Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why Nobody Can Write Like Roberto Bolaño

I've been meaning to post about Roberto Bolaño for some time now, because I am addicted to/envious of his copious output and lean, laserlike prose. Now, thanks to Jonathan Lethem's New York Times Book Review piece on the eagerly-anticipated publication of the English translation of his mammoth final novel 2666, we know why. Lethem writes:

"In a burst of invention now legendary in contemporary Spanish-language literature, and rapidly becoming so internationally, Bolaño in the last decade of his life, writing with the urgency of poverty and his failing health, constructed a remarkable body of stories and novels out of precisely such doubts: that literature, which he revered the way a penitent loves (and yet rails against) an elusive God, could meaning­fully articulate the low truths he knew as rebel, exile, addict; that life, in all its gruesome splendor, could ever locate the literature it so desperately craves in order to feel itself known."

Is it too romantic a notion to think that Bolaño's awareness of his impending death gave him the mental focus to produce such an astonishing ouevre in such a short period of time?


If Kim Ki-young were reincarnated today, he would be a young Indonesian director named Mouly Surya. Her wacko gothic psychodrama Fiksi was one of the highlights in Pusan for me this year. Keep an eye out for it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Abandoned Cities of Asia

Thanks to my wife for pointing me to Web Urbanist, and their list of Abandonments. Most relevant to this site? The abandoned cities of Asia.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reports of the Death of Korean Cinema...

...have been greatly exaggerated. It's a sad fact that there is at least as much, if not more, writing about the business side of cinema as there is about the artistic side. And for a decade or so, Korean cinema has been one of the biggest business successes in the world. All of this ended after the record-setting year of 2006 proved to be unsustainable and the industry went into a steep decline in 2007.

This led the usual prognosticators to declare the Korean Wave over and go looking for the next big thing. Too bad for them. The industry did take a hit in 2007, some producers certainly lost their shirts, but the talent is still there, and the result, at least based on the evidence presented at Toronto and Pusan this year, is that the industry seems to have shrunk to a more manageable size, meaning fewer swing-for-the-fences blockbusters, and - from what I was able to see - a clearer focus on making quality movies.

Only three Korean features were selected for Toronto this year, and all three were excellent choices. Kim Ji-woon's The Good, the Bad, the Weird proved that Korea can still make the best big, fun movies around. Noh Young-seok did just about everything, including designing the sets and composing the music, for his droll feature debut Daytime Drinking. And In Between Days director So Young Kim's sad, sweet, autobiographical Treeless Mountain even got the business types in a tizzy - the line for the industry screening I saw was at least twice he capacity of the tiny screening room where it was shown.

If the small number of Korean films in Toronto seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom about Korean cinema's decline, Pusan offered a refreshing counterargument. There were more than 300 films in the festival this year, but over and over it was the Korean ones that came up in conversation as particularly impressive.

Top among my favorites were Hong Sang-soo's latest portrait of male ineptitude, the Paris-set Night and Day; Sohn Young Sung's Borges-inspired labyrinth of stories The Pit and the Pendulum; and the rambunctious comedy-of-obsession Crush and Blush, a film that seemed to split viewer into love-it-or-hate-it camps, a generally good sign for its director, Kyungmi Lee, one of a number of talented women directors who seem to be popping up lately. Of the films I wasn't able to see, Ikjune Yang's Breathless and Seung-bin Baek's Members of the Funeral came up repeated in conversation as impressive.

The Korean Retrospective program, which this year focused on Han Hyung-mo and included his awesome 1961 crowd-pleaser My Sister is a Hussy, is always eye-opening. In addition to Han's films, I was glad to see two restorations of film by my favorite madman, Kim Ki-young, on the program. I had already seen his classic psychodrama The Housemaid, which was shown in a newly-restored print, but I was glad that his overheated 1981 period drama Ban Geum-ryun was also on the bill.

So let's hope that the fall festival season is a harbinger of a newly lean Korean film industry which may not rake in the dough like it used to, but can still produce quality stuff.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More on "Still Walking"

The news that Still Walking won the Indiewire Toronto critics and bloggers poll reminded me of something I forgot to mention in the previous Toronto post.

At least one critic felt that it had a few too many endings, which he felt was its only flaw. My assessment is similar, only I don't see this as a flaw. I remember thinking Still Walking could have ended at any number of points and still been perfect. I like the idea of a movie that can end at any time.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Like a lot of people, I was shocked to hear of David Foster Wallace's suicide yesterday. It would be trite to call him the voice of my generation, but I think he was one of the few (if not the only?) writer able to voice, and also pierce, the carapace of irony many of us armed ourselves with while growing up in a media-saturated world of composed mostly of advertising images.

One of his great strengths was his ability to pick apart not only the mediated world we live in, but his (our) attitudes towards it, in a self-designed, necessarily wordy style that struck a balance between the self-consciously literary and slacker-slang.

And beneath it all, always a kind of sadness. I mean, Infinite Jest is an infinitely sad book.

You can get a sense of him from this essay he wrote about a radio talk show host, in which he not only explains the machinery of talk radio and its curious mix of bile and faux populism, but find some form of affection for his subject.

But David, I must tell you that it's hard not to be furious with those who take their own lives. I'd like to think I can't imagine the pain you were in, but if I can imagine it, then you have no excuse. Especially since one of your more widely-circulated recent efforts was an inspiring commencement address about overcoming life's difficulties. Also, hanging yourself is a pretty fucked up thing to to, especially w/r/t* your wife, who had to come home and find you. What can I say, except that I am sorry you had to end it this way.

* using "w/r/t" is one of Wallace's signature devices, as are footnotes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Toronto Report 1: Japan

Before I even saw a movie, Toronto felt different this year. The city is in the midst of a spectacular construction boom. You can barely walk a block downtown without passing a construction site where a condo complex of a couple dozen stories is going up. A local told me that people were buying units that weren't even built yet, then flipping them for a profit the next day. Canada, have you learned nothing from our little mortgage crisis down here in the States? Or, is this a sign that global big money no longer sees the US as a good bet, and is moving on to our more stable neighbor to the north?

While Toronto the city rises to heights that threaten to blot out the sun, Toronto the festival remains what it has always been: many things to many people. It is big enough to accommodate celebrity-watchers, critics checking out the big fall releases, distributors looking for titles to acquire, and people like me, specialists in some particular aspect of world cinema.

Fate decreed that my schedule was somewhat Japan-heavy this time around, which turned out to be a bit of good fortune because the Japanese films were stronger than I remember them being in years. I and just about everyone else who saw it were smitten with Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film, Still Walking, in which tensions, buried resentments, and secrets emerge during a family gathering. Kore-eda's strength is in his subtlety. The action unfolds over roughly 24 hours, and at a pace that allows for the most dramatic revelations to emerge as they would in life - naturally, through the rhythms of family interaction. Though many drew comparisons to Ozu, Kore-eda, in the q&a after the public screening, remarked that Naruse was more on his mind when he was making it, which makes sense considering the bitter edge that the film retains beneath its considerable good humor.

Kore-eda wasn't the only famous Japanese auteur with a film in the festival. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his nightmarish horror movies, and Tokyo Sonata has some of the same qualities. But in this case, the nightmare is the everyday: losing your job and hiding it from your family; having a talent that no one acknowledges; being so dissatisfied that you wish you could start over again. Kurosawa is a consumate dramatist. There is a moment, late in the film, when you feel things are dragging down, at which point he throws in an ingenious plot twist that surges the thing through the final stretch.

In Japanese cinema, there may be no bigger name than Takeshi Kitano, try as he might to ruin his own reputation. Titled after one of Zeno's paradoxes, Achilles and the Tortoise is the third in his trilogy of films celebrating his own artistic self-destruction. In the first, Takeshis', he focussed on his failure as an actor by playing a dual role, one of which is a younger, better version of himself. In Glory to the Filmmaker he exposes his inability to come up with ideas by putting a compendium of failed ideas onscreen. Although he does paint in real life, the character he plays in Achilles feels more overtly fictional than those in the previous films. My informal poll revealled a divide between those who like the first half, which depicts the hero's rough childhood, or the second, which chronicles his adult career as a failed artist desperately chasing every modern art trend that comes along. How does it end? Let's just say that Kitano is above all a great sentimentalist, and when we find out the reason for the film's title, it becomes one his more satisfyingly hokey endings.

I have often lamented that films like these rarely make it beyond the festival circuit and onto American movie screens. Lacking overt thrills, shocks or a readymade genre peg, even films by acknowledged masters such as Kore-eda, Kurosawa and Kitano may not be picked up for distribution. Which doesn't bode well for Ryosuke Hashiguchi, who is relatively unknown in our region, but who brought to Toronto yet another brilliant Japanese film, All Around Us. Covering about a decade in the life of a married couple, its a film in which what happens during the ellipses is as important as what we see onscreen, and its depiction of love, grief, sadness and ultimately acceptance is every bit as powerful as Kore-eda's.

Next up: Korea.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I sometimes think that we live in a time that denies all achievement, that the Web (especially "Web 2.0") has created a class of armchair-everythings who take pleasure only in cutting down the successes of the genuinely talented. The Olympics tends to bring this out. To some, Michael Phelps' athletic achievements matter less than the fact that he seems like a tool.

It's even worse when it comes to the arts. We know exactly how fast Phelps can swim, but creativity can't necessarily be quantified, nor the work and effort put into it measured.

Which may be why I found myself so attracted by two recent movies that give creativity its due.

My Name is Fame has one of those goofy Hong Kong movie titles, and its plot follows the well-trod path of Pygmalion and A Star is Born, but what really struck me about it was that it takes art seriously. The relationship between the two main characters - Fai, an embittered, washed-up actor, and Fei, the aspiring ingenue who at first idolizes and then surpasses him - is structured as an artistic rivalry, and the questions they confront regarding integrity, and what kinds of achievements and recognition really matter, are given the importance - and the ambiguity - they deserve.

If My Name is Fame is about the hard work of being a creative artist (especially in an industry that rarely values artistry), Be Kind Rewind simply revels in the pure joy of making stuff. The characters played by Jack Black and Mos Def are so unaware of how to make a movie that the obstacles that would thwart someone with knowledge but without means are hardly obstacles at all. Possessing neither means nor knowledge, they happily plunge in with a cheap video camera and whatever else they have at hand. These "Sweded" versions become more popular than the originals among the denizens of the video store where they hang-out, and this exuberance in creativity pervades the entire film (and beyond.)

In both films, creativity is, in itself, both labor and reward. The ingenious ending of My Name is Fame, which deliberately withholds what might have been Fai's triumph in another film, brings this point home in what I found to be a very moving way. The end of Be Kind Rewind is just as moving, but for a different reason. It, and the movie as a whole, evokes a lost Eden, where pure creativity exists unbound by mental or physical barriers.

Robert Ashley

I was surprised and a little depressed to learn that Robert Ashley has made, like, three or four operas in the last few years, and I was completely unaware of them. Obviously, I haven't been keeping up.

A friend introduced me to Ashley's work when I was in college, and I've been a fan ever since - partly because of the music, but even more because of his use of language. He is truly one of the great manipulators of English. Perfect Lives and Improvement are particular favorites of mine. The best entry point, however, is undoubtably Private Parts (The Record), which is a hushed, mesmerizing recording of what would become the first and last parts of Perfect Lives.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Soccer Blogs

I came to soccer fandom pretty late. For years I dabbled, watching the World Cup and the occasional Premier League match on cable. But one can only appreciate "the beautiful game" from a distance for so long. Eventually, you really have to pick a team so you can experience the full range of euphoria and agony provided by a sport that so often teases its fans with 0-0 draws after ninety minutes of excruciating tension.

So, last year, I decided to become a Barcelona; supporter. Which is, I know, a little like a newbie baseball fan declaring for the Yankees. Unluckliy for Barcelona, however, I am a lifetime fan of
the losingest sports franchise in history, and my bad luck tends to transfer to whatever other teams I follow. Barca finished the 07-08 season in third place in their league - a grave matter for them - and ended up jettisoning their coach and a couple of star players.

Their new season begins in a little over a week, and I plan to blog their (I hope) recovery from last season's disappointments.

In the meantime, here are some soccer blogs I recommend:

Unprofessional Foul is an opinionated, and often funny, round-up of world soccer news. I especially like the cover art, in which Ronaldhino's unmistakable teeth feature prominently.

Jennifer Doyle is an American professor of Literature, currently living in England, whose blog, From A Left Wing, covers her other passion: soccer (especially women's soccer), with verve and intellectual heft.

Finally, artversussport is by an artist in Barcelona, whose passion for her hometown team manifests itself in watercolors of the players in action.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Why is this clip so funny? Maybe because it's a perfect illustration of three-part joke structure, made even more funny because it happens by accident.

Speaking of Warhol

There's a great piece by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian objecting to how Andy Warhol is usually depicted in movies, i.e., either as a vampiric manipulator of vulnerable acolytes or a circus freak.

Speaking as a Warhol fanatic, I stand behind Jones when he writes that he'd "rather gaze at the Empire State building for eight hours than see another biopic or documentary that claims to recreate the strange and mysterious world of his New York studio." Warhol may have been just too strange for this world, but this world is better for having had him around for a while.

As Tears Go By

A new print of Wong Kar-wai's 1988 debut feature, As Tears Go By is making the rounds, and it's well-worth seeking out.

The critical consensus seems to be that it's mainly of interest for the brief glimmers of Wong's mature artistic style that are buried in an otherwise fairly unremarkable film, but there are other pleasures to be had as well. For me, seeing it reminded me of what I always liked about Hong Kong New Wave gangster movies. Namely, the way the narratives are stripped to the bone. Motivation, character development, exposition: all of these are virtually eliminated in favor of velocity and stylistic pizzazz.

In contrast to his later films, which constitute a genre all their own, Wong more or less play by the gangster movie rules in As Tears Go By, but those glimmers, which include some beautifully smeary step-printed action scenes, and a love scene set to a Cantonese version of "Take My Breath Away", are certainly a glimpse of what's to come.

Blog Restart

Until now, this blog was two things:

1. About Asian cinema exclusively.
2. Rarely updated.

As of today, all that is changing. From now on, I promise to post at least every other day (circumstances permitting), and to mix in topics other than Asian cinema. (Hence, the new title: Asian Cinema Plus.)

This is, in part, a form of self-therapy. Watching Asian films began as a hobby, then became a career, and now threatens to take over my life. Also, as a category, I'm not sure Asian cinema means anything anymore, or, rather, it means too many different things to too many different people. If I allow myself to use this space to write about movies from Iran and Korea, why not France and Senegal? Aren't each of these places equally similar and different, one from another?

Following the same logic, why limit myself to film at all? If I admire both Hou Hsiao-hsien and Andy Warhol as artists, why not write about both? If I enjoy watching soccer and watching movies, why not include that as well?

So without futher ado, welcome to my newly reconsidered blog, Asian Cinema Plus.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Otakon Appearances

Tomorrow (Saturday), I'll be traveling up to Baltimore to attend the gigantic anime convention known as Otakon. If previous conventions are any indication, the Baltimore Convention Center will be overflowing with people of all ages wearing outlandish costumes.

I will be signing my book at the Borders Express in the Dealers Room at 3 PM, then giving a talk at 5 PM in Panel Room 1.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

March 16 Screening and Book Event

On Sunday, March 16, at 1 PM, I will be speaking before, and signing the book after, a screening of Lou Ye's devastating Summer Palace at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Book Now Available

Asian Cinema: A Field Guide is now available at bookstores worldwide. Here is the official site. For those of you on Facebook or MySpace, there are pages for it there too.