Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Artists Interrupted

Few people have the luxury of fantasizing about a career in the arts and having their dream come true without experiencing any demoralizing setbacks. Whether it means spending several years working as an office temp or waiting tables, the path to success is rarely a straight line with no obstacles.

Even given such online options as YouTube (where a person can build a following, develop a brand, and attract a corporate sponsor), things can go wrong. Health issues, burnout, and family responsibilities can easily sidetrack a rising Internet star. Even an established personality with an international following who has been earning millions of dollars in advertising revenue  (like PewDiePie) can make a stupid move, turn toxic overnight, and have his online account cancelled, effectively cutting him off from his fans.

When shit happens, precious momentum can be lost. A performer may spend years rebuilding a career without any guarantee of reclaiming the popularity that vanished into thin air. During that period, a crushing loss of confidence and questions about self worth (coupled with an overwhelming sense of grief and disbelief) can lead to problems with depression and substance abuse. Art isn't easy.

San Francisco's 2017 CAAMFest includes several films that depict both aspiring and established artists struggling with the darker aspects of reality as they face challenges that can cripple an artist's ambition. Sometimes such setbacks occur before an artist has even had a chance to become known. At other times, a major setback can happen just as an artist's career is starting to peak. How an artist handles such a crisis was impressively depicted in three films being screened at the festival.

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Christina YR Jun's six-minute short, Crescendo, is filled with contradictions. On the left side of the screen, the audience sees Amit (Albert Thakur), an accomplished, middle-aged violinist warming up prior to a 6:00 p.m. curtain call for his recital. After performing his solo in front of an enthusiastic, upscale audience, Amit lifts his hand in tribute to his beloved mentor.

Amit (Albert Thakur) performs a violin solo
during his recital in a scene from Crescendo

On the right side of the screen, the audience sees Vishal (Lavrenti Lopes), an immigrant from India who is working in an American restaurant, as he counts out his tips from playing violin during the restaurant's lunch shift. After he finishes placing his work clothes on a hanger in the employee restroom, Vishal places his violin back in its case and wonders if he has enough time to make it to a 6:00 p.m. audition.

Vishal (Lavrenti Lopes) is an aspiring violinist
who works in a restaurant in Crescendo

At that moment, an envelope falls on the floor in front of him. As he opens it, he sees a picture from the ultrasound which shows an embryo within his wife's womb. Will Vishal be able to pursue his musical goals while raising a family? Only time will tell.

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The late Keo Woolford's 12-minute short, Song on Canvas, follows a particularly poignant plot line which has been shared by many writers and visual artists. Written by David Chan (who stars as Thomas Song), the film begins with a young Asian-American mother asking her young son to choose which item he likes the most: a paintbrush, a dollar bill, or a bowl of rice. The mother is thrilled when her son chooses the paintbrush.

Years pass, and her son is stuck in a corporate job which offers him no artistic outlet and even less creative stimulation. Frequently teased by his teammates at work (whose biggest goal seems to be going out, getting drunk, and maybe getting laid), they have no idea what's going on inside Thomas's head. One Friday afternoon, when his cell phone rings and Tom's co-worker Eddie (Michael Evans Lopez) sees that it's a call from Sarah (Geraldine Uy), the smirks and sexual innuendo quickly begin. In answer to the loaded question ("So, who's Sarah...?"), Thomas looks up with a blank stare on his face and replies "My mom just died today.

After the funeral, a visiting aunt and uncle ask Sarah to keep an eye on her brother, reminding her that "he's just like his father." What that means is that Tom basically has trouble opening up and sharing his thoughts with people. When Sarah suggests that he take up painting again, Tom brushes her suggestion aside, insisting that that part of his life is over and done with.

In the middle of the night, he hears a noise and, in a dream, walks into the kitchen where he encounters a vision of his deceased mother eating from a bowl of spicy food. As she asks him to taste her cooking and feeds him with her chopsticks, she encourages Tom to pick up where he left off with his painting and to always remember the importance of being happy.

Thomas (Daniel Chan) looks at his long-abandoned
painting of his mother in a scene from Song On Canvas

After entering his family's garage, Tom approaches an easel with a tarp draped over the last canvas he had worked on. It's a portrait of his mother, looking very stern and almost disapproving. Inspired by his dream, he paints over the old image and spends the rest of the night creating a new, and much happier portrait of his mother.

Song On Canvas benefits from a clearly-plotted story, an effective original score by George Gibi Del Barrio, and the subdued performance of Daniel Chan as Tom and Sharon Omi as his mother. Here's the trailer:

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Born in Daegu, South Korea sometime around 1970, Jae Chul Bae graduated from the music program at Hanyang University in Seoul with a major in voice and traveled to Italy in 1994. After continuing his studies, he graduated from Milan's famous Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in 1998 and embarked on a professional career as an opera singer. As the following two arias from Il Trovatore demonstrate, he had a powerful tenor and was on a promising career path.

In September 2005, while singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlo with a regional opera company in Saarbrücken, Germany, something went horribly wrong. A strange feeling in his throat led to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.

“As soon as I heard the news, I could not sit still and flew to Germany to help bring back to life that wonderful singing voice,” recalled music producer Totaro Wajima, who convinced the tenor to accompany him to Japan in the hope of convincing Nobuhiko Isshiki (a 77-year-old professor emeritus at Kyoto University) to perform a risky thyroplasty. Although the April 2006 laryngeal framework surgery successfully removed the cancer, Isshiki discovered problems involving a paralyzed vocal cord and a compromised diaphragm. In order to resect all of the tumor, the surgical team had to cut nerves in Bae's vocal cords which left him unable to speak.

According to an article by Toshihiko Ishiyama in The Japan Times, Bae returned to Japan the following year to undergo treatment from Shigeki Aida, who specializes in voice maintenance for opera singers. As the Tokyo-based bone setter explained, “Small muscles controlling his voice functions together with nerves were cut. If I can find muscles for replacement and make them soft, he can possibly be back singing opera within six months."

Bae returned to the concert stage in 2008 and continues to perform in Japan and Korea. A recent program bio noted that "With his vocal range only 70 percent of what it once was, Bae is concentrating on gospel and is the only tenor in the world who sings with the right half of his vocal cords totally paralyzed."

The 2017 CAAMFest is presenting a screening of The Tenor (Lirico Spinto), a film inspired by Jae Chul Bae's experience. Ji-tae Yoo stars as Jae Chul Bae with Yûsuke Iseya as his manager, Koji Sawada. The cast includes Cha Ye-ryun as the tenor's wife (Yun-Hee Lee), Kie Kitano as Misaki Shinohara (a rock-oriented young woman who becomes Sawada's assistant), and Natasa Tapuskovic as the mildly villainous mezzo-soprano, Melina.

Ji-tae Yu stars as Jae Chul Bae in The Tenor (Lirico Spinto)

Directed by Kim Sang-man, the film begins as Sawada is ushered into a German opera house to attend a performance of Puccini's Turandot in which Jae Chul Bae is singing the role of Calaf. Upon realizing that the tenor is Asian, Sawada (who is himself Japanese), balks at the suggestion that the tenor could really be that special. But upon hearing him perform, Sawada is easily converted to a fan.

At a subsequent performance, the tenor is singing the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore when the theatre's impresario suggests that they open the upcoming season with a production of Verdi's Otello. Needless to say, Melina (who had been expecting to star in a new production of Bizet's Carmen) is pissed. When Jae Chul Bae starts to develop vocal problems, it quickly becomes evident that they will need to find a replacement for him.

Poster art for The Tenor (Lirico Spinto)

The screenplay for The Tenor has obviously been romanticized, with some moments that may seem a bit ridiculous to opera queens (leaping at a chance to sing Otello while in his early thirties, insisting on appearing with an aging Fiorenza Cossotto, backstage rivalries, etc.). However, "Nessun Dorma" gets constant exposure and, although every possible moment of melodrama is exploited, The Tenor stands head and shoulders above Luciano Pavarotti's 1982 fiasco, Yes, Giorgio.

Because of budget constraints and problems raising funding, the production crew (which spent nearly 18 months filming in Korea, Japan, and Serbia), took nearly six years to complete the film. Production standards and art direction are quite impressive, as is the cinematography by Sung Lim Ju. Recordings by Jae Chul Bae in his prime are used in the film's soundtrack. For a two-hour operatic drama, The Tenor provides a good excuse to break out the popcorn. Here's the trailer:

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