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…”

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.


The Crank Program Notes: Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940)

Preston Sturges has a knack for comedic dialogue so absurd that it’s borderline Brechtian. Consider Barbara Stanwyck’s famous quip against the hapless Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE, “I need him like the ax needs the turkey!” – a line that at first you think makes perfect sense, before you realize how grotesquely weird it actually is. It’s in the double-take that Stanwyck’s character in all her quirky sadism comes vividly into focus. Or consider Rudy Vallee’s proud declaration in THE PALM BEACH STORY that “Tipping is un-American!” – which first makes you laugh out loud, and then has you scratching your head at the illogic. Does tipping reward hard work or is it communist? Or do I simply not know what “American” means? Rare is the filmmaker who can in three seemingly simple words deftly have viewers questioning their cultural and national values as they gasp for air from laughing too hard.

Tonight’s film, CHRISTMAS IN JULY, has Sturges’ most delirious head-scratcher: Dick Powell’s “winning” coffee slogan, a line so bizarre I daren’t give it away here. Its complete disregard for common sense (and its brilliant use of a double – possibly triple – negative) apparently can only be solved by the latest Viennese scholars and uncommon geniuses like Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald. Luckily for the rest of us, it’s repeated throughout the film until it, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation.”

The chaos that the line incites is hilarious, because for the audience, there’s so much pleasure to be had in simply watching as each subsequent character struggles to figure it out. Because surely the audience hasn’t a clue. We’re told there’s a pun in there, and maybe it’ll emerge if enough people give it a shot. And as in the best of Sturges, the double- (and triple-) take creates a feverish comic estrangement out of which the true meaning emerges. For this “tribal incantation” isn’t simply the murmur of MacDonald’s hopelessly confused friends and co-workers, it’s the rumbling of capitalism tearing at its seams. The hypnotic repetition of the line takes aim at tagline-crazy America and the myth of upward mobility. Sturges reminds us that if you stare at anything long enough, you realize just how crazy the world really is. Despite the requisite happy ending, which Sturges’ critics were always quick to point out, CHRISTMAS IN JULY contains what James Agee said are “some of the most intoxicating bits of nihilism the screen has known” and what Rosenbaum calls “comedy-satire about capitalism that bites so hard it hurts.” Ultimately, what interests Sturges isn’t just the laughs but the question of a man’s sense of self-worth when wrung through a society obsessed with financial success. The heart-wrenching closing conversation MacDonald has with his employer is as tragic as it is completely logical. And then all you can do is laugh.