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What happened to French politesse? Judging by that country’s presidential debates preceding François Hollande’s triumph over Nicolas Sarkozy – and by the Gallic gall featured in 2 Days in New York -- it’s been replaced by rudeness and bickering. Could the barbarous nation could use a little “civilizing mission” itself these days?
As its title hints, the new comedy from French actress-director-writer-musician Julie Delpy presents a sequel to 2 Days in Paris.
Now settled on this side of the Atlantic, Marion (Delpy) has jettisoned Jack (Adam Goldberg) for journalist and radio talk show host Mingus (Chris Rock), who joins her in raising their respective offspring.
Read more: Julie Delpy & Alexia Landeau...
Lauren Greenfield is pleased. Her latest work, The Queen of Versailles, has just played at the 15th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival to more cheer than it drew at the Sundance premiere. How fitting that Full Frame's Quinceañera would mark a girl’s coming into responsibility, via this portrait of Jacqueline Siegel, trophy wife of David “the timeshare king” Siegel.
The billionaire couple was building a 90,000 square-foot mansion -- Orlando and the country’s largest -- when the recession put the kibosh on their dream house. That the screening took place on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking supplied an apt metaphor for this Franco-Vegas-styled hulk frozen in time.
Read more: Interview with Lauren...
Assistant Director of Cultural Programs La Frances Hui of the Asia Society is also its film curator. In that role she has produces many fascinating series including the recent Extreme Private Ethos: Japanese Documentaries -- which runs from March 10 to 31.
Along with her role as curator, Hui has conducted many interviews with important figures in Asian cinema, including Tsai Ming-Liang, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, and John Woo.
Recently I spoke with her about this new film series as well as film trends in Asia, the subtleties of documentaires, and the ins-and-outs of interviewing film makers.
Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself?
LH: I’m the film curator at the Asia Society. I don’t think I've been interviewed much. Most of the time I interview people. And there’s something liberating about interviewing people.
Recently I interviewed Tsai Ming-liang. He made Face, Rebels of the Neon God, and I Don’t Want To Live Alone. His films are very personal, about people living lonely lives, about feeling alienated, and I was really scared before I interviewed him. I thought, "How could you talk about these things on a stage?"
I didn’t want to come off like I was asking about his personal life, even though sometimes with artists and film makers it’s part of who they are you want to talk about. These things are so dark, that it’s not something you want to pry. But then we got on stage and had a really nice conversation. Then I spent some time with him off the stage and...I could not ask [those questions] off stage, but on stage I was fine. It was like I had some sort of protection.
Q: What is your mission at the Asia Society?
LH: The mission of the Asia Society is to promote the understanding of Asia, and we are a rather unique organization. Depending on who you are you know the Asia Society as just one thing and you miss the other parts. But it’s an interesting place because we have a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding Asia.
In terms of my film program here, I want to bring really fantastic works from Asia and as much as possible bring film makers here to talk with the audience.
Q: Do you have an attraction to very personal or documentary type films?
LH: Of course, being the curator, whatever I pick reflects a little bit of myself. But I don’t think I have a preference towards documentaries, even though they just came up ... I just realized that most audiences, even cinephiles, they know fiction films from Japan much more than documentaries.
So when you think of Japanese cinema you think of directors like Akira Kurosawa, or contemporary ones like Takashi Miike. People are not very exposed to Japanese documentaries even though it has a very long tradition and some of the film makers have influenced many other, even outside of Japan.
For example, Shinsuke Ogawa, some people don’t know that a lot of contemporary Chinese independent film makers name him as an influence. But of course I did not program Ogawa in this series.
I like both fiction films and documentaries, but for me, when I show documentaries, I particularly like documentaries that are interesting because of filmmaking. They’re not interesting just because it is about bombing in Afghanistan or earthquakes somewhere.
But I particularly like documentary film makers when they think about the form itself, how they should approach documenting something. So this series is particularly interesting because it takes a personal approach and they address some very important issues of documentary film making, like authority, who can tell that story and authenticity.
For example, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On and Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, the subjects in these films, they’re performers. So how do you approach performers in a documentary? Is it non-fiction anymore? And then they raise questions, like responsibility.
The film maker of Dear Pyongyang (Yang Yonghi) talks about a family separated, half in North Korea and half in Osaka, and after making the film she’s banned from entering North Korea even though her brothers still live in Pyongyang. What does it mean for them to have that part of the family’s history exposed? The debut film of the festival, Death of a Japanese Salesman is very interesting.
The director (Sunada Mami) is very young, it’s her debut documentary and she worked for Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows), the acclaimed Japanese director. She decided to make this film three months after the passing of her father. She had been making home videos since the age of 15 abd she’s putting those videos together to make this film documenting the last months of her father’s life. Interestingly she speaks over the film as her father.
Obviously there’s something fictional if you’re speaking as your own father... In the film you only see the film maker for about 20 seconds, and the rest of the film is her family. So having the voice of this filmmaker is so important because she participates, the audience can hear her, so in a way she’s there as well.
Q: Why are there so many female directors in this program?
LH: To tell you the truth, I am a woman, but I was not looking for female film directors or films about women. I wanted to include these films and I didn’t even think about it until last week. Oh! It turns out my film series is heavily about women! I didn’t know that!
Q: You were just picking what was interesting.
LH: Absolutely. Death of a Japanese Salesman and Dear Pyongyang are both film about fathers, Embracing is also about a missing father, but it’s the female sensibilities shining through these films. But seriously it was so unconscious of me.
Q: What about the chronological progression in these films? It seems each film is from a different era, from post-war, to today.
LH: The films are ordered in reverse chronological ordering of the years they were made, but really that’s just one side of this ordering. The other side is that it’s a progression of madness and obsession. If you look at Death of a Japanese Salesman, I was telling people at the opening of the series that this film is very, very sad, but it’s actually the sweetest film in the series.
As the series progresses, you will see that the films get darker, the subjects get more personal, and the film makers get more obsessed. So you watch the first two as preparation to see the later films. I tell people that Extreme Private Eros is a film that would leave them trembling for several days.
Both of his [Hara Kazuo] films are very interesting because it’s like he’s staging those events. For example, in The Emperor’s Naked Army, in the film, Kenzo [Okuzaki], finds out about cannibalism during the Second World War in New Guinea in his own army unit. And he gets increasingly mad and crazy and violent. And before shooting, Hara Kazuo went to visit his former unit of soldiers and Kazuo found about the cannibalism before shooting and he thought “it’s going to be so great to capture the moment when Kenzo finds out about that.” And there’s so much staging, he’s anticipating moments of confrontation.
Q: How do these films reflect the era they were made in?
LH: Hara Kazuo is from a time where he experienced more political radicalism, so he’s probably more influenced by that. These film makers, Sunada Mami and Yang Yonghi, are sort of from the same [current] time. I think Hara Kazuo is probably more influenced by the social-political context he is from than the other ones. The other ones are more personal in a way that is their direct experiences with their families.
Q: What was it like getting the film prints?
LH: It really wasn’t that hard. Some of the films have distribution and the distributor have the prints. Extreme Private and Embracing are two 16mm prints from the Japan Foundation Archive in Tokyo.
Death of a Japanese Salesman was a digital film done on HD cam, so it was not too complicated. Though I must say it’s such a pity that all the 16mm prints are not in great condition. These are all really important films, they need to be restored. But of course for me, whenever the prints are available and we can show it on film, I want to show prints. It’s a very, very different experience for me and hopefully the audience. I know there are some people that can’t distinguish.
Q: Were the films selected before or after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami?
LH: It was after.
Q: Did it play a role in the decisions?
L: Not necessarily. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do a documentary series simply because I think the audience should know more about Japanese documentaries and I didn’t want to restrict myself to the past decade, because I wanted to show a variety and bring some classics. It’s not an extensive series, it’s a small package, but there’s coherence and a beauty about them.
The earthquake and tsunami didn’t really play a role. I did try to bring a documentary about that, but I didn’t come across anything suitable. And then for the time I had to confirm everything, I mean some of these films were probably still being made. And also I’m not going to tell you what I don’t have that were considered.
Q: That was my next question!
LF: I cannot tell you that [laughs]! There were some really great films, but due to financial resources and the availability of those films, there were issues with the availability of those films, and we couldn’t get them. But I’m happy with these.
Q: What directors would you like to have at the Asia Society or think deserve attention?
LH: Someone like Naomi Kawase deserves a retrospective where she comes here. That would be more proper. She’s somebody who has such a rich repertoire of both documentaries and fiction films, I don’t understand why her films don’t really have distribution in this country. I don’t know whether it’s some problem with female sensibilities [or] something that it’s not biting enough. She’s the most under-recognized among Japanese filmmakers.
Q: What other countries do you look at while selecting films?
LH: I like interesting films, so it’s not so much about the countries. There are certain countries that are doing interesting work right now, there are certain countries that used to do really exciting works. Last year I did a Thai film series because I think Thai cinema is extremely exciting right now. And I was glad to be featuring the sort of Thai new-wave that started in late 1990’s to around 2000, a new crop of film makers made things very exciting. People usually know Thai cinema as Apichatpong [Weerasethakul]’s films, but there’s a lot more people doing really creative work.
Nowadays, Chinese independent cinema is doing really well. I’m not talking about commercial Chinese cinema, which is not particularly exciting, because they do all these big-budget films and they’re very generic looking, with big film stars, and it is very market driven. The independent Chinese film makers are doing really exciting works. And the Iranian film makers are similar. And I think there are some interesting films coming out of other parts of South-East Asia, like Indonesia and Malaysia, as well. I keep looking.
Q: Did the earthquake change how Japanese documentaries will be made or what the political attitudes in the documentaries will be?
LH: It’s hard to generalize because film makers, each one is a creative individual, but I feel that Japanese documentary film makers will continue to do very personal works. It’s something they do really well... It is hard to speak of a trend. It’s too much responsibility to say something about that.
Dear Pyongyang has a political dimension, but it is primarily a personal film. For some people it is very interesting because it has this North Korean aspect to it. North Korea is very mysterious and this film brings them to that world, but it is really a film about family. Maybe the Emperor’s Naked Army has a political dimension, but all the other ones are very personal.
Q: Are films from Thailand more about social crusading than the ones from Pakistan and Iran or are they more personal?
LH: The Pakistani film, Saving Face, involves activism and the film maker is like a film journalist. And Thai films, what is very interesting about them, what I called the Thai New-Wave earlier, 1990’s to the present, is that it goes hand in hand with commercial sides and artistic sides.
You have people like Apichatpong making art films, and then you have people making commercial works that are very interesting as well. For example, The Iron Ladies (Youngyooth Thongkonthun) can seem crazy, but it was a big box-office success.
Then you have people like Pen-ek Ratanaruang who seem to be somewhere in between. So I’m excited by Thai cinema because of the variety all over. People doing very different things, very different artistic approaches, but together they contribute to a very vibrant industry.
Q: Is there any guiding figure among Japanese documentary film makers?
L: Well obviously Hara is not a household name, but people really look up to him. Even Michael Moore is a fan of Hara. It is not like too many people know about his work, but he is truly admired. I’m sure he has a cult following. And even fewer people have seen Kawase’s work, but hopefully they’ll be showing more in the United States. These are masters to follow.
Hara is not very productive; he’s not making too many films. The last time he made a film was a few years ago (Mata no Hi no Chika, 2005) and he has long stretches when he’s not making films. But how could he? After making something like Extreme Private Eros or Emperor’s Naked Army, you would need a seven -ear break.
I would watch Sunada Mami’s work. She has a babyface, but she’s actually 30 years old. I want to see what she has coming up. And I heard that Yang Yonghi’s new film (Kazoku no Kuni) is really nice.
Q: How do you feel about film right now?
L: We have really interesting films here, and some of them are hard to find, some you can get on DVD or online, but there’s something really, really beautiful about watching films on a big screen. And it is very painful for me, how the young generation likes to watch things on a tiny little screen. It frustrates me greatly and I don’t get much pleasure out of doing that myself.
There are a lot of venues in the city, not just the Asia Society, that allow them to have a real cinematic experience. They should be bold and try to expose them to those experiences.It’s a great time for cinema. More than any other art form, it excites me and it still does.
I feel so exhilarated when I watch a really well made film, and it happens far more than when I consume other forms of art.
It is a good time for people in New York who watch films too, because I remember when I was in school, I went to cinema studies, and you’d read about these films being shown at major film festivals in Europe or wherever, and those films never came to New York, not to mention the other places in the United States. If they didn’t come to New York they wouldn’t go anywhere else.
In the past few years, there’s a proliferation of cinematic events in this city. It drives you crazy, because you cannot cover everything. You give up eventually, and it doesn’t help that some of those things can be found online and so people are not really encouraged to go out.
But it is a good time. Whatever happens elsewhere in the world, you can see them in New York. But the only problem is that that particular film you are dying to see might play once, and then it will be five years before it might show up again. So at the Asia Society we want to participate in making those films available.
To see Hui's interviews with Tsai Ming-Liang and other filmmakers, go to: http://www.youtube.com/user/asiasociety
For more info about The Asia Society, the Extreme Private Ethos film series and more, go to http://asiasociety.org/
Though Pariah is this little film telling a simple, classic tale seen and heard before, the charm of its actors and the need to have this coming-of-age story told again and again until it no longer needs to resonate makes the film a powerful and award-worthy statement.
Relative newcomer Adepero Oduye portrays Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), a 17-year-old African-American woman who lives with parents Audrey and Arthur (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), and younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. With a flair for poetry and good grades, Alike quietly but firmly embraces her lesbianism with the sometimes boisterous support of her best friend and out lesbian Laura (Pernell Walker).
Read more: Actress Adepero Oduye Is No...
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