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29 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Holding Trevor Doesn't Hold Interest

Director Rosser Goodman's Holding Trevor is a gay love story written by Brent Gorski. As much as I've found some charming and witty examples of gay plays such as the infamous Naked Boys Singing when I was a theater reviewer for the LA Weekly and, later, for the LA Times, I find little in this independent film to hold my interest.

Trevor (Gorski) is a man who, at the beginning of the movie, is breaking up with his undependable, drug-addicted boyfriend, Darrell (Christopher Wyllie). He meets an attractive new man, Emphram (Eli Kranski) but hesitates to become involved though his friends Jake (Jay Brannan) and Andie (Melissa Searing). There is, of course, an HIV scare and some bitchy dialog, but the wit and snap isn't there. Gorski's dialog isn't funny and mostly falls flat and this is unfortunately capitalized by Goodman's indulgent direction.

If you're hoping for full-frontal nudity, there's none of that although there is male nudity (Joseph Roslan as Naked Guy) and tastefully simulated sex.

While I have to admire Goodman and Gorski for getting their movie made and distributed, I do not admire this work. Perhaps in the future, they'll use their industrious abilities to create a better film that will make me laugh or cry. This movie did neither.

27 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Hannari A Travel Guide to the Real Geisha

Hannari: Geisha Modern is a documentary that I truly wanted to like. After all, it was both the production of the 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha and the 2002 The Last Samurai that inspired first-time documentary filmmaker Miyuki Sohara to make this film.

Sohara who had a small part in the Tom Cruise flick as a geisha, was, according to the production notes for this documentary, "disappointed to learn that the producers of Memoirs of a Geisha had no interest in faithfully reproducing the artistic elements of the geisha culture, such as their dance."

Like her, I was disappointed with the Cruise flick which I saw and the snippets of Memoirs of a Geisha which I have not seen. I had read the book and that was quite enough. The trailers for Memoirs of a Geisha inspired me to write an open letter to Steven Spielberg.

For those who don't know, originally the studio people responsible for the opening party of The Last Samuraisent an infamous email to a local college asking for young, attractive Asian women to dress up and be party favors or eye candy. No pay involved as well as no Asian men required. That email made the rounds nationwide and the studio quickly backtracked.

Later, when Memoirs of a Geisha came out as a movie, the book and the movie seemed to indicate how little Asian and Asian women had really progressed, even after the successful Joy Luck Club--both 1989 book and 1993 movie.

Golden's novel followed a woman and her experiences prior to World War II, an explosive period in both Japanese history and the history of the United States in terms of societal change and racism and sexism. Golden, like Sohara, focuses on Kyoto geisha, but Sohara's documentary concentrates on modern geisha as the title implies.

Beginning in 2005, Sohara, a TV announcer and radio DJ and sometime actor, spent three months interviewing and filming geisha in the Gion district. This was, notably, after Mineko Iwasaki had filed a lawsuit against Arthur Golden regarding his 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha in 2001. Iwasaki, who does not read English, did read the Japanese edition.

Sohara doesn't answer any questions that The Last Samurai and both the book and the film of Memoirs of a Geisha broached. Instead, Hannari: Geisha Modern occupies a curious space beyond and apart from recent history, insulating itself from both Sohara's original catalyst and the world at large, both Japan insiders and the people who are willing to believe in the geisha fantasy.

Some of the cinematography shows her inexperience. The lighting is wrong and the colors are off--typical of photography or filming inside where the lighting is too yellow and goes uncorrected by film or filters.

Sohara had access to the geisha community that hasn't been granted before, but the vital missing ingredient is the critical eye and view. We are told why a dance instructor believes that many women do not make it to the apprentice maiko stage but we don't hear from those that quit.

We learn that where geiko (as geisha prefer to be called) used number in the thousands and now only 300 currently work in Kyoto. Originally, most of the geiko came from the Kyoto area, but now many come from outside and other areas of Japan. We don't hear why Kyoto women reject that lifestyle, we only hear why women have decided to train. We don't hear how the families of these women consider this choice. What do their parents think? What do their siblings, particularly other sisters think?

Moreover, we never hear from Mineko Iwasaki, the woman who sued Arthur Golden and his publisher and went on to write her own book, Geisha: A Life, in 2002. We also do not hear what those interviewed think about Golden, Iwasaki or either book. Iwasaki reported quit early in her career because of her frustration with the traditional system.

If Hollywood's damningly mistaken portrayal of the geiko was the impetus for this documentary, then it is equally odd that we never hear what anyone thinks about big budget Hollywood portrayals, even though two of the women interviewed were in the 1957 movie Sayonara. All we have are these two women recalling they sat near a young and virile Marlon Brando and wondering if Miyoshi Umeki won an Oscar for her role as the ill-fated wife of an American airman played by Red Buttons.

For the record, that movie won Buttons and Umeki supporting actors Oscars. Brando was nominated for Best Actor despite his odd Southern accent. Also notable is Ricardo Montablan playing a Japanese named Nakamura. What did the Japanese think of that?

Brando had played a Japanese Okinawan in the 1956 movie The Teahouse of the August Moon. Surely if everyone is a critic a few critics of that performance could be found in Japan.

These connections aren't followed up by Sohara, making the resulting conversations trite. Big names are dropped but related hard issues are not picked up. One of the more famous geiko of yesteryear is also brought up, Yuki Kato Morgan (1881-1963), but the social issues surrounding her are not.

Supposedly, both the Morgan family and the Kato family disapproved of the match between the young geiko and George Morgan, nephew of J.P. Morgan. Yuki and George Morgan were not welcomed in the United States despite the Morgan family money. They settled in France. Morgan died 10 years later in 1914. Yuki returned to Japan in 1938.

According to a December 1947 article from the Time magazine archives, while most English news sources called her a famous geiko, in a fictionalized account of her life and romance run in 260 installments in three Japanese newspapers, she was depicted as a second-class geiko who accepted Morgan's proposal only after her Japanese lover married someone else. Morgan bought her from the teahouse for what amounted to $20,000 at that time.

Yuki refused to see the book's author and did not read the accounts. Surely, since Sohara had access to the Kato family, there was some issues--social prejudice in Japan and the U.S. and sensationalization of geiko on both sides--that could have been explored but were not.

Because of this non-critical feel-good supportive stance of the movie, it feels more like a travel guide than a documentary. As the former, Sohara succeeds. As the later, one can only sigh and consider so many missed opportunities.

In Japanese with English narration and subtitles.

MOVIE REVIEW: Between Love and Survival is Live and Become

What would you do to survive? Some men have pragmatically resorted to cannibalism and others have betrayed their humanity in desperation. Somewhere there exists a twilight, a gray area where lies and theft can be deemed justified. In this murky territory lofty intellectual questions of belief and personal identity can be raised. More often the question has been: Is it OK to pretend to be Christian rather than Jewish, Catholic or whatever, in order to live an easier life? Here the question is: Is it acceptable to pretend one is Jewish to survive?

In director Radu Mihaileanu's 2005 provocative though sentimental movie Va, Vis et Deviens, an Ethiopian Christian mother (Meskie Shibru Sivan) orders her son to pretend he is Jewish in order to be rescued by a covert Israeli-sponsored mission called Operation Moses. They are in a Sudanese refugee camp in 1984, surrounded by death and dust. They had to walk miles to get there, leaving everything behind. He is replacing a boy who has just died, adopted by the grief-stricken Jewish mother, Hana (Mimi Abonesh Kebede).

Called Live and Become in English, this movie deals with the gray areas personal integrity--of personal identity and love. The boy who becomes Shlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe and lastly by Sirak M. Sabahat) is taught his new history and told to forget his own. He's too young to fathom why his real mother ordered him to leave and too soon, his adoptive mother also dies. Losing two mothers, he becomes a problem child.

Yet he's not the only orphan and eventually, he's adopted by a socially responsible French Israeli couple, Yael (Yael Abecassis) and Yoram (Roschdy Zem), who already have two children.

Being Jewish in Israel shouldn't be a problem yet Shlomo is very black. His color and the color of real Falasha, Ethiopian Jews, becomes a social issue and one that his adoptive mother and father bravely confront while he more passively endures.

Secretly, he finds a way to send letters to his real mother, asking an Ethiopian rabbi Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar) to write letters in Amharic, his native language.

As a teenager, he falls in love with Sarah (Roni Hadar) whose father disapproves of the match so much that no one in Sarah's family attends the wedding. Shlomo's fear of being discovered and his desire to reveal the truth and yet keep this new family and this safety guaranteed by his false heritage provide the suspense and moral core of this movie.

Written by Mihaileanu with Alain-Michel Blanc, this imperfect movie tries to be both a formulaic movie fairy tale with a happy ending and a social message movie. It doesn't always work, but the characters are so engaging and the themes so universal you want it to work. Who hasn't been tempted to pretend one is something one is not to get though an uneasy situation?

Remy Chevin's cinematography doesn't always light the darker face of the actor playing Shlomo when juxtaposed to a lighter face and this aspect doesn't seem to have a message there. Moreover, almost too much territory is covered in Shlomo's adult life, making for a choppiness that is at odds with the more solemn pace of the first half.

Hadar glows with a rush of enthusiasm and boundless energy in contrast to Sabahat's portrayal of the adult Shlomo as an outsider, often watching and observing himself because his secret is so great it threatens to destroy everything in his world.

The ending is, perhaps, too sentimental, but forgivable. This movie has touched the hearts of many. It won Cesar Awards in 2006 for Best Original Screenplay, an Audience Award at the 1005 Vancouver International Film Festival, a 2006 World Audience Award at the Lumiere Awards in France and 2005 Label Europa Cinemas, Panorama Audience Award and Prise of the Ecumenical Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Sometimes one does go to a movie to see a fate happier than reality and yet when a movie can do that and make you care about its characters while learning about a bit of history and social injustice, isn't it a little gem, no matter how rough, that should be considered precious?

In Amharic, Hebrew and French.

MOVIE COMMENTARY - Dear Mr. Spielberg: Why Update an Outdated Stereotype? (Reprint)

Dear Mr. Steven Spielberg:

What can one say to one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles when he continues to show what seems to be a biased sense of social responsibility?

You've received awards and accolades for taking on social issues. You produced and directed the 1992 Schindler's List, giving a new phrase to the modern world. Anyone who saved people's lives during the Holocaust became a Schindler instead of a Raoul Wallenberg. For that, you got an Oscar for best picture and best director and Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern for a responsible representation of German history. If only there were an award for irresponsible misrepresentation of Asian or Oriental history.

As a director and a producer, you brought a bit of American history to light with your 1997 Amistad, increasing our awareness about the public debate and socio-political aspects of slavery and racism in the mid-1800s. You had earlier shown a sensitivity toward black Americans in the 1985 The Color Purple. So you showed concern for the politically powerful black American. Kudos to you.

You've shown us the savagery of war in both the overt sense in your 1998 Saving Private Ryan and the 2001 mini-series that you produced, Band of Brothers. You've shown the ability to see the brutality of war when it is covert in your current controversial film, Munich.

You've shown a sense of social responsibility toward our World War II veterans, the Jewish victims of the Nazi Germany and black Americans under the oppression of racism and slavery, yet what you haven't shown is a sensitivity toward Asians and Asian Americans.

You chose to produce (and almost directed), Memoirs of a Geisha. Was this just because it was a popular book? Couldn't a man as powerful as you have found a vehicle that enlightened the American public about heroic Japanese men or women?

Since the turn of last century, Japanese women have been haunted by the Western man's fantasy of the geisha. During the height of their popularity, the women involved in geisha were only a little over 1/1000 of the total population (roughly 80,000 geisha in the 1920s compared to the total population of 54,000,000 in 1920). Samurai only made up about 8 percent of the population of Japan.

Yet Americans and Europeans are still fascinated by both the samurai and the geisha. And at a time when the history of Japan and the Japanese culture is more readily available to Americans, we still get more about geisha instead of the extraordinary women who made history or advocated change.

Americans, like you, seem to prefer Akira Kurosawa to Juzo Itami or Yoji Yamada or Kon Ichikawa.

There were certainly noteworthy women, women who do not fit the stereotype of the passive, demure Japanese butterfly. What about Masako Hojo? What about Tomoe Gozen? What about Hangaku Gozen? What about Noe Ito? What about Suga Kanno? What about Waka Yamada? What about Raicho Hiratsuka?

I have not seen the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, yet from the trailers I know that authenticity was not an important aspect of the production. The hairstyles and the dance were far from authentic.

I wasn't the only one who thought so. My suspicions were confirmed when I read a review by a woman who had spent part of her childhood in the geisha district. The Japan Times critic, Kaori Shoji, wrote:

Marshall and his crew (and let's not forget that Steven Spielberg is the executive producer) never pause for breath as they bombard us with pathos, intrigue, fury, sex and passion. The capper is a geisha dance scene that's straight out of Broadway. Never mind that no young geisha in the prewar period would wear glitter eye-shadow and dance solo, on a stage with artsy blue lighting, her hair flowing hip and loose and her limbs contorting to snazzy, modern ballet movements.

Further, the casting of ethnic Chinese actresses not only seemed to signal a disinterest in authenticity, but also an insensitivity to the socio-political conditions of Asia. Japan, unlike America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is not dominated by a population made up of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. Japan was a country that had, like Korea, been closed up for hundreds of years, opening up by force in the mid-1800s. Japanese, like many East Asians feel they can tell nationality.

Keeping the war movies produced in the 1940s in mind, it would seem hardly surprising to see Chinese playing Japanese. World War II was a time of booming business for Chinese American actors in Hollywood. Oddly enough, there had been a concerted effort at the beginning of hostilities to distinguish our enemies (the Japanese) from our allies (the Chinese). Life magazine had an article called, "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," in December of 1941.

The reality is that one can't always tell. Some Japanese can pass as Chinese. Some Chinese can pass as Japanese. Some Japanese have a hard time passing as Japanese. Yet this shouldn't be a surprise. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas are both Jewish, but can pass for other ethnicities.

Yet, the casting of three Chinese actresses in the lead roles seems to support this concept that all Asian look alike as far as Hollywood is concerned. Do these women have the typical Japanese look? Not really. One wonders why such a powerful people as you, Spielberg, weren't willing to take the same chances that the people behind the Harry Potter series took where all the leads were British. One of the movies that is beating Memoirs of a Geisha features British lead actors who are unknowns - Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

To say that perhaps Japanese actresses weren't comfortable auditioning for an American movie because of their English is a bit of Hollywood amnesia. Universal's 1999 Snow Falling on Cedars had no problem finding a brave Japanese actress (Youki Kudoh) to portray an American of Japanese descent. She spoke accented English, perhaps in keeping with a stereotype that Americans of Japanese descent weren't quite American. You can see her in Memoirs of a Geisha playing the role of Pumpkin.

I'm not the only person who somewhat disbelieves the PR line being fed the media that the choice was based on international recognition and acting ability. As one writer, Philip Brasor, who based in Japan wrote for the Japan Times:

Three of the four geisha characters in "Sayuri" are played by Chinese or ethnic Chinese actresses. The producers could have found capable Japanese had they really put their minds to it, but I have yet to hear a Japanese media person say as much. It's a Hollywood project, which means it has little to do with Japan. Anyone who watches the final product can see that for themselves.

Because Japanese film critics are professionally beholden to local distributors, they aren't going to complain about it in their reviews. Even the occasionally caustic TV talent-cum-movie-critic Osugi called "Sayuri" a "gorgeous fantasy" in his ready-made blurb, thus telling readers they shouldn't expect anything remotely authentic. The producers were selling this same line back in January at the first Japanese news conference for the movie, when director Rob Marshall called it a "fable" in an effort to pre-empt possible criticism that he wouldn't know a geisha if she hit him in the face with her shamisen.

Despite what Marshall claims, Brasor has another salient point:

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh may have been cast because they were in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the biggest Asian box-office success on U.S. soil, but the vast majority of moviegoers don't know them. Apparently, their names weren't even mentioned in the American trailers for "Sayuri."

Sayuri is the title used in Japan for Memoirs of a Geisha. I guess the PR people have found that for American audiences Asian women all do look alike or their names are just too hard to pronounce and remember.

Brasor apparently attended the press conference and wasn't impressed by Rob Marshall's explanations. As for authenticity, you didn't have live in the geisha districts or be a Japanese culture scholar to discern authenticity in the movie. Brasor assesses it in this way:

"The challenge for me as a Westerner," Marshall elaborated, "was to bring this world to life. . . . It was really an artistic impression of that world." In other words, a personal fantasy.

As the Japan Times critic Shoji points out, Marshall met the challenge by making a Kyoto in California that "reeks of a souvenir shop extravaganza." You don't have to be an Asian woman or even an Asian American woman to see that point either.

Perhaps you, Mr. Spielberg, feel somewhat vindicated because the Japanese press hasn't been so critical if you cared what the Japanese press said at all. However, Brasor points out:

The mainstream Japanese press isn't as opinionated in its coverage. For that you'd have to go to the blogs or the online magazines, like Ryu Murakami's Japan Mail Media, whose New Jersey-based correspondent, Akihiko Reisen, wrote a dense article on the movie. Interestingly, he mentioned the use of English dialog as being one of its main drawbacks, but not for the obvious reasons. Having everyone speak English turned the story into a "flat-sounding play," he wrote, as if it were being put on by a high-school troupe.

Reisen's main complaint, however, was that the movie reinforces Japanese "gender stereotypes," especially the male characters "who speak very little, but still control all the females." It's difficult to know what he means by this — if anything defines a geisha's position it's her subservient relationship to the men she's entertaining — but it may be a reaction to Ken Watanabe's "Chairman," a character that Marshall referred to as "mythic," but in cinematic terms is a big bore. Reisen found Watanabe an embarrassment. He didn't assert himself as an actor the way he did in "The Last Samurai." In contrast, Reisen thought the Chinese actresses tried hard to make the material their own, even if they were doing it wrong. Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, he said, "dominate their scenes."

The Japan Times critic, Kaori Shoji, wasn't deterred by the studios apparently. Her review was savage.

There are just so many things wrong with the whole package, which is plastered with kitschy oriental cliches. We're talking about a Chinese actress speaking in that stilted Hollywood Asian-English (immortalized by Mr. Yuniyoshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") in the role of a Japanese geisha during the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s. It's hard to know how to handle this: go ballistic, start apologizing, giggle nervously or what?

For those that don't know or remember, Yuniyoshi was played by Mickey Rooney.

I would further suggest that perhaps many Japanese actresses weren't auditioning because they knew that there had been a defamation suit against the author of the book and the publisher in both Japan and the US. The lawsuit was settled out of court and the person in question, Mineko Iwasaki, has written her own story. The author of the book publicly used a real person's name when exploiting the titillation factor to sex up his book signings--he mentioned her name when talking about the bidding wars to buy her virginity. This would have been considered inappropriate behavior for an American about an American woman so how are we to consider the author who would do so? The defamation suit also makes it clear that the author also displays a very implicit misunderstanding of the Japanese culture.

As was reported in the Japan Times:

Mineko filed suit last Wednesday [The article was printed on 1 May 2001] in a New York court, claiming Golden's use of her name constituted breach of contract and wrongly linked her with episodes in the book that she calls inaccurate and defamatory.

She first raised objections to the mention of her name, and that of her husband, shortly after receiving galley proofs of the book in English, a language she does not read.

"I complained and asked him what he thought he was doing," she recalled. "I demanded that he take my name out. But he said that he felt personally obliged to acknowledge me. 'I've made you famous,' he told me. I told him that it didn't matter how he felt, I was bothered."

According to Mineko, photos she supplied Golden of her kimonos and other private possessions began appearing in promotional articles for the book without her consent. She was mentioned prominently in interviews Golden gave to the media in which he said Mineko had been sold by her parents to a geisha house and her virginity had been auctioned off for the sum of 100 million yen, things she said are patently false. But in the public's mind, the link between the book's main character and her had been established.

It wasn't until the 1999 publication of the Japanese translation, titled Sayuri, that she began to consider legal recourse. What most readers perceived to be an informed and sensitive portrayal of a world she had known from the age of 6 appeared to her a lurid depiction of geisha as scheming prostitutes. She also found many inaccuracies.

"Everything is wrong," she said. "In the book, a geisha was beaten with a hanger and crippled. There is a very strict rule that 'maiko' (apprentice geisha) and geisha should never be beaten. We are precious goods and the livelihood of the 'okiya' (geisha houses) depends on us."

Golden comes off as a cad and a man who either didn't care about his so-called friend, the famous geisha, or truly didn't understand Japan and the geisha culture. Why else would he subject a friend to public humiliation and calls for ritual suicide? Even in America, a friend wouldn't reveal another friend's intimate secrets just to sell his book or sex-up his book signings. Even America, such a man would be called a cad.

Was this then, a really good choice for a major movie about a specific subculture in another culture? Will this elicit a greater understanding between Americans and Japanese or Americans and other Asians?

This movie, as did the book, renewed interest in the geisha in a way that is oddly nostalgic - looking back at a time when the only way, the only world where women had control of their lives and the possibility of financial independence was by humoring and entertaining wealthy men.

As another writer, Roger Pulvers, for the Japan Times writes:

As its Web site tells us, the movie is "set in a mysterious and exotic world" of geisha houses before, during and immediately after World War II. It is a fairytale take on what was at best a demeaning and soul-destroying institution. Yet among the many popular misrepresentations of Japanese reality since the country came out of its international isolation 150 years ago — from "Madame Butterfly" to "The Last Samurai" - this is one of the most blatantly pernicious.

Mr. Spielberg, I've seen your 1987 Empire of the Sun, but I wonder if your concept of Asia--and what used to constitute the so-called Orient--isn't stuck in the 1930s-1940s. I am sure Egyptians and Arabs weren't thrilled with Young Sherlock Holmes which seemed to hark back to the 1939 Gunga Din as did your feast of chilled monkey brains at the Pankot Palace in the 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

I spoke with a man who recalled being questioned by his classmates about eating monkey's brains. Like the TV series Kung Fu, that has become a part of the American cultural view of Asia to a certain extent. I have read some reviews of people who feel that Memoirs of a Geisha is an authentic rendering of the Japanese culture and have no idea about the lawsuit and the social implications it might also engender. Roger Ebert prefaces his review with: "I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha." Ebert was also troubled by the nostalgia evoked for a past system that emphasized how oppressed women really were in a society. Would the 1978 movie Pretty Baby ever be remade with a sense of loss that such a world - where 12-year-olds had their virginity auctioned off - had passed?

Why, in this day and age, make a movie that works best when the viewer knows nothing about the culture? Why make a movie that laments the passing of the geisha system as represented (or misrepresented according to Iwasaki) by Golden?

Another question that I longed to ask was also put forth to the man who produced Amistad by Pulvers:

Imagine a story set in United States in the pre-Civil War South in which the slaves are portrayed as locked in internecine in-fighting as one of them, the most innocent, longs to be rescued by a Prince Charming in the guise of a noble white plantation owner. Would there be anything mysterious and exotic about the everyday life of the slaves? This is analogous to what Memoirs of a Geisha, transposed to 20th-century Japan, is doing.

Would you, Mr. Spielberg make such a movie and suggest a sense of loss? Mr. Spielberg, you have brought the realities of the European war and American slavery to the screen and yet, Pulvers wonders, much like myself, why chose fantasy over reality in the case of Japan?

Pulvers suggests there are some explanations:

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the West, for the most part, wanted to keep Japan quaint, picturesque - and on its knees. Virtually all Westerners allied themselves with the most reactionary social institutions and their propagators, seeing that as a sure way to arrest Japan's entry into the West's exclusive club of the Great Powers.

But what obliges film producers like Steven Spielberg to spin a sick little tale like "Memoirs of a Geisha" now that Japan is in many respects a full-fledged member of the Western club? Spielberg, who in his movies generally deals with bizarre fantasies and heroic historical figures, seems to have inadvertently mixed the two together in this film.

As an Asian American woman, I wonder how far-reaching this movie's imagery will be and how long Asian and Asian American women will be haunted by the West's nostalgic view of geisha.

There is more to Japan than the geisha and the samurai. I guess someone else, some other producer will have to bring that to the screen some day.

Reprinted from 1 January 2006. Originally published on the blog magazine Blog Critics and my old now-defunct blog.

15 June 2008

OPINION: Death and the Sport of Kings

As a child, as the daughter of two people who adored horses but did not own them, I loved horses and I knew about Man O'War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit (before the recent movie) and Tom Fool.

I knew what the Triple Crown was and each year I followed the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. I read books that were romantic sports fantasies about racing, the nobility of the horse and the will to win.

Yet eventually, the numbers caught up with me. First, I worked for a man who went to the races, knew nothing about horses, belittled the jockeys as athletes and didn't particularly like horses. Horse racing was no different to him than gambling in Vegas. Living at home and not paying rent (he was in this thirties at the time), he could easily drop a few hundred.

The other numbers would be how many horses does a stable need to have to race each year and turn a profit and if the prime racing years are 3-5 and horses live into their twenties what happens to the has-beens and never were? I already knew what happened to the greyhounds that didn't make the grade at the track in Tijuana. If rescue organizations couldn't save and finds homes for all of the dogs raced in Mexico and the U.S., why would one think we could save all the horses who had been bred to race and never ran; ran but didn't place; placed but couldn't bring stud fees; or raced and were no longer wanted?

There was also that questionable decision to race Majestic Prince who had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1969. He was initially withdrawn due to injury and then despite the objections of his trainer, Johnny Longden, he was re-entered. He never raced again although he finished second.

He retired to a stud farm.

A recent New York Times article noted that in the past five years, 3,035 racing horses haved died at racing facilities. This isn't limited to thoroughbreds, but also includes standardbreds and quarter horses.

The statistics, part of a hearing about "Breeding, Drugs and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Racine and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred Racehorse" given before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, are not complete.

An Associated Press report noted the figures they used were drawn from open records inquiries sent to organizations governing the sport in 29 states.

According to the article, Arkansas, Michigan and Nebraska didn't keep records at all. Only one of Florida's three main tracks provided information.

Another concern is that despite advances in medical science, the numbers aren't dropping.

Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., who made the grim announcement that Eight Belles had been euthanized after the Derby, said fatality numbers don't seem to be dropping, despite major medical advancements. To Bramlage, that suggests racing injuries are becoming more frequent because vets are already pulling the most injury-prone horses before post time.

"We're able to pick them up better, with digital X-rays, bone scans and MRIs, which give us the information we need to take those horses out of training," Bramlage said. "In spite of that fact, we're not denting the total number of deaths."

After the televised injuries of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro in 2006 at the Preakness and the breakdown of Eight Bells at the Kentucky Derby this year, the sport has come under scrutiny. Previously, concern had been so low that some tracks didn't keep records at all.

New Mexico has no records prior to 2007. Others do not track morning training deaths or differentiate between breeds and cause of death.

What these studies do not yet touch on is quality of life after the race is over. The 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was named the 1987 Horse of the Year (Eclipse Award). In 2002, he was sent to a slaughter house.

Less famous horses are often given to charities such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundations, ReRun Inc., , California Equine Retirement Foundation, Inc. among many others.

Perhaps racing was called the sport of kings because racehorses, like the foot soldiers, the peasants and the knights were expendable as long as the king won. Unlike dogs or cats or rabbits, horses cannot in today's world be easily disposed of, but the public has turned a blind eye to this, even when the numbers didn't add up.

I no longer think of horse racing or dog racing as a sport. Instead it seems an excuse to gamble and exploit animals as if they weren't sentient beings with a purpose and use beyond winning a bet in a few minute rush to a wire.

13 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Reality of Spies Shown in Poisoned By Polonium

If you think being a spy is glamorous locales, sexy women and men, sleek cars and gadgets, you'll be disappointed. Sometimes reality is like that. In Andrei Nekrasov's Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko Files the real world of spies and revenge is ugly.

You might not remember the name Alexander Litvinenko, but surely you remember the story or, worse, the images. Litvinenko was a former Russian agent who died in a London hospital. If he had been shot or beaten, it would have been easy to consider it random urban violence even though shootings are rarer in the UK than in America. Yet, that was not how Litvinenko died and his death left no doubt he was poisoned.

One can't just pop over to the local hardware store and buy some like rat poison. Polonium is hard to acquire, must be handled carefully in order to avoid radioactive contamination and was administered during a lunch. Litvinenko wasn't the only person who ended up dead. So did journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006.

Litvinenko, whom Nekrasov calls Sasha, was a KBG officer and eventually worked with the KGB's successor, the FSB. Yet in 1998, he went public and accused his superiors of ordering an assassination of a Russian tycoon. He eventually fled to the UK, asking for asylum. Not satisfied with escaping with his life and his wife Marina, he wrote two books, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within and Lubyanka Criminal Group.

Lubyanka Square is in downtown Moscow and where the headquarters of the FSB is located. As you can guess, Litvinenko made accusations in this book about the exact nature of FSB activities. He accused the FSB of staging apartment bombings and other terrorist acts that would be credited to Chechnya and help bring Vladimir Putin to power.

After his death, photos surfaced of Russian special forces using a photo of Litvinenko as a target in 2002. Nekrasov does film an interview with the man accused by the UK of Litvinenko's murder, Andrei Lugovoi. One senses that both Litvinenko and Nekrasov were driven by something to make them risk so much--all sense of security on a worldwide scale.

Directed by Nekrasov who didn't originally know Litvinenko but worked to locate him as we see in filmed footage, this documentary is more a personal rumination and a precautionary tale. One wonders if Nekrasov might not also end up dead or, if perhaps, this film will be some insurance that he will survive.

After Litvinenko's death, his widow, Marina, co-wrote a book, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB.

This documentary is intelligent and driven by an obsessive need or plea for justice. It doesn't pander to spy movie expectations or pop culture sensibilities and in that respect it is a bit dry and monotonous.

The movie might feed conspiracy theorists, but one sense Nekrasov was careful to avoid sounding an alarm of paranoia. At the very least, it will remind us that a man stood up to a regime and he died a terrible death and his name was Litvinenko.

11 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: What to Do When the World Goes Kabluey

If ever a home needed a Super Nanny intervention, it's this household. Leslie's kids are two little blond screaming and destructive horrors--the kind for whom kiddie leashes were made.

Over the phone, her mother-in-law suggests calling in her terminally unemployable brother-in-law, Salman. She needs a caretaker for the kids so she can escape to work to keep her health benefits and, one suspects, her sanity. Her husband has been deployed to Iraq.

"Is he like working?" Leslie (Lisa Kudrow successfully shedding all of her Phoebe-ness to play the straight man here) doubtfully asks about her brother-in-law whom she hasn't seen since the wedding.

In this wonderfully quirky movie, Kabluey, director/writer Scott Prendergast plays Salman whom we first see when he becomes so fascinated by a laminating machine that while working at a down-scale Kinko-like photocopy place, he laminates everything--resumes, photos and even a belt for himself. This leads to his firing and he does land at Leslie's house, sleeping in the spare room.

Salman is a failure at kid control, but Leslie finds Salman a job, the kind of job that entails nothing more than standing on a lonely road in a blue costume of the mascot of the dot-com that now verging on dot-goneness.

This is a gentle comedy, with sight gags and thoughtful pauses. The slapstick is more in the manner of Buster Keaton, than in the Bugs Bunny cartoon variety or the frenetic quality of many big-budget comedies.

Filmed in and around Austin, Texas, there's a sense of the surreal in a blue man lost on the plains in this universe that is firmly placed in reality, a reality that has been slightly tweaked. There's a sense in desolation and a slightly bitter stab at the dot-com era.

Kabluey is a delightful little gem that glows with warmth and doesn't fall into the morass of formulaic film making. Prendergast is the same person who wrote, acted and starred in the short film, The Delicious, and one hopes that Prendergast will continue with his deliciously idiosyncratic visions.

P.S. Don't forget to stay for the credits.

MOVIE REVIEW: A Better Life Without the King

They have Coca Cola. They have great palaces. They have a rapping princess. They have a great tradition that they have reclaimed once they gained independence from Great Britain.

The king has been visited by Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles and Michael Jackson--great honors for a landlocked country about the size of New Jersey, located in Southern Africa.

A largely Christian nation (40 percent Zionist--a combination between Christianity and native beliefs--and 20 percent Catholic according to the CIA Factbook), Swaziland is also plagued by deep poverty and HIV/AIDS. The estimated life expectancy is 31.7 for men and 32 for women. It has the world's highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, resulting in high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy.

The world's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, is the king of the title of Michael Skolnik's grainy but thought-provoking 2007 documentary, Without the King. There are no princes in this film although we know that his eldest daughter, Sikhanyiso, has a brother.

We are introduced to Mswati III on his coronation day. He is 18, handsome and shy. The year is 1986. He was the second of 67 sons; his father had 70 wives at the time of his death in 1982. Mswati III was educated in England at the Sherborne School. From 1983 until his coronation, two of his late father's wives served as regent.

In comparison to his late father, he has a modest number of wives: 13. His first two have sons but none of them, according to tradition, can become king.

Sikhanyiso is the eldest daughter of his third wife who married Mswati when she was 16. She is a college student in California and although we see her in the movie, we do not see her elder half brothers or her brother. It is unlikely that she would replace Mswati III as some reviewers have projected.

She is seen as a rebel princess, a title that she also mentions in the documentary. Tradition requires that a special counsel choose a wife and the crown prince. How will she be able to serve her country under another half-sibling's rule? We don't know.

Footage of Sikhanyiso, her mother and Mswati III are intercut with scenes of poverty, and angry protesters who say they will prevail against tear gas and bullets.

She does mention the king's solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis--a five year ban on sex for women under the age of 21. The ban was ended a year early and did nothing to stop the rate of HIV/AIDS infection. During that time, the king took another wife under the age of 21.

As a woman comments, it's hard to contain HIV/AIDS when "they look at him...why does the king continue...taking more wives" and feel that they can take more wives.

The documentary touches on the discomfort of a daughter whose father marries a woman younger than her but we do not see this new bride. The documentary doesn't mention how two of Mswati's wives have left him. That would have made interesting commentary.

The documentary does touch on accusations of forcing young girls to marry him and Sikhanyiso comments,"...a lot of the girls want to be there anyways."

Of course they do. Poverty and HIV/AIDS on one side and extravagant luxury on the other side? What kind of choice is the culture giving women?

Both Sikhanyiso and her mother touch on the paranoia that exists, accusations of murder attempts and threats, in a world where there is little future and prosperity outside of the royal family and who becomes the next king will have a great deal of control. One wonders if the many children--cousins and half-brothers and sisters of the current king also live in luxury or have fallen on hard times.

While the documentary ends with Sikhanyiso lamenting how the government has money but has deserted a small village, saying that her country will "turn around" in "her time" is hopeful and somewhat misleading.

She is 18. Her father is in his forties. She has brothers and uncles to contend with. Her father, once a bashful youth making his first public speech has grown soft and self-indulgent--a quality that Sikhanyiso seems to share in her view of a king and his responsibilities. At least she doesn't say something like let them eat cake.

In the end, this documentary glosses over some issues to emphasize the HIV/AIDS crisis and poverty, but stands as strong commentary against monarchy and polygamy.

08 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Five Times in Turkey Shows Teen Angst

The wind. The sound of leaves. A boy sitting outside a window whom we first see from the back. The minaret. Trees.

If you're looking for harems, terrorists, drugs, belly dancing or people speaking in exotic accents and acting like bimbos or buffoons, this isn't the movie. If you want to see how three young teens deal with their life and hardships in a small town, this is a beautiful, subtle movie worth seeking out.

The 2006 Turkish movie, Bes Vakit, meaning Times Five or Five Times, won a best film award at the Istanbul International Film Festival as well as a Firpresci prize for director/writer Reha Erdem.

Called Times and Winds in English and shown with subtitles, the movie shows the unhappy lives of three young teens in a small, impoverished Turkish village. Omer (Ozkan Ozen) is the son of an iman. The iman is the man looking out the window at Omer. He is sick and sends his son off to get his brother to do the nightly call to prayer. Omer's father favors Omer's younger brother and Omer dreams of killing his father, but not his brother.

His friend Yakup (Ali Bey Kayali) has a secret crush on the young school teacher.He learns that he is not the only one who admire her beauty. Yildiz (Elit Iscan) tries to balance her schoolwork and caring for her infant brother. She adores her father, in a manner that is bound to disappoint.

There is nothing remotely close to what we could call closure. There is no climax or resolution. Like life, loose strings remain untied. Like many disaffected teens, their faces are mostly expressionless. Arvo Part's score provides an emotional guide.

Erdem shows us the beauty of the high rocky mountains that overlook the sea. We see the beautiful trees, hear the rustling of the winds. The skies are blue and all this might seem gorgeous, but in the foreground we see poverty, the cruelty of a man's indifference to his eldest son's feelings--not only with Omer, but with another set of brothers as well. The villagers show charity toward an old woman, toward the young teacher (Selma Ergec) and toward an orphan (Tarik Sonmez).

The boys laugh when they see animals copulating, but there's something wrong when they realize Yildiz also sees the animals and drive her away.

Five times refers to the number of times, the Muslim faithful are called to prayer, but five also resonates in other ways in Muslim life. A true believer follows the so-called five pillars of Muslim life: faith, daily prayers, concern for the needy, self-purification through fasting and a pilgrimage.

Erdem divides the movie into five parts, beginning in reverse order, evening until we end in morning. The trees and the wind seem to be characters in this scenic, lyrical movie as does the minaret which is sometimes framed in the background. The romance of the country, including the exotic foreign country, has been pared down to a spare portrayal of children caught between their desires and the tyranny of their parents. Yet their parents aren't evil; they are casually cruel, as easily as people from any other place and in any other culture.

Times and Winds reminds us of how lucky we are as Americans and yet, how very much similar we are to people in a small Turkish village, even if they are Muslim.

07 June 2008

OPINION - The Writing Was on the Wall...

The writing was on the wall, but GM couldn't read it.

It has nothing to do with the lack of technology. Between 1996-1999, GM produced over 1,000 units of the GM EV1. This was an electric car available in California and Arizona for lease only. This was based on a design created by AeroVironment called the GM Impact.

Based in Monrovia, California--just outside of Los Angeles but within Los Angeles County, AeroVironment Inc. was founded in 1971 and is known for developing human-powered and solar-powered vehicles.

Not far away, in San Dimas, California, is AC Propulsion, the company that developed the tzero--a prototype yellow EV sports car. Only three exist and all three still run. From this came the Tesla limited edition electric sports car which uses the AC Propulsion technology.

The GM EV1 was taken away from the people who had leased them. GM refused to sell them and instead destroyed all but a few that were taken to museums. Why didn't GM have the foresight to continue development of the electric vehicle, even if they knew about the Smart car, a neighborhood electric vehicles?

Why didn't they allow people to buy a car they were going to crush. This is essentially the question that Chris Paine asked in his 2006 movie, Who Killed the Electric Car? Paine had owned and loved his EV1, but like Mel Gibson, was forced to give his up.

When the news came out that GM was
closing four truck and SUV plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and cutting jobs,
I emailed Paine to ask for his reaction.

His response was quick.

In short two old cliches come to mind.
the writing was on the...
the chickens have come home to...

American car makers ignored early warning signs about peak oil and kept betting almost everything on their big profit margin SUVS and trucks. The fact that they willfully destroyed their own electric cars programs in the 1990s in spite of objections from their own board members and so many enthusiasts, makes them especially culpable.

We'll see if they can scramble fast enough to meet the realities of the changing world. Its a fascinating story with many players - which is how our first film came to life. And the story continues...

GM came out with an EV for the U.S. marketplace before Toyota came out with the Prius.

Now with the Prius out and plans for a consumer-ready plug-in Prius projected for 2010, GM is trying to catch up. That will come too late for the estimated 10,000 workers who will lose their jobs.

According to the AP article,

CEO Rick Wagoner said Tuesday before the automaker's annual meeting in Delaware the plants to be idled are in Oshawa, Ontario; Moraine, Ohio; Janesville, Wis.; and Toluca, Mexico. He also said the iconic Hummer brand will be reviewed and potentially sold or revamped.

Paine's movie noted that although there were financial incentives for buying an EV, the incentives were greater for the Hummer. That kind of planning is what got us where we are--dependent upon gas vehicles when we knew that fossil fuels would eventually run out. The promise of solar energy which can be converted into electricity has been always something for the future.

Recently, one plant was shut down due to a worker protest. Perhaps this protest comes too late. We should have been protesting, demanding better mileage and cars that looked toward a future without oil or gas, a time when fossil fuels would be gone and/or pollution would be destroying the world.

The writing was on the wall of the future, GM couldn't read it. Neither could most Americans. We knew this would happen in the future, but Americans weren't building bullet trains for better public transportation. We weren't demanding a move toward a less oil dependent future. We've been distracted by the promise of hydrogen when we had the technology for EVs. We can't wait 30 years for hydrogen technology to develop. The future is now and EV technology is ready if we are willing, as consumers and as voters, to demand a change.

If you haven't seen this movie, it's available on DVD. Learn more about plug-ins and EV technology at Plug In America.

03 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films

Ten years in the making, Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese: In American Feature Films is an entertaining documentary full of surprises.

First, it's a bit shocking to see Nancy Kwan. Why you might ask? Isn't she Chinese? Well, as another actors comments, she is at least part Chinese. For a time, Kwan was everyone's favorite Asian woman--even if she was clearly Eurasian.

Dong doesn't shy away from that question, nor questions about her infamous portrayal of the Hong Kong prostitute, Susie Wong, (although she wasn't in the original Broadway cast--you might be surprised to see who was), nor her infomercials.

At least Kwan looked like she could be Asian. The usual practice was yellow face — Luise Rainer did that to much acclaim. Rainer played O-Lan in the 1937 movie, The Good Earth, dashing Anna May Wong's hopes. Dong touches on this and a report of Wong's screen test, but not on the Hays Code of anti-miscegenation which some resources consider a major determining factor once Paul Muni was cast. Rainer won an Academy Award for that role and defends her casting. Some of the Chinese actors compliment her portrayal and still there is that unsettling question about yellow face.

Yellow face was a difficult process, according to Christopher Lee. In the 1960s, Lee brought Fu Manchu to the silver screen. Dong cuts to some memorable and mostly amusing moments of yellow face — from Katherine Hepburn to John Wayne.

Hepburn starred in the 1944 Dragon Seed, also based on a Pearl Buck novel as was The Good Earth. Turhan Bey notes that Hollywood at the time was full of ridiculous situations. Born in Vienna, Bey's father was Turkish and his mother Czech. He was supposed to be related to Hepburn, yet that Tan family had a wide variety of accents. No wonder people thought Asians were inscrutable.

Dong does include a real Chinese American Tan, Amy Tan. Tan recalls how after her 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club became popular and people wanted to adapt it into a movie, how cautious she was until Wayne Wang became attached to the project. Hong Kong-born Wang wrote (with Isaac Cronin) and directed the 1982 Chan Is Missing, a work selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995 for its realistic portrayal of Chinese Americans. After the 1993 The Joy Luck Club, which followed Smoke, Wang did more mainstream movies like Maid In Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie.

At the time, the 1961 Flower Drum Song was also considered progressive with Kwan starring beside a Japanese national (Miyoshi Umeki) and a Japanese American (James Shigeta)--something ironic after spending World War II emphasizing the differences between Chinese and Japanese--an issue that Japanese Americans have also noted in the past. The Chinese could even be played by an African American--Juanita Hall. There was something laughable about ABCs (American-born Chinese) dancing to a song celebrating chop suey--an American dish.

Playwright David Henry Hwang whose M. Butterfly won a Tony, and original Broadway cast member B.D. Wong also appear, but the cantankerous Frank Chin (who criticized Hwang and Tan among others in his essay, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake" in 1991 anthology The Big Aiiieeeee!)does not. This certainly keeps the documentary more focused, but it's a notable omission when the documentary does include a historian and Dong is based in Los Angeles like Chin and Hwang. Chin, who was the subject of a 2005 documentary What's Wrong with Frank Chin, has his own blog and his latest entry (26 May 2008) mentions Tan, Shigeta, Wang and Hepburn.

Chin was interviewed by Jeff Adachi for the 2006 documentary Slanted Screen about the imagery of Asian and Asian American men.

The Asian American community has also been critical of Joan Chen for her portrayal of what was essentially an updated version of Susie Wong in the 1986 Tai-Pan. The Shanghai-born Chen continued to play exotic women, but found that with age, the quality of the movies decreased and unlike Kwan, moved on to directing. She was also in the much acclaimed The Last Emperor in 1987, but this movie was also criticized as being more a figment of the director's imagination by Lisa Lu, who was in this movie and Tai-Pan

There's also a Sundance moment, when someone criticizes Justin Lin's 2002 Better Luck Tomorrow which an audience member criticized for being made at all--even though it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize award at Sundance. The audience member seemed to feel it was irresponsible to give such a negative and amoral portrayal of Asian Americans. Was this a case of someone wanting to preserve the good minority stereotype despite the very brutal 1992 incident that inspired this movie?

There are some surprising historical clips--not the archival portrayals of old China nor the ones of an imagined China--but old movies made for American-born Chinese produced and starring ABCs. The question remains today about why aren't ABCs doing as well as Asian-born actors and directors such as Ang Lee (who also appears), Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Zhang Ziji, and Jackie Chan?

Unsettling questions about being American, desexualization of Asian American men (Long Duk Dong who was played by a Japanese American in the movie Sixteen Candles is cited), the exoticism of the women, the martial arts stereotype are raised as they were a decade ago.

Dong hopes that if this movie was ever part of a school curriculum it would find its way into the history department. Even-handed, avoiding some of the divisive arguments within the ABC community, this thoughtful movie does provide an informative look at American-born Chinese history which is undoubtedly an important part of Asian American history and the history of all Americans in this country.