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Good Things Come in Threes: Three Women and their Pianos – Angela Ai (History)

December 15, 2008 Leave a comment

This is the third part of the second article in my series “Good Things Come in Threes”. In the previous two articles, I looked at

  • Angela Aki a Japanese-Italian solo artist and pianist, brought up in Japan educated in the US and made famous by her Final Fantasy XII theme tune.
  • Fayray, a Japanese singer and pianist brought up and raised in the US before finding major success in her home country, Japan with the album Hourglass.

 

Angela Ai – History (US, 2001)

In this part, I will be looking at Angela Ai and her landmark album, History.

angela-ai

How I found her

I was looking for the song “Rain” by Angela Aki on iTunes when the new iTunes 8 feature “Genius Sidebar” suggested I might like Angela Ai.

Yeah, that’s a laugh, I thought, new the Genius function might be, but not so Genius when it comes spelling it would appear!

On a whim, I clicked on the identically titled “Rain” by the fictitious and misspelt (or so I thought) “Angela Ai.”

It was not the version of Rain that I had expected. iTunes had no information on their Artist page, but intrigued I jumped across to Last FM to see who she was. Fortunately, Last FM had complete versions of her songs for playback. (The whole track is available here if you’re a Last FM member, or a reasonable chunk can be found on her site here.)

Instead of Aki’s shouttastic rendition of a typically staid love song, I found myself listening to an engaging, short romantic-tragedy in the form of a regular, common-all-garden pop song.

With Ai’s sublime voice, it told an insanely solid tale in its few short minutes about a woman watching in dismay as her best friend, to whom she was the bridesmaid and who she’d had a secret crush on for years, got married! Startlingly bold for a debut single!

I was blown away. This was NOT Angela Aki. Not by a long shot. I had found Angela Ai.

Angela Ai is an American Chinese who was, to quote from her website:

…born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. Her passion for the performing arts began at the age of 5 when she began studying ballet. She studied classical piano at the age of 7 following with brief studies on the violin and flute. While in high school, she began auditioning for and was chosen to be the lead in many of the school musicals and plays.

After graduating from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Finance, she moved to New York City and started a career in investment banking of all things. Her heart lay elsewhere, however and she went on to study Jazz at the Manhattan School of Music before making a career for herself on Broadway in the US.

She is a technically superb pianist, highly trained in both classical and jazz (as are Fayray and Angela Aki to whom I am comparing her) which has set her up perfectly for a wide range of sounds and genres. However what sets her apart from the other two is her background of voice training and experience on the stage as an actress. That experience alone puts her voice and manner in an entirely different category altogether, and it shows on her album, “History”.

She commands total mastery over all aspects of her performance from the piano to her immaculate voice. And there is only one word to describe her voice: spectacular.

Where Fayray’s voice would deftly and delicately give way on the high notes, Ai’s is right there, in control and without the barest hint of stress or strain. Where Aki would tend to shout in order to wring out her full emotional gamut, Ai’s strength and passion manifests itself much like an ice skater’s performance: Effortlessly graceful yet immensely strong.

Her music

She is Asian, a singer songwriter with a classical and jazz background, she plays piano, she has a fine voice. There the similarities with the other two end.

I consider Angela Ai a rather notable departure from my usual tastes in music, even taking to consideration the changes my library has gone through over the last year.

Where she differs most of the music I usually listen to and the other two women to whom I’m comparing her,  is that she brings the vivid passions and emotions of theatre, drama, the stage and of Broadway musicalsin particular and moulds and tempers them into songs of remarkable simplicity, elegance and beauty.

Every song is a play, every line is a scene: Much closer to Chicago the musical than Chicago the 80’s pop band.

Thus, this simplicity and cross discipline genre busting comes at a price to the listener, however, as her songs tend to be remorseless assaults on your imagination. Each one is steeped in thespian emotions and soaked in graphical imagery painted with fat, wide brush strokes, like the backdrops to the stage plays from which they might have been used for in another life.

For Ai, there is no hiding behind an orchestra, no percussion or rhythm sections to get the listener going, indeed no backing whatsoever. There is, for the entire album, Just Ai and her piano.

“History” is an entire album of piano and voice alone.

Also, the subjects of most of the songs could not be considered conventional: child abuse, the imminent death of a father and a believer’s shock at being denied entry to heaven don’t really sound like the sort of things that can be sung about, but on stage anything can happen.

As such, it’s far from the most accessible album released, much less so than her debut, self titled mini album from which the song “Rain” was pulled.

Is it worse for that?

For from it. its shocking simplicity is a refreshing breath of air in a world where every facet of every album is produced down to the ground.

If you enjoy the sheer beauty of what a voice can achieve, if you enjoy musicals and love the sound of a well played, lucidly recorded grand piano, if you’re fed up to the eye-teeth with insipid love songs, Angela Ai’s History is a real treasure.

Angela Ai, History

At nine songs long, it’s not an epic, but each song has something to offer. There are no fillers, no masturbatory demonstrations of piano skill. She doesn’t need them. The album is as sparse and simple as her songs themselves; nothing wasted, nothing superfluous, yet dramatic and emotional as a Broadway production.

(click on the songs’ titles for excerpts direct from Angela Ai’s Web site at http://www.angelaai.com)

It opens with →history, sung in the first person to the listener. On a conventional theme of lost love, it might be considered a taster if you will and something to ease the audience into her world. It offers a nostalgic look at lost love and the pain of living close to the source of your pain while forcing yourself to move on with your life.

Despite her assuredness that the relationship is over, is history, the loss she suffered, the anger she felt and the love that lingers despite her best efforts remains as her voice bursts with every stab of pain, every nostalgic twinge, every memory.

The stage influence on this track as on every one on this album is plain to hear. You can almost see the feel and moody set, a flickering streetlamp, grey extras milling past and among them, in colour, her lost love.

This theme is returned to in the third song on the album, →i Really Miss That, a more mellow, introspective song but sung from the viewpoint of a woman who yearns for the relationship she once had, a relationship that somewhere along the way lost everything that once made it so special. More than the finality of the first song, this one offers a ray of hope for the future. 

world War Three (Yes, the first letter of every song on the album is a small letter)

This is such an unbelievably cool concept for a four minute song that I feel obliged to share it with you.

A “believer” who has behaved impeccably her whole life, yet for all the wrong reasons, dies and is confronted by God. She is shocked on being questioned by Him as to her worthiness in spite of her life of apparently good deeds. He tries to make her understand the error in her ways, that her deeds were all done out of a sense of duty and selfishness rather than out of love. By way of example he explains, but she is unable to comprehend. God, in a final attempt to enlighten His child accompanies her through Hell where she is forced to witness World Wars One and Two. Yet, still unable to comprehend, she is left there to face World War Three alone. Yowzers!

This song with its beautifully memorable chorus sung from the viewpoint of the deserted subject, is a magnificent piece worthy of entry into the Annals of “Seriously Great Concepts.”

daddy, the fourth song on the album is an emotional song that touches on the trauma left by family breakups.

A daughter visits her father on what may well be his deathbed; a father who it appears left or even abandoned his family and his daughter a long time ago.

As she sits there with her dying father, she remembers the pain that he caused her and the loss she felt at his leaving. She remembers how she blamed herself for his leaving.

She visits him in hospital with the intention of forgiving him for his lies and the past, to let bygones be bygones. The daughter reveals her soul to him, asking him to come back to her, only to be rebuffed bya  refusal to accept her, her love and most importantly, her forgiveness.

raw the most powerful and heartfelt song on the album stays with the theme of family trauma.

A woman comes to terms with the emotional scars left by a self esteem destroying childhood under the thumb of a domineering, perhaps even violent family and moves on with her life.

Ai conveys the confusion and fear of the child through the lamenting chords of her piano and a voice that falls into depths of pain before  rising symbolically and soaring above the music to freedom.

Listening to this song, it’s hard to believe that such a powerful number wasn’t written autobiographically. The emotions on display here are palpable and, just like it says on the tin, raw.

For me, this one song alone would justify purchasing the album.

just a dream

This song, coming just beyond the midpoint of the album stands as a turning point from the darkness of having things taken away, fear, entrapment, hate and remorse proffered by the first five songs to the the latter half of the album on which each song promises so much; dreams, happiness, thankfulness, forgiveness and freedom.

Angela takes a 180 degree turn from the darkness and despair of raw and sings an uplifting, almost Disneyesque  song which could have quite easily come from a children’s musical.

Something, (My innate cynicism and dislike of Disney, perhaps) unfortunately prevents me from experiencing this song in the unfettered and childlike manner which it deserves.

Instead, I feel that it doesn’t have the depth of feeling or context that the other songs on the album have. Even so, I can feel that it represents childlike imagination and the purity of childhood joy and thus earns its place at the head of the four Yang songs that counterpoint the five Ying songs that came before it.

WholeA woman hungers for solace and finds the man who she feels can fill the hole she has inside. The woman, obsessed with every aspect of his being  feels salvation a mere heartbeat away, if only she can hold on to herself and not lose herself in the process.

you Gave Me, is an unbridled song of thanks to a mother or parents and feels as though it was written with her own parents in mind.

free, one of the strongest tracks after WW3 and Raw, ends the album on a high note (no pun intended). Where the first track history is a gentle introduction, free is a reminder that Angela Ai is a performance artist at heart with powerful, modern influences and is the best demonstration of how far she has taken her craft.

True to the title of the track itself, the songs form spirals, seemingly out of control as she invites her audience to come with her as she explores freedom itself, building up to a freeform pillar of sound like I haven’t heard since Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

“I scream, and you can scream with me ’cause I am free.”

However, Ai demonstrates that there is a fine line between freedom and chaos and her masterful control shows on which side of the boundary she lies as she brings the song masterfully back under control before soaring off, quite literally into the stratosphere in one of the highest notes I’ve ever heard in popular music, proving once and for all the divide that lies between mere, trained ability and given gift.

In closing then, History is a challenging yet thoroughly rewarding listen which offers a touch of class and a LOT of emotion delivered by a master of her craft!

 

Angela Ai (History)

angel ai history

  1. history
  2. world war three
  3. i really miss that
  4. daddy
  5. raw
  6. just a dream
  7. whole
  8. you gave me
  9. free

Seven Films later…

July 26, 2008 1 comment

Over half a dozen films later and I suddenly realised to my regret that Love Juice was probably the last one in my current series of reviews. I had drawn up a list of 10 films in this genre, plus one more towards the end of this year, when it became available on general release in Japan. But I’ve found it neigh on impossible to get my hands on copies of the last three.

  1. Fish and Elephant (2001, China, Hidden Love) 
  2. Ji Sor aka. The intimates (1997, Korea, Drama)
  3. Memento Mori aka. Whispering Corridors II (1999, Korea, Fantasy/Thriller)
  • Drifting Flowers (2007, Taiwan, Three story drama montage)

The first two are not in general circulation. The third, I can’t find the Japanese title of it and Drifting is not released in Japan yet, so unless I find some wicked torrents, I’m out of luck.

So, let’s just recap on the seven films that I did manage to see. I’ll list them in my own personal order of merit.

Butterfly / Hu Die  (Human Drama – 2004, Hong Kong)

Thirty something family woman has a chance encounter with a young singer which reawakens her repressed sexuality. How does she come to terms with her old, true self in the face of her new, stable life she’s built for herself?

This heartfelt personal drama is a story about being true to yourself and coming to terms with your past. If you can keep track of the parallel story-lines played out in fragmeted, non-linear flashbacks, then this film shines for it’s unprecidented background to the main characters, the depth and realism of the issues tackled and the moral ambiguity that is left open to the viewer to fill in.

Although Yan Yan Mak perhaps tried to bite off a little more than the audience can chew, she packed a surprising about of background and depth into her second major film.

  • Two Big Thumbs Up

Spider Lilies (Human Drama : 2007, Taiwan)

A young webcam girl goes to get a tatoo done only to realise that her tatooist is a woman she had a crush on nine years before. Unfortunately for her, the tatooist has chosen to expunge all traces of her traumatic past from her memory, along with the memory a lonely little girl she once met.

This is a moving, dark tale about memory and why some choose to remember and some choose to forget. Again the lead roles are played impeccably and the story fleshes out the characters bit by bit by referring to their past and how they got to where they are today.

Although the second film by Zero Chou starts off well, she looses control of the plot threads causing the story to derail about 30 minutes from the end and rumble over rough terrain in search of new track. Despite the grinding, ambiguous ending, the storytelling, characters and their relationships carry this fine film through to conclusion.

  • Two thumbs up

Love/Juice (Romantic Drama / Black Comedy : 2000, Japan)

An unconventional relationship between two girls, one lesbian and one straight is so close that they’re practically a single person. Their offbeat lifestyle gets complicated when one’s love of the other starts to turn to frustration and jealousy at her lack of reciprocation.

Probably the most quirky, least trodden story of the lot, this low budget classic, black-comedy and romance delves into the murky depths of love and examines the blurry region that exists between deep, platonic love and sexual desire. The handheld cameras, grainy footage and cramped, tight locations lend this film a personality and intimacy that larger budget flicks often lack.

  • Two thumbs up

Red Doors (Family Comedy – 2005, US)

This lighthearted family comedy follows the lives of the Wongs, a suburban American Chinese family with a retiring father who’s trying to regain his raison d’etre after retirement and three intelligent, beautiful daughters, one of whom is lesbian, trying to balance their own lives with those of their fellow family members.

Although this movie suffers slightly by introducing a few too many of the cultural stereotypes that tend to plague mainstream cinema and prevent this film from rising to even greater heights, it more than delivers in sheer quality of all the acting, the slick dialogue, excellent set pieces and of course, the pinpoint humour regarding the generational gaps between characters. Without doubt the most entertaining film of the whole bunch.

  • Big Thumbs Up

Saving Face (Romance – 2004, US)

This is the story of a successful and competant surgeon who is quite certain of her sexuality, though up until now, she has never let it get in the way of her work. When she falls for the daughter of the chief surgeon, her boss, she has to question her lifestyle and choices she’s made. The close proximity of all concerned and a mother with a secret who is in denial of what she knows about her daughter who has not come out to the family yet all conspire to put pressure on her and force her to make some important decisions.

A mainstream film with a great cast, including one of my all-time-favourites, Joan Chen!

Alice Wu manages to create a meaningful, believable modern society as a backdrop to this movie. The two main character work great together on screen for a lovable, heartwarming story with enough twists and turns to keep the audience busy from beginning to end. 

  • Big Thumbs Up

The Botanist’s Daughters (Arthouse Drama – 2006, France)

A strict but brilliant botanist lives on beautiful a garden island with his dutiful daughter. Their stable but monotonous life is turned upside down on the arrival of an intern student who falls for the daughter of the botanist, resulting in bitter consequences for all involved.

A gorgeously shot film with moments of true grandeur and beauty, dragged down by awkward plot twists and an extremely unwieldy ending. The main actresses look gorgeous, if difficult to empathize with.

  • One thumbs up

Love My Life (Drama – 2006, Japan)

An “ideal” lesbian couple’s relationship is split asunder when one of them realises that she should be concentrating on her career rather than her love life. 

Oh purleez, this barftastic amateur flick by an ex softcore porno director reeks of mediocre acting and straight to video production values. Despite being embarrassingly gratuitous, the soft focus shots of bon bon swapping are about as risque as this picture gets, mildly titillating without ever engaging.

At least with real pornography, the poor acting is offset by up close and personal visuals. Instead, the unhappy compromise choosen for this film means that it is destined to satisfy virtually nobody.

  • Myeeh
In Conclusion
So in conclusion, I can say of the seven films I watched over the last three weeks, one was stellar, three were exellent, two were good, and one was myeeh. Not a bad hit ratio, consdering the limited scope of the exercise. 
I really enjoyed watching them and have no regrets. I think that they have had a positive influence on me, in as much as I’ve broadened my horizons… even if only a little.

Film Review: Love/Juice (2000, Japan)

July 22, 2008 2 comments


Quote

"Why were we born as two separate people, and not one?"

Overview

This is the seventh film in my short season of Asian Gay and Lesbian film reviews.

I was very lucky to actually be able to find this minor offbeat flick, made on an absolute shoestring budget by Shindo Kaze, a female Japanese director and screened in 2000.

Synopsis

Chinatsu and Kyoko are two close friends who live together and share pretty much everything, makeup, spoon and even their bed. They are so inseparable as to be almost a single entity. Yet they are neither a couple in the conventional sense, or in any other sense, since although Chinatsu is professedly gay, Kyoko is to all intents and purposes straight.

The two of them own very little and live frugal lives in a practically one roomed apartment as “freeters”, a Japanese term for those with no steady job or income and not particularly interested in getting one. What money they do manage to scrape together is used to fund their recreational drug using, nightclub centred livestyles.

The two of them invariably go out together, cruising the night scenes and looking for love, Kyoko for a man and Chinatsu for a girl. But something always stops either of them from finding the partner of their dreams: each other.

Chinatsu adores Kyoko and worships the very ground she walks on and while Kyoko is with her, she can find true love nowhere else. Moreover, as if to capture her spirit, she is constantly taking photos of Kyoko throughout the film.

Kyoko loves the attention and in a perverse sort of way, leads the vulnerable Chinatsu up the garden path.

But she is a victim of her own making because Chinatsu becomes the main reason why Kyoko herself, never seems to find love and settle down. When Kyoko starts to notice this, the atmosphere of the cozy household take a turn for the worse.

Despite this however, they are both trapped by their situation and their love for each other, because let’s face it, when it comes down to it, how many people can say that they have is a friend and companion closer than anyone else in the world who supports, understands, and who is there for you, right next to you, always.

Still, even a bond so close has its limits, and Chinatsu’s increasing frustration at her inability to find herself a girl to take her mind of the infuriatingly close, yet infinitely out of reach Kyoko, comes to a head when she is played by and subsequently dumped by a stylish nymphette at a party.

That night, feeling desperately sorry for Chinatsu, Kyoko gives in to her friend’s incessant demands and things begin to get even more complicated for the two of them.

As the film progresses, we learn things that suggests their love wasn’t as one sided as it first appeared.

Impressions

First up were the expectations. As soon as the opening credits appeared I saw “Tsunku Town Productions” and sighed, expecting another Love My Life or worse. That’s because Tsunku is responsible for a lot of total and utter garbage which passes itself off as music under the umbrella project “Hello!” His most famous travesty of modern pop is called “Morning Musume” and was unleashed upon the unsuspecting world by THIS MAN. And for that sin, I pray he suffers tinnitus until the day he dies.

Those of you who know me well, will know my esteem for that steaming pig-swill of a girlie-pop unit. Those of you who don’t, just use the previous sentence as a starting point.

But they were my expectations, and over the next fifteen minutes, they were blown out of the water.

This gem of a film was clearly made on a shoestring budget, using small hand-held cameras and digital film, developed in a grainy, contrasty finish. The result is a surprisingly personal account of the two girls’ lives and hardly a Tsunku produced soft focus “Glavia” (Japanese slang for Glamour Video Idol) pop video. What I didn’t know was that Tsunku Town is a production company for aspiring Japanese film directors and has nothing to do with his other endeavours.

No flashy titillation here. No softly lit, pouting teenagers for middle-aged men’s delectation.

Oh, and you can forget insipid Hollywood vista sweeps and pans of the scintillating Tokyo harbour. This is a film by Japanese for Japanese and is not a cross cultural effort strewn with the explanatory cultural crutches required in Saving Faces and Red Doors.

Instead, you get close-up-and-personal with Tokyo’s vast selection of concrete: barren concrete backstreets, canal-side concrete embankments and graffiti strewn concrete tunnels and underpasses are the only backdrops to the characters’ antics.

And when you’re not outside you get seedy, darkened bars, depressingly cramped yet deserted local shops and the main characters’ cute but shabby little flat.

The two actresses, Okuno Mika (Kyoko) and Fujimoto Chika (Chinatsu) both put in commendable, touching performances. They are relatively inexperienced actresses, Fujimoto only appears in TV dramas and Okuno doesn’t even register on the Internet, except for this film!

This makes their efforts especially surprising and rewarding to a viewer who joins with no preconceptions: Their relationship is portrayed with both verve and mood and darts between frivolity and desperate with the incongruous but surreal grace that Asian films seem to have when dealing with wildly disparate moods.

And what a relationship! Sure, in straight terms, this is the standard one-sided unrequited love situation, where A is in love with B, but B only likes A as a friend gig. But this twist on the old story is deliciously fresh and equally painful to watch.

Chinatsu is the glam-butch cynic who only has eyes for Kyoko, the doe-eyed (but pretty much straight) wonderstruck child. Kyoko is the opposite and sees the beauty in everything, including Chinatsu,  which is really the reason why the relationship becomes so interesting.

They also turn another concept on its head. One would expect butch Chinatsu to lead the relationship. But in reality, she’s begging Kyoko for comfort and it Kyoko who’s in emotional control. Kyoko is the adorable but capricious object of desire who gets a high from all the attention, from being loved and then flaunts her straightness and her men in Chinatsu’s face as if to hurt her.

Kyoko is undeniably flirting with Chinatsu just as girls often do with guys they have no real interest in and Chinatsu lives her days and nights locked in frustration.

The way the film follows their relationship is involving and personal. The low budget plays to the story’s advantage and the handheld cameras, especially, lend the film an almost documentary-like appearance at times.

Verdict

The relationship was so novel and refreshing that I was practically hooked from the start. Chinatsu and Kyoko portray their characters so well, and they really do come across as the best of friends and more on screen.

Add to that the dashes of frivolity, drama, hurt, black humour with an ending with a sting in the tail and you have got a budget classic on your hands.

Overall, then, an unexpected gem. Rough and ready with a low budget and straight from the TV cast, it could easily have failed by glamming up the setting, puffing out the sexy bits and casting bigger actresses. But the acting was solid, the canvas was tangibly real ( I know, I’ve been to that part of town) and the characters and their relationships were drawn by a skilled hand of a very high calibre.

I’ll give this film two regular sized thumbs up!

Film Review: Love My Life (2006, Japan)

July 16, 2008 4 comments

 

 

love_my_life_wolfe_video

Erm… No it doesn’t

Quote

 "In our game, the person you fall in love with
  is not always the one you can give yourself to."

This is the sixth film in my series of Gay and Lesbian Asian Cinema… Although, I have to admit that the current renaissance in Mainstream Asian Lesbian cinema has piqued my interest to the point where I’m finding it difficult to make time for the gay stuff.

Overview

This light, 2006, Japanese production by Kawano Koji is set in present day Tokyo and tells the tale of a young and wealthy lesbian couple, currently going through university.

Synopsis

Ichiko and Eri are two happily involved university students that seem to have the perfect relationship. They are both beautiful, intelligent, well bred (!?) and well heeled. And most importantly, they are also madly in love with each other.

Ichiko is the dreamer of the pair. The light hearted optimist. The playful one… The cutesy wootsy one. She comes from a very (VERY) liberal, Apple Mac using family with an extremely cool single father who absolutely considers her the most important thing in his life after the death of his wife, Ichiko’s mother, some years before.

lml08

Eri is the serious beauty, the forward thinking one from a highly competetive family of [probably PC using] lawyers who wants to be a lawyer herself, just to prove to her bigoted father and sexist brother that women have the balls to be lawyers, too.

lml09

As can be expected, their differences of upbringing, outlook and social layer starts to strain their relationships and they take a break from each other.

During this time apart, they both learn things about themselves. Eri tries to find what she really wants from life, wile Ichiko tries to become less selfish and childish, more responsible for herself and gets herself a job working as a book reviewer for her father’s company.

How do they cope with all the pressure society puts on them? Does Eri manage to kick her self righteous father in the crown jewels and send a blow through male dominated lawdom or does she realise it’s not her dream to be a lawyer? Does Ichiko manage to grow up and cast off her perpetual puberty? Can the couple weather the storm…. Can they get back together? Do you actually care enough to keep watching?

Impressions

After having watched four outstandingly good films in this genre, I approached this one with less research going in than the others. http://AfterEllen.com, an online Lesbian authority if ever there was one, gave this film a reasonably good writeup, and having not watched a Japanese lesbian film, I figured this would be the place to start.

To be honest, I was looking forward to watching a film where I could feel the dialogue firsthand rather than having to rely on dodgy subtitles to convey the director’s intentions.

So I pressed play… And then pressed pause after about a minute just to confirm I wasn’t watching a soft porn HBO production. The titillating, saliva drenched bonbon swapping of our lingerie clad dream couple in the first scene of this movie is a work of soft focus soft porn worthy of any a man’s “special interest” video collection.

lml01

More than the scene itself was the absolute superfluousness of it. I came to suspect two things at this point.

1) The director was male: Because the sheer, blatant two dimensional flesh factor was not in any way up there with the three modern day mainstream films I’d just watched, namely Red Doors, Saving Face and of course, Butterfly.

2) The director was previously a porno director: His attention to the flesh, lighting, focus angles and of course, the actions of the two actresses suggested to me a certain familiarity with the subject matter that went beyond NHK daytime TV.

When I finally researched, I realised that the above two points were true. He was indeed a softcore porn director prior to directing this film.

Still, there is only one film I’ve ever stopped halfway through and that was Dancer in the Dark staring Bjork, a film so hopelessly depressing and dark that it can swallow viewers’ sense of well-being like a black hole and required me to watch three Monty Pythons and an episode of Mr. Bean to recover. Thus I decided to strive onwards.

You could build fences out of main characters’ dialogues they were so wooden. I found myself hiding my face in my hands. I don’t know whether the subtitles will protect you from the pain of their piss-poor acting.

Ichiko struck me a sort of 22 coming on 12. Her character was stuck at puberty, with dialogue appropriate of that age. Eri was a bit more grown up.

Even Ichiko’s extremely hip, translator and literary critic, Mac using father who has the disturbing penchant for referring to himself in the third person treats her like a secondary school kid, albeit an outed lesbian one with an appetite for wet bonbons. Except of course, fathers – even renowned translators – would rarely give their dearest a hetero novel about phone sex to translate as their first test job!

Eri was little better and her father was much worse. Take your stereotypical yuppie. Multiply by stereotypical lawyer and mix in a dash of stereotypical sexist bigot and you’ve just about summed up his two minutes of screen time. Horrific stuff.

Still, there were a few redeeming moments which allowed me to justify the time I was spending watching the film.

The scene where Ichiko meets her father’s secret lover over lunch one day is just superb. I can feel them both squirming for something appropriate to say, but finding nothing forthcoming, they resort to mutually inoffensive small talk. Great camera angles, great, vast open spaces between jittery dialogue. Very uncomfortable, very very funny!

Then there’s Ichiko’s best friend Take who is gay. He pulls of a nice, understated performance. Why can’t the main actors act like him for heaven’s sake. He’s believable, cute, insanely likable and most importantly, fully 3D. His own problems appear so much more real than the main pair’s self inflicted angst that I just wanted him to slap them and tell them to grow up.

lml04

Then there was the surprise character of Yukako, a dippy classmate who appeared at first to be the class snoop, but ended up being far more enjoyable.

lml07

And did I mention that Ichiko’s father was an Apple Mac user? He fits the mould perfectly: Handsome, cool, funny, understanding, compassionate, liberal, alternative lifestyle lover… Yes quite. Still, he’s very entertaining in the same way Justin Long (the Mac) is entertaining in the “I’m a PC, and I’m a Mac” ads.

i.e. supposed to be cool, but comes off a little annoying.

 

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Then there’s the random butch lesbian crush / love interest from… somewhere… Who Ichiko falls for before she disappears from whence she came… But not before one of the longest lesbian screen kisses I’ve seen in quite some time… Nope… Make that the longest single lesbian kiss shot I’ve ever seen in a “real” film.

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Again, this one scene by a really minor character eclipses anything the two overproduced, sugar coated bonbons can offer us, whether it’s sheer power and presence of the punky grrl or the awkward way Ichiko has absolutely no ides what to do with her hands or just plain “Yee Har! way to go!!!”. 

Final Verdict

If you haven’t guessed it, I didn’t think too highly of this movie. Why not? The plot is fairly standard, but then, so are Saving Face and Red Doors. No. This movie fails not because of it’s foot-bath-like shallow plot, or the lack of character build up, or the lack of outstanding humour or the absence of coherent social comment or even the ironically atypical number of stereotypes or even anything else to do with the story per se.

What kills this movie stone dead is the “Made for TV” or even worse, “Made for Video” production quality, wooden acting, the seriously lame titillation and the really gay main characters.  And I mean “gay” in this case not referring to their sexual orientations, but as a gay pal of mine amusingly used the word once to describe something I might have referred to euphemistically as “somewhat below par”.

Yes the film is cute, the characters cuddly, the ending all nice and warm-like and it does have its moments, but really everything else is stacked against it. Perhaps this is one of those “chick flicks” that jaundiced male members of the audience often refer to.

lml05

Obligatory doe eyed closeup “Twoshot”.

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Huh? What’s this? A cunning Faustian juxtaposition of object and subject relative to the surrounding paradigm? No, it’s just Eri and Ichiko, this time taking a “Twoshot” of themselves.

Then of course, there’s the gratuitous money shots of the two fine actresses(‘ bodies) naked and gleaming although tastefully obscured since this is softcore… remember?… which I won’t include here.

Oh, and they love tonguing sweets to each other… so as a booby prize for those expecting the naked shots, I’ll just include this completely egregious outtake from the first scene of the film.

lml10

I tried to like this movie. I wanted to like it, really. It’s a lighthearted romantic comedy with a gorgeous cast and some great moments, but just I can’t understand how respectable journals can rate this as anything other than amateur hour LGBT theatre. This is a one episode Fuji TV drama, not a film.

Or perhaps I’m just too jaundiced, jaded, bitter and twisted to enjoy a shallow love story about girl gets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl back again on steroids malarky.

I’m holding my right hand out horizontally with thumb and little finger spread out and tilting my hand from side to side in the universal symbol of “undecided”, “so-so”, “touch and go” or just plain MYEEH!

Categories: 2) Music & Film Tags: , ,

Film Review: Spider Lilies (2007, Taiwan) – 刺青 /Cì Qīng/

July 15, 2008 4 comments

Quote

Takeko : A tattoo is just an empty image, nothing more.
Jade   : I won't accept that! I asked you for a tattoo to symbolise
         "remembered love" and you made this for me. It is love!

Overview

This award winning film by lesbian director Zero Chou, set in modern day Taiwan in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake follows the lives of two girls, whose lives were affected by the disaster.

Synopsis

Takeko is a young woman who chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a tattooist after he was crushed to death when saving his son, her brother, from their collapsing house in the Taiwan earthquake of 1999. 

Her brother, Ching suffered PTSD and has only one clear memory; that of the beautiful yet haunting spider lily tattoo on his father’s arm. 

In memory of him, Takeko asks her tutor to tattoo the same design onto her own arm even though he tells her that the image of the Spider Lilies (Manjusaka), which line the path to Hell and whose poisonous root causes memory loss, is cursed.

There is another, more personal reason she wants the tattoo and that is to try and help her disabled brother. By having the tattoo copied onto her own arm, she hopes to bring her brother closer to her.  It is clear that she is filled with remorse for Ching and later in the film we find out that she blames herself for his current plight.

When not in the studio, she devotes all of her spare time to looking after Ching who tragically does not even recognise Takeko as his sister. To mask her guilt and deep feelings of loneliness, she buries herself in her work and in caring for her brother, and only expresses her emotions in the stories she tells to him of the strange and varied customers that visit her shop in search of tattoos, closing herself off from all friendship and solace. 

Jade is a local teenager living with her grandmother in a poor, run down apartment. She makes easy money as a seedy webcam chick, capitalising on her youthful appearance to bring in all of the wrong sorts of clientele. She dresses like a little girl and tells melancholy tales to her dolls, remembered from her past and flirts with the nameless clients on the other end of the camera, encouraging them to go one-on-one privately with her for a significant fee. The clients, unsure as to her actual age are quite keen to pay up.

However, Jade senses that her clients are starting to lose interest at her lack of “adventure”, so Jade makes up a spicy story about having a secret tattoo and decides to get one to go with her stories.

Jade, comes to the tattoo parlour seeking a tattoo for “a remembered love” and points to the Manjusaka design on the wall, one that she remembers seeing as a child. It doesn’t take her long to put two and two together.

She tells Takeko a cryptic tale about falling in love with someone when she was nine years old, someone who had that tattoo on her arm, like the one adorning the wall of Takeko’s parlour.

Takeko, recalling nothing of Jade however, rebuffs her off-hand, much to Jade’s chagrin and tells her that memories shouldn’t be trusted.

Jade, who’s memories are all that she has is upset but she embarks on a quest to make Takeko remember her and starts a concerted effort to revive her memories, which Takeko has spent nearly a decade trying to bury.

Impressions

The teenage cybertale beginning with it’s surreal colours and the typing coming up on screen hints at All About Lily Chou Chou (リリィ・シュシュのすべて)by Iwai Shunji and demonstrative scenes and camera facing during characters’ narrative is reminiscent of Trainspotting by Danny Boyle.

The most fascinating thing about the lead characters is how they embody the extreme approaches people take to dealing with trauma.

Jade, tries her hardest to remember everything, to hold on to every sweet moment, few and far between though they were, as if they were her last and most precious possessions. She believes that everything is transient and that existence is only as real as the memories of those involved. Be forgotten and you cease to exist.

Takeko is the opposite: Stony and cold, she has cut herself off from the pain of her past by forcing herself to forget everything, and floats lifelessly through the present like a rootless tree. For her, only the present has meaning and as soon as something becomes the past, it is left behind. Yet contradictorily she fills her days and nights with self pity and guilt for what she has done to her brother while at the same time denying herself the solace that would heal her.

 

The non-linear storyline flits from present to past in a slightly uneven and disconcerting way. Some scenes appear cut short and hurried, while others appear to linger a little longer than is comfortable. Intentional no doubt, but it does make the rhythm of the film a little difficult to follow.

These flashbacks serve to flesh out the lives of Takeko and Jade little by little, following Takeko’s slow reawakening from her morbid, empty state as Jade forces her bit by bit to remember the past and Jade herself.

As the film progresses, we see how the earthquake, and  a romantic liaison changes her outlook on life and why she blames herself. We also learn that this story is as much about the affection-starved Jade whose being abandoned and subsequently forgotten by her mother is the seed of her fixation on Takeko.

As a father, the scenes of the indescribably desperate nine-year-old Jade, though brief, were some of the most heart wrenching moments I’ve seen on screen to date and left me in tears.

The 18 year old Isabella Leong shows remarkable adaptability for this demanding role, whether its playing a high school tomboy crush, the devoted sister for Ching, the substitute mother for  Jade, the talented but troubled tattooist with a buried past or the reawakened and emotional woman she hints at becoming.

Every moment she’s on the screen, she captivates and convinces the audience, pulling them into her world.

However, just when the film starts to promise rewards to the viewer for following the winding and escalating plot with some stunning revelations, it instead starts to unravel and loose focus, plot threads fragment into what I can only, and unfortunately, describe as weird shit.

Plot lines which had been simmering suddenly come to a head, but not in a particularly coherent way. It’s more like Chou forgot the end of the film was coming until it was too late.

And just to heap even more weight onto the already emotionally encumbered lead’s shoulders, the illicit liaison towards the end of the film appears to draw the wrath of whatever gods are watching and Takeko is punished once more, just when she is coming to terms with and makes peace with her situation.

Final Verdict

This is essentially a film about memories: About choosing to remember or choosing to forget. About how we are the sum of our memories and how, if we cannot come to terms with and overcome the past, we can never be happy with what we have right here, right now.

Whether the director was searching for an extra bit of angst or melodrama at the end of the film is uncertain. It is perhaps more likely that a young and inexperienced Chou bit off a little more than she could chew and was unable to present the finale’s dense threads in coherent and comprehensible way.

As for assets, the main actresses are captivating together and prove that opposites can attract the audience as well as each other.

Then there is the highlight of the whole film, the backdrop of the earthquake and the childhood images of Jade with a young Takako are moments of magic and make this film a tearfest.


Despite this slight incoherence and the loss of focus of the jumbled ending, Spider Lilies is without doubt, an intelligent and thought provoking drama. It makes a valiant attempt at uncovering the wide vista of human emotional survival in the face of hardship and succeeds where a lesser film would fail to inspire.

Two thumbs up for this one!

Film Review: Les Filles du Botaniste (2006, France) – The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters

July 10, 2008 1 comment

This is the fourth film in my short series of Gay and Lesbian Asian film reviews.

Quote

“Think about it, if you do marry him we can be together forever”Overview

Sometime in the 90’s in the paradise of a Chinese botanical garden island run by Cheng, a famous recluse and brilliant botanical professor accompanied by only his doting daughter, An, and the occasional visits of his son, a junior ranking soldier is forever changed by the arrival of a guest from the mainland.

Their ideal, if somewhat lonely lifestyle is turned upside down by the guest and student, Li Min, an orphan who has been sent on a six-week internship to learn from the great professor, famed for his depth of knowledge, and precision if not his social skills. Min’s arrival spells great changes in An who becomes obsessed with her newfound friend, after so long being alone. An, who had suffered the childhood loss of her parents during an earthquake is thrilled to be the subject of An’s affection.

Towards the end of the six weeks, An becomes desperate to find a way to extend Min’s stay, and when a dangerous opportunity presents itself, An suggests it. Min, reluctantly at first, comes to realise that this is the only way they can be together forever, and accepts it.

Impressions

This stunningly beautiful film captures the idyllic atmosphere of the botanical gardens perfectly. You can almost feel the cool breezes of the evening and the muggy heat of the midday sun. The shots of scenery of the region and especially within the grounds of the garden are lovingly taken and create a restful, tranquil tableaux for the rest of the film.


The father and professor, played by Lin Dongfu, who’s unsympathetic demeanour towards his daughter yet obsession with work would be easy to despise. However, he is given enough chance to show his obvious genius, which mitigates his almost unbearable distaste for mistakes of even the smallest magnitude. This makes his character difficult to like, but easy to respect, perhaps like many real-world geniuses.

An is the archetypal obedient daughter, played by Li Xiaoran, who waits hand on foot on her father and attends to him day and night. She clearly respects him, if not loves him deeply, despite his dispassionate neglect of her emotional well being. In her lonliness, she has taken to concocting psychotropic herbal remedies to keep her company in the long, lonely evenings alone.

Her physical perfection alone would make her a stereotypical hollywood daughter and when added to the practically perfect behaviour she affords her undeserving father, it makes her character seem a little flat at times. However, we have to remember that China is a strongly paternalistic society and what the father says, goes, regardless of what you feel underneath. So perhaps she is a little more realistic than she appears.

But it becomes clear that she has more to her character than at first meets the eye, and that is where the film becomes interesting. Once An arrives, her priorities flip like a switch. She is besotted with the newcomer and fills her days (and nights) thinking about her. Her character undergoes a sea change, where all that was inside comes out and shatters all the veneer of her previous pretenses.

The times the two girls are on screen together are sublime rather than electric. Their relationship appears to be built on mutual need and love arising through need rather than a purer love for love’s sake.

This is made clear by the way they are portrayed as inseparable and jealous of anything and anyone that comes between them, especially the one that can keep them together. 

Verdict

Delicious visuals, captivating main characters and an original setting promise so much and you find yourself at the end of the unashamedly slow moving story surprisingly quickly. However when the end comes, it’s like a blow to the back of the head, and I can’t help but think that in his quest to spend so much time on scenery and atmosphere, Dai Sijie ran out of time or money to complete the picture in the way it deserved.

The ending, which could have been any one of shocking, thought provoking, moving or even just more of the “beauty” theme was instead nothing more than an almost emotionless and shallow epilog likean afterthought by making an immature or at best unsubtle sociopolitical statement, which some say is actually not true in any case.

I found myself suddenly detached from the film and bobbing along next to it, rather than in it as I had been up until the disappointing ending began.

All in all, a film that promises so much but never quite delivered its full potential.

I’ll give it a thumbs up on the characters and beauty of the screenplay alone, rather than for the story.

 

Film Trivia

The Chinese Government refused to sponsor the film and banned Dai Sijie from filming in mainland China. Instead, the film was shot in Ba Vi and Ha Tay in Vietnam with external funding.

Although Mylène Jampanoï is half Chinese and half French, she speaks only French. Thus she could not communicate with Li Xiaoran or the other cast at all and required interpreters.

Mylène practiced her lines for the entire film phonetically!

Film Review: Red Doors (2005, US) – 紅門

July 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Quote

[Dad, with slight frown]: Kate, there's a penis in your coat pocket.
[Daughter, shrugging]: It's not mine.

Overview

Red Doors is the most lighthearted film in my – admittedly shallow – dip into Asian movies with gay and lesbian themes. Although to be honest, calling this a lesbian film is like saying Forrest Gump is a movie about sport.

This is a mainstream hollywood feel-good comedy, no two ways about it. Oh yes, and one of the characters is a lesbian.

Synopsis

The film is about a mildly dysfunctional, middle classed Chinese family living in the suburbs of New York. The father has just retired, the mother is a dedicated home maker and the three children are all intelligent and good looking.

08door600

That would be the euphemistic way to describe the Wong Family.

Just below the surface, problems abound. The father, splendidly portrayed by “Tzi Ma”, (watching his parts in 24 season 6 first just makes his lines even more poignant!) has lost his purpose after retirement and attempts to take his own life at every opportunity.

Dad

The oldest daughter, a successful businesswoman is having second thoughts about her marriage to a successful but inconsiderate yuppie. The middle daughter, the shiest of the three is an intern in medical school and is having second thoughts about her sexuality. The youngest and only remaining teenager in the family is the wellspring of much of the movies guffawing and comic relief has thoughts only about one, special boy in her life and not much else.

The story follows their father’s unnoticed depression as his energetic wife and daughters lead their busy lives oblivious to his plight and the chain of events that ultimately lead the disparate members of the family back together again.

The women

Impressions

These types of family comedies are clear, pattern driven movies with plots that follow well trodden paths through the forest of modern society and pressured family life with all its attendant problems. More than other categories, these comedies tend to fall cleanly into two groups: shite or genuinely funny.

Luckily for Red Doors, it falls squarely into the latter category and had me in stitches at several points, leaving me feeling good without more than the occasional smidgen of wincing sappiness.

OK, so the father feels disconnected from everything, the youngest daughter is the rebellious “rocker grrl” black sheep who spurns her family’s traditions and who nobody can really communicate with. So what’s new?

The Rebel

Well, there’s the coming-out of the lesbian daughter, which hasn’t quite been flogged to death in the context of family mainstream comedies to the extent of the other bits.

Really, there are only so many things that can be told when it comes to comedies featuring entire families and this film covers no new ground in and of itself. Yet what makes this film a success is how those stories are told and bound together by the chemistry of the excellent cast and how their characters relate to each other.

And the family members really do just plain work well together, foibles and all. Their interactions are believable, charming, touching and funny in equal measures.

However, this is no “Meet the Parents” or “Me, myself and Irene”, two landmark dysfunctional-family-taken-to-extremes comedies by which I benchmark all others

Firstly, having been involved in the BBC (British Born Chinese) community in the UK, I can really say that the portrayal of Chinese-American culture in Red Doors was hackneyed, littered with stereotypes and unrealistic situations.

When Red Doors’ community is lined up alongside the rich and suggestively deep background created by Alice Wu in Saving Face, it really fails to inspire. These differences are subtle, but very important for a culturally themed movie.

Where Saving Face built up a very specific and real image of a particular Chinese community in Flushing, (Queens, NY) that had character and substance – like a masterful portrait of a living, breathing person – Red Doors is more like a postcard from Chinatown.

For example, the characters, especially the older generation, talking English amongst themselves is just plain odd. Then there are the occasional “Chinese Customs” bits thrown in to remind the audience that this fluent, English speaking family is actually really, really Chinese.

My second big issue with this movie are the peripheral male love interests who for one, all happen to be Caucasian and while they are important enough to feature repeatedly and have direct impact on the Wong’s daily life, they appear as flat as the paper their scripts were written on.

The prime example here is the oldest daughter Samantha’s husband, an entirely unlovable and irredeemable “Hi I’m a PC” jobsworth who, while being reliable and trustworthy, would be immediately marked as “dead” in any teen horror movie, but is instead marked from the outset to merely be replaced by an “And I’m a Mac” old flame, complete with designer stubble and all.

In fact, the two are so “PC v Mac” I’m reminded that this blog is actually Technojunkie and not LesbianMovieReviewWeekly

OUT DAMNED PC!

I'm a PC

BRING OUT THE MAC!

I'm a Mac

To be honest, only the youngest daughter and her love interest show any real original character development, and that relationship is one of the many touches that make this film so watchable.

I intended this this series of reviews to be a “lesbian-interest” point of view so I will just make my token mention here.

The lesbian plotline here is absolutely not a social commentary. It’s as lighthearted and humous a relationship with its shares of cuteness and mishaps as any of the other relationship in the film and is really just intended to add another twist to the movie.

Unfortunately, dispite having watched quite a few lesbian films over the last week or two, the relationship in this film looked contrived and was far more embarassing than I have come to expect from films in the last few years. I actaully found my finger hovering over the fast forward button during one or two of the cornier exchanges.

On the verge

One could argue that the fact that they just rolled it in without any special attention is a testament to how really and truly mainstream audiences of a family comedy have progressed to the point of acceptance.

As I said, this is a family comedy and not a psychosocial essay on the current interracial trends gender issues of the US, so it can be forgiven for these transgressions given the juicy characters of the father and the exploits of his three delightful daughters.

Final Verdict

Big thumbs up. Uneven but with a superb cast and some honestly side-splittingly funny bits. Oh, and not to mention the funniest T-shirt punch-lines I’ve ever seen!