Wednesday, March 29, 2006

2006 SFIFF—Eden

Jay Weissberg's Variety review states Eden misses its mark even as Weissberg concedes that it won the Lions Award and the Tiscali Audience Award at its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year. Two awards and nearly 10,000 Euros: Who to believe?

Even German director and writer Michael Hofmann stated in an interview after his win, "I truly love my film, but I worried it might be a bit on the long side. Though no matter how often I watched it, that love remained. Some of the people I screened it to in Germany had some criticism, so I started to have some doubts too. But the audience decides. That's the magic of cinema."

Those pesky audiences!! Loving something the critics hate. But I can understand Eden being an audience favorite at Rotterdam, even though it did not fare so well at the Berlinale. It's a savory, heartwarming tale about two unlikely friends and their unusual love for each other. True, as Weissberg criticized, the lighting is sometimes murky (perhaps a fault of its transfer from HD?), but the dinner plates glow as if lit from within, providing muted illumination and focus. This is truly a "culinary romantic dramedy"—as the press notes attest—and in league with such films as Big Night or Like Water For Chocolate, or novels like Ntozake Shange's Cypress, Sassafrass and Indigo, which—even before the aforementioned films—taught me that cooking is domestic magic and that recipes and experimentation in the kitchen are sometimes the only spells left to us in a world devoid of magic.

Magic is certainly found in the kitchen of rotund and misanthropic chef Gregor (Josef Ostendorf) who, as a young boy seeing his mother pregnant, emulated her swollen belly and sought through overeating to achieve a similar effect. This decision caused him to become obese, unattractive, and a virginal asexual being lusting after waitresses in local cafes, huffily disregarding overheard comments unkindly levied against his appearance. As Benjamin Friedland has noted in the SFIFF program notes, Ostendorf "convey[s] a whirlwind of emotions without saying much." His eyes are like water toned by moody weather. Weissberg complains that not enough is told about Gregor's interiority for us to understand his motivations, but I completely disagree. Clearly this is a lonely man hurt by the world, conflicted by the appearance of Eden (Charlotte Roche) in his otherwise reciped life. It's perhaps true that Eden is selfish in her naivete, but when it comes to food—and cucina erotica at that!—can she be blamed for becoming spoiled as Gregor's private dinner guest and a bit oblivious to Gregor's own needs? Their friendship grows, as finally does her belly, when Gregor's food revitalizes her husband's interest in her and she becomes pregnant.

Eden's husband Xaver (Devid Striesow) is presented as something of a petulant failure who can't make it as an attorney, is frowned upon by his father, and ends up teaching senior citizens to dance and swim. Their firstborn Leonie (Leonie Stepp) has Down's Syndrome and his parents are critical of his marriage to Eden. But he loves her and becomes threatened by her burgeoning friendship with Gregor. He even suspects that the new child his wife is carrying is not his own. His destruction of Gregor's herb garden is humorous even as his destruction of Gregor's wine cellar proves disastrous. All this leads to an absurd but poignant climax that has to be seen to be believed.

Eden can be savored at three Kabuki screenings: Friday, April 21st at 7:00 pm; Monday, April 24th at 10:00 am and 5:45 pm. I suggest eating beforehand or else your stomach will begin growling.

2006 SFIFF—Lineup!!

Okay!! Here we go! Yesterday's press conference officially launched the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Susan Gerhard at SF360 broke the news.

Brian Darr's on top of it and has linked to the program schedule and offered up his own anticipatory raves.

I'm already attending press screenings and arranging interviews and hope to get entries up on The Evening Class as fast as I can. I'm primarily reporting to Twitch this year so my responses will be on either or both sites at the same time.

SFIFF is notoriously behind the rest of the country's festivals in its fare so many of these films will have been seen by others long before me, so any comments or recommendations or online reviews are certainly welcome, either through email or through the comments. Darren Hughes has already gracefully provided some guidelines, which I very much appreciate. Thanks, Darren!! He writes: "I just finished browsing through the SFIFF lineup and was pleased to see that several of my favorites from Toronto will be playing there. Along with the heavy-hitters—Sokurov, Tsai, and Hou—I can recommend two others. First, don't miss A Perfect Couple, directed by Nobuhiro Suwa. It was one of the best films I saw in 2005, a really quiet and sensitive study of a disintegrating marriage. I wrote a bit about it at Long Pauses. Also, there's an interesting Chinese film called Perpetual Motion. It's like A Long Day's Journey Into Night or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—one of those chamber dramas about four people who spend a night drinking and, eventually, revealing buried secrets. I have a weakness for those kinds of dramas, but Girish also liked it better than he expected to."

Further heads-up are invited!

Monday, March 27, 2006


Unfamiliar with the bulk of Abel Ferrara's oeuvre, any appreciation I might muster would have to be anticipatory. And coincidentally enough, the movie I most hope to be included in the roster of this year's San Francisco International Film Festival is Abel Ferrara's Mary. I'm attending the press conference tomorrow morning and will let you know if my wish is granted.

There's no reason why any of you should know this, but I have been researching Mary Magdalen for over 20 years! I was furious when Dan Brown successfully cashed in with The DaVinci Code; it was the book I should have written, though my integrity tethered me from scripting a potboiler. Procrastination is a bitter pill to digest, but there you have it. I guess why Ferrara's Mary blipped on my radar was because it reminded me not to give up the ghost (holy or not), that the information can and will survive any sole project on Mary Magdalen, and that it's just possible that Ferrara's Mary might be a much more important film than Ron Howard's DaVinci Code.

For starters, Mary won the Jury Grand Prix at the 2005 Venice Film Festival. Leslie Felperin's Variety review claims Ferrara's "Catholic angstfest" is "a sincere grapple with faith and redemption in cynical times." Apparently, Ferrara takes a strong look at the role of faith in artistic creation. Mary is the story of Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), an actress of international renown who becomes inspired by the life of Mary Magdalene after playing her in a film.

But what especially excited me about the Variety review was the mention that Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels would be playing herself in the movie. In my 20s and 30s I had the honor of being a "full scholar" with the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute. This afforded me several opportunities to study under Elaine Pagels, and if it weren't for her engaging explorations of early Christian history, I probably would have dropkicked the religion long before now. Pagels introduced me to the Gnostic gospels, to The Gospel of Thomas (smuggled out of Egypt by Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel at C.G. Jung's behest), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalen—two documents that have impacted my sensibility irrevocably—making me question the hierarchical convenience of the Catholic apostolic succession and, thereby, the institutional Church. The insinuation that Pagels' voice will be profiled in Ferrara's Mary, along with scholars Jean-Yves Leloup and Amos Luzzatto—albeit in a staged forum—assures me that Magdalen will be presented as Apostola Apostolorum, namely the "Apostle to the Apostles."

One of the main dramatic tensions that Pagels has culled out of these ancient texts is an ideological adversity between Mary Magdalen and the disciple Peter. Pagels taught that Peter represented inspiration through the institutional church, thus Peter was given the keys, and the boys club was begun. Magdalen, however, was a symbol of continual inspiration, or immanent divinity. Once the Church achieved power it did its best to demote Magdalen's standing and to disempower the notion that divinity could be accessed directly through personal experience; they insisted priestly intercession was requisite. One only needs to read Dostoyevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" to intuit their logic. And one need only read Helen Ellerebe's The Dark Side of Christian History to determine what this political stance has wrought.

According to Variety, portions of Ferrara's Mary show her not as the popularly-conceived prostitute "but rather a full fledged disciple locked in a power struggle with fellow-disciple Peter." Apparently this is where Juliette Binoche's performance excels in intensity. I'm hoping this struggle will be lifted directly from the text of The Gospel of Thomas, wherein Peter challenges Magdalen; writing doesn't get much better! Especially with regard to presenting the jockeying for power; signature to the establishment of the Christian church in its early centuries.

As appears to be his custom, Ferrara employs frequent cinematic citation to texture his film. Obvious references to Mel Gibson's The Passion are characterized (under the pseudonym of This Is My Blood). I remember being interviewed by one of our local television stations when I came out of the first screening of The Passion here in San Francisco. "What do you think," they asked. I responded, "Mel Gibson has succeeded in turning the Biblical Passion into a Hollywood horror movie." My only concern with Mary is that Ferrara will likewise succumb to rendering the Catholic horrific. "[I]t would seem," Variety concludes, "Ferrara's aim here is to fashion a spiritual horror movie of sorts, one without the devil, a monster or bad guy as such, but still drenched in an atmosphere of dread and anxiety." Which would be unfortunate. Because the story of Mary Magdalen is one of the most hopeful I have ever read. It allows each soul a worldly sovereignty even as it is passionately enamored with Spirit.

Jeremy Heilman at MovieMartyr should be invited into this blogathon. He opines that Mary is Ferrara's "most explicitly spiritual movie to date", a serious-minded film "about the confusion and anxiety that mark a true inquisition into one's faith." He states: "Mary certainly upends itself in its quest to capture that disquiet." And mollifies Ferrara's foray into horror by emphasizing "the idea of pure devotion [is] a scary, all-consuming state to those who haven't yet taken the plunge. That anxiety makes it the perfect response to the media frenzy that surrounded Mel Gibson's movie last year. Ferrara's aggressive style makes this fear palpable."

Although I had no objection to the lovely Monica Belucci portraying Mary Magdalen in Mel Gibson's The Passion, her characterization couldn't hold a candle to the depiction of Magdalen in the unfortunately-neglected The Gospel of John (the other Jesus movie out at the time). What made that film singularly intriguing is that it took The Gospel of John verbatim while at the same time showing developments that John did not bother to mention, providing history between the lines so to speak, so that Magdalen's attendance at the Last Supper implies her standing among the disciples, and her invaluable role in the ministry of Jesus. DaVinci knew what he was painting afterall.

Jason Grimshaw provides a detailed synopsis for the IMdb. This sounded promising: "Before Ferrara's Mary was even thought of, Juliette Binoche had already been approached to play Mary Magdalene by the historian Jean-Yves Leloup who translated the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene and was working on a dramatization. At the time, Binoche declined this offer. Today it is partly thanks to her and Jean-Yves Leloup that Mary exists. The historian's dramatization forming the film within a film."

With regard to that practice of a film within a film, another blogsite that should be invited in to the Ferrara blogathon is Notes on Cinema, wherein this stylistic motif is mentioned: "As always with our man Abel, we get a movie about a movie. This time we have just that, but also a TV show, precisely about a movie (notice the three layers—movie about a tv show about a movie)."

So there you have it, an anticipatory entry if not a critical one. If Mary is included among the films shown at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, per my devout prayers, I promise to come back with a personal perspective.

03/29/06 ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, Mary is not in the program line-up for this year's international film festival so I shall have to keep my votives lit that an opportunity will arise to see it on the big screen. If not there, then assuredly on dvd.

Since posting this entry, Harry Tuttle at Screenville has rallied with a killer post countering my anticipatory enthusiasm with firsthand disappointment in Ferrara's film. "In a cinema era without creativity," Harry writes, "should we acclaim a film for the unusual ambition of its content while its making is so lame? A good script full of interesting concepts pre-exists the film but doesn't guarantee it's achievement." Notwithstanding his reservations, his analysis of the film makes me all the more ready to view it. If I am to be disappointed, so be it; at least I will be informed.

Harry argues an astute and salient distinction when he discerns: "The core of the film revolves around the [adulterous] life of Ted, and the coincidental premature delivery of his wife's baby, suggesting all sin carries dreadful repercussions in one's life, like a demonstration to sell faith with the fear of punishment (which is precisely the conservative conception of the Catholic Church opposed to the humanist approach to religion proposed by Mary Magdalene's inheritance)." In effect, then, it sounds as if Ferrara—in his attempt to honor the teachings of Mary Magdalen—has missed their most gentle albeit radical strength.

Harry's post further provides the film's official website. The website contains a great glimpse into the making of the film wherein one of the talking heads affirms Girish's perception by stating: "When any innovation is introduced into an art form, it doesn't look like innovation; it looks like a mess." Additionally, he provides a link to Emmanuel Burdeau's December 2005 Cahiers du Cinema essay (in French) and Wikipedia's excellent compendium of Magdalenian information.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—Festival Wrap-up

My buddy Michael Hawley is singlehandedly responsible for developing my love for world cinema and festival fare. We attended several of this year's entries together and I invited him to comment.

* * *

I thought the festival was pretty terrific this year. I ended up seeing nine programs, all of them foreign films with the exception of Bridge to the Sun. This was intentional, now that docs and American independents have a better chance of theatrical release than anything with subtitles.

Kicked off the fest with Rules of Dating. The Koreans have certainly cornered the market on edgy, challenging adult dramas; I'm thinking films like A Good Lawyer's Wife, Oasis and now this. Basically a story of sexual harassment carried to extremes, between two unlikable characters who get their just desserts, Rules of Dating is certainly a very impressive debut for first-time director Han Jae-rim. And it's hilarious to think this was marketed as a romantic comedy in Korea.

I loved Grain in Ear, except for the ending which left me a bit incredulous and ultimately unsatisfied. The film's protagonist is a Korean kimchee peddler in rural China, who, after quietly suffering a series of small and large indignities inflicted upon her by the village citizenry, takes the ultimate revenge. Director Zhang Lu's camera doesn't move an inch during the entire movie, except during the film's final shot, and her compositions are often stunning. I was bothered, however, by the ambiguity of the event which causes her crack-up.

Citizen Dog was enormously entertaining, and I wasn't bothered by its lack of substance . . . not when there was so much fabulousness to engage my eyes and ears. It will really be something if Wisit Sasanatieng ever comes up with a script that matches his stylistic gifts in equal measure. Until then, when is the Bay Area finally going to see Tears of the Black Tiger?

Letter From an Unknown Woman was probably my least favorite film of the festival, but certainly worth seeing just for Mark Lee Ping-bin's gorgeous (as usual) cinematography, lovely art direction and a different kind of role for Jiang Wen. I usually can't bear stories about unrequited love (wanna torture me? strap me to a chair and force me to re-watch The Story of Adele H), but this one kept the melodramatics to a minimum.

What more can I say about Deepa Mehta's incredibly moving Water? At first I was just a bit put off by some of its more manipulative elements (headstrong, but adorable little girl in peril, a cute puppy, a golden-hearted whore, etc.) but wow, it all added up to something so damn powerful. And the ending! I sure didn't see that one coming. I very rarely cry at the movies, but as the emotions built to a perfect catharsis in that final train station scene, really, how could I not? And with Mehta there in person to do a post Q&A, it was as perfect a night at the movies as they come.

I had seen Hou Hisou-hsien's lovely 2004 film Cafe Lumiere in Paris last fall, with French subtitles, figuring it was never going to be shown in the Bay Area. Its charms seemed somewhat lessened by a 2nd viewing, although it was my fourth film of the day and I was quite tired at that point. It was personally gratifying to realize that my comprehension of those French subtitles had been fairly accurate.

I was originally going to wait and see Kekexili: Mountain Patrol during its theatrical run, but then realized it would conflict with the SFIFF. There's a scene near the end that is absolutely stupefying. It still makes me shudder to think about it.

Capped off the festival nicely with Linda Linda Linda in the Kabuki's House One. This was great fun, although I left wondering if it would have been anywhere near as good without the talents of its lead actress, Bae Du-Na. She plays a Korean exchange student enlisted to sing lead vocals for an all-girl punk band in a high school talent show. I'm usually not a fan of deadpan humor, but Bae's bug-eyed, fish-out-of-water antics had me cracking up the entire time she was on screen. I also enjoyed ex-Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha's original score. Now if I could only get that infectious title song out of my head.

Friday, March 24, 2006

CHINESE CINEMA—Grace Chang: An Appreciation

Following Roger Garcia's cue to view Grace Chang's work in Mambo Girl and Wild Wild Rose in anticipation of the screening of Tsai Ming-Liang's latest, The Wayward Cloud, at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival, I ordered both from and they arrived two days later. I treated myself to a big cup of coffee this morning and a Grace Chang doublebill. I'm here to report that both films are great fun!

As HKFlix capsulizes: "Blending all the elements of the musical genre and the coming-of-age films, Mambo Girl tells the story of a young woman (Grace Chang/Ge Lan) in search of a lost identity, her long lost mother who abandoned her soon after her birth. Instead of a happy ending of familial reunion, the film rather unusually ends on the girl's acceptance of her foster parents as real parents, with the mother quietly retreating into the darkness of the night. This theme perhaps signifies that identification of the post-war younger generation with Hong Kong as their roots. There are eight musical numbers in the film and each is handled and executed with finesse and style, at the same time fully demonstrating the musical talents of Chang. A huge box-office hit at the time of its release, the film easily stands as one of Hong Kong cinema's all-time favorites."

Mambo Girl's opening credits provide a sequence of an Asian Barbie in provocative poses and then launches right into its first musical number with Chang as 19-year-old Kailing, sporting a bobbing ponytail and singing and dancing her way into the hearts of practically everyone, especially her beau Danian who wants to throw her a birthday party. The only exception to her overall popularity is Kailing's rival Meilun who covets Danian's affections. Otherwise, you've never seen a girl so popular in high school!! I would call her the Lesley Gore of China. Sunshine lollipops and rainbows everything. Mambo Girl is so over-the-top (dare I call it camp?) and refreshingly unbelievable that it's downright entertaining. Inadvertently, Kailing's young sister Baoling discovers from her mom and dad that Kailing is adopted and, in a moment of poor judgment, reveals same to Kailing's rival Meilun who—at Kailing's birthday party—just has to spill the beans and ruin all the fun. But then again, it's Kailing's birthday and she can cry if she wants to, cry if she wants to, cry if she wants to. You would cry too if it happened to you. Honest.

In her fascinating 2003 Senses of Cinema article ("The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang's Temporal Dysphoria") Dr. Fran Martin notes: "The ghost, uncanny manifestation of the past within the present, is no stranger to Chinese film and television screens." Her statement thus defines a haunting as a temporal imposition of the past into the present, not necessarily requiring death. A projective longing to retrieve the unknown past—such as Kailing's curiosity about her real mother—can likewise sponsor such a visitation, as depicted in the scene where Kailing climbs to the roof to be alone and encounters the ghost of her mother crying for the child she had to abandon to the orphanage.

As IMdb reviews: "With big nods to Western styles—opera, torch songs, Latin music, film noir—this movie proclaims its modernity."

The later film—Wild Wild Rose—highlights Chang in a more mature role as Sajia, a blend between Bizet's Carmen and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. Though I can't quite say Sajia has duende, the film is rich with flamencano flourishes. Sajia starts out just as ruthless as Carmen by tempting a young man away from his fiance into a life of ruin, but ultimately she's goodhearted. It's not her fault she drives men crazy with desire. Not only does Chang impersonate a Latin femme fatale in Wild Wild Rose but she poses as a contrite geisha as well (but, only to land a nightclub audition).

As capsulizes: "The Wild Wild Rose is undoubtedly one of the classics in the Hong Kong cinema in every sense of the word. Grace Chang (Ge Lan) gives her most mesmerizing performance as a sensuous singer who seduces and destroys (both herself and the man she loves). She is nicely complemented by Zhang Yang as the inexperienced piano player who falls for her. The stylized production design and the cinematography of the film also set a high standard among the films of its kind. The songs by Japanese composer R. Hitori are memorable. But most surprising of all is the immaculate mise-en-scene of veteran filmmaker Wang Tianlin."

Frank Bren included Wang Tianlin's Wild Wild Rose in his Senses of Cinema 2001 top ten archive list, describing it as "Wang's film noir take on Bizet's Carmen (starring the stunning Grace Chang)." Bren further notes that Hong Kong films of the '50s and '60s "concerned frustrated love" and were made "moving" thanks to great female stars of the era like Grace Chang.

Charles Leary in his Senses of Cinema report from the 40th Golden Horse Awards states that one of the familiar traits of the Cathay melodrama of the 1960s is the characterization of its male leads as victimized and pitiful. Further: "As in many Cathay films, the women are the real attraction, particularly the great singer and dancer, Mambo Girl Grace Chang."

Lisa Roosen-Runge's Senses of Cinema report from the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival (March–April 2002) included a profile of the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) series of classic Mandarin films presented during that year's festival. She outlined that "[t]he Cathay studio started operating as MP & GI in Hong Kong in 1957, and produced roughly 250 films in the following decade. . . . These films often have similar casts, with character actors from amongst the studio group of actors. You can even start to recognize the furniture on the sets. . . . Wild, Wild Rose by Wang Tianlin is a great film experience. Starring the dynamic Grace Chang, it is in one sense a reworking of the Carmen story. The Grace Chang character is a nightclub singer who generally chews up the men infatuated with her. The musical segments are really stunning—in one number she rises from below the floor for a flamenco-style tap dance! In this film she spits, drinks alcohol and has her dress split up to her navel. . . . The ill-destined male lead, Chang Yang, plays out the typical path of his characters—he makes generally wrong decisions and is a great example of what Stephen Teo calls the 'weak romantic hero' [Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions, BFI, 1997, p. 76]." Roosen-Runge saw Wild Wild Rose near the beginning of the festival and had to admit that very few of the modern films she saw could match its intensity.

All that being said, there can be no question that it has been Tsai Ming-Liang who has reawakened an appreciation of the vibrant talents of Grace Chang through his incorporation of her vocals into his movies, particularly The Hole. But why has he chosen to do so?

Brian Hu's 2003 Senses of Cinema analysis of Tsai Ming-Liang's The Skywalk is Gone notes that the film is "nostalgic for three kinds of film: the popular Mandarin Chinese films of the '60s, the films of the Taiwan New Cinema of the '80s and '90s, and the films of Tsai Ming-liang himself. By longing for three major waves of Taiwanese film history, the film demonstrates the interminability of nostalgia for the cinema. From each passing epoch develops a new cinematic tradition to miss.

"As in The Hole (1998), The Skywalk is Gone communicates with 1960s Chinese cinema through popular song. Famous outside of Asia for its martial arts films, 1960s Hong Kong cinema also saw a flourishing musical genre. Among its most popular stars were Lin Dai and Grace Chang, the latter's songs appearing prominently in The Hole. Tsai has cited these early musical films as direct influences on his own filmmaking . . . ." The musical numbers from The Hole come "from an earlier era of Mandarin music extremely popular in Taiwan in the 1960s" and perhaps signify "an escape from the dull urban sounds of the city."

Fran Martin writes in her Senses of Cinema article referenced above: "Although the major question addressed in this paper is about the relation between recent Taiwanese film and European art cinema, it is worth noting at the outset that Tsai's films also perform parallel citations of Chinese cinemas. This is apparent, for example, in the casting of Miao Tien, who is best known to local audiences from his roles in over 100 of the Taiwan and Hong Kong swordplay genre (wuxia) films of the 1960s and '70s, including the films of veteran swordplay director King Hu (for example Dragon Gate Inn [1966] and A Touch of Zen [1970]). Miao Tien has also worked with Tsai in three of his previous films, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), The River (1996) and The Hole (1998). The Hole, in turn, is punctuated by song-and-dance numbers featuring the songs of Grace Chang (Ge Lan), star of many 1950s Hong Kong musicals (for example Mambo Girl [1957], Air Hostess [1959] and Wild, Wild Rose [1960]). Comparably, in What Time, at the video stall where Hsiao Kang buys a copy of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, we overhear another customer asking for films starring Grace Chang, Yu Ming, or Lin Dai. This double citation of European art film, on the one hand, and popular Taiwan and Hong Kong cinema, on the other, demonstrates that cinematic citation in Tsai's films is in itself a complex, hybrid practice, rather than any simple emulation of European film modernism."

Nanouk Leopold in an interview with Tsai Ming-Liang for Senses of Cinema asked him directly about that scene: "In the beginning of the film there is a scene where someone in a video-store asks for a Yu Ming, Lin Dai or a Grace Chang movie. What kind of films are these?"

Tsai Ming-Liang responded: "These are films from the '50s and '60s and also some from the '70s. Yu Ming, Lin Dai and Grace Chang are the great stars from the Hong Kong films of my childhood. In my film The Hole, I used some songs by Grace Chang. I am always searching for videos of these films so I can watch them again. And when I look at them I always think: they have really gone, they exist no longer in this world, there are no stars any more like in those days. And then I think: I am really not up-to-date, I am living in the wrong period if I like these films so much."

Perhaps the reason Grace Chang became a diva for Asian queers is the same reason that several Hollywood actresses became icons for American queers. Nostalgia for golden eras past lend a religiosity to memory. Perhaps the nostalgia felt when seeing these old films, whether from the Cathay/MP&GI or the Hollywood studios is not so dissimilar, and not so much about a time gone by as it is about feeling displaced from the time one lives in and the current cultural attitudes one endures. Tsai Ming-Liang seems to admit so himself. A certain surrogacy is sought in cinematic representations of yesteryear. Entrusted to the larger-than-life women of the silver screen are experiences—perhaps imagined experiences, perhaps desires—of who they might have been in another less realistic time?

05/09/07 UPDATE: Pink Lotus, by comment to this entry, alerted me to Pink Lotus's own entry that includes not only a link to Grace Chang's official website (with that lovely photograph of her) but also incorporates a YouTube clip from Mambo Girl, and a fact-filled write-up.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Slanted Screen Panel Discussion

Following the first screening of Jeff Adachi's documentary The Slanted Screen, the Center for Asian American Media presented a panel discussion "Is Charlie Chan Dead? Asian American Men On Screen", moderated by Darrell Hamamoto, Professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis. The panelists included documentarian Jeff Adachi, and actors Jason Scott Lee (Only The Brave), Chris Tashima (AMERICANese), and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost). My thanks to Karen Larsen and Chris Wiggum of Larsen Associates for granting me access to the panel discussion.

Considering the obstacles facing Asian American actors breaking into film, Hamamoto asked Jason Scott Lee how he felt about comments made in the documentary regarding the "pre-Jason Scott Lee era" and afterwards. Being used as a marker of how Asian American representation in film has developed is obviously flattering, Lee admitted, but had he known when he started how difficult it would be to survive as an Asian American actor, he might never have pursued an acting career. Still, he agreed with comments made in The Slanted Screen that it's not enough just to be an Asian American actor, you have to be good at what you do; you have to excel. Passion, it's been written, is a narrow lens and, charged by passion, Jason Scott Lee didn't think about being stopped when he started; he only thought about cultivating his talent, about excelling at his craft. His was the simplicity of a single-minded, nearly monastic, focus. He slept on a futon on the floor with one lamp. He practiced Tai Chi before retiring to sleep. His regimen was all about study and training because he knew that discipline develops character, which then allows depth.

Hamamoto considered the possibility of a romantic comedy with an Asian American male lead and asked each of the actors who they would like to be their leading lady. Lee was stumped. Kim—allowed to venture into the past—offered up Grace Kelley and Audrey Hepburn as his choices. Tashima knew exactly who he felt was hottest: Selma Hayak, Scarlett Johanssen and Halle Berry. The absence of any mention of an Asian American actress was quite noticeable.

Hamamoto suggested to Adachi that he should head a production company to provide vehicles for Asian American actors but Adachi was quick to assert that his job is to get people out of jail. Adachi asserts The Slanted Screen is his first and last film (perhaps because his wife was in the audience?). He graciously shares the credit with all those involved in the making of the documentary, soliciting applause for narrator Rowena Cape, and the scoring by Michael Becker.

Hamamoto was curious what responsibility successful Asian American actors had to the community of young Asian American actors breaking into the industry? Chinese-Hawaiian Jason Scott Lee had the strongest voice with regard to this. He spoke about the black box theater he has built with his own hands on his property in Hawaii which has allowed him to cultivate the talents of young actors and playwrights. Lee has a gardener's philosophy. He works his fields, grows taro and other vegetables, is completely into "green living." It is through nurturing nature that he believes creative abilities are nourished.

Daniel Dae Kim expanded upon Mako's caution in the documentary that some actors feel they have to make it first before they can do anything about Asian American representation in film. Kim asserts that it doesn't suffice to wait until one is successful; one has to give back during the process itself. He believes in collective effort and encouragement of one's peers.

Hamamoto asked which Asian American fiction would be best adapted to the screen? Kim suggested that the character of Charlie Chan should be recontextualized, reconfigured, and appropriated away from its negative cast. Hamamoto reminded him, however, that Charlie Chan's author was not Asian American. Chris Tashima suggested Laurence Yep's Dragon Wings. Jason Scott Lee referenced the Bamboo Ridge writers.

As I stepped up to Adachi after the panel discussion to introduce myself, it was heartwarming to overhear the panelists each expressing their respect and admiration to Adachi for his documentary, thanking him for fighting their fight. Adachi was glad to meet me face to face, said he loved my writing, and thanked me for my efforts on the film's behalf. I countered that my admiration for The Slanted Screen has been effortless. I look forward to its release on dvd so I may include it in my film library.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Imagining the Real—The Rwandan Massacre On Film: Shooting Dogs

The Greencine Daily has its finger on the pulse of recent controversies surrounding the upcoming release of Michael Caton-Jones' Shooting Dogs, the most recent in a cluster of films focusing on the 1994 Rwandan massacre, which I've attempted to capsulize on The Evening Class.

The film has its own blogsite where the life of the film is being tracked as it enters the public sector, along with several links to educational and informational materials. Of primary note is its sister blogsite Rwandan Survivors, a site designed "to be a voice and a platform for the survivors of the Rwandan Genocide." Rwandan Survivors contains testimonials and accounts of the genocide but also aims to look to the future, soliciting views on how such atrocities can be prevented from happening again.

Alice O'Keeffe reports to the Guardian Unlimited on the accusations that survivors were "traumatized" after being used as extras in a re-creation of the Rwanda killings. David Belton, the writer and producer of Shooting Dogs has defended the project: "I have been in close communication with the Rwandan government and organisations working there since we left, and none of them has mentioned any subsequent problems. We made the film in Rwanda because the Rwandans wanted us to. They were appalled that Hotel Rwanda was filmed in South Africa, with South African actors."

Linda Melvern, writing for The Observer, claims Shooting Dogs is fictional and that the BBC film has compounded the original sins of the Western media.

Director Michael Caton-Jones counters with an article for The Independent. "For many, the word Rwanda has become a simplistic symbol for Darkest Africa, home of the bestial and barbaric. In representing a specifically Third World madness, it neatly fuses lazy racial preconceptions with a frighteningly widespread First World ignorance. It was something 'they' did to each other, over 'there'."

2006 SFIAAFF—The Evening Class Interview With Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta's Water was screened as 2006 SFIAAFF's centerpiece presentation at the Castro Theater. Having first seen the film at the Kabuki press screenings, I felt blessed to have a second chance to see it projected on the Castro's large screen, which it rightfully deserves. Once again, I was enraptured by the film's compassionate treatment of the plight of widows in India. Introducing the film, Mehta expressed her hope that Water would engender compassion. It certainly does that. Not only for the women in Mehta's film but for Mehta herself who has undergone tremendous pressure from Hindu fundamentalist groups throughout the making of the film. Through the kind administrations of Shelley Spicer of Terry Hines and Associates, I was offered the welcome opportunity to interview Deepa Mehta the following afternoon. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Shelley! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

* * *

EC: Last night I attended the Castro screening, which was my second time to see Water—it's a beautiful film, I'm sure you're going to hear this over and over—you talked about the decade it took you to film your elemental trilogy and how glad you were that it was finally over. You even joked that you were glad there wasn't going to be a movie called Wind.

DM: Yes.

EC: My question is: why wasn't air an element you thought of filming?

DM: Air is not cinematic when you think of the contribution.

EC: You explained that the common thread through the three movies is the feminine sensibility in each and you mentioned that Fire concerned the politics of sexuality, Earth the politics of war, and Water the politics of religion; could you talk a little more about what you were doing there?

DM: When I decided to make all three films, I wanted to explore women in contemporary India and the consequences of the choices they have to make; that internal kernel, that tug of war, between faith and conscience. Earth became about fallout, about war being fought on the bodies of women. Water became very important because the words that were written in [ancient religious texts] are embedded in my brain. Shakuntula [Seema Biswas] was the cause of . . . and became—not the cause—she was used besides and became the victim, became the conflict between her conscience and her faith.

EC: Seema Biswas won best actress—did she not?—in recent Indian award ceremonies….

DM: Yes, she did. She's an amazing actor.

EC: Her enactment of Shakuntula's crisis of faith was palpable. You seem to me to definitely be within the school of filmmaking that believes that women are the future of mankind, which is something I believe in. Your films have spoken to me in that respect. When I was younger one of my teachers was the mythologist Joseph Campbell and very early on he taught me not to take religions literally. One of the main examples he used was the sati ritual [where widows were burned alive with their dead husbands] and how horrific and unfair that was. You contemporized this in Water….

DM: The way that women are treated by religion has nothing to do with religion. It's an offshoot of a misinterpretation that has been used very conveniently in a patriarchal society.

EC: At last night's screening, I heard a gasp when the character Nayaran [John Abraham] admitted the only reason the widow Shakuntula was being treated so poorly was….

DM: Is because of economics. It's true.

EC: There's a movie that has come out recently—I don't know if you've seen it—called Don't Tell by Christina Comencini wherein she creates a story about childhood abuse of a young girl and likens it to the abuse of young women who are erotically fetishized and the role of men in all of that, and I was feeling something of that in Fire with how young the child brides are. You're saying that this is still going on?

DM: No, no, not at all. Child brides are now illegal in India.

EC: Last night you talked about all that you went through to get this movie made and as I've been reading, it's been horrifying, downright horrifying, and yet I can't help thinking that the Hindu fundamentalism that you were faced with sounds so much like Christian fundamentalism….

DM: They're all the same.

EC: They're all the same!

DM: That's why it's so important to talk about it.

EC: You mentioned last night that it took you four years before you could get over your anger over the fundamentalist protests that shut down the filming of Water in Varanasi; four years before you could work on the project from the heart that you originally started with. What did you do to get over the anger?

DM: I made other films. I made two comedies. And I reflected. I tried to understand where fundamentalism came from.

EC: I'm glad you persevered in that and made the film; it's so amazing!

DM: Thank you.

EC: I'm not very versed in Hindu mythology or Hindu iconography and I was curious about a decorative detail of the widows' ashram. On the doorways there were these—for the lack of a more appropriate term—painted swastikas, or swastika-like symbols with dots. Could you explain what those are?

DM: That's the Hindu symbol for purity, which the Nazis took because of their thinking that they're also the Aryan race.

EC: When it's placed on doorways like that?

DM: It means welcome. And a sign of purity.

EC: The other character I was interested in was Gulabi, the transgendered character; I'm assuming he was transgendered?

DM: A eunuch, yes.

EC: He was presented in a somewhat negative light. Can you speak about that eunuch tradition in India or why you elected to have that character?

DM: The eunuchs are also marginalized by Indian society the way that widows are. So that when two set groups or two representatives are marginalized by society, it seems clear they would become friends.

EC: I felt Gulabi's portrayal was fraught with caution, that these are individuals who have been marginalized and who have confined themselves through the definitions that have been placed on them. At a time now when transgendered individuals are trying to find a new voice and a new place in our society, I was wondering what they would think about Gulabi, about his—well, it wasn't really a negative portrayal—

DM: No, not negative. I thought he was very funny. She was. They were.

EC: And he did have a conscience! He ran away guiltily when Shakuntula came searching for Chuyia [Sarala].

DM: But it isn't that easy. The point to get is what do you do? And how much do you compromise of your own integrity? That's what he's about; that's what Gulabi is.

EC: So you're saying that the laws now are such that youth are not property. I liked what you said earlier about wars being fought on the bodies of women. The feeling I'm getting from all three films is this mistaken assumption that women are property and that this misunderstanding has been codified and turned into tradition and that it's only now that women are being able to express a different sensibility. In some of the interviews that I have read about you, you came to a realization of the impact of film by the way that the fundamentalists were reacting to it. Can you speak about the role of film in combating fundamentalism?

DM: I don't know if it's combating it but film is definitely a very powerful instrument. For me, in retrospect, the reason that we were attacked was because we were very visible. I'm not saying that books have not been attacked because they also have been attacked in different ways. But film is highly visible and I think I was a soft target. Because no one had read the script! I mean, can you imagine mobs reading a script?

EC: It sounded to me that you had been purposely manipulated by the Indian government.

DM: I think that definitely I was.

EC: That you had been given the go-ahead and then had these staged gestures of civic arrest be the reason the film was shut down.

DM: Yes. Because certainly I felt that—well, I didn't feel it in the beginning but when the protests started and I went back to the government centers in New Dehli and I was given repermission—I definitely felt I was being set up for another fall.

EC: Your daughter is about to come out with a book around the distribution date of the film [April 28, 2006] on the making of Water….

DM: …and the unmaking of Water and the remaking of Water [laughter] and a mother-daughter relationship.

EC: That's intriguing to me.

DM: It's a fabulous book, it really is.

EC: Do you know who the publisher is?

DM: New Market. It's called Shooting Water.

EC: Shooting Water, that's something to look forward to. So now that you're done with the elemental trilogy, I understand you're going to do a film about immigration laws in Canada; Exclusion, I think it's called?

DM: It's called Exclusion but it's not about immigration laws in Canada because the laws have changed; but, it really is an exploration about racism. And there's not a female actor in it! I am a believer of feminism. Certainly my eye is a feminist eye but that doesn't mean my films are feminist films.

EC: These tyrannies affect all people; women and men. John Abraham's character in Water was such a sympathetic portrait of a man.

DM: Of course.

EC: He was dealing with his own conflict.

DM: I know.

EC: As was the priest from whom Shakuntala sought advice. You mentioned you're making Exclusion as your next movie, but what kind of movie would you not make?

DM: What kind of movie would I not make?! An action adventure! I would not know how to make an action adventure. I wouldn't know where to put the camera for an action adventure. I would like to make a horror film though!

EC: That's interesting! You have such an interiority in your films, there's that emotional texture of interiority in the way the camera moves, that the filmgoer is really taken into an internal space. I can definitely see how an action film would not work for that. Could you speak a little bit about the music used in Water?

DM: It's the same composer [A.R. Rahman] that I used for both Fire and Earth. He works at night so you have to put your clock backwards; it's kind of a retro case of jet lag. But it's worth it. He's a sufi so that's in the composition and you can feel it!

EC: I loved the song that came up when Kalyani [Lisa Ray] and Narayan were falling in love!!

DM: Oh, the rain song!

EC: I just loved that!! It felt very jubilant and you could feel it and you wanted to get up and dance with them.

DM: I know. That's the purifying and the cleansing and the embracing aspect.

EC: In all of the interviews that I've read, I've not seen or heard you speak about who your influences are. Perhaps I've not read the right interviews.

DM: I grew up with Hindi films. Only when I was about sixteen did I see the films of Satyajit Ray. And then after him Ozu. I love them both for their humanitarian treatment of their characters.

EC: Who among your contemporaries do you feel is in league with the humanitarian causes in your own films?

DM: I feel that way and still do that Emir Kusturica is marvelous. Underground. Life Is A Miracle. For me he's a master. He's the only one I can think of right now.

EC: Last night you were talking about how your fan base is growing….

DM: I was talking about that?

EC: Weren't you saying that in Toronto you have a huge Chinese fanbase?

DM: I didn't say that; Chi-hui Yang said that. I would never talk about my fanbase.

EC: You don't think about making film that way?

DM: No.

EC: When you're making your films, they're for you?

DM: No. They're for me, of course, but also they're for an audience. They aren't genderless. They're not made for a specific gender, a specific race.

EC: Your films empower the marginalized. I know your films have been embraced by women, by a queer constituency, who feel that you have given voice to—not just the plight—but the strength to overcome the plight.

DM: That's good!

EC: With that I'll let you go because I bet you have answered a million questions in a day full of interviews.

DM: This was delightful. I mean, it was very interesting because this was a different interview. It's been a breath of fresh air.

EC: It's great for me, Deepa, because I'm in a second phase of my life. When I retired on disability I thought, what do you love? What do you want to do now for the rest of your life? And I thought: film! It has to be something to do with film. And to love film and write about film lovingly. Not to be a critic. And try to understand what filmmakers are really doing. I consider you one of the masters.

DM: Aw, thank you.

EC: I congratulate you on Water.

DM: I'm so glad you liked it.

EC: Are you kidding? I loved it!! I'll probably rush off to see it again this evening at the Embarcadero screening.

DM: Oh good!! I feel very strongly—and I know—that I really love Water.

EC: It grabbed me the most of the three films in the trilogy. I've always been a traveler who has lived under the principle that water that flows cleans itself.

DM: Yes!

EC: That's why I was all the more appreciative when you were talking about how it took you four years to process your anger that you then came out with this film in which there was no anger. Maybe a little temper tantrum now and then…

DM: But that's the kid! That's the kid. She's in character. But, I mean, I did not feel any anger during the making of the film. I felt—it was not even jubilant—it was just very clear.

EC: I understand you hired an "anti-publicist" when you continued the filming in Sri Lanka?

DM: Yes, we did. The producer did! [Laughter] We filmed under a different name. We gave it a horrendous name, we called it River Moon or something like that.

EC: Do you have any feelings about anticipating the release of Water in India?

DM: No....

EC: Well, again, congratulations and I look forward to your future projects.

DM: Thank you. Thank you so much.

EC: Thank you for these [autographed dvd covers]; I have friends who will be so jealous! They've been envious: "You're meeting DEEPA MEHTA!!"

[Mutual laughter.]

Monday, March 20, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—"AMERICANese" Panel Discussion

In conjunction with Eric Byler's opening night film AMERICANese, the Center for Asian American Media presented a panel discussion—"From Novel to the Big Screen: American Knees to AMERICANese" featuring director Byler and novelist Shawn Wong in moderated discussion with filmclips. This discussion is not for the spoiler-wary.

Shawn Wong started out by stating that the film adapation of his 1994 novel American Knees has been a longer project for him than for director Eric Byler. He was first approached for film rights by producer Lisa Onodera over a decade ago and "10 short years later" the book has finally reached the screen. Exercising his right of first refusal to decline drafting the screenplay, Wong did assist in securing production funds by working up a treatment of his novel, but he was too fond of his own jokes, he readily admits. In effect he basically just transposed his favorite scenes from the novel into dialogue, which does not make a good movie. It took a cinematic sensibility like Byler's to transform the piece appropriately, to divest the novel of much of its humor to achieve its more relevant poignance. Intriguingly, Wong admitted that the scenes Byler took from the book were the most autobiographical, and the ones that articulated pain. Byler was able to take these articulations to create the emotional texture of the film.

Wong considers it "a practical joke" on Byler's part that he tweaked the character of Raymond (Chris Tashima) and made him a college professor instead of the administrator he is in the novel. This leant an illusory autobiographical spin to the character (since Wong is himself a professor), which has raised suspicions about his student interactions. No, Wong swears, girls do not come up to him and give him their telephone numbers. Nor does he solicit same. He has taught for 33 years and that has never happened. Due to this minor discomfort, the scene where student Silvia dalliances with Raymond is the only one Wong would have liked deleted from the movie. Notwithstanding, he feels Byler has skillfully captured the spirit of his characters in the film and, as a novelist, remains flattered that his characters have been used. Usually, having one's book turned into a movie is like "having your ox turned into a bouillon cube," he quipped.

Byler defended demoting the character of Raymond to professorship because it allowed him to raise the issue of Asian-American studies in collegiate settings. Throughout the film the books Raymond and his students are carrying are seminal treatises on Asian-American concerns, which Asian-American filmgoers could recognize. As for the dalliance with Silvia, that was more of a set-up to bolster a later scene where, upon discovering that his ex Aurora (Allison Sie) has partnered with a man who was once part of their social circle, Raymond attempts to balance his pain with desperate spitefulness. He ends up having too much integrity to do so, but, for a moment was hoping he could say, "You've got someone new and so do I!"

Along with being a writer, Wong's primary passion is driving race cars. He considers his major accomplishment to be that he made the cover of National Dragster magazine. In fact, when asked why there is a 16-year lag between his first novel Homebase and American Knees, Wong wryly explains he was working on his car.

Although the novel lays out how Raymond and Aurora meet, Byler elected to forego any kind of "meet cute" in the film to go straight to the aftermath of their relationship. He elected to focus on the painful adjustments of their break-up and, thereby, achieved a mature precedent for the remaining explorations of the film. As Dave Hudson so eloquently described when he viewed AMERICANese at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival: "Unlike most independent dramas, Byler allows the actors the space to fully occupy their roles, creating a world where the characters seem to exist before the film begins and continues long after the film ends. As such, his films are more mature than nearly anyone else currently working in this country."

This quality Hudson describes of "the characters seem[ing] to exist before the film begins and continu[ing] long after the film ends" is what lends AMERICANese its truthfulness and exactitude. I am reminded of what Mark Jordon has written regarding the temporal texture of relationships: "The couple is a unit of time. A couple must exist in time, since we usually don't speak of a couple until two people have been together for some time. A couple is more importantly a unit for measuring time. Its duration marks time for the partners in it, but also for their families, friends, and communities. A couple projects a happy beginning and a sad end. It fixes anniversaries and sometimes precedes birthdays. It holds memories. The couple is a narrative—and perhaps a cosmogony. It is also the play of time over a series of dichotomies. A couple is supposed to be set against the world—that is one dichotomy. Yet the couple contains within itself a dichotomy of Self and Other. …Coupling authorizes or requires the potent 'we.' The 'we' is in fact either a script drafted by committee or else one partner speaking for both. Still it exerts extraordinary rhetorical force—strong enough, in the case of so many 'traditional' marriages, to absorb the voice of one (usually the wife) into the voice of the other (usually the husband). Authors of romantic comedies know enough to stop the tale just when the marriage is performed—just when the voice of the couple is fully sanctioned." Mark Jordan further refers to Laura Kipnis' work, Against Love, wherein she writes that "What the hell now?" is the "prohibited question" at the end of the love film (as in the closing shot of The Graduate).

Byler tackles that question—"What the hell now?"—head on. And he doesn't confuse us with an answer. He allows what is irresolute about life and relationships to frame such a query. Aurora has to leave Raymond because her voice is being subsumed by his political awareness. In such a pitched state of political anxiety, love cannot survive. At least not in its readymade forms. Wong and Byler seem to suggest that perseverance provides alternate forms of relationship, perhaps more truthful, more healthy ones.

The other challenge the film proposes is its depiction of an Asian-American male who, as Byler puts it, "does not appropriate another culture's performative masculinity." Most Asian-American males are usually depicted as either "model minority" white or wisecracking sidekick black. In Raymond's solidity, poise, and composure he projects an Asian-American masculinity that does not tapdance for anyone. His ambivalence, his inability to make a right decision because of his politics, characterizes his conflicted integrity.

The identity politics so prevalent in the novel were purposely muted in the film, partially because of all that has gone on since when the novel was written to when the film was made. To Byler's credit, he doesn't rely on slain dragons knowing that fighting dragons is an ongoing evolutional process. The film was meant to be more of a "romantic mystery." It's precisely all that is not said that intrigues me about AMERICANese.

I've already expressed that I feel the film takes a writerly approach to the subject matter by asking the filmgoer to read between the lines and to look into the blank margins to intuit aspects of marginalization that direct articulation betrays. The character of Betty (played by the magnetic Joan Chen) especially leaves much to the imagination and, not having read American Knees, I had to ask Shawn Wong if the book is equally as cryptic? If we understand Betty better in the novel? His response confirmed that her complexity is as troublesome in the novel as in the film. She took on a life of her own in the book, Wong explained. He didn't mean for her to become exactly what she became. He related how he was sitting at his computer writing the scene that took place after a night of lovemaking. He wrote: "Betty was late." Paused. Then added, "But not late for work." With the cursor blinking at him, Wong realized a whole new element of Betty's pregnancy had entered the story. Byler amplified that the future Betty wanted from Raymond, she got. Clearly she had done something questionable in the past to have had her husband gain custody of their daughter and, to live without her daughter, was killing her. And Raymond's efforts to uncover that past, to find out why Betty was scarred, proved fruitless. In trying to find out how Betty was scarred, Raymond recounts his own scars. But they are the scars of a normal American boyhood. And one senses that Betty's scars—which she implies she got all at once—were probably a consequence of the Vietnamese war. The distance between their experiences becomes a painful, irreconcilable cultural chasm. Byler commended Joan Chen's directorial expertise in bringing resonance to the cinematic portrayal of Betty. It was clear, Wong asserted, that Chen brought everything about Betty from the novel into the film even though certain scenes were omitted. She focused on the "dark Betty" and it was her idea to include the scene where Betty lost her keys. Byler was grateful for this because it allowed him to bring in the mysterious paper bag wherein Betty's pregnancy is confirmed.

The panel discussion afforded a welcome opportunity to access the liaison between novel and film and Steve Rhodes has provided photos of the event. Afterwards Byler was hawking dvds of Charlotte Sometimes. I bought one and he inscribed: "Keep true to your vision." Good advice from someone who knows.

Friday, March 17, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—Friday Update!

With 2006 SFIAAFF fully launched, it's great that several programs have already sold out! I haven't been this excited about a festival in a long time!

Received email from Todd Angkasuwan whose film No Sleep Til Shanghai is among those that have sold out (congratulations, Todd!!) and which The Evening Class capsuled a while back. He gracefully concurred with my criticism that the "muddied" club ambience deterred from Jin's masterful hiphopmanship but advised that subtitles have been added for tonight's screening, which will allow all those there to see Jin "destroy his opponent in full comprehension!!!" Rush tickets are still available!

The Greencine Daily has a great write-up on the festival, profiling festival fare that have secured awards elsewhere, namely Sundance jury prize winner Eve and the Fire Horse (whose first screening has sold out; some tickets still available for the second); Sundance jury prize winner Dear Pyongyang; Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, which won the Slamdance Audience Award; and Conventioneers, which won the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit award.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian has picked out a handful—Café Lumiere, The Crimson Kimono, Grain In Ear, Linda Linda Linda, and Rules of Dating—to review and allowed Chuck Stephens to revisit the Peter Principle and reminisce on Citizen Dog. Further, Kimberly Chun reviews Kieu, which has sold out both of its screenings with only rush tickets available, and Cheryl Eddy scans the documentary offerings.

I, myself, am off to see Letter From An Unknown Woman and Linda Linda Linda this evening at the Pacific Film Archives and will be sure to let you know what I think. Enjoy the festival, everyone!!

2006 SFIAAFF—Opening Night Gala Gossip

The Asian Art Museum co-sponsored the opening night screening of AMERICANese and hosted the gala reception. Catering by McCall and Associates was deliciously achieved in the North and South Courts, desserts by Sugar Bowl Bakery, Galaxy Deserts and Joseph Schmidt in the Samsung Hall, and drinks provided all over the place—my favorites being the Kikkoman plum wine, the Vermeer Chocolate Cream liqueur, and the ever-appreciated Sierra Nevada pale ale! No wonder I had difficulty negotiating BART on the way home.

I rushed to the museum foregoing the Q&A at the Castro Theater to mingle with the director and cast of AMERICANese but they, no doubt, were in a private party or out to dinner because they were nowhere to be found. My dreams of schmoozing with Joan Chen dashed!!

But I did have a great talk with Roger Garcia. I tried to woo a scoop out of him with regard to San Francisco's upcoming International Film Festival but he was professionally tightlipped, and even a bit irked that I already knew about Gubra, complaining that Yasmin just had to spill the beans on her blog!

He mentioned Amir had recently completed The Last Communist but was uninformed that the life of the film is being tracked in a blog under the same title.

Well, Amir's next film is a horror film with musical numbers, he offered. That would be Susuk, I cut him off at the pass. Garcia raised an eyebrow.

I thanked him belatedly for last year's Malaysian showcase, for which Garcia was responsible, and for the cutting edge Asian films he has procured for the Bay Area over the past few festivals. He agreed to let me interview him during the festival. Keep tuned.

I told him I was delighted that the festival had secured Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud and he concurred, saying he didn't know why it was such an effort to get the film when it had screened at so many other festivals. He encouraged me to do some prep for the film by watching Grace Chang in the old Chinese musicals Wild Wild Rose and Mambo Girl, which I've dutifully ordered from

Garcia apologized for not being able to tell me anything further about the program line-up for the San Francisco International and seemed bemused that there is a bevy of bloggers piecing together the films to be shown. "It's not wrong of me to keep you somewhat in suspense, is it?" he asked. Not at all, I smiled, do your job.

I will tell you, he said, that we are featuring a batch of experimental Japanese film and you should look for that.

So noted.


Chris Tashima comforts Joan Chen.

According to the Hawaiians rain is a blessing. If so, those who attended last night's opening night screening of Eric Byler's AMERICANese were drenched with blessings. I know I was!! I sat wet and shivering in the Castro Theater but eventually dried out, no doubt due in part to the engaging warmth of Byler's second feature. I have to commend Chris, volunteer for the festival, who—without an umbrella or with borrowed umbrellas that blew inside out—unflinchingly did his duty in keeping the lines flowing into the theater. Good work, guy!! You're one of the festival's unsung heroes.

Fresh from its South by Southwest festival wins (Best Narrative Feature, Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble), Eric Byler's adaptation of Shawn Wong's 1995 novel American Knees is elliptically graceful in its subtle and suggestive silences. Advancing the issues of those racially marginalized, Byler takes an appropriately literary approach and asks filmgoers to read between the lines and to intuit what is being said in the blank space of the margins. Not only do I predict that the film will win Audience Narrative Favorite at 2006 SFIAAFF but I anticipate it will be nominated for an Oscar for best adaptation.

I was impressed with Byler's opening remarks to his enthusiastic audience. He respectfully genuflected to the mentors who paved the way for him, thereby gracefully paving the way for others. Byler's blogsite on the film will, undoubtedly, remain necessarily brief as he will be too busy garnering praise and insightfully fielding queries.

"We had Sulu on Star Trek," Byler stated to the Austin Chronicle's Kimberly Jones in response to her notation of the film's "quietly revolutionary" depiction of an Asian-American actor [Chris Tashima as Raymond] in a romantic leading man role, "and for how many years and how many episodes, he pushed all the buttons correctly and never wrecked the ship. But he never ever ever had a date. Not once."

Rather than beating filmgoers over the head with dramatic representations of racial tension (as in the recent Oscar winner Crash), Byler sought to depict these tensions as experienced by the racial minorities themselves. "For a person of color, you don't need to have somebody hanging upside down by a seat belt about to catch on fire to conclude that racism is bad. You just know. You just know it in your heart."

In league with the cautions expressed by such cultural theorists as Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and addressed in my recent interview with Jeff Adachi (The Slanted Screen), Byler states: "AMERICANese gives us a sneak preview into the realities of tomorrow as we become more and more racially and ethnically mixed in the 21st century." He does so with poignant accuracy. Byler shows us how Raymond's relationship with his ex-girlfriend Aurora (Allison Sie)—who is Hapa, half-Japanese—is complicated by inherited racist attitudes from her parents: An Asian mother who prefers she partner with a white man and a white father who denies racism even as he discourages his second daughter's relationship with a Black man.

The story becomes even more complex with the introduction of Betty (Joan Chen) in a disturbing role of a Vietnamese woman who confuses Raymond on the rebound. "I was drawn to my character because she is very mysterious," Joan Chen explains. "Her secrets are not fully explained, but under Eric's direction, the screen should be pregnant with her past." Indeed. Just as the future becomes pregnant with another child of mixed blood; perhaps—after all—the perfect snynonym for the future? I respect Fusion's appropriate co-sponsorship of the opening night film. While waiting in line and shielding the woman behind me from the torrential onslaught with a relatively ineffective umbrella, she told me she loved Shawn Wong's novel and was intrigued by the film because she had an adopted daughter of mixed blood. I hope that she walked away as confirmed as I did by this movie that her daughter can rightfully hold her head up high.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Slanted Screen: An Evening Class Interview With Jeff Adachi

The Slanted Screen's official website is a treasure trove of information, including a trailer for the film, a synopsis written by Antony Bolante, subject profiles of individuals interviewed in the documentary, a screening calendar, educational resource materials, bios on the filmmakers, in-depth reviews and interviews, and contact information!! The graphics alone are a brilliant amplification of an already-brilliant documentary. (I am fascinated by the Yellow Claw comic book covers on the contacts page!)

US Asians interviewed Jeff Adachi earlier this month and Susan Gerhard followed through with her own SF360 interview for the San Francisco Film Society. Their interviews deftly cover the making of the documentary and provide excellent background information. They left me free not to have to repeat those questions when I approached Jeff Adachi for an interview, allowing me the luxury of pursuing personal concerns.
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EC: Mr. Adachi, I hope you intuit that I approach The Slanted Screen in complete solidarity. I've already written that—as a fair-skinned Chicano with Asiatic features—I have been mistaken as Asian-American and have experienced not only the prejudice aimed against Asian-American males, but the frustration of being an actor of ethnicity in search of appropriate roles. Your documentary made me uncomfortably aware that I have played "yellowface" in at least three theatrical productions, but absolved me at the same time as you indicated that Sessue Hayakawa played "brownface." I was wondering if you knew of any other cinematic examples of Asian-Americans playing "brownface" and if you could speak to the necessity of "ethnic borrowing" for young actors of color? Is this past practice no longer ethically viable?

JA: The issue of actors of one particular ethnic background playing another recently surfaced with the controversy concerning Chinese actors such as Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, all famous actors in their own right, chosen to play Japanese characters. Many people expressed outrage at this choice. Are they right? Should only Japanese actors play Japanese roles? There is something that is disturbing about this type of reasoning, but it doesn't really lead to any kind of consistency in our beliefs. Should ethnic actors be allowed to play roles outside their ethnic background, yet Caucasian actors be forbidden? These are the questions that still need to be answered. I think it depends on the context in which the role occurs. Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon playing an Asian in yellowface was a no-no, just as Al Jolson was criticized for his portrayal of black slaves. I don't think that Fu Man Chu would be acceptable even if he were played by an Asian. Ultimately, as a society, we are not at a place where we are free to depict other ethnic groups in any way we wish and not face the consequences of reprisal. It's because racism and discrimination run deep, and these kind of portrayals are a reminder of the oppressive images we have seen in the past.

EC: You profiled the 21 Jump Street storyline of Ioki's past and escape from Vietnam, and his American alias as a Chinese-American. As an Asian-American actor, is any Asian role fair game? Are there any discriminations that young Asian-American actors should use here?

JA: He was actually initially presented as a Japanese American, and it was later revealed that he had accepted the identity of a Japanese baby to hide his roots in Vietnam. I don't think anyone had a problem with Dustin Nguyen playing a Japanese American. I think it's because he did it well, and people felt that as an actor, he was playing a Japanese American as he should be played. That does count for something. Now, if Dustin Nguyen played the Japanese character like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, then yes, I think people would have a problem with it.

EC: So if it becomes politically incorrect for one actor to portray or represent an ethnicity not their own (blackface, yellowface, brownface, or even whiteface) or questionably incorrect for Vietnamese to act like Chinese or Japanese, is there not a great danger of this historical project of ethnic reclamation leading to a cul de sac? I'm a great fan of the work of Guillermo Gomez-Peña who challenges the future efficacy of identity politics by asking where you would place a child with a Dominican father and a Korean mother? Would that child be Black, Latino or Asian? Would you have any issue with that child claiming multiple ethnic cinematic histories? For myself, I feel it requisite to have both The Slanted Screen and The Bronze Screen on my viewing shelf. They both speak to me uniquely. What is your hope that by focusing on the ethnic specificity of Asian-American males it lends to a future of a more ethnically-blended multiculturalism?

JA: The fact is that each ethnic minority group has faced a unique history of oppression and discrimination. To say that one group's discrimination is greater or lesser than another, or is more or less justified serves no purpose. We need to take a greater interest in how these images affect us as a people. What do we think about Muslims or Middle-eastern people who are portrayed as terrorists or killers? Is that accurate or is that just Hollywood finding a convenient scapegoat? What we can learn from each other's history is that the common denominator, so to speak, is that these images perpetuate stereotypes for a reason—to disempower a group of people. It is true that these distinctions may one day no longer exist, and that the multi-cultural blend of peoples will someday make us indistinguishable from one another. But that certainly isn't the case now. So we have to continue to ensure that each new generation knows the history of struggle that has created the opportunities they now enjoy.

EC: Which leads me to ask the obvious, of course. Why did you not speak to the experience of Asian-American women? The Celluloid Closet did this for lesbians. The Bronze Screen did this for Latinas. What was particular to your experience that you felt compelled to narrow the focus down to one gender with hardly a mention of the efforts of Asian-American actresses?

JA: There's a film by Debbie Gee called Slaying the Dragon, produced in the 1980's, that dealt specifically with Asian American women. I set out to make a film about Asian American men. I think that it's important to recognize that Asian American men have been treated differently than Asian American women. It's not to say that Asian American women have had an easier time—they haven't. In many ways, they have had to fight harder to transcend the "dragon lady," or "submissive" stereotype that still exists today. But that's the subject of another film.

EC: My last, and hopefully final, "yellowface" role was of a Japanese-American in a Chinese playwright's script, The Nanjing Race. As I've written, I accepted the role under pressure of a director friend who could not find an Asian-American actor to accept the part. Though hard for me to understand at the time, I could believe it because the character was queer and the production was being mounted by a reputably queer theater group, The New Conservatory Theater. Robert Wu, a Chinese-American actor from the Bay Area, agreed to play a Chinese character seduced by a traveling Japanese-American. The tension between China and Japan was inflected through this homoerotic dynamic. Robert, however, who excelled in the role and won much acclaim among Bay Area critics, was straight, and confided to me that it had taken much soul searching on his part to get involved with the project. Certain friends felt it could hazard his career. His take was that the role was so good and the opportunities for such a good role so rare that he really had no choice but to accept it. Of course I'm delighted he did because his performance made the production succeed. But it made me wonder, of course, about the role, my role, that no Asian-American would accept. Since Asian-American actors have frequently been desexualized and demasculinized in cinema, do you think queer roles prove dangerous because they double the equation and, in fact, double the shadow?

JA: Acting is acting. Should Ang Lee have chosen homosexual actors to play the leads in Brokeback Mountain? Not necessarily. A [play] like The Nanjing Race, is no different. Who is best for the role and can represent the character with the most integrity and honesty? It's not all about genetic make-up. But there are many people who could play a particular role—it's about having an open mind as to who you will consider casting for the role.

EC: Continuing on that theme: One of your childhood favorites was George Takei of Star Trek fame. Recently Takei has come out as "gay" and has also received some criticism from the queer press for not doing so sooner when it might have made a real difference and when it was not on the coat tails of what some might term a currently-popular "gay" chic. My take is it would probably have destroyed his fledgling career had he done so and that each man owes himself a little discretion, to paraphrase Freud. Any thoughts on whether Asian and Queer can succeed as a unified personality on screen? Or behind the camera, such as with Araki?

JA: Coming out is a personal decision. I've always believed this. It took a lot of courage for George to do what he did. Is it right for everyone? No. Everyone is entitled to make their own decision. As for whether it matters, the answer is no. Look at Quentin Lee's recent offering, Ethan Mao, about a gay Asian man who is kicked out of his house because he's gay and then kidnaps his family on Thanksgiving? Yet it is an important film because it tells the story in a way that it's just about people in conflict with one another. The fact that he is gay is not the central story line.

EC: Returning to reminisces of my actor friend Robert Wu, I remember him comforting me about playing a morally bankrupt character who no one could really like; in other words, a villain. I explained that my entire theatrical career had been a sequence of bad guys. Robert, hungry for a career in Los Angeles, said I should count my blessings. That if I were typecast as a villain it would only mean I would always have a job. It really bothered me that he said that. But, of course, just having a job isn't totally what acting is about, is it? Is being a villain ever the same as being a star? And by giving in to such typecasting as an actor, are you not perpetuating ethnic stereotypes? What determines the difference? When can an Asian-American actor play the villain and not have it be a slur against his own ethnicity?

JA: In our film, Mako, who has appeared in over 90 films, says that he will not take stereotypic roles and gives the same advice to actors. At the same time, you have to eat and survive and act. So sometimes you have to do the role that you don't want to do. You might be criticized by the Asian community, and that's the dilemma. But you have to be true to yourself, and that's what Mako recommends.

EC: Finally, there's no way that you can make a documentary of this sort and include everyone. Off the top of my head, I was very surprised not to see B.D. Wong represented. Or John Lone. And when you were discussing how ethnicity in and of itself represents what is villainous and yet attractive about the Other, I was surprised you did not mention Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages of a Virgin's Diary where the Count was personified erotically at his most Asian. Are there personages you regret not including? Personages you wish others would pick up the cue and profile?

JA: B.D. Wong and John Lone are great actors. We had a scene with John Lone in our film originally but it didn't work. I would have loved to include B.D. Wong, but couldn't afford to shoot in New York. The film I made was not meant as a historical landscape of every Asian actor—it was intended to give people a representation of actors of different times and generations and what they had to go through. I do regret not interviewing Pat Morita before he passed last November. He would have been a wonderful person to include.

EC: Thank you so much for taking the time to consider these questions. I look forward to the panel discussion after your first screening and at the Q&A after your second. Enjoy the festival!