Category Archives: Film

Twenty Years of the Hong Kong Film Festival

Still from the film "Diva"

Still from the film “Diva”

Twenty years ago, the Freer debuted its very first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, a partnership that remains strong to this day. Over the years, this ever-popular annual festival has treated our audiences to the films of some of the biggest directors in Hong Kong cinema, among them Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Johnny To, and Ann Hui. Actors and actresses such as Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Sandra Ng have become like old friends to our devoted crew of festival regulars, who come back year after year to watch them onscreen.

To celebrate this milestone, we are bringing a stellar selection of new and classic films to the Meyer Auditorium in July and August, from the street-racing action of Derek Yee’s Full Throttle (which also played in the first festival in 1996) to Fruit Chan’s award-winning sci-fi comedy The Midnight After—one of the most lauded Hong Kong films of last year.

We also have some special events up our sleeves. On July 26, we honor Hong Kong’s rich history of kung fu movies by showing the classic kung fu extravaganza Martial Club. After the film, a group of martial arts masters, some of whom have even appeared in Hong Kong movies, will take to the stage to demonstrate their skills and discuss kung fu cinema with Hong Kong producer, author, and martial arts expert Bey Logan. There will even be a traditional Chinese Lion Dance to get everyone in the mood.

We will also look to the future of Hong Kong cinema when Heiward Mak graces our stage on August 16 to present her backstage drama Diva. And because it is our longtime Hong Kong movie fans who have made this festival one of our most popular events year after year, we are giving you the chance to pick a Jackie Chan classic to show on August 14. You can vote online on our Facebook page or in person at any screening through July 26.

I look forward to seeing Hong Kong movie fans, old and new, at our festival this summer!

The Traveler’s Pen

Still from "Old Men," courtesy of Icarus Films

Still from “Old Men,” courtesy of Icarus Films

As a young woman, Val Wang—inspired by Zhang Yuan’s seminal independent Chinese film Beijing Bastards—left her family home in the DC suburbs to move to China. Partly a declaration of independence and partly a way of connecting to her émigré family’s roots, Wang’s time there resulted in the book Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China.

One of the many odd jobs Wang took on in China was helping independent Chinese filmmakers with English subtitles. Her honest and intimate descriptions of her sometimes complicated relationships with people such as Zhang himself are among the book’s highlights.

Wang is one of two authors I invited to share a film they find meaningful as part of the series Road Works: Films Inspire Writers, presented this month in conjunction with the exhibition The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia. Wang chose Old Men, an ingenious documentary by another independent filmmaker she got to know, Lina Yang. The complex relationship between the two women, as Wang described in her book, should add spice to the discussion when she presents the film on April 12.

Keith Bellows, travel writer, blogger, and former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, chose to confront the contradictions and controversies of the very industry in which he works by selecting Gringo Trails. This documentary looks at the impact of global tourism on the cultures, economies, and ecosystems of countries in Asia and South America.

Although Bellows won’t be able to join us in person on April 19, he managed to corral the film’s director, anthropologist Peggy Vail, and its producer, Melvin Estrella, to participate in an Q&A after the screening. Among the topics they’ll discuss is whether tourism is destroying the planet or saving it, and how tourists can change local economies for better … and for worse.

As The Traveler’s Eye illustrates, the ways that travel affects travelers and that travelers impact the places they visit are ideas artists have considered for centuries. I hope you’ll join us for these two contemporary takes on age-old themes.

Discovering Georgian Cinema

Film still from "Eliso" (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

Film still from “Eliso” (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

The cinema of the Republic of Georgia is as varied as its landscape and the many cultures that have inhabited it over the centuries. This month, the Freer|Sackler teams up with the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of France, the AFI Silver Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut Washington to present a landmark survey of Georgian cinema—from the silent era through last year’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines. Cocurated by Susan Oxtoby of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Jytte Jensen of the Museum of Modern Art, this is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever presented in the United States, and it includes rare 35mm prints from archives all over the world.

“This retrospective concentrates on three main periods of production,” Oxtoby wrote in the retrospective booklet. “The wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties … and is well represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s and 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.”

We open the retrospective in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, February 13, with a screening of the silent classic Eliso, with live accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia and members of the Supruli Choir, performing a score by Carl Linich commissioned for the event. The composition is adapted from Georgia’s unique polyphonic folk singing tradition, a style admired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Billy Joel, and the Coen brothers (who used it in The Big Lebowski, believe it or not). If that’s not enough to tempt you, the screening will be followed by a reception featuring Georgian wine, which has developed a devoted following of its own in recent years.

There are other special events planned as well. The silent double feature of Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot on February 15 will be introduced by Georgia expert Peter Rollberg of George Washington University and accompanied by keyboardist Burnett Thompson. On February 22, Dr. Julie Christenson, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema at George Mason University, will introduce Tengiz Abuladze’s once-banned Repentance, one of the first films to address the terrors of the Stalin era. It remains a fine example of Georgian filmmakers’ subtle rebellious character during the Soviet era, which some have compared to the similarly poetic strategies of Iranian filmmakers from the 1990s through today.

I’m grateful to my colleague Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art for offering us this rare opportunity to explore the cinema of this unique region. You can find the full schedule on the NGA’s website.

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

“The Bad Sleep Well”: How “Hamlet” Is It?

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

“The Bad Sleep Well” by Akira Kurosawa

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.

Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.

Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.

For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.

Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.

The Bad Sleep Well will be shown on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
Throne of Blood will be shown on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Landscapes in Motion

Landscape by Abbas Kiarostami, S1999.124

Untitled by Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940, Tehran, Iran), color print, 1997, anonymous gift in memory of
Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

No filmmaker did more than Abbas Kiarostami to bring the world’s attention to Iranian cinema in the 1990s. With their spare, humanist, and philosophically rich stories imbued with poetic imagery, films like Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us won awards at major film festivals. They also played to critical raves in North America and Europe, influenced a generation of Iranian filmmakers, and established Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema.

But in the early 2000s, Kiarostami grew restless and—at the height of his worldwide popularity—embarked on a daringly experimental phase. He challenged traditional notions of film narrative and even the role and function of the filmmaker. In his 2002 film Ten, the master auteur, whose directorial achievements had been recognized with awards from Cannes and Venice, attempted to absent himself from the artistic process: he had his actors perform for cameras mounted inside a car as they drove around Tehran.

Five: Dedicated to Ozu, showing this Sunday at 2:45 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, is an even more radical departure. Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia, it is a film constructed of five landscapes, each of which tells its own subtle story. Its stars are dogs, ducks, pieces of driftwood, and the moon. Landscape has always been important to Kiarostami; two of his landscape photographs appear in Sense of Place. It plays a major role even in his narrative films, and in Roads of Kiarostami, which precedes Five at 2 pm, he discusses landscape’s place in his artistic process. But in Five it is the sole subject—which isn’t to say that the film is dry or difficult. Several years ago I heard Kiarostami speak about his work. During his opening remarks he chose to show a humorous clip from Five involving ducks running back and forth on a beach. It was a real crowd-pleaser: comedy constructed purely from movement, timing, and ingenious framing.

If Kiarostami had continued to work in this vein he might have been seen, like Marcel Duchamp or Philip Guston, as an artist who abandoned the gifts that made him famous to deliberately explore more difficult aesthetic terrain. But in recent years he has returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Though they were made in Italy and Japan, respectively, these films are as mysterious and beguiling as his earlier work in Iran. So maybe Kiarostami is more like Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker whose foray into the unfamiliar enriched and refreshed his approach to what we knew and appreciated in the first place.

Readers and Movie Lovers: You Have Homework

Scene from Perfect Number.

Scene from “Perfect Number,” screening October 13 at the Freer

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

Our current film series Pages of Beauty and Madness: Japanese Writers Onscreen not only includes classics from such famous Japanese filmmakers as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Mikio Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa. We also go beyond Japan’s borders to bring you international film versions of Japanese literature. For example, Gibier d’Elevage (October 11) sets Kenzaburo Oe’s World War II-era novella The Catch in Vietnam War-era Cambodia. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (September 27), a notoriously racy ’70s cult film, stars Kris Kristofferson in its adaptation of a seriously disturbing Yukio Mishima novel.

But this series has more than just movies to offer. On September 20, Chicago-based jazz musician Tatsu Aoki brings his MIYUMI Quartet to provide live musical accompaniment for the avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness (cowritten by famed novelist Yasunori Kawabata). Yale professor Aaron Gerow, author of A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, also will be on hand to introduce the film and sign copies of his book.

So what’s your homework assignment? On September 29 and October 13 and 20, the film screenings will be followed by book club gatherings, giving you the chance to discuss the movies and the works that inspired them. The September 29 book club will look at the Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales that inspired both Rashomon and that day’s film, The Outrage (starring F|S September calendar coverboy William Shatner). On October 13 we’ll discuss Keigo Higashino’s eerie murder mystery The Devotion of Suspect X and its Korean film version, Perfect Number, and on October 20 we explore the world of manga and anime after the screening of 5 Centimeters per Second, which Makoto Shinkai adapted from his own manga comic book.

Visit the special Pages of Beauty and Madness display in the Sackler shop to pick up these books, and get reading!

Remembering Leslie Cheung

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung ended his life by leaping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong. He was forty-six years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, fans from around the world made two million origami cranes in his honor—a Guinness World Record. A teen heartthrob Cantopop star before adding film acting to his repertoire, Cheung was a celebrity not only in Hong Kong, but also across East Asia and beyond. In a 2005 poll conducted in honor of the centenary of Chinese cinema, Hong Kongers named him their favorite all-time actor, beating out the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. A 2010 CNN International poll ranked him as the world’s third most iconic musical artist, behind Michael Jackson and the Beatles. His legions of fans run the gamut from millennials to retirees.

Last summer, around the time of our annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, I began receiving emails from near and far asking if we were planning a tribute to Cheung for our 2013 festival. In response to this unprecedented outpouring, I decided to include four classic Cheung performances in this year’s lineup, including three 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive that are otherwise unavailable in any form in the United States.

In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of this tribute, we left the selection of the final film up to our audience. A Facebook poll allowed fans to choose between three of Cheung’s films that were directed by the great Wong Kar-wai: Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together.

The winner, Days of Being Wild, couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. It was a pivotal film in both the actor’s and the director’s careers, garnering each his first Hong Kong Film Award. As film critic J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors.” The first of Wong’s many collaborations with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film radiates the dreamlike atmosphere of lush romanticism and longing for lost time that would become his trademark in more famous films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. At a time when Hong Kong was known for action movies, broad comedies, and kung fu flicks, this luxuriously paced portrait of wounded hearts and lost souls looked like and felt like nothing else.

In a beautifully nostalgic version of 1960s Hong Kong, Cheung stars as Yuddy (York in English), a charming playboy (Hong Kong film critic Edmund Lee calls him “James Dean reincarnated”) who breaks hearts while seeking to leave his foster mother and solve the mystery surrounding his real one. That Yuddy compares himself to a “bird without legs” of Chinese legend, which can only land when it dies, is especially poignant considering the depression Cheung struggled with throughout his all-too-short life.

Days of Being Wild will be shown in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 4, at 2 pm. Admission is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Pang Ho-Cheung Brings it All Back Home

Vulgaria

Vulgaria

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from England to China opened up a huge new market—1.3 billion strong—for Hong Kong movies. But reaching Chinese audiences requires compromise. Politically controversial topics must be avoided, for instance, and the sex and violence have to be toned down. Often, films are made in Mandarin, which means losing the Cantonese wordplay that gives Hong Kong comedies their punch.

While many Hong Kong filmmakers have accepted these terms in return for more lucrative paydays, others, like Pang Ho-Cheung, are flipping the script. His latest film, Vulgaria (which is being screened on June 14 and 16 as part of the Freer’s 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival), is a flagrantly raunchy comedy. Chapman To stars as To Wai-Cheung, a movie producer who sheds his artistic integrity and eventually his dignity to make a softcore porn that he hopes will revive his career. From its opening scene, in which To regales aghast film students with a lengthy, obscene monologue about his job, it’s clear that Pang has no designs on the mainland market.

In this and other ways, Vulgaria is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. To’s project is a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1976 erotic film Confession of a Concubine. That film’s original star, Siu Yam-Yam (aka Yum Yum Shaw), gamely plays herself in Vulgaria, agreeing to appear in the new version (albeit with her head digitally attached to a younger actress’ body.) Shot on the fly without a complete script—as was done in the old days—Vulgaria bounces along with the anarchic energy of the Hui Brothers’ comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, flinging random subplots and absurd jokes in all directions.

Indulging in favorite Hong Kong pastimes such as making obscene puns and mocking mainlanders, Vulgaria is, like stinky tofu or fried chicken-feet, a local delicacy that will delight as many people as it disgusts. If, in recent years, people have complained that Hong Kong movies are becoming watered down, Pang’s filthy love letter to the city and its cinema may be an attempt to reclaim Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, one dirty joke at a time.