Arts, Culture, & Entertainment

What keeps you entertained? What’s part of your culture?

“Only through these personal histories, and personal goals, can we determine the narrative of modern Filipino cuisine.”

Alexandra Cuerdo is a UCLA alumna and director of “ULAM: Main Dish,” a food documentary that screens Saturday at the Million Dollar Theatre as part of the Los Angeles Times’ Los Angeles Food Bowl.

“ULAM: Main Dish” follows the rise of Filipino food in the United States and features interviews with Filipino American chefs. In the film, chefs such as Alvin Cailan and Nicole Ponseca discuss topics ranging from their personal histories to the difficulties of working with food from what is often considered a “third-world country.”

“Many interviews verge beyond the personal,” Cuerdo said. “We discuss crab mentality, the effects of colonialism, the need for support from the Filipino community.”

Through discussing complex and varied topics, Cuerdo hoped to create an honest and compelling depiction of modern Filipino cuisine — one that included faithful narratives of the Filipino American chefs she worked with.

“The chefs behind ​ULAM: Main Dish​ come from all walks of life — from Michelin-starred line cooks to high school dropouts, successful restaurateurs to first time shop owners. All are highly acclaimed by critics and fans alike, all forerunners of the Filipino food movement.”

The idea for a Filipino food documentary was originally conceived by Cuerdo’s father and his friend, although it never came to fruition. The thought stayed with Cuerdo until 2015, when she pitched it to John Floresca, who would become the film’s co-producer and cinematographer, and they began working on “ULAM” together.

Behind the scenes with producer Rey Cuerdo (left) and director Alexandra Cuerdo (right)
from ULAM: Main Dish. Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment.

“Ultimately, we strive to document personal stories,” Cuerdo said, “with greater implications for the way we think about food in the context of our lives.”

“ULAM” screens Saturday at the Million Dollar Theatre, presented by AMBOY and Grand Central Market. For tickets, directions, and further information, visit the event page here.

*** NO SPOILERS IN THIS ARTICLE ***

The 2016 Japanese animated film “君の名は” (Kimi No Na Wa) or “Your Name” has topped the renowned Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” as the world’s highest grossing film of all time with a total of $353,754,471 as of April 26, 2017.

Critically acclaimed, “Your Name” has a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been released in select theaters in the United States since April 7 this year.

With a high audience approval rate and positive critical reception, the director of the animated feature, Makoto Shinkai, has been praised and even dubbed as the “New Miyazaki” of his generation of filmmakers.

“Your Name” is story about a countryside girl Mitsuha, who helps run the family shrine, meeting an ordinary Tokyo boy Taki, who aspires to be an architect, through a series of mysterious but purposeful body swapping in their dreams.

Like Studio Ghibli, Shinkai and his team uses the traditional animation method. In other words, each frame of the film is hand drawn.

Both Shinkai and Miyazaki excel at eliciting emotions from their audiences and pay meticulous attention to details — all Miyazaki characters have their own habits and unique quirks, and Shinkai’s backgrounds are breathtaking with an emphasis on the usage of light.

However, Shinkai himself, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, said that “I don’t [think] there is anyone who can make films like him [Miyazaki].”

Stylistically, the two have different approaches to a film. Miyazaki’s works tend to have a focus on a character’s journey, and he does not have the story finished and ready when the production starts.

Shinkai on the other hand would have a very complete story board and even voice over the characters himself. In the case of “Your Name,” Shinkai had been writing the screenplay since spring of 2014.

Another fundamental difference is that Shinkai and Miyazaki have different target audiences and messages.

Miyazaki’s world is usually fantastical and imagined while many of Shinkai’s stories and settings tend to be based on the real world.

In the same interview Shinkai explained: “There is… the factor of eras: When he [Miyazaki] began making anime, it was during the time of rapid economic growth in Japan, and I think he felt his films had the power to change the world.”

Meanwhile, Shinkai said his inspirations are primarily from his own life experiences, environments, and, in particular, his own adolescence, saying that he “can’t draw anything with a sense of reality if it doesn’t come from a place I’m connected to with my own two feet…”

For the last decade, Shinkai’s works have been gradually recognized overseas, however, Western media has dubbed him “the new Miyazaki” or “Japan’s next-generation anime creator.” Shinkai thinks “that’s mostly because people in other countries think of Japanese animation as being just Miyazakisan and then everybody else.”

Although central themes in “Your Name” overlap with those of Miyazaki films, they are presented in a different perspective.

While both directors can effectively appeal to audience’s emotions, they achieve this differently.  

Makoto Shinkai is not the “Next Miyazaki.” It is important to not lump any successful non-Western creators in the same pile simply because of their predecessors’ similar success or ethnicity, but to rather acknowledge every creator’s work as an individual message to its audience.

The 2017 Taiwanese Culture Night (TCN), “歲月靜好,” or its English title “Tangled in Times,” took place  at the UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse last Saturday.

A moving performance about two pairs of lovers struggling to embrace love, this year’s TCN not only showcased Taiwanese history, culture, and food, but also intended to send a universal message to audiences of different backgrounds: to follow your heart and be brave in love.

Prior to the showing, Nhi Vo, a first-year biology student, and Cindy Tran, a fourth-year psychobiology student, expressed how they were looking forward to the show and seeing their friends perform. Vo said, “We’re curious. We performed for Vietnamese Culture Night and want to see what [TCN is] like.”

Another student, Young Joon Dakota Im, a third-year cognitive science student, said that he was looking forward to the musical performances of Taukappella.

TCN’s performance began by introducing a couple, Shi Jing Deng (Charles Teng) and Ling Shang Yang (Sandy Yang), who are young adults in the beginning of World War II.

After the war, the couple appears in Taiwan and, while they are in love and engaged, Mr. Deng, who suffered a debilitating injury in his leg, decides to leave Ling Shang because he did not wish to become a burden.

Fast forward to modern times, the audience is introduced to Zhe Xiang (Stanley Hsu), an interior decoration designer who has had a crush on and later confesses to Pin Ru (Marian Sheen), a doctor who graduated from a prestigious medical school as valedictorian.

However, Pin Ru is later diagnosed with stage III cancer and she cannot accept Zhe Xiang’s feelings because she feels that it would be unfair for him to be in a relationship with a girl who may not have a future.

Mr. Deng, who is actually one of Pin Ru’s patients, visits and tells her his story about leaving Ling Shang — how he regretted it and is trying to find her. Upon hearing this, Pin Ru decides to be more positive and face her mutual feelings for Zhe Xiang, who she then begins dating.

Later, Zhe Xiang finds out that Mr. Deng is the man who his adoptive grandma, Ling Shang, had been waiting for. Ling Shang even named her restaurant after Mr. Deng, hoping that if he ever passed by the shop, he would notice and have a change of heart.

Unfortunately, Pin Ru passed away, but she told Zhe Xiang that she was content and left him her savings so that Zhe Xiang, who had quit his job by then, could help his grandma remodel and bring new life to the restaurant.

At the finale, the restaurant gets remodeled as well as renamed in memory of Pin Ru. Zhe Xiang also re-introduces Mr. Deng to Ling Shang, who at last meet again.

Ling Shang and Mr. Deng reunited.

TCN’s wonderful performance concluded with the audience’s loud applause, laughter, and tears.

TCN Curtain Call

In hopes of better understanding the material, Pacific Ties interviewed TCN directors Darren Ho and Chiao Wen Lan after the show:

  1. The opening scene is set in 1945, Tian Jin, and the newspaper boy mentioned  a Japanese attack in 卢沟桥 (Lu Gou Qiao). However, Lu Gou Qiao is known as the site for the office beginning of the Japanese invasion of China in July 7, 1937. In addition, the year 1945 is when the Japanese officially surrendered. Therefore, I was wondering which historical event(s) the opening scene is actually alluding to and why was this setting chosen in particular?

We made a mistake in our first slide with the timeline. The opening scene was set in 1937 instead of 1945, as you pointed out. We chose Lu Gou Qiao Incident because it opened the prelude of WWII in Asia, and it conveyed critical information as we tried to portray the time in which our grandparents lived in.

  1. The title of this year’s Taiwanese Culture Night in Chinese, “歲月靜好,”  has a different meaning and connotation than the English title “Tangled in Times.” Why? Is there a reason for this difference?

“歲月靜好” comes from the words written by 胡蘭成 (Lanchen Hu) for his wedding with writer 張愛玲 (Eileen Chang) in 1944: “胡蘭成張愛玲簽訂終身,結為夫婦,願使歲月靜好,現世安穩.” The term “歲月靜好” means the hope of a peaceful life in the future, which has both a personal and political implication during the war in 1944. We believe that the stories of people and places are the result of tangled web of interaction between people, places, and time. The English title of the play, “Tangled in Times,” was chosen based on the storyline as we followed the stories of two pairs of star-crossed lovers across generations as they thrived to find happiness.

  1. What is the central message or theme that you hoped address in the Taiwanese community through the performance?

The message that we’re trying to get across applies not only to the Taiwanese community, but also every other ethnic group: to have the confidence to be who you truly are, to have the courage to truly love and be loved, and to cherish your loved ones around you.

  1. What were some of your favorite moments when making the production?

There were so many fond memories of making this year’s production… seeing the story came to life with dedicated actors and actresses, and bonding with a very talented team that is just like a family. Live theater gives us a chance to really appreciate what is happening right there in front of us. I love how audience came together to laugh and perhaps tear up as the live performance brought everyone within the story.

Seven water maidens in the Student Activity Center basement scooped water from the ground while people in meetings and study groups chattered on the sides. The maidens were in fact students and an instructor from UCLA Chinese Cultural Dance Club practicing a traditional Miao dance.

On Sunday, the water maidens, along with 32 other dancers, showcased their performances in the club’s annual show “Lotus Steps 2017: Fragments of Time.” In its 17th iteration, the show aimed to highlight the diverse ethnic dances found in China. This year, “Fragments of Time” emphasized the continuation of time, but with it the good (and bad) memories.

“‘Fragments of Time’ is about just seeing the year, remeasuring the year and the moments that happened because you don’t really go day by day like, ‘Oh, this is what happened.’ You remember your memories – they’re like specific moments. … That’s why I want this year’s show to bring back all the good memories that happened this past year and reflect and look back on that,” said Gigi Cheng, a fourth-year neuroscience student and artistic director of the show.

Preparing for the annual showcase is no easy task for CCDC staff, dance instructors, and the dancers. Practice begins fall quarter of the year and ends with the conclusion of the show. Instructors learn the dances themselves and adapt them to the number of dancers they have and the dancers’ skill level. In turn, the dancers practice the movements at home and come prepared for weekly group rehearsals.

One of the greater challenges in dancing is performing as a group, according to Calvin Liu, a fourth-year financial actuarial mathematics student who performed. The individual movements can be easily committed to memory at home, but each dancer’s individual motions have to all be in sync, especially in “Rings,” a dance about togetherness.                                          

“We have to all stay in the same tempo because if … one of us turns the wrong time, it’s like very obvious. I mean, I guess that stands (for) most dances but this one more so because we’re all connected too,” said Liu who danced in “Rings.”

“Honestly, it’s just a lot of practice. We just run it through a lot and then towards the end is when we try to start to get a feel for the dance and you know when you’re in sync,” said Cindy Mach, a third-year psychology student who also performed in the show. “As dancing (as) an entire group, you start getting that feeling together more so than when you’re just running the movements by yourself.”

Despite the countless hours of practice, the diligence from the CCDC dancers paid off, as the audience members were transported to different moments and emotions throughout the year. From the daily routine of waking up and attending class in the dance “Twilight,” the happiness associated with “Strolling Through Spring Blossoms” and the feelings of “Nostalgia” when away from home and family, the CCDC dancers conveyed the flurry of feelings and moments that could occur throughout the year, enabling the audience members to reflect on their own similar memories and emotions.

Ending with “Winter’s Curtain,” the show leaves the viewers with a final thought: Whether one’s year has been stormy, or sunny, there is always a calm after the storm and a future worth looking forward to.

“American justice has become American injustice. Superimposed on you.”

Showcased at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a documentary directed by Steve James that encapsulates a five-year-long legal battle between the state of New York and Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

Within the first three minutes of the film, the viewer is introduced to the entire plot.

Thomas Sung founded Abacus in 1984 after realizing Chinese immigrants had no access to financial resources such as loans and credits. The family-owned community bank quickly expanded in location and provided accessible resources as it served and uplifted the Chinese community for decades in New York. Eventually, Sung’s daughters Vera and Jill joined their father in his mission to provide the Chinese community with an opportunity to attain the American Dream.

However, Abacus was not immune to greed.

The company underwent two waves of larcenous employees. The first transpired in 2003, where branch manager Carol Lim disappeared with ten million dollars. The second incident occurred in 2009 and had a less forgiving outcome. The Sung family discovered Ken Yu, a loan officer, and several other employees in the loan department had committed fraud by embezzling money from borrowers and falsifying loan documents. The Sungs responded by firing all of the responsible individuals, notifying the proper authorities and pursuing a private investigation. Shortly after their response, the New York District Attorney office involved itself in the case and charged Abacus in 2012 with 184 (later 240) counts of indictments that included mortgage fraud, grand larceny and conspiracy.

The film mastered navigating through narratives with smooth editing and transitions. The incorporation of investigative journalism that occurred during the legal battle provided an insightful and realistic element to the documentary.

The intimate familial scenes between the Sungs were well situated in the film.

The family’s Dim Sum and interview segments, for the most part, portrayed them as dedicated, genuine and humble individuals who just want to see their community succeed. These moments lighten the intense mood from the case, and for the most part, incorporated a fairly balanced perspective to juxtapose the two parties.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the prosecution lacked a definitive case.

The prosecution’s approach seemed to be executed with discrimination in mind. Their entire case was built on speculation that Abacus’ management was well aware of the corruption within their loan department, which seemed likely, but Abacus cooperated and assisted the DA when they first opened the case. However, the prosecution did not end there, for they believed that Abacus had contributed greatly to the 2008 financial crisis.

The latter is a bit far-fetched and hypocritical.  

It became obvious that justice depended on who the offender was. And Abacus was the offender targeted because of its skin color.

The government turned a blind eye on large bank companies when they engaged in fraudulent schemes that blew up and caused the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, the film shows the government bailing out the big bank companies (typically ran by white CEOs) who just had to pay the penalty fees to make the situation go away.

Abacus did not receive the same treatment.

“The DA told us, ‘You have to accept a plea of guilty for felony, plus a fine,’” said Thomas Sung.

The lack of options disregarded by the prosecution raised concerns that the DA’s targeting of Abacus was saturated with prejudice.

In response to these accusations, District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said, “I think the characterizations that this was somehow a cultural bias on the office’s part…entirely misplaced and entirely wrong. We devote an enormous amount of effort into protecting immigrant communities and I felt that our handling of the bank was consistent with how we would have handled the bank if we were investigating a bank that services a South American community or the Indian community. There was nothing different that we did or purposely designed to treat this bank differently.”

Vance highlights community of color banks in his statement, which seems contradictory to what he is saying because he is creating a distinction between privilege in large corporate banks and community banks.

His quick dismissal of discrimination is also inconsistent with the behaviors exercised by the DA office throughout the case.

In the film there is a scene where the convicted employees of Abacus were all handcuffed to a chain and led out of the courtroom by DA investigators. According to interviews from attorneys and investigative journalists, they recall their shock in seeing the fifteen Chinese individuals chained for the first time in their entire career.

The film highlighted more issues within the Chinese American community than just the legal battle.

The cinematography captures culture, conflict and a family’s grit faithful to reality. We see an entire community dependent on the offender–Abacus, to achieve their means of the American Dream and yet, that same community is harassed by the law.

“When we started the bank, it was our motivation to help all the people, all of the immigrants,” said Thomas Sung.

The Sung’s duty to the community never faltered and they persisted and fought for their legacy in court so that they can continue to serve the Chinese community.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” will be in theaters May 19.

Earlier this month at Star Wars Celebration Orlando, Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran was announced to play the largest new role in the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

According to “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson at the event’s “The Last Jedi” panel, Tran’s character Rose is a maintenance worker in the Resistance.

Johnson explains that one of the takeaways he had as a child growing up watching the “Star Wars” series was the idea of heroes like Luke Skywalker getting “pulled out of wherever” and becoming “this unlikely hero.”

The main hero of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, was a moisture farmer on the Outer Rim planet of Tatooine who was suddenly pulled into the Rebellion with the purchase of two droids. The main hero of the prequel trilogy, Luke’s father Anakin, was born a slave.

Up until recently, this “unlikely hero” has always been a white man. The seventh film in the franchise, “The Force Awakens,” features another Skywalker, Rey, but this time a white woman. The “unlikely” hero in last year’s anthology film “Rogue One” was Jyn Erso, who was also a white woman.

Evidently, it is very likely that the main “unlikely hero” in the “Star Wars” franchise is white.

(As an aside, the idea that anyone can become a hero is at odds with Anakin’s Jesus-like backstory introduced in “The Phantom Menace,” which makes the unlikeliness of the Skywalkers’ heroism much less random and much more purposeful. But we’ll ignore that because, well, “The Phantom Menace,” am I right?)

While Tran’s role is not as the main heroine of the film, it is promising that Johnson introduces Tran’s character as “the biggest new part” of “The Last Jedi.”

He explains, “The notion that anyone out there, any of us, can step up and turn into a hero. That’s really kind of where the character Rose comes from. She’s not a soldier, she’s not looking to be a hero, and she gets pulled in a very big way into an adventure in this movie with Finn, and Kelly just embodies that for me.”

Discussion of Tran’s  character from 28:37 to 32:45.

This is the first time in which the narrative that “anyone” can become a hero has been extended to an Asian American woman in the franchise since the original release of “Star Wars” 40 years ago.

Also important is the role of an Asian American woman on the big screen as a hero of the Rebellion. With Asian women generally portrayed as submissive and conforming, the role will hopefully break stereotypes and prove that they can be rebels and kick ass too.

It will be the first time that Tran, who up until now has appeared in web series and guest starred in TV roles primarily as a comedian, will appear on the big screen. The “Star Wars” franchise has propelled many of its actors to fame over the years. It has done so for the likes of Mark Hamill, and more recently Daisy Ridley and John Boyega–and it may just do the same for Tran.

This is a timely announcement considering this year’s controversial casting of a white woman, Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” which was just released at the end of last month.

In an interview with Vice, “Ghost in the Shell” director Rupert Sanders claimed, “The world cast Scarlett really. That’s who people want to see in this kind of film … it is ultimately an international and global film starring a global lead. You need Scarlett Johansson if you are opening a film in Russia as well as in Tokyo.”

The message that Sanders sends is that only the stories and experiences of white people are universal. The “world” does not want to see an Asian story come to life portrayed by Asians. Asians are not “global,” whatever that means.

(Of course, Sanders has only directed one other film, so take his opinions on what kinds of films the world wants to see with a grain of salt.)

Ironically, on the same date that “Ghost in the Shell” was released in U.S. theaters to flop in the box office, Marvel Vice President David Gabriel accused diversity and women as the forces behind declining sales. In a statement that has been well-criticized, Gabriel claimed, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

It is thus refreshing to see a well-loved franchise and cultural phenomenon like “Star Wars” continuing to follow its trend of including more and more diverse roles in space by introducing an Asian American woman in what will hopefully be a dynamic, stereotype-breaking role.

The series’ most recent film, “Rogue One,” features a diverse cast that includes three Asian men as part of the Rebellion. However, in celebrating the film’s diversity, it is also crucial to recognize that the film’s women and men of color all die in order to secure the plans for the Death Star. Though the cast introduced in “Rogue One” was never referred to in the original “Star Wars” films, it is questionable just how necessary it was to kill everyone off. It also raises the issue of whether or not the bodies of women and people of color are seen as more expendable.

Portrayals of Asians in space are a long time coming, especially as “Star Wars is a franchise that has always taken from Asian cultures without any representation of Asian characters up until recently.

(To be fair there is one Asian man (Lieutenant Telsij) in “Return of the Jedi” during the Battle of Endor, but he literally appears for less than 2 seconds. Yay representation!)

Director John Landis recalls that after a screening of the original film, he asked, “George, is everybody in outer space white?” It is high time for the series to feature Asians in space.

Whether or not these roles for people of color in space will be more dynamic is unconfirmed.

Hopefully the casting of Tran will lead the way for not only the casting of more and more Asian American actors and actresses, but for stories of them in more compelling roles.

Lastly, it is important to note that, despite her so-called huge role in the film, there is not a single snippet of Tran in the 2 minute and 12 second trailer for “The Last Jedi.”

The fact that Rose is a new character is irrelevant to the fact that she is excluded from the trailer, as the trailer for “The Force Awakens introduced multiple new characters. There are only 2 possible rational explanations for Tran’s character not appearing in the trailer. Either Rose is not relevant enough to the overall movie so she does not warrant time in the trailer, or Rose is relevant but the image of her is not important enough to include in the trailer. Unfortunately, neither of these two options are without flaw, and it is impossible to tell which is the better of the two, if there even is a better option. Implications of these options may mean that the Asian American community is celebrating the film for doing the bare minimum, pandering to our community, or, like Sanders’s claim referred to above, that the image of an Asian American woman will not sell and/or does not belong.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is scheduled to release in U.S. theaters on December 15, 2017.

 

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