Posts tagged ‘asian american film’

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

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

Stay With Me: Spa Night movie review

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Self-reflection, Spa Night, 2016

Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, which looks at the struggles of a young Korean American man in Los Angeles coming to grips with his queerness, at first may seem like a throwback to pre-Stonewall “gay=guilt” cinematic tropes. But rather than a retrograde portrayal it instead represents a step forward in queer filmic representations, recognizing the significance of intersectional identities found in LGBTQ people of color.

Spa Night is a thoughtful and nuanced movie that goes beyond a lot of queer cinema’s current trend toward hot makeout sessions interspersed with romantic melodrama. Back in the day when New Queer Cinema took off back in the 1990s with movies like Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche 1994), The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Münch, 1991), and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), among many others, it was important to show queer sex onscreen since it had been silenced and suppressed for so long. At that time just the act of boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl kissing signaled a radical moment. But now it’s almost become a cliché—I wrote a couple years ago about how every film I saw at Frameline Festival included the obligatory buffed dudes/cute chicks in tank tops stripping off and faking same-sex sex. Even mainstream television has queer couples tongue-locking all the time, so although homophobia remains rampant in US culture at large, it’s not as rare as it was back in the nineties to see LGBT coupling onscreen.

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Intersectionality, Spa Night, 2016

So in some ways Spa Night may seem relatively tame in relation to mainstream queer cinema (and it’s great that there is a such a thing, btw). Instead of a standard coming-out story where boy or girl announces his or her queerness to the world and such announcement is revelatory and life-affirming, Spa Night presents a much more layered and densely observed look at a young Korean American man’s gradual recognition of his sexuality. The film’s realization of the main character’s mixed feelings, confusion, and shame may seem like a reversion to the old days when any gay character was a tragic homosexual destined for unhappiness and grief. But Spa Night acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation is not the end of confusion but often just the first step to self-realization.

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With abeoji and eomeoni, Spa Night, 2016

The film depicts the complexities of a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality within a traditional Korean immigrant family. Set mostly in a bathhouse in Los Angeles’s Koreatown the film is not without several steamy suggestions of gay longing and desire, but for the most part the action is implied rather than explicit. David, the main character played by Joe Seo, grapples with maintaining a balance between his family obligations and the burgeoning realization of his sexual desires. Presented without judgment or blame, the film instead simply delineates David’s attempts to fulfill his family duties and his parents’ wishes for him to marry and carry on the family name while gradually recognizing his own sexual identity. The film recognizes David’s struggle to reconcile these sometimes oppositional forces. It also acknowledges that the simple pre- and post-coming out binary may not work within the bounds of a non-Western cultural context, as David’s filial piety, family responsibilities, cultural expectations, and other culturally specific concerns come into play.

Although it may not seem as edgy as its predecessors in New Queer Cinema in fact Spa Night is a step forward for the genre. The film recognizes the very different tensions that queer Asian Americans may face as they balance a multiplicity of identities, histories, and expectations.

October 17, 2016 at 2:49 am 1 comment

Shining Star: CAAMfest 2016

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Art, life, and community, Mele Murals, 2016

It’s March so that must mean it’s time for CAAMfest, San Francisco’s annual Asian American film festival. As with past iterations, the ten-day fest includes a generous helping of documentaries, narratives, shorts, and animation from Asian and Asian American and diasporic directors.

Notable this year is the strong slate of Asian American documentaries, including the Opening Night film Tyrus, directed by Pam Tom (Two Lies), which looks at Chinese American animator Tyrus Wong, the man behind Disney’s Bambi, among other iconic characters. Also of note are Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story (dir. Ben Wang), which follows the life of the titular Chinese American poet and prison activist; Daze of Justice, (dir. Mike Siv) which looks at the trial of Khmer Rouge war criminals in Cambodia, and Ninth Floor (dir. Mina Shum), an examination of the historic 1969 occupation of Sir George Williams University in Montreal by Jamaican student activists.

Another doc of note is Tadashi Nakamura’s latest, Mele Murals. Nakamura (Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strong; A Song For Ourselves) has again produced a winner in this beautiful and moving story about two Hawai’ian artists who gradually learn about themselves, their art, and their culture. Commissioned to lead the creation of a large-scale mural on the walls of a public school in Waimea, graffiti artists Estria Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina gradually immerse themselves in Waimea’s history, culture, and community through their involvement with the mural project. As the project progresses Prime discovers a heretofore unexpressed connection with his Hawai’ian heritage, while Estria learns to overcome his ego and his need to be “the artist.” Featuring some beautiful digital cinematography, Nakamura’s film includes a remarkable sensitivity to and empathy with his subjects. Prime talks about growing up shuttling between his divorced parents and the resultant disconnect with his history and culture, and Estria develops an understanding of the importance of respecting the wishes of the group over individual needs and desires. Director Nakamura understands how human beings interact with place and the land and he often frames his shots with a lot of sky and horizon, placing the people as part of the landscape and not just centering the human experience. The final scene is powerful and moving and all I can say is MIC DROP.

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It’s lit, Grass, 2016

Another fun film is Tanuj Chopra’s Grass, a narrative about a day in the life of two weedheads as they smoke a huge amount of cannabis and hang out in a park in Los Angeles. The plot, such as it is, follows Cam and her buddy Jinky as they contemplate a backpack full of buds that Cam’s boyfriend Austin has given them to deliver to a third party. Cam and Jinky can’t help sampling a bit of the goods and one thing leads to another as they gradually imbibe more and more of Austin’s weed. Mostly comprised of the absurdist running commentary by the increasingly lit protagonists, the film features spot-on dialog that effectively simulates the sensation of smoking many joints over a short period of time. Emily C. Chang and Pia Shah are hilarious as the stoned protagonists as they gradually become higher and more paranoid throughout the day. Chopra breaks up the two gals’ crazy rambling and obsessive discussions about pizza with a synthy score, hallucinatory bumpers featuring food porn and blooming time-lapse plants, and a few well-placed digital effects to heighten the generally baked proceedings.

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Crushed, The Kids, 2015

For those looking for films on the Asian tip, Taiwanese director Sunny Yu’s narrative The Kids is a poignant and effective drama about two teens facing adversity as they try to make their way in an adult world. Set in working-class Taipei, the film includes heartfelt and unaffected performances by the two young leads. The actors portray adolescent parents of an infant daughter who are slowly being crushed by the weight of grownup responsibilities. And for those looking for a more commercial Asian cinematic experience, CAAMfest is showing the South Korean historical The Royal Tailor, which stars the hot and charming Ko Soo as Lee Gong-jin, a rakish fashion designer who turns the Joseon court upside-down and who becomes romantically entangled with the young queen (played by ingénue Park Shin-Hye, star of hit K-dramas The Heirs, You’re Beautiful, and Pinocchio).

This is only the tip of the iceberg of CAAMfest’s bounteous programming slate, which also includes music shows, panels, and food events. Tickets are selling fast so go here to get yours before they’re gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 9, 2016 at 2:25 am 1 comment

Nothing Compares 2 U: 2015 CAAMfest

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

CAAMfest, everyone’s favorite San Francisco-based Asian American arts festival, starts up this week and as usual it’s stuffed with films from Asian and Asian American directors, musical happenings, and food events. The festival spotlights veteran documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, including a premiere of his new feature-length documentary The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which is about the Cambodian doctor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning turn in The Killing Fields in 1984 and whose mysterious murder tragically ended his life some years later. Former CAAMfest/San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-Hui Yang curates a program of shorts, Playtime, that includes Trails, Cyrus Tabar’s hallucinogenic microportrait of Tokyo, as well as a revival of the rarity Snipers In The Trees (1985), an early experimental short by Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). Below are a few other highlights of the upcoming cinematic onslaught.

Dot 2 Dot

Amos Why’s debut feature is the real deal, an intriguing look at Hong Kong’s past and present that uses the city’s unique history and geography as a backdrop for a thoughtful commentary on the transience of culture, place, and identity. The film follows Chung, a Chinese Canadian expat returning to HK who leaves dot-to-dot puzzles inscribed on the walls of the stations of the MTR, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system. A recent mainland China emigre (Meng Ting-yi) begins to decipher Chung’s cryptograms and the two begin a virtual courtship, linked by Chung’s mysterious symbology. Director Why captures a street-level view of contemporary Hong Kong that’s filled with ordinary people who represent the multifaceted denizens of the city in the 21st century. The movie includes lots of non-touristy Hong Kong locations and has a great feel for the everyday sights and rhythms of the city. Hong Kong movie fans can also spot Susan Shaw as a language-school headmistress, and Tze-chung Lam, aka the chubby guy from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, as a teacher, as well as TVB star Moses Chan (hiding his celebrity good-looks behind black-framed eyeglasses) as Chung. Though it fondly recalls the Hong Kong of the past, the movie isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic. It’s a nice look at what’s vanished in Hong Kong over the past few decades and the rapidly accelerating changes in the city.

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Hollow

This US/Vietnam co-production is a slick and creepy horror movie by Ham Tran, the director of Journey From the Fall (2006), which looked at the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the US, as well as last year’s glam-slam How To Fight in Six-Inch Heels. Hollow is a quite a departure from Tran’s debut film and demonstrates both the uptick in genre films directed by Asian Americans in the past few years as well as the trend toward US/Asia co-productions. The story centers on Chi, whose younger half-sister Ai apparently drowns in a nearby river, causing Chi much guilt and anguish. But when Ai later turns up a few kilometers down the river seemingly alive and well, things take a turn for the supernatural as the young girl develops a greenish pallor, scratches at mysterious wounds, and otherwise exhibits signs of demonic possession. The movie does an good job blending Viet ghost stories with modern-day horror film tropes and for the most part keeps the source of the mysterious child-possession hidden until the end. I would like to have seen a bit more agency on the part of Chi’s character but the film draws interesting parallels between sex traffickers and malevolent spirits, trying together past and present evils in Viet society. The movie is nicely shot, although the soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on sudden loud and jarring violin sounds to emphasize the scary bits in the story, but there are some nice visceral touches—it’s always rewarding to see pimps and child abductors vomiting gallons of river water.

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Nuoc 2030

Nuoc 2030 is another US/Viet genre film coproduction, this one a science-fictional look at Vietnam in 2030, which is by then mostly flooded by global warming. The film’s title plays on the dual translation of “nuoc,” which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese. Despite a modest budget, director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo does an excellent job of world-building with his imaginative use of existing locations and evocative imagery to suggest a drowned world. The poetic narrative centers on Sao, a fisherman’s widow searching for clues to her husband’s murder in a watery Vietnam of the not-too-distant mid-21st century. For the most part the film delicately renders its futuristic storyline with imagination and vision, mixing in environmentalism, genetic engineering, and a fatalistic romance.

Flowing Stories

Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan’s outstanding documentary looks Ho Chung village, a small settlement in Hong Kong’s New Territories, an area which is currently undergoing a construction boom due to its location near the Hong Kong/China border. Due to the harshness of farming in the region many NT residents immigrate to Europe to find work, including the two generations of the Lau Family featured in Tsang’s film. Tsuan shot much of the film during the village’s ten-year festival that occurs every decade, using that event as a means of examining the ongoing village diaspora and its effects on the residents. The Laus dispersed primarily to France and the UK and the film also includes footage of their lives overseas, with the resulting French/English-speaking children, intermarriages, and mixed-heritage offspring. Only the family’s world-weary matriarch remains in the village, where she bitterly reminisces about the poverty and hardship of farm life and her still-raging anger at her late husband, who emigrated to the UK decades before and who was only able to return a handful of times to visit his wife and children. The film is an excellent testament to the effects of globalization and the costs of modernization on ordinary people but it’s by no means downbeat or depressing, as it also celebrates the endurance of and connections to the villagers’ cultural roots as they return every decade to celebrate the festival.

I'm gonna live forever, My Voice, My Life, 2014

I’m gonna live forever, My Voice, My Life, 2014

My Voice, My Life

Oscar-winner (and former San Franciscan) Ruby Lam’s latest film follows several at-risk Hong Kong high school students as they prepare for a large-scale musical production. This verite-style doc celebrates the struggles and accomplishments of those who have been left out of Hong Kong’s fast-lane, including students from a school for the blind, recent mainland China immigrants, and those whose academics keep them from top-ranked educations. Part Fame, part Frederick Wiseman’s High School, the movie subtly reveals a lot about the social strata of contemporary Hong Kong and its constantly changing cultural milieu.

2015 CAAMfest

March 12-22, 2015

San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley

March 10, 2015 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

The Dark of the Matinee: CAAMfest 2014

Looking, A Picture of You, 2014

Looking, A Picture of You, 2014

Everyone’s favorite local festival starts this week with a slew of film screenings, food parties, and musical events. The fest includes treats such as the world premiere of the legendary Rea Tajiri’s newest experimental doc, Lordville, as well as Golden Gate Girls, Louisa Wei’s feature length study of Chinese American film director Esther Eng, who worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 1930s, and The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated personal doc that’s a harrowing look at the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, told with intricately designed miniature tableaux populated by rough-hewn clay dolls.

Though by no means exhaustive, herewith is a small selection of some of the festival’s other highlights.

Ilo Ilo

This family drama out of Singapore has been racking up a bunch of awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the Golden Horse awards. The plot concerns a middle-class Singaporean couple with a rambunctious 11-year-old son who hire a live-in Filipino housekeeper. Shot in Ann Hui-styled realism, the film shows the struggle of ordinary people caught in the global economic crisis. None of the characters in the film are exempt from the human cost of corporatization, as the OWF maid has a young son back in the Philippines and must moonlight as a hairdresser to make ends meet, while her Singaporean employers hold a series of oppressive, soul-crushing office jobs. Everyone is ground up by the relentless gears of global capitalism—will their humanity remain intact?

A Picture of You

JP Chan’s debut feature (he’s directed a bunch of short films) is a sharply drawn slice of life about a brother and sister, Kyle and Jen, who return to their late mom’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside to pack it up after her passing. Despite the potentially maudlin subject matter, director Chan infuses the film with levity—the tense and familiar bickering between the siblings rings pretty true as once in their mom’s house the two revert to old patterns of behavior. As they’re packing up they find out a bit more about their mom than they might want to know, which leads to more tension and bickering. Chan draws out amusing performances from his cast, lead by Andrew Pang as the sardonic brother and Jo Mei as the discombobulated sister. Also good are Lucas Dixon as Jen’s dorky white guy boyfriend, and Teyonah Parris from Mad Men who plays Jen’s BFF with endearing geekiness. The movie is a bit like a Wes Anderson film (without the twee and annoying stylistic tics) in the way that it delves into the quirkiness of interpersonal familial relationships without sentiment or melodrama.

Rote, Innocents, 2013

Rote, Innocents, 2013

Innocents

In yet another Singaporean narrative, two lonely kids befriend each other at their strict middle school. Syafiqah’s absent parents have left her with her indifferent grandmother. Huat lives with his strict father and his mentally handicapped younger sister. The two become friends despite Syafiqah being the good girl and Huat the outcast who’s bullied by the other kids. The scenes where the two kids play joyfully in an aquaduct on the edge of the town contrast beautifully with the rigid, doctrinaire atmosphere of the schoolroom, where corporal punishment is routine and the students dutifully recite facts and numbers without analysis or critical thinking. Huat is imaginative and creative and so doomed to fail in this educational and social system. The adults are either cruel,abusive, or absent and the only affection and tenderness the two children find are with each other. Writer-director Wong Chen Hsi, who grew up in Singapore but who went to USC film school, draws out quite wonderful performances from her two young leads who effectively convey the stubbornness, rebellion, and confusion of their pre-adolescent characters. The film sports some impressive wide-screen cinematography and has a subtle and effective sound design, with the sound of Singapore’s relentless equatorial rain becoming a metaphor for the muffling of dissent in the school and in society. The film is a poignant and moving indictment of the stifling of difference within the modern Singaporean social system.

The Haumana

Lisette Marie Flanary’s documentary Na Kamalei: Men of Hula was a huge hit on the Asian American film festival circuit a few years back, so it’s no wonder someone else has decided to further mine the trials and tribulations of male hula dancers. The Haumana follows Johnny Kealoha (competently played by Tui Asau), a cheesy, alcoholic Waikiki lounge singer who’s bastardized his native Hawai’ian heritage for the aim of fleecing tourists. Yet despite Johnny’s apparent lack of hula street cred, on her deathbed Johnny’s mentor recruits him to tutor a group of high school male hula dancers for the big show. The movie follows Johnny as he strives to whip his motley crew of hula dancers into dancing trim while rediscovering his cultural roots. A feel-good, let’s-put-on-a-show hula movie with lots of pretty boys and nice scenery, The Haumana touches briefly on some of the social issues facing Hawaii but it’s not a particularly dark or gritty movie and it never really strays far from afterschool-special territory. Of note is Kelly Hu in a small role as a barkeep–for some reason she looks absolutely dreadful. She’s badly lit and sports unflattering chola eyebrows and a frizzy frightwig blow-out. But Tui Asau in the lead role is cute and dimply, and the young dude hula dancers, each with their own representative backstory, are about as sexy and cut as you can get. What more could you ask for?

Grace & Detroit, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, 2013

Grace & Detroit, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, 2013

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

A good, solid portrait of long-time Detroit civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, this documentary traces Boggs’ journey from a middle-class daughter of a Chinese American restaurateur to her 1960s activism in the Black Power movement and through the present day. Now in her late nineties, Boggs is as cogent and cognizant as ever and speaks eloquently about her involvement with the struggle for self-determination in Detroit’s African American community and beyond. Although the pace of the film lags a bit after a dynamite first half, the film captures the thoughtful intellectualism that has driven Boggs’ work for nearly seventy years, and director Grace Lee (no relation, ha) effectively blends personal narrative, historical documentation, and Boggs’ own thoughtful ruminations in an engrossing and informative package.

Slapstick, Pee Mak, 2013

Slapstick, Pee Mak, 2013

Pee Mak

The highest grossing Thai film of all time and a big hit across several Asian territories, Pee Mak is a comedic remaking of a classic Thai ghost story in which a beautiful apparition romances her besotted, living husband. Here the fable is played for laughs, and the film owes a lot to Stephen Chow movies, 90s Hong Kong ghost story films, and the Three Stooges as it utilizes physical shtick and nonsense situations for its laffs. The movie follows four hapless idiots who determine that their friend’s beautiful wife may be a more than she seems. Hilarity ensues, but the broad slapstick lacks Chow’s ingenious blend of crude physical shtick, perfect comedic timing, rapid-fire wordplay, and cinematic finesse. While classic Hong Kong ghost stories certainly were often full of idiotic slapstick and mo lei tau nonsense they also had imaginative cinematography, creative art direction, and the divine action choreography of masters like Ching Siu Tung, not to mention the well-honed comedic chops of actors like the late great Wu Ma to support their pratfalls. Pee Mak’s cast mostly mugs and screeches its way through the exposition, supported by wacky haircuts and toothblack. I wanted to love this movie but after about 30 minutes I wearied of the clueless, somewhat repetitious antics of the various characters.

CAAMfest

March 13-23, 2014

San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland

March 14, 2014 at 7:18 am 2 comments

U Got The Look: CAAMfest 2013

Teen dream, 15, 2003

Teen dream, 15, dir. Royston Tan, 2003

Another year, another San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, except now it’s been rebranded as CAAMfest, which certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than the previous moniker. The festival has added a tagline (film, music, food) that’s a nod to the increased presence of the audio and gustatory arts, but it doesn’t mean that movies are taking a backseat. As per usual there are more than a hundred new Asian and Asian American flicks in this year’s festival—below are a few preview picks.

Jeremy being Jeremy, Linsanity, 2013

Jeremy being Jeremy, Linsanity, dir. Evan Jackson Leong, 2013

Linsanity

I don’t need to tell you that this is a great Cinderella story, but filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong has taken the familiar material and shaped a charming and inspiring documentary about everyone’s favorite Asian American underdog. Jeremy Lin turns out to be funny, self-aware, and loquacious and Leong uses his longstanding access to his subject (he started shooting the film when Lin was at Harvard) to great effect. Interviews with Lin’s friends and family members, home videos of the budding basketball prodigy, and great coverage of the actual Linsanity phenomenon makes this a super-fun, captivating movie. The movie also touches on the racism and discrimination faced by Lin, the NBA’s first Asian American superstar, as well as Lin’s devout Christianity, but Lin is such a self-effacing guy and Leong so skillfully handles these elements that they work seamlessly into the whole picture.

Graceland

A solid film noir set in Manila and directed by Filipino American Ron Morales (Santa Mesa, 2008), Graceland looks at the repercussions of the kidnapping of a pair of young girls. Dark and moody, the film questions the morality of its various characters and, like the best noirs, no one is above scrutiny, everyone is guilty, and everyone has something to hide. The cast is lead by a nervous, sweaty performance by Arnold Reyes as the desperate father trying to save his daughter and who has many hard choices to make. The film also indicts the sex trade, corrupt policemen, and shady politicians—this is classic hardboiled stuff and well worth a look.

Hard times, When The Bough Breaks, 2012

Hard times, When The Bough Breaks, dir. Ji Dan, 2012

When The Bough Breaks

Ji Dan’s verite documentary about a poor Chinese family living in a hovel on the outskirts of Beijing examines the effects of China’s rapidly expanding economy, which has ironically left many in dire economic and social straits. The father is a laborer, the daughters are adolescents trying to find money for themselves and/or their preteen brother to go to a decent school (one “sponsor,” a sick elderly man, offers to fund their education if they’ll sleep with him), and upward mobility is nowhere to be found. As if that wasn’t enough, Dad is a tyrannical drunk who verbally abuses his family at any opportunity, Mom is angry and fed up, and the teenagers are already learning to psychologically torment each other. Plus, the family’s eldest daughter has gone missing for some years after being lured into prostitution by the false promise of a factory job folding cardboard boxes. Overlong, somewhat shapeless, and leaning toward poverty porn, the film is interesting nonetheless due to the tenacity of the two younger daughters who grimly soldier on in the face of a bleak existence.

When Night Falls

Another film set in China, this narrative examines the notorious case of a young man who is driven to commit murder by that country’s oppressive police force. Ai Wei Wei made a documentary about the same case, but this film focuses on travails of the man’s mother as she tries to unravel her son’s unfortunate fate. The movie is composed primarily of long, stationary shots that emphasize the delicate action within the frame, lending a sense of oppression, immediacy, and intimacy to the film.

Walker, Beautiful 2012, Tsai Ming Liang, 2012

Walker, Beautiful 2012, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, 2012

Also of note in the fest: Debbie Lum’s sharp and observant documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which is all about white dudes with yellow fever (full review here); The Land of Hope, Sion Sono’s second feature set in the Fukashima tsunami zone (full review here); the omnibus film Beautiful 2012, which includes Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s short narrative My Way, starring Francis Ng as a transgendered woman (!) (full review here), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest dreamwork, The Mekong Hotel. The festival is also presenting a brief retrospective of director Royston Tan, including Old Romances, his documentary elegy to old-time Singapore, the maniacal musical 881, and his debut feature 15, which looks at teenage angst, Singaporean-style. I’ll be interviewing the director onstage live at the Pacific Film Archive following the screening of 15, so be there!

CAAMfest

March 14-24, 2013

San Francisco and Berkeley, CA

full schedule and ticket information here.

March 14, 2013 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Everyday People: An interview with In The Family director Patrick Wang

Director Patrick Wang, In The Family

Director Patrick Wang, In The Family

I recently had the chance to sit down with Patrick Wang, the director, writer, and star of the amazing indie narrative film In The Family, which just opened its second theatrical run in San Francisco. In The Family is possibly the most surprising film of the year (longer review here),  a family drama that steers clear of melodrama even when dealing with tragedy, a movie about a gay interracial family living in the South that’s not about identity, and a film by a first-time director that displays a singular vision and directorial style that recalls work by filmmakers like Ozu, Bergman and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Patrick proved to be as thoughtful in person as his filmmaking suggests, discussing the movie’s unusual distribution trajectory, his love for seeing the film in a theater with a live audience, and how being an outsider to the film world can be an artistic advantage.

beyond asiaphilia: How are you liking it back in SF?

Patrick Wang: I’m really excited because I was here for the (San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) and I wasn’t able to be here for the opening. This week I get to spend a whole week here—-these days I don’t get to spend a whole week anywhere (laughs).

BA: I was kind of wondering about that—-what’s up with this distribution pattern, it’s kind of random—or is this intentional?

PW: Y’know, it keeps changing. I am the distributor and part of it is that I’m learning as I go along. I think you have to do some of that with every film, so I’ve just been figuring it out. Every few weeks a new opportunity comes up or something doesn’t work out quite the way we hoped so we have to readjust. There are other Bay Area theaters watching what happens this week so if we do well they’ll pick us up pretty quickly. And I’m kind of learning that pattern as well.

BA: But you were here in San Francisco already—-right after the Festival? It’s okay if you come back?

PW: It’s one of those things that—-it’s what’s normal and then, um (laughs). And all I see is there’s this huge gulf between the number of people who have seen it and those who would like it and would get something out of the experience, and I’m going to keep trying to bridge that gulf.

We do a lot of things we’re not supposed to. First of all, we’re not supposed to keep playing this long. People told me at the beginning, “You gotta get your DVD going,” and I said, “No, I’m not ready for that, I still haven’t finished—”

BA: The touring around?

PW: Well, its life in theaters, that’s not done, and I’m barely starting to understand it, there’s still work to be done there. So, yeah, we’ll leave a city, we’ll come back to some cities many times.

BA: Which ones have you come back to?

PW: Miami, Chicago, we just reopened in New York

BA: And people come in?

PW: And people come in, and actually more people. It’s funny, word of mouth is just—-y’know, there’s manufactured word of mouth, which behaves a certain way, and there’s real word of mouth—-for it to organically happen takes time. And it’s a question mark, y’know—if the time we’re giving it and the opportunities we’re creating for people to see it in the theaters will ever align.

Joey & Cody, In The Family, 2011

Word of mouth, In The Family, 2011

BA: That’s interesting because it kind of reflects the aesthetic of the movie itself, right? I mean you have these long takes—-I wonder where that comes from. You’re from theater, I know, but you’re also an economist, and you do other stuff. You weren’t even in film at all—

PW: I didn’t do much, y’know, I acted in a couple (films) and that’s pretty much it. But you know, it’s funny that you sometimes hit these points in life where different strands of your life that seem completely unrelated and completely in different camps kind of come together. And I think everything from the work I did as an economist managing a team—people think, oh, it’s in the business side, but no, it’s the managing the team and realizing how to balance the use of hard and soft powers, and how to help people do what they’re good at, and help them realize that, that’s directing.

And there was a time when I taught kindergarten, and that came back to be useful, too, because I know how five- and six-year-olds talk and I know how to work with that.

BA: As well as the grown-up five- and six-year-olds, I guess.

PW: Uh huh.

BA: That’s pretty cool that you were able draw on different parts of your life together to work on this project. I think a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the filmmaking is the marketing and getting it out there, people watching it.

PW: Yeah, and I hope this doesn’t happen to too many other films, but y’know, a good film—-you’re sometimes left with no one else willing to do something for it and so you have to decide if you’re going to do it for yourself. And some filmmakers, very understandably, don’t know or aren’t interested or can’t do that.

BA: So you’re outside life experience has helped with that—

PW: It’s helped but I think the really big thing is just I saw what happened in the first few audiences when we screened it in New York and I just—-it made me angry that people were not getting the opportunity to see this. It’s this opportunity and I did not want it to be lost. It’s this film that can do a lot of good and now it needed a way to do that and I was willing to learn what that took.

BA: And you’re sort of learning on the job, I guess.

PW: I am learning on the job, but you know, it’s not unlike the filmmaking—-you have certain experiences you bring in. A lot is new and you figure it out, and actually it is very similar to filmmaking—-you put together this team to make the movie, and I kind of put together this team to help get the movie out. And the way we broke rules in the making of the movie, we’re breaking rules in the distribution, too!

Chip, Joey, Cody, In The Family, 2011

Learning on the job, In The Family, 2011

BA: So, you’re fairly self-taught so you don’t have expectations about what you need to do—-I don’t want to use the word “outsider” because that seems sort of hierarchical, but you’re not trained from film school, which is a really particular way of thinking of how you have to make a movie or how you have to deal with the movie business.

PW: Yeah, and I really like that word “outsider” because I think it’s very useful. Like every field of endeavor, whether it’s in the arts or something else, I feel like the outsider is very valuable, someone not engrained in the conventions or the general thinking about a kind of long-term path. I think what weighs down a lot of young filmmakers is their head is already in their career and their next two movies. So I feel like there’s quite a bit of freedom being from the outside, of having no expectations for how the thing is received or what’s the next step in your career.

BA: But you must be thinking a little bit about that?

PW: I think a little bit about that but not so much that it changes what I do. I guess that’s the key thing, you want to think enough that you create some opportunities but not so much it changes the important decisions you’re making about your project now, the one that’s right in front of you.

BA: Is that something that’s inherent in your personality, is that something you’ve learned? I mean, it does kind of reflect the filmmaking itself—-

PW: I don’t know, but there is this funny parallel, and I hope I have that very satisfying third act (laughs) that the film has.

BA: Well, I think there’s a certain tenacity the way you’ve approached the film itself. I’ve read about the directing experience—-it’s not that people openly fought you but I know that the way you made the movie is not like a conventional way to shoot a movie and the way you’re distributing it is kind of interesting too—-someone I know said, “It’s coming back to San Francisco?”

PW: (laughs) I think it’s definitely unpredictable, and that’s what keeps me interested in filmmaking and that’s what keeps me interested in the distribution.

Unpredictable, In The Family, 2011

Unpredictable, In The Family, 2011

BA: So do you prefer people seeing it the theater?

PW: I absolutely do.

BA: Why is that?

PW: I think that there’s this focus that the theater allows. You can’t push “pause” in the theater. And other people, you feel them. Even if it’s a small crowd you to feel them and you feel some sort of responsibility that’s different—-the manners type of responsibility, as in we’re sharing a space and this is how we behave, but there’s also some sort of social responsibility that kind of jumps to life as people interact with this movie amongst other people. And there’s also the sharing of the emotion—-you hear and you feel it in the audience and it forms this type of comfort that you can’t get at home.

BA: That’s an interesting way to describe it. It’s like you’re very bonded to people you don’t know.

PW: There’s this one part in the film that I never expected would be a high point. There’s sort of a series of events and actions that Chip does when they come back from the funeral and when he clinks glasses—-people remember that detail when they’ve seen it at home, they remember that scene, but there’s this release in the theater, people laugh—-there’s like this communal exhale. And it’s across all cultures, it happens here in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, it happened in Taiwan. It’s so unpredictable to me—-I never expected that to be such a vocal moment. But somebody made the point that that will only happen in the theater.

BA: Someone said that you’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-

PW: I’ve seen the movie a lot of times—-I think we’re getting close to 200.

BA: That’s a lot of times.

PW: Yeah—-

BA: But you enjoy it every time, it sound like—-you get something out of it.

PW: I still get a lot out of it, and I think it’s mostly because it’s people—-it’s kinda like, y’know, it’s 200 people, (laughs). Y’know, you don’t say, I’ve had enough of people, I don’t need to meet anyone else (laughs).

BA: That could come from being in the theater and performing arts, too, right?

PW: Exactly, and someone had a very interesting way of putting it. A part of the performance is on screen, and then part of it is that the audience performs, and that performance is gonna change.

BA: And so that’s still really interesting to you—-

PA: Yeah, and especially some cities, I mean, obviously San Francisco’s huge, there’s lots of voices, local voices opining and talking about the film, but you get to a smaller town and there’s nobody in town that’s reviewing the movie or that’s talking about the movie and so you kind of have to go in there to see what it’s doing.

Rough times, In The Family, 2011

Comfort, In The Family, 2011

BA: So what about these small towns, what’s the response been? What’s the smallest city you’ve played?

PW: Y’know, there’s a  town, fairly small—-I mean it’s not tiny, I mean it used to be the largest or the second-largest in Maryland—-Cumberland, Maryland. And it was such a feeling of community—-it was at a community college. And it’s people who have had some challenges in life. It’s definitely not an arthouse crowd! The arthouse crowds are wonderful but these are people who have probably never seen an art film. That’s the thing, you get a range, like anywhere.

BA: And how did they like the movie?

PW: They loved it, and some of the smartest commentary and questions—

BA: They could relate to it.

PW: Yeah. And I think that there’s some sort of pride, actually, in smaller towns that we screen in—-the same way there’s a pride in Tennessee, in that “we’re proud this movie takes place there and it reflects the range of what we’re capable of there.”

BA: It’s a very nuanced view of that part of the world that you don’t usually get. I know you deliberately chose to set the movie in the South, and that was interesting-—you’re from Texas.

PW: I’m from Texas!

BA: Do you consider that the South?

PW: Y’know, it’s up for debate (laughs). Different people consider it different things-—I do. But I didn’t set it in Texas because I didn’t want it to be too familiar. I wanted someplace for me to go, because if there’s a place for me to go, I feel like the discovery is a little more honest for the audience, too. Same thing for the story, too—-I didn’t know quite where it was going, and I think that translates to the audience’s experience. It’s not quite predictable.

But everyone I’ve met from Tennessee the few times I’ve been there—-there’s something I see in a middle-class life in Tennessee that is, in my view, dramatic, but I think in most films is not particularly interesting, is not particularly dramatic, these type of characters are not necessarily the stuff of drama, but I see a lot in their lives.

Deep focus, In The Family, 2011

Dramatic, In The Family, 2011

BA: I think you’ve probably heard people tossing around names like Ozu and Bergman, which is pretty flattering for a first-time filmmaker.

PW: It’s wonderful, yeah.

BA: Those filmmakers really do look at middle-class people, everyday people, they’re not looking at extraordinary people at all, and there’s a similarity in that as well as the stylistic similarities.

PW: You know, I’d never seen an Ozu film before, and when the reviews started coming out, I decided to start with a comedy—-I saw “Good Morning,” and I loved it, and I loved how funny it was, how great the actors are. Making a movie is wonderful because you get this great viewing list-—and not even a viewing list, someone compared it to Alice Munro’s short story and I started reading those and they are tremendous. I think she’s pretty much rocketed to the top of my favorite author list.

BA: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the characters and yourself. It’s obviously really important that the characters are a gay couple, but what about being an Asian man, a Chinese American man who is adopted, or fostered, and has a really interesting background. There’s never any overt discussion of his ethnicity.

PW: There isn’t, and one of the very interesting things is when you leave out certain terms, it’s interesting to see how people fill in whatever they want. It’s nice to have that flexibility to fill in. For example, when I wrote it, he’s not Chinese, and yet a lot of people assume he’s Chinese, and so that’s interesting.

BA: His name is not Chinese, obviously, but I guess that’s part of the backstory.

PW: Yeah, but it’s a really interesting combination. I think one of the nice things that happens is that all these things combined kind of jam a lot of signals. For example, though some people may be used to two-dad families, they’ll look up there and they cannot process that face with that voice. So I think when you have that combination of things it helps you start from scratch because it’s so unfamiliar.

I think a lot of times people view places and people as averages, whereas I feel what’s much more realistic are these anomalies from time to time.  You know, you’ll be in that town where there’s that one person, and somehow they got there, and they have a story and everybody knows them and they’re okay. I feel like it also helps to provide these situations where you’re not quite sure which aspect of Joey people are responding to, because there’s also a class issue at play, and I think that’s also very realistic, because in life you’re like, “What exactly is this person responding to? Is it how I’m dressed, is it my gender, is it my race?” You just don’t know.

BA: And sexuality.

PW: Yeah.

BA: I think that’s another thing that’s interesting is the way you elide a lot of the obvious things that could have made the film much more dramatic in a conventional way but by avoiding them you don’t ever touch on them—

Eliding, In The Family, 2011

Eliding, In The Family, 2011

PW: Well, even things like coming out—-somebody wrote something very interesting about the film. It’s almost like there’s this continual process of coming out that Joey does but it’s not the way we’re used to seeing it or thinking about it—-it’s so small and unspoken. There’s this film called Nighthawks, a British film, that was one of the first to depict a gay life and it’s tremendous. There’s this moment where the character comes out to his friend but it’s in this way where he just uses the correct pronoun to describe a relationship, and they don’t speak about anything and you see her shocked, adjusting, and then deciding to continue the conversation, and it’s so beautiful. I think a lot of scenes in life are like that.

BA: Yeah, and I think that’s why your film is so real because it’s not melodramatic in a conventional sense. The things that happen are melodramatic but the reactions are very real. The audience appreciates that you’re not forcing them to think the way that you want them to think. You talked a little bit about how the audience is the participant in the making of the story.

PW: It really is, and they’re a participant in the emotional flavor. I do the work to set up the situation and, especially early in the film, I’ll pull back at the height of the emotion, and it’s to let the audience complete it, and I think when they do that it becomes a much more personal emotion.

BA: And this was a conscious decision?

PW: Yeah, it makes sense as the shape of things, and I think most movies do the opposite, right, they give you no context, and this emotional burst comes out of nowhere and you can’t understand it.

BA: Right, it’s like you’re observing more than participating. So when you’re making the movie you’re thinking about how this is going to play as people were watching it?

PW: Thinking about it, but mostly just thinking about how it plays with me, how I feel as I’m going through this, and it’s a basic approach that I know a lot of people talk about  but if you don’t assume the audience is any better or worse than you—-both are dangerous—-you get really far. Somebody said, “It’s shocking for a movie to assume that I’m a human being, that I’ve actually had some human experiences,” (laughs) “that I’m not a bear, that you don’t have to explain the basics of being human.”

BA: Which I think is nice-—you leave a lot of space for people to fill in the blanks.

PW: And they can, and they like doing it. We do it in life, too.

BA: It’s like a respect for people’s intelligence.

It Matters, Im The Family, 2011

Fill in the blanks, In The Family, 2011

BA: So I guess the standard question is, what’s next? Are you going to keep touring it around for as long as it will play?

PW: This week will tell us a lot and then we’ll have to readjust, if we get to play longer, if more people want to play us, because a lot of other cities, not just theaters in the Bay Area, but theaters in other cities are watching.

BA: How many prints do you have?

PW: Of the 35mm we have twelve prints, and we have DCP now.

BA: That’s a fair amount.

PW: It’s not a constraint, and that’s the thing I wanted. I never wanted the number of prints to be a constraint and it hasn’t been so far. We had a philosophy at the beginning—every time we screen it, we do it a favor, even if two people come, even if it’s in a place you’re not expecting.

BA: So have you had that experience where only two people come?

PW: We’ve had experiences where two people come.

BA: And have they liked it?

PW: Yeah, I think one of the best screenings I was at there were nine people, including myself, and the two owners of the theater. But it felt like I made the movie for those nine people, it was such an active screening, so much laughter, so much warmth in the room. Because you get disappointed, you see empty seats in the room and a part of you is disappointed, but I’m like, “What kind of person have you become when two people don’t matter, or these nine people don’t matter?”

BA: So they all count?

PW: Exactly. If it has an impact on them, and I think it does, you see people coming out of the theater and you see them just cracked open a little bit, you see something in their eyes, you see them just cracked open to something. They’re feeling something a little more fully, they’re processing a lot of things in their own lives and rethinking, revisiting maybe some of the conflicts and family issues in their own life—so it matters. It matters.

UPDATE: In The Family will open Fri. Dec. 14 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Go see it!

In The Family, dir. Patrick Wang

opens Fri. Dec. 7, 2012

Opera Plaza Cinema

601 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94102

(415) 267-4893

San Francisco CA 94102

December 9, 2012 at 7:26 am Leave a comment

Swagga Like Us: 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

A man and his ukelele, Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, 2012

Now in its thirtieth year, the San Francisco International Asian American film festival offers several treats this year, with some brand new narrative films from Asian American directors. These include features by some familiar names and one remarkable debut by a newcomer that is astoundingly assured and original, demonstrating the continued growth and expansion of Asian American cinema.

The lucky Kimberly-Rose Wolter with foxy Sung Kang, Knots, 2012

Michael Kang’s Knots is a fast-paced rom-com with great comic performances and a decidedly un-cloying script. As in his debut film, the offbeat adolescent comedy The Motel, Kang has an eye for strange yet engaging characters coping with the bizarre dynamics of dysfunctional family life. Lead actress and screenwriter Kimberly-Rose Wolter is a marriage-phobe whose weird mom and sisters are wedding planners in Hawai’i. Sung Kang (Fast & Furious; Better Luck Tomorrow) is the dreamy love interest.

Yes, We’re Open, directed by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is an entirely agreeable, sleek and charming timepass, with a clever and engaging script (by Colma’s star and screenwriter H.P. Mendoza) and winsome performances from its cast. Lynn Chen and Parry Shen play a comfortable yet slightly bored couple whose relationship has lost its groove, until they meet another couple that tantalizes them with the possibility of an open relationship. The film does a good job capturing the feel of non-tourist San Francisco, with locations at Green Apple Books, the Alemany Farmers’ Market, the Roxie Cinema, and other neighborhood locations, as well as gently lampooning foodies, hipsters, and tech geeks. I haven’t seen Parry Shen in a movie since Better Luck Tomorrow and he does a great job as the slightly neurotic male lead who is somewhat lacking in self-awareness. Lynn Chen is funny and endearing as the other half of the conflicted couple. The movie is not unlike Annie Hall or some of Woody Allen’s other earlier romantic comedies in its young urban groovester milieu, its reliance on a specific cityscape (here San Francisco instead of New York) and its lighthearted take on the foibles of contemporary relationships.

BooBoo on the spectrum, White Frog, 2012

Quentin Lee turns up the melodrama with White Frog, a family tale of a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome dealing with tragic circumstances. Led by a strong performance by BooBoo Stewart (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), the cast also includes some of the best-looking teenagers I’ve seen since Beverly Hills 90210, yet the actors overcome the handicap of their beauty by turning in convincing performances. The story makes a plea for tolerance and understanding of difference, and while it tilts toward maudlin at times, director Lee’s strong direction steers it back toward steady ground. He modulates the somewhat overwrought twists of the narrative by drawing out believable and sympathetic turns from his actors, including BD Wong as the conflicted father and Joan Chen at her dreamy and vulnerable best.

Although it also delves the family dynamics of coping with a tragic loss, Patrick Wang’s In The Family is a horse of a different color. Subtle and smart, the film offers a new way of seeing that diverges radically from the classic Hollywood style of filmmaking–it clocks in at nearly 3 hours, and the majority of the film is shot in long, deep-focus master shots. However, its formal style is in no ways mannered or pretentious. The film begins with a series of long, static scenes that simply explicate the quotidian lives of Joey and Cody, an interracial gay couple living in Martin, Tennessee with their energetic and precocious young son Chip. The long lockdown takes emphasize the normalcy of their everyday life despite a family structure that falls outside of the heteronormative frame. The time that the film takes to establish their deep emotional bonds pays off later in the film as tragic circumstances as well as societal pressure conspire to destroy their idyllic home life. With a reliance on long single takes the acting had better be good and here it’s stellar, anchored by actor-director Wang as the humble yet passionate and devoted father.

Stillness and movement, In The Family, 2012

In The Family is not only one of the best Asian American films I’ve seen in a long time, it’s one of the best films, period, that I’ve seen in a long time. Not to overstate the point but Wang’s compositions and his confidence in the power of the action within the frame are reminiscent of Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Although touching on several hot-button issues the film deftly sidesteps polemics and instead presents a subtly shaded, morally complex story.

Also of note: Tad Nakamura’s Jake Shimabukuro Documentary, his first feature-length film that centers on the Okinawan-Hawai’ian ukelele wizard. The film follows up Tad’s short docs Pilgrimage, Yellow Brotherhood, and A Song For Ourselves and, although there were no advance screeners of the film, it promises to be as brilliant and moving as Tad’s earlier work. It’s great to know that not all Asian American filmmakers aspire to making narrative films, and Tad is following in the footsteps of Loni Ding, Steve Okazaki, Renee Tajima-Pena, Christine Choy, and his own parents, Bob Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka, all seminal Asian American filmmakers whose documentaries are the gold standard for Asian American cinema. The film festival will feature a program with Tad and his parents, A Conversation with the Nakamura Family, on Saturday, Mar. 10 at 3.30p, where science will surely be dropped.

Bonus: here’s a clip of Jake Shimabukuro from the upcoming documentary playing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

For tickets and a full schedule go here.

March 4, 2012 at 3:31 am 1 comment

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