Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: David Kaplan's "Today's Special"

Today's Special. 2009. Directed by David Kaplan. Written by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, based on the play "Sakina's Restaurant" by Aasif Mandvi. Produced by Nimitt V. Mankad and Lillian LaSalle. Cinematography by David Tumblety. Edited by Chris Houghton. Production designed by Darcy C. Scanlin. Music by Stephane Wrembel. Songs by Siddharta Khosla. Costumes by Theresa Squire.

Cast: Aasif Mandvi (Samir), Naseeruddin Shah (Akbar), Jess Weixler (Carrie), Madhur Jaffrey (Farrida), Harish Patel (Hakim), Dean Winters (Chef Steve), Kevin Corrigan (Stanton).

What can I say about Today’s Special, opening in theaters today?  Should I start with the good news or the bad news?  I guess I’ll start with the positives.  This film has in its favor a very good cast, starting with its star, Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Mandvi co-wrote the script with Jonathan Bines, based on Mandvi’s off-Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant.  In the film version, he plays Samir, an aspiring French haute cuisine chef who has to take over the family Indian restaurant after his father suffers a near-fatal heart attack.  Mandvi is not exactly a rival to Olivier, but he performs capably alongside the two veteran Indian actors who are his costars: Madhur Jaffrey as his mother; and Naseeruddin Shah as a cab driver/master chef who is best described as the “Masala Whisperer.”  Kevin Corrigan, the stalwart indie film go-to guy, is amusing as usual as Samir’s coworker.  Mandvi is a very funny and brilliant guy on the Daily Show, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how this would translate to film. 

And now, alas, is the part where, as they say in politics, I have to go negative.  In the hands of director David Kaplan, this potentially interesting material is flattened out into the blandest sort of predictability.  I could tell where this was all going to lead from the first frame, and the film does not deviate from this a single iota.  I suspect that this was probably better as a play; the live setting most likely lent some sparks that are utterly missing from the filmed version.  In this context, it is the height of irony that Samir’s main weakness as a cook is that he follows recipes to the letter, rather than allowing his intuitive feel for the ingredients guide how he puts them together.  So much a pity that the film he is in fails to heed this lesson, making it yet another example of a frustratingly underachieving American indie.  It is enough to make one wish that Mandvi had directed the film himself.  Not that this would have necessarily resulted in a significantly better film, but it may have at least have exhibited some sort of a human personality, instead of seeming like a computer program set to “Heart-warming Festival Indie Movie.”  The food looks nice, though; see this film on an empty stomach at your peril. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with Arvin Chen, Director of "Au Revoir Taipei"

Below is an interview I conducted by email with Arvin Chen, the writer/director of Au Revoir Taipei, which was published in CineVue, the annual magazine of the Asian American International Film Festival. It accompanied my article on the Taiwanese films that screened at this year's festival.

CineVue: Could you briefly describe your background, and how you came to Taiwan to make films?

Arvin Chen: Though my parents are from Taiwan, I was born and raised in the USA, never really thinking that I might one day end up living and working in Asia. Like a lot of American kids, I grew up loving action films, fantasy films, blockbuster stuff. But in my late teens, I began to watch a lot of foreign films, independent films, arthouse films, and though I didn't study film in college (I was an architecture major), by the time I graduated I had gotten really into contemporary Asian cinema: Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Edward Yang, whose film Yi Yi I saw shortly after finishing with school. Yi Yi was an especially inspiring film to me – it was so (deceptively) simple in terms of storytelling, yet was quite profound and moving and universal. Though I had never met him, I knew Edward Yang through a family friend, and flew to LA to meet with him just to get some advice. I was about to start film school at the time, but Edward immediately dissuaded me (he's not a big fan of film schools), and offered me a job working for him in Taipei. I took the offer and within a few weeks was living in Taipei. I didn't realize it at the time, but I guess Taipei had quite an effect on me – not only was it the first time I lived in another country, but it was also when I first started to think about making films. I eventually still went back to film school some years later, but my time in Taiwan continued to be something that stuck with me.

CV: You've said Au Revoir Taipei is a loose expansion of your earlier short, Mei. Could you describe that film and how you transitioned from that to your feature?

AC: Mei was my final thesis film for graduate school at USC, though it was shot entirely in Taipei. At the time, I had just gotten kind of sick of shooting in LA, and wanted to try something different, yet simple, in a new environment. Mei is really just a very small little love story that takes place in the nightmarkets - a slightly romanticized vision of nightmarkets. I made Mei really thinking of it only as a short, so I was actually surprised, when I began showing it in film festivals, that there were people interested in seeing it expanded as a feature. I had never completed a feature-length script before, so it also seemed natural to take Mei as a starting point (the idea of a romanticized Taipei and young people wanting to leave the city). Unfortunately, I quickly realized that something like Mei really existed best in a 10 minute short – there really wasn't enough story or theme or conflict to be able to last in a 90 minute film. So, the script slowly mutated from a straightforward romance into something a bit more comedic and absurd. I guess you can think of Au Revoir Taipei as Mei, but with gangsters and dancing.

CV: Au Revoir Taipei has been compared by many critics to Woody Allen, especially Manhattan. There are also affinities to the multi-character films of Edward Yang. Are there other less obvious influences or inspirations for your film, for example other Taiwanese/Asian or European films?

AC: As a first time feature filmmaker, it was actually tough not to just want to pay homage to/rip off all my favorite films and directors, so definitely there are many influences from all over the place (early Woody Allen being an especially big influence). French New Wave films were something that I always thought of when writing the film, but I think people may be more surprised to find that Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, or something like [Jacques Demy’s] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or even a more recent Korean New Wave film like [Bong Joon-ho’s] Memories of Murder, were all films that I watched and found inspiring elements I wanted to bring into this film and play with.

CV: What were your experiences apprenticing for Edward Yang? Was there any specific advice he gave you that was helpful to your own filmmaking?

AC: It was just amazing to be around someone who I consider to be – for lack of a better word – a genius, but it was also quite inspiring just to witness firsthand the dedication and hard work it takes to be Edward Yang and to make the quality films that he did. In terms of an experience, it was actually quite difficult since Edward demanded a lot of those around him, and definitely had what you would call an artistic temperament. Edward was a great teacher of everything, but I think that one thing that sticks with me is something he told me the first time we met, which is that "when you know what you want to say, how you say it is not that difficult.” 

CV: Did you face any challenges making films in Taiwan?

AC: The filmmaking itself I would say was no more difficult, or less difficult than filmmaking any where else in the world. It's always tough for similar reasons. The biggest challenge overall was probably trying to convince investors that we could make a film that could play not only to Taiwanese audiences, but also internationally (and vice versa).
CV: Do you consider yourself a Taiwanese filmmaker, or an American filmmaker who happens to make films in Taiwan? Or do you not think in those terms?

I've been trying less and less to think in those terms, only because I've realized it makes me over-analyze myself and the kind of films I want to make, and also creates preconceived notions of what Taiwanese cinema and American cinema are. It sounds simple, and perhaps a bit naive, but lately I've been thinking the most productive way to think of my filmmaking in general is just to this the kind of movie I'd like to see?

CV: What has been the reception to the film in Taiwan, and how different are audiences' reactions to the film in Taiwan as opposed to outside Taiwan, if they differ at all?

AC: One of the most encouraging things that have come out of the process of making Au Revoir Taipei is discovering that people all over the world pretty much see our film in the same way, and that what's considered amusing or romantic is the same for everyone. Of course people will always identify with certain characters or moments more, but just having been able to sit in different theatres with different audiences (Taiwanese or non-Taiwanese), I find that the reactions are almost identical. What's more interesting, though, is that in Taiwan Au Revoir Taipei is considered a commercial film, and in the rest of the world and at festivals, it's considered an arthouse film. That may be just how Asian films are viewed outside of Asia (perhaps with the exception of genre and martial arts films).

CV: What are your next projects? Do you envision returning to the US to make films, or do you plan to remain in Taiwan for the foreseeable future?

AC: I had never planned to make another film in Taiwan, but as I was editing Au Revoir Taipei, I kind of stumbled across another idea for a film that I started to really get into – which I basically describe as an homage to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, but set during the Asian economic boom of the 1980s. So, as long as I can find the money to make it, I think that will be my next project. I'd very much like to shoot in the States eventually, but it also seems like right now, there's a lot of exciting things happening in Asia, and it's not a bad place to be for someone just starting to make films.

Arvin Chen's short film Mei:

Clips from an interview with Arvin Chen for Taiwanese television:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taiwan Cinema Now

I had the great opportunity this summer to be chosen as this year's editor of CineVue, the annual magazine for the Asian American International Film Festival. Besides being editor, I also contributed two articles: one on the Taiwanese films at the festival, and one on the Filipino films. Below is an expanded version of the Taiwanese cinema article; the one on Filipino cinema will be posted here at a later date.

Taiwan’s Contemporary Global Films – Beyond Hou and Tsai

Ask any reasonably informed cinephile what comes to mind when the words “Taiwanese cinema” are mentioned, and chances are good that three names will pop up almost immediately: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and the late Edward Yang. However, despite the critical praise and awards showered upon these directors, the fate of their films in their home country is a far different story. Although Hou and Tsai have core followings in Taiwan, for the most part audiences there have stayed far away from their intellectually and aesthetically demanding films. Tellingly, the most recent features by Hou (Flight of the Red Balloon) and Tsai (Face) are not set in Taiwan at all, but rather in France, where both directors’ films have received their warmest commercial reception. Hou and Tsai’s latest films seem to have abandoned Taiwan, just as Taiwanese audiences have mostly abandoned them.

However, in the past two years, the Taiwanese cinema landscape has changed greatly for local films. A renewed push by the Taiwanese government, and especially the establishment of the Taipei Film Commission in 2008, has created the conditions for a commercial renaissance that may in time prove to be as significant to the history of Taiwanese cinema as the 1980’s new wave that brought us Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008), a music-themed film with a parallel historical plot, was a massive box-office success that is now the second-highest grossing film in Taiwanese history, behind Titanic. This year saw the recent release of Doze Niu’s gangster saga Monga (Taiwan's foreign language Oscar submission), which broke opening-week domestic-film records when it opened on Chinese New Year. These films proved once and for all that Taiwanese cinema has what it takes to compete with Hollywood at the box office.

This renaissance is not limited to commercial blockbusters; smaller films have also been gaining favor with local audiences. Four of these films are featured in “New Taiwanese Cinema,” a presentation of the 33rd Asian American International Film Festival, in association with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECO). These films are by talented new voices in Taiwanese cinema, all first or second features eligible for the AAIFF10 Emerging Director, Narrative Feature Award. They do not partake in the austere aesthetics of Taiwanese films familiar to Westerners, but neither would any of them be mistaken for Hollywood blockbusters. They occupy a fertile middle ground rife with creative possibilities, which all four directors impressively make full use of.

Arvin Chen’s debut feature Au Revoir Taipei (also the AAIFF10 Centerpiece Presentation) is a low-key, effervescent charmer that looks kindly on those true believers in love. Directed by a California Bay Area native who apprenticed for Edward Yang, Chen’s film is a love letter to his adopted city, shot with a loving glow that exists in a different universe than the loneliness of Tsai Ming-liang. At the outset, the film’s lovelorn protagonist, Kai (Jack Yao), watches his girlfriend Faye depart for Paris. Kai composes love letters to Faye in French, and haunts a bookstore each day to bone up on the language. Susie (Amber Kuo), a pixie-cute bookseller, notices him and eventually strikes up a conversation with him. While it’s not hard to predict where things will eventually go with these two, it is a testament to Arvin Chen’s subtle writing and direction, as well as the appealing performances of its actors, that none of it feels rote or clichéd. A romantic comedy wouldn’t be worthy of its name without complications, and Au Revoir Taipei offers plenty, involving cops, gangsters, orange-suited wannabe drug kingpins, and a mysterious package. Brother Bao (Frankie Gao), an aging small-time gangster, delivers the film’s key line: “It’s nice to be in love, isn’t it?” After seeing this film, only the most stone-hearted viewer would answer that question with anything but a resounding yes.

The search for love also drives the title character of Håkon Liu’s debut feature Miss Kicki, played by the wonderful veteran Swedish actress Pernilla August. One fascinating aspect of the Taiwanese films at AAIFF10 is that they present Taipei as a truly globalized city; the hybridity of identity and culture that results informs what happens both behind and in front of the camera. Miss Kicki, like Au Revoir Taipei, is made by a filmmaker not born in Taiwan; Liu was born in Norway to a Taiwanese father and a Norwegian mother, spending his childhood in Taiwan and going to film school in Sweden. Miss Kicki was written specifically for August, and she rises to the occasion tremendously, portraying an instantly memorable character. Kicki returns to Sweden after many years abroad to reconnect with her son Viktor (Ludvig Palmell), who has been raised by Kicki’s mother. Kicki takes him with her on a trip to Taiwan, not telling her son her ulterior motive for going there: searching for Mr. Chang (Eric Tsang), a long-distance lover. Largely improvised, Miss Kicki has a unique eye for Taiwan, presenting such places as the Taipei 101 building and Sun Moon Lake in ways we’ve never quite seen before, investing its fish-out-of-water scenario with a vivid electricity.

Cheng Yu-chieh’s second feature Yang Yang, like Miss Kicki named after its protagonist, puts issues of racial and cultural identity at its center, focusing with intimate intensity on its Taiwanese-French lead actress, Sandrine Pinna, who appeared in Cheng’s previous feature Do Over (which screened at the 2007 AAIFF). Pinna plays a track runner whose mother (Shelly Yu) has recently remarried her track coach (Chu Lu-Hao), now making her stepsisters with her friend Xiao-Ru (Her Sy-Huoy). This seems like a beneficial arrangement, but Yang Yang’s mixed-race identity soon causes major problems. Yang Yang is admired for her unusual, “exotic” looks, but this attention is a double-edged sword; it makes her feel like an outsider and objectified by others. Xiao-Ru’s boyfriend Shawn (Chang Ruei-Jia) becomes attracted to Yang Yang, a situation that eventually drives an irreconcilable wedge between the half-sisters. Yang Yang abandons her athletic career to pursue acting and modeling, where her looks are a major asset but are still a source of tremendous internal struggle. Yang Yang has elements in common with Taiwanese art films, especially the sustained long takes and unhurried pacing.  But it also shares some affinities with certain American independent films, most especially those termed (accurately or not) “mumblecore,” populated by young people who awkwardly feel their way through life, acting impulsively, their motivations as hazy to themselves as they are to others. Yang Yang’s racial/cultural identity adds a fascinating layer to this.

Cho Li was a producer on Miss Kicki, and her debut feature Zoom Hunting raises interesting ethical issues related to the creative process.  Cho’s film is a thriller in the Hitchcock Rear Window mode, with allusions to Antonioni’s Blow Up thrown in.  In contrast to the almost fairy-tale Taipei of Au Revoir Taipei, the Taipei of Zoom Hunting is more dangerous and menacing, full of secrets and illicit behavior.  Cho replaces the male gaze of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window with the female gazes of two sisters: Ruyi (Ning Chang), a fashion photographer; and Ruxing (Zhu Zhi-Ying), a mystery novelist.  Ruyi stumbles upon photographic evidence of an affair between a man (Wen Sheng-Hao) and a woman (Zhou Heng-Yin) married to other people, paralleling the novel her sister is trying to write.  With a deadline looming, Ruxing asks Ruyi to continue her surveillance so she can gain inspiration for her novel and get herself unblocked.  The film’s mystery deepens, and the line between what is real and what is fictional becomes increasingly blurred.  Cho is adept at both creating suspense and illuminating the emotional lives of her characters.  Zoom Hunting’s prodigious command of genre tropes adds yet another facet to the amazing diversity of contemporary Taiwanese cinema today.

So there you have it: in just the four films featured in AAIFF10’s “New Taiwanese Cinema” showcase, we have an incredibly dynamic and eclectic snapshot of some of the best new voices in Taiwanese film.  There is the quirky romanticism of Au Revoir Taipei, the mother-son conflict of Miss Kicki, the almost painful intimacy of Yang Yang, and the nail-biting suspense of Zoom Hunting.  These and other recent Taiwanese films are this national cinema’s best hope of breaking out of the arthouse ghetto and appearing in places where regular folks can enjoy them.  New Yorkers, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor; these films suggest that the names of Chen, Liu, Cheng, and Cho will, with time, promise to be worthy enough to be spoken by cinema fans with the same reverence as Hou, Tsai, and Yang.