Monday, April 17, 2006

Confidence Scam: Spike Lee's "Inside Man"

Inside Man (2006, Dir. Spike Lee)

"As for why? Because I can."
-- Clive Owen, Inside Man

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Spike Lee has evolved. The man who admonished us to Do the Right Thing, the director who brought the same "these are my peeps so I'm perfect for this job" brio to Malcolm X that Spielberg brought to Schindler's List, the first mainstream NYC filmmaker to tackle what it actually means to live in post-9/11 New York (25th Hour), has expanded his world view past polemics to ... a heist caper?

If you were in theaters during the 2005 holidays, you were likely exposed to two surprising trailers -- one for Woody Allen's Match Point (which played like Masterpiece Theater meets Fatal Attraction), and one for Spike's Inside Man. The latter, with its swooshing pans of gleaming bank vaults and automatic weaponry, its verbal fencing between Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, its intimations of showdowns and thriller mechanics, "big budget" seemingly imprinted on every frame -- seemed a flat-out unlikely project for Lee. "Sellout," in short. And even though we are informed by the main titles that this is indeed a "Spike Lee joint," there is more than a bit of self-parody in the fact that Lee's name in the credits is perched above two street signs, the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway. Yes, the man from Bed-Stuy has moved up to the Big Time.

The truth turns out to be trickier than that, thankfully. Inside Man is a fascinating melange of competing impulses. On the one hand, you have the frame of a nothing-is-what-it-seems thriller written by Russell Gewirtz, replete with supervillains who have every possible angle covered, sweaty policemen racing against time to prevent the perfect robbery from ... asleep yet? On the other hand, you have Lee presenting the whole affair within ironic quotations, taking pleasure in presenting New Yawk and New Yawkers in all their snarky, absurd, humane glory, slipping in cultural observations like dabs splashed on the canvas.

The obvious precedent for all this is Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (which Gewirtz gleefully alludes to within the script): A band of determined thieves breaks into a bank, takes hostages, and plays a game of wits and nerve with the NYPD that becomes a flashpoint for an entire city. But while Lumet had Al Pacino in his prime, playing a character that descended the ladder from frazzled to hysterical, Lee offers up Clive Owen, who can brood with the best of them but has little to do other than inform the audience of his Nietzschean will to power -- he's an individualist with a .357 Magnum and a mushy American accent. We're meant to appreciate this mastermind who masquerades as an employee of the Perfect Planned Painting company ("We never leave until the job is done") and how he sets the NYPD's finest tap-dancing to his will -- yet the ultimate payoff to all this galavanting (secret documents and hidden valuables) is lackluster compared to the effort expended in pulling off his noisy little caper.

Likewise, the story seems locked in its own head, resorting to stock cliches in depicting its true villains -- those rich white millionaires behind the scenes with secrets to hide. It's more than a bit ridiculous, since it asks us to buy a hale-looking Christopher Plummer as a slick upper-crust operator (no problem there) who would have to be more than 85 years old, not to mention the possessor of incriminating documents that any man in his position would have burnt eons ago. And not only that, we have Jodie Foster as his representative, "Ms. White" (subtle). Her profession is never made clear, but she is apparently a "facilitator" with enough clout to push the mayor around (Mr. Koch and Mr. Bloomberg, beware Peter Kybart's broad interpretation) and broker superdeals with Owen's super-criminal. A plot device and nothing more, Foster struts around in heels and aggressive suits, all but smirking at her own duplicity. Whenever the film zeroes in on her or Plummer and their Ivy League skullduggery (Shakespeare and Baron Rothschild quotations are freely bandied about), it is painfully apparent that a cartoon is in progress.

Thank goodness for Lee, the true Inside Man in this flick. Seeing this charade for what it is and dropping even the pretense of suspense, he explodes the genre from within. Almost immediately we are presented with flash-forwards detailing the aftermath of the heist, the police interrogating the rescued hostages, and instead of playing the "will they get away with it?" card, the film delves into the what and the how -- What happened exactly? How did we get to this point? And even the what and the how pale against this movie's true aim, which is to capture a snapshot of NYC circa 2005.

This brings us to Denzel Washington, who plays Detective Frazier, the yin to Owen's yang. Cheerful yet hassled by his insistent girlfriend and a corruption charge ($140,000 worth of drug money gone missing), Frazier could be the cousin of Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins, the private dick who Washington brought to life in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress -- quite wise to the unfairness of this world, and gifted with just enough guile and resourcefulness to land himself in deeper trouble. As the head detective placed on the case, we see the world through his eyes, and what a world it is, crammed with ethnic and racial tensions, recalcitrant cops, unsupportive higher-ups, and pressure-cooker days punctuated by all-too-brief respites at the deli around the corner. The plot dictates that Frazier is essentially a reactive character, forever a half-step behind Owen, but it is amazing to witness Washington (who couldn't be a wallflower if he tried) infuse his role with depth and vigor. He may be chasing his own tail, but he won't let you catch him sweat while he's doing it. Affable and razor-sharp, one moment he might be brokering a truce with the SWAT team, and in the next he might be tormenting a witness (woe be to the interviewee who says his "throat is parched"), or locking laser stares with Foster's Ms. White, or messing with a distraught elderly woman's head ("Did you commit the robbery? ... Naw, I was just playin' with you").

There are dozens of these precious vignettes sprinkled throughout the movie. Some fall into the "incongruous and hilarious" category, such as a staid bank manager using Kanye West's "Gold Digger" as his cell phone ring tone, or Owen counseling a kid hostage on video game violence. Others have the familiar tang of authenticity, such as the prime suspect who happens to be well-endowed ("You can't hide quality") and has a penchant for jabbering on the phone while waiting in line, or the smart-alecky construction worker who turns out to have a gold-digging Albanian ex-girlfriend who can translate a crucial recorded conversation -- as long as the police rescind her purseful of parking tickets. And then there are the politically barbed moments that are a Lee specialty, as when a Sikh bank employee is beaten down as a suspect, his turban stripped from him, even as Frazier makes a crack when he bellows about his civil rights: "I bet you can get a cab, though." It is moments like these when Lee channels the spirit of Lumet, who whipped his characters in Dog Day Afternoon into a goofy frenzy, everyone butting heads and engaging in that very specific brand of New York obnoxiousness, elevating the proceedings to comic tragedy.

But while Lumet mined this material for its incendiary value, Lee wisely plays it for breezy laughs. In Dog Day Afternoon, the thieves' objective -- funding a sex change operation for Pacino's lover -- was of a piece with the frenzied narrative, something outrageous yet human. Nothing on that scale fuels Inside Man, besides some half-baked rhetoric about the haves (the rich white people) and the have-nots (everyone else) that even Lee must have found stale, so we're left with the airless prospect of a criminal genius pulling off his perfectly planned robbery, and nothing more. But the film's very weightlessness turns out to be a huge weight off Lee's shoulders, freeing him to indulge in his usual camera tics (the jump cuts, the ever-present zoom-trolley shot), while he peppers the story with his witty observations on the urban condition. It all concludes splendidly, too: after enduring his trial by fire and emerging unscathed, Frazier is presented with the opportunity for a financially lucrative but legally squishy act, and as he ponders whether to Do the Right Thing, his girlfriend, in a wry nod to She's Gotta Have It, wriggles on the bed, awaiting his presence, the two of them caught in an intimate tableau. Bank heists may come and go, but the push and pull between man and woman, need and desire, persists. Neither reinventing or abandoning his principles, Lee's Inside Man is the work of a man on holiday. "Don't bullshit a bullshitter," Frazier warns Owen; Lee is happy to play along with the bullshit for his own ends.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Chinese Lesson #5: Number System

1 = yi (pronounced "yee")
2 = er ("are") or liang ("leung") -- see note below
3 = san ("san")
4 = si ("suh")
5 = wu ("ooo")
6 = liu ("lieu")
7 = qi ("chee")
8 = ba ("baa")
9 = jiu ("joe")
10 = shi ("shuh")
100 = bai ("bye")
1000 = qian ("chen")

dollar = kwai ("quai")

To create a double digit number (i.e., 35), it's first digit + 10 + 2nd digit
For example, 35 = san-shi-wu

To create a triple-digit number it's first digit + 100 + 2nd digit + 10 + 3rd digit
For example, 689 = liu-bai-ba-shi-jiu

To express amounts in dollars, simply add "kwai" to the end of the number.
For example 689 dollars = liu-bai-ba-shi-jiu kwai

NOTABLE EXCEPTION: if you are using the number "2" to describe quantities (i.e., these two shirts, these two cars), use the word "liang" instead of "er." If you are expressing a numerical amount, use "er" the numeral two when you're talking about single or double digits (i.e., two=er, twenty two = er-shi-er). BUT if you're talking about amounts more than a hundred, use "liang" for the numeral two. For example, 222 = liang-bai-er-shi-er. Or 2222 = liang-qian-liang-bai-er-shi-er

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Chinese Lesson #4: More Important Words

Restroom = xi shou jian (pronounced "she so jen")
Police = jing cha ("jing tsa")
Help! = Jiu ming a! ("jo ming ah")

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Searchers: Asian American Film Festival (Part 6)

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004, Dir. Lu Chuan)

"Tibetans always point knives towards themselves."
-- Ritai, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol

Reviewing a mainland China film can be an interesting, if sometimes tortuous, exercise. Still a monolithic, forbidding nation in our eyes, China and its films are dissected by critics from every conceivable political angle: How did this work clear the official censors? What messages within can be interpreted as supporting the current regime? Or: Are there signs of resistance to the party line in this film? Where is the subversion? This can lead to enlightening commentary -- see the early works of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, which escaped censure by locating their narratives in long-ago China -- or it can lead to shortsighted conclusions (see the hulabaloo about Zhang's Hero, which many read as an endorsement of the current Communist leadership's strong-arm tactics, while conveniently forgetting that tyranny has existed since time immemorial -- sometimes an emperor is just an emperor).

In the case of Lu Chuan's KeKexili: Mountain Patrol, which turned out to be the one film I saw at the Asian American Film Festival that has been guaranteed local U.S. distribution (through no less than National Geographic), the desire to dissect seems particularly apt. The story, based on true events, is a government public relations dream: In the early 90s, ruthless poachers slaughtered thousands of Tibetan antelope in the great northwestern plateau of Kekexili for their pelts. With the antelope on the verge of extinction, an under-funded and under-equipped band of locals formed a militia to thwart the interlopers. Their struggles brought to light by a young journalist from Beijing named Ga Yu (portrayed by Zhang Lei in the film), the government ultimately designated Kekexili as a wildlife preserve, bringing the antelope back from the brink -- and they all lived happily ever after (well, not exactly, but in the self-congratulatory end titles slapped on at the close of this movie, it certainly feels that way).

If painting a picture of benevolent government helps China's leaders sleep better at night, so be it -- it's certainly no worse than the typical song and dance any government trots out to placate the skeptical masses. But it stands in stark opposition to what the film is really about: nature and man (stress the "man") under stress.

After a brutal opening sequence in which poachers slaughter a host of antelope and kill a patrolman, we are introduced to Ga Yu as he arrives in the area and meets militia captain Ritai (played with leathery authority by Duobuji). Initially suspicious of Ga and his desire to report on the troubles in the region to a national audience, Ritai has barely enough time to soften his attitude before he and his men bundle into two rickety jeeps with Ga in tow. Their mission: track down and arrest the bandits responsible for the patrolman's death, even though they could be anywhere in the vast, three-mile-high tundra.

As that synopsis indicates, Kekexili is not the environmentalist polemic it has been pegged as, but a modern Western, and is interested in humans first and foremost. Save for the opening scene and a few mercifully brief shots of carcasses, the Tibetan antelope are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we become acquainted with the lives of these hardy locals, the way they dance and sing to keep their spirits up, the essential loneliness of their quest. Cinematographer Cao Yu, who had to brave extreme conditions to shoot the movie, deserves some kind of medal for his work, as the plateau stretches out empty and forbidding in all directions, like an alien moonscape. Within this stark setting, the posse is often framed as tiny figures, dwarfed by the elements. Here, a simple flat tire or unexpected storm can spell the difference between life and death, and as the calamities accumulate, the quest grows more protracted and desperate, the rations and gas run low, and the men are forced to violate their principles and even sell antelope pelts to continue the journey, the tale becomes one of outright survival, in which considerations of catching bandits and doing the right thing are afterthoughts.

Through it all, Ritai remains obsessed with the mission, even as his men's numbers dwindle (the quotation that opens this essay is telling proof of his self-destructive stubbornness). We recognize in him the same qualities we observe in Melville's Ahab, or John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers: heroes pushed to extremis, forsaking simple sanity for the hunt. But Lu is less interested in the moral dimensions of those classics than he is in taking a more anthropological approach, casting a laconic gaze at these men in their life-threatening situations. Ga Yu is the ostensible guide through which we enter this world, but he all but disappears as those soaring camera shots and the close-ups of those native faces dominate. There is little melodrama or character development (save for Ritai or the youngster Liu Dong (Qi Yang), who reluctantly parts from his local sweetheart to take part in the mission) -- instead, we bathe in action and aftermath. (Indeed, in interviews, Lu has revealed that many character-building moments were deleted from the final cut -- a wise decision, given that they would only have intruded on the naturalism of the story.) In the film's most harrowing scene, one of the patrolmen falls prey to quicksand, and the camera lingers on his empty jeep, the supplies he left by the side of the road, all of it rendered impotent by the swarming dust-storm winds, the parched landscape. It is in these furtive blasts of emotion that the film's heart lies. The militiamen may not be defined, but there is no mistaking the compassion Lu has for them when they embrace each other in farewell, fully knowing that they may not survive.

Despite the bleakness of the narrative, Lu also finds moments of gallows humor. A militiaman chases a bandit on foot, but both of them are exhausted by the high altitude within seconds, their chase deteriorating into a staggering, drunken tango. A confrontation with illegal pelt peddlers turns into a bit of slapstick as the men strip to their long johns to pursue them across a river. Throughout, a Quixotic aura pervades the enterprise -- Ritai is determined to "fine" and "arrest" the wrongdoers, but such bureaucratic language, and the militia's dogged adherence to the "rules," seems pitifully inadequate out in the wilds. Who would believe that a dozen men could track down a legion of bandits with their antiquated jeeps and popgun rifles? And yet, Ritai fulfills his quest in a fashion, and the awful consequences of that victory linger beyond those feel-good end titles. Bracing and fat-free, Kekexili portrays the clash between ambition and Mother Nature, and although it's no surprise who wins, Lu's economy slices through all rhetoric, political or otherwise.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Kung Fu Pimp-Hand: Asian American Film Festival (Part 5)

Dirty Ho (1979, Dir. Lau Kar-Leung)

"You haven't lived until you've fought Dirty Ho ... and then you're dead!"
-- Original tagline for Dirty Ho

Given the recent ascension of martial arts films to art-house popularity (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers), watching this film is a useful lesson in kung fu history -- and we're not talking about the chop-sockies that populate after-hours TV, or the films of Bruce Lee, which stand apart and inimitable, or the clownish acrobatics of Jackie Chan. Dirty Ho (faithfully translated, the title's meaning is closer to "Rotten Head Ho," but admittedly it isn't as fun as "Dirty Ho"), in its unassuming way, is actually a seminal work in martial arts film, bridging the gap between the genre's stylized, theatrical origins and the frenetic, physical affairs of modern-day practitioners like Chan and Jet Li.

Director Lau Kar-Leung may not be familiar outside fanboy circles (he's best known in the West for his pivotal supporting role in Chan's Drunken Master II (aka The Legend of Drunken Master)), but his influence on kung fu movies is indisputable. From the 70s to the early 80s he helmed (and acted in) classics such as Executioners of Shaolin (1976), Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1982), and under his watch the genre became something more than a wooden exhibition of pomp and pugilism. Taking his cue from the formality of King Hu, the godfather of modern martial arts cinema, he injected his films with a canny mix of ferocity and wit that few have equalled since. Even a relatively light confection like Dirty Ho is shot through with exhaustive and exhausting choreography, and while the combat in this film may seem dated to some eyes, there is no denying its inventiveness, or the impact it has had on more recent filmmakers such as Chan (or even Stephen Chow, who shares Lau's fondness for hapless ne'er-do-wells who morph into super-fighters without quite losing their flawed, humane qualities -- see King of Beggars and Kung Fu Hustle for proof).

But Lau is also adept at working within formulas to tell engrossing stories. Dirty Ho plays a neat balancing trick between decorum and all-out martial arts insanity, and the balance is personified by Lord Wang Qinqin (the redoubtable Gordon Lau), by all appearances a cultured wine dealer but secretly the gifted 11th son of the Chinese emperor. Content to while away his time entertaining the ladies, sipping the finest wines, and admiring art, his placid lifestyle is interrupted by Dirty Ho (Wang Yue), an uncouth trickster who enjoys showing off and throwing around his hard-earned (read: stolen) money. Their friendly rivalry touched off by a competition over maidens at a local brothel, Wang wastes no time in showing Ho who's boss through some sly martial arts showdowns in which he subdues Ho without actually betraying the fact he knows any kung fu. Gordon Lau, who ordinarily might have been cast as Ho, brings a good deal of savvy to his role as Wang, his movements as refined as air, his playful smirks punctuation to the tricks he plays.

After one of the brothel maidens (under Wang's "hidden" guidance) beats Ho down in an amusing face-off and injures his head with a poisoned blade (ergo, the literal title of the movie), the thrust of the film becomes clear: Ho, who lacks an ounce of comportment, must be brought to heel under the elegant tutelage of Wang, who promises to provide the antidote to Ho's wounded head in exchange for indentured servitude. The twist of the callow youth being taught humility and kung fu by the wise veteran is a ploy that was perfected by Jackie Chan in the original Drunken Master (1978), but Lau does the conceit one better: preferring his life of anonymity, Wang refuses to let on that he knows any martial arts, and when one of his brothers sends assassins to dispatch him, he must fend them off without giving the game away to Ho. Thus we are treated to a simultaneously comic and thrilling pas de trois in which Wang must defend himself against two killers posing as wine merchants, even as the three of them pretend to be doing nothing more taxing than tasting wine, their furious battle to the death fought right under Ho's nose. The highlight of the film, the scene speaks to the frission at the heart of all martial arts movies: the clash between the rigor and economy of martial arts, as ritualized as any ancient art (like, say, the niceties of a wine ceremony), and the sheer exuberance of bodies in motion, spinning, blocking, improvising, and striking with grace.

As the stakes rise and Wang and Ho's odyssey takes them from their backwater town to an ambush in a mountain pass and finally a furious showdown within the Imperial Capital itself, Lau slips in plenty of throwaway gags -- a bunch of kung-fu fakers that parody the protagonists of Crippled Avengers, inventive uses of ordinary props and even innocent bystanders as combat instruments, and a surreal encounter with the "Seven Bitters of the East River," kung-fu experts who have a, um, feminine side. It all climaxes with two impressive setpieces as Wang and Ho must fight through a phalanx of spears and swords to reach the capital, and then battle three top-class fighters in a painstakingly choreographed finale in the Imperial Halls.

Rest assured, this film is shot through (or afflicted, some might say) with the conventions of many films from this era. The acting plays more along the lines of hyper-exaggerated Chinese opera than the naturalism Western audiences are more comfortable with, and the studio-bound locations can be a bit claustrophobic (a far cry from the lush budget and settings of Crouching Tiger, for instance). Nonetheless, the film uses its shaggy-dog demeanor to its advantage. No great truths revealed here, no pretensions of grandeur, just a tidy little tale told in high style, and there's something to be said for a movie that doesn't overstay its welcome. High art it is not, but in its refreshing unpretentiousness, its frisky dance on the border separating courtliness and anarchy, Dirty Ho reminds us what we enjoy about martial arts films in the first place, minus those art-house trappings, even as it points to the developments that have enlivened the genre in the past few decades. It helps when you have a kung fu pimp like Lau Kar-Leung at the steering wheel.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Chinese Lesson #3: Common Questions

Where is ...? = zai na li? (pronounced "zai na lee")
i.e., Where is the [bank]? = [Bank] zai na li?
Where is the bathroom? = [Bathroom] zai na li?
How much is this? = Zhi ge duo sao qian? ("zheh geh dwoa sow chen")

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Pump You Up: Asian American Film Festival (Part 4)

The Slanted Screen (2006, Dir. Jeff Adachi)

"If I had the choice between playing a wimpy guy and playing a villain, I'll always take the villain, because at least the villain has balls, man."

-- Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa on the Asian American male casting conundrum in The Slanted Screen

The portrayal of Asian American men in American cinema (or misrepresentation of said portrayal, or even the lack thereof) is the elephant in the room -- acknowledged to be there, but not necessarily something that's brought up in the course of a normal conversation. With our country battered on all sides by racial "dialogues" that more resemble shouting matches, laments about ethnic minorities getting the shaft in Hollywood would probably be greeted with a shrug and a muttered, Yeah, tell us something we don't know. What has been missing so far is nuance -- a look at the dimensions of the issue.

Jeff Adachi's good-natured The Slanted Screen provides no silver-bullet answers, nor does it do much more than skim the surface of the Asian American male Hollywood quandary, but it's a lively survey that provides a good toolkit to start the dialogue. In the span of a short hour, the project ticks off the history of Asian American actors in Tinseltown, from the highlights (the all-but-forgotten silent-film star Sessue Hayakawa, who could have been called "Valentino before Valentino," and the pioneering roles of leading man James Shigeta (three of whose films figured prominently as a retrospective in this year's festival)) to the lowlights (Long Duk Dong, stand and signify!) -- all the way to our conflicted present, where Asian men are finding their way back to public ocnsciousness and potential acceptance, even as they still take on some of the old prejudices, not to mention the kung fu imports from Hong Kong who currently serve as the face of the Asian male. In the process, we're also treated to a healthy number of clips, many of them rare, plus commentary featuring actors representing different generations of Asian American Hollywood, from Shigeta and Mako to Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma, and comedian Bobby Lee.

Those with even a passing knowledge about the plight of the Asian American male actor won't find anything revelatory here. The list is accounted for: Asian males cast in subservient, villainous or emasculated roles, if they're there at all, or presented as caricatured stereotypes played by Caucasians (Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu is a wince-worthy laugher, although in another yellowface role, he also happens to utter one of my favorite lines of all time in The Terror of the Tongs: "Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain? It is painful in the extreme, I can assure you.") But Adachi, who scraped together the film over a period of eight years while busy running San Francisco's Public Defender office, does a creditable job of providing context and history -- this is classroom material, if classroom material was actually fun.

No surprise, the highlights of the film belong to cantakerous Bay Area writer Frank Chin, who pulls no punches in decrying the battles that must be fought. As he notes, it's telling that Bruce Lee could only get roles as the "mask-wearing sidekick" stateside but had to return to Hong Kong in order to tear off his shirt and portray a "real man." This comment drives to the heart of The Slanted Screen, and its goal: the preoccupation with the Asian male as sex object. Throughout, there is a fixation on the idea that Asian men can be desirable, that they should be getting their share of the lovin' on celluloid. Certainly overcoming a century's worth of stereotypes is a worthy goal, but what is the end state? Can victory be claimed when Asian actors can tally the number of women they bag on-screen, like comparing scorecards? Does equality mean assuming the "identity" of a typical Hollywood leading man or supporting actor? Where does the "Asian" in "Asian American" play into it, if at all? These are charged questions to answer; at one point Tzi Ma mentions a minor role he had in Dante's Peak, and finds some progress in the fact that he could be selected for a role that was "color-blind," to which the Asian American man sitting next to me in the audience hissed, quite loudly, "Bullshit."

The documentary wades into deeper and darker waters when it examines the ways that Asian American visibility in Hollywood can be increased: producer Terence Chang, best known for producing John Woo's thrillers, comments that many Asian American writers and would-be directors send him work that he bluntly calls "terrible," and that just wanting to represent your ethnicity won't be enough to cut it in the Big Leagues. One can read an underlying, unspoken message there: If you wanna make it, you gotta do it at least twice as good as the typical, non-Asian fellas. It is stressed that progress will be defined by the stories that are written and produced, and by production executives who aren't afraid to inject complexity and subtlety. But in the marketplace-driven film economy, where formula is king and artistic risk is the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet, what will be the catalyst? Some like Michael Moore might argue (as he does in the documentary The Corporation) that capitalism can be configured for the forces of good as well as evil, but that would be underestimating the pull of inertia, the path of least resistance. Maybe Bruce Lee had it right, after all.

The Slanted Screen doesn't pretend to know the answers to all of the above, but it certainly encourages such reflections and discussions -- and in a time where the very idea of a defined Asian American male identity in the movies seems as multivariate and uncertain as ever, it suggests quite pragmatically that the best place to start is with straight talk.