Category Archives: Film

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.”

Heart “Happiness” to Win!

Meet Kara Wai and Carlos Chan at the world premiere of "Happiness" on Friday, July 15.

Meet Kara Wai and Carlos Chan at the world premiere of “Happiness” on Friday, July 15.

Tomorrow, happiness is just a Facebook comment away. To celebrate the kickoff of our twenty-first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, we’re giving away reserved seats to Happiness tomorrow night—and a meet-and-greet with its two stars, Kara Wai and Carlos Chan. To win, be among the first five people to comment “I heart Happiness!” on our Facebook post about the giveaway, which we’ll share at noon on Thursday, July 14. Then, get ready to spend Friday night at the National Museum of American History with a legend of Hong Kong film.

 

Review the full contest rules:

  1. Entrants must be natural persons, current US residents, and 18 years of age or older, except that entrants may not be a regent, officer, employee, fellow, intern, research associate, or volunteer of the Smithsonian Institution or a member of any of the foregoing’s immediate family or household.
  1. To win, be among the first five people on Facebook to comment “I heart Happiness” on a post about the contest, to be shared at 12 pm on Thursday, July 14, 2016. The contest is associated with the first film in the Freer|Sackler’s Twenty-First Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival.
  1. One entry per person. Multiple entries are void.
  1. The Smithsonian will award the same prize to five people. The winner and one guest together will receive a meet-and-greet with actors Kara Wai and Carlos Chan on July 15, 2016, at 6:15 pm, as well as two reserved seats at the film Happiness at 7 pm that evening (all times Eastern). Both events are held at the Warner Brothers Theater in the National Museum of American History at 14th St and Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001. Winners are responsible for any costs, including their travel to the prize events, associated with acceptance and usage of the prize.
  1. Smithsonian will notify winners via Facebook. Failure to respond within 24 hours means the winner forfeits the prize. Winners may be required to execute an affidavit of eligibility, publicity and liability release. Winners may not request prize substitution.
  1. The Smithsonian will announce the winners by name on Facebook.
  1. All entrants hold the Smithsonian, its regents, officers, employees, fellows, interns, research associates, and volunteers, as well as Facebook, harmless from and against all claims of any nature arising in connection with entrant’s participation in the contest, acceptance or use of prize. The Smithsonian and its regents, officers, employees, fellows, interns, research associates, and volunteers are not liable for any costs, damages, injuries, or other claims incurred as a result of entrants’ participation in the contest or winner’s acceptance and usage of the prize.
  1. The Smithsonian is not responsible for incomplete or misdirected entries, technical or network malfunctions or failures, or causes beyond its control. The Smithsonian reserves the right to disqualify any entrant whose entry or conduct appears in any way to: inhibit the enjoyment of others; tamper with the competition; violate these Rules; infringe on the rights of third parties; or act in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner. The Smithsonian reserves the right to cancel the contest or modify these rules at any time for any reason at its discretion. In the event of a dispute regarding the winners, the Smithsonian reserves the right to award or not award the prizes in its sole discretion. By entering this contest, entrants agree to be bound by these Rules and the decisions of the Smithsonian, which are final and binding in all respects. No purchase necessary to enter or win. Contest void where prohibited. Winner is responsible for all taxes on the prize, if any.
  1. This contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, or administered by, or associated with Facebook, and entrants cannot hold Facebook responsible in any way.

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.

A Tour de Force of Iranian Cinema

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in "Avalanche"

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in Avalanche.

In a career spanning three decades and more than fifty films, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya (born 1961) has established herself as one of Iran’s most acclaimed actresses, both at home and abroad. At the Fajr Film Festival, Iran’s premier cinema showcase, she has won awards for her performances four times, in addition to prizes at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Prix de Henri-Langlois at the Vincennes International Film Festival.

With her expressive face and impressive range, Motamed-Arya is instantly recognizable to followers of Iranian cinema—including fans of our Iranian Film Festival—particularly through her powerful performances in such films as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s antiwar drama Gilaneh and Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me. Attendees of this year’s festival already got a taste of Motamed-Arya’s work in the opening film, Bani-Etemad’s Tales, which played at the National Gallery of Art on January 2.

Motamed-Arya also is an in-demand world traveler, having made appearances at film festivals in India, Dubai, Holland, Korea, and Dhaka in the last couple of years (just to name a few). I met her at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. With some mutual friends, we spent a memorable afternoon sightseeing and shopping, during which I broached the idea of inviting her to Washington. I was able to make good on my promise this year, with the release of the film Avalanche, in which she gives a tour-de-force performance as a night nurse tormented by insomnia as a snowstorm descends on Tehran.

Motamed-Arya was scheduled to attend the screening of the film on January 31 at the National Gallery of Art, but I’m sorry to say that she will not be able to attend. Due to a flood of applications from Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal, her visa, unfortunately, was not approved in time.

Just yesterday, I also heard the terrible news that she and director Kaveh Ebrahimpour were attacked by an angry mob at a screening of their latest film, Yahya, in Iran over the weekend. Whether the attack was motivated by the film itself (in which she plays an abortionist), Motamed-Arya’s outspoken progressive political positions, or her habit of defiantly taking off the hijab when she travels abroad ultimately doesn’t matter. It serves as another reminder of the very real threats that uncompromising artists can face in Iran. Luckily, she seems to have come through the ordeal unharmed.

Even though we won’t be able to see her in person, I hope you’ll show your support for this courageous artist by coming out to the screening of Avalanche this Sunday.