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Apparently the Chinese government has commissioned a propaganda/history/epic film about modern China under communism: With all the anniversary celebrations, I’m not surprised – I don’t necessarily object, either, as I haven’t seen the film (and probably never will).

What I do object to is Chen Kaige’s involvement in the film. It’s possible that he was made some kind of offer he couldn’t refuse, or maybe he even plays an anti-Communist insurgent or something – I don’t know. But the reason I (and probably a lot of Western film audiences) know his name is that he made a wonderful, emotional and perhaps deeply personal movie that spoke out against the idea that the authority of Communism, or any government, should supersede or try to control the creation of art. The movie in question, Farewell My Concubine, revolves around the lives of two Beijing opera stars and follows them from the end of the Warlord era to the emergence of Communism. One of the supporting characters, Xiao Si, is a young man who’s semi-adopted by the opera stars and later becomes a fervent Communist. His conflicts with the main characters and their artistic ideologies could be read as a reflection of Chen’s personal experience – as a teenager, Chen Kaige was also an ardent Communist, to the point of turning in his own father. This relationship is echoed in the film to devastating effect, and drives home the portrayal of Communism as the enemy of art, aesthetics, understanding of tradition and the factors that create modern art and culture, and of course basic human freedoms and dignity.

All this is to say that I don’t really understand what Chen Kaige is doing in a pro-Communist, government-sponsored propaganda movie. If he’s there because the government says he has to be (or else), that’s one thing. If he’s there of his own free will, that’s troubling and sad.


Written by Kelly Kanayama

October 23, 2009 at 12:11 pm

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This isn’t really a review

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I just wanted to mention that M and I saw Ben Haggarty’s Frankenstein (with Sianed Jones providing accompaniment and random song interludes) on Thursday night, and it was super awesome. Not so sure about the song interludes – I mean, they were okay, but they often left me feeling as though Ben Haggarty could have narrated the same lyric/verbal content and done so with more impact. The musical accompaniment, though, was wonderfully atmospheric.

Also I wanted to remind myself to head down to Wales at the end of March to catch The Singing Bones, a new show by The Devil’s Violin, a storytelling/music ensemble consisting of Oliver Wilson-Dickson on the fiddle, Luke Carver Goss on accordion, Sarah Moody on the cello, and Daniel Morden as the storyteller. I think this is the show that features The Juniper Tree – apparently there’s an age limit on it now – so I definitely have to go, especially as M has never seen The Juniper Tree (or Daniel Morden) live.

Finally, you should all see Up. You’ll probably cry, but in a good way, and it is a genuinely, thoughtfully sweet movie.

Written by Kelly Kanayama

October 17, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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Adult content? Give children some credit

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It’s time for the annual mass media revelation that fairy tales Aren’t Just For Kids – or even Aren’t For Kids, period:

Am I glad that someone is acknowledging, and trying to educate others about, the dark undertones (or sometimes outright shocking overtones), source material, and original context of fairy tales? Of course. I absolutely adore fairy tales, mythology and folklore, and have done since I was old enough to read them, so the greater appreciation for them the better.

On the other hand, the insistence that fairy tales Aren’t For Kids because of the potentially disturbing material smacks of a vestigial Victorian sensibility, or at least a continued desire to limit children’s fairy tale knowledge to the sanitised versions: now that we know about the foot mutilation in Cinderella, let’s write essays and books and articles and let’s teach classes and let’s hold seminars, but for God’s sake don’t tell the kids. They can’t know about this.

I realise that the social division between children and adults that started in the Romantic period still holds today when it comes to literature (among other things). There are certainly things that some children won’t be able to handle reading; The Robber Bridegroom, for instance, comes to mind. This is a variant on the Bluebeard/Mr. Fox theme, except that in addition to murder, mutilation, and rapey overtones, there’s also some cannibalism for that extra flair. That’s probably not a story you want to read to your children before they fall asleep.

But the reason I know what happens in that fairy tale is that I read it, over and over, when I was very young. Maybe I was 8 years old. I had a Collected Brothers Grimm with silver covers, and I loved that book. Read it every day. Some fairy tales I read once and never again, and some I kept returning to. That was one of them.

I’ve heard the argument that fairy tales aren’t any darker or more disturbing than what kids might see on the news. This is kind of true, but children CAN tell the difference between what can and can’t happen in real life. When I was eleven, I managed to get hold of Kiss The Girls, a crime fiction novel by James Patterson which basically centers on two serial killers/rapists who target women; one of the killers leaves a body part from each of his victims at the crime scene, or something. I read the book on a sunny afternoon, downstairs in the living room, while my parents were both home. After that, for a good portion of the day I was afraid to be alone anywhere in the house. I read The Robber Bridegroom repeatedly when I was eight, but reading a novel that could have taken place in real life scared the heck out of me when I was three years older. The Robber Bridegroom, due to being a fairy tale, was automatically removed (for me) from the realm of Things That Can Actually Happen, and so it wasn’t scary.

Children can mentally handle a lot more than adults seem to think they can. Either they process it and live with it, or it goes over their heads. I’m thinking of the time I saw Sweeney Todd on stage with my parents when I was seven. The plot, for those who haven’t seen it, includes rape, quasi-incest (the villain falls in “love” with his ward, who he’s raised since she was a baby and who thinks he’s her real father), lots and lots of murder, and cannibalism. I remember the bare bones of the plot, but came out with not much more than an impression of the title song. My mother, since she was old enough to understand the plot and the true horror of it, was traumatised – but I was fine.

When they do process it, there’s often a much-needed lesson in there. I don’t necessarily mean a straightforward moral, though those can appear too. The Juniper Tree (child murder, cannibalism) comes to mind, which I heard rather than read from a storyteller, Daniel Morden*, who was visiting Hawaii. I couldn’t have been older than seven when I heard it, but I remembered it for the rest of my life. I was enthralled, enchanted, fascinated, thrilled, amazed – but not afraid. Did he sanitise the story at all? Did he hell. I can still recall the stepmother slamming the lid of a heavy chest onto her stepson’s neck.

What I loved most about it – and I did love it – was that I felt privy to some sort of necessary truth, even if I couldn’t name it at the time. It was the feeling that someone was refusing to lie to me, even though (or perhaps because) I was a child. I carried that story with me for sixteen, seventeen years because of it.

Because here’s the thing. Children know that the world can be a dark, frightening, hurtful place. They don’t know the extent of it, they may not even know exactly how, but they know. Why do you think Roald Dahl sells? Fairy tales help children to understand by giving a shape to that darkness; once you know your enemy, it’s not so scary anymore. Fairy tales also let children know that while the darkness and fear and hurt don’t end forever – since the ending of one story doesn’t stop the generation of another, with its own dangers and pain – someone with intelligence, or a good heart, or conviction, or usually all three, can make them stop for a time, and maybe even end one kind of darkness forever.

So while I realise that there are some concepts children shouldn’t be exposed to, the murder and violence in fairy tales aren’t among them. I might not be telling the uncut version of Cinderella (in addition to the foot self-mutilation, the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by crows) to my children before bed, but I do know which fairy tales I’ll give them to read – the Complete Brothers Grimm. Unedited.

*Incidentally, Daniel Morden is still telling stories and has a couple of books out, so if you have kids or were ever a kid yourself, check him out.

Written by Kelly Kanayama

October 14, 2009 at 8:54 am

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The Boondocks

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I finally finished watching The Boondocks, including the BET episodes.

A quick synopsis for those who haven’t watched any of it before:
The Boondocks is an animated TV show based on the comic strip of the same name. The show centers on the Freemans, a black family from Chicago living in the fictional American suburb of Woodcrest. Said family is made up of Huey, a 10-year-old boy with revolutionary sensibilities and an adult intellect; Riley, his 8-year-old brother with gangsta aspirations; and their grandfather, Granddad (real name Robert).

The storylines mostly deal with social issues in or relating to the black community in America, with an occasional jab at post-9/11 paranoia (this can make the first season seem a bit dated if you watch it now). Black celebrities, both real and fictional, often make cameo appearances.

I’d already watched a little over half of Season 1, but hadn’t previously watched any of Season 2. So a Season-2-only review is below.

Season 2 Pros:
*As always, the fake media (TV/movies/music made for the show) – a trailer for Soul Plane 2: The Blackjacking featuring 50 Cent as Air Marshal 50 Cent; music videos for “Eff Granddad” by Thugnificent and “Homies Over Hoes” by Gangstalicious; and so on.
*More Granddad! He was possibly my favorite character in the comic strip, and he was great in Season 1 as well.
*New social issues, or at least issues that hadn’t really been touched on before in the show. I can’t say what they are without spoiling things too much, though.
*Sarah Dubois in action.

Season 2 Cons:
*Too abrupt. For instance, in the episode where Rollo Goodlove shows up for the first time, we have no idea who this man is or why he’s important. Also, multiple intercutting storylines in the same episode, which is fine if you follow all of them to some sort of satisfying conclusion, but often one would just end.
*We could have done without the hunger strike/BET episode, to be honest. Maybe this is because I didn’t grow up with BET (I don’t think we get it in Hawaii) and there isn’t any equivalent widely available channel for Asian-Americans, but I somehow doubt it. I did like the Uncle Ruckus Show/BET episode, however, and think they could have stuck with that instead, as it got the “BET Is Evil” point across just fine.
*They changed the opening sequence. I quite liked the old one, as it matched more with the lyrics (the different characters using their various weapons – Huey with his speech, Riley with guns, and Granddad with his belt).
*What was with all the kung-fu references? I know Aaron McGruder is into it, but sometimes it felt as though the show was getting away from what made it so good (hilarious social commentary) and edging towards Wacky and Random Action. It might work out in the long run as more episodes and seasons are produced, making the kung-fu episodes (“Attack of the Killer Kung-fu Wolf Bitch”, for example) feel more like a special one-off instead of a trend.
*There seemed to be an unusual amount of modern jive talking on Granddad’s part in the first couple of episodes. Weird.

All that said, however, Season 2 is still definitely worth watching.


Now that we’ve settled the question of what was good and not so good about Season 2, a bigger question remains: why do I love The Boondocks (both the TV show and the earlier comic strips) so much, anyway? I’m not black, and I grew up and went to school around a lot of people of my own race. Plus the suburbs is my natural habitat rather than a strange new world; granted, these are suburbs in Hawaii, which are different from mainland suburbs, but nevertheless.

I didn’t get into The Boondocks until my first year of college, when I was living on the mainland for the first time. This was also the first time that most of my close friends weren’t Asian, as a lot of mainland-born Asians I met tended to prefer socialising with other first- or second-generation Asians with the same linguistic and behavioural background. Additionally, I was starting to become aware that Asians were still being discriminated against in America – growing up in Hawaii, where the majority of the population is Asian, meant that Asians held a lot of social, commercial and governmental power – and that racism was a lot more prevalent than I thought.

The Boondocks was one of the few comic strips that actually tried to illuminate the obstacles that racial minorities can encounter in America. By focusing on different generations of a black family in a predominantly white neighborhood – and, by extension, different generations of a black population in a predominantly white country, The Boondocks managed to highlight both inter- and intra-racial problems that needed to be addressed. Additionally, Huey and Riley had grown up in a predominantly black area of Chicago, and were unused to living in a predominantly white area and to interacting with white people. (At one point early on, Huey has to explain to Riley that not all white people are funny like the ones on Seinfeld.)

Obviously, some of the issues discussed were more specific to the black community, but the basic theme of minorities trying to figure out how to live among the majority really struck a chord with me. It helped that the racial obstacles that the Freemans encountered were often the result of misunderstanding or ignorance rather than hatred – for instance, one of Huey’s classmates, a white girl named Cindy, tries to speak to Huey in rap lyrics or urban slang, and assumes that she knows a lot about black culture from listening to Puff Daddy, and when Huey and Riley enroll in school, the principal asks them (more or less politely) to leave any guns or explicit rap music that they “may have” at home.

And it isn’t a case of black people vs. white people – one of the characters, a black lawyer named Tom Dubois, is married to a white woman, Sarah, who is portrayed as mature and intelligent (often more so than Tom). The racial conflict there stems much more from public perception of their relationship than from the relationship itself. In one storyline, Sarah and Tom are trying to pick new costumes for Halloween when their usual Othello and Desdemona costume plan falls through. When Tom’s list of choices includes O.J and Nicole Simpson, Sarah points out, “I’m starting to see a disturbing trend here.”

Perhaps most importantly, The Boondocks stresses that ignorance is an enemy, not a privilege. Riley strives to emulate various rap artists not by writing or performing his own lyrics, but rather by shunning all forms of learning or knowledge, and by glorifying violence and extreme materialism – and is mocked rather than praised for it. Although the strip does criticise political figures such as Bush and the members of his administration, many of the public figures mocked in the comic were black entertainers (certain rap stars, singers and actors). The Boondocks takes shots at them not for being or “acting” black, but for being poor role models, promoting a culture of ignorance and violence, and being a figure of shame rather than pride for their racial community.

This last point is particularly salient for Asian-Americans, as there seems to be a growing trend for our youth to shun the work- and obligation-laden values of their parents/grandparents/etc in order to make more “American” lives for themselves. Sometimes this works, and a healthy balance is established. Sometimes this doesn’t, and Asian-American youth fling themselves into laziness, a lack of self-respect, and willful ignorance. If you want an example, ask yourself how Bai Ling and Tila Tequila got famous.

Now that I’m living in the UK, thousands of miles from anywhere I ever called home, The Boondocks has taken on a new importance for me. The racial issues in the comic and TV show are so specifically American that it reminds me of home. While the UK definitely has its fair share of racism and race-related conflict – the BNP is an actual political party, and that kind of says it all to me – the willingness to foreground racial issues such as the problems facing the black community in America is something I haven’t seen here. And even though America sweeps a good deal of unpleasantness under the rug too, The Boondocks reminds me that someone’s willing not only to say that something is wrong, not only to ask why, but to point out that it’s a lot more complex – and sometimes a lot funnier – than people think it is.

Written by Kelly Kanayama

October 12, 2009 at 8:37 pm

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