YOMYOMF Channel: Week 1 recap

This post was written partly to put YOMYOMF on blast. But above all it was a reaction to the sheer lack of media criticism in the Asian American YouTube space. New media, especially with an Asian American face, was riding a wave of momentum when the YOMYOMF channel debuted in 2012, and the idea of democratic access to production and distribution was romanticized by makers like the boys behind YOMYOMF and of course by platforms like YouTube that cashed in on diversity.

I wasn’t as enthusiastic. Justin Lin’s original YOMYOMF trailer, entitled “Bananapocalypse” had high production values but also high tolerance for casual misogyny, and the videos that followed left me wondering what exactly was worth celebrating. But nobody seemed interested in denouncing the serious shortcomings of “underdog” Asian American creatives. And so I decided to do what nobody else wanted to do with Asian American media content: review it as I would a film or TV pilot, complete with the sort of tongue-in-cheek posturing of a weekly film critic, and with some letter grades for good measure. Needless to say, there was not a Week 2 recap.

They called it the Bananapocalypse, which could refer to some kind of yellow-faced take-down of the internet-as-we-know-it, a changing of the (racial) guard, or perhaps the fact that Hollywood is willing to get their hands dirty playing in the same sandpit as the YouTubers. But having now seen every second of new YouTube channel YOMYOMF Week One, I think the Bananapocalypse might actually be the fact that 350,000 subscribers (the “big story” of the week!) clicked “like” on explosions and b-list stars and somehow we’re now writing epitaphs for Long Duk Dong.

Yeah it’s just week one, but this banana-flavored Kool-aid is getting to people’s heads, and in a few months, those subscribers risk looking like the Mayans after week one of 2013.

Here’s all you need to know.

Love the trailers, until…

You know those hilarious fake trailers before Tropic Thunder? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we got some of the brightest young Asian American faces and let them go nuts and pitch the most ridonkulous ideas in trailer form? Sung Kang as a crime-fighting acting teacher! Ryan Higa as a judge on an American Idol-ripoff contest for aspiring YouTube stars! Co-starring Al from Step-By-Step!

Ah, good laughs and high-fives all around, fellas.

Well, you know what’s next. Those ain’t fake trailers. That’s the content. Sorry subscribers, you just slipped on the bananapocalypse: the joke’s on you.

The YOMYOMF channel takes YouTube very seriously…

That shouldn’t be surprising because YouTube is YOMYOMF’s major partner and YouTube has long been something of a utopia for young aspiring Asian American artists. And YOMYOMF is a mutually-beneficial project that allows YouTube to domesticate those vloggers and short filmmakers and “raise” them to the level of mainstream pop, for better or worse.

Check out Internet Icon, Ryan Higa’s talent competition that turned out to be real. One of YouTube’s major impediments to being taken seriously is that there are so few good critics who can raise the bar. (Well, KIDS REACT is pretty great.) So the idea of a competition show that creates some kind of critical self-reflexivity seems like a very good thing.

But Internet Icon is not so interested in criticism. The clips presented to the judges are heavily abridged (into 2- to 10-second snippets) so that we can’t judge them, and the criticisms are so hackneyed (“I love his personality!”) that it makes me wonder if Ryan Higa even knows why he’s so popular. Meanwhile, the judges agree on everything (at least in episode one) and seem to have the exact same taste, so what’s being proposed isn’t criticism so much as doctrine. Because what we want on YouTube is more of the same.

Speaking of which…

I guess it’s funny, but that’s the same joke…

You know the one. Two men walk into a bar and we watch them squirm as they get accidentally homoerotic. There might be a glimmer of this in some of the male-male duos in Internet Icon, but I’m too scared to click refresh to find out. But certainly in episode one of Acting for Action w/ Sung Kang, the joke, which runs for about five minutes (plus outtakes) of the six-minute episode, is that Sung Kang, Ryan Higa, and co-star Antonio Alvarez find ways to groom, fondle, and kiss each other in different positions.

And then there’s Blueberry, the 2008 short film to inaugurate Anderson Le’s The Short List show. It features the ever-out-of-water Randall Park discovering that his $73 hooker looks like Chris Kattan. On their own, Acting for Action and Blueberry are funny in a five-minute viral video sort of way. But as the sole jokes of two of YOMYOMF’s five series premieres, they make that “Asian guys can be funny too!” rhetoric look kind of flaccid.

It should be noted that one of the other five premieres, Mandarin Time, pins its comedic hopes on the assumption that misogyny is funnier when it is in another language and when it’s done by puppets.

You offend us and our family. We get it. It’s just strange to see mild homophobia and misogyny be the jokes of choice from a blog that consistently finds the most clever, informed, and convincing ways to dissect race while being attuned to the interests of artists and industries. The YOMYOMF blog features some of the sharpest and funniest commentary on subjects in and around Asian America. It’s depressing that the site of Philip, Beverly, Elaine, Roger, and mutha-fuckin’ David Henry Hwang has no bite behind the camera.

“Not trying” is bad SAT advice, but…

Leave it to KevJumba to make the best episode of the week, simply by making a KevJumba video. The Bananapocalypse trailer featured special effects, Hollywood celebrities, costumes, and color, and YOMYOMF Week One delivered with CGI (Drone), talking puppets (Mandarin Time), and prime-time lighting and wind machines (Internet Icon).

Kevjumba’s video, “KevJumba Takes the SAT w/Felicia Day” does feature an internet star guest, but its real bursts of joy come from the simple pleasures of documentary realism and celebrities doing mundane things. As the title suggests, the video follows KevJumba and Felicia Day to an SAT prep class where they face off in three rounds of a mock SAT.

It’s got a single hook just like Mandarin Time and Acting for Action, but it’s not built around a single joke. As the situation plays out, with genuinely unpredictable results, we take joy watching them confront anxieties about their own abilities, the standards by which we measure ourselves, and how we’re defined. It’s six minutes of light, spirited fun, and is even anarchic enough to fit the You-Offend-Me brand.

And it’s all so effortless, like just another day for KevJumba. In other words, it’s what’s made Kevin Wu such an infectious online sensation: intimate, self-deprecating, adorable, and even bold.

Progress Report:

“Acting for Action w/Sung Kang trailer”
Moderately weird, and silly Sung is better than furious Sung.

“Internet Icon Trailer”
A- (when I thought it was fake)
D (when I realized it was real)

“BFFs Trailer”
Smells awfully like a female, more renegade version of Better Luck Tomorrow. I’ll give it a chance when it’s out.

“Internet Icon Ep 1 – The Search” (in two parts)
The whole thing just strikes me as wrong. Mimicking TV (with all of its glittery clichés) to validate YouTube? Internet artists seeking Internet Icon status from anybody other than their users? Doesn’t this kind of celebrity-endowed validation go against the idea of the internet as being democratic? Or maybe this is a tongue-in-cheek critique of the corporatization of YouTube?

“DRONE Teaser Trailer”
I’m not the target demographic, so don’t mind me when I say I wanted to laugh repeatedly.

“Acting for Action w/Sung Kang – Lesson 1”

“KevJumba Takes the SAT w/ Felicia day”

“Mandarin Time”

“Blueberry (YOMYOMF Short List)”
B- (for the film)
A (for the concept of the series)
I love that they’re carving out a space for short films. Programming shorts for the internet isn’t the same as programming for a festival, but there are few people I trust more for the task than Anderson Le.

Criterion Reconsidered: Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours

More gracefully and more effortlessly than any film I’ve seen, Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, newly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, captures the spiritual tug-of-war between France’s formidable aesthetic tradition and France’s place in a networked world economy.  Three siblings deliberate the fate of their inheritance – not money, but objet d’art in a house that once belonged to a legendary great uncle, whose stature represents not just family ancestry, but the legacy of a fading nation.  The eldest sibling (played by Charles Berling) falls to the inertia of tradition, arguing to preserve the treasures as-is out of respect for family, though he can’t seem to form a credible argument why.  The younger siblings are pulled east and west; a brother (Jérémie Renier) and his young family are settled in China, and a sister (Juliette Binoche) is getting married in the United States.  Like family, culture can’t be liquidated, nor can it be easily discarded.  Summer Hours portrays the gentle friction that surfaces above cataclysmic cultural transformation: the casual conversations that glide over long-brewing ruptures, the hesitations that mask the deepest regret.

But what does that gentle friction feel like?

Like the graceful mundaneness of little gestures and glances.  The siblings and their spouses convene to discuss the future of their inheritance.  Or to not discuss.  Nobody wants to confront each other, let alone argue.  We witness not the venting of frustrations, but characters peeling apples, setting tables, preparing food, sipping wine.  Death may bring emotional discontinuity, but the siblings are too mature to break the rhythm of everyday life, whose momentum had been breaking them apart, but now provides a chance for them to intersect again, if only for a moment.  Like Jérémie Renier’s jet-lagged eyes, which nervously never seem able to stay on his older brothers’ for more than a second at a time, conflict is diverted out of respect for living.  The only theatrics at play are the gentle clamor of everyday life.

Like sunlight peering into a dusty home, preserved as-is since the death of its final owner.  Appraisers and museum representatives stroll past the house’s treasures, their eyes agape at the relics of cultural history and the relics of an old friend, now passed.  Eric Gautier’s camera strolls by as well, taking in each slice of light peeking through the old windows, illuminating old books and older desks, bringing warmth into a house that has for weeks not been a home.  In the background of each frame are paintings, vases, decorations – in shimmering view in Criterion’s blu-ray disc – that stand witness to the years past, as well as the lived nature of art: that a vase once held flowers and an antique cabinet once stored children’s toys.

Like the tired gaze of the old housekeeper Eloise, who returns to the house after the paintings have been bubble-wrapped and hauled away.  Eloise walks by the locked house, peering through the windows to soak up the remnants of a house emptied out.  As the sunlight strikes her face through the trees, she comes to life as the lone survivor of a Renoir painting, a flâneuse at a Montmarte soiree returning to the setting of those glory days.

Like teenagers dancing in the final hours of summer.  With the parents away, cousins use the old house for one last house party.  Gautier follows the teens through the old corridors in breathtaking long takes.  Friends cross paths and hip-hop blasts.  The music switches to a poppy indie rock and the girls shimmy away.  As the sun starts to set we realize that these moments in the film’s eloquent final scene are not of teens who forsake the past with their boomboxes and beer.  No, they, unlike their jaded parents, are the only ones left who still live this house rather than preserve or sanctify it.  They party just as their great great uncle did there a century earlier.  Their jubilant faces match the youthful statues in the yard.  Nostalgia is for those coping with loss.  For the young, the final sunset is for dancing.

Bong Joon-ho: laughing at genres

It seems critics are incapable of writing about Bong Joon-ho without talking about genres.  Sometimes he’s called a master of genres, other times he’s praised for reinventing them, mixing them, or transcending them.  Critics love to count them off: to date, there’s the quirky comedy (Barking Dogs Never Bite), the police procedural (Memories of Murder), the monster film (The Host), and the melodrama (Mother).  And from there, critics love to express fascination over the way the films seem to defy such genres while inhabiting them.  The Host is also a family melodrama, Memories of Murder is also a black comedy, Mother is, as Manohla Dargis puts it, “a love story that turns into a crime story before fusing into something of a criminal love story.”

If Bong’s films slip from every genre they encounter, if they defy categorization at every plot turn, why bother evoking genres at all?  If genres are defined by the categorical cleanness of their boundaries, aren’t Bong’s films “genre-less”?  The temptation to classify the unclassifiable reminds us of Derrida’s famous take on genres: that all texts have genres, even multiple ones, not because they belong to genres per se, but because they diffusely participate in a kind of understood generic code shared by writers and readers.  So it’s not that Bong’s films are melodramas or monster films, but that they evoke genres, manipulating them for other purposes, and in the process mix them into incomprehensibility.

Isn’t this paradox the same one debated over multiculturalism and post-racialism?  Is a cultural-hybrid – a mestizo, a hapa, a migrant, an ethnic minority – the “sum of its parts” or the transcendence of such categories altogether?  One of the most exciting aspects of Bong’s four features to date is that they pose both sides as possibilities, and then, fittingly, laughs in the face of the paradox.

To Bong, genres are nothing more than categories placed on certain situations, characters, settings, and narrative traditions.  Bong has mastered many such tropes, and so it’s tempting to think he’s a master of genres as well.  And yet, in interview after interview, Bong acknowledges his awareness of genres but hesitates before naming the genres of his own films, preferring instead to talk about thematic considerations.  For instance, on Mother, he admits to crime film influences, but that “ultimately it’s story about a strange mother and son.”

So if we look beyond genre and toward themes, we find a compelling resistance of classification that is resonant with issues of identity.  In fact, Bong’s films often pose the question: when driven to the extremes of the human experience, are we willing to drop our classifications?  In, Shaking Tokyo, Bong’s short film in the omnibus Tokyo!, a hikikomori is enamored by an adorable girl’s exposed thighs and angelic vulnerability (embodied by teen darling Yu Aoi).  A flurry of infatuation and the seduction of possibility overcome him.  In the face of love, can a hikikomori choose to stop being a hikikomori?  Or can a hikikomori simultaneously be a lover?


In Mother, Bong wrings our morality through the opposing pressures of maternal love and social order.  If a mother commits a murder to clear her son of the very same crime, does that make her the ultimate mother?  Or the worst possible one, since we get clues the son realizes her sin?  Bong Joon-ho refuses to define for us what a mother is or what she must do.  More than most directors, he understands that such definitions are untenable in a world of social unrest, of bureaucratic disorder, of authoritarial ineptness.  And he never places blame or makes qualitative judgment, no matter the outcome.  What we get at the end of Mother isn’t a new or hybridized definition of motherhood, but a daze in the form of dance: flailing arms, strobing sunlight, a jittery camera. It’s not just ambiguity, but a refusal to judge, settling instead for that mambo-like delirium, that sensorial sunset-on-your skin warbling jubilance experienced on the road of motherhood.  (The last shot: a busload of mothers.)  The way out of the paradox is through empathetic feeling.

Memories of Murder coldly depicts just what happens one tries to classify – or in this case, profile.  If a man wears red panties, is he the killer?  What about a man with soft hands?  The police too are subject to profiling: by all stereotypes, the city cop believes in order and the rule of law, and the country cop believes in intuition and brute force.  Of course, doting on personal identities, which are then elevated to the status of probable cause, leads to one disaster after another.  As in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, released the same year as Memories of Murder, clues and character types are scattered throughout – a crying woman, an outhouse, red clothes, a Band-Aid – yet they drive us in indefinite directions because we insist that they must be pieces in a puzzle, rather than simply people or objects.

In one of the film’s final moments, a cop who prides himself on being the ultimate profiler stares a suspect in the eye, only to finally realize he sees nothing.  In the film’s final shot, the cop looks directly at the camera and says the killer is probably an ordinary person.  Given that the film exposes the cop’s brutality, we’re tempted to accuse the authorities for being the true killers.  (The film is often called a critique of Korea under martial law.)  But his gaze into the camera is unsettling for another reason: he’s looking at us.  Are we who possess the gaze, we who play along as armchair profilers of this murder mystery, guilty as well?

That final shot mirrors the film’s opening scene.  Bong loves rhyming his opening shots with his final ones.  Barking Dogs Never Bite begins and ends with shots of nature, and Mother with a perplexing dance.  After an expositional prologue, The Host opens on a boy stealing from a food stall; the film ends on an improbably poignant return to that opening gesture.  But for Bong, a circular return to the beginning is never meant to create geometric order.  It’s there instead to drive us in circles, to lead us back to the beginning dizzier than ever.  We have not transcended the beginning, but nor have we surrendered to the myth that a return to origins provides some kind of order.

There’s a sneakiness at play here.  A snarkiness.  A mischievousness.  Bong Joon-ho never rests at the opportunity to joke around and jostle our minds a bit, an extraordinary achievement given how disciplined Bong is as a storyteller.  As Dennis Lim puts it, while Bong defies genres, he seems to nevertheless operate in a consistent tonal mode: black comedy.  Not surprisingly, so often comedy is Bong’s preferred strategy for breaking our expectations of how people can be defined.  In Mother, a lawyer makes a rather bizarre joke about buffets (he eats standing up because it saves time) which seems to throw away our (and the mother’s) entire sense of what a defense attorney is.


In one of the most memorable split-seconds of The Host, a father attempts to save his daughter from a charging monster.  In the chaos, he grabs her hand, only to soon realize that he’s grabbed the hand of someone else’s daughter.  We gasp at the tragedy but laugh at the shocking hilarity of the mistake.  Then he lets go of the other girl.  At such a moment, is he a father who cares only for his own daughter, or a man of the community who will save all daughters from the charging creature?  From the comedy comes a central moral dilemma about identity that persists until the film’s final scene.

And then there’s the nose-bleed reverse-shot.  It’s happened in three of Bong’s films so far and I’m tempted to call it a signature image in Bong’s young oeuvre.  A character will look off-frame.  The camera then cuts to what she’s looking at: a face with blood dripping from the nose.  The reverse-shot is always a shocker.  One never gets used to a face sullied suddenly by crimson, the flow of blood kinesthetically triggering the nerves on our own upper lips as if we could feel warm viscous blood tracking down our own faces.  It’s also funny.  The absurdity of unprompted blood somehow never gets old.   We’re fixated on the nosebleed just as the viewer in the scene is.  The nosebleed is such an effective narrative device: it draws attention to the bleeder by having our heart skip a beat and tickling our taste for dark comedy.


When it happens in Mother, the nosebleed helps us identify a character: the nosebleed becomes a critical clue about the identity of a murderer.  In Barking Dogs Never Bite, the opposite happens: the nosebleed distracts the viewer from identifying the cold-blooded killer.  While the nosebleed seems to serve different purposes, they in fact operate the same way: to raise the question of identity via shock and humor.  That the result is different is simply a result of different punchlines to the same joke.

But Bong is too sneaky to let it simply be about identity.  Hidden beneath the joke, the joke’s engine which needs to be suppressed to create the humor, is the disturbing heart of the matter: why is the person’s nose bleeding to begin with?  The blood seems unprovoked to the viewer, thus making the nosebleed such an effective foil and such a hilarious image.  But Bong leaves it a devastating mystery for those who care.  In these two films, the nose might be dripping with blood for any number of reasons: guilt, fear, anger, confusion, exasperation, etc.  These characters are suffering: one will soon be murdered, the other has already murdered.  The nosebleed doesn’t explicate what that suffering is, only that hurt is happening, and that’s sufficient for Bong.  If we can look beyond the identity-baiting, we may notice that there are emotions at stake, emotions too complex for us to pin-point and categorize, but clear enough as blood dripping down a person’s face.