Community, Values

Finishing the Game: a movie, but not just a movie

Finishing the Game (2007, dir. Justin Lin, dist. IFC Films) is an indie mock-umentary of the re-casting of Bruce Lee’s unfinished film after his death in the 1970s. The auditions bring out Asians of all stripes — suave professionals, dreamers and actors of integrity — throwing kicks and emitting feline howls. It’s a light-hearted movie with lots of big hair, but in the subtexts are plentiful jabs at the movie industry’s racism and money-grubbing values.

Go see it!

I really liked the film. It’s funny and irreverent, and inherently Asian without being limited to Asian-ness, yet it touches on serious issues of race and representation. Plus there’s a token white guy! Come on! That’s hilarious! I hear the subtext, and it sounds like: You know where you can stick those quirky sidekick / comedic relief roles?!!

Finishing the Game just opened in the Bay Area. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because they don’t have a marketing budget.

But the upswing is that since the cast is involved in grassroots promotions, I caught a really eye-opening Q&A with some of the actors and producers. The discussion (which provided a classic example of who feels entitled to speak) kept coming back to the clash between representation and the movie industry, or art and business. I knew that Justin Lin’s first big feature film, Better Luck Tomorrow, was a “credit card film.” Talk about self-subsidizing (think six figures!) Its success was a miracle story. But actor Roger Fan (who stars in both films) explained that the popularity of BLT provided Hollywood studios with the hard evidence to take on movies with APA leads, and the result was that MTV became BLT’s distributor, and Harold and Kumar was green-lighted.

But here’s the sad news. Actor Sung Kang shared a maxim: people make indie films because they have to. The irony is that Lin originally wanted a Hollywood studio behind BLT at the start — and he had his chance — he was offered $2m to make BLT as long as the cast was not APA. So three cheers to Lin and BLT producers Julie Asato and Curtis Choy (yeah, the Curtis Choy who made The Fall of the I-Hotel. Uh huh!) for sticking to their guns. You can cite their integrity for the recent improvements in APA representation in American cinema. Cheers!

But Kang also pointed out that he’s just an actor: all he can do is be the best actor he can. What talks to studio execs is dollars, so, as cheesy as it sounds, support your independantly-produced APA film! Your ticket really means something.

Community, Research

A blip on the APA media sonar

Three years ago, when Bollywood seemed poised to take America by storm, I published an op-ed that warned South Asians that increased media attention isn’t the same as improved representation (“Come on Down [Expect Stereotypes as South Asians Make U.S. Film, TV Debuts]” Oakland Tribune, KALW radio). I used examples of East Asians in mass media to show how little progress towards accurate representation has been achieved. Little has changed since then.

Though working towards institutional social change will always be more pressing than issues of representation, I always register APAs in the media on my mental sonar. The Korean actor on Heroes? Blip. Kal Penn in a leading role? Blip! Kenneth Eng? Ugh—blip!

Recently, a blip popped up–it may not be significant, but it was new, and it made me laugh. In a comedic situation typical of white “politically correct” middle classes, the narrator of Scrubs, played by Zach Braff (himself hamming up the neurotic white man who warrants the cool-begetting approval of an African American buddy) is mistaken for a racist after offering the word “chink” as a crossword puzzle solution.

In a subsequent scene, Asian doctors and Filipina nurses give the increasingly uncomfortable protagonist the stink eye. They’re pissed, and the APA stink eyes keep coming for several hilarious seconds. Too mortified by his breach of “political correctness” to attempt a clarification, Braff’s character feigns ignorance of the hostility, until a linebacker sized Pacific Islander violently jostles him with an contemptuous screw face.

The representation is not unproblematic (Non-speaking roles? C’mon!). Still, in a refreshing contrast to the stereotypes of demure APA women and emasculated APA men, Scrubs’ Angry Asians showed some serious indignation, even if it was based on a comedic premise. Better yet, the Angry Asians–of the various ethnicities and professions you would find in a real hospital–expressed solidarity. BLIP!

On a somewhat related note, Colma: The Musical is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco this week. I’m proud to big-up my hometown hero, H.P. Mendoza, who wrote the screenplay, music and lyrics and stars in the film. It’s directed by Richard Wong. The movie’s been written up in many local rags, but I really liked Glen Helfand’s review in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Research, Values

Values and Everyday Heroism, via Movie Review

A minute for a movie review. A+ for writing, and interesting morsels on values and everyday heroism.

Pre-justification #1: The focus of this blog is art, but artists, curators and critics can be concerned with culture at large.

Pre-justification #2: Movie reviews can be useful examples of beautifully concise, insightful writing. See David Denby of the New Yorker Magazine.

I don’t know which offense is more pervasive and exasperating: the issue of the portrayal of women and men in movies, or our age of irony and immaturity. Below, A.O. Scott elegantly sums up big ideas in a few sentences, in a movie review of “Knocked Up.”

“…The absence of a credible model of male adulthood is clearly one of the forces trapping Ben and his friends in their state of blithe immaturity.
Mr. Apatow’s critique of contemporary mores is easy to miss — it is obscured as much by geniality as by profanity — but it is nonetheless severe and directed at the young men who make up the core of this film’s likely audience. The culture of sexual entitlement and compulsive consumption encourages men to remain boys, for whom women serve as bedmates and babysitters. Resistance requires the kind of quixotic heroism Steve Carell showed in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or a life-changing accident, like Alison’s serendipitous pregnancy….”

Bye-Bye, Bong. Hello, Baby.
June 1, 2007
New York Times

I have always resented how male bonding often privileges dumbed-down culture, and the permission that males seem to have in associating women with growing up, the loss of innocence and by extension, evil. Look closely and you’ll find many examples in popular culture–music (including rap and rock), movies, comics, etc. One can find similar attitudes in contemporary art — art by men-boys for men-boys, and the women who don’t mind.