Sunday, October 24, 2004

FILM DAZE

Apart from my obvious love for music, I spent a good deal of time watching, thinking and writing on film: as a scholar (I annually teach Asian American film at UC Berkeley), as a journalist and as a member of a film festival screening committee. I take great pleasure in wearing all these different hats but I have to also have to admit the downside: there's just some appalling cinema out there.

Blame it on the declining cost of access. With the relatively affordable price of DV cameras and efficient editing software that almost any PC can run, becoming a filmmaker isn't the heady, expensive task it once was. While that's great for the wanna-be auteur, it also has the consequence of creating an unfathomable amount of bad movies. You think there's a lot of bad indie hip-hop out there? At least your average DIY rap 12" doesn't cost $20,000 to produce. What I find amazing about crappy films is that they're made at all: the costs of production can be so prohibtively high, the fact that you can still blow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a terrible end-product is mindboggling.

Two that I'm going to quickly highlight:

1) I recently watched one film (and I'll be nice enough to leave its name out of the discussion since it's still looking for distribution) that cloned its plot right off of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet: a young, Asian American woman is pressured into marriage by her traditional parents and convinces her gay, white friend to pretend to be her fiancee. They end up getting married. Hilarity (presumably) ensues.

I'll put aside the fact the film's amateur production qualities already make it unwatchable. I'm still reeling from how remarkably unoriginal the film's premise is, especially when it fails to do anything different (let alone better) than anything Ang Lee accomplished. Seriously - who in the chain of production ever thought this would make a good film? I'm all for the expansion of the Asian American filmmaking community (this was made by a Vietnamese American director) but not if that means offering polite applause for a poor product.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I see dozens of films a year where I know within the first shot that it's going to be terrible. That might sound harsh but believe me - bad films announce themselves from jump and never get any better from there. I'd name more names but that'd be impolitic for fledgling movies, still trying to get some attention on the festival circuit or from distributors. Films that have already gotten out there more though, that's another story, leading me to:

2) Nathan Kurosawa'a The Ride recently opened the 5th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival. In comparison to #1, this was actually a fairly well-made film (cinematically speaking) with a fantastic premise: Kurosawa makes a bio-pic about Duke Kahanamoku, better known as the father of modern surfing. It's about high-time that The Duke got more recognition (and if you watch films like Stacy Peralta's recent Riding Giants, he gets the nods he deserves) and The Ride does an admirable job of trying to capture Hawaii of the early 1900s, long before its transformation into a tourist economy.

The problem with The Ride is that instead of making a film about the Duke, where the story is told about him and through him, the lead in the film is actually David, a white, world-class surfer with an asshole attitude to match who gets magically thrown back to the Duke's time era during a surfing accident. It is by returning to surfing's early days and meeting and learning under The Duke that David becomes a better person and when he returns to "real" time, he is a changed man.

I can't speak for Kurosawa but I can only assume that he put a white guy at lead because he figured that he couldn't sell a surfing movie with a Native Hawaiian as the center of attention. As commercially justifiable as that may be, it's a weak, narrative device not mention insulting, watering down of the Duke's story. This is like Mississippi Burning - a film about the African American-lead Civil Rights Movement that makes two white FBI agents out to be the real heroes. What's next? Why don't people make a bio-pic about, say, Cesar Chavez but let's film it from the perspective of white college student who spends the summer volunteering in the fields? Or maybe they should have made Ray with a white music critic telling the Genius' story? Bottom line, nowhere, in the world, do we need another film where either 1) people of color help redeem white folk or 2) where p.o.c. are forced to play second chair to a white star because filmmakers don't have the confidence that they can sell their movies without a haole. (By the way, this is precisely why Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, for all its juvenile, sexist humor, is practically revolutionary).



MEANWHILE...

  • I'm not saying that being up 2-0 in the World Series is no big deal but while I've enjoyed watching the Sox swat away at St. Louis, after the ALCS, it all feels rather anti-climactic. Speaking of which, I thought Jay Smooth broke down that series beautifully.

  • S knows how much I loved Oceans 11 - it's not like it was deep, but it went down really easy, you know? So yes, I'm looking forward to the sequel but this trailer for Oceans 12 leaves me just a lil skeptical.

  • J.C. put me up on Mouther, a new web-zine driven by equal parts Asian American and hip-hop sensibilities. I'm still looking through their content but 1) I'm not feeling the Flash-driven navigation. It actually makes things harder than read as a consequence. 2) Their blacklist of media that features Asian American stereotypes lists The Simpsons because Homer once said that "Asian kids are smarter in school." Sorry, but as sensitive as I am to racism in media (just see above), that sets the sensitivity bar just a little low. I mean, it's the Simpsons, ok? Does no one get parody any more? What would Angry Asian Man do?

  • Speaking of Asian American media, Hyphen Magazine now has its own blog.

  • I don't know why, but all my links today seem to be Asian-related: China opens its first Hooters. Ah, the beauty of transnationalism.
    (credit: SM)

  • DatingAsians.net. I only wish this was some brilliant joke. Alas, I think it's quite serious. You can download the table of contents and some first pages: this is pure comedy in an unintentional way. Who knew there'd be such a market for teaching white folks who date my peoples? Oh, wait a minute...

  • Ok, not Asian-related. Can someone please explain why anyone gives a flying f--- about photographer Terry Richardson? He's like Vice Magazine's favorite shutterbug, was recently featured in the Beautiful Losers show at the YBC and honestly, I just don't get it. My issues with him aren't moral - taking naked photos of yourself with teenage (but presumably legal-age) girls sounds like some great ego-tripping if you're the photographer but compositionally and artistically, I don't get why anyone else would care.