Saturday, February 28, 2009

They Followed Their Dreams

Some people may not know that Rex Harrison was originally supposed to star in Man of La Mancha. However, when it became clear that the vocal demands of the songs written by Mitch Leigh (with lyrics by Joe Darion) were beyond Harrison's grasp, the lead role went to Richard Kiley, a popular Broadway baritone who had introduced Stranger in Paradise in Kismet (1953), and sung the romantic leads in Redhead (1959, opposite Gwen Verdon), No Strings (1962, opposite Diahann Caroll), and I Had A Ball (1964, opposite Karen Morrow)

For the second time in his career, Kiley introduced a song which went on to become a pop standard. The Quest (The Impossible Dream) has been recorded by numerous artists and sold millions of albums. Here is the star of the 2002 Broadway revival, Brian Stokes Mitchell, performing the song at the Tony Awards:

If anyone embodies the concept of following one's dream, it is Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. Not only was his path to the White House an inspiration to people around the world, the pace he has set for his administration since taking office inspired National Public Radio to create the Obama Tracker, an online tool which allows people to follow the President's achievements on a day-by-day basis.

Defining, refining, and living one's dream is easier said than done. Opportunities fall into some people's laps through the sheer good fortune of having been in the right place at the right time. Others have spent a lifetime making their ideas become reality. As one looks back at their lives and achievements one is often struck by the fact that, no matter what obstacles came their way, these people simply never gave up.

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While previewing some of the films that will be shown in March at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, I had a chance to watch a rough cut of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. I'm sure this 60-minute documentary by Jeff Adachi will end up on PBS, where I hope it is seen by millions.

Some people may remember when black actresses started refusing to be cast as maids. Not that many remember when Asian men refused to be cast as houseboys. Jack Soo may have been the first to do so. Known to television audiences for his comic roles opposite Tony Franciosa in Valentine's Day and as detective Nick Yemana on Barney Miller, Soo grew up in Oakland, where he became a popular entertainer under his own name, Goro Suzuki.

As friends from the old days reminisce about watching Goro perform (he was originally known as "Chinatown's funniest comedian"), little bombshells drop from their mouths. In their youth, they knew other Japanese Americans mostly through their church in Oakland. They had no idea that they were not allowed to live in other parts of the city. Some recollect what it was like to be a Japanese American on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Others describe the temporary barracks they lived in at Tanforan (near San Bruno).

Standing six feet tall, with a dusky baritone that made women swoon, Suzuki became the most popular entertainer at the Japanese internment camp at Topaz, Utah. After changing his name to Jack Soo (in order to make the authorities think he was Chinese), he was eventually released and began to tour the nightclub circuit (where he met his future wife -- a Croatian woman -- who claimed that it was love at first sight).

While most people came to know Soo for his deadpan comic delivery, he had originally hoped to have a career as a singer. An accomplished crooner, he was signed by Motown Records and recorded Ron Miller and Orlando Murden's For Once In My Life (the unreleased recording is heard over the film's final credits). Soo's version was held back and Motown instead used the song to promote a young black singer named Stevie Wonder, who turned it into a major hit early in his career.

Soo had a long association with the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song (which tried to emply as many Asians as possible). Although initially cast as Frankie Wing, he eventually replaced Larry Blyden in the role of Sammy Wong (which he took on tour with the show and repeated in the film version).

In this rare clip from the movie of Flower Drum Song, we see Jack Soo in one of those godawful Hollywood fantasy sequences which helped to kill the concept of a movie musical.

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The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened another documentary (scheduled to make its PBS debut in late March) about the birth of the cosmetics industry in America. The Powder and the Glory tracks the parallel careers of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, two women who took lipstick from the exclusive province of stage actresses and prostitutes and made it available to the masses.

Arden and Rubenstein were tough businesswoman who became multimillionaires at a time when it was assumed that businesses were meant to be run by men. By knowing what women used, and how to market beauty products to women, they built their respective empires with astonishing skill. Tracking the rise in popularity of cosmetics over half of the 20th century, this documentary by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman shows how the pursuit of glamour helped some women get through the Depression (and how the psychology behind selling makeup was to make women feel better about themselves). Even during hard times, if a woman could not afford a dress, she could at least afford a stylish compact from Elizabeth Arden.

Born near Toronto, Florence Nightingale Graham changed her name to Elizabeth Arden after her business partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard fell apart. After traveling to Paris in 1912 (where she learned as much as possible about tinted powders, rouges, and facial creams), she built an international empire of beauty salons (noted for their red front doors) that catered to the wealthy. A lifelong enthusiast of racing horses, Arden's firm was sold to Eli Lilly in 1971 for $38 million. Eli Lilly, in turn, sold the company to Faberge in 1987 for $657 million.

Elizabeth Arden

By contrast, Helena Rubenstein was a tiny Polish immigrant (4'10") who studied medicine in Switzerland and launched her career in Melbourne, Australia. She opened businesses in London and Paris before moving to New York in 1915. During the course of her career she amassed a great deal of modern art and poured much of her earnings into her foundation.

Helena Rubenstein

While The Powder and the Glory does a stellar job of documenting their career paths and their effect on marketing products to women, it also reveals two dominant personalities who were actively involved in their businesses until very late in life. The two women were bitter rivals (the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of the cosmetics industry). Even if you're not into fashion or cosmetics, this documentary offers a fascinating tale of two bold and extremely competitive female entrepreneurs who, in their own way, changed the world. Check with your local PBS station for screening dates.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

High Anxiety

I have very little patience with drama queens. Having listened to a few too many "Oh, poor me" soliloquies, I've taken to interrupting the narration to ask the person caught up in all that sturm und drang to look down at his feet and tell me if he sees a pool of blood. 

Unless he does, I can skip the histrionics.

I prefer to have the drama in my life visible onstage and onscreen. Unfortunately, some people can't live without trying to draw attention to themselves. 

I once had a friend who was a notoriously pushy bottom. Although a highly intelligent middle-aged man, his dysfunctional family background made him much needier than his intellect could ever admit. On the day he asked me for my opinion about a trivial matter that had been blown way out of proportion by his  personal brand of paranoia, I told him that he should stop acting like such a drama queen.

He was mortally offended and soon severed our relationship. Needless to say, I survived.

Perhaps that's because one of the most important lessons I learned during a 15-year period when I led a frequent flyer lifestyle was that change is the only constant. You can spend many long and lonely hours pacing back and forth in airport lounges, stuck in a conga line of aircraft inching down a runway, or waiting for an airport shuttle to show up. But no matter how carefully you plan, there will be numerous delays, thunderstorms, and cancelled flights. 

Some people think that traveling to other cities is filled with exotic experiences, social opportunites, and glamour. The truth is that much of it boils down to a lifestyle of "hurry up and wait." There is an endless cycle of waiting and watching, watching and waiting, as time passes and people move in and out of your life. You can either get caught up in the anxiety of the moment or try to coast through life by letting some of the stress roll off your back.

* * * * * * *

As part of its lead-up to the 2009 JCC Maccabi Games, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (in collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) recently screened several films about Jews in sports. Atlhough the two narrative films in the series had a strong element of athletic competition, their stories had a lot more to do with the kind of high anxiety faced by certain Jews.

Set in London in the 1960s, Paul Morrison's Wondrous Oblivion uses the lure of British-style cricket to coax a shy, young Jewish boy out of his shell.  Born to a pair of Holocaust survivors, young David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is an avid cricket fan with a large collection of cards featuring his favorite players. He is also the kid that nobody wants to have on the school team (David has been relegated/ostracized to the lonely position of keeping score at cricket matches).

When a Jamaican family moves in next door to the Wisemans, the neighborhood comes alive with gossip. Some of the more racist neighbors (especially Carol Macready's Mrs. Wilson) make no bones about telling David's mother Ruth (Emily Woof) how they feel about having blacks in the neighborhood -- not to mention the Jamaican ska music that keeps blaring from the Samuels household. David, however, is fascinated by his new neighbors, especially after he sees Mr. Samuels (Delroy Lindo) building a backyard net cage in which he can teach his daughters how to play cricket. 

Soon David has his own personal cricket coach and is learning how to assert himself with the team coach. His workaholic father (Stanley Townsend) is too busy to notice that his wife (who married at a very early age)  is developing a crush on their new neighbor. Once David and Ruth start to become friends with their new Jamaican neighbors, it doesn't take long before Mr. Wiseman starts to find anonymous notes threatening his family. 

When the Wisemans throw a birthday party for David -- and invite members of the school's cricket team over to their house -- their son is so high on the thrill of finally being accepted by his classmates that he turns away the eldest Samuels girl when she comes by with a birthday present for him. Although, in David's mind, it's mostly an issue of having an all-boys party at which he is the focus of attention, the girl quickly interprets the rejection as being tinged with racism.

The sudden chill in the air between the Wiseman and Samuels families is solidified when the Wisemans announce plans to move to a larger house in another suburb. When Mrs. Wilson's white supremacist grandson (Chris Geere) torches the Samuels residence, the community must confront its seething undercurrent of racism.

Although I found the film a bit slow, Morrison does a nice job of balancing his narrative with archival footage of historic cricket matches and showing how one minority starts to learn about another. While Delroy Lindo offers a strong masculine presence, it is Emily Woof's radiant performance as a lonely young wife who is starved for affection that nearly steals the film.

* * * * * * *

Flash forward to 1970 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Sao Paolo. The entire population of Brazil is obsessed with soccer when 12-year-old Mauro's home life undergoes a sudden turn of events. His father, Daniel, is a leftist activist who must suddenly go underground in order to avoid arrest. Mauro's parents call Daniel's father, Motel (an elderly barber), and insist that they must deliver Mauro (Michel Joelsas) to him immediately. They leave the boy in front of the old man's apartment building (telling them that if anyone asks about them they're "on vacation"), without knowing Motel has suddenly died of a heart attack.

With no parents to turn to (and his grandfather dead), Mauro ends up in the care of one of Motel's neighbors, an elderly orthodox Jew named Shlomo (Germano Haiut). Cao Hamburger's The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is a pained coming of age story in which Mauro keeps watching and waiting for his parents' return (his father had promised that they would be back in time for the eagerly anticipated World Cup match against Mexico). In the meantime, Mauro must establish some kind of working truce with Shlomo, who has no desire to help raise a child.

Hannah (Daniela Piepszyk), a precocious young girl living in the same building, eventually breaks through Mauro's self-imposed isolation and introduces him to some other boys in the neighborhood. Eventually, a gaggle of elderly Jewish women take turns inviting Mauro to lunch and he befriends some of the soccer fans at the local diner, including the waitress Irene (Liliana Castro), and her hunky mulatto boyfriend Edgar (Rodrigo dos Santos). Edgar is also the goalkeeper on a local soccer team that includes an intense, politically active student from the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paolo named Italo,  who seems to have some knowledge of Daniel's missing father.

As World Cup fever grips the nation (and Daniel's father fails to return), Shlomo, Italo (Caio Blat), and Mauro's friends from the neighborhood continue to feed and shelter the boy, with no real sense of what his future holds in store. 

But when Italo gets roughed up during a government raid on activist headquarters, Mauro finds him beaten and bleeding, hiding out in the apartment building. The police follow Italo's trail to Shlomo, who is taken in for questioning. Shlomo explains that Mauro's mother was not involved in political activism, which leads to her eventual release. After her poignant reunion with her son, the film ends with Mauro wondering how, in one day, he started a new life as an exile.

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Twenty years later, a different kind of anxiety is brewing in Riyosuke Hashiguchi's Japan. In a surprisingly effective narrative, Hashiguchi (whose 2001 film Hush! I greatly admired), has found a remarkably subtle actor for his protagonist in All Around Us, which will be presented next month as part of the 2009 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival.

Lily Franky stars as Kanao, a slightly-built, unassuming and very laidback young man who has been repairing shoesg in a small cobbler's shop. When a friend recruits him to become a sketch artist in Tokyo's criminal court system, Kanao enters a world filled with grisly murder trials, newsroom intrigue, reporters racing from the courtroom to announce the latest verdict, and serial killers who are still trying to humiliate witnesses. He is asked to sketch embezzlers and people who are consumed with grief (as well as serial murderers who have eaten the bodies of their victims).

As an artist, however, he views the courtroom proceedings through a very different eye. Listening to an irate madam accuse a prostitute of cheating her of her earnings, he can't suppress a child-like smile. Noticing small details (such as a witness's hands or shoes), his sketches strike a slightly different tone from those of the other, more cynical and hardened courtroom artists.

His wife (and college girlfriend) comes from a family which views Kanao as a bit of a fool. Whereas most of Shoko's family is focused on material wealth and real estate, Kanao is quite happy sketching courtroom scenes and teaching young artists how to draw the human body. When Shoko (Tae Kimura) miscarries and learns that she may never be able to have a child, the woman who was a rabid control freak sinks into a deep depression, fearing that she has failed her husband and her marriage. 

Unlike other men, Kanao stands quietly by her side, trying to prevent his wife from drowning in her sorrows. What eventually brings Shoko back to life is a chance to work as an artist again. Commissioned to draw a series of ceiling panels, she starts to flourish as she adds color to the canvas, to her cheeks, and to her life.

As Hashiguchi's camera follows this couple through a less-than-perfect marriage, Kanao documents some of Japan's more scandalous trials through his sketches. When Shoko learns that her estranged father (a former famous baseball player) is dying of cancer, the couple travel to Nagoya to visit "the old man" in the hospital.

As always, Kanao keeps drawing sketches of the people he sees, including a beautiful portrait of Shoko's father. Upon returning to Tokyo, where he shows his sketches at a family dinner, Kanao realizes that her family is much more invested in having the old man die rather than showing any concern about his happiness or, for that matter, Shoko. 

Then Kanao's mother-in-law drops a bombshell, explaining that she was the one who cheated on her marriage (and not Shoko's father).  She thanks Kanao for being so good to her family, recognizing in him the kind of slow, steady and faithful masculine devotion which burned in her husband so long ago.

This very long and intimate film (140 minutes) takes a while to gain dramatic momentum. But once it does, the viewer follows Shoko on her remarkable course of rebirth and rediscovery. It touches on a theme very close to my heart -- the healing power of the artistic process -- while being blessed by Shoko's paintings of various flowers and Kanao's incredibly insightful portrait sketches. Slowly and quietly, Kanao and Shoko approach middle age as their marriage regains its vitality and they once again become best friends. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Shocked and Awed

In the past few months, two major California arts organizations (American Musical Theater of San Jose and Opera Pacific) have folded. Two more  (Magic Theater and Shakespeare Santa Cruz) barely made it off life support. Others have cancelled their seasons (Sacramento Ballet, Santa Clarita Symphony) as they struggle to survive. Meanwhile, opera companies, museums, and many other nonprofits have been cutting staff, trimming hours, and battening down the hatches to ride out the economic storm.

People are understandably wary of surprises these days. With the economy in the toilet, foreclosures rampant, and climate change accelerating, there are moments when no news may actually seem like good news. But every now and then, an unexpected blessing rises up and demands to be taken seriously.

On Sunday afternoon I attended a matinee by a new and exciting Bay area theater company that staged one of the best musical productions I've seen in years. Think about that for a second! Against all odds -- and with legions of Chicken Littles squawking that the sky is falling -- the new kid on the block pulled a big, cuddly rabbit out of its hat! I'm talking about the newly-formed Berkeley Playhouse, whose Artistic Director, Elizabeth McKoy, chose a first season consisting of:
  1. Roald Dahl's The BFG,
  2. Once On This Island -- a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Little Mermaid -- with a Caribbean beat furnished by the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who also created Ragtime and Seussical),
  3. The musical version of J. M. Barrie's classic tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up -- Peter Pan.
Imagine my astonishment at seeing the front wall of the Ashby Stage repainted to reflect the show's theme and the unexpected thrill of experiencing a production so solid that it could easily have held its own against any musical on Broadway.

Anthony Rollins-Mullins, Melinda Meeng, Zendaya Maree
Stoermer-Coleman, Victoria Morgan, and Ricardo Villanos III 
(Photo by Ralph Granich)

Featuring a talented multi-ethnic cast under the direction of Kimberly Dooley, Once On This Island (which received eight Tony nominations after its Broadway premiere in 1990) completely took me by surprise. This was a totally professional production with top-notch singing by a skilled ensemble that, literally, did not miss a beat. I was particularly impressed with the lively and detailed choreography by Dane Paul Andres. Robert Broadfoot's appealing unit set and Valera Coble's costume designs added tropical color and a sense of Caribbean casualness to the proceedings.

Ricardo Villanos III, Alexis Papedo, and
Michael Mohammed (Photo by Ralph Granich)

Probably the biggest shock of the evening came from the acoustics inside the Ashby Stage. Having seen numerous dramatic productions here by Crowded Fire Theatre Company and Shotgun Players, I was amazed at how well a musical sounds in this auditorium. Under Phil Gorman's musical direction, the vibrant and robust voices of Victoria Morgan (Ti Moone) and Anthony Rollins-Mullins (Tonton) handsomely filled the theater. Strong characterizations backed by solid musicianship came from Erika Bowman (Mama), Andrea Brembry (Asaka), Gilberto J. Esqueda (Papa Ge), Melinda Meeng (Andrea), Michael Mohammed (Armand), Brenda Simon (Daniel), Alexis Papedo (Erzulie), Ricardo Villanoss III (Agwe), and Zendaya Maree Stoermer-Coleman (Little Ti Moone).

Victoria Morgan and Anthony Rollins-Mullins
(Photo by Ralph Granich)

Often, when one attends a performance by a new community theater group, one expects to make allowances for the quality of the production. Such was not the case with Berkeley Playhouse's production of Once On This Island, which was every bit as good (if not better) than some productions Carol Shorenstein Hays has brought to town. I can't wait to see what they do with Peter Pan.

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For many years people have heard the statement "Unto us a child is born" without ever thinking about exactly who or what the next child to merit that kind of attention might be. But in Jennifer Phang's mind-bending debut feature film, Half-Life (which will be shown next month at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival), we get a spooky inkling of what lies ahead.

Mysterious and slightly creepy children have been featured in many a tale of the paranormal. However, Phang's appealingly wide-eyed tyke doesn't vomit split pea soup as his head spins around. Nor does he need to rely on a covert marketing campaign to hide the film's ending (the way folks got snookered into buying tickets for M. Night Shyamalan's psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense, back in 1999).

As embodied by the talented young Alexander Agate, Timothy Wu will move you. In more ways than you could ever imagine.

Phang's film justifiably created a stir when shown at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Why? If you took the bitterness of suburban alienation showcased by Alan Ball in American Beauty, mixed it with the unworldly chills of Rod Serling's legendary TV series Twilight Zone, threw in some defiant teenage rebelliousness from Queer As Folk, seasoned it all with hoisin sauce, garnished it with some stunning animation sequences, and then topped it all off with an ending that could rival Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey, you'd get a hint of Half-Life's dramatic power.

Set in Diablo Valley against a background of depression, confusion, manipulation, and wonder, Half-Life focuses on two families connected in more ways than anyone might suspect. In one family, a well-meaning preacher (James Eckhouse) and his clueless wife (Susan Ruttan) are struggling to communicate with their adopted Asian teenage son Scott (Leonardo Nam) who, after his parents finish saying grace at the dinner table, tries to shock them by relating how much he likes to get fucked in the ass by black men. When the preacher suggests that the time may have come to reassess things, Scott replies "Reassess what? My rectum?"

Scott's best friend, Pam (Sanoe Lake), is a tortured young Asian woman who has never recovered from the fact that her father, a pilot, walked out on his family and never returned. To keep in touch with his memory, she does janitorial work cleaning a hangar for small private planes. Pam is starting to have mixed feelings about her mother's charming and suspiciously coercive live-in boyfriend Wendell (Ben Redgrave) who, although handsome as an All-American male model, has some really creepy problems respecting people's boundaries.

Pam's mother Saura (Julia Nickson-Soul), who is totally stressed out by her job and family problems, could really use some time by herself. Among her many challenges is the care and nurturing of her sensitive young son, who is beginning to show signs of being artistically gifted. Unbeknownst to his family, Timothy is also developing an eerie talent for telekinesis.

When Timothy's teacher, Jonah Robertson (Lee Marks) expresses concern about the child's inappropriate comments in the classroom, his phone call to Saura triggers an unexpected chain of events. In addition to being Timothy's teacher, Jonah has also been fucking Scott. Let's just say that when all of these people show up at a suburban barbecue, complications ensue.

The action in Half-Life unfolds against a background of cable news reports about one disaster after another. With increased speculation about the ominous effects of global climate change, a series of solar flares that have destroyed a Russian spaceship, and reports about an ongoing epidemic of domestic violence, the media has been pushing the fear factor to a point where people are starting to believe these incidents may indeed signal the end of the world.

As a writer and director, Phang has woven a magnificent tale of deceit, dysfunction and discovery that enhances a narrative filled with angst and awe and channels its moments of escape into sublime fantasy. She is greatly helped by Aasuly Wolf Austad's cinematography as well as a talented team of animators.

There is a hypnotic quality to watching the personal tensions build in Phang's film that makes you feel as if you are watching a cataclysmic accident about to happen (without the power to stop it). Rather than reveal the ending, I'll just stress that this isn't merely a well-written, well-made Indie film. Half-Life is a fucking phenomenal movie. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Unholy Alliances

Nature is filled with curious phenomena. One of the strangest, however, is symbiosis (a situation in which two very different types of creatures have a long-lasting relationship). Whether the relationship is mutually beneficial or strictly parasitic, it can be found throughout the animal kingdom.  

In a parasitic type of symbiosis, a remora (suckerfish) may attach itself to a shark, whale, boat, and any other large object that moves through the water and can offer it a free ride. In a mutually beneficial form of symbiosis, a territorial clownfish may  protect a sea anemone from larger fish who might try to eat it. A special kind of mucus on the clownfish protects it from the anemone's stinging tentacles (which can stun and paralyze the clownfish's predators).

Many shrimp perform cleaning activities on larger species of fish. In the following video clip, a dogface puffer waits patiently as a shrimp cleans its skin.

One of the most curious symbiotic relationships among sentient creatures involves the high level of trust and platonic intimacy shared beween some straight women and gay men. Each holds a curious attraction for the other.  Each rewards the other with certain favors and very specific types of attention. When such relationships are showcased onstage or onscreen, the results can range from inspiring to maddening.

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Fans of talent competitions like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance have witnessed numerous audition flameouts by aspiring contestants whose friends didn't have the heart to tell them that they had no talent. Sometimes enabling parents are to blame. At other times an ocean of self delusion fed by a river of denial can prevent a person from accepting the bitter truth.

"Everybody thinks that actors have these huge strong egos, but it's only the slightly talented amateur who has that much confidence," notes Judy Kaye.  "Everyone else is filled with doubt."  

Kaye, who starred as Mrs. Lovett in last year's production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the American Conservatory Theatre, is back onstage at the Geary Theater in A.C.T.'s new production of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir: A Fantasia On The Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. 

For those who don't know, Florence Foster Jenkins was a tone deaf society woman with absolutely no sense of pitch or rhythm who used to hold yearly recitals in the ballroom of New York's famous Ritz Hotel. At the ripe old age of 76 she rented Carnegie Hall for what turned out to be her final recital (as well as a performance that would live on in history). 

If you have never heard a recording of "Lady Florence" butchering Mozart's music, first listen to a great artist (Natalie Dessay) perform  the Queen of the Night's monstrously difficult aria, Der Holle Rache  kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute:

Then plant your feet on the ground, fasten your seatbelt, and listen to Madame Jenkins navigate the rocky challenges of Mozart's aria:

Souvenir begins with Cosme McMoon at the piano in a Manhattan cocktail bar, reminiscing about how he met Madame Jenkins and became her vocal coach and accompanist. As the play develops, we witness a very tenderly-drawn portrait of the symbiotic relationship between an aging society dilettante and a gay man who is too kind to speak a brutal truth to someone with the soul of a golden retriever and a puppy-like devotion to classical music.  

As McMoon, Donald Corren is a model of wit and charm, masking his musical frustration with the kind of patience required to handle an ego like that of Florence Foster Jenkins. As the years roll by (and climax with the dreaded one-night stand at Carnegie Hall), McMoon stands in loving awe of Florence's clueless joy.

Kaye's performance is a marvel for someone who has worked on many a Broadway and operatic stage. Singing off key (without damaging the voice) is not always easy for a professional musician. Mimicking the ghastly sounds that came from Florence Foster Jenkins is a daunting challenge.  At the end of the play, however, Ms. Kaye gets to sing the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria in her own voice (as McMoon imagines Florence heard it in her head). It is a moment of beautifully crafted theatrical magic, made even more touching by the fact that, by that point, the audience has succumbed to the questionable charms of Florence Foster Jenkins.

The trick here is that director Vivian Matalon never lets Judy Kaye play to the audience for laughs. He has staged the piece so that the audience is in on the joke and doesn't need to have the laughs telegraphed to them. As Florence is transformed from a rich fool to a more sympathetic figure, the audience -- like McMoon -- begins to feel a bit protective of her. 

Donald Corren and Judy Kaye (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

You won't find many plays like Souvenir (where the performances have been imbued with such gentle charm and loving tenderness). Judy Kaye and Donald Corren make a formidable team. Don't miss it!

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On Tuesday, March 21, 2006, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival presented the world premiere of an exciting new movie musical that was written, produced, and directed by a talented young Asian American named H.P. Mendoza.  

The thunderous standing ovation which greeted Mendoza after the initial screening of Colma: The Musical also acknowledged his talent in casting the movie, composing its songs, and performing in the key role of Rodel.

Among the excited talents joining Mendoza on the stage of the Kabuki Cinema that night were his co-star L.A. Renigen and Richard Wong (who served as Director of Photography, co-producer, co-editor, and contributed to the film's sound design). Since then, Mendoza and Wong have collaborated on the movie musical thriller Option 3 (which was shown at the 2008 San Francisco Asian American Film festival). Wong also received a golden opportunity to work with Wayne Wang on The Princess of Nebraska.

The multitalented threesome returns to this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival with the world premiere of a new movie musical entitled Fruit Fly. A loving tribute to San Francisco's underground performance art scene (not to mention the many dysfunctional mini-dramas to be found in gay nightclubs, mixed roommate situations, and phone calls to relatives in the Philippines), Fruit Fly is filled with angst, anger, and pretentious young artists. L.A. Renigen stars as Bethesda, with Theresa Navarro as Sharon, Christine Augello as the hilarious Dirty Judy, and Shelly Kim,  M. Cat Alleyne, and Nanrisa Lee as a Greek chorus of faghags.

Fruit Fly opens with a musical number about the joys of public transit that should be embraced as a marketing tool by the managements of BART and MUNI. It then proceeds to cram an awful lot of bitter humor and emotional turmoil into 94 minutes. Mendoza's score ranges from songs about versatile bottoms to a love duet between a frustrated young man and his crooning image on the screen of his Macbook (a wondrously clever update of  the dramatic device which made The Pajama Game's "Hey There" such a hit back in 1954).

The talented men in the cast include Mike Curtis as Bethesda's gay roommate,Windham; Christian Cagigal as Gaz Howard (a slimy, egomaniacal straight magician); Aaron Zaragoza as Jacob (an aspiring, possibly untalented runaway teen), and Ryan Morales as Manny the landlord. H.P. Mendoza appears as Mark (a gay Asian man with a crush on Windham) while the festival's artistic director, Chi-Hui Yang, makes a cameo appearance as a less-than-threatening club bouncer.

Although there is much to admire and enjoy in Fruit Fly, I came away from the film with the strangest sensation. Despite H.P. Mendoza's prodigious and multifaceted creative output -- and the strong appeal of L. A. Renigen's screen presence -- the real talent to watch is Richard Wong. His stunning cinematography adds so much to this film that I found myself in awe of his "eye." 

San Francisco has received lots of exposure in various films and television series but, in many moments, Wong frames San Francisco's cityscapes in a stunning and refreshing new light. He could probably develop an impressive portfolio working on commerical travel videos (if that type of work appeals to him). He is definitely a talent whose career path merits careful attention.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Genre Studies

Film is such a remarkably fluid medium that, in one week's time, a person can find himself sampling numerous genres with very little overlap. From narrative to documentary, from animated short to a full-length silent film, there is no excuse for boredom.

As part of last week's special Valentine's Day program, the The San Francisco Silent Film Festival finished off the day's festivities with a screening of The Cat And the Canary starring Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hall, and Forrest Stanley. Directed by Paul Leni with some wonderful cinematography by Gilbert Warrenton, this 1927 silent film helped to define the genre in which a group of people with ulterior motives are isolated in a creaky old house filled with mystery, murder, and occasional moments of comic mayhem.

Plenty of semifarcical murder movies have been produced over the years, ranging from those which featured Margaret Rutherford's performances as the nosy Miss Jane Marple in Agatha Christie's murder mysteries to the crime-solving adventures of Agatha Christie's other great sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in such star-studded vehicles as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile

Creighton Hale and Laura LaPlante in The Cat and the Canary

Others in the cast of The Cat and the Canary included Flora Finch as Aunt Susan, Arthur Edmund Carewe as Harry Blythe, Gertrude Astor as Cecily Young, and Martha Mattox in an  absolutely hilarious portrayal of the ominous Mammy Pleasant (the servant of the haunted house who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West on bad drugs).

A frequent performer at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Dennis James returned to the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ after having just accompanied another feature, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. Although James has no trouble bringing down the house with his phenomenal work on the organ, this time he was aided by his colleague from Seattle, Mark Goldstein, who provided extra spooky sound effects with a computer-assisted Foley device.

A fun time was had by all as The Cat and the Canary offered a rousing climax to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's fourth annual winter event. Here's a clip of Laura LaPlante headed for a nasty shock:

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Meanwhile, in previewing some of the programs scheduled for the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, I was especially taken by a program of shorts entitled Is It Worth It -- Lemme Work It. Ranging from documentary style shorts to some deliciously wacky comedies, this program has something to please everyone.

One of my favorites was a mockumentary inspired by Christopher Guest's hilarious Best In Show. Written and directed by Emily C. Chang and Dan de Lorenzo, The Humberville Poetry Slam features Giles Li as Liberty Fu (the Corky St. Clair of Humberville), Ben Stahl as Benjamin Prayz, and Michael Barra as a Belushi-like aspiring poet who goes by the name of Fetid. Watch the trailer to get a taste of the film's delicious appeal.

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On a much more somber note, Corinne E. Manabat's documentary about Davina Wan's troubled youth focuses on a young woman who survived against incredible odds. As an immigrant child, Wan felt more than unloved, she was convinced she was living in an abusive household. During her teen years, she joined a New York City girl gang and lost nearly 45 people (including her best friend, Ashley) to a combination of overdoses, murders, suicides, and AIDS.

Excuse My Gangsta Ways includes interviews with Wan, her mother, and some of the people who helped Davina turn her life around. Although her vocabulary reveals her gang roots, Wan is leading a much more disciplined life these days as she pursues a master's degree and volunteers to help people serving time for gang-related offenses. A rare moment of peace shows her playing an electronic piano with her pet dog perched on her lap.

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Arthur Ganson is famous for creating kinetic sculptures that "do stuff." His background as a sculptor and engineer adds a delicious sense of whimsey to some of his projects. In Randall Lloyd Okita's beautiful little short entitled Machine With Wishbone, viewers watch one of Ganson's creations act out in an almost surreal landscape. The official synopsis in the film's press materials reads as follows:
"Machine With Wishbone is an entirely live action movie, shot without special effects, featuring the breathtaking work of internationally celebrated artists. Using camera choreography, photo sculpture, and kinetic sculpture, we experience the tale of a stoic mechanical wishbone on its journey through a world of snoring beds, paper birds, and places you have to see to believe."
Machine With Wishbone is greatly enhanced by the music and sound design by Michael Rogers. Here's Okita positioning a shot for the film.

And here's the official trailer

What's even more fun than Okita's six-minute video, however, is watching Ganson demonstrate how he got involved in kinetic sculpture. This 15-minute video of his speech at the 2002 TED conference is a sheer delight:

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In a brief and extremely poignant 10-minute video, Hassanain Al Hani tries to put a human face on the suffering of Iraqi refugees in A Stranger In His Own Country. As a result of the American occupation of Iraq, many Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes and migrate to other portions of their nation where they end up in refugee camps. In this brief short, the camera focuses on a middle-aged man's struggle to keep his family fed by doing whatever he can to generate cash. Most of his effort is spent offering coffee to strangers who, when they ask how much it costs, hear him say "Whatever God wishes."

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Yellow Sticky Notes, by animator Jeff Chiba Stearns, the founder of the Meditating Bunny Studio, is a delightful six-minute clip detailing years of reminders written on sticky notes. There are things to do, sketches to finish, and many notes to self that all end up in the equivalent of an animated short. Watch it yourself (and enjoy its delightful musical score):

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In Roseanne Liang's deliciously tart 12-minute short, Take 3, the audience watches three Anglo-Asian actresses audition for roles before New Zealand filmmakers. It doesn't take long for the Anglo filmmakers to abandon any pretext of being politically correct and push the women to deliver the worst forms of stereotypical behavior. Asking the women if they've ever heard of martial arts films, Bruce Lee, or prompting them to just act a little bit sluttier for the camera, the filmmakers try to get the actresses to recreate images of Asian women that have become familiar to Western audiences through pop culture.

With the screen often divided into thirds, we watch the three women go through the ritual humiliation of auditioning for a role only to encounter a wave of ignorance, idiocy, and racism that would be hilarious if it were not so appalling. When they decide to give the filmmakers a true taste of what they've been asked for -- goosing up the "Oh, me so horny -- me ruv you rong time!" dialogue to extremes, the filmmakers become quite uncomfortable (one haughtily reminding an actress that lots of other women are hungry for the job).

Liang has received acclaim at previous international film festivals for her documentary, Banana In A Nutshell. She was also one of the writers involved in the creation of this music video from New Zealand's popular television show, A Thousand Apologies.

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Finally, you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable documentary short than Oscar Bucher's Waiting For A Train: The Toshio Hirano Story. Hirano may have grown up in Tokyo, where he quickly became a fan of the Kingston Trio's music. But the minute he heard a bluegrass recording, he became smitten and soon became a devoted fan of Jimmie Rodgers (the first star of country music). As he puts an old LP on the record player, you can see the glow of a man who loves music with a deep, deep passion.

After graduating from college, Hirano toured Appalachia to seek out the roots of bluegrass music and was often the first Asian face seen by many children in Kentucky and West Virginia. After living in Atlanta and Nashville, he moved to Austin, Texas (where he met his wife) and finally settled in San Francisco in 1986. Today, he plays in small clubs around San Francisco (you can check his performance calendar on his website: Toshio Hirano).

Seeing Hirano perform has its obvious charms. Toshio has acquired an extensive knowledge of bluegrass music, plays a mean guitar, and can yodel next to the best country singers. Candid shots of him with his family in their Noe Valley home, reciting the Sabbath prayers (Hirano's wife is Jewish), or thumbing through his extensive record collection, show a man who is head over heels in love with music.

But you really can't get the full impact of his music making until you see the joy in his face as he sings Peach-Pickin' Time Down In Georgia or Blue Yodel #9 (Standing on the Corner). Hirano is a man of great enthusiasm as well as humility. He fully understands that, while people may be attracted to his band because of the sheer novelty of seeing a Japanese man performing American country music,  he remains both honored and thrilled that his face can be the key which unlocks the door to bluegrass for people who may not know its beauty. You can hear him in this clip from a Public Radio International news feature:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cinematic Dim Sum

People who attend film festivals quickly discover that programs filled with short films are best approached like a meal of dim sum or tapas. Each film passes by quickly enough that it does not require the same kind of commitment as a full-length feature. Because the program represents a sampling of filmmakers (often from different cultures), each short may have a unique regional or ethnic taste. 

Although the people who put together programs of short films may try to find a unifying theme to encapsulate their choices, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. As a result, some entries may seem a bit lackluster while others show great promise. Every now and then you'll come across something that is so delightful that it will set the standard for other dishes -- or make you look forward to a second, albeit brief encounter.

Of the eight films included in the Times of Departure program at next month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival only one was a genuine knockout. All had their charms, but Not Here stood hands and shoulders above the other shorts on the program. Directed by Carol Ho and Teo Mei Ann, this 15-minute mini-adventure follows two attractive office workers who keep trying to find a place where they can enjoy a brief sexual respite. 

Their first attempt, a supply closet, is not a wise choice.  One of the men's restrooms in their office building offers different challenges. Just when the man and woman start necking in the privacy of a toilet stall, another man enters and continues to carry on a conversation on his cell phone while urinating. His phone call kills the mood.  

"Not here," whispers the woman.

Their next attempt is in the back seat of her car. Just as they try to find a comfortable position in which to start making love, someone else's car alarm goes off in the huge, multi-level parking garage. The lovers look into each other's eyes and whisper "Not here." 

Further adventures follow them around Singapore on the man's motor scooter.  As they scout the hallways of a hotel, they find a room that is being cleaned by one of the maids. At first, they can't get her to leave them alone. But with a little bit of extra money as a tip, she finally stops fussing and dusting and gives them their privacy. As soon as they lay down on the bed they start hearing sex sounds coming from the next room. The message couldn't be clearer.

Not here.

The next morning, they leave the hotel and drive out to a more rural area. As they run through the greenery, giggling and laughing at their misadventures, they find a beautiful spot, surrounded by verdant growth. They look into each other's eyes, smile and agree.


What sets this film so far above the others on the program is its strong narrative, highly photogenic protagonists, gorgeous cinematography, and an editorial restraint which shapes each moment with a maximum of visual impact and a minimum of fussiness. An utter joy from start to finish!

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Another frustrating trip around a busy city occurs in Sushrut Jain's powerful 18-minute Andheri.  Set in Mumbai, where people are still divided by caste and poverty, Jain's short focuses on a domestic helper named Anita (who desperately wishes to escape the world of indentured servitude which keeps her at the feet of a selfish, demanding, and verbally abusive old woman). Once she decides to make a break for freedom, Anita packs somes clothes, takes what little money she has, and heads out into the larger world, hoping to escape.

All it takes is one long, frightening bus ride in which she is befriended by a Muslim woman in a burka (whose husband is killed when he falls from the bus), to convinces Anita that her life as a domestic servant may be a lot cozier than the wilds of Mumbai outside the luxury of her employer's condo. When a chastened Anita returns to her nest, she finds her employer lonely and a bit remorseful for having been so difficult.

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In J.P. Chan's nine-minute video, a woman working at a suburban Chinese restaurant in East Providence, Rhode Island, thinks back to what her life was like before she left China. The smog in Beijing was so thick one could barely see the apartment buildings (she often felt as if she would never see a genuinely blue sky).  Prior to leaving Beijing she also smoked her last cigarette. Beijing Haze captures the sense of isolation in a person who as left everything familiar behind, only to find herself alone and perhaps a little homesick in a strange new land.

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The Dwelling is a 16-minute video by Sheldon Candis that examines a group of homeless Japanese men who have found ingenious ways to brighten their lives. Whether scrounging for cinder blocks and supplies with which to build and paint their tiny huts by the river, or describing their previous jobs in the printing industry, these men demonstrate a rare resiliency. 

Easily satisfied with cheap meals consisting of ramen noodles (and happy with an occasional chance to gamble), the men show the filmmaker how they do their laundry without any electricity by making clever use of the washroom facilities in a local park.  Showing little desire for the lifestyle they left behind, each man explains how he survives in a society that has always been obsessed with saving face.

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Howie Shia's seven-minute animated short, Flutter follows a pair of high-top sneakers that magically grow wings and take their owner on a whirlwind adventure. Although handsomely filled with black and white artwork, it did not hold my attention very well.

By contrast, Maura Milan's five-minute video entitled Crocodile easily captivated the viewer with its comparison between a young, confused teenage boy swimming in the river and close-up shots of a crocodile capable of inflicting harm with a fierce fury on anyone who crosses its path.

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Two other shorts, although far from perfect, had strong appeal. In Maya Lorton's refreshing five-minute video, Korean American children discuss the role that Christianity and the practice of religion play in their family routine. The interviewees in Save Me range from a young man in his teens (who basically  sees religion as a method for making him feel guilty) to younger children, who sometimes see it as a way to separate them from the Caucasian children at their school.

Lorton's film has a refreshing candor as children describe their parents' attempts to make them follow religious ritual, even if the parents are more interested in playing golf on Sunday.

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Finally, Boo Junfeng's Homecoming follows the path of a young Singaporean who returns home from school in Barcelona to prepare to enter his country's military as part of his national service. Although it is never overtly stated that he is gay, one gets the sense that he had the freedom to come out while in Spain.  Coming home to a nosy grandmother who wants to know why he didn't meet any girls -- and an angry father who cuts the boy no slack -- he spends some of his last moments of freedom in an empty sports stadium with a friend as they discuss what lies ahead. 

The actor who stars in this 16-minute short provides plenty of soulful eye candy. However, the best part of this film is its musical score -- a magnificent composition for piano that does a rare job of capturing the changing emotional makeup of a teenager who has seen a different part of the world and is now being forced to briefly return to the cramped emotional and physical confines of his childhood before heading off to the Army to become a man.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Art Isn't Easy

One of the key challenges faced by a young artist is how to tame the sheer volume of ideas cascading from his brain. Can he write or compose music fast enough to keep up with it? Can he paint fast enough? At what point does he step back and let a piece rest, convinced that it's finished? At what point does he develop the discipline to start eliminating wasteful output that is clouding his artistic vision?

What if he's just learning the basic skills of making film? First, he needs to master the basic tools of the trade. What if he's just gotten a digital video camera and is experimenting with it to see if he has anything to say? Where does he look for ideas? What does he see?

One of the shorts programs scheduled for this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival is entitled The Secret Lives of Urban Space. The program notes state:
"From Tijuana to Kuala Lumpur, these magnificent shorts examine how space and architecture define personal lives, and how intimate interactions and habits are shaped by and reshape their surroundings. Eschewing narrative for thoughtful experimentation, set amongst skyscrapers, shuttered buildings and teeming streets, this collection of films negotiates the complex interplay of public and private in ways both playful and majestic."
Different styles quickly emerge. First, there is what I call "meditative filmmaking," in which a fixed camera is focused on an object as it is filmed over an extended period of time.  In 1982, Geoffrey Reggio scored a major success with Koyaanisqatsi, a ground-breaking film which employed slow motion and time lapse photography. The series of Qatsi Films set a new standard for time lapse photography as an art form. Two of the shorts on this program follow Reggio's template.  

In Upside Down - Downside Up, Heather Keung focuses her camera on a young woman practicing yoga (essentially performing an extended head stand) on the roof of a building in Hong Kong. As the woman attempts to maintain her balance for seven long minutes, clouds race past the sun, changing the lighting on her bodyscape.

In Chris Chong's Block B, a motionless camera remains focused on a high-rise apartment building in Kaula Lumpur's Brickfields neighborhood.  In two long segments (which basically chronicle the building's "coming to life" as the sun rises and its occupants awaken and its "going to sleep" as night falls and the building eventually goes dark), we watch people move in and out of their apartments, walk toward the elevators, hang their laundry on the apartment railings, set off fireworks, and eventually go back to bed. If you're an urban planner who needs a screen saver, this is the film for you!

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One of the challenges of filmmaking is to figure out whether you have a story to tell, if you have the ability to tell the story and, if not, whether you have an artistic vision that is compelling enough to capture an audience's attention without an underlying narrative.

In Green Dolphin, Oliver Husain seems to have trouble making up his mind. Part of the film involves him following people as they walk down the street (one of his targets being a mysterious woman in a green scarf). Moving between the streets of Jakarta and a Canadian suburb, part of the film includes an interview with a Filipino woman who describes how she ended up in Canada. The hybrid nature of this 15-minute film undermines its impact as one struggles to figure out where the filmmaker wants to go and if he even knows where he is heading.

A similar problem occurs in Sergio de la Torre's Nuevo Dragon City as a group of Chinese-Mexican teenagers take over an abandoned furniture store, moving the battered file cabinets and discarded panels around until they have effectively barricaded themselves inside the property. Although the program notes suggest that "as the outside world is closed off and they sit entrapped, their surroundings and actions become a powerful commentary on their own social existence,"  what the audience really sees is a pretentious piece of performance art that fails to communicate its goals to the viewer.

Thankfully, two of the shorts show filmmakers with potential for developing a strong sense of artistic vision.  In Kimi Takesue's 8-minute video entitled Suspended. the camera spies on people who may not be doing anything of particular meaning, but whose actions and settings coalesce into a strange kind of poetry in motion.

My favorite, however, was Oliver Husain's five-minute-long Shrivel, in which an inspired sense of humor, outrageousness, and cinematic madness is allowed to reach a boiling point. The program notes describe Husain's short film as:
"A surrealist fantasy of a hyper-globalized Indonesian suburb where American consumer culture has taken over. Amidst tract homes, bad hair and incessant cell phone calls, a hysterical, soapoperatic mystery unfolds."
There's a touch of hysterical drama queen silliness here which would make this short a perfect appetizer for one of Peaches Christ's  Midnight Mass screenings.

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Trimming, polishing, cutting, and editing are all acquired skills. Finding the strength to harness them in such a way that one's art can shine is a life-long pursuit. Meanwhile, as a young artist, the pressure to produce never goes away. Early success increases demand -- from the public as well as from the artist -- to produce more work that may be bigger, better, and attract more attention. It's a never-ending cycle which helps to focus in on the strengths and weaknesses of one's process. Sometimes what you see can be quite startling.

Many artists go through a stretch of rocky years in which their lack of money, connections, and emotional maturity act as strange and often incendiary catalysts.  One of the documentaries that will be shown at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival next month is Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe.

Like Shepard Fairey, Choe started out as a street artist, spraying graffiti on blank walls that were begging to be defiled. A self-professed enfant terrible,  Choe makes no bones about his love of destroying public property while "making shit." 

Whether doing illustrations for Larry Flynt's porn magazines or intense murals, finding God or becoming a corporate shill, the one thing that cannot be said about Choe's lifestyle is that it is boring. There are times when you might want to smack the shit out of him, but he'll beat you to it and draw blood from himself with a demonic glee faster than you can think about what to do next.

Harry Kim first started filming Choe around 2000.  Over the past 7-8 years he has amassed enough footage of Choe acting out as a bipolar bad boy of the art world to exhaust the viewer. If you think the cliche of the tortured artist has lost its meaning, you'll want to check out Kim's documentary. 

You'll meet a man whose gigs have ranged from ghostwriting lesbian fiction to volunteering with children as they dabble in art.  You'll be confronted by an uncontrollable street rebel whose exploits take him from being accompanied by pygmies as he searches for an elusive dinosaur in the heart of the Congo to a deeper despair serving time in a solitary isolation cell in a Japanese jail. As Choe catapults between various media (working with spray paint, blood, soy sauce, urine, and anything else that captures his fancy) you'll get an uncomfortably long look at an artist whose biggest talent may be acting like a major asshole.

If you're searching for a trendy but "safe" artist to discuss at high tea, Choe is definitely not what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you're seeking a wild man-child who simply can't stop acting out, you've found your guy.