifying moments of teenage cruelty. The conclusion of the film is a mic drop to end all mic drops. This one is destined to make a sensation all over the Asian box office.

May 14, 2017 at 4:44 am Leave a comment

When I See You I Can’t Breathe/I Need To See You To Breathe: CNBLUE’s 7°CN Album Review

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Rockin’ the EDM, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

CNBLUE’s latest Korean release, the six-song mini-album 7°CN, dropped on March 20 and it’s possibly the best thing they’ve put out in the past couple years. It’s also a giant step forward in their creative development, with the addition of electronic elements to their signature rock sound.

A few times in their career CNBLUE has made quantum leaps in their musical development and artistry. RE: BLUE, their first album that was completely self-composed, was an explosive and radical departure from their earlier, more KPop-styled Korean releases. Their 2014 Korean mini-album, Can’t Stop, also demonstrated massive growth in their musical development. With 7°CN the band once again has catapulted far beyond their preceding releases, opening up an almost unfathomable artistic distance between this album and their last one.

CNBLUE dipped its toes into EDM on their 2015 release 2gether, as well as on some of their Japanese albums (including the standout tracks Still and Radio, both from Wave), but with 7°CN they are all in on the electronica. Yet at the same time the band manages to retain a strong rock feel on the album, attesting to their increasing skill as composers, producers, and musicians. In this release they get some help from a new collaborator, US-based producer Justin Reinstein, whose past credits include Kpop acts Vixx and SF9, and Japanese pop legends Arashi, among others. Reinstein brings a glossy sheen to the record that brightens and freshens up the usual CNBLUE sound. The result is a strong new direction for the band that fits organically with their established sound.

There’s a definite sense of urgency in this release that was absent in their past few albums. On their last two Korean releases, 2gether and BLUEMING, band leader Jung Yonghwa seemed content to noodle around, experimenting with various styles and types of instrumentation, but this release has a laser focus to it. It’s almost as if Yonghwa has started to count down the days until his military enlistment (sometime in 2018) and he’s realized he has no time to waste any more.

This is very evident in the title track, Between Us (Korean title, Confused), which is a gorgeous, powerhouse piece of pop music. Here the urgency is particularly palpable as the songs starts in medias res, charging directly into the driving chorus before returning to the verse, as if Yonghwa doesn’t want to take any chances with losing listeners. Unlike the leisurely buildup of their 2014 track, Can’t Stop, which begins slowly and then gradually hit its full stride, Between Us goes straight for the jugular right away. The result is thrilling, and as the song builds the effect only becomes more exhilarating.

The track’s dense production includes both electronic drums and a trap set, roaring rock guitar licks, several layers of vocals, and a thundering bass line, creating a veritable wall of sound. This echoes the intensity of feeling expressed in the lyrics, which describe the uncertainty of a couple on the edge of falling in love. Interestingly, the lyrics were co-written by a woman, with some smartly expressed paradoxes including “when I see you I can’t breathe/I need to see you to breathe,” and the vulnerability in them is in sharp contrast to the strong downbeat and buzzy guitar riff that drive the song. Likewise, the slight discordance of the close harmonies in the final chorus underscores the confusion of the track’s Korean title.

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Exhilarating, Between Us, CNBLUE, 2017

As in the best CNBLUE tracks the small embellishments enhance the sound beautifully, such as the intricate piano and cymbal fills during the song’s pre-chorus. Also effective is the contrast between is the song’s quieter sections, including a couple smooth passages sung by Lee Jonghyun and a passionately belted bridge by Yonghwa, with the driving beat of the chorus. By the end of the track Yonghwa is wailing away in an ecstatic fervor, Kang Minhyuk’s drums are double-timing, the guitar and bass are blazing, and the entire song is clicking away on all cylinders. It’s an irresistible slice of pop music.

The second track, It’s You, leans more toward the pop side of things, and sounds a bit like some of the songs on CNBLUE’s last Japanese release EUPHORIA. But whereas that album’s production style is a stripped-down throwback to 1960s soul, here Yonghwa and co-writer and co-producer Reinstein fatten up the mix with finger-snapping, a hooky refrain, a bit of horns and piano, a brief rap in English, and the catchphrase “oh baby girl, it’s you,” as well as a smattering of synthesizer and some vocal processing. The result is a fresh, bouncy earworm of a track.

One of the pleasures of CNBLUE’s music is the interplay between Yonghwa’s and Jonghyun’s vocals and the third track, Calling You, is a stellar example of this. The song features the two singers effortlessly swapping lead vocals and kicking some gorgeous falsetto. The old-school Hammond organ and rhythmic, wah-wah pedal guitar riff, and some jazzy chromatic shifts add to the rich, fat sound of the track.

When I Was Young, the fourth track (composed by Jonghyun), is another standout cut. Once again liberally making use of the electronica side of the pop music spectrum, this sexy and slinky track mixes up trap beats, dubstep, and Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s smooth and effortless, soulful vocals. Yonghwa manages some of his most assured and inspired singing here, ranging from full-throated belting to sultry crooning. The lyrics belie the track’s smexy feel, however, as they are a lament to lost youth. Although heavy on the EDM, CNBLUE’s rock roots come through in the track’s anthemic chorus, a fuzzy, distorted guitar riff, and a deep deep bass line.

Bassist Lee Jungshin, who recently started publishing songs, adds another solid tune to his repertoire, the sweet uptempo ballad Manito (Secret Friend). Yonghwa makes great use of the song’s simplicity to improvise around and over its basic melody, showing off his ability to embellish and elevate a simple composition.

Closing out the EP is the Korean version of Royal Rumble, one of the standout tracks from EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s Japanese release from last fall. The track features a polyrhythmic Latin beat coupled with Yonghwa’s haunting vocals. Although both the Japanese and Korean lyrics follow the same basic premise, of the experiences of a fighter forced to do constant battle in a never-ending competition, the Korean lyrics are actually much bleaker than the Japanese translation. Whereas the tagline of the Japanese version ended with somewhat hopeful line “nevertheless I dream on,” the Korean version (which I assume Yonghwa directly wrote) has no such redemptive words, closing instead with “maybe I want to end it too.” I’m hoping Yonghwa means ending his musical career and not something even darker and more hopeless. The structure of the song also complements the despair of the lyrics as the beat of the song moves along briskly while the vocal line moves in half-time. During the verse Yonghwa sings slightly behind the beat, which also contributes to the sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In their seven-years-plus since their 2009 debut CNBLUE’s songcraft has become increasingly skillful in that time and both Yonghwa and Jonghyun are now masters of the three-minute pop song. Likewise, the demands of both their accelerated release schedule and their constant touring have strengthened their vocal technique. Yonghwa in particular is in another realm now with his varied and accomplished singing on every track. His voice is now incredibly strong and supple, ranging from a sultry purr in the lowest parts of his range on When We Were Young to a high tenor on Calling You and his passionate and expressive dynamics on Between Us are the engine that powers that song.

Ironically, even though this may be one of their strongest and most accomplished releases to date, its sales have been the poorest of their career in South Korea, their home country. The album has done well internationally, topping iTunes charts in nine countries around the world and garnering almost universally positive and in some cases rave reviews. Yet in South Korea CNBLUE continue to be prophets without honor in their own country as neither the song nor the album have been particularly well-received.

There are several reasons why this might be, chief amongst those being the fickle, youth-driven South Korean pop music market, as well as the lingering damage from the bad PR the band suffered last summer due to the incompetence of their agency, FNC entertainment, in the handling of insider-trading accusations. FNC also seems to have been caught by surprise with the middling reception of one of their headliner acts, as publicity and promotions in SK have been scanty. Recent CNBLUE releases have also had lackadaisical support from FNC but CNBLUE’s overall popularity during those times made up for the agency’s indifference. But after last summer’s controversy it’s a brand new world, and seven years in Kpop is an eternity, so even reliably popular senior groups like CNBLUE have been losing market share to the latest hot new acts.

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Slowly dawning, CNBLUE, Inkigayo, 2017

Watching CNBLUE make the rounds of the Kpop music shows this past week has been an interesting experience. Since their digital sales have been lower than usual they have no chance of winning any of the trophies on these programs, so their performances have been somewhat meaningless. Added to that is the fact that they are mostly hand-syncing on these programs—they certainly give it their best, but since they are used to the much more invigorating experience of playing live in their concerts, being on Kpop shows has got to be a little bit less than exciting for them. I think it’s starting to dawn on them that they might not need Kpop or commercial success in South Korea to keep making their music. They’ve topped charts all over Asia and have even cracked the Billboard Top Ten World Music charts with this release, so maybe South Korea is beginning to become irrelevant to them. Although it’s sad they’re not appreciated in their home country these may be the hard facts.

It may be the start of their transition from a Kpop group to a real touring band, which is probably better for them in the long run. Their abilities and appeal are undeniable so I hope they can expand their base beyond the unappreciative South Korea music market. I’ve been following popular music for decades and CNBLUE’s talent is a rare and special thing. CNBLUE creates pop of the highest order and it would be criminal for their surpassingly excellent music not to be heard and appreciated by a wider global audience.

Bonus beats: In case you need convincing that Between Us is a great song, here’s a piano cover of it. Even without all the fancy overdubs the bones of this tune are so solid. This is amazing songwriting, people. Listen and weep.

March 29, 2017 at 10:08 pm 4 comments

Keep Your Head To The Sky: 2017 CAAMfest

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Angsty emo, The Lockpicker, 2016

CAAMfest is just around the corner so I’m posting a few quick recos to help people wade through the massive program. As usual this year the festival is screening more than 100 films, plus music and food events, so finding your bliss can be a daunting process. Here are a few things that I’ve seen that I like. Get your tickets while they’re hot—they’re going fast!

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Wood paneling and wide ties, The Tiger Hunter, 2016

The Tiger Hunter, dir. Lena Khan

A sweet and amusing comedy set in the 1970s about an Indian guy who moves to the US to make his fortune, The Tiger Hunter is a crowd-pleaser that’s set as the CAAMfest opening night movie. Danny Pudi is appealing and genial as the son of the titular tiger hunter and the ensemble cast brings a goofy charm to the rest of the film. Speaking as someone who grew up in that inglorious decade I can also say that the 70s art direction is totally on point.

The Lockpicker, dir. Randall Okita

Randall Okita’s teen angst drama made my best-of list for 2016 and I’m sticking by that decision. Asian American narrative film directors have pretty much mastered the art of mimicking Hollywood movies these days, but The Lockpicker is a different animal altogether. Raw, unstructured, and brutally honest in its examination of some of the worst aspects of adolescence, the film is anchored by a charismatic and emo performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang. As I’ve said before, as a parent of teenagers this movie terrified me in its depiction of the casual cruelty of ennui-stricken youth.

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Sunkrish looking fly, Chee and T, 2016

Chee and T, dir. Tanuj Chopra

Tanuj Chopra’s latest flick is a wacky ride through the wilds of Palo Alto with a couple slightly sketchy desi dudes who exist on the fringes of Silicon Valley’s tech wonderland. Funny and frantic, with typical Tanuj Chopra hijinks including hallucinogenic drugs, ethically questionable characters, and surprising individuals who are not what they seem to be.

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Search for self, AKA Seoul, 2016

AKA Seoul, dir. Jon Maxwell

An intriguing look at the experiences of a handful of twentysomething Korean adoptees as they return to Seoul to search for some of the answers to their family histories. Along the way they discover that uncovering the truth may not always be the best way to determine your destiny and that detours don’t necessarily mean derailment on the track tracks of life (wut?).

Basha Man, dir. Daniel Chein

A perceptive look at the conflict between capital and culture, this short documentary profiles a young tour guide and performer in a small village in western China. The film explores the difficulties in maintaining a cultural heritage in a rapidly commodifying world.

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Francis cameo, Bruce Takes Dragon Town, 2015

Bruce Takes Dragon Town, dir. Emily Chao

Returning to Taiwan during Ghost Month takes on extra significance for a Taiwanese American filmmaker tracing her family’s migrations. This short experimental doc gets bonus points for featuring clips of the obscure Francis Ng film Banana Spirit.

It Is What It Is, dir. Cyrus Tabor

This short experimental documentary uses home movies, archival footage, and a personal narrative that attempts to unlock family secrets across generations and between continents. Dreamy, sad, and perplexing, with a blurry sheen of flawed memories that demonstrates the difficulties in finding the line between truth and fiction.

Death In A Day, dir. Lin Wang

A brief look at a significant moment in a young boy’s life, this sharply observed short narrative, told from the boy’s point of view, is full of subtlety and symbolism.

March 8, 2017 at 7:16 am Leave a comment

Hot, Cool & Vicious: Favorite movies, 2016

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Learning to breathe, Moonlight, 2016

Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.

1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.

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Posse, The Mermaid, 2016

2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.

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Fleeing, Train To Busan, 2016

3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control

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Meta, Three, 2016

4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.

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Despairing, Old Stone, 2016

5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Real, The Lockpicker, 2016

6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Yellow, Anti-Porno, 2016

7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Doppelganger, Fan ,2016

8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.

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Masculinities, The Magnificent Seven, 2016

9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.

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Histories, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1), 2016

10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.

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Writing, Mele Murals, 2016

11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco

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Charming, At Cafe 6, 2016

12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.

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Off-balance, The Wailing, 2016

13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.

Honorable mentions: Line Walker; Spa Night; Equinox Flower; In A Lonely Place; We Are X

NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com

January 27, 2017 at 4:43 am 3 comments

Nevertheless I Dream On: CNBLUE Euphoria album review

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Yonghwa dreams, Glory Days, 2016

With EUPHORIA, CNBLUE’s latest Japanese album that dropped last October, the band continues its ongoing musical evolution and growth. While probably best known for its incredibly catchy early power pop hits like I’m Sorry and I’m A Loner, or it’s more densely produced later tracks, including songs such as Can’t Stop, Cinderella, and You’re So Fine, with this new release CNBLUE goes back further to the roots of its sound, to a more stripped-down early rock and roll and R&B style.

CNBLUE has always worn its musical influences on its sleeve and EUPHORIA is no different, with nods to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Coldplay, Wiz Khalifia, and Sam Cooke, among many others. Their particular talent is taking those influences and synthesizing them into something new and energetic.

The album is frontloaded with six incredibly strong and diverse tracks, but in truth each of the album’s ten tracks ranges from good to excellent. Though the album isn’t quite as perfect as CNBLUE’s best release Can’t Stop, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end, EUPHORIA is still full of high-quality songwriting, performing, and production.


The lead track is the melancholy mid-tempo cut Be OK. A plaintive lament about fighting uncertainty, pain, and self-doubt, the song recalls Coldplay and other Brit-pop in its simple, guitar-based structure. Jung Yonghwa and Lee Jonghyun’s vulnerable, evocative vocals and the sadness and longing in the lyrics create a lovely and unadorned sonic picture. As with many CNBLUE duets between the two of them, the track alternates the wistful delicacy of Jonghyun’s vocals with Yonghwa’s explosively raw and emotional voice. The song ends with Jonghyun barely whispering the affirmation, “I’ll be okay,” which lends a hopeful fragility to the song’s message. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite CNBLUE tracks as the passion and power in this song is no joke.


As if to counter the melancholy of Be OK, the next tune, the album’s title track Glory Days, is a more uptempo track that picks up the pace without sacrificing the emotional thoughtfulness of the prior song. The lyrics describe the “long, long journey of my dreams” which the band has traveled, encountering obstacles and difficulties along the way but never giving up on their vision. The arrangement and production on this track also contrasts with the spareness of Be Okay, with a dense wall of sound combining close vocal harmonies and a rich interplay of synthesizer, piano, and guitar that provides a bed for Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident vocal relays. What may not be immediately apparent is the bass line of the song, which travels from thumb-popping plucking to deep, resonant hums. CNBLUE’s musicality is apparent in this track where every element highlights the band’s chops, creating a gorgeous sonic pop music palette.


Take Me Higher, the rockingest song on the album, shows off the band’s signature passion and intensity, as if to prove they can still kick it with guitar-based hard rock. On top of the driving 4/4 beat the song adds a funky James Brown-style guitar riff that demonstrates the evolution of their sound beyond straight-up rock music. Interestingly, this song was composed before the band’s recent insider-trading scandal in June 2016, and the track, including its chorus “direction of my hope,” expresses an exuberant optimism and confidence not found in the rest of the album, much of which was likely composed post-scandal.

Face To Face is another incredibly hooky tune, with Yonghwa crooning and belting like a 60s R&B soul shouter. Although some of CNBLUE’s past English-language songs have been a bit cringeworthy in their awkward phrasing, here the syncopated beat works with the lyrical structure. The old-school keyboards and horns and the doowop refrain adds to the R&B feel as the band channels Stax-Volt stalwarts like Booker T and the MGs and Sam and Dave.

Following Face to Face is Puzzle, the first single off the album that was released in spring 2016 and also composed pre-scandal. Another densely produced and upbeat track, Puzzle starts with Yonghwa belting the title lyrics acapella and the song never lets up after that. As usual Yonghwa and Jonghyun provide energetic vocals but the track is really driven by a zippy arrangement that rides Kang Minhyuk’s relentless drumming skilz. Althought it’s a hooky tune, it’s a tad less interesting upon repeated listening. The tune works much better as a soundtrack to the song’s crazy and whimsical music video.


The next track, however, is the album’s standout. Royal Rumble is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever heard from CNBLUE. The song uses a syncopated, polyrhythmic Latin beat and a complex guitar line under Yonghwa’s evocative vocals to create a beautiful, singular track. The lyrics, which describe a fighter who faces countless opponents in a battle royale, echo Yonghwa’s experiences in the cutthroat K-Pop world, where even the winners are eventually beaten down and worn out. One of the last lines “I must hurry” repeats before the last haunting chorus. Images of fear, drowning, suffocation, and pain reflect the traumas of existing and surviving in the competitive South Korean music industry. Yonghwa has written eloquently in the past about the vicious nature of the K-pop world, most recently in Checkmate from his solo album (Around here/swords and shields/We become enemies/rip apart each other/and vanish), but Royal Rumble perhaps best reflects the intensity of his experiences there. The last line of the chorus, however, translated as “nevertheless I dream on,” is a moving testimony to Yonghwa’s hope and optimism in the face of ongoing suffering and strife.


Following Royal Rumble is another throwback R&B-style cut, Every Time, with a syncopated beat under Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s confident and soulful vocals. Once again Kang Minhyuk provides a strong and steady beat to anchor the track. Bassist Lee Jungshin contributes the midtempo ballad Stay With Me, with Japanese lyrics that seem to scan successfully. Yonghwa sings it well, in an unembellished style suitable to the song’s clarity and simplicity. Slaves, another upbeat R&B bop, is a goofy tune about cell-phone addiction. But damn if it isn’t catchy as hell and again Yonghwa has fun singing it, belting out the chorus like the legendary soul shouter Wilson Pickett.

The closing track, Blessed, is a sweet lament to the uncertainty of love, but Jonghyun’s English lyrics are somewhat less effective here than in Be OK. As with Every Time, the syntax and phrasing are just a bit awkward, which detracts from the song a bit. Yonghwa’s plaintive singing utilizes the deeper end of his vocal range to good effect, with Jonghyun contributing ably as well. The emotions of the song ring strong and true and this song, together with Be OK, create an evocative conceptual frame for the album. Although some of the tracks are upbeat and positive the uncertainty of these two songs create a lingering sadness and a sense of emotional complexity that perhaps reflects the band members’ state of mind after their troubles this year.

The quality of the songwriting, the increased maturity of the lyrics, and the general excellence of each track on Euphoria speaks to CN’s continued growth and development as artists. Although the guitars are mixed a bit lower than in some of their previous releases, the rock-based backbone of their sound is still there, enhanced with a more sophisticated sense of rhythm and beats. The result is more evidence of the band’s restless creativity and its desire to continue developing musically as they move beyond the constraints of their K-Pop origins into a more elevated artistic territory.

Three versions, You’re So Fine

POSTSCRIPT: CNBLUE recently performed You’re So Fine, their hit song that dropped back in April, on several televised year-end gayo (K-pop) music shows. But instead of simply recycling the song’s original arrangement for their performances, Yonghwa re-arranged the track differently for each of the different live performances. And it wasn’t just a bit of tweaking here and there—each version was radically different and included different instrumentation than both the original track and the other versions they played that week. It seems like Yonghwa’s collaboration last year with indie queen Sunwoo Jung Ah is still reverberating through his musical consciousness as he’s been heading in a decidedly jazzy direction lately. All three arrangements of You’re So Fine on each of the gayos featured improvisational vocals by Yonghwa as he snaked his way around the melody with various rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints to the original tune.

I’m pretty sure that there was no requirement that they come up with a new arrangement for each show, so the band’s insistence on giving an original performance every time no matter what the circumstances is a testament to their desire to be known as musicians and artists, not just idols. They continue to blaze trails in the K-pop world and their only dilemma may be figuring out how to graduate from K-pop and move on artistically from the confines of the genre. I hope their talent and vision is recognized and rewarded accordingly both in South Korea and beyond.


UPDATE: Yet another brand new arrangement of You’re So Fine, this time for the Golden Disk awards on Jan. 13. Orchestral and jazzy, with strings, horns, and added percussion, as well as Yonghwa prowling around in his long black furry coat. He owns the stage in this clip and also throws in a short interaction with EXO singer Baekhyun. You can see he was dying to find a way to get down into the audience this time too. Genius.

Bonus track: Yonghwa sings a smexy version of Sunwoo Jung Ah’s Spring Lady on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook

160115 Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook Spring Lady Jung Yonghwa & Sunwoo Jung A from CNBLUECL on Vimeo.

January 11, 2017 at 6:49 am 2 comments

Oh well: Sky On Fire film review

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Daniel Wu, gun, Sky On Fire, 2016

Ringo Lam came off of a very extended hiatus in 2014 with Wild City, his first feature film in more than ten years. Although flawed, the film still show flashes of what made Lam’s movies great back in his heyday in the 1980s when he made classics such as City on Fire, Prison On Fire, Wild Search, and Full Contact with the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat. Lam’s second film in three years, Sky On Fire, just released in the U.S. and Hong Kong and like its predecessor it’s a mixed bag. But whereas Wild City retained some of the grit of Lam’s earlier classics, almost all of that texture has been sanded away in this new release.

Though not as dreadfully unmemorable as fellow Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s last flick, Operation Mekong (2016), which I forgot I’d even seen the moment after I left the theater, there’s a certain unnerving genericness to Sky On Fire that is discouraging. Lam used to be one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive directors, with a streetwise style that pulled no punches. Some remnants of that still remain in Sky On Fire but for the most part the film is unremarkable and anonymous. The film follows Tribo (Daniel Wu), the security chief of a medical research firm, as he uncovers corruption and malfeasance involving what the subtitles call “ex-stem cells,” a prized medical breakthrough that can cure cancer. Along the way Tribo tangles with a group of thieves led by a young dude named Ziwan (Zhang Ruo Yun) who have stolen the former stem cells, as well as various baddies out to get their hands on the coveted objects.

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Stop, thief! Sky On Fire, 2016

In Sky On Fire there are some remnants of Lam’s former mastery. Some of the action sequences are crisp and effective, including two scenes involving hand-to-hand fighting in cramped interiors. The first, which takes place in a small kitchen, features rapid-fire fight choreography that escalates rapidly and convincingly and that displays a mastery of space, movement, and editing. The second, in a narrow hallway, includes painfully realistic-looking violence including an actor’s head shattering the ceramic tiles lining the hallway’s walls.

Similarly, a car chase through the confined streets of Central makes good use of that district’s narrow, winding roads. But besides that the film has very little Hong Kong flavor, which is probably exacerbated by the international cut being dubbed in Mandarin. At first I couldn’t even tell the movie was set in Hong Kong, which is definitely not a good sign.

Sky On Fire also suffers from a convoluted plot and a very uneven tone throughout its running time. Lam makes the unfortunate decision to include a sappy cancer-patient storyline that sucks all of the life out of the narrative. It’s not helped by the fact that Amber Kuo plays the cancer patient in question since she’s a mopey drip throughout the movie. The film alternates to ill effect between the attempted pathos of her situation and the slam-bang action of the rest of the story and neither aspect of the movie meshes with the other.

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Amber cancer, Sky On Fire, 2016

By the last third of the film the wheels have completely come off as the story swerves into absurdity. The good guys end up in a fight scene in a hospital room while an incapacitated Amber Kuo lies whimpering in the bed. Suffice to say that the weapon of choice in this scene is a pole-mounted plasma bag. Following this unlikely scenario everyone including the terminal cancer patient piles into a car and speeds off, guns blazing. Luckily Tribo thoughtfully reminds everyone to buckle their seatbelts as they veer toward more vehicular mayhem. Other scenes are similarly clichéd, including a character tensely hacking something important from a desktop computer as the screen displays the download status. Can’t they just go on the cloud these days and not have to spend time breaking into an office and using a terminal? Other missteps include some very questionable CGI including fake-looking explosions and fires and a poorly matted rendering of the Sky Tower, the skyscraper where much of the action takes place.

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Oh shit, Sky On Fire, 2016

The film wastes a lot of talent, from venerable Hong Kong character actors Wayne Lai and Philip Keung to Daniel Wu, who is stern and scowly but not terribly compelling. Idol drama star Zhang Ruo Yun in his first film role is adequate but unmemorable. Joseph Chang, on the other hand, gets it done with another strong performance. He’s shaping up to be a fine actor and here he combines a notable physicality with a sensitive intensity.

The movie also benefits from advances in digital cinematography as it looks slick and beautifully photographed. But all the pretty photography in the world can’t give the film coherence or make it connect emotionally, which is unfortunate given Ringo Lam’s past work. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to redeem himself with another, better movie sometime soon.

Sky On Fire opens Dec. 2 across North America

 

 

 

 

November 29, 2016 at 7:04 am 2 comments

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