One of the reasons I love the menu of cinematic experiences offered at film festivals is that it offers audiences some genuine surprises. Narrative films often put a new twist on an established genre. Documentaries provide educational (and sometimes thrilling) armchair adventures. Some feats of animation boggle the mind with their beauty.
Whether one is exposed to the subtleties of a foreign culture or the brash vitality of an underground social phenomenon, such films broaden one's perspective on life in ways that challenge the mind as well as the soul. Many festivals feature films in which food plays an important role. Two recent experiences presented a fascinating contrast:
- One film was set in an Asian culture in which a revered chef's creations are treated as deeply personal artistic achievements that depend on a delicate balance of ingredients, spices, and years of experience and experimentation.
- The other took viewers behind a raucous phenomenon in the African American community as it focused on a bawdy form of entertainment in which the same women who prepare large servings of macaroni and cheese for their church events derive pleasure from heaping helpings of darkly sensuous, big, buff, and beautiful black beefcake. Who could ask for anything more?
|Tarik Sanders showing off in a scene from This One's For The Ladies|
* * * * * * * * *A recent article by Helena Andrews-Dyer in The Washington Post (Fans Love It. Critics Don’t. After Tyler Perry, Can Urban Theater Cross Over?) fascinated me with its description of urban theatre as the modern day "chitlin circuit." The article quotes Vy Higginsen (whose 1983 play, "Mama, I Want To Sing!" ran for eight years in Harlem and toured for an additional two and a half years) as saying that “People didn’t think black folks were coming out to see theater, but the heart and soul of any community is in their art."
|A scene from This One's For The Ladies|
In Andrews-Dyer's article, culture critic Michael Arcenaux explains that a play like Set It Off: Live On Stage "...is not August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry, but it’s a good time if you know exactly what you’re signing up for. In the same way there is a time for fine dining and then there is a time for the spicy chicken strips combo from Popeyes, that’s how you should go in ready to see Set It Off and plays like it. The audiences get that, which is why the play has done so well.”
One of the women interviewed in This One's For The Ladies makes a similar distinction when she describes the dancers from Chippendales (and the ones depicted in the Magic Mike movies) as "strippers for white women." Gene Graham's rowdy documentary focuses on the kind of erotic dancing that takes place at Dojo (which functions as "a Pre-K/karate school in Newark, New Jersey by day and a male strip joint by night). Every Thursday, twin dancers Tygar and Raw Dawg (founding members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz) emcee erotic dance performances by "hot chocolate men and a lesbian 'dom' dancer named Blaze." Described as a film that was made "for and about black women," Graham calls This One's For The Ladies "a celebration of their lives and their truth."
Just when Graham has hooked the viewer on the sight of black women showering male strippers with dollar bills and happily letting a muscular dancer pretend that he's performing cunnilingus on a woman who is old enough be his mother, This One's For The Ladies veers off in a surprising direction as it digs deeper into the community that supports these shows and explains how stripping can be a way out of poverty. For men who have left a gang, stopped using drugs, or finished serving time in prison, it's one of the few options left for earning a living. As the filmmaker notes:
"Newark, New Jersey has not changed much for working class black residents since the race riots of 1967. In some respects life has gotten worse. But that doesn’t stop hundreds of black women from making their way to Dojo. This film is about sisterhood and community, the freedom and fluidity of female sexuality, life under segregation, economic inequity and racial disparity, the enduring strength of family and a determination to persevere in spite of American society's sustained assault on communities of color."
|Sarah Brown and Selina Lawson celebrate their favorite|
male dancers in a scene from This One's For The Ladies
"Hilarious, emotional, challenging, and thought provoking, This One's For The Ladies isn't just about male strippers. A real-time history lesson about contemporary black life in America, the film explores sexual and social identity through intimate, eye opening, and often hilarious accounts from women and men who find love and community in the underground world of male exotic dancing. I love Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates and their work is super important. But I also wanted to hear from ordinary black and brown Americans about what's going on for them. We've been bombarded with conversations about the white working class and how they are real Americans. What about the black working class? Are they not true Americans, too? Don't their voices deserve to be heard? I'm tired of having my desires censored by a straight male gaze."
|Mr. Capable shows off in a scene from This One's For The Ladies|
Graham's documentary is full of surprises that range from the ample display of muscular ass cheeks and hard cocks (belonging to men with stage names like Satan, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Young Rider) to the story of two talented men ("entertainers by birth, hustlers by necessity") who told their mother that if she managed to kick her crack cocaine habit, they would buy her a house with their earnings.
|Tygar and Raw Dawg are twin male strippers who are|
founding members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz
While some of the women gush like teenage girls while talking about their favorite dancers, they are also seen attending the Million Moms March in Washington, D.C. to honor the memory of loved ones from their community who were lost to the ravages of substance abuse and gun violence. Some of the film's most devoted female fans include:
- C-Pudding (Selina Lawson), a church lady who loves Satan (the dancer as opposed to the underworld overlord). A teacher and single mother of two children, “she knows the kind of world her son has to face, which is why she turns faith into action on behalf of her family and community.”
- PoundCake (Sarah Brown). “Together with her husband, Big Daddy, she runs a busy household with four children. PoundCake is classy, sometimes a little nasty, but always a lady who can be gay in a minute. Love never stops flowing from Mrs. Brown’s kitchen.”
- Michele Moore is “a southern belle from Tennessee who provides speech-language therapy to autistic children. While Michelle just wants to be loved, she’s a white woman caught between two worlds. When her favorite dancer wraps his arms around Michelle and tells the filmmaker that he considers her to be ‘family,’ it’s a genuinely spontaneous and deeply poignant moment captured on camera.
|A scene from This One's For The Ladies|
The good news is that NEON acquired worldwide rights to Graham's documentary prior to its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Here's a taste of the kind of performance art you'll see in this documentary (which will be screened at the 2018 San Francisco DocFest).
* * * * * * * * *The joys of Jimami Tofu (seen during CAAMFest 2018) are many and varied, but the subtlety with which co-writers and co-directors Jason Chan and Christian Lee have woven their narrative tapestry often makes it difficult to get a grip on where the story is headed.
|David Chan and Christian Lee co-wrote, co-directed,|
and appear in Jimami Tofu
Since intersectionality has become a popular buzzword in recent years, try to imagine using this term without regard to sexuality or race, but with its focus on a different set of factors.
- The action is set within two distinct island cultures: Okinawa and Singapore.
- Sakumoto (Masane Tsukayama) is an aging chef in a small, seaside town in Okinawa. A generous man with a big heart who has always been extremely loyal to his customers, he has enjoyed serving them for many years. What keeps locals coming back to his restaurant is Sakumoto'ss secret recipe for jimami tofu (a tofu made with peanuts).
- Yuki (Mari Yamamoto) is a food critic for an upscale travel magazine whose tastes have been impacted by three men with vastly different personalities: her father, a business associate, and the quiet chef with whom she falls in love. As a writer, Yuki has built a reputation for writing scathing restaurant reviews which, unbeknownst to her, have ruined some people's lives. Although she always travels first class and has a seemingly unlimited expense account, she is a lonely woman.
|In Jimami Tofu, Nami (Rino Nakasone) and Yuki (Mari Yamamoto)|
are childhood friends who grew up in Okinawa
- Yuki's close childhood friend, Nami (Rino Nakasone) now works in Sakumoto's restaurant as its hostess, manager, and waitress. During the day, she is a freediving enthusiast who hopes to build up her lung capacity to the point where she can enter the Olympics.
- Ryan (Jason Chan) is a Chinese Singaporean chef who was working in a Tokyo restaurant when a hungry, homesick Yuki came in one night at closing time. They did not "meet cute." After Yuki started to act like a spoiled snob, Ryan he told her she could eat what he served or leave. She kept coming back for more.
|Ryan (Jason Chan) plates a dish in a scene from Jimami Tofu|
Once Ryan and Yuki fell in love, she was eager to introduce him to her foodie friends. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of trying to "help" Ryan by criticizing his cooking from her "professional" standpoint despite the fact that she couldn't even make toast. Disgusted by her attempt to "fix" him so that he could move up in the culinary world, Ryan ended their affair and spent the next two years licking his wounds. Yuki eventually started to date another man but, one night, when they arrived at a posh restaurant without a reservation, the maitre d' recognized her and refused to seat them. Why? She once wrote a scathing review of a restaurant he owned that caused him to lose his business.
|Yuki (Mari Yamamoto) is a haughty food critic in Jimami Tofu|
What will confuse many viewers is the creative team's heavy use of flashbacks referring to previous events in Tokyo, Okinawa, and Singapore. As Yuki wanders through Singapore checking out restaurants that specialize in Southeast Asian cuisine, she thinks she sees Ryan in a crowd, but it turns out to have been a hallucination. Meanwhile, the heartsick Ryan has been searching for Yuki in her home town on Okinawa, where he has begged an old chef (Sakumoto) to teach him how to cook traditional Okinawan food.
|Sakumoto (Masane Tsukayama) is an Okinawan chef in Jimami Tofu|
By the time Sakumoto hands over control of his kitchen to Ryan, the younger man has learned how to balance the tastes of Chinese and Japanese cooking. Meanwhile, he has grown close to Nami, who understands his feelings for Yuki, his despair over their breakup, and is supportive of his talent.
|Poster art for Jimami Tofu|
Following Sakumoto's death, Yuki returns home intent on selling the restaurant (which she only sees as an asset that needs to be liquidated). However, Nami finds a way to rally the townspeople and, as Ryan prepares the last meal he will ever cook for Yuki, the humbled critic finally comes to understand that Ryan's responsibility is to keep her father's restaurant alive as a focal point of the community.
|Ryan (Jason Chan) and Nami (Rino Nakasone)|
start to fall in love in Jimami Tofu
|Nami (Rino Nakasone) is a free-diving enthusiast in Jimami Tofu|
Supported by a small but irresistible ensemble, Jason Chan gives a beautifully restrained performance as Ryan. Jimami Tofu is the kind of film to savor on a quiet night, free from the distractions of an angry, hate-filled world. Like Departures, it is a film you'll want to watch again in order to catch subtle hints that went unnoticed on first viewing. Here's the trailer: