Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chinese Lesson #2: Me, Myself and I; the Interrogative

Today's vocabulary:
Me, myself, I = wou (pronounced "wuo")
We, us, ourselves = wou men ("wuo men")
The interrogative suffix = ma ("ma"); for example:
Ni hao = "hello"
Ni hao ma? = "How are you?"
Ni men hao ma? = "How are y'all doing?"
Wou hao = "I'm fine"
Wou men hao = "We're fine"

this is an audio post - click to play

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Rock 'n' Roll High School: Asian American Film Festival (Part 3)

Linda, Linda, Linda (2005, Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita)

When we grow up, we won't quit being kids.
We've only got a little time left to be us.
-- Opening speech, Linda Linda Linda

Nobody does high school quite like the Japanese. While Hollywood films about the Wonder Years are usually bathed in the glow of fond remembrance (see: John Hughes), they're also spiced with a bit of parody (Grosse Point Blank), outright satire (Election), or raunch (American Pie). But in Japan, everything and anything connected to teenagedom is elevated to almost mythic importance -- not surprising, given that it's the last time for many Japanese to express something resembling freedom, individuality, fear, hope. Films running the gamut from the operatic All About Lily Chou-Chou to wistful anime classics like Kimagure Orange Road and box office hits like Love Letter (which hinges on a crucial unrequited high-school romance) have glorified the fumbling interactions, inchoate longings, and life-or-death strivings for acceptance that characterize Japan's 14-to-18 set.

Which makes something like Linda, Linda, Linda even more of a surprise. It hits the same beats the above works do, but in its deadpan amusement, its detached affection, it carves out a new paradigm for the genre: call it pop-punk high school.

The set-up couldn't be simpler: It is Festival Week at Shibazaki High School, the annual event in which the school grounds become a carnival, a celebration for outgoing seniors, and a final salute to teenagedom, all in one. A group of girls, including the glowering Kei (Yu Kashii), perky Keiko (Aki Maeda), and the stolid bassist (natch) Nozomi (Shiori Sekine) are throwing together a rock band for the festival's concluding variety show, but a spat between two of them leaves the band without a lead singer, with the show only three days away. Kei makes a wager that the band can draft and successfully train the first person they see to fill the role -- and that person happens to be oddball Korean exchange student Son (Bae Doo-Na), whose command of Japanese is, um, limited.

It's easy to see where this is heading: the band, which sounds endearingly ragged on first rehearsal, will pull together, triumph over adversity, and create a shining moment that the girls (and their brethren) will remember for the rest of their lives. Where Linda, Linda, Linda differentiates itself from the typical genre exercise is in its studious avoidance of the cliches. There are no unenlightened school administrators or bitchy competitors to disturb the course of our heroes, no tensions within the band that threaten to destroy chemistry, not even the blush of a major romantic subplot to satisfy the lovey-dovey audience members. In fact, there is nothing more at stake than throwing together a few songs by the punk rock legends The Blue Hearts, and performing them well. We receive a clue as to where this film will go with the opening narration (see top of this article), which is related in defiant tones by a girl looking straight at the camera -- and then the mood is punctured as a hyperactive student director argues with his DP, and suggests that the girl reads the lines again for his documentary. In one fell swoop, Yamashita is telling us: This high school stuff isn't that serious -- just have fun with it.

The rest of the film, cool as a summer breeze, and propelled by a winsome score by ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, fulfills that unspoken dictum. Yamashita is content to lay back and let the action speak for itself, throwing us into the story without the usual mechanics of character introduction and elaboration. The start of the film is a whirligig of activity, and it takes time to figure out who's who, which adds to our perception that we are outsiders, watching these characters through glass. And yet, the film never loses its understated humanity. Much of the humor stems from cross-cultural misunderstanding, such as when a would-be suitor confesses his love for Son in broken Korean -- only to receive a polite "mm-hmm" from the bewildered Son in response. As time grows short, and the girls juggle their various responsibilities while soldiering on through all-night jam sessions, Yamashita throws in juicy vignettes: an unforgettable bit with Son and a karaoke room, a matter-of-fact dream sequence that features a severed human hand and a rendezvous with the Ramones in Budokan Stadium, an impromptu solo vocal performance that serves like an aria, leading into the rain-soaked, beat-the-clock finale. But by taking pleasures from the details of ordinary life, Yamashita pays tribute to the three-chord rock crunch of the titular song the girls play: maximum enjoyment from the simplest of means.

The film is also elevated by Bae, who is probably one of the most fascinating actresses working today (see Take Care of My Cat for a prime example of how she can take over a film without seemingly trying). With her big eyes and gawky figure, she resembles the little sister of Faye Wong (Chungking Express), but in her quizzical spaciness, the way she morphs from puzzled outsider to silly insider, she's like Faye with soul. In her stillness she is mesmerizing; when the infrequent smile bursts out on her face the effect is as liberating as the rainstorm that closes the movie. The last image (and the one that sticks with us) is a close-up on that smile, as the crowds cheer and the glorious power pop of "Linda, Linda, Linda" echoes off the makeshift student stage -- and then the band plays on with the fitting "Endless Song." It won't change world cinema, and it doesn't matter -- Linda, Linda, Linda is a trifle that validates The Blue Hearts, high school, and the necessity of modest pleasures.

Chinese Lesson #1: Greetings and thanks

For the benefit of my pals Jocelyn and Lisa, for our upcoming China trip, but feel free to peruse, if you like...

Hello = Ni hao (pronounced "nee how")
Hello (to more than one person) = Ni men hao ("nee men how")
Thanks = Xie xie ("sheh sheh")
You're welcome = Bu xie ("boo sheh")

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lhasa Is Missing: Asian American Film Festival (Part 2)

Dreaming Lhasa (2005, Dir. Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam)

Tibet -- the name conjures a multitude of impressions. Spirituality, oppression, resistance, beauty, poverty, epic landscapes, hardy people, sadness, hope. Above all, there's the ongoing Tibet "problem," and its currency among Western spiritual and political circles. When I visited Lhasa in September 2001, mere days after 9/11, it was impossible to ignore the surveillance cameras mounted on the rooftops in the Tibetan quarter of town, or my trip to Drigung Til Monastery, a place which my Lonely Planet guide claimed had a few hundred monks, but which only housed 20 when I arrived -- all the others had fled or had been arrested by the authorities. And then there were the small moments, as when a young Drigung Til monk listened to Radiohead on my minidisc player and asked innocently if he could keep the player, or when the same monk showed the cuts on his head and explained that they were the result of a little brawl with some of the local villagers. Or on a more somber level, witnessing the sky burial of a small boy, his mummified body lying in the monastery courtyard, monks chanting for hours on end before the actual ceremony.

It is easy to forget moments like these when confronted with the more global implications of what Tibet is and what it should be -- and any film that tackles the subject of Tibet is faced with this conundrum. How to fashion a cogent statement about Tibet's life and times, while also presenting the authentic colors of this life? Setting aside the well-intentioned yet glossy efforts of outsider filmmakers (Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun), only one narrative film in recent years has attempted to pull the curtain back: Windhorse (1991), a fascinating study of alienation, subjugation, and cultural confusion in Lhasa that was nevertheless strident in its polemics.

Dreaming Lhasa, the first feature film by noted documentarians Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (based on a script by Sonam), is no less vague in its message -- our hearts are clearly meant to be with the dispossessed and exiled Tibetans hungry for freedom and home -- but cannily sidesteps the issue by locating the action in India, specifically the Tibetan refugee town of Dharamsala, as well as detours to Jaipur, Delhi, and Clement Town. Rather than a story about place and nation, this is a story about people, memories, and obligations.

The story hinges on a well-worn convention: the delivery of an important item to a missing person. Tibetan by blood but NYC-bred Karma (Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso) is in Dharamsala along with her local pal Jigme (Tenzin Jigme) to film interviews of Tibetan refugees and their stories of resistance and torture. In a few brief strokes, we see that Karma is feisty, confident, and concerned about her grant, her daughter, and her boyfriend in approximately that order. But the standard worldly concerns fall away when she comes across refugee Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk who now trudges around in the standard flimsy gray suit and red vest that is the civilian uniform of lower-class types across Tibet, and China. Dhondup has a charm box belonging to an acquaintance of his late mother, and his mission is to find the man in India and deliver the box.

Somewhat against her will, Karma is drafted into assisting Dhondup with his search, and as they follow the trail of the missing man, they journey into his past as they happen upon an ex-wife, a belligerent restaurant owner, a hunger protestor, a travel agent, a sweater salesman -- all of them Tibetan, all of them with their own stories, past and present. Following the perfect circle of a prayer wheel, the protagonists' quest takes them on a roundabout journey that ends where it starts, with a final revelation. But Dreaming Lhasa doesn't qualify as a spiritual journey; rather, it is a collection of snapshots, where surprising anecdotes and tidbits of knowledge (i.e., CIA involvement with Tibetan rebellions) bubble to the surface.

As documentarians, Sarin and Sonam bring a convincing truthfulness to these stories, which are no doubt based on real accounts. They are somewhat less adept at the conventions of a fictional narrative. The film is saddled with some clunky expository dialogue, especially near the beginning, and the plot sometimes meanders. We are meant to see Karma arrive at a greater understanding about herself and her people, but there is no clear-cut moment of illumination, no definable character arc. Gyatso is a likeable performer (amazingly enough, she was plucked from obscurity at a Maryland bank for the role), but she doesn't have the resources to present what the script does not provide. A semi-romance with Dhondup is touched on, but Dhondup himself doesn't receive much characterization beyond standard "stolid, noble refugee" poses, although Kalsang brings plenty of rumpled dignity to the part. (Dhondup can be seen as the grown-up version of the rebellious young'un Kalsang played in Windhorses -- wiser in the ways of the world, less prickly, but just as committed to doing the right thing.)

Fortunately, the filmmakers inject playfulness into what could otherwise have been a somber tale. Jigme is a breath of fresh air, puncturing the proceedings with snarky comments about foreigners and whiny Tibetans, even as he puts the moves on Karma and the local tourist hotties. Alas, he must undergo a conversion from cynical outsider to fervent free-Tibet supporter, but his hip ambivalence is welcome. In the same vein, we're presented with amusing cultural dissonances -- native boys jeering at Karma as a "foreigner" even when she insists to the contrary; a Tibetan refugee who has his U.S. visa expedited by pretending to be a monk; disco brawls giving way to slow dances with Cowboy Junkies music and then to plaintive folk laments; or the sight of a travel agent switching conversations and languages midstream on his phone lines, Tibetan by birth but happily international in vocation. The story doesn't pick up much steam as it progresses, but in its looseness, its delicate accretion of details, its movement towards breadth (if not depth) of shared experiences, its casual glimpses of magnificent mountains and crowded alleyways, it slowly takes hold.

It all comes back to Lhasa: it is talked about in the course of the movie, but rarely mentioned by name. Jigme gets to rock out with a home-grown tune titled "The Dream," but the dreams of these characters are not necessarily about home, or political imperatives. In its tentative but nevertheless engrossing way, Dreaming Lhasa posits a Tibet without the Tibet, where a story or an anecdote proves more substantial than Karma's filmed footage of natives telling her how brutal it was "over there." As she pulls out on a bus at film's end, we ask ourselves, Whither her documentary? Whither Lhasa? and have no answers. Instead, we have tales and shards of memory, a nation reduced to personal meanderings -- a fascinating conundrum in itself.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Hothouse Flower: Asian American Film Festival (Part 1)

San Francisco is a town where you can catch a film festival virtually any day of the week, and as you would expect, these festivals run the gamut, from more-indie-than-indie fringe stuff, all the way to that self-congratulatory gargantuan that is the San Francisco International Film Festival (for a forever-in-progress look at a previous year's fest, see my essay).

Nestling comfortably between these two extremes is the International Asian American Film Festival. Now entering its 24th year, and hopefully past the ups and downs of recent incarnations (last year's offerings were a bit undernourished), this year's festival has a healthy mix of newcomers and showcases -- and far be it for me to deride a festival that can unearth a kung fu classic that contains my name in the title (Dirty Ho).

The phrase "Asian American" naturally brings up a host of interpretations and points for debate. What exactly does "Asian American" mean? How is that particular culture or consciousness defined? What is it allowed to include (films made in Asian Asia, for example)? These aren't questions that will be answered by society any time soon, so the organizers of this event wisely let everyone in on the fun, everything from "pure" Asian cinema to politically and culturally relevant stuff grown here in the US.

I tend to gravitate towards the Asia-bred material at these festivals -- maybe due to my stubborn allegiance to narrative-driven movies. Most of the pioneering work in Asian American film seems to be taking place in non-fiction realms (as it is with American cinema in general), and apart from the rare breakthrough such as Saving Face or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (yes, believe it), narrative triumphs seem to be few and far between, at least to these eyes.

It probably doesn't help that most of my cinematic influences (Wong Kar-Wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kurosawa, Taiwan New Wave) hail from the Far East. At their best, their works occupy a certain space in my head, and with their tone and pace, generate fresh ways of looking at environments, relationships, interconnections. Perhaps I'm subconsciously playing into the familiar stereotypes, the exoticism of difference. But if the world hasn't figured it all this out yet, perhaps I can be similarly indulged ...

So with that caveat dully noted, here's my take on the films I'm seeing at this year's festival.

Citizen Dog (Ma Nakorn) (2005, Dir. Wisit Sasanatieng)

"We can't always find what we're looking for, but sometimes, when we stop looking, those things find us."
-- Opening Epigraph, Citizen Dog

In my admittedly brief exposure to Thai cinema, I've looked for commonalities in storytelling and filmmaking style. I've seen strict crowd-pleasers (Ong Bak) as well as dreamy productions (Last Life in the Universe) and even the works of transplanted directors (the Pang brothers' The Eye). All of these films evince a certain wit, a fluid facility with the camera, touches of the fantastic (Gabriel Garcia-Marquez style), and not a whole lot of staying power. Coming from a region in which nearly all other modes have been exploited (from the epic naturalism of China cinema to the hyperbolic fun of Hong Kong, the genre-mashing exploits of Japan and the emotionally direct dramas of Korea), perhaps Thai films are mapping more genteel territory. Their pleasures are of the elusive kind, like steam in a sauna. You certainly luxuriate in them while you watch them, but how much of it stays with you after it's done?

Case in point: Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog, which has been hailed as "Chungking Express meets Amelie meets The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Certainly the synopsis would suggest as much. The plot (such as it is) follows the shambling exploits of Pod (Mahasamut Boonyarak), a country bumpkin trying to make it in the big city of Bangkok. Smitten with a maid named Jin (Saengthong Gate-Uthong) who has an obsession with neatness and a fetish for a "white book" that she cannot understand (it is written in Italian), Pod spends his waking hours taking on jobs (security guard, taxi driver) that place him closer to his object of desire. Bustling in the background of Pod's life (and sometimes taking over the narrative completely) are the colorful denizens of the city: a motorcycle taxi driver who happens to be a ghost, a little girl who thinks and acts like she's 21, a talking teddy bear given to bouts of depression and heavy drinking, an amnesiac businessman who compulsively licks everything he sees, and soap-opera characters in a magazine story that come to smudged Photoshop life. All this is presented with light absurdist touches (at one point Pod gets his finger chopped off, but shortly thereafter it pops back on, all of it presented as a bloodless CGI sight gag) as well as surreal setpieces (a mountain of plastic bottles that towers over downtown Bangkok, a downpour of falling motorcycle helmets). Throw in a few heartfelt folk-rock musical numbers that comment on the action, computer-brushed cinematography that bursts with rainbow colors, and even a cameo appearance by Village Voice film reviewer extraordinaire Chuck Stephens, and you have the very definition of "whimsy."

One could dimiss Citizen Dog as a bunch of unrelated riffs, but under the candy-coated exterior is a very clear preoccupation with the city life, and its various sadnesses and pitfalls. “If you get a job in Bangkok, you’ll wake up with a tail wagging out your ass,” Pod's crotchety grandmother warns him at the start of the film, and as the title implies, we all become dogs in the end, even if the tails are never actually seen in the movie. Otherwise, the film is rife with anthropomorphic wisecracks: sardines become tapping human fingers, humans cackle like geese or happily lick faces like mutts, and even Pod's grandmother is reincarnated as a gecko. Pod's unrequited love, Jin's obsessive tendencies, the various neuroticisms of their town's citizens -- these all suggest the vagaries of life in the urban jungle, and its attendant loneliness and fractured sense of community. As Sasanatieng gently observes, everyone is busy seeking to become something they are not -- such as the aforementioned girl and her woefully neglected teddy bear, a Chinese-Thai waitress who believes she is the descendent of a princess, or her boyfriend, who horns in on kids' Chinese classes just so he can understand the language, or Jin, who descends into the madness of radical environmentalism based on a single mistaken encounter. At the center of this storm is Pod, played by Mahasamut with deadpan bemusement, observing the action but always at a remove from it, always the country boy who can't fit in with the city, and thus, logically, the last resident in town without a "tail."

Finally, Citizen Dog is about dreams, or the lack thereof. Pod is ridiculed for being a man "without a dream," but by the end of the film, roles have been reversed, as Jin's dream of being able to read the book ends in a tragic black joke, and the lovesick Pod hopes against hope for Jin to return his affections. Sasanatieng is most definitely on the side of the musicals, where technicolor splendor and true love conquer all, but while the production is near-flawless in its blending of real life and CGI gloss, the love story is perhaps the film's least engrossing aspect, its desultory twists and turns a lead weight that eventually sinks the story's final third. The obligatory happy ending seems tacked-on, an afterthought. But even as it evaporates before your eyes, Citizen Dog's cinematic invention, rambling warmth, and the sunny way in which it exposes its serious undercurrents suggests that there may indeed be some heat pulsing from the center of all that steam.