It’s hard to describe exactly what Queena Li’s debut feature Bipolar is without sounding like an intern at a movie studio writing script coverage. There are bits of Luis Bunuel’ and Maya Deren’s surrealism, bits of Jim Jarmusch’ and David Lynch’s absurdist take on the everyday man, and Ingmar Bergman’s existentialism. But all those combined never feels contrived or derivative of these great filmmakers. Rather, it is the announcement of a filmmaker coming to her own and making a splash.
Li’s film is an absurdist journey of self-actualization steeped in Buddhist philosophy that this reviewer is not familiar enough with to truly comprehend. But that prevents Li from putting her audience in her firm grasp because ultimately the film’s themes of self are universal enough to emotionally attach to. Film notes have described this as a take on the Orpheus myth. Both are about singer-songwriters who attempt to guide home someone who has descended into hell. In Bipolar’s cases, the singer-songwriter, the Girl, is played by actual Chinese-pop star, Leah Dou, and instead of Eurydice, she is guiding home a mystical colorful lobster who has been placed on display in a restaurant.
The film plays like a road trip movie, bouncing between flashbacks of the Girl’s life and the strange characters that she meets. The film takes tangents into the Girl’s fractured past, exposing the terrain of her mindscape. The people that she meets from Buddhist monk to a wig maker are manifestations of her fractured interiority. All this is told in odd non-sequitur philosophical musings which can sometimes feel too self-conscious for its own good but the style from Queena Li is steady enough to keep hold.
Her vision of the Chinese and Tibetan landscape is shot in beautiful widescreen digital monochrome along with the film’s deliberate pace which allows the viewer to get lost in it and slip into a dreamy state. And when there are the moments of neon colors, it is quite extraordinary. Flourishes like a quick montage from the lobster’s point of view is exhilarating in its style and daring.
The English title Bipolar might be the worst thing about the film. While it certainly makes sense to describe the fractured mindscape of the Girl, the baggage of the word distracts from what the film is really about. The Chinese title 只是一次偶然的旅行 (“Zhishi yici ouran de luxing”) means “Just an Accidental Trip” seems like the more apropos title, even with the awkward direct English translation. The textual purpose of this road trip is just a journey to actual self-actualization. As a performer, Leah Dou is a tantalizing and compassionate screen presence, like a young Maggie Cheung, making any hard to grasp freewheeling meandering moments tolerable.
Li is assured in ambition, vision, and most importantly voice. With Bipolar, Queena Li adds her name, along with Cao Jingling and Bi Gan, to the promising new generation of independent Chinese filmmakers.
Bipolar was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Tim Blake Nelson’s face was made for a Western. Sure, the famed character actor doesn’t have the swaggering stature of Gary Cooper or John Wayne, nor the everyman star charisma of Henry Fonda or James Stewart. But, with his famous hangdog demeanor and Okie drawl, Nelson feels right at home in the plains of the Old West as one of the many characters that gives a movie color – like an Eli Wallach or Ward Bond.
With that said, it is especially wonderful to see Nelson take lead in the wonderful small western, Old Henry, directed by Potsy Ponciroli, sees Nelson as Henry McCarty, a farmer with a hidden past, who stumbles upon a man near death and a satchel full of money. From experience, McCarty knows this could only mean trouble, but due to a sense of righteousness, decides to nurse the man, Curry (Scott Haze), back to good health at his farm that he shares with his teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). Troubles comes a brewing for the McCarty family as a group of bank robbers pretending to be lawmen led by the gleefully sadistic Ketchum (Stephen Dorff).
Ponciroli does not fill his movie with any pretense of importance. Old Henry is not a revisionist Western aiming to reflect on the American mythos nor does it have the grandiosity of the old master. The goal of this movie is to make an economical western akin to the pulp westerns of Joseph H. Lewis and Budd Boetticher of the 1950s. And that is achieved thanks to Ponciroli’s baroque dialogue, steady pace of action, and strong central performances from Nelson and Dorff.
Calling Old Henry, a pulp western is by no means an insult to it. This might be the most fun I have had in a theater all year. Ponciroli clearly has a lot of skills and knows how to make a limited budget go a long way. Like Lewis and Boetticher, he allows the expansive prairie and limited resources to speak to both the peace of isolation and the dangers of the unknown. He uses Nelson’s face to its full extent – Nelson looks like a man who has lived a life. And when the bursts of action do come, it is violent and uncompromising. Old Henry may become lost in the shuffle of releases for 2021, but it already has all the makings of a gem waiting to be discovered on whatever streaming site it is destined to end up on.
Old Henry Trailer
Old Henry is currently available to rent from select VOD platforms.
The Blazing World is part of a concerning trend with genre movies in which filmmakers and the film press feel like in order to instill these films with a sense of importance, these films have to be didactically about real world trauma. The Babadook, a movie I love, is the first one of these films that come to mind in the way that the press hailed it as great because it tackled such heavy subject matter like postpartum depression. As that movie garnered praise and attention, more and more genre films have seemingly felt the need to be shallow and explicit about the very “trauma” at their core.
Recent examples, such as Candyman, The Night House, and the David Gordon Green’s new Halloween movies come to mind as films that put the subtext as text in a way that feels self-conscious in asserting their importance to the public discourse of trauma. This feels especially disconcerting given that a genre like horror has always been about trauma as the root of fear, but it was allowed to exist as subtext. The Blazing World lives in a pretentious self-consciousness.
The title, The Blazing World, comes from Margaret Cavendish’s seminal 17th century story about a utopian society, but this film has little to do with that, having drawn more inspiration story and style-wise from C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll. The film follows Margaret who accidentally drowns her sister as a child while her parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) are fighting. As she contemplates suicide, she is whisked away to somewhere else through the help of a man named Lained (Udo Kier as an Udo Kier type) and a portal. Now, as an adult (played by the writer-director Carlson Young) as she returns home, she is on a surrealist journey fueled by her subconscious defined by trauma and loss.
As Carlson Young’s debut feature after spending more than a decade as a young actress doing Disney television and Scream Queens, it is easy to understand that Young wanted to throw everything at the wall to see what stuck. Her surrealist subconscious is bathed in different hues and seems informed by works from Lynch and Jodorowsky. But, in how misguided it is, The Blazing World is probably more like Terry Gilliam’s Tideland.
The world that Margaret finds herself in is neither surreal enough to allow the dreamscape to wash over the viewer nor tethered in emotions that are relatable. There is barely even tension in some of the horror focused scenes. Any room left open to interpretation is undercut by the fact that we are supposed to be seeing this as a trigger of Margaret’s trauma. There is even a character who explicitly tells Margaret what she is going through is traumatic.
The lighting and production design is also self consciously cool. The aesthetic may be best described as mid-2010s Tumblr chic with “One Perfect Shot” energy. It’s so self consciously cool that it might as well be this Letterboxd list – cool to look at but devoid of substance. But, as a calling card, Young certainly displays enough of any eye to deserve a bigger budget, and maybe a better script. It’s also hard to be too harsh on a film like The Blazing World. It is clearly a personal passion project with a lot to prove. But it also seems emblematic of a trend in genre movies that should be quickly reversed. Let subtext be subtext.
The Blazing World Trailer
The Blazing World will be available in limited theatrical release and to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms on October 15th.
Another year means another entry in Hong Sang-soo’s ever expanding oeuvre. In Front of Your Face is a sparse feature that, like most of Hong’s films, lulls the viewer into a sense of malaise to the daily trivialities of life, before the revelations change the context of the entire film. This has become quite a feature to many of Hong’s films, and really speaks to his interests in how we as people are able to go through the mundane when there is something earth shattering inside.
For most of the film’s 85-minute run time, In Front of Your Face follows Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong), an actress who returns to Korea from the United States. She spends the first half of the movie with her sickly sister, Jeongkok (Cho Yunhee), who is letting her stay in her apartment. The film moves at a leisurely pace, as a sort of a hang out film. They have breakfast, go on a walk, spill soup on a blouse. The interactions feel so mundane, less patient viewers might start squirming.
This very well might be the secret to Hong’s power as a filmmaker. Subtle tension becomes clearer as the film progresses especially with little flourishes, such as Sangkok’s internal monologue popping up from time to time allowing for little revelations. The grainy digital filmmaking that Hong applies also creates a sense of awkwardness between the two.
The second half of the film revolves around a meeting between Sangok and a filmmaker (played by Hong’s frequent stand-in Kwon Hae-hyo) who was enamored with Sangok’s previous acting work. Here the tone shifts. Instead of a tension of a secret held, there is a romantic tension between every pleasantry between the two. Hong is always at his best when filming two people drinking, slowly letting their guard down.
The worst comparison anyone has ever made about Hong’s movies is that he is like Woody Allen. The comparison is there because Hong often has stand-ins for himself, but while Woody Allen is steeped in his own self centered neuroses, Hong’s films are buoyed by melancholic musings of daily human interaction. They just happen to always be about actresses and directors, the people that he knows best. Even though Hong works at such a prolific pace, there is grace in his films. The title In Front of Your Face is the perfect encapsulation of the thesis of the film. And for viewers, Hong presents it right in front of their face. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to receive it.
Filmmakers love to make movies about how hard it is to make a movie. From TheDisaster Artist to Living in Oblivion, these movies about movies are often a love letter to the medium that they love despite the hardships that they face. Money Has Four Legs goes beyond just a simple love letter to a medium, by being a potent critique of the Burmese film industry.
Maung Sun directs the film about Wai Bhone, son of a famous film director, looking to shoot a remake of a classic film. The opening scene opens with his interaction with the censorship board demanding numerous changes to his script breaking his artistic vision. Not only that, but his cast members are also irresponsible and late, and the ever-present threat of poverty makes Wai ask if this is all worth it. Everyone is seemingly against him.
The satire of the film is clear-eyed throughout about the Burmese film industry. What bubbles underneath the light comedy of the film hijinks is the presence of the socio-political troubles within Myanmar. Muang Sun does not only point his satirical lens at censorship boards but at the way the state treats the impoverished and the corruption of local banks. It is almost surprising that this film was able to get past the censorship board itself.
Maung Sun proves himself to be a very capable filmmaker with an ability to balance tonal shifts and clever referential flourishes. He knows when he is dealing with serious issues and when to be silly. If there are any drawbacks to the film, it very much feels like a first film(which it is) in which so many ideas are packed in that some do not get the attention it deserves. In particular, Wai’s nagging wife feels especially retrograde.
This film has also become an artifact as the Myanmar that Money Has Four Legs depicts is one in which the country had gone through a liberalization. However, just this February, a successful military coup had taken over the country’s government. In fact, Ma Aeint, a co-writer and producer of the film was arrested in early June by the military junta and is being held as a political prisoner. Money Has Four Legs gives a glimpse at a political climate that would not be shown through news telecasts or Vice documentaries. And for Maung Sun to do so in a biting entertaining way showcases why art and movies can be so important and powerful.
Since Her was released in 2013, a commentary on the loneliness of humans with the dawn of AI technology, filmic depictions of technology have been especially dour. The Black Mirror-ification of media harping on the cynicism of what technology is doing to humans – a perfectly valid response to our disconnected world. Maria Schrader’s new film, I’m Your Man refreshingly does not take a cynical stance on technology, rather explores the void that humans are trying to fill.
Schrader, along with co-writer and collaborator on the excellent film Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, Jan Schomburg, takes a decidedly human approach on AI. The focus is on Alma (Maren Egert), a scientist at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum who is recruited to beta test a new humanoid Tom (Dan Stevens) who is programmed to be Alma’s ideal mate based on a dating profile she filled out. Alma’s loneliness is derived from her neurosis and work-first attitude. Her analytical mind makes her skeptical of Tom, setting the ground rules to the humanoid that she will not fall for him. Dan Stevens makes it difficult, amping up his natural charm. After all, he was made for Alma. He even speaks German with a British accent because Alma likes vaguely foreign men (also a clever way to get past Steven’s natural accent.) Naturally, Alma begins falling for Tom.
The concept sounds like an odd couple high comedy, especially early on as the film plays out the antagonism between the two. All that is charming and clever. But the movie’s strength is the surprising depth into what makes human relationships valuable – which is the messiness of the situation. As the film progresses, and Tom’s AI learns about the “meaning of being human,” the relationship between Tom and Schrader gets messier. Alma is consistently aware of the machinations at play, but self-awareness cannot always overtake feelings.
It is very easy to imagine this premise devolving into something much more idiotic. The fact it never does is a tribute to Schrader’s approach in grounding material in actual human cause and effects. Egert, especially, is a grounding force as Alma, never letting her neurosis feel like a defining one-note trait, but rather a piece of her whole. Stevens plays up his charm and artificiality with subtle movements like a simple pouring of a coffee pot. He makes it very believable that someone with the hardened exterior of Alma would begin to have cracks in her foundation.
The movie is not a philosophical thesis on relationships, humanity, and free will, but motions towards those topics with depth and nuance, unlike the preachiness of Black Mirror. The subversion of the third act is a sly indictment of the way single women of a certain age have been used as tropes in movies. A perfect partner cannot cure a person of their problems. A meaningful relationship cannot be a one-way street.
I’m Your Man does not focus on the existential dread of technology that so many of these tales seem to be rooted in. Rather, it is the deep humanity of the film that makes what can be dismissed as a superficial romantic dramedy feel like something special.
Although Silent Night was filmed right before the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like a film in response to it. The film begins like a traditional Christmas movie. There are cloudy cool skies, saccharine Christmas pop plays on the radio, and an ensemble of people gather in a home to celebrate that time of year. If you had stopped watching the movie after 20-minutes, it would not be inconceivable to think you were watching a Love Actually/Love the Coopers knock-off. However, the twist in Silent Night is that this is going to be the last Christmas (and not the one that involves giving someone your heart) as a dangerous pink cloud caused by years of accumulated pollution is about to kill every person that is affected by it.
This dramedy, directed/written by Camille Griffin, is a visualization of the classic T.S. Eliot quote, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” As this group of friends and family gather at a nice British family cottage for the last time, it is the mundane that takes precedence as a distraction from existential dread. The hosts for this final Christmas soiree are Nell (Keira Knightley whose casting feels like a deliberate allusion to Love Actually) and Simone (Matthew Goode). They have three children including the youngest son Art played by Roman Griffin Davis from Jojo Rabbit being directed by his mom. His real-life brothers, Hardy and Gilby, play his older twin brothers as well, making this movie a real family affair.
The ensemble cast is filled with phenomenal actors, all who get short shrift by too many components and clichéd caricatures. There is Tony (Rufus Jones), his trophy wife Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and their precocious daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie). There is the doctor James (Sope Dìrísù) who everyone silently judges for bringing the barely 20-year-old Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp). And finally, there is the lesbian couple of foul-mouthed Bella (Lucy Punch) and timid Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The results are a The Big Chill-esque film of people oversharing and truth telling.
The film feels neither funny nor compelling in that way. A myriad of shrewd juxtaposition is set up by the film’s premise – Christmas/apocalypse – but the characters feel too thing to ever get at any visceral truths of the situation. There are maybe some chuckle-worthy moments throughout, especially the morbidity of end-of-life proceedings – especially one involving Coke.
The one person who gets any meat to play with is Roman Griffin Davis, who shows the talent of not being a one-film wonder with Jojo Rabbit. As everybody prepares to take the “Exit Pill” offered by the British government (“to die with dignity”), Art, with a melancholic tinge of idealism wonders if they have to be resigned to their faith. He plays Art with depth and emotional maturity.The rest of the Silent Night feels slight and underwhelming. Everything hints at a much better film from performances to even the clever double meaning of the title. But cleverness in thought can only go so far.
Sometimes there is a movie that is so embarrassing, you cannot understand how anyone could take it seriously. Blue Bayou is such a movie. By all reports, critical reviews have been receptive to the film tackling the issue of citizenship status of international adoptees brought to the United States before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The film received thunderous applause with some pushback from adoptee advocacy groups over the film’s exploitation of these issues. But, for me Blue Bayou is the nadir of handsomely made art films that thinks it has a lot to say but has nothing to say at all.
At the crux of Blue Bayou is a story of Antonio (played by Justin Chon who also wrote and directed), a tattoo artist who was adopted from Korea when he was three years old in New Orleans. His adoption did not necessarily go well as his abusive adopted father led him to being estranged from his new family in America and towards a felonious life stealing motorcycles. Now older, and more mature, Antonio finds it hard to get a well-paying job to support his pregnant wife Kathy (a game Alicia Vikander) and his stepdaughter Jessie (the too cute for her own good Sydney Kowalske).
Problems start boiling over when the buffoonish Jessie’s biological father Ace (Mark O’Brien) and his even more buffoonish partner (Emory Cohen) begin harassing Antonio. Antonio retaliates thus leading to his arrest. During this process, it is discovered that his adopted parents never filed the paperwork for him to gain his citizenship, leading to removal proceedings by ICE – a real problem that is affecting many adopted international adoptees. His solutions are minimal.
All of this makes for great fodder to chew on. There is intergenerational angst, immigration issues, the pitfalls of bureaucratic government, police brutality, and the meaning of being American. The results, however, are a product of a really insecure filmmaker with something to prove. Justin Chon, whose previous directorial efforts include the interesting works in Gook and Ms. Purple, feels very lost in the material. He knows this is an important story, but it becomes clear that he was not the one to tell it.
Everything from the writing to Chon’s performance to the filmic style is affected in a way that screams, “pay attention to me.” The film is shot in 16mm with no real purpose other than a way to flex his cinematic bonafides. After the third magic hour montage, it starts losing any real meaning. Chon puts on a thick Cajun accent, which could be powerful in highlighting the disassociation viewers have on Asian Americans, but his performance borders upon “Maine Justice ” levels of big.
The most offensive of all is how all the capital “I” issues have the subtlety of an alligator in a clothing store. From the opening moments when Antonio is asked “Where are you from?” to the last 30-minutes which features a level of coincidences and sudden character shifts, it felt like Chon had no respect for his audience. Rather, he presents these ideas and issues that are so superficial. This is the type of movie in which characters speak in New York Times op-eds.
The one saving grace is the performance from Linh Dan Pham as Parker. She is a Vietnamese refugee who befriends Antonio as she battles through cancer. While she infuses Parker with interiority that the other characters seem to lack, she too is reduced as a “Manic Pixie Mother Figure.” She waxes poetic about identity, comparing them to the rootless flowers of the Louisiana state flower fleur de lis. Her final moment in the film is guffaw worthy.
Ultimately, Blue Bayou suffers from fetishization of suffering – or as I like to call it “oppression porn.” There is a sense that for a movie to be “Important,” suffering needs to be in the forefront. In reality, it feels like a desperate plea for clout, to appeal to bleeding hearts. With all this talk about Asian American representation in the media, maybe it is great to have a film like Blue Bayou. It is so beautifully misguided in its good intentions that it forgot how to be a movie. Asian Americans need their Crash just as much as they need Shang-Chi.
Blue Bayou Trailer
Blue Bayou is currently screening in theatrical wide release.
Patrick Hao: The latest Marvel release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings,has been called groundbreaking and monumental by featuring an Asian American superhero with a predominantly Asian-led cast. It certainly did phenomenally at the box office by making $94.4 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, shattering the previous record from Rob Zombie’s Halloween (30.6 Million). Mind you, we are still in a pandemic.
As Marvel/Disney is wont to do, they, and the media covering them, have been quick to celebrate the achievement that they themselves have perpetuated by not casting Asian led superheroes and leads. Marvel/Disney has had a history of doing this representational checklisting with their constant trotting out of “exclusively gay moments” and female empowerment.
All of this discourse around Shang-Chi and the importance of representation in Hollywood films has made me, a first-generation Asian American and lover of media, feel very ornery about the whole thing. And this is not the first time. I have felt this way during the discourse around the release of Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. While I acknowledge that it is a big deal that this movie is as successful as it is, I prickle at the fact that it takes a major studio superhero movie to validate our (Asian Americans) existence in order to feel seen.
So I thought it would be great to have a running dialogue to explore these feelings about representation and media, and what better person to do it with than Drink in the Movie’s resident Marvel expert and overall great mind for media, Anna Harrison.
Anna Harrison: Thanks, Patrick!
Representation is a thorny issue to begin with, and then add on that Disney’s tendency to self-congratulate and tout things like LeFou dancing with a man in Beauty and the Beast as uber progressive and it can be tricky to tackle. Marvel has certainly diversified in recent years and continues to do so, but like you said, most of the time they will tout what should be commonplace as an artistic and personal triumph for them, the most recent example being the discussion around Eternals having an openly gay character kiss his husband.
I think there is something to be said, however, for seeing representation as a superhero. When I saw the original Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, I teared up in the theater. When I saw Wonder Woman charge across the trenches, I was touched in a way that I was definitely not expecting—I’m normally the very unsentimental type, and so my reaction caught me by surprise. Superheroes have such a mythic status in our culture: they’re supposed to represent the best of humanity, they’re the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, etc., and to see one of those superhumans on screen that reflects you to after so many years of the same can be quite affecting, as I found out. (Captain Marvel would not inspire such a reaction in me, I’m afraid.) It’s a bit like proof that you, too, could be an Avenger/member of the Justice League/whatever, and that it’s not just for hot white guys named Chris. Projection is what superhero movies are all about, after all. I think their prevalence in pop culture and the idealized nature of the heroes themselves makes it mean a little bit more when you finally see a superhero that reflects you. (Whether said prevalence is a good thing is a whole different conversation.)
And I wish Tao Leigh Goffe would expand a little bit more on this thought but I interpret this to mean that representation in and of itself is not enough. What matters more to me are the narratives involving diversity. Asian Americans are in a complicated space in American culture. Firstly, the term encompasses a large number of people, races, and countries—many of which are vastly different in terms of cultures and social hierarchy. But, as a social group and monolith created for ease of narrative, Asian Americans fall somewhere between white and black. When it suits the narrative, Asian Americans are used as the “model minorities,” an example to other POCs to the myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” success in America. And then in an instant, xenophobic racism even in predominiantly Asian ethnic enclaves. And from that trauma and contradictions, I think a lot of Asian Americans and culture would like to fit into the former than the latter fueling a lot of anti-POC sentiments within the Asian American community itself.
I think mainstream Asian American art reflects this desire to be accepted by mainstream audiences (really what I am saying is white America) in a way that irks me. I think there is an interest in creating a universal experience which is great, but what that does is sand off the edges and problems of the diaspora in America. Eddie Huang, the author of Fresh Off the Boat in which the sitcom is based on, famously complained that the show creators of Fresh Off the Boat adapted his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” And watching that show, I too was frustrated by how easy assimilation was for this Taiwanese family to crack wise so easily with White Orlando neighbors.
Getting back to Shang-Chi, it seems fitting that the ultimate conflict I felt within the movie is a story of fitting into the expectations of success of your parents. Shang is escaping the shadow of his father and starts as the lovable schlob who is perfectly content with partying and karaoking while being a valet attendant. Similarly, Katy (Awkwafina) is in a similar situation with her more normal immigrant parents. The movie contrasts this early on with a conversation with their other Asian American friend who followed the traditional path of becoming a lawyer. This trope of first and second generation Asian Americans not living up to parental expectations seem to be the most palpable Asian American story to tell. I suspect it could be because it is cultural but universal in a way that does not necessarily have to deal with the thorny complicated issues of diaspora. To have even the superhero story be about that felt pandering.
Anna: I’ve never seen that tweet before but I think it brings up a great point. Often there’s so much hype around something like Shang-Chi, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel that any missteps they make get lost, and attempts to criticize get shouted down because everyone is so caught up in the idea that we finally have an Asian/Black/woman-led movie it simply becomes enough that the movie exists at all, when really you should be able to level nuanced critiques at them. This, of course, excludes anyone who review-bombed these films; I’m talking more about criticisms like yours. One thing that irks me a lot when people bring up valid criticisms surrounding representation is that often the response will be something like, “Just be grateful you got representation at all.” People shouldn’t have to choose between no representation and subpar representation—that’s not an either/or situation, though some people often act like it is, and mere representation isn’t always enough.
With Shang-Chi specifically, from my standpoint, I think the conflict was less specifically about parent/child relationships—though it’s certainly a part of that conflict—but about reconciling all the disparate parts of yourself and the struggle with identity. There was a lot of focus on Shang-Chi being pulled between two worlds: he ran away from his father to America and Anglicized his name, and resists getting pulled back; he tries to avoid being like his father, but is always reminded that he’s both a product of his mother and his father; in the end, he accepts the Rings and his father’s legacy while still maintaining his sense of self and finding that balance. Of course, it all gets settled easily enough over the course of this one movie (and my commentary is coming from someone who’s descended from a long line of white Americans, so grain of salt!), and, like you said, is all made pretty palatable/monolithic for non-Asian audiences and doesn’t go into specifics.
Oftentimes when movies that bill themselves as being representative of X race, Y gender, Z culture come out (and allow their producers/distributors to cross off one more spot on their representation bingo card), they run into the issue where one camp will say they wish the movie had been more authentic in showing the struggles that a certain group faces, and another camp will want simply to watch the movie and not be reminded of their own issues they face outside the theater. I think Shang-Chi tried to straddle the middle of that and throw bones to both sides. I personally don’t really know which “side” I fall on, as I think both have merits—and I also think it’s another issue where it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; rather, they can be threaded together. I was wondering what you thought of that conundrum (and if it’s a conundrum at all or I’m just making it up in my head).
Patrick: I know, personally, that I feel anxiety whenever I criticize a “seminal project” like Shang-Chi. I believe the phrase for this right now is called “rep sweats,” or, as that article defines it, “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.”
I do wonder if I would feel any differently if I truly believed in Shang-Chi’s arc in the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I never felt him coming to terms with his identity and father issues, which deflated his self-realization at the end. To give positive notes on Shang-Chi, the opening wuxia ballet between Wen Wu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chan) might be one of the best scenes in a Marvel film. What a brilliant move on their part to cast Leung and his devastatingly sad eyes to give the film instant gravitas.
Speaking of the conundrum you were speaking of—representation of struggles or escapist entertainment—I often feel like, unfortunately, the movie industry has made things feel like one or the other. Either it is Minari or Tigertail in which it feels so oppressively about the struggles of recent immigrants or it is Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Shang-Chi in which there are Asian leads in blockbusters as prior properties and kung fu/karate ninjas.
That’s why I felt so attached to movies like Lucky Grandma (dir. Sasie Sealy) and The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu) from last year. Both are not perfect movies, but there is a liveliness—one is a comedy and the other is a coming of age romcom—to these films that felt true to the experience without feeling like “oppression porn.” Authenticity is a hard thing to define but you can immediately feel the difference.
Anna: I do appreciate that this movie has brought Tony Leung so much international recognition—I even got a friend to watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and now I’m getting sent daily TikToks about how hot Leung is (which… yeah). He’s just so good. I do appreciate that Shang-Chi pays homage to its roots with that wuxia scene and by casting legends like Leung and Michelle Yeoh (though almost all her dialogue was exposition), and it was helmed by Asian creatives, which is something that Marvel’s failed to do in the past. (Iron Fist immediately comes to mind, which was problematic in a lot of ways; Daredevil and Doctor Strange also appropriated certain Asian cultures and used them as either a threat to their main white character, as in Daredevil, or some vague mystic power to heal their main white character, as in Doctor Strange.)
“Oppression porn” is a great phrase. I think there’s also a sense that, by watching those oppression porn movies, you (white people or people whom the movie isn’t about) gain “woke points” for being so supportive of minorities. Disney’s definitely given themselves woke points, not for oppression porn necessarily, but for making any movies involving non-white casts. I think that’s the hardest thing about representation today—it’s so tied up in profit that, even if it starts from a genuine place, it inevitably starts to be seen as a cash grab or a way of courting a new market. It’s really hard to separate the intention of the individual creators from the intention of the huge corporation trying to score brownie points with certain audience segments.
Patrick: Listen, we can easily make this whole conversation about how hot Tony Leung is. It is very heartening to see people discover the power of “Little Tony.”
In terms of the homages to wuxia, something about it feels affected as well. This results in vague cultural things like the mythical village of Tae Lo, which was very Shangri-La and orientalist—more Panda Express or PF Chang’s than something “authentic.”
I think a lot about this scene from Do The Right Thingwhere Mookie talks to Pino about how his favorite actor, musician and sports athlete were black, yet he still used the n-word and has racist views. This year the most popular movie has been Shang-Chi, the most popular baseball player is Shohei Ohtani, and BTS is regularly on the radio. Yet this is the same year that Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women in a spa in Atlanta along with a slew of other Asian hate crimes. Thinking about my childhood, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are the coolest movie stars. Yet when I was called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan on the playground, it did not make me feel cool. Even if Shang-Chi makes a lot of Asian kids feel proud, being called Shang-Chi won’t make it better.
That is why I am frustrated by representational checklisting as an end. We hold these works in high regard in the cultural discourse because it feels anointed by a big studio. Yet there are lots of Asian American art that are undervalued and underseen that have been doing the work. I started my time at Drink in the Movies after not writing about film for a long time because I felt so inspired by Drink a Bowl of Tea. This was a 1988 movie directed by Wayne Wang about the problems of diaspora in Chinese communities in the late 1940s. Wayne Wang has continued to make interesting work about diaspora since then, yet it felt like it took a while for people to come around to talking about his work as a filmmaker. Same thing with the previously mentioned Alice Wu, whose first film Saving Face is a cult classic LGBTQ+ film, set in the Asian community. Yet it took her 15 years between that film and The Half of It. When people express appreciation for Shang Chi as it is a savior for representation, as a first of its kind, it feels diminishing to other pieces of valuable art. I do not wish to make this an either/or situation, but Marvel has sold itself as that and continuously fuels that thinking by taking money from mid-budget films and theater space.
There is a great book by Cathy Hong Park called Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoningand in it she presents a lot of ideas of discomfort of Asian American identity in America. She has a passage about Crazy Rich Asians in which she says of the opening scene in which Michelle Yeoh decides to buy the hotel that would not house them because of discrimination:
“The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene… if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that has destroyed us?”
In many ways, I feel like the celebration of Shang-Chi is rooted in the idea above. There is a desperate need to be accepted by a system that so easily discriminates. Look into the behind the scenes controversies behind three of the biggest Asian American mainstream works: Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and Crazy Rich Asians. Despite being prominent shows and movies about Asian Americans, power imbalance continues to brew and racist tendencies appear.
So my question is, what does Shang-Chi ultimately solve? Do we need an Asian superhero? Well, we have Detective Dee, Bahubbali, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, all of anime.
Do we need more Asian Americans on screen? Sure, but at what costs are we bending over backwards to a certain ideal to plead to people to look at us as people?
I am not sure if Shang-Chi is the salve that people declare it as—that Disney declares it as.
In just a short time, Haley Lu Richardson has become one of the most dynamic actresses in American cinema. She has an ability to adapt into whatever locale she is placed in, whether it is suburban California in Edge of Seventeen, a Hooters-esque restaurant in central Florida in Support the Girls, or even in the rough and tumble farms of Montana in Montana Story. Richardson’s naturalistic acting style brings so much life and authenticity beneath the surface of all the characters she plays.
Montana Story feels like it will become a minor work in Richardson’s promising career, but it certainly continues to be a showcase for her immense talent. She plays Erin, a 25-year-old who returns to her family farm in Montana to see her estranged comatose father. Also, there is her estranged brother Cal (Owen Teague), who has been handling the burden of their father alone.
The childhood ranch is a lot like the fractured relationships of this family: rundown, hollow, with no farm animals but a few chickens and an old stallion. A deep rift fissured the family when Erin revealed to the newspaper that her father was covering up a toxic chemical spill at a local mine leading to their father beating Erin half to death, while Cal stood there frozen.
Large landscapes like Montana have always been used as a backdrop to intimate emotions. Half of the best westerns ever made were built on that. However, despite great performances from Richardson and Teague, who are able to create quiet intimacy, the script by writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, often falls to the rote cliché side. This could be fine if the directors had taken the movie in a more melodramatic space like a Douglas Sirk western melodrama, but to stay quietly intimate hurts the film.
The movie also hints at other more interesting aspects of the inhabited surroundings that go strangely unexplored. The Keystone Pipeline protests, and controversy is mentioned on the radio, indigenous characters and actors populate the periphery, and a sweet Kenyan nurse (Gilbert Owuor) taking care of the leads’ father hints at an interesting backstory but never goes beyond. To populate the background with BIPOC characters certainly gives the world more depth but they never go beyond that function. What does it mean to them that Cal and Erin’s father is a man that would cover up environmental crimes? Whatever the case is, Montana Story is an engrossing drama on the effects of abusive parents. None of it is new or surprising, but we continue to see great work from Haley Lu Richardson. Owen Teague holds his own as well. And honestly, sometimes just setting a movie against the beautiful vast landscape of Montana is enough to make a movie worthwhile.