Roger and Me

This appreciation was written the afternoon after Roger Ebert passed away. To this date, it’s one of the most personal and autobiographical essays I’ve written. I was moved by how widely shared it was, and it remains one of the most viewed posts ever on the Pacific Arts Movement website, where it was first published.

Though it has been mere hours since we learned of the passing of Roger Ebert, there has already been an outpouring of surprise, grief, and appreciation of the great Chicago Sun-Times film critic. Among those going out of their way to blog, tweet, and share their favorite Ebert moments are those who recall how important Ebert has been to the history of Asian American cinema. His impassioned defense of Asian American voices at a screening of Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance in 2002 is legion – already immortalized in documentaries like BLT: Genesis and Hollywood Chinese, and today passed around on Twitter and Facebook as a document not only of Roger Ebert’s fierce wit, but also as a reminder to ourselves to continue to find the fire in our own voices.

During his career, he was known, and often criticized, for his thumbs and stars. I’m glad to see that today he’s remembered for his true contribution to film culture: his words. In print, on TV, and online, Ebert always knew how to make his words count. When he lost his voice to cancer in 2006, his words became even sharper and more articulate. And more cherished.

The shock of seeing Ebert’s face post-surgery, and the sorrow of finding that one of TV history’s best talking heads could talk no more, turned many of us back to YouTube to listen to Ebert’s most famous barbs with his late co-host Gene Siskel, or to his DVD commentaries, considered among the best in the format. We went online and discovered that Ebert also wrote 140 characters better than anyone else. We dug into the archives and found Ebert’s masterful gonzo interview with Lee Marvin in the back issues of Esquire. The man knew what words could do.

We of course already knew this, and today, many of us went online to tell stories about what Ebert’s words have always meant to us. Many of these stories are intensely personal – a memory of hearing one of his famous “Cinema Interruptus” lectures, of meeting him in person, of the review that helped launch a career. I can’t imagine this sort of gratitude showered upon any other movie critic – or any critic for that matter. It’s because Ebert was the rare populist who never talked down to the elites or to the common moviegoers. He wanted to elevate the reader, not because he was smarter, but because he wanted us all to love movies as much as he did. His opinions certainly were not always popular; he also alienated many with his unabashed liberal views. But he wrote with honesty, conviction, and generosity. Better than just about any critic, he trusted his instincts, never afraid to give a Hollywood franchise film his highest compliments and an Abbas Kiarostami film one star. But that honesty meant so much more when he found the words – before most critics had even spoken – to shed light on his elation over independent films like Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, Patrick Wang’s In the Family, and of course, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. His words mattered not only because Ebert was a wordsmith, but also because they were spoken so closely to his heart.


 

roger-ebert-video-companion-1996

Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies debuted the same year I was born, so as long as I remember, he was always around. When I was in junior high, our family bought a new VCR, which was bundled in cellophane with Roger Ebert’s 1996 Video Companion, the latest edition of Ebert’s classic and recent reviews. I casually started reading reviews of films I’d seen, mostly Hollywood titles from the early 90s. Soon though, I was reading the reviews not for the films, but for Ebert’s voice, so the fact that I soon knew about Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, and Akira Kurosawa was purely a byproduct of my appreciation of Ebert’s opinionated prose.

Then, a weird thing happened. I had never been a very confident writer, and in those days before WordPress or even GeoCities, I didn’t do it very much outside of school. And yet, I started to write movie reviews. Not to develop an identity as a movie critic, but because, simply, I wanted to be Roger Ebert. In Microsoft Word, I would adjust the font size and column width to match that of the Video Companion exactly, and I would give myself his word counts as I wrote about As Good As it Gets, Armageddon, or whatever else I watched at our local mall as a 15-year-old without a driver’s license.

Somehow, I mustered the courage to go from these suburban illusions of grandeur to writing movie reviews for our high school newspaper. If an earlier generation produced Kaelites, I was an Ebert-ite from lede to kicker. I took a journalism class. Learning about libel, the fourth estate, and citizenship was purely a byproduct of my desire to be Roger Ebert. Another byproduct: I became more confident with my words. I became the entertainment editor of the school paper. I won national awards for high school film criticism. I wrote a college application essay about my love for Pulp Fiction.

I even got into a few colleges with that essay, in many ways inspired by Roger Ebert’s piece “Secrets of Pulp Fiction,” anthologized in that 1996 video companion. On campus, while others were storming rush week, I was knocking at the door of the college newspaper, looking to be the weekly movie reviewer. I got the gig and caught the press screening and junket bug. Every week, I’d churn out reviews of the latest films by everyone from Chris Rock to Claire Denis.

Roger Ebert was still a must-read, but so were J. Hoberman, A.O. Scott, and my favorite of all, Jonathan Rosenbaum. With college came a rejection of everything that came before. Ebert, like a childhood stuffed animal, was just so provincial. He never wrote about Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang. Did he even know who Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang was? The pages of the Village Voice and Film Comment sure did, and there I found erudite (i.e. New York) ways of talking film.

My interest in Asian cinema arose out of Rosenbaum’s glowing reviews of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke, directors who received nary a mention in the pages of theChicago Sun-Times. I also developed my own, admittedly Rosenbaumian, critical perspective, often against Ebert’s megaplex populism.

In August 2002, Roger Ebert wrote a negative review of Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times, a film I adored and also reviewed. He thought the tender comedy about grown men who trick a blind girl into becoming a masseuse was downright creepy. At the end of his review, Ebert wrote:

[If] I found it creepy beyond all reason, that is no doubt because I have been hopelessly corrupted by the decadent society I inhabit. Or … are there moviegoers in China who also find Happy Times odd in the extreme? I searched the Chinese Movie Database and the sites of the People’s Daily, the South China Morning Post and English-language papers from Shanghai and Beijing, without finding any mention of the film at all. The Web is worldwide and perhaps I will hear from a Chinese reader or two.

For the first time, I wrote to Roger Ebert. I don’t have my original email to him, but that’s no problem, because three weeks later I found that Ebert had quoted my email, practically in its entirety.

Brian Hu of Berkeley, CA wrote me: “I watched the film with another Chinese-American and we both found it uproariously funny. In fact, I can’t think of another film this year that has made me laugh as much. At first I thought, finally, a major director has made a universally simple, humorous, and meaningful film that all Americans can easily enjoy and learn from. But reading your review, I’d reconsider it.

“Americans simply are not aware of Chinese comedic traditions. We may know Hong Kong cinema for its wild action movies, but we don’t realize that a good fraction of Cantonese language films are comedies, just as a good part of Hollywood films are comedies. Sadly, the truth is, violence translates well; comedy does not. Chinese comedy is often quite sadistic. Think of those Asian game shows that are parodied on American TV, where contestants do crazy things like endure freezing weather in their underwear while a laugh track of Japanese junior high students giggling plays in the background. Americans may find it cruel, but many Chinese find it hilarious.

“That’s not to say Chinese people are sadistic. They just find some things that we find ‘cruel and depraved’ to be funny. On the other hand, I have not yet met one Taiwanese or mainland Chinese who enjoyed Pulp Fiction or Fargo like we do here in America. Chinese audiences find films like Happy Times charming and affectionate, because although it’s cruel, it’s cruel on a simple, harmless level, something you certainly can’t say about Tarantino’s comedies. It’s like Harpo Marx versus Neil LaBute.”

Roger Ebert, the critic whose language I had once mimicked, and whose opinions I had now rejected, was writing through my own words. The impact of that, to a college junior still in search of his own voice and critical purpose, is immeasurable. I never wrote to Rosenbaum, Hoberman, or Scott. That is because they never asked me for my opinion. Roger Ebert asked for the thoughts of a Chinese reader or two. His response, in turn, showed me that criticism is above all an act of community.


 

In college, I discovered that I loved writing about movies and that others might even enjoy reading my reviews. Those years were also the beginning of the death of the alternative weekly, so résumés later, I resigned to the reality that I would never be a paid film critic. I went to graduate school in film studies, where I read Noel Burch and Siegfried Kracauer while churning out seminar papers. My itch to review persisted though, and I found company and kinship with the burgeoning online magazine Asia Pacific Arts, which was published at UCLA where I was enrolled. In many ways, movie reviewing kept me sane during grad school, especially as my critical skills and writing habits were being stretched in wacky new directions.

Many, many years later, with diploma and dissertation finally in hand, I had the good fortune of landing a job as the Artistic Director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Having now left the ivory tower, I found myself having to adapt my writing style once again. How do I make my program notes and introductions relevant and meaningful to an everyday, non-academic audience? It was Roger Ebert, now the master of Twitter and the blogosphere, who showed the way. Except this time I didn’t read Ebert to ape his language or form. I turned to Ebert to remind me how to write from the heart and with generosity. A film festival is, after all, part of a community.

As we’re reminded at every “death of criticism” juncture, there is a multitude of critical voices online today. Everyone is just a blog post away from being a critic – and possibly an excellent one at that. But with the critical masses pouring through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, Roger Ebert’s site is one of the few I have bookmarked in my browser, where it’s been since I was on Netscape. I look forward to keeping it there. This fire will never go out.

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”
B-
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”
C
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)
D+
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”
C-
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”
B-

“KevJumba Takes the SAT w/ Felicia day”
A-

“Mandarin Time”
C+

“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.

Watching Golden Slumbers at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

This was a blog post I did for the SDAFF website in 2012, but it disappeared during one of our many website migrations.

Long Beach’s Art Theatre is 12 miles from my childhood home in Cerritos, California. That makes the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s three days of screenings there my closest film festival outings from where I grew up.

Earlier this year, I saw Davy Chou’s excellent new documentary GOLDEN SLUMBERS at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, about as distant from Cerritos as is geographically possible. Seeing it yesterday in Long Beach, I was reminded of why film, which takes us around the world through images and stories, is nevertheless a powerful prism for thinking about home.

Director Davy Chou is a young Parisian of Cambodian ancestry. He’d always heard that he had a grandfather in the old Cambodian film industry, but only recently probed deeper, learning from his aunt that his grandfather was hitmaker Van Chann, who produced films in Cambodia during the 1960s and 70s. This led Chou to Cambodia, where he confronted the ghosts of the “Golden Age” of filmmaking, when 400 films were made in 15 years, but only a few of which have survived the devastating Khmer Rouge era.

Chou’s documentary revisits those years, lingering on images of old spaces (theaters-emptied-out, movie palaces-turned-karaoke bars) and sounds of an era (radio transmissions of film trailers, pop songs engraved on vinyl and digitized for YouTube). The era is evoked through memories of those who made the films, those who idolized the stars, and those who remembered fleeing war through cinema. It’s a film that is, by design, in need of “filling in.” In the absence of footage from the films of the period, Chou stages shadows of the Golden Age: film narratives are recalled through the fog of memory, special effects are evoked obliquely and jokingly, movie faces are remembered through newsprint and fading posters. Collectively, they form a fuzzy picture that we as 21st century filmgoers can fill in so that the Cambodian Golden Age can be resurrected and survive.

Everyone pictures those missing films differently. But I’m sure the images conjured by audience-goers in the Art Theatre auditorium not far away from the stretch of Long Beach called “Little Cambodia” were unlike most imagined by audiences in cities like Berlin, Sydney, or Santa Barbara, where the film had previously played. During the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79, Long Beach became one of the world’s biggest destinations for Cambodian refugees. These were populations who brought Cambodian culture to the United States not through their possessions but through memories of everyday life, including of cinema.

The Q&A after the Long Beach screening of GOLDEN SLUMBERS was more than a filmmaker meet-and-greet, it was a conjuring of ghosts. Multiple audience members recalled seeing no-longer-extant films like The Snake King’s Wife. Some were in their teens or younger in the 1960s and 70s and had hazy memories of the period. But some had strong ties. One was, like Chou, a descendant of a Golden Age filmmaker featured in the film. In the most powerful moment of the discussion, one man walked down the long Art Theatre aisle to talk, in quivers as if he’d been waiting years to do so, about his friendship with Sun Bun Ly, one of the pioneers of Cambodian cinema.

But this was not simply a group recollection of the “homeland.” The Q&A was not only a séance for the glorious past, discoursing with figures who predated war and migration. It was about Long Beach itself. Some audience members remembered seeing some of the surviving films on VHS, pointing to Mary’s Video on Little Cambodia’s Anaheim Street. The younger generation of Cambodian Americans talked about the classics as integral parts of their upbringing as Americans in an immigrant society. And the man who made the trek down the aisle talked about Sun Bun Ly’s later life in the United States, where he had filmmaking plans that stretched beyond the Khmer Rouge and into the streets of Los Angeles County. Director Davy Chou’s role was less as a filmmaker being questioned and more a fellow young person possessing cultural memories that have traversed generations and continents. His film is also about Paris, and the story of a filmmaker who tried unsuccessfully to bring seven prints there in the 1970s, or the story of a Golden Age director whose sadness about the period is shaped by his sense of loss while living in Paris, where he later became a taxi driver.

And the period survives in Little Cambodia and its circles. During the post-screening discussion, Chou talked about a rare Golden Age print found in nearby Norwalk, just a stone’s throw away from my old house in Cerritos. During the screening and after, GOLDEN SLUMBERS awakened the past, but also the present in all of its cultural layers, thickened by stasis, confluence, and imagination. The film came alive for me in ways that it couldn’t when I saw it at a mall megaplex in Hong Kong. Seeing it in Long Beach made me rethink my own neighborhood, its own contours and its own specters. That we had all arrived there, across eight thousand miles during the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, or over the 5000 miles to get to Long Beach from Paris, or even just the 12 I took to drive over from my parent’s house, and that we all came to see the digital beam deliver flickers of half-summoned stories is a testament to the will to remember and the majesty of the film experience.

APAHM Filmmaker Spotlight: Curtis Choy

When I first went on staff at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, then-marketing director Dan Matthews had me blogging about my festival travels as well as short essays on filmmakers. For one Asian Pacific American Heritage Month spotlight, I wrote on the one-and-only Curtis Choy. It originally appeared on the old SDAFF blogspot.

Directors and actors get all the credit in Asian American cinema. We rarely think about the talent it takes to shoot, assemble, promote, and disseminate films. And given how small the Asian American film world is, it’s even more important to consider all of the pieces in this guerrilla workshop. There should be no hierarchies, only partners in crime trying to carve out a piece of the pie for the community.

There is one filmmaker who has been there from the very beginning, and remains active to this day. To call him an unsung hero is not exactly correct: everyone in the Asian American film world acknowledges his skill and stature. He worked on Wayne Wang’s seminal Chan is Missing (1982), Arthur Dong’s award-winning Forbidden City U.S.A. (1989), Wang’s breakthrough The Joy Luck Club (1993), Chris Chan Lee’s beloved Yellow (1998), Tony Bui’s international hit Three Seasons (1999), Gene Cajayon’s immortal The Debut (2000), and of course Justin Lin’s game-changing Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). He’s Curtis Choy, sound recordist and sound mixer. And he’s got the most impressive resume in all of Asian American cinema. He’s our Edith Head.

Considering Curtis Choy as an Asian American filmmaker also invites us to think about the question of Asian American aesthetics altogether. Why do filmmakers keep going to Choy? And why are so many of the community’s best films recorded and mixed by him? Is it simply that he is the most respected game in town, or is his art of sound somehow conducive to something we might call an “Asian American aesthetic?” Has he tapped into a soundscape the community can hear itself in and appreciate? These are tough enough questions when we deal with more graspable elements like narrative, acting, or costume. But sound? How do we analyze that? How can our ears hear our community?

I’m no expert at sound design so I can’t say. I couldn’t close my eyes during a movie and tell you if it is a Choy soundtrack. But I can say this: looking at Choy’s filmography, we can definitely glean a few things about the sonic world he’s so good at creating. Namely that Choy is a film artist that’s always had his ear to the streets. Chan is Missing is celebrated for its black and white aesthetic and free-flowing storytelling. But it’s also been celebrated for its sense of improvisation, and so much of that comes from the sound. The sound of the Chinatown traffic, shops, and homes. The dialects, as spoken by actual people. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Choy is also great at documentary sound; he recorded Terry Zwigoff’s modern classic Crumb (1994).

Choy’s films also know how we listen to music and how music drives young peoples’ spirits. Think of the memorable slow-motion, John Woo-esque restaurant scene in Yellow. The music makes it. Or the party atmosphere of The Debut: Dante Basco and Joy Bisco flirted and danced to sounds Choy assembled. And in this year’s documentary-esque Surrogate Valentine (Dave Boyle), reality and romantic fantasy converge in the sounds of the road, as well as in Goh Nakamura’s “sad sack” music.

To top it off, Curtis Choy is a terrific director in his own right. His documentary The Fall of the I-Hotel (1976) is as seminal as any of the films he’s mixed. That it’s a technical marvel (especially given that it’s 35 years old) is a no-brainer; that it’s politically and emotionally impassioned is what makes it a masterpiece. As director, Choy also confronted fellow rabble-rouser Frank Chin with the 2005 documentary What’s Wrong with Frank Chin?, followed Lt. Ehren Watada in the 2007 Watada, Register, and explored the work of poet Al Robles in Manilatown is in the Heart (2008). In his choice of subjects and his scrappy approach to capturing their worlds, Choy is clearly an old-school Asian American filmmaker. But don’t be deceived. His weirdly awesome website Chonk Moonhunter may be embarrassingly web 1.0, but there’s a self-consciousness there that shows he’s hip to what it means to be an old soul. It shouldn’t be surprising that Choy did the sound on the retro-cool Kung Phooey! (2003) and Finishing the Game (2007).

Any period, any genre, any sensibility. Curtis Choy has made it sonically click with the Asian American experience.

Linda Lin Dai at Shaw Brothers

This essay was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for the impressive Linda Lin Dai retrospective they mounted in 2011. The essay can also be found at the ACMI website here.

With the impact of Communist ideology on Chinese cinema after 1949, “the star” being replaced with “the film worker”, it was up to the overseas Chinese to continue the glamour and celebrity of 1930′s Shanghai. Singapore and Hong Kong-based studios like Hsin Hwa, MP&GI, and Shaw Brothers had their own training schools and publicity teams to develop stars with the flair and charisma of the pre-revolution generation. Amidst the prima-donnas and the girls-next-door, one star shone brightest: Linda Lin Dai.

Born Cheng Yueru in Guangxi, but renamed Lin Dai in Hong Kong, the star known throughout Asia and beyond as Linda was the goddess of the Mandarin-speaking world. In Taipei, perhaps the biggest market for Chinese cinema, Lin Dai had a film amongst the top ten money-makers every year between 1956 and 1966 – including four of the top ten films in 1957, and three in 1961.

Even after her tragic suicide at the age of 29, Lin Dai continued to cast her spell and score big box office returns with posthumously-released films. She was critically acclaimed too. In a span of six years, she won four best actress awards at the Asian Film Festival, a feat that earned her the nickname “Movie Queen of Asia.”

When Shaw Brothers attempted to break into the western market, Lin Dai’s films were the ones chosen for export. When co-producers around the world asked MP&GI to borrow an actress for overseas work, studio boss Loke Wan Tho picked Lin Dai. And when Shaw Brothers needed a face for the inaugural issue of their fan magazine Southern Screen, of course it was Lin Dai’s. In fact, she graced four of the first 15 covers of the widely-circulated magazine.

Off screen, Lin Dai was known for getting her way in the industry at a time when actors were considered the property of individual studios. On screen she was a softer, sexier, and more effortless version of that same persona, her characters ranging from plucky heroines with a verve for life, to tragic figures undone by their own ambitions.

Whether in comedy, opera, romance, or thriller, Lin Dai was the feisty one: the troublemaker in a chaste world, a firecracker when everyone else was a cardboard cutout. She excelled at comedies, especially the ones she did for MP&GI. But today, Lin Dai is best remembered for her work with Shaw Brothers, thanks in large part to Celestial Pictures’ recent digital restorations.

At Shaw Brothers, Lin Dai was queen. In Southern Screen profiles of younger actresses, Lin Dai was consistently mentioned as a role model, mentor, and standard of beauty. Her name, which conjures feminine beauty and classical literature, was synonymous with the studio and its growing stature in the greater Chinese market. Lin Dai’s celebrity was so great that in Shaws’ The Fair Sex (1961), she had a cameo as herself: the biggest movie star of them all. She was also cast in many of Shaw Brothers prestige pictures, such as their first foray into color, Diau Charn (1958), and Les Belles (1961). When Shaw Brothers wanted to revolutionize Chinese cinema, they relied on Lin Dai to be the face of the revolution.

In the late 1950s, Lin Dai was one of the few actresses in Hong Kong who could simultaneously work for multiple studios. For Shaw Brothers, MP&GI, and Yung Hwa, she made a number of rustic pictures starring as fishermen’s daughters or rural ingénues. However, by 1961, she found Shaw Brothers to be an ideal fit, and it was with that rapidly-rising, ambitious, and well-connected studio that she made her biggest films.

Linda Lin Dai The Kingdom And The Beauty

The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959)

The record-breaking success of Diau Charn and The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) helped launch the extraordinarily popular huangmei opera cycle in Mandarin films. The latter film is perhaps the best of the bunch, thanks to Lin Dai’s award-winning performance, clever songs, and Li Han-hsiang’s deft direction. The regal but girlish Lin Dai fit Han-hsiang’s opulent, even excessive, vision of classical Chinese court life perfectly, and when he launched a project to make films about the “four great beauties” of Chinese history, he cast Lin Dai as two of them. In one of these films, Diau Charn, Lin Dai plays a maid who learns the power of her beauty. In the other, Beyond the Great Wall (1964), Lin Dai plays a concubine whose looks and musical ability drive men to war.

Throughout her career, Lin Dai also made a number of costume pictures for Griffith Yueh Feng, the best of which is the sublimely romantic huangmei opera, Madame White Snake (1962), which also features some of Shaw Brothers’ early experiments with special effects.

Linda Lin Dai Les Belles

Les Belles (1961)

Lin Dai excelled at another type of costume picture as well: the fashion extravaganza. In Les Belles, she sported costumes from around the world; most famously, and most daringly, a leggy can-can outfit. In Love Parade (1963), Lin Dai is a gynecologist who butts heads with her fashion designer boyfriend, before – as a prudish woman in a musical comedy must! – discovering her true talents as a runway model. Lin Dai was associated with cutting-edge fashion to such a degree that she was even credited as the costume designer of the picture. These two films, featuring Lin Dai’s liveliest performances for Shaw Brothers, showcased the comic actress at her prime. The near-silent comedy of missed connections which closes Les Belles is the pinnacle of joy in pre-martial arts Shaw Brothers films.

Today, the name Lin Dai not only conjures up extravagant images of silver-screen glamour, but also song. Long associated with musical films, Lin Dai, with uncredited dubbing by Tsin Ting, starred in two of the most memorable songstress films later in her career. One of Shanghai cinema’s most important legacies in Hong Kong popular culture, songstress films were melodramas about women risking romance and reputation to belt out torch songs in nightclubs. Lin Dai, so adept at capturing a woman’s anguish, so convincing as a character who balances innocence, sacrifice, modesty, and depravity, all while maintaining an audience’s sympathy, took the genre by storm.

With the two-part Blue and the Black (1966), Lin Dai took on one of her most memorable characters: a stubborn romantic who also serves up one of Chinese cinema’s most heartfelt ballads. Unfortunately, Lin Dai committed suicide before the film was completed and Shaw Brothers had to find a stand-in to “hide” her way through the picture, Game of Death-style. Predictably, the Lin Dai replacement had the star’s diminutive frame but not her explosive emotional charge. Though the two-parter was completed, the film remains, for Lin Dai fans, unfinished.

Perhaps a better way to remember Lin Dai is through the songstress film Love Without End (1961). As she sings the title song onstage for the last time, the audience is completely still. When the camera tracks back to reveal her husband’s face, we can’t help but feel his fear that even though the song sings of love’s immortality, this may be the last time we get to hear the tearful ballad in the flesh. “Forget not your tears, forget not your laughter. Forget not the sorrow of leaving…”