Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Comedic Take at Immigration Travails from the Philippines - A Film Review

"Toto" tells the story of a Manila hotel worker who seeks every way to get a visa to America.  Sid Lucero plays Antonio Estares, the Toto in the film, who in his jovial and friendly self tries to flirt his way with hotel guests – all with U.S. passports – to try to get one to sponsor him on his American Dream.   

This comedic look at the hopes of many outside U.S. to get to the land of many dreams exposes the harsh reality that without money, such a dream often becomes a nightmare.  The very hetero Toto even gets cruised by an American tourist staying in the hotel - will he succumb and sleep with the American just to get a chance at a visa?  

 The film tackles his dilemma (and that of the American) in an unexpected way.  Instead of depicting the American David Yeltsin (played by Blake Boyd) as a sexual predator after Asian young men, the director of Toto, John Paul Su, manages to resolve the dilemma in this feature drama (115 minutes) to the ultimate satisfaction of both parties, with Toto retaining his dignity and David also gaining what he needed.  I'm not revealing what happens in the end; I'm afraid you will have to catch the film somewhere.

But Toto (the film) did manage to get to America, screening last Sunday at the 2016 Newport Beach Film Festival at tony Newport Beach in sunny Southern California.  The festival ends today.

-- Daniel C. Tsang

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Finding Phong" (Tim Phong): A Review & Interview with Phong

For a Subversity Show Online bilingual (Vietnamese/English) interview with Phong, click here.  Thanks to Thuy-Van Nguyen for interpreting! 
Garnering the Community Spotlight Award at the 2016 Vietnamese Film Festival held in Orange, California, “Finding Phong” (Tim Phong) is an exquisitely beautiful and revealing 2015 film about a young Vietnamese man’s journey to become a young woman. 

Scene from "Finding Phong":  Mother (in background) with Phong
 Although the film lists two veteran indie filmmakers Tran Phuong Thao and Swann Dubus as co-directors, credit nonetheless also belongs to the subject of this documentary, Le Anh Phong.  Phong manages capture with small video cameras her own journey (while trapped in the body of a male), as she filmed herself talking to her mother who is far away back in their rural home in Quang Ngai province in Central Vietnam.  

Selfie scene from "Finding Phong"

Phong with Subversity Show host
Self-identifying as a girl in her childhood, the star of the film also manages to capture what must be an ethnographer’s dream footage, as sister, brother and friends talk explicitly about heterosexual sex including ejaculation and oral and penetrative sex.  In addition to her mother, in her 70s, who wonders why she is fated to have such a son (she had been happy the boy was born), the bearded father (in his eighties) is shown saying that it doesn’t matter boy or girl as long as there is support for the Revolution!
The film has been expertly and carefully edited out of 250 hours of footage and ends right after Phong manages to complete the physical transition at a Thai clinic.  It was totally unscripted, and could not have been, given the gems of humanity that remain in the film after its length was trimmed. 
Kudos to the producers Gerry Herman and Nicole Pham who have partnered with Phong to see this amazing film reach the festival audience worldwide.  It won France’s Nanook GrandPrix at the 34th Festival International Jean Rouch last fall, and furthermore a DVD of the film has been added to every French school library in an attempt at helping overcome discrimination against the transgendered.  

Phong at VFF
Most significantly, Phong tells me in our brief Subversity Show Online interview, Phong’s mother testified before state legislators, and Phong’s story of her gender transition no doubt was instrumental in the passage of Asia’s first law permitting transgendered to register in their chosen gender, when Vietnam’s legislature passed such legislation last November.  The law comes into effect in 2017 after 282 legislators voted in favor of it, out of 366.  Unlike Phong, who had to travel to Thailand for her operation, future Vietnamese transsexuals will be more likely to find receptive clinics within Vietnam.  Phong, who had moved to Hanoi to go to university and discovered she was not alone as a transgendered, now works for the state Puppet Theater there, painting the figurines that are used in Vietnamese cultural productions.  – Daniel C. Tsang.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Queer Cinema from Vietnam at Vietnamese Film Festival 2016

Two features and one short depict queer cinema from Vietnam will be screening Sunday, 17 April 2016 at VAALA's Vietnamese Film Festival that has just opened at the AMC 30 (The Outlets) in Orange, California.

A prizewinning film on the journey of Le Anh Phong from male to female is Finding Phong, who herself will appear at the festival.  The film has already made a strong impact in Vietnam, which earlier this year passed legislation facilitating the legal recognition of trans people there, after officials viewed the film.  It is directed by Tran Phuong Thao and Swann Dubus.

Ticket information and synopsis

Paired with Finding Phong is a 19-minute short, about a gay male couple in Vietnam, We are Coming Home. It is directed by Le My Cuong.

Ticket information and synopsis

 Joining a free "Finding Phong and the Vietnamese LGBTQ Community" discussion (open to the public) after the showing at 1 pm Sunday April 17, 2016 is producer Gerry Herman, the Hanoi-based independent film figure who has for over a decade managing the Hanoi Cinematheque that he founded in Vietnam's capital.  Another panelist is cp-producer Nicole Pham.  The panel will also include members of VROC: Viet Rainbow of Orange County, California. 

Another queer feature is Big Father, Small Father and other Stories, focusing on male lust among various characters set in modern-day Vietnam. It is directed by Phan Dang Di and was in competition at The Berlinale. The film stars Do Thi Hai Yen (Quiet American, Pao's Story and Adrift), Le Cong Hoang as well as Truong The Vinh.

Big Father...
Ticket information and synopsis

Another scene from Big Father...
 -- Daniel C. Tsang.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016

"Boiling Pot" Stirring Up Campus Dialogues on Racism

To listen to the post-screening panel discussion, click here.

Irvine -  Just a half-dozen years ago, Russell Curry was a leading protester at University of California, Irvine - speaking out in support of muslims and people of color on campus.  He rallied activist students and staff at the flagpole and got them to "put your fist in the sky" to fight injustice.  He went to the Gaza on a peace and aid mission.  Through it all, his mission was to reach out to challenge and engage even those who disagreed with him, in rallies, one-on-one discussions, and on KUCI, where he appeared on the Subversity Show several times.

"Sonny Boy" (as he was then known by his rap name) was back on campus Tuesday, 1 March, 2016, almost six years to the day after his last major rally.  Professionally, he works a handsome male model -- but Russell Curry remains a powerful political voice of reason, even as he has now become an integral part of a new explosive film that intelligently explores, without exploiting, the current national debate at institutions of higher education around race and racism.

Russell Curry rallying Anteaters 4 March 2010 almost exactly six years ago.
Russell Curry remains true to the activist past honed at UCI, and that experience impacted the film, as he explained in the Q&A after a free showing of "Boiling Pot: The Truth is Never Black and White," although he was typically quite modest about his role, looking back. 

The film is a dramatization based loosely on two notable real-life racist campus incidents - a noose found hanging from a bookcase at UC San Diego Library, and the notorious off-campus "Compton Cookout", a "black-themed" party that served watermelon and the frat brothers wore baggy clothes, posing as blacks.  The incidents sparked disgust and even got picked up nationally in the New York Times, which ran a story 26 February 2010 under the headline, "California Campus Sees Uneasy Race Relations."

Watching the film that was shown as part of the UCI Sudent Affairs' New Narratives series, I was blown away by the tight editing and dynamic pace of what turned out to be a thriller and murder mystery.  At points I was on the edge of my seat, straining to catch it all in.  Definitely, credit belongs to director Omar Ashmawey, who also co-wrote the script with his brother, Ibrahim, for skilled directing of a multi-ethnic cast.
Ibrahim Ashmawey, Andrew Luu, Russell Curry
and Omar Ashmawey, from "Boiling Pot" panel discussion

While a few in the audience after the screening wondered whether the film was too one-sided,  I have to disagree.  The main characters were decidedly more nuanced than cartoonish,  and whether black, Arab, Asian or white, almost all were portrayed as self-analytical and ultimately redeemable.  Especially striking was Academy Award winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., who superbly portrayed a dogged bulldog of a law enforcement interrogator, Detective Haven.

Russell Curry answers questions
I was also struck by Ibrahim Ashmawey, who portrayed an Arab American, Hazem Seif, from New Jersey who was dating the female character, Valerie Davis, stunningly played by Danielle Fischel. 

Russell Curry, who played a bit part as a black student, Malik Stanton, was especially notable with his restrained acting and thoughtful face. 

Three white characters were also noteworthy: John Heard, played the racist father of Valerie, Tim Davis.  Matthew Koenig, a recent UCI MFA graduate, portrayed in quite some depth a one-time love interest of hers, Garrett Perrin.  Finally, M. Emmet Walsh played a clueless  fictional dean of students Marison - who viewed racial incidents as "isolated" and nothing to raise a fuss about.  Quite a devastating critique of campus administration, ironic since the film screened as part of a dean of students program at UCI. 

There were no "trigger warnings" thankfully at the showing, although it turns out one student in the audience would later identify himself as a high schooler.  Whether it will be shown at high schools of course an open question, given the constraints teachers and students have under varying local school boards.  But it should be.   High schoolers - many dealing with the same racism - should not be denied the opportunity to engage in "new narratives" either. 

The film is viewable online (not free) via Amazon.

After screening, Russell Curry (left) meets fans
Photography © Daniel C. Tsang 2010, 2016

-- Daniel C. Tsang.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Zunar Shows Pen is Stronger than Sword: Continues Drawing Despite Prospect of 43 Years Imprisonment for "Sedition"

To listen to our Subversity Online 48-minute interview with Zunar, click here.

Back cover of Zunar's recent book, Sapuman: Man of Steal.

Zunar during our interview
Irvine -- Political Cartoonist Zunar, whose pointed drawings target corruption and injustice in Malaysia, faces a combined 43 years' imprisonment in a trial for seditious tweets slated to begin later this week in Kuala Lumpur.  The tweets lampooned the decision to jail opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges.

Zunar was in Irvine as guest speaker on a UCI Law School panel of cartoonists at the Free Expression conference that lasted from this past Friday through Sunday at UC Irvine and USC.  The timing was not coincidental.  It was, after all, a year after fellow political cartoonists were gunned down in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine.  In fact, Zunar became the first Muslim to condemn the attack, and as he explained in our Subversity Online interview Saturday evening 23 January 2016, even though he disagreed with what they drew regarding Muslims.   Appearing by video hookup at the conference was also a healthy, youthful and intelligent Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower,  from exile in Russia.

In a Washington Post op ed titled "The Malaysian government has no sense of humor - and that's dangerous," earlier this month, Zunar's words detailing government harrassment are chilling, in wake of of the PRC's apparent extraordinary rendition of five Hong Kong booksellersIn that op ed, he made these points:
  • My office has been raided multiple times since 2009, and authorities have confiscated thousands of my cartoon books. In 2010, five of my books — including “1 Funny Malaysia” — were banned by the home affairs minister, who declared the contents “detrimental to public order.” Later that year I was detained by police and locked up for two days after the publication of “Cartoon-O-Phobia.” To say the least, the Malaysian government has no sense of humor.
  • In late 2014, my webmaster was called in for questioning, and three of my assistants were arrested for selling my books. I was also brought in for questioning by the police, and the company that processes orders for my website was forced to disclose my customer list. In January, the police raided my office and then opened two investigations in February under the Sedition Act. That’s when they really threw the book at me.
  • The government hasn’t just targeted me and my associates; it also has cracked down on the entire ecosystem of free expression. Three companies that printed my books were raided and warned not to print my books in the future or their licenses would be revoked. Likewise, bookstores that carried my book were raided and their licenses were threatened. As a result, no one dares print or sell my books.  
For the Hong Kong booksellers, by the PRC apparently abducting the five booksellers, the publishing house and its associated bookstore and web site, Causeway Bay Books, have effectively been shut down.

 As for Zunar, luckily around the world activists have rallied to his defense, including the Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (left), as Amnesty International asked netizens to Write for Rights to demand the charges against Zunar be dropped immediately.

While U.S. libraries in academia and outside, such as the Library of Congress, collect some of his 18 political cartoon books, Zunar believes no libraries in Malaysia dare acquire his cartoons.  His book titles are especially inventive:  The latest takes off on Superman, with a pointed jab at his country's prime minister as "man of steal".   Meanwhile the London-based Sarawak Report suggests that the target of Zunar's pen may be negotiating a way out even with his millions.  So is Zunar's pen actually stronger than a sword in regime change?

In our interview, Zunar appeared incredibly composed and even jovial, for someone facing potential decades-long imprisonment.  He was philosophical as well, saying he was optimistic about regime change from dictatorship to democracy in the future, if not in his lifetime.  He indicated he started cartooning at age 12 but it was later during a career as medical technician that he found his true calling in political cartooning. His other target beyond the corruption and injustice?  It's capitalism.  For that is what is keeping the people poor in his country.

Zunar also believes the deportation of Hong Kong teen activist Joshua Wong from Penang last May is because, after Arab Spring, the authorities in Malaysia do not want any trouble from young people in the country.  While Zunar's books are banned from stores in Malaysia, he continues to proliferate his art online through social media, which is, as he told me, alternative media.  His Facebook fan club has over 100,000 "likes".  So he's extremely popular in Malaysia despite what the state tries to do to silence him.

Subversity Show Online interviews Zunar

Cover of Zunar's recent book published in January 2015