“The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) is a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. We do this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.”

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A Reflection on Pamela Tom’s TYRUS (CAAMFest 2016)

“If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.” – Tyrus Wong

A Disney fan since birth, I jump at any opportunity to learn about the company, especially its various creative influences. Needless to say, when I was told that the film festival for the Center of Asian American Media (CAAMFest) 2016 would open with a documentary about the chief artist behind Bambi, I signed up immediately. This would become not only my first event covering with media credentials, but also my first film festival. Ever.

On the evening of March 10th, I drove out with two other GPP members, pen and paper stowed in my purse, safe from the rain. When I saw the lights of the Castro Theatre and surrounding shops shining off of the asphalt, I knew that something big was about to happen. Going into Tyrus, I expected a film containing a short biography on artist Tyrus Wong with more emphasis on his work at Disney. What director, producer, and writer Pamela Tom’s work offers is much more. The delicate, careful attention that she pays to the lives of Wong and his family cannot be missed. I would like to share a few of my specific reactions below.

In one of several interview clips, Wong states that his given name is Gen Yo, which translates into “grand scenery” in English. I remember feeling like this name was a sign of the great artistic prestige that would later befall him, like the power of the name conferred upon him the power to live up to it.

Wong’s cheeky sense of humor, combined with his humility and his boundless love for his family, is a testament to the strength of his character. (It also makes me want to talk to him in person; he sounds like a great guy.) In his view, art was the only thing he was good at, and it was not talent, but hard work and luck that helped him achieve what he did. I think that I speak for the viewers when I say that he’s far too modest; grace and heart, along with those qualities and more, helped him pull through. If a code for fulfilling the American Dream exists, I believe that Tyrus Wong has cracked it.

When asked about his earliest art experiences, Wong discusses his calligraphy practice, which his father directed. He would take a brush, dip it in water, and practice strokes on newspaper. This would later contribute to Wong’s art style, which, drawing upon traditional Chinese styles and integrating modern themes and techniques, emphasizes starkness and desolation. To paraphrase Wong’s description of the philosophy, to include extra details is childish; fewer details convey the artist’s enthusiasm more effectively than ornateness. It is this idea that Wong and Disney draw upon for Bambi, the minimalism and subtlety of which directly counteracts the abundance of detail in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Above all, I was disheartened by the level of discrimination Wong faced in the workplace—though, admittedly, I wasn’t altogether too surprised. When he was hired as the inspirational sketch artist for Bambi, some of his co-workers became resentful because of how quickly he ascended in the company. One year before Bambi released, Wong was fired and only credited as a background artist in the film’s credits, which is not consistent with what his roles actually were. It seems that such discrimination was only made more apparent later in his career, one representative from Republic Pictures even going so far as to call Wong a “chink.” The discrimination, I regret to say, was unavoidable, but to hear that people like that man had the gall to make a statement to his face is, nevertheless, appalling.

Tom has a clean, straightforward style of presentation that I find refreshing. Having seen many documentaries that skew reality and impose extraneous narratives, I really appreciate how Tom lets Wong’s story tell itself with little to no embellishment. She draws from the same art philosophy that inspires Wong’s works: using less to tell more. I found the cinematography similarly pure and as natural as though the viewers interview Wong alongside Tom. One of my favorite shots was near the end of the film: a joyful, painting-like shot of Wong’s kites flying at the Santa Monica Pier. Flashes of color lean and flash across a blank blue canvas, and its brightness awakens the Bambi-watching child in all of us. Overall, I find Tyrus a respectful and to-the-point telling of a great man’s story, and the film’s directness echoes the same style that launched Wong’s career decades ago.

CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Tyrus, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!

– Jeana Braun


A Reflection on Randall Okita’s Short Films (CAAMFest 2016)

You might not be able to tell that I’m half Japanese just by looking at me. It was more obvious when I was younger, when I would go to Saturday language school at a Buddhist church near my grandparents’ house. My family still makes some Japanese foods, like sushi, sukiyaki, and kuromame (sweet black beans). Sometimes, my family, my mom’s brother’s family, and my mom’s cousins’ families would all go to obon (a festival to honor the spirits of our ancestors) in August, stuff ourselves with teriyaki and dango (fried dough balls), and watch some attendees perform traditional dances on the blocked-off avenue.

But despite this, I’ve always felt out of touch with my heritage. Countless family history projects, years of ethnic feasts, and (re-)taking Japanese language courses weren’t enough for me to connect fully with my roots. There was something fundamentally missing: an underlying message, a philosophy, something to unify everything.

It was with a glimmer of this mindset that I first read about Randall Okita’s collection of shorts, which would be presented at CAAMFest 2016. Born in Calgary, Okita is a Japanese-Canadian filmmaker who has also lived in Japan, Vancouver, and Ontario. His filmmaking style has been described online as exploring themes of “sculpture, technology, [and] drama” through “rich cinematography.” Perhaps, I thought, something here will help me bring things together.

And, though it sounds corny, contrived, and/or exaggerated, I actually do feel like I’ve discovered something.

Five of Okita’s short films – “Machine with Wishbone,” “Fish in Barrel,” “No Contract,” “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” and “The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer” – were shown, followed by a Q&A with Okita himself. I’ll cover each event in order.

I was initially struck by “Machine with Wishbone” because of what isn’t shown. A plain, bright white background is used almost exclusively in the short, except for a few seconds in which some painted glass panes are layered, “cel”-style, to create a mountain scene. However, even this is dismantled in the next shot when the camera shows the panes from an angle, revealing and separating them.

This white background emphasizes the props and mechanisms that are included in the frame, which ties back into the simple art style that I adored in Pamela Tom’s Tyrus. “Machine with Wishbone” strikes a beautiful balance between demoting movement to a technological function and breathing “life” into technology because of the movement it produces. Several close-ups ensure that the viewers see the turning gears, metal rods, pistons, and more that animate the namesake wishbone, a “body” in a bed, and more; however, the technology that is shown distracts from the technology that isn’t (namely, the camera and filming equipment that captures the wishbone’s journey). The simplicity of the visual setup and the symbiotic fusion of art and technology are spellbinding to me.

Fish in Barrel” takes a drastic turn from the cheeriness of “Machine with Wishbone,” immediately obvious from the barely-there lighting and the eerie, garbled sound effects like speech and slow music. Fluid mechanics provide another balance between visual pleasure and physical truth, as the camera shows objects like fabric floating or drifting underwater.

When a man sitting in a bathtub abruptly submerges himself, the camera slows the action to emphasize every sparkle of the droplets shattering on the tiles. The man’s frustration and submersion, juxtaposed with mesmerizing tranquil music, seems to me to shift among fits of mania and depression. But I’m likely reading too far into it, so I’ll just stop there.

No Contract” is the only one of Okita’s presented films to show filmmaking equipment in the frame, thereby showcasing the process in the final product. People are shown into a dark auditorium, which is lit by a crew, and are seated on benches. The presence of a huge mat, firefighters, and a gurney quickly clues in the viewers (both onscreen and off) that a highly dangerous stunt, likely involving fire, will be demonstrated, and it isn’t long before the viewers are gratified.

As a stuntman himself, Okita breaks down the composition of a stunt, showing not only the preparation, but also the act of lighting the stuntman (himself?) on fire and crawling on the floor. Two figures, both ablaze, crawl toward each other, and a cacophony of sounds crescendos, practically deafening us in the off-screen audience. This shot is done in slow motion, which draws out the anticipation of the figures’ meeting to agonizing lengths and plays on the viewers’ panic and fear responses.

The slowing of the crawl also affects the flames jumping from each figure, and they swirl through the air like orange flower petals before gracefully fading away.

If “Machine with Wishbone” is my favorite of Okita’s shorts, then “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence” is probably second. Bursts of sound shock the viewers, and a man smashes several panes of glass. After considerable damage is done, the man lifts a brick onto a hook, which is attached to a pulley system, and lets gravity lower the brick to the floor.

The brick is tied by thin black cords to hundreds of glass shards, formed from the man’s destruction of the panes. When the shards halt, they produce a stunning image: a three-dimensional glass figure of a human recoiling from a blow, partially shattering while made of shattered things.

As soon as I saw the figure, I assumed that this was a reflection on the fragility of human ego and emotion, basically stating what kinds of harmful effects words, as well as actions, can have on other people. Imagine my satisfaction when, by answering a question another audience member posed in the Q&A afterward, Okita confirmed that I was partially right. If I remember correctly, Okita said that in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” he wanted to explore the emotional connections involved in abuse, specifically between a perpetrator and a victim. (Check out more notes from the Q&A below!)

“The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer,” the fifth and final of Okita’s shown films, contains a more complete narrative than the other four and also makes use of stunning visual effects. In fact, of these five films, this is the only one to use animation and extra computer effects; everything else, like the mechanisms in “Machine with Wishbone” and the glass statue in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” are real! A voiceover introduces the namesake characters as a short home video rolls on, showing two brothers at play. In one frightening moment, the boys turn around, and their eyes are scratched out with white.

While the visual is unsettling in itself, what scares me more is the influx of noise. I quickly assumed that the brothers’ tale was not a happy one. Several surreal shots superimpose video or images onto human outlines, so the viewers are not shown anyone’s faces in their entirety, which gives the cynical impression that each person is no more than what they do. There is, indeed, a complete narrative present here, but I won’t spoil that for you.

I feel like I can summarize each of Okita’s five works, in order, with one word. Determination. Desperation. Desensitization. (Emotional) Destruction. Disillusionment. (I wanted to maintain the pattern. Don’t judge me.)

After the films, Okita answered several questions from the audience. I will do my best to include the questions here, and I will paraphrase Okita’s answers based off of the notes I took. (In other words, Okita’s “answers” below are not verbatim unless put into quotation marks.)

Q: How do you start your pieces?

A: The process is always slightly different for each piece, but usually, it starts with a spark. For example, Arthur Ganson’s work inspired the adventure in “Machine with Wishbone.” Sometimes, I also start with the last image that I want the film to have and work backwards from there.

Q: Do you identify first as a storyteller, artist, filmmaker, or something else?

A: I try not to think about it too much, but if I had to choose, I probably identify as a filmmaker first. But I want to try many different areas, and I’ll take any chance I can to work in other areas.

Q: How long did it take to make the glass statue in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence”?

A: It took several months to plan, but we ended up creating something different from that plan. Overall, it probably took about 3 weeks to put the mechanism together.

Q: Has there been any differences between American and Canadian support for your work?

A: “It’s an interesting time.” It’s a time of open discussion and exploration on what works and what doesn’t, including an exploration of gender parody. I’m lucky to have so much support and freedom to make mistakes.

Q: Does it come naturally to think abstractly, or do you have to practice it?

A: I’m still new to that way of thinking, still figuring it out. I don’t want to limit myself, and I want to explore things that excite me. I try to chase a “spark” until it makes “a kind of sense,” like the “smack” of violence representing both actor and victim in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence.” I don’t usually start with intellectual grounds, but with emotion.

Q: How will gender parody affect your industry?

A: I don’t want to misrepresent anything, but I think that gender parodywill help focus the conversation of what will be made and how. I’m excited to work with organizations using the gender parody model.

Q: Is there a relationship among the symbols in your films?

A: I’ve never really thought of my films as bodies of work. I always start with a physical item and a desire to turn visceral emotions into physical presentations. I’ll probably run out of metaphors one day, but we’ll see.

Q: Can you tell us about the genesis of your third film, No Contract?

A: I was thinking a lot about “spectacle” and the filmmaker’s relationship with the audience. The “making of the piece became part of the piece.” The final image that I wanted was very clear.

Q: Any new projects that we can look forward to?

A: I’m working on another film called “The Lock-picker,” which I hope will be at a future CAAMFest, and a few other shorts and art pieces are in the works, as well.

 I started this article rambling on about my Japanese heritage, and I promise that there’s a point to my sharing it. Okita’s work, especially “Machine with Wishbone,” embodies a similar “beauty in simplicity” concept that I greatly enjoyed in Pamela Tom’s Tyrus, which leads me to believe that maybe such an idea is commonplace in an Eastern artistic mindset and is not just Chinese.

A type of Japanese poetry, haiku, relies on a strict syllabic structure: 5 in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the last. In my past attempts at haiku, I’ve found that it is much easier to write haiku in English than in Japanese. There is a wide variety of monosyllabic English words that can be strung together to form a logical statement, but individual Japanese words often contain multiple syllables. For example, inu means dog, but two syllables are used instead of one.

This forces Japanese haiku to include words only if they are absolutely necessary, which makes each haiku so much more evocative and goes back to Tyrus’s Wong’s quote: “If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.” Perhaps adopting this approach, using less to say more, is the next step in honoring my heritage.

I should probably start by shortening my articles.

CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Okita’s works, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!

-Jeana Braun

A Reflection on Mabel Cheung’s A TALE OF THREE CITIES (CAAMFest 2016)

A Tale of Three Cities was initially pitched to me as “the story of Jackie Chan’s parents,” and that was all I needed to hear. While I have only seen a few of Jackie Chan’s movies, I knew enough about him to like him for his personality as well as his moves, so I was ready to see this one. Imagine my surprise when, by the end of A Tale of Three Cities, he was only mentioned as an afterthought in the last two minutes of the film.

Surprise, certainly. And yet this masterpiece of a film is so tautly constructed, so emotionally raw and organic, so perfectly executed, that Jackie’s relative absence was (and is) inconsequential to me. (No offense intended, Mr. Chan.) I assure you that no matter how exuberant my praise may sound, this film deserves every word of it.

A Tale of Three Cities was the centerpiece narrative film and the spotlight event of CAAMFest 2016. Director Mabel Cheung (whom one of my fellow board members called “the Spielberg of Hong Kong” and whose works also include Illegal Immigrant, An Autumn Tale, and The Soong Sisters) was introduced with her writer-husband, Alex Law. Together, they gave some background on the film before it was screened, including the film’s genesis. According to an amusing anecdote, Jackie Chan called Law to invite him to spend Chinese New Year with him (Chan) in Australia, all expenses paid by Chan. In exchange, Chan requested that Law and Cheung create a “home video” about Chan’s family. It wasn’t until later, Law chuckled, that he realized that this “home video” would require far more than a few cameras and a minimal crew. According to Law and Cheung, the film-making process also helped Chan learn things about his parents that he never knew otherwise, mostly because of a language barrier. “How could you survive without understanding your father?” they asked Chan. It is reported that Chan replied, “That’s how I survived!”

However, in the first few minutes of the film, all lightheartedness seemed to evaporate. The film opens with the establishment of a cutthroat hierarchy, a Japanese air raid, explosions, and crumbling clock towers. Gritty characters of questionable morality, spy action scenes, executions, shifting family dynamics, and complicated love affairs all manage to integrate themselves seamlessly into A Tale of Three Cities after thatmaking for a story so gripping that I found myself physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of it. I could fill several pages with praise on stunning cinematography and excellent dialogue, but I will limit myself to just a few of the most memorable parts for me:

  • The female protagonist, Yeurong, and her two daughters search for Yeurong’s first husband among a pile of bodies and collapsed buildings in the beginning of the film. One of the daughters, sobbing, recounts when she last saw her father, explaining that she delivered his lunch box and was leaving when the air raid started. It’s easy enough to predict the father’s fate when she explains this, but to see these two little girls, each looking no older than five, sobbing as they scream, “Here he is!” broke my heart, and that’s not the half of it. The father’s lunch box, upturned with contents splattered about, is a scene of carnage in itself, a highly-loaded image foreshadowing the father’s fate. As if this isn’t answer enough, the camera pans a short distance to the right to show his gray, bloody face; he was crushed to death by a concrete clock face, which fell from a building near his station. The theme of distorted time recurs later in the film and in many different forms, ranging from brief slow-motion to draw out a moment to bombs fashioned from watches, but this first occurrence still haunts me with its power. As soon as I saw this sequence, I knew that I was in for an emotional ride I was not prepared for.
  • Throughout the film, there were several transition shots of natural settings: tree branches, blackened by silhouette, against a cloudy white sky, reflected in a tranquil pond; a softly bubbling waterfall over polished stones below a pink sky; a small boat gliding across a pristine lake. While I could not ponder their significance for long, being so bombarded with other glorious details, these shots were breathtaking.
  • Some movies can go overboard with their action sequences. Don’t get me wrong, I love chases and fight scenes as much as the next moviegoer (after all, I’m an avowed Marvel fan), but even I have my limits. A Tale of Three Cities has a wonderful action sequence involving the male protagonist, Daolong, and his rebel spy cohorts against a small army of Japanese soldiers. Martial arts, gunfire, and a chase through a bamboo thicket are cut short by a sudden play by Daolong’s team to “wait it out” until morning. Where the action stops, suspense takes over, as Daolong’s team must stay quiet in order to avoid being killed despite a swarm of mosquitoes biting them all over. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but I will say that it felt like a second climax in the film and was very well-constructed, not too long or drawn out. My adrenaline was pumping…and I’m glad that I wasn’t eating anything during the “resolution” of this mini-arc.
  • Despite this film’s serious nature, it also manages to insert great comedic moments. From the protagonists offering their four young children some hard liquor to finding out that some “blood” in the water is actually chili sauce seeping from a destroyed container, there are many twists that help dispel the tension in the quirkiest ways. Needless to say, I loved them.
  • The final climax of the film – and how many there were, I couldn’t even count at the time – contains some gorgeous underwater cinematography that really highlights the chemistry between Daolong and Yeurong. Yeurong’s lullaby, first introduced diegetically much earlier in the film and recurring non-diegetically ever since, returns one last time as Daolong lovingly sweeps away the hair floating around Yeurong’s face, and despite being a little bit long (I found myself thinking, “Get her to the surface, or she’ll drown!”), this sequence was very intimate and touching.

The epilogue came immediately after that underwater moment, which actually caught me by surprise. When I realized the film was ending, I was torn between being relieved (just because I wasn’t sure how much more emotional trauma I could take in a sitting) and needing to know more about Daolong’s and Yeurong’s later lives (to end on such a note! With so many unanswered questions!).

Anyway, among other things, the epilogue reveals that in 1954, Yeurong gave birth to a son named Gangsheng, meaning “born in Hong Kong.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent of Jackie Chan’s presence in the film.

A Tale of Three Cities is the most powerful film I have ever seen, and it’s because it assaulted my emotions so much that I loved it. (I’m a masochist when it comes to stories. The more they make me cry, the better I say they are.) Even a month after CAAMFest has ended, I still think about this film very often, and I greatly look forward to the day I’ll see it again. Here’s hoping for a speedy distribution in the West. I recommend this film to everyone who wants to witness a powerful true story, with one piece of advice: have tissues and comforting food and drink on hand. Trust me.

CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Okita’s works, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!

– Jeana Braun

CAAMFest    Director  Brennan Maclean

Camera Brennan Maclean

Reporter Brennan Maclean

Unit Production Manager Brennan Maclean

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