Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

My favorite films of 2016:

I didn’t get to see as many films as usual so there are some films I might have liked more but didn’t get to see, but here are the films that intrigued me for one reason or another.

1) Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang-soo) Fantastic, subtle performances by Kim Min-hee and Jeong Jae-yeong.

2) Happy Hour (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

A five-hour-and-17-minute drama focusing on four middle aged Japanese women, none of whom is a professional actress. LOVED this! Got to meet the filmmaker in San Francisco.

3) Star Wars: Rogue One. (dir. Gareth Edwards) Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Diego Luna! The dark tone fit the national mood and mine as well.rogue-one.jpg

4)Kaili Blues (dir. Bi Gan) A really intriguing setting and interesting cinematography. The story was at times frustratingly oblique but I know the filmmakers had to deal with a lot of censorship, so perhaps it’s amazing they could find a way to tell this story of a crime and the brothers who were broken apart because of it.

5) The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) Odd, quirky, and not for everyone, but I appreciated the absurdity of the vision of a world where it is criminal to be single.

6) Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade). It’s billed as a comedy but I found it at times grimly realistic in its depiction of workplace sexism and the ravages of globalization.

7) Spa Night (dir. Andrew Anh) Loved the realistic performances by all the actors, its depiction of multicultural L.A., and the gutsy lead performance by actor Joe Seo.

8) Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) The cinematography blew me away, and gave the film its nearly mystical air. Loved the inky/smoky language of the heptapods, which recall some of the smoke ring engravings of artist Frank Stella.


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Here’s an sneak peek at TIGER GIRL, my new novel coming out in stores and online this October 7, 2013.

Check out this four-minute excerpt:

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It was very hard to come up with a top ten film list for 2012. I was able to see so many interesting movies this year. I’m sure I left some really good ones off, but here are the ten that stuck with me.

10. Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’or)

This charming documentary details the gems of Cambodian cinema before the Khmer Rouge took over and destroyed civil society. Director Davy Chou is the grandson of one of the great producers of the era.

Golden Slumbers trailer


9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
This documentary captures the spirit of activist artist Ai Weiwei and it also opens a window into life in China. The film shows the bravura, humor, and brio of an artist who refuses to accept the government’s attempts to impose limits on his intellect and his sense of moral outrage.

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

8. Searching for Sugarman

This documentary is about a 1970s folk singer named Rodriguez who was all but forgotten in America, working odd jobs and living in poverty in Detroit, but who turns out to have been the most important singer of his generation in South Africa. This is the feel-good movie of the decade.

7. Magic Mike

Ah, the death knell of the American dream. Once upon a time a young man like Channing Tatum’s character would have dreamed of being a Top Gun or a crusading lawyer for justice. In post-George W. Bush America, he dreams of being a male stripper. Steven Soderbergh turns the infamous “male gaze” of the camera upon men…and the objectification seems symptomatic of our era.

6. 11 Flowers

This Chinese movie directed by Wang Xiaoshuai is intelligent and moving, portraying four young boys at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The film has an almost “Stand by Me” quality–recalling the exuberance of youth amidst poverty and hardship. Stand-out performances from all the actors!

11 Flowers trailer


5. Argo

I never expected to see a Hollywood movie celebrating an achievement of the Carter Administration. Not ever. There’s been some criticism online about the portrayal of Iranian protests. I was more surprised by the context this film actually provides for those protests–showing the flawed American foreign policy in Iran that led to the overthrow of the Shah.

4. Patience (After Sebald)

This film is magical. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of watching this gem by describing it. It’s based on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.This is how a literary adaptation should be done–capture the spirit of the writing without being literal.

Patience (After Sebald) trailer

Patience_(after Sebald)

3. Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold has directed the definitive adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel as far as I’m concerned. The opening shot of a branch tapping at a window evokes the ghostly opening of the novel without literally filming it. Similiarly, Arnold shows us what the moors must have felt and looked like to Cathy and Heathcliff. No other film has done that for me.

wuthering heights

2. This Is Not a Film

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been banned from making movies by the government of Iran. So he made this “non-film” with a friend and shot parts with an iPhone. His enormous talent as a filmmaker and his love of cinema come through in the scenes where he describes the artistic choices he made in his other movies. Talk about a master class! And his scenes with the young garbage collector in his building create a character portrait as vivid as in a drama.

This Is Not a Film trailer


1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Visually stunning. Great plot. Part detective story, part portrait of a land, this film was unforgettable.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia trailer


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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I had a fabulous time at the 8th Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration in San Francisco this past Saturday, May 19th.

at the Asian Art Museum of SF

The Asian Art Museum opened its doors for the festival and had free admission all day! There were splendid Southeast Asian dance performances (loved the children’s dances), art demonstrations, and even a flash mob dance performance. I enjoyed seeing the Phantoms of Asia contemporary exhibit exploring concepts of the supernatural past and present. And it was a thrill to be able to see Apichatpong Weerasethekul’s short “Phantoms of Nabua.” I’d seen this visually stunning film online but it was even more powerful on a big screen. (You can watch it online here: Phantoms of Nabua.)

Larkin Street from Civic Center Plaza through the Little Saigon District was filled with vendors and hundreds and hundreds of visitors. Smoke from the many barbecue stands formed a wafting cloud on one side street:

And the Asian fusion food trucks that are super popular in the city also set up for the day. The line in front of Chairman Bao Buns was running half-way down the block at one point. I managed to get some fabulous Korean bulgogi tacos at Seoul on Wheels!

It was a great celebration indeed. Even the weather cooperated. It was sunny but windy, which really made the Breathing Flower lotus sculpture in front of the Asian Art Museum come to life!

This street fair was a great way to celebrate APA Heritage Month and brought many diverse communities together.

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I wanted to let everybody know about a wonderful documentary, Golden Slumbers, about Cambodian movies of the 1960s and 70s that’s currently playing in the San Francisco International Film Festival. There’s still time to catch showings in Berkeley and San Francisco at the SFIFF.

The film beautifully blends interviews of surviving filmmakers, actors and fans, who describe the movies they loved so much before the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1979. Between 1960 and 1978, Cambodian filmmakers made 400 films, which were wildly popular. Fans remember venturing out to some of 30 theaters in Phnom Penh despite bombs, grenade attacks, and the unrest during the 1970-74 civil war.  As one producer recalls pointing out to his financial backers in Hong Kong: When times are rough, people need to be entertained.

Director Davy Chou is the grandson of one of Cambodia’s most successful film producersp, Van Chann. Chou was present at the screening in San Francisco and participated in an ethusiastic Q&A after the late screening at the SF Film Society Cinema on Saturday night.

Chou was utterly charming. He revealed that he had to “fake” the visually stunning ending that showed footage of a classic movie projected onto the brick wall of a former movie house that now serves as home to 100-some impoverished people. In fact he said it’s impossible to project the film onto dark brick and so the shot was digitally rendered. But the metaphor was real and sincere: showing the beauty of Cambodian film as a haunting presence juxtaposed with the present lives of young Cambodians, who remain transfixed by the new movies and music videos they watch on TV.

Chou’s parents were also in attendance. (In fact, I discovered I was sitting right next to them!)

Chou mixes interviews, stunning shots of contemporary Cambodia, vintage posters and photographs, and snippets of 1960s and 70s -era soundtracks in this artistic exploration of Cambodia’s “golden age of cinema.”

I highly recommend this visually arresting film to all cinemaphiles.

(And yes, I got an autograph from the very talented French Cambodian director!)

Director Davy Chou's parents (at the San Francisco screening)

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I’m thrilled I was able to see the awesome Korean movie Always at the 30th Annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which runs from March 8-18, 2012.

I didn’t have a lot of time this year so I was glad I could see at least one Korean movie along with my two friends (and fellow Korean film addicts), Jeni and Howard.

“Always” was everything we love about Korean movies! It made us laugh, it made us cry, it made Jeni and me avert our eyes during several of the gruesome fight scenes. There were myriad plot twists, references to Fate, a love story, and not one but two orphans: a blind girl and an ex-con who wants to be a champion boxer.

I don’t know how to begin to describe the plot without making it seem flat. A blind girl meets cute with the ex-con when he replaces her grandfather as a parking lot attendant. Soon love blossoms…and the ex-con has to fight a mixed-martial arts illegal boxing match in Thailand (before international mobsters no less!) in order to pay for a sight-restoring operation for his lady love. And that’s not even the exciting plot twist. Really, the good stuff comes later! Oh, and the third act is pure Korean melodrama!!! What cruel twist may keep the lovers apart forever?. . . You must see this film to find out!

Trailer for “Always” (aka “Only You”)
This year many of the films were showing at the Sundance Kabuki theater in Japantown, which celebrated the Festival with many exciting events. Indie filmmakers were working the crowds to promote their films, a large group of Tibetan children were dressed in traditional costumes to celebrate the showing of a movie about Tibetan music (“Tibet in Song”), and there was even a Japanese storyteller on hand to entertain the kids in the Kinokuniya Mall.

I had a great time!

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Opening shot: a room where Chinese women are assembling something shiny. A woman’s voice stumbles as she reads aloud a book of poems condemning corrupt bureaucrats and their cheap-looking mistresses. Uniformed guards stand and watch. On the soundtrack we hear an odd crinkling sound. It takes time to realize its the metallic material the women are folding into what appears to be gaudy party decorations.

CUT to a street scene. A bored looking man sits at a table on a sidewalk. He offers to register people looking for work, promising them for a fee he’ll send their forms to employers. Several migrant workers bargain, pay cash, fill out the forms, affix a photograph.

But the man is a grifter. A cop comes by and the man pays him off. Later the man goes home and affixes the photographs of the unemployed to his wall. Another sucker, he tells his girlfriend, who smokes on the bed in his spartan, otherwise unfurnished apartment.

So opens Zhao Dayong’s quirky and deliberately surreal first feature. Zhao is primarily known for his documentaries, including the extraordinary Ghost Town, which documents life in southwest China’s border towns and villages, where many ethnic minorities live and try to find work.

In his first fictional feature, The High Life, Zhao has given his film the look and feel of a documentary as he mixes actors (all nonprofessional) with real people and street scenes. Whereas this technique has been widely used in China at least since Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhao’s film feels very different from any other contemporary Chinese films I’ve ever seen.

By his own admission, the story is “surreal,” mixing realistic and completely impossible scenarios. Audaciously, Zhao drops his first protagonist half way through the movie and instead picks up the story of a male prison guard in a women’s prison. The guard likes to write poetry . . . about official corruption, June 4th (the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, as it’s known in the West), and his own sense of despair before society’s many ills. He forces his prisoners to recite the poems and even memorize them. In a scene that mocks contemporary police interrogations in China, the guard forces the grifter to read a poem and then critique it.

Zhao’s film is not going to be appreciated by everyone. At one showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring (2011), Zhao said he knew it had no chance of commercial success: “It’s not beautiful and it has no story.” (Many would disagree with that statement.)

What it does have is attitude. His editing, gritty cityscapes and urban soundtrack made me think of early Martin Scorsese. As in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Definitely not The Age of Innocence or Shutter Island. Zhao’s unusual choice of camera angles, where the viewer watches characters askance, glimpses through doorways or else peeks over their shoulders reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

At the San Francisco screening, I asked Zhao if he was worried how China’s offiicials and censors would react to a film that so daringly directly addresses contemporary issues that are verboten in Chinese state-sponsored films: corruption, rape, prostitution, crime, even June 4th. He said (in Mandarin), “My film’s an underground film. No one will see it. The censors don’t care.” He explained that he and his friends show each other’s films in small private screenings, even in bars or restaurants, but not in regular theaters.  That’s too bad, because Zhao’s sensibility would provide Chinese cinema with a welcome dose of street cred.

Western critics (and Chinese officials) may prefer the artful, slow pace of directors like Jia Zhangke whose more statically framed films are quite pretty, but those films seem anemic compared to the restless, nervous energy of THE HIGH LIFE.



dGenerate Films (his distributor in US) Profile of Zhao Dayong

New York Times article about Zhao Dayong and his documentary “Ghost Town”: Times profile of Zhao

Electric Sheep magazine interview with Zhao Dayong: Interview with Zhao Dayong

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