海上浮城 Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, 2018)

One recent talent to have emerged from film festivals — and who has already been attached to direct the new Harley Quinn DC superhero film, Birds of Prey — is Cathy Yan, who was born in China but has studied and worked for much of her life in Hong Kong and the USA. She returned to China to make her feature film debut, basing it around the enormous international city of Shanghai, as a sort of microcosm of the kinds of changes she wanted to satirically skewer.


There’s no doubt that debut feature filmmaker Cathy Yan is trying to pack a lot in here — like many modern Chinese films, it’s about the toxicity (literally, for the pigs) of modern venture capitalism, speculative building developments wiping away old communities, about changes to jobs especially for land-based occupations (like farming), about class and wealth differentials, and a whole lot more. Therefore, it can’t help but feel a little hurried at times, and a little bit busy, but for the most part I enjoyed it. The colours are bright, and the performances are sparky and watchable — not least Vivian Wu’s intractable yet stylish aunt, and Meng Li as a rich young woman looking for something more. Also, it has a karaoke singalong towards the end (though sadly nobody took part in my audience).

Dead Pigs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Cinematographer Federico Cesca; Starring Vivian Wu 邬君梅, Li Meng [or Vivien Li] 李梦, Yang Haoyu 杨皓宇, Zazie Beetz; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)

Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.

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The Farewell (aka 别告诉她 Bie Gaosu Ta, 2019)

Last week’s new release also takes us back to last week’s themed week, which was what I termed ‘Asian diaspora cinema’, which deals with Asian identities in the West, and this one tells of a clash of cultures between the US and China, two of the modern world’s great competing superpowers, through the story of Awkwafina’s suitably awkward artist.


This is a sweet, reflective film that doesn’t shout too loudly, though occasionally the characters in it try to make statements about what it means to live and die, at least in Chinese society. In that respect, having the young family members — most notably Awkwafina’s budding writer Billi — having grown up in different countries meant that it got to explain things a little bit, which is probably just as well given the central conceit is the idea of not telling a dying person that they are dying (or “based on an actual lie” as the film puts it on its first title card). Billi is a muted presence, which already marks a change from Awkwafina’s usual on-screen persona, though it does mean she shuffles around in a slump, looking dejected and sad for rather too much of the film, even as those around her are trying to encourage her to fake a smile — to the extent that I found it hard to believe grandma (and I don’t think she’s ever named aside from the Mandarin Chinese word for grandmother 奶奶 nai nai) didn’t immediately figure out what was going on. Still, there’s a lot of unforced emotional heft just from the set-up, as well as an examination of what it means to be torn between two very different cultures (the film itself is fairly scrupulously balanced, and avoids denigrating either). The final credits reveal therefore comes as rather a surprise, but it’s a sweet end to what’s otherwise quite the weepie.

The Farewell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lulu Wang 王子逸 (based on Wang’s story “What You Don’t Know”); Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano; Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍, Tzi Ma 馬泰, Diana Lin 林晓杰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 26 September 2019.

Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985)

For my final post of this Asian diaspora theme week, I’m going to back to an early Asian-American film (though hardly the earliest, as there are examples even in the silent era), but one that perhaps has had some influence on subsequent filmmaking, given that sits pretty squarely and comfortably within an American indie context. Wayne Wang would go on to direct The Joy Luck Club (1993), but also indies like Smoke (1995), though his 2000s work was more straight-to-video genre fare, like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (though I have a fondness for both of those titles).


This is a loving portrait of one Chinese-American family, as seen through the eyes of a 30-something professional woman (Laureen Chew) and her elderly mother (Kim Chew). Apparently the idea was originally a much denser work dealing with a larger number of intersecting inter-generational stories (which becomes more evident in the short film Dim Sum Take-Out the director compiled a few years later from the outtakes), but paring it down also works very nicely. There’s plenty of understated observation here, of customs and mores, of lives that perhaps are a little tinged with regret and others lived in the shadow of parents and expectations. It’s set in San Francisco, so there’s a bit of detail given of that community, largely via the character played by veteran actor Victor Wong (whose peculiar squint is familiar from Hollywood roles of this era, such as in Big Trouble in Little China), who runs a bar and thus connects a number of the different family members. It’s all very keenly put across, with a quiet open style that seems to be mimicking filmmakers like Ozu while also being very much within an American indie vernacular.

CREDITS
Director Wayne Wang 王穎; Writer Terrel Seltzer; Cinematographer Michael Chin; Starring Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong 自強; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 19 September 2019.

Three Films by Mina Shum with Sandra Oh

My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).

Continue reading “Three Films by Mina Shum with Sandra Oh”

In the Family (2011)

The director and writer Patrick Wang sits somewhat outside the context of other filmmaking I’ve covered this week, not just in the way he works outside the mainstream with largely unknown actors and in contexts (such as this film, set in the American South) outside large metropolitan centres. He also doesn’t explicitly address identity issues in his work (or at least not this, his debut feature). Indeed this story hardly fits into the usual way that same-sex relationships have been portrayed on screen, so you could see Wang’s work as disrupting a number of expectations we already have about what it means to fit into any of these categories. Thus I should probably apologise for even including his work in this themed week, except that I wanted a way of conveying the range of experiences and indeed some of the difficulties in even understanding “Asian-American film” (or for that matter “gay film”) as a category.


I’d not heard of Patrick Wang before picking up this DVD in the video shop, but looking at his short filmography it seems he’s received plenty of acclaim, so perhaps that’s as much on my own lapsed cinephilia of the early 21st century (before I started paying attention again when I started this blog in 2013) as it is the way that promising indie talent can so easily be sidelined by the systems of distribution, exhibition and critical discourse. Or perhaps he’s just out of step with even the arthouse end of wider film culture in making these long, thorny films (this one is almost 3 hours in length; his most recent work The Bread Factory is split into two 2-hour films, and I don’t suspect I’ll ever see them showing in a Curzon or Everyman anytime soon). Needless to say, I think this debut feature is fantastic, showing some stylistic and thematic influence from the quiet domestic dramas of Japanese filmmakers like Ozu or Naruse, or from more contemporary ‘slow cinema’ avatars.

Yet this is still a film very much located in a specific place, defined as much by the drawl of its Tennessee characters (something shared by all the characters; in speech, at least, nobody here is an outsider) as by any other element. Wang plays Joey, a man in what is clearly a committed relationship with another man (Cody), the two of whom play father to the latter’s 6-year-old boy, Chip. However, when Cody dies unexpectedly, the remainder of the film becomes about the way that Joey must navigate the traumas of the legal system as much as his somewhat estranged de facto family (same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in that state when the film was made).

There are no histrionics, though, and indeed, barring a few moments, Joey is largely subdued and grimly accepting of the forces that make his life difficult following his partner’s death. The drama within the film, then, is not railing at the unfeeling system — because plenty of those within it have compassion for Joey’s case — as in the specific way that Joey has to deal with trauma and loss, and it’s in the quieter moments, when the camera just watches him, carefully framed within his home or in bureaucratic settings, that the film is most compelling. It all leads up to a profoundly emotional climax that’s all the better for not being dwelt upon.

In the Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Patrick Wang; Cinematographer Frank Barrera; Starring Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Minding the Gap (2018)

With The Farewell in UK cinemas today, another recent film by a Chinese-American filmmaker was one of the finest documentaries out last year, although it only touches on themes related to the Asian diaspora experience (as when its director, who is a fellow skateboarder, appears on-screen). There have been a number of recent films about kids expressing themselves and finding a community through skateboarding (like Skate Kitchen), and this documentary is a fine addition to this burgeoning sub-genre.


I guess the obvious thing to say is that this isn’t a film about skateboarding, though the first shot of them gliding through the streets — a kinetic moment of movement and light and joy — is repeated throughout as a sort of motif. It underlines the film’s real point, which is about the precarious transition between entrapment and escape. Some of what keeps these men stuck in their lives (and there are three of them including the director Bing Liu) is partly down to society, but is also it turns out somewhat reflective of the domestic situations in which they all grew up, and that starts to become the focus of Bing’s questioning. This leads to scenes which are both heartbreaking and also really very painfully confrontational, such as Bing putting his mother under the spotlight, or about Keire’s relationship with his father, which feel sometimes like things that are too abjectly personal to be on camera. And then there’s Zack’s own patterns of domestic abuse, which Bing never really confronts his friend directly about, and which he leaves largely unresolved, while suggesting (perhaps more hopefully than anything else) that he could yet have matured. In any case, there’s a lot of material here, a lot of painful, confrontational material, nakedly emotional, but also there’s that through-line: the joy of skateboarding that brings these men together and makes them — they hope; we hope — better people, and helps at least some of them to break free from their pasts.

Minding the Gap film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Bing Liu 劉冰; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, 27 March 2019.

Gook (2017)

I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).


An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.

Gook film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.

Late Night (2018)

When discussing Asian-American experiences, there’s a lot about people from Chinese or Japanese backgrounds, but Indian-Americans have also been fairly prominent (see also my review of Meet the Patels a few years ago). This prominence has come not least via high-profile television comedians like Aziz Ansari or Mindy Kaling, the writer and star of TV’s The Mindy Project and most recently this film, also directed by a Canadian of Indian heritage, Nisha Ganatra. Ostensibly the film focuses on Emma Thompson’s star, but really it’s about women like Kaling getting a foot in the door of an industry dominated by white people, usually men.


A broadly likeable film which doesn’t always feel believable. Quite aside from having a woman as a long-running late night talk show host (and Emma Thompson exudes an odd energy, unlike the guys and even the few women currently doing it), mostly it’s because the film repeatedly leans on the idea that the show is broadcast live. I also didn’t believe anyone in the film really knew anything about social media. However, the script delivers quite a few laughs, even when it’s being more broadly sentimental, and it can be quite sharp about some of the politics around diversity in the media (though I’d have liked to see the dream diverse team actually working together at the end, rather than in a montage). What I loved most of all were Emma Thompson’s hair and clothes as late night talkshow host Katherine Newbury (she is a style icon in this film), and her withering backstage grumpiness. It does make a great case, quite in passing, given how easily Katherine fires people, that media workers desperately need unionisation, though.

Late Night film posterCREDITS
Director Nisha Ganatra; Writer Mindy Kaling; Cinematographer Matthew Clark; Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 18 June 2019.