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Model Minority (2012)
Amazing Hapa story!
Let's be clear about where this review is gonna go. Lily Mariye has created an amazing film of complex characters that is driven by an outstanding performance by lead actress Nicole Bloom in her first feature film role. Not only does Nicole command your attention, but she has the ability to weave through the diversity of her character's emotions without banging the audience over the head with extremes. No doubt she and the other actors have the director to thank for defining all the characters carefully without making them dramatic, dull or one dimensional. While the film deals with an interracial family and some of the issues specific to being hapa, it doesn't diminish the fact that the issues of family, adolescence, love and pain cannot be understand and the characters being relatable to anyone who sees the film. The story is original, insightful and in the end thought provoking showing the trial and tribulations of life and growing up along with all the hope and joy that life has to offer. In case you didn't read the first couple of sentences or forgot already, this is a film to put on your "must see" list.
Yes, We're Open (2012)
Open for laughs
Richard Wong's "Yes, We're Open" starring Parry Shen & Lynn Chen as a couple contemplating the adventure of having an open relationship, tackles the subject in a very funny way and yet manages to come full circle in the end to address the issue of an open relationship in a very serious manner without ruining all the humor that came before. Tackling the subject with two Asian-American lead actors in and of itself would make the subject matter fresh and original, but H.P. Mendoza's script is smartly written and doesn't attempt to go overboard trying to force the laughs. Parry Shen's comedic timing is spot-on and he understands that often less is more in a good comedy, like when he is greeted by a quick peck on the lips by Ronald (Kerry McCrohan) and tries to act "free spirited" by suppressing his shock with a simple "OH!." The kiss isn't necessarily funny, but Parry's face and his reaction are a laugh out loud moment. Parry also has the ability to constantly stick his foot in his mouth while smiling cluelessly throughout the film, constantly creating great, funny moments (the opening wedding scene speech is classic). Lynne Chen's wonderful performance is a great balance to Parry's abundant laugh moments and Sheetal Sheth and Kerry McCrohan are the perfect predatory, hot swinging couple out to seduce them. When a comedy can mix drama along with the laughs you end up with a film that is satisfying beginning to end and that's what you'll find with "Yes, We're Open." It should also be noted that Director Richard Wong didn't forget that he is a great cinematographer when making this film. There are many visually beautiful moments. If there is a drawback to the film, it's that it plays like a long scene from a bigger film. More time could have been spend developing the characters and their backgrounds so that the audience actually understands each better and perhaps connects and/or relates to the characters, but that still doesn't diminish the laughs.
A Very Funny Harold & Kumar 3D Movie
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is not going to surprise anyone. It follows the same successful formula and chemistry between John Cho and Kal Penn as the first two. The film also is rude, inappropriate and has questionable taste just like the first two. So while the basic concept is the same, it has been plugged into a Christmas setting making fun of the holiday and managing to shoot Santa Claus in the face in the process. Damn it's funny! I'm not big on buddy comedies but behind closed doors I secretly love Harold & Kumar. White Castle was funny, Guantanamo Bay was even funnier taking on the issue of race and national security, and 3D Christmas is poking fun at religion and holidays. Because many may be afraid of being ridiculed for touching sacred subjects and therefore don't, Harold & Kumar movies repeatedly take on the challenge and find something original to laugh about. Sure making a baby high, John having his penis stuck to a metal frozen pole, and poking fun at the Catholic sex scandals may be inappropriate to some, but everything's fair in comedy and what the filmmakers have done will make you laugh over and over. So while much of the film may be ridiculously over the top, it all works. And while we don't see enough of Bobby Lee in the film who seems to be able to make you laugh without doing much, we do get Neil Patrick Harris playing himself as a closeted heterosexual. That scene is not just really funny throughout, but it steals the show. His scene is nothing short of a "must see" moment that is destined to be classic.
In the Family (2011)
The stuff Academy Award winning films are made of...
Many critics could argue, perhaps convincingly, that "In the Family" could be edited from its almost 3 hours to 2 hours, however, the pacing of the film doesn't suffer from its length. And by taking time to develop the almost mundane everyday life of a gay couple raising a young son, the film is actually a bold political statement that speaks directly to every person who thinks being gay is somehow a non-stop sex fest. Because of that, the film makes a very strong point even before the issues at the heart of the movie become front and center. It's a family friendly film where sexual orientation is almost an afterthought of the movie and that is what sets the tone and makes it groundbreaking. That is a long winded way of saying that anyone who thinks the film should fit into a typical 2 hour movie formula, is missing the depth of the story and the emotional impact the pacing creates.
Many Asian-American actors would say they hate doing accents because they are connected with stereotypical roles, but Patrick Wang's southern accent probably wasn't what Asian-American actors had in mind and in this case it is a testament to Patrick's incredible acting abilities. I am one who thinks directors should direct and not also take on the demand of acting in their own films because both can suffer, but Patrick Wang's acting and directing are both amazing. He has embraced this film heart and soul and it's evident in its emotional complexity and perhaps this is a case where it could not have been as successful without Patrick in both roles.
In the film the downward spiral starts with the confrontation between Joey (Patrick Wang) and Chad's sister over the will and is a riveting scene that doesn't leave the viewer rooting for anyone, but actually feeling the pain and the point each is making about the circumstances. But for Joey it is the most devastating because everything in his life is gone overnight; his partner, his child, and his home. The loneliness and destruction of his life is powerfully and beautifully created by Patrick's acting and directing making this a heart wrenching film that shouldn't be missed. And the film's conclusion? Emotionally brilliant.
Cánh dong bat tan (2010)
Academy Award caliber film
Sometimes a film comes along where all the pieces fall into place and the script, cinematography, music, acting, directing all form a magical symphony. "Floating Lives" is one such film that is so powerful that after you have followed the drama through the myriad of emotions to it's successful conclusion you almost feel exhausted, yet so satisfied.
Ultimately it is about the women in the film whose characters are center stage and are on the one hand so strong and bold and yet on the other so fragile. Actress Do Thi Hai Yen's performance brilliantly showcases both the strong and the fragile as a tragic yet hopeful prostitute, Suong, who yearns for a simple life of happiness. Escaping a horrible beating from angry wives, she is thrown into life on a boat with a mentally and physically abusive man, Mr. Vu, and his two teenage children far from populated areas of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta. When Mr. Vu's daughter reveals to Suong her mother's infidelity, hence why their mother is not part of their lives, Suong states about Mr. Vu, "now I understand his roar" and at that moment in the film she begins to think of him as a person who knows how to love deeply giving her more reason to hope for a life with him and his children. And that is part of this very complex web of emotions that is formed among these four characters that makes the film so engaging.
Dustin Nguyen's role as the father is also a masterful performance that can easily be called one of the best acting roles of his career, certainly a role not seen from him in the past. Like Do Thi Hai Yen, his acting creates a very complex character. On the surface Mr. Vu is easy to dislike, yet he has glimpses of a happy, kind, loving man that makes him hard to hate and easy to feel sympathy for and that allows the audience to hope for a better future for him and his family. When she offers to go back to being a prostitute to actually help the family, Mr. Vu does not object. When leaving to fulfill her "duty," she looks back multiple times hoping that Mr. Vu will stop her. While he too considers that option, even opening his mouth to speak, perhaps ready to feel something good again, even at that moment he is unable to do so. This is such a powerful scene in the film showing Suong's unwillingness to give up hope even though everything she knows tells her all hope is lost.
Throughout the film the mesmerizing cinematography of the Mekong Delta and the beautiful original soundtrack are juxtapose the cruel misery of these floating lives
floating through the waterways, floating through life surviving, and floating towards what they hope is a better tomorrow. Through all of the darkness in the film, hope is interwoven and therein lies the mastery of director Nguyen Quang Binh's film.
Overhead Projector provided
Stage productions never translate well to film because it's impossible to capture the interaction with and energy that an audience provides. As a movie goer you are never able to participate, only watch from a distance. That being said, if a stage show isn't captured on film most of us would never get to experience some amazing work, so thanks Mike Closson for turning the camera on Cuckoo Kristina and all her nesting on stage! The best written one person shows are those that can take a very deep, serious subject matter and intertwine the right amount of humor throughout the production to tell a story and make a point. Kristina has started with the fact that the suicide rate among Asian-American women is higher than other females and interjects her own life and experiences into this while taking time to laugh about the chaos/stress of life. Her use of an overhead projector in the show is unique and brilliantly funny. It's as if for brief moments she stops to give a lecture and then resumes her performance. Throughout the show she runs to the projector to check her story arc on the damn thing only to find out she is still stuck at the beginning developing the "crisis" (and therefore can't move the story along). These moments are so funny and yet at that same time she is emphasizing the whole point of her show, namely that there is a crisis among Asian-American women. The way Kristina chooses to conclude her show is an amazing idea that puts a very large, loud period on a very long run-on sentence. Great movie, but I'm quite sure that seeing her perform this live on stage is a must see experience.
My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)
...In a Nutshell
While the movie is billed as a "romance," the fact that it is based on a true story actually gives the film more of a dramatic edge than perhaps the title and the billing of the film fail to alert audiences too, and sadly, may deter those who love a great drama from going to see. So for those who wanna see a romantic film, you'll love this
and for those who love dramas, here is why you should see this film! My Wedding and Other Secrets is based on a documentary by Rosanne Liang called Banana In a Nutshell about her real life experiences; that in and of itself is part of the reasons why the film is so successful. Gone are all the nice ribbons and bows and cute little one-liners you would expect in a "romance" and instead you experience real characters with depth and with real conversation and interactions that are tangible. While in the end the film ends on a happy note as you'd expect from a romance, the journey to that point is littered with the complexities of human emotion, cultural differences, and the loving bond of family. Michelle Ang, who plays Emily Chu, does a wonderful job of creating a character torn between her love of a non-Chinese boyfriend and her family's "Chinese" expectations for their daughter. Emily is then pulled in so many directions in the film while she tries to decide what her life should be, and the best choices to make, and it is her performance that brings this drama to life. Matt Whelan, Pei-Pei Cheng, Kenneth Tsang and Mike Ginn all provide an exceptional supporting cast. Real life "Emily," Rosanne Liang, directed the film and her guidance has created a film with the perfect balance between romance and drama, making a very original "romance" film that is a great drama not to be missed.
Bang Bang (2011)
Raw, documentary feel punctuated with great performances
First, you know writer/director Byron Q created something "good" when the media gets shut out of screenings because it's sold out! Such was the case with us at the Los Angeles premiere in May when we planned to do a review of the film as a followup to our interview with Byron Q, Thai Ngo, David Huynh and Jessika Van!
The Orange County, CA premiere gave us another opportunity to catch the film which we did...and this film is RAW! That is the perfect word to describe the film, not just because of the writing and directing, but the visual style, the solid "real" acting and the very documentary feel of the film. From the opening sequence the film makes you part of what is happening like you are there with the cast experiencing what they experience. Using both a script and improvisation, Byron has also allowed the film to breathe and take on a much bigger life than the confines of what the actors were given to learn. There is a natural flow to conversation and an authenticity to the language. Thai Ngo, a well- known musical artist, is impressive in his acting debut as lead character Justin. David Huynh plays his side-kick Charlie and shows, as he does with every role he touches it seems, an ability to bring subtle nuances to a role that makes the character so complex. Walter Wong is another actor in the film that provides a standout performance, and Jessika Van just isn't seen enough! If there is a drawback, it's the fact that the viewer is left a bit unsatisfied and wanting to know more about the characters and where they came from and how their bonds developed. And here is one of the very interesting things about this film...there are genuine "laugh out loud" moments that work (which you wouldn't expect) in such a brutal, very real feeling film about gang life, because it brings to life the bond these guys have as friends. Byron's feature film debut is a great film to call "my first."
Seal it tight, or the water will get in and destroy the dumpling...
What Wesley Du has done is taken a play he wrote and decided to transform it into a short film. The film is truly amazing in the way that it tells the story of a father/son relationship that on the surface is dysfunctional and cold but underneath there is a strong sense of family and a desire to bond that for both is difficult. Each is trying to bring the other into their very different worlds without much success and the symbolism of the dumpling and how to make them is the son's way to find the one emotional connection they share, his mother who is deceased. What is beautiful about the film is that it is loaded with so many questions that are not answered and that actually is what adds to the power of the story. The performances of both Jesse Wang (the father) and Won Lee (the son) are exceptional and they are able to create that on-screen chemistry that will leave your eyes watering in the end.
Wedding Palace (2013)
Masterful blend of comedy and romance...
Christine Yoo has written and directed a film that is masterful in the way it moves from comedy to romance by blending the two seamlessly. That's the good news...the bad news is that by virtue of the fact that it is a film with an Asian cast and a few subtitles thrown in, it will probably not receive the wide release and the sold out American audiences it deserves. Although it is a film about Korean culture and traditions of parents whose son is a Korean-American raised in a very different world than his immigrant parents, the comedy is ultimately about generational differences among family members, something everyone can understand. While every good film starts with a great script, without the right director and cast it can't succeed. Christine Yoo as writer/director has guided this film perfectly. Brian Tee, in the lead role of Jason, has taken on a character most would not expect. He is able to subdue his character among all the hoopla, chaos and comedy of the cast to provide that perfect balance and dramatic constant the film needs to bring it all together. Bobby Lee, Jean Yoon, Steve Park, June Kyoto Lu, Kelvin Han Yee and Joy Osmanski all provide perfect comedic timing creating truly memorable characters. This is a romantic story with so many laughs and it works so well on so many levels. For example, two wonderful parts of the film are the use of animation when explaining the history of the family "curse," and the long distance dating between Jason (Brian Tee) who is from Los Angeles in the film, and Na Young (Hye-jeong Kang) who is from Seoul. You can bet this film will be a big success in Korea and it deserves the same everywhere else including the USA.