Author Archives: Tom Vick

About Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler and the author of Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide. Follow him @tomrvick.

A Look Back at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Festival

Mad World

Twenty years ago this July, rule over the territory of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. To mark the occasion, this year’s edition of the Freer|Sackler’s Made in Hong Kong Film Festival began and ended with films made twenty years apart. Though they are distinctly atypical of the island’s film industry, these films highlight through their uniqueness what Hong Kong’s cinema and culture was before the handover and what it has become since.

To begin at the end, the festival closed with a film that shares its title. The first independent film made after the 1997 handover, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong was, in both style and substance, entirely different from the kinds of movies that defined Hong Kong cinema up to that point. No jaw-dropping martial arts feats by the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. No cool gangsters in sharp suits showering each other with bullets in slo-mo fight scenes a la John Woo’s underworld epics. Instead, Fruit Chan’s film looks at the largely invisible underbelly of the city, where people live in cramped apartments and turn to petty crime simply to pay their bills.

Made in Hong Kong

In its edgy, gritty style and pessimistic plot, Made in Hong Kong (which we presented in a beautifully restored twentieth-anniversary version, created by the Udine Far East Film Festival under Chan’s supervision) embodied the anxiety many people felt about the handover at the time. Would China really honor its promise to allow business as usual to continue for the next fifty years? And what would happen after that?

That anxiety hasn’t gone away, even as the Hong Kong film industry has expanded to take on the mainland China market that the handover opened up. Today’s blockbuster Hong Kong movies are frequently hybrid affairs—no less glamorous than the pre-handover movies, but less distinctly Hong Kong. They are often made by a combination of Hong Kong and mainland talent, aimed at the tastes of Chinese audiences with an eye toward the strict censorship that mainland authorities enforce.

Made in Hong Kong

Much as Made in Hong Kong stood out against the status quo of its day, Mad World, the opening film of this year’s festival, stands out against today’s. The result of a new Hong Kong government initiative to support young filmmakers addressing important issues, Wong Chun’s film plays out far from the city’s New York-on-steroids skyline, telling the story of a poor truck driver trying to care for an adult son suffering from bipolar disorder. Taking on both economic inequality and the stigma associated with mental illness, Mad World is in tune with a number of activist movements that have grown up on the island recently.

Young filmmakers like Wong are part of an emboldened generation more likely to speak their mind than their predecessors. Their outspokenness—from the 2014 Occupy protests, which recently resulted in the imprisonment of three prominent activists, to two newly elected legislators who refused to pledge allegiance to the mainland while being sworn in—may have been on the mind of China’s President Xi Jinping on the handover’s twentieth anniversary. His speech commemorating the occasion warned Hong Kongers against crossing the “red line” of undermining Chinese autonomy.

Mad World

Visiting Hong Kong this spring for Filmart, its annual entertainment business trade show, was a stranger-than-usual experience. In the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (where, coincidentally, the handover ceremony took place in 1997), upbeat sales reps from the big distribution companies cheerily hawked their latest films in eye-catching booths pulsing with music and film clips. Outside, conversations with local friends inevitably came around to the undercurrents of unrest and unease that seem to be occupying everyone’s minds.

One of Mad World’s themes is that the traditional dream of making it in Hong Kong—that working hard will lead to wealth, designer clothes, and a gorgeous high-rise apartment—is harder than ever to attain. In reality, even successful white-collar workers work punishing hours to barely afford a tiny, dingy flat a hellish commute away from their cubicle in the city’s glittering downtown. And for Hong Kong’s increasingly visible and vocal down-and-out, the situation is much worse. The decision to restore Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong twenty years after its debut couldn’t be more apt: today, it looks prescient.

“The Salesman” Makes Headlines

"The Salesman" screens Sunday, February 5, at the National Gallery of Art as part of Reseeing Iran: The 21st Annual Iranian Film Festival.

“The Salesman” screens Sunday, February 5, at the National Gallery of Art as part of Reseeing Iran: The 21st Annual Iranian Film Festival.

Every once in a while, a film that we present unexpectedly hits the headlines. Such is the case with the centerpiece of this year’s Iranian Film Festival, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. It already opened the festival to a crowd of more than four hundred people, who filled the AFI Silver Theatre’s largest auditorium to capacity on a rainy Sunday afternoon last month. It returns this Sunday for an encore screening at our other festival partner, the National Gallery of Art.

Two days after the AFI screening, nominations were announced for the 89th Academy Awards—including The Salesman for best foreign language film. This in itself is no surprise. Farhadi’s film A Separation, was, in 2012, the first Iranian film to win the same award, launching Farhadi to international fame and inspiring huge celebrations in the streets of his native country. The story of a marriage whose fissures are exposed when an intruder breaks into the couple’s home, The Salesman is every bit as compelling as its predecessor.

Still from "The Salesman"

Still from “The Salesman”

In the days since, however, the happy news of The Salesman’s Oscar nomination has been overshadowed by the news surrounding the executive order on travel. The film’s star Taraneh Alidoosti announced that she would boycott the Oscar ceremony, declaring on Twitter, “I won’t attend the #AcademyAwards 2017 in protest.” Shortly thereafter, Farhadi, who had planned to use his trip to Los Angeles as an opportunity to speak out about the government-issued order, released this statement. It announced that he too would boycott the ceremony, even if an exception were made allowing him to travel.

Whether you come for the well-crafted drama of Farhadi’s film, the performances of Alidoosti and her equally talented costar Shahab Hosseini, or simply to support Iranian cinema in the nation’s capital, I hope to see you on Sunday.

Crash Course in Contemporary Chinese Film

The DC premiere of "The Road" screens November 16 as part of the Third China Onscreen Biennial.

The DC premiere of “The Road” screens November 16 as part of the third China Onscreen Biennial.

Better late than never, the full lineup for the third China Onscreen Biennial is now online. Playing November 15–17 free of charge at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, these films were selected by a curatorial committee that included myself and film programmers and scholars in Los Angeles and New York. We met via Skype to winnow down our selections from more than forty new features and documentaries. So you can be assured that these are the cream of the crop.

In addition to their quality, the films were selected to present the broadest possible perspective on filmmaking in China today. On November 15, for instance, you can see Tharlo, the latest film from acclaimed Tibetan director Pema Tseden. It’s followed by Ta’ang, a documentary on the very timely topic of refugees displaced by war, by the pioneering Wang Bing, whose achievements recently merited him inclusion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

On November 16, director Yang Chao appears in person with Crosscurrent, an utterly unique, exquisitely beautiful film that depicts a journey up the Yangzi River propelled by poetry. This film should especially appeal to Freer|Sackler patrons, as its cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, was inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting when creating his gorgeous visuals. The screening will be preceded by a free public reception at 5:30 pm—and it will be followed by the documentary The Road, which, with shocking candor, exposes official corruption on a Chinese highway project.

"I Am Not Madame Bovary"

“I Am Not Madame Bovary”

Women take center stage on November 17, beginning with Fan Bingbing’s award-winning turn in Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary, in which she plays a woman doggedly seeking revenge on her cad of an ex-husband. Feng frames his narrative in circles and squares, and tints it with a retro color scheme to give it a look like no other film. The series concludes with a look to the future as we present A Simple Goodbye, the young director Degena Yun’s powerful autobiographical drama about a filmmaker trying to reconcile with her stubborn, dying father.

I hope you’ll join us next week for this free crash course in contemporary filmmaking in China.

Welcoming NMAAHC with “Kung Fu Wildstyle”

Fab 5 Freddy's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Fab 5 Freddy’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is such a major event that fellow Smithsonian museums will spend the next year celebrating it. Here at the Freer|Sackler, we are cooking up, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a month-long celebration of the deep—and sometimes surprising—connections among African American, Asian American, and Asian pop culture. These connections formed when the rappers and break-dancers who pioneered hip-hop in New York started incorporating moves from Hong Kong martial arts movies they had binge-watched in Manhattan theaters—and they continue to flourish today.

One of those pioneers is the incomparable Fab Five Freddy. As the first graffiti artist to have his work exhibited in commercial galleries, Fab was a bridge between the uptown hip-hop scene and the downtown art and new wave music scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. (As a tween growing up in rural Pennsylvania obsessed with Blondie, I first heard of him in the band’s megahit “Rapture.”)

Since those early days as a fixture in New York, Fab has been, among other things, a television star (as the host of Yo! MTV Raps) and a music video director. In fact, his impact on the hip-hop and art worlds is so impressive that the Smithsonian itself has recognized it: a portrait of him currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the iconic boombox that was always by his side back in the day is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History.

Fab's boombox at the National Museum of American History

Fab’s boombox at the National Museum of American History

A few years ago, Fab reconnected with an old buddy, Sean Dinsmore, who now lives in Hong Kong. Dinsmore told him about a street artist there named MC Yan, whose work was inspired by what Fab and his friends had done three decades earlier and half a world away.

Amazed and flattered, Fab struck up a friendship with Yan, and Kung Fu Wildstyle was born. A dialogue between these two artists in the form of paintings of the legendary movie star Bruce Lee, this pop-up exhibition has already popped up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. In 2017, it comes to the Freer|Sackler, along with a plethora of film screenings, discussions, and performances exploring these long-running cross-cultural connections.

Fab and Sean

Fab and Sean

In September, Fab, Sean, and I convened in Fab’s studio for a brainstorming session that resulted in what I think will be some truly amazing, fun, and informative events to be held at the Freer|Sackler, NMAAHC, and possibly elsewhere. I can’t reveal the details now, but be sure to mark your calendars for what we hope will be an entirely new Smithsonian experience welcoming an entirely new kind of museum to the fold.

Old-School Kung Fu

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Bobby Samuels appears at the grand finale of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.

Some of you (and you know who you are) have been coming to our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival since it started way back in the 1990s. Others of you may have gotten hooked on Hong Kong movies by watching kung fu flicks on TV as a kid. Well, I have good news for all of you: the final weekend of this year’s festival is a celebration of old-school kung fu.

Celluloid fetishists also will want to know that the two films we’re showing tomorrow, The Blade and A Terra-Cotta Warrior, are being shown in rare 35mm prints. This one-two punch harkens back to the glory days of Hong Kong martial arts movies and will remind you why Hong Kong’s film industry took the world by storm.

The festival concludes Sunday with an appearance by Bobby Samuels, who joined our panel of African American martial artists last year. A martial arts champion before he began working in movies, Samuels was the first African American to be inducted into the Hong Kong Stuntman’s Association. He will discuss his experiences in the Hong Kong movie industry and present one of his films: The Red Wolf, a hijacking drama that has rightly been referred to “Die Hard on a cruise ship.”

Kicking off Made in Hong Kong

"My Young Auntie" screens Sunday, July 17, at 2 pm.

“My Young Auntie” screens Sunday, July 17, at 2 pm.

The Made in Hong Kong Film Festival is the Freer|Sackler’s longest-running annual event. This year, we are kicking off in unprecedented fashion with the world premiere of the film Happiness on July 15. Not only that, its stars Carlos Chan and Kara Wai will be on hand to celebrate, join an audience Q&A, and sign autographs. Hong Kong-heads will know Wai from her days as a butt-kicking martial arts heroine in many wonderful Shaw Brothers films. She will also join us on July 17 at a screening of one of her most famous films, My Young Auntie, for which she won her first Hong Kong Film Award.

Opening weekend is just the beginning, however. The last year has been an exciting one for Hong Kong cinema. Stephen Chow’s latest outrageous comedy The Mermaid broke box office records, the low-budget dystopian sci-fi omnibus Ten Years rose shackles on the mainland while resonating with Hong Kongers, and eminence grise Johnnie To finally released his very first musical, Office. All this and more awaits you at the National Museum of American History’s state of the art Warner Brothers Theater, where our festival will screen this summer.

Forever Kiarostami

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1998; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.125

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1998; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.125

Even in a year that seems to have taken a disproportionate number of world-changing artists from us, the news of Abbas Kiarostami’s death still hit me especially hard. I still remember how profoundly changed I was by seeing Through the Olive Trees (1994) in film school in the ‘90s. The film contained humor, compassion, tragedy, and a painter’s eye for the awe-inspiring power of nature. Yet it managed to blur—in a sophisticated, almost avant-garde way—the border between truth and fiction.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of both experiencing and presenting Kiarostami’s work many times. His 2001 traveling retrospective came to both the Freer|Sackler and LACMA, where I was working at the time. In addition to showing his films over the years, the Freer|Sackler also owns two of his photographs. And we exhibited his video installations The Ta’yieh (2003) in 2010 and Five: Dedicated to Ozu (2003) just last year.

Stills from "Five Dedicated to Ozu" (2003, 74 minutes) by celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami.

Stills from “Five Dedicated to Ozu” (2003, 74 minutes) by celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami.

In the Guardian’s posthumous tribute, Kiarostami’s fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi described him “a modern mystic.” Among critics and scholars, Kiarostami is rightly praised a modernist formal innovator, beginning with his groundbreaking masterpiece (the first of many) Close-up (1990), which blended truth and lies, real life and fiction in ways that had never been attempted on film. It was this modernist innovator side of his work that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote that “film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”

But what makes Kiarostami’s formal innovations so compelling is that they always derive from deeper philosophical, even spiritual concerns. They are not empty exercises in form for form’s sake. Even when he temporarily stepped away from feature filmmaking at the height of his fame in the early 2000s to concentrate on photography and experimental video work, his formal experiments still sprung from that mystical impulse Farhadi mentioned. His many photographs of trees in snow, studies in minimalist visual composition, also evoke the life lying dormant in the bare trunks and branches.

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1997; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Untitled; Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016); Iran, 1997; color print; anonymous gift in memory of Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Kiarostami’s most rigorously pared-down film from this period, Shirin (2008), consists entirely of shots of actresses’ faces as they watch a play taking place offscreen. It would come across as a gimmick if it didn’t so unnervingly force the viewer to ponder how much each actress is performing for the camera and how much she is reacting with true emotion to the play. It emphasizes how permeable the line between self and performance truly is.

When artists die, one is always compelled to parse their work for their attitudes toward death. With Kiarostami, you don’t have to look far. Two of his most famous films, Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), are explicitly about death. But they are not about being obsessed with or fearful of it. They are about what being in death’s presence teaches us about living. And for this, they are worth watching over and over again, because each viewing reveals something new.

In my early years on the festival circuit, Kiarostami was one of the people I was too in awe of to even approach. When I finally did get up the courage to talk to him, I found him to be, as Martin Scorsese put it in his tribute, “quiet, elegant, modest, articulate, and quite observant.” Though I hadn’t seen him in several years, just last month I had the pleasure of meeting some of his former students, recent graduates of an art school in Tehran where he taught, who stopped at the Freer|Sackler on a tour of the United States. In the passion and intellectual rigor with which they talked about their work, I saw the flame Kiarostami lit within them. May it burn on in them and in everyone who has been moved by his work, now that he is gone.

Upcoming Films: Receptions and Special Guests

Film still from "Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery," screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

Film still from “Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery,” screening April 8, 7 pm, at American University

I hate to lead with bad news, but I am sorry to say that Siddiq Barmak, the Afghan filmmaker who was scheduled to present his films and speak in the Turquoise Mountain exhibition, has had to cancel his trip to Washington due to unforeseen circumstances. We hope to reschedule his appearances later this year. The director and star of Ivy, screening on April 11, also will not be able to attend as planned.

The good news is that we have no shortage of guests coming up in April. Film scholar Suranjan Ganguly joins us at American University on April 8 to introduce the documentary Images and Reflections: A Journey into Adoor’s Imagery. The acclaimed Indian filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli directed this portrait of his friend Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a great Indian director (and the subject of a 2003 Freer|Sackler retrospective). The film is preceded by a reception featuring food from Gopalakrishnan’s native Kerala, during which Ganguly will sign his book The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema of Emancipation. The author also will be on hand to introduce a screening of Gopalakrishnan’s A Climate for Crime on April 13 at AU.

Ivy, a brilliant film that evokes Melville, Conrad, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” aboard a Turkish freighter, also will be preceded by a free public reception at 6 pm. You may not want to eat before seeing Baskin the following night, though. This gore-sterpiece is one of the most viscerally and cerebrally terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years. Director Can Evrenol will be there so you can find out just how twisted he is in person.

Looking for something more family friendly? Our National Cherry Blossom celebrations continue on April 16 as we copresent three recent, fun anime films at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Environmental Film Festival: From the Tundra to the Future

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

Taïga screens at 1 pm this Sunday at at the National Museum of American History, Warner Brothers Theater.

It’s a pleasure every year to participate in the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, the largest and longest-running festival of its kind in the United States. With dozens of screenings all over the DMV area, it is a kaleidoscopic survey of filmmakers addressing some of the most important issues facing the world today.

This year, our contribution is a double feature presented on March 20 in the National Museum of American History’s state-of-the-art Warner Brothers Theater. First up is Taïga, Hamid Sardar’s intimate, beautiful documentary about nomadic Mongolian sheepherders and the fragile ecosystem they inhabit. The screening is followed by a discussion with two Smithsonian experts on Mongolia: William Fitzhugh of the Arctic Studies Center and Paula T. DePriest of the Museum Conservation Institute. I hope you can join us for what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

After that comes something completely different. Sion Sono is famous as one of the bad boys of Japanese cinema, whose movies usually serve up heaping helpings of violence and sexual perversity. But The Whispering Star is something else entirely. Inspired by the devastation wrought by the Fukushima nuclear disaster (and partly filmed on location there), the film imagines a ruined future Earth, where the few remaining residents are so traumatized that a visiting robot must speak in a whisper lest she scare them away. Far from a glum dystopian fantasy, Sono’s film is an imaginative, often amusing, and, dare I say, even cute sci-fi parable. Shhhh!

Iranian Film Festival: Grand Finale

Monir screens Saturday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art.

Our Iranian Film Festival has been a great success so far, with many—if not all—of the five hundred seats in the National Gallery of Art’s auditorium filled screening after screening. The festival ends its run at NGA on February 13 with a pair of films by and about artists. Experimental filmmaker Bahar Noorizadeh’s Wolkaan explores memory and exile through two family stories, one set in North America and the other in Iran. And Bahram Kiarostami’s documentary Monir looks at the life of the pioneering artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who is full of new creative energy as she enters her ninth decade.

After that, the festival moves to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, whose screening at NGA was snowed out in January, plays there on February 20. Three additional films will be screened at AFI, each of them an artistically ambitious take on contemporary Iran. Set entirely in the apartment of a couple preparing to go into exile, Nima Javidi’s debut feature Melbourne features brilliant performances and a devastating plot twist. Payman Haghani’s playful 316 traces a woman’s life (and several decades of Iranian history) entirely through shoes.

The festival concludes with a look at a side of Tehran rarely shown on film. Atomic Heart, which takes its title from a Pink Floyd album, follows two drunk party girls on an increasingly apocalyptic nocturne, featuring a mysterious stranger who may be the devil himself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the twentieth edition of our Iranian Film Festival. Join us in March as we celebrate the DC Environmental Film Festival.