Films

The past two months have been a great time for movies. With all of the winter blockbusters and the Sundance Film Festival wrapping up this past weekend, I thought I’d compile a short list of movies with positive APIDA representation that I either enjoyed or am looking forward to.

 

A film that’s a joy to watch: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a refreshingly diverse prequel-extension of the eminent space series that delivers not only action and thrills, but great representation for APIDA community.

As members of our staff gleefully noted, “There are three Asian characters in this film! Three!” Not to mention, they are all prominent characters in the ensemble cast, each with thoroughly developed motivations and personalities. But these torchbearers are not exactly new Asian American talents.

Jiang Wen, who plays Rebel warrior Baze Malbus in the film, is already internationally-known as a Chinese actor and filmmaker. Some of his most critically acclaimed works are “Devils on the Doorstep” and “Let the Bullets Fly.”

Donnie Yen, playing warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe, has enjoyed global renown as a Hong Kong actor and martial artist for over 20 years. Some of his work includes Guillermo del Toro’s “Blade II” and the extremely successful “Ip Man” series, in which he has the titular role.

Finally, British actor Riz Ahmed, who plays fan-favorite pilot defector Bodhi Rook, got his big break and plenty of nominations from “Nightcrawler.” Since then, he’s starred in the gritty HBO miniseries “The Night Of and the fifth installment of the popular “Jason Bourne” series.

In short, these actors have no problem selling seats. But a little extra(terrestrial) buzz never hurt.

 

A film that inspires me: “Moana”

“Moana” started with a pitch for a movie about the Polynesian demigod, Maui. John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation, demanded that the creators start researching.

This began a five-year long journey that resulted in the creation of both this film and the Oceanic Trust, an interdisciplinary collection of experts who are consulted on almost everything in the movie, from the designs of Maui’s character to the usage of coconuts. Even aspects that may have gone completely unnoticed by the casual, non-PI viewer were scrutinized.

An example that the creators cite is the wayfinding scene: they imagined Moana’s ancestors wearing traditional Papua New Guinean clothing, accessories, and face paint while navigating the seas, and the Trust strictly vetoed the idea as illogical as wearing “a tuxedo in the middle of the ocean.”

Despite all the effort that went into making the film culturally accurate, it’s been criticized for an over-simplified representation of Pacific Islanders, among other issues.

Still, knowing that Pacific Islanders were heavily consulted for their knowledge – on top of the color scheme, animation, and storyline – is hopefully a sign that filmmakers will become more considerate of APIDAs in their work.

The story feels like myth, in that forces of nature seem to be conspiring to help Moana achieve her goal of saving her island, but also emphasizes very human qualities, like agency, resourcefulness, persistence, and teamwork.

To me, “Moana” is a reminder that we have to choose to go for what we really want, but not making the choice that we thought we wanted, choosing to go in another direction instead? That’s okay too.

 

A film that I hope gets made: “Dana Dana”

This could be the most important film on this list, given the ban that was initiated in the U.S. this past week on Muslim refugees from seven countries, Iraq among them.

“Dana Dana” tells the story of a young Iraqi musician named Mohamed who is forced to flee from his home country and ends up seeking asylum in Great Britain.

Mohamed faces a great deal of pressure and hardship, between worries for his family’s safety, adjusting to his new life, and attempting to attain refugee status.

Eventually, he turns to a life of busking, but his new life in music is challenged when the meeting that could secure his future as a refugee conflicts with his shot at British radio.

The movie is still in progress, but it was advertised at the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

Content warning for issues of depression and suicide.

 

A film that I want to watch that critics at Sundance seemed to love: “Band Aid”

This movie might be cheating a little bit because it centers on a non-Asian couple; however, there are four Asian cast members (out of fifteen), it has a fairly female-heavy cast, and it carries the distinction of an entirely female crew, so I think it deserves a mention.

Anna and Ben, played by Zoe Lister-Jones (writer and director) and Adam Pally, respectively, are a married couple with issues. The dryly hilarious clip above is 90 seconds of them trying to list their Top 12 Worst Fights, resulting in them just tossing gripes back and forth dispassionately. To help resolve these issues, they form a rock band, featuring original songs by the cast based on all of the fights they’ve had.

The film is packed with TV stars of color, including Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jamie Chung of “The Real World” and “Once Upon a Time,” Hannah Simone of “New Girl,” and Retta of “Parks and Rec.” The film also stars three Jewish actors, including the director. There was a lot of discussion about movie musicals after the critically acclaimed “La La Land” debuted this winter, and I hope that this movie is able to affirm that yes, movie musicals can be good, and yes, they can also be diverse.

Content warning: Possible mention of/reference to miscarriage.

 

A short-form episodic series: Strangers

Trailer: http://www.tracking-board.com/strangers-trailer-meredith-hagner-zoe-chao/

If you’re like me, possibly the first (and only) thing that comes to mind when you think of queerness and Asian women is “The Legend of Korra.” I love animated TV, but sometimes I’m looking for a little less “intensity” and “world-saving” and a little more “’Girls-with-at-least-one-non-White-character.”

“Strangers,” a passion project helmed by Mia Lidofsky and starring Zoe Chao, tells the story of Isobel, a woman in her late twenties/early thirties who rents her apartment out through Airbnb.

With the help of her best friend and the various strangers who end up being her roommates, Isobel navigates her way through a series of ongoing professional, sexuality, and post-breakup crises.

The film/series takes inspiration from director Lidofsky’s own life and experiences renting out her NYC studio apartment to strangers on Airbnb, and promises to be a celebration of “life and love and the intricacies of human connection”. It also promises to have at least one, probably two, queer women who are main characters.

The first three episodes of this project aired at the Sundance film festival this past week, so here’s hoping it will soon premiere to the general public.         

 

BY LUCY MA and AMANDA LEUTMIXAY.

On Friday, October 28, 2016, UCLA Campus Events Commission hosted a Free Speaker event with Disney writer and director, Jared Bush, who discussed the production — from creating characters to of Disney’s upcoming “Moana.” The film takes place in the South Pacific, and is about an adventurous teenage girl who sets out on a mission to save her people by locating the “mighty demigod,” Maui, and discovers her self-identity.  

Bush is the co-creator, executive producer, and writer for Disney XD’s animated comedy adventure series “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.” He also participated in the development of Oscar-winning animations “Big Hero 6” and “Frozen,” worked as a screenwriter and co-director for “Zootopia,” and, more recently, served as a screenwriter for “Moana.”

During the event, Bush directly addressed the topic of Moana’s production with firm conviction, stating that Disney made numerous efforts to make the animation culturally accurate and entertaining.

Disney writer and Director Jared Bush at CEC Speaker Event

Before “Moana,” the last notable Pacific Islander animation film from Disney was “Lilo & Stitch,” and since then there has not been a film representing the Pacific Islander community in Hollywood. Thus, when Disney announced that its new animated feature will be about a heroine’s adventure in the ancient South Pacific, fans were not only excited for this film, which celebrates Pacific Island cultures, but also anxious about possible cultural misappropriation.

Prior to the Halloween season, Disney began selling costumes of characters from the film, which caused controversy. The Maui costume, in particular, was the most criticized because its tattooed brown skin was regarded as a form of “brownface” that also disrespected the cultural importance of tattoos in the Pacific Islander heritage.

The BBC reported: “After the release of Moana, Maui may be a Disney character to some, but to  many Pacific people, he is very real – a hero, ancestor, demi-God and a spiritual guide.”

In response to numerous protests that argued culture is not a costume, Disney apologized and removed the costumes from stores. However, the damage has been done, and people are more anxious than hopeful.

According to Bush, however, Disney’s approach to “Moana” will properly introduce culturally inclusive and sensitive standards, settings a hopeful precedent that Pacific Islander community  will receive respectful media representation. To do this, Disney sent a portion of the crew, including artists and animators, on a three week trip to the Pacific Islands to gain a better understanding of the local traditions and cultures.

While on the trip, one local Elder asked the crew, For years we have been swallowed by your culture…for once can you be swallowed by ours?

Hollywood films are globally recognized and influential, but their profitable grand spectacles often undermine the need to have accurate racial and cultural representations. Thus, many popular films that are suppose to have characters played by people of color are replaced by white actors – this is commonly known as whitewashing.

Similarly, Disney animations tend to be successful and influential on a global scale, but are often subject to criticism for reasons such as a lack of racial diversity and stereotypical portrayals.  

Disney’s “Peter Pan” is a clear example of an all-white cast that portrayed over-the-top exaggerations of Native American. For example, the song “What Makes The Red Man Red?” categorizes a group of Native Americans as uncivilized savages.

Although one may argue that “Peter Pan” is an older Disney film made in 1953 and point out that the times were different then, the film still remains a reminder that if not carefully produced, the animation can and will send negative and offensive messages to its massive audience and harm the communities they represent.

To present an accurate representation, Disney assembled an exclusive group of cultural specialists, the Oceanic Story Trust, to examine the screenwriting and animation drafts to prevent misrepresentations.

The Moana sound crew also consisted of musical artists Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are from Oceania and familiar with traditional Oceania music, respectively, along with Mark Mancina, who had previously composed for “The Lion King.”

In terms of casting the two lead roles of the movie, Moana and Maui, the crew recruited Pacific Islanders Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively.

Throughout the event, Bush shared exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the production, along with sneak previews of the movie. The audience was able to be immersed into the “Moana Ohana” from animation scenes that did not make the cut, to clips of Johnson singing his heart out as Maui.

Bush also mentioned that Disney films take an extensive amount of time to produce; “Moana,” for instance, took five years to produce.

“The film is never finished until it is released,” Bush said. He explained that at Disney, films are constantly changing and, for Moana alone, he made about 700 drafts as a screenwriter.

However, he believes that while this process is strenuous, it allows the film’s production to have time to discover its mistakes and allow the story and characters to develop deeper and more fluidly.

“Moana” will be released during the Thanksgiving holiday.

On November 4, UCLA’s Hanoolim: Korean Cultural Awareness Group hosted an evening screening of Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 film 국제시장 (Ode to My Father) at Northwest Auditorium on the Hill. Beginning the week with a successful Korean Cultural Festival in Bruin Plaza, Hanoolim bookended the week with a screening of the second highest-grossing film in the South Korean film industry.

Hanoolim’s collaborations with several sponsors contributed to the programming of these two events. A collaboration with the UCLA Office of Residential Life provided the venue for the screening, and a collaboration with CJ Group, a South Korean conglomerate which holds entertainment subsidies, led to the securing of the screening rights for Ode to My Father. Hanoolim’s President Sharon Lee, a third-year UCLA undergraduate student, described collaborations with Korean businesses based in Koreatown, Los Angeles as mutually beneficial as these businesses are eager to reach out to the student population at UCLA.

Lee hoped that Hanoolim’s movie screening would bring awareness to the historical narratives addressed in Ode to My Father, such as the Hungnam evacuation of 1950, the struggles of Korean migrant workers in Germany during the 1960s, and the broadcast television programming showing the reunions of family members separated by the Korean War in 1983. The film serves a purpose in highlighting the narratives of Korean and Korean American culture. In particular, the Hungnam evacuation is a recurring trauma for the film’s lead character, Yoon Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min), in which the circumstances of the evacuation inform the choices Yoon makes in the different stages of his life.

Despite being a high-grossing film at the South Korean box office, Ode to My Father has been subject to controversy because the film’s interpretation of South Korean history leaves out problematic and contentious moments in the nation’s history that might tarnish the country’s image. For example, critics argue that Ode to My Father leaves darker events in South Korea’s history unaddressed, such as martial law, student protests, and political scandals. Instead, Ode to My Father focuses on South Korea’s success in its rapid industrialization from a developing country to a developed country through the view of Yoon Deok-soo’s life experiences. The idealized perspective of history reflects a conservative cinema, and the filmic narrative primarily speaks to the older generations of Koreans and Korean Americans. Nonetheless, the historical events covered in the melodrama are important reminders for Korean and Korean American youth of the sacrifices their elders made.

On Saturday, April 16th, Bad Rap, an independent documentary about Asian American hip-hop artists, made its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  The documentary, directed by Salima Koroma and produced by Jaeki Cho, follows four rappers, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks, as they try to break into the hip-hop world.

With the tagline, “You don’t hear us on the radio,” the rappers not only struggle with making it into the industry, but face additional burdens associated with their skin color, such as the inherent responsibility of representing Asian Americans, the struggles of chasing their dreams when hit with reality, and the pushback from critics and lack of belonging in the industry.

To honor the film’s premiere, here are some sample tracks from each of the four artists featured to get you familiar:

 

1. Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park

Based in Koreatown, Los Angeles, Dumbfoundead became one of YouTube’s most visible Asian-American personalities, gaining notoriety from rap battles, one of which followed a five-year hiatus, and recognition from Drake:

Standout tracks: “24KTOWN,” “Cool and Calm,” featured in Keith Ape’s “It G Ma Remix.”

2. Nora “Awkwafina” Lum

After her viral hit, “My Vag,” Lum, a New York-based Chinese American, became one of the cast members of MTV’s “Girl Code.”  She will also be featured in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron.

Standout tracks: “NYC Bitche$,” “Yellow Ranger,” “Come Stop Me” feat. fellow Bad Rap-per Dumbfoundead.

3. David “Rekstizzy” Lee

Another New Yorker, hailing from Queens, Lee is known for his controversial acts, such as squirting condiments on his dancers’ rears in the music video for “God Bless America.” Despite explicit lyrics, in the track featured above, “You Can’t Be Serious,” Lee addresses the stigma against mental health treatment.

Standout tracks: “All Night,” “Whatever You Say,” “One Track Mind” feat. Ann One.

4. Richard “Lyricks” Lee

Hailing from Fairfax, Virginia, Lee faces the struggle between chasing his dreams and taking care of his parents, a value that resonates with most Americans born to immigrant parents.

Stand out tracks: “Seven Rings,” “Clutch,” “My Will Aside”

 

Bad Rap also features personalities like Jay Park, Traphik/Timothy DeLaGhetto, Far East Movement, MC Jin, Decipher, and the Fung Bros to provide commentary on Asian Americans in the music industry.

In addition to the Tribeca Film Festival, Bad Rap will also make an appearance at the 2016 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, screening on Wednesday, April 27th at 9:30 PM at the CGV Cinemas.  Student and senior tickets are priced at $13 and general admission tickets are $14, you can purchase your tickets here.

Last Saturday, October 26, the James Bridges Theater of UCLA screened The Laundromat, an award-winning documentary on the stigma of mental health problems and its silence within Asian American cultures. Vanessa Yee, graduate from UCLA with a MFA in Production and Directing, started the film project four years ago. The documentary follows the personal stories of her friends who dealt with depression, isolation and the inability to voice their concerns to their friends or family. In a personal submission to Hyphen news magazine (2011), Yee shares what the film sought to explore:

“I was only planning to be the dogged interviewer … in search of an answer to, What does it mean to break your silence? … I talked to three of my friends who had each experienced depression and great loss, but were learning to seek counseling and air their dirty laundry.”

However, in the midst of editing the film, Yee felt something was lacking: “How could I make a documentary about dealing with personal pain and cultural stigma without also asking myself the same questions?” Struggling with the inability to talk about her own depression with her parents, Yee decided to include herself as a subject in the film. As a result of placing herself in a vulnerable position, Yee was able to produce a more intimate and cohesive film.

During her time in college, Yee learned the news of her mother’s pancreatitis and hospitalization. She noticed that her family kept the knowledge of her mother’s condition to themselves. No one outside of their immediate family was aware, and Yee was afraid to tell anyone because no one talked about these things, and there must be a reason behind this silence.

According to Yee’s research, depression isn’t seen or acknowledged to be a real problem by many Asian American families (especially first generation immigrants). A second generation Asian American student at UCLA shares a time when she opened up to her mom about her depression. Her mother brushed off the issue as if it were a matter of choice:

“You’re sad? Just stop being sad.”

This disbelief in mental health problems and the prolonged silence plays a big factor in furthering those affected into a deeper state of isolation and emotional distance from others. Yee chose to explore mental health through an Asian American lens because of the cultural pressures to keep silent. They are not to talk about personal or family problems in order to “keep face” and not shame – or stigmatize – the family. Yet, through the process of filming and the characters sharing their stories with Yee and the camera, the documentary reveals how opening up and sharing these secrets with others can become part of the healing process. Yee’s friends were able to talk about their experiences and the pressures and self-harm that result from trying to protect the reputation of the family.

After the screening, there was a Q&A panel for audience members to ask questions and discuss the implications of the documentary. Carol Miyake, member of the panel and a counselor from Asian American Christian Counseling Service (AACCS), discussed the film’s significance. Miyake states that she believes the film has great potential to open up discussions about mental health and create a more safe and accepting space within Asian American communities. More importantly, she says it is a profound way for family members and professionals to discuss nuances such as generational gaps and shame-based cultures that can lead to mental health problems.

Due to practical reasons such as the length of the film, the documentary is limited in its coverage, lacking a larger array of perspectives. Though the film offers no concrete solution to the problem of silence and mental health, the film does offer various ways to deal with the problem: counseling, finding a supportive community, opening up to the camera, and/or revealing the secret to a family member. In her personal experience, Yee says that her community and network of friends were able to support her through her depression.

Interested in learning more about how to help those in isolation with little support, I raised the question:

“What about people who can’t find a community? Aside from counseling, where can they find support?” I knew a friend who had received peer counseling and even professional counseling, but none of it was effective or beneficial according to him.

Yee replied: “To be honest, I just got really lucky to find this community and support.”

I knew it was a hard question, one that hadn’t been looked into or researched enough. Yet, the documentary is a big step in opening the door for more dialogue and exploration on the issues of silence and the near absence of resources addressing the root of mental health problems. Counseling continues to be the immediate and favored solution, or coping mechanism, to alleviate those who experience depression and related mental issues.

Although the documentary is unable to capture everyone’s stories, Yee is currently working on an interactive website (atthelaundromat.com) for people to form a community and have a place to share their ‘dirty laundry’ secrets and stories. Yee states her intention for the website is “to create a safe place for the Asian American community to speak on why we are like this, [and to] come clean about the secrets and shame we hide in the Asian American community.”

Interested in watching the documentary? You can follow the film’s production blog for news of upcoming screenings: http://thelaundromatdocjourney.wordpress.com/.

Without further ado, here’s the trailer:

Ooh yeah, Veronica Ngo Thanh Van and Johnny Tri Nguyen

Here are some quick quiz questions about Bay Rong/Clash: why would you give a movie the English title of Clash, when the translation of its Vietnamese title is the much cooler Seven Dragons? Why the hell was someone as incompetent as Ox recruited for a heist team? Why is the main antagonist so evil? How the hell do some of those French dudes keep fighting, even with a glass shard in their side?

Answer: trick questions! None of that matters, in the face of awesome fight scenes and very, very attractive lead actors. Bay Rong (or its English title, Clash), is a simple, Hollywood-style action flick. Lots of style, lots of sexy, and and lots of kicking ass. All set in Vietnam.

Clash was the feature film at the UCLA venue for the Vietnamese International Film Festival. It stars Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo Thanh Van, who are, apparently, Vietnam’s answer to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. I can dig that. Van plays Phoenix, a no-nonsense, gun-toting hench…woman for the mysterious Black Dragon. Nguyen (her real life husband) plays Tiger, one of the strongmen she hires to help her steal a laptop from a bunch of French guys (why the French guys have it is beyond me, but really, who cares?).

I had no idea what the movie was about going in, so when rock music started playing, and people started battling with swords and guns, I was delighted. When action movies are done right, it doesn’t matter how formulaic the plot is, because you’re too busy rooting for the good guys to whoop the bad guys’ ass and end up happily ever after. Good action movies are an adrenaline rush, and that’s what Clash was. It was an extra bonus that the movie was set in Vietnam; it’s the first time I’ve seen a Vietnamese movie like that, so it’s good to know that my people can fire guns and sex it up with the best.

I was probably laughing at inappropriate moments–the film could be over-the-top sometimes–but I enjoyed it a lot. I have issues with Phoenix’s agency, feminism, etc., but seriously, I would buy this DVD so I could watch it again.

Watch the trailer here.

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