Category Archives: Film

The contrarian “xia” Nie Yinnian: to kill or not to kill

The midday sun beats down unforgivingly. It’s noon by the way the shadow eats away at the two horses, swallowing them whole and making them appear gaunt and two-legged. The harsh light bleaches the world into blinding whiteness: only two colors remain, white and black. The starkness mirrors the two women who now appeared onscreen, one is wearing white and the other black. The woman in white hands the woman in black a dagger and instructs her to kill a man.

Cut to a team of riders. The woman in black watches the leader silently through the trees. Then, without warning, she runs out and in one swift motion slits his throat. No blood spills onscreen, but seconds later, the man topples off his horse.

This is “The Assassin” (《刺客聶隱娘》.

“The Assassin” (2015) is a film about a young woman who confronts the question “To be or not to be.” Should she fulfill her fate as an assassin and kill her cousin/childhood love? (image credit: “The Assassin”/Web)

“The Assassin,” which won the 2015 Cannes Film Festival “Best Director” Award, is the long-awaited film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien following Hou’s 2007 collaboration with French actress Juliette Binoche in remaking “Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge” (“The Flight of the Red Balloon”).

The story takes place in 9th century China of Tang Dynasty and revolves around Nie Yinniang (聶隱娘/played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi). Yinniang is the daughter of a general. Taken away at a tender age, she was raised as an assassin. Now, having grown and perfected the art of combat, she was returned to her birthplace with the assignment to kill the governor, Tian Ji’an (played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen) who was once her betrothed.

But in opposition to what is expected with a film where the protagonist is a kick-ass swordswoman — elaborate fight scenes, kick-ass martial art moves, “The Assassin” is predominantly silent and static. The finished product is Hou’s contrarian interpretation of the film genre wuxia (武俠).

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Tasting love: “Ice Kacang Puppy Love”

When it comes to the best one plus one, Baba Nyona — the mix of Chinese and Malaysian culture, cuisine is a hard one to beat. In addition to an impressive long list of Mee (see previous post), there are also an array of delicate, colorful sweet rice cakes Kuih for dessert.

Traditional "Kuih" (image credit: Hotel Armada/kuali.com)

Traditional “Kuih” (image credit: Hotel Armada/kuali.com)

The word Kuih(粿)came from the Chinese, but the Nyona version incorporates local ingredients such as coconut milk and pandan leaves. Coconut milk adds an exotic sweetness and pandan leaves, a herbaceous tropical plant with long green leaves commonly found throughout Southeast Asia, lend a unique taste and aroma to the foods. And when used in cakes and desserts, padan paste turns the sweets vivid green.

From layered pink-and-white Kuih Lapis to dual-layered Seri Muka (padan custard on top, steamed glutinous rice on the bottom) to tube-shaped Kuih Ketayap (pandan crepe wrapped around dark brown coconut filling), these chewy, bite-sized snacks will make you think twice about dismissing glutinous rice.

Another must-try is Cendol, a drinkable, soup-like dessert that soaks green jelly noodles (the green color comes from pandan paste) in coconut milk and palm sugar.

But all in all, my ultimate favorite dessert is red bean shaved ice. Known as Ice (Ais) Red Bean (Kachang) in Penang, and ABC (Ais Batu Campur or mixed ice) in the remaining Malaysia, the dish comprises of shaved ice topped with brown sugar syrup, red beans, various types of jelly and other dressings like ice cream or corn kernels.

My fondness for the dessert derives not from taste (because frankly, this version pales in comparison to Taiwanese-style shaved ice), but sentimentality for the 2010 romantic comedy “Ice Kachang Puppy Love” (《初戀紅豆冰》).

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Making it in New York: asphalt, skyline and “Chinese Puzzle”

Life is complicated, and in the case of Xavier (Romain Duris), a successfulish Paris writer, it is more so. In writer/director Cédric Klapisch’s “Chinese Puzzle” [1] (2014), Xavier struggles to deal with the following:

  • His wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) leaves him, taking their children to New York to live with her new man.
  • He comes to New York because he cannot stand being apart from his children. He has no job, he needs to get a job, but he cannot legally work in the States.
  • His old girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou), also comes to New York.
  • He is the father of his lesbian friend Isabelle’s (Cécile De France) baby. Isabelle is raising the baby with her Chinese-American girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt).

Did I mention Xavier’s life is complicated? To further muddle up the plot, he marries a  Chinese-American woman so he can get U.S. citizenship to stay in the country. The fake wedding will also help him better fight for legal authority over his children’s lives.

(image credit: RogerEbert.com/Chinese Puzzle)

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Q&A with Five Star co-star John Diaz

John Diaz (21) walks into the café with his usual swagger. The 6-foot-2, 150 pounds actor looks like Ichabod Crane – a lanky beanstalk but way better-looking. In Five Star, Diaz plays a young man who struggles with his identity – should he, like his deceased father, go down the path of gang life? The movie, which will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, blends fiction and reality. It is a coming-of-age story where Diaz discovers the meaning of manhood.
Five Star: John Diaz

Born and raised in New York, Diaz lives with his mother and older sister in Lower East Side. He had not always wanted to be an actor. In middle school, his dream was to play for the Yankees. But after listening to Diana Ross’ daughter speaking about how fun it was to act, Diaz decided that he would become an actor. Because an actor gets to live a different life every time he walks on set. He took theater classes in high school and studied performance art at Nazareth College. He dropped out after eight credits. Six months after his return home, he was casted for Five Star.

Part Puerto Rican, part white and black, Diaz raps and models on the side. The young star shares what it was like working with Keith Miller for the past two years. Continue reading

Q&A with Five Star leading man ‘Primo’

James ‘Primo’ Grant (29), a general in the East New York Bloods, commands the room the moment he walks in the café. Wearing a leather-sleeved sweater with a red-eyed lion print, the burly, bearded man exudes solid strength. Speaking calmly, he points out the persons around us. See that guy? He’s into that girl. See how his knees turn toward her? A bouncer at Sugar Hill, a disco club in Brooklyn, Grant has predatory eyes like a hawk. He sees everything.

Primo shares a moment with his son, Sincere Grant. (Credit: Alex Mallis)

Grant is the star of Keith Miller’s newest feature film, Five Star. In it, he plays a leader of the Bloods. He is a father, husband, gang leader, friend and mentor. To John, a fatherless young man who is trying to decide if gang life is for him, Primo represents tough love. Mixing fiction and reality, the film is based closely on Grant’s real life. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he is the son of a Domnican mother and a Costa Rican father. He is the fourth of eight children, four sisters and three brothers. He joined the Bloods when he was 12 and is still active. The film touches upon issues like gang life, drugs and violence. However, it is more than your typical Hollywood gangster film. Instead, it highlights human struggle as both Primo and John wrestle with what it means – what choices one has to make – to be a man.

Grant lives in New Jersey with his fiancé and four children. Continue reading

In Five Star, Keith Miller says YOU should listen better

Keith Miller’s newest feature film, Five Star, is one of the 12 films selected for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. The story, which looks into what it means to be a man, blurs the distinction between on- and off-screen reality.  James ‘Primo‘ Grant (29), who joined the Bloods when he was 12, plays Primo, a five-star general in the East New York Bloods. His co-star John Diaz (21) plays John, a 15-year-old trying to decide if he should pursue gang life. After discovering how his father had died, John must make a choice – will he be his father, Primo or a man of his own? Based closely on elements of Grant’s life, the film is a coming-of-age story for both Primo and John. 

With a background in abstract art, Miller compares his method of directing to the act of seeing through art. To him, his film is like American modernist artist Jasper John’s Flag (1955). The artwork, which consists of a painted flag that looks exactly like the American flag, raises the question: Is this a painting or is this a flag? Is this a representation or is this a flag?

“It looks like an American flag,” Miller says. “But it is not a printed flag, it is painted. In a symbolic way, there’s context, history, depth and texture to America.”

Read more about the film, published via Bedford & Bowery In Five Star, Keith Miller’s Leading Man is a General in the East New York Bloods

Read Q&A with James ‘Primo’ Grant
Read Q&A with John Diaz

Primo (left) and John (right) talk business on the court; James 'Primo' Grant (left) and John Diaz (right) Image Credit: Nathan Fitch

Primo (left) and John (right) talk business on the court; James ‘Primo’ Grant (left) and John Diaz (right)
Image Credit: Nathan Fitch

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Russian Invasion — Remembering the “Hipsters”

There are two S’s: the stilyagi and the squares.

Like “Grease” (1978) and “Cry-Baby”(1990), “Hipster” (2008) falls into the category of teen musical where the good girl falls in love with the bad boy. In the case of this Russian retro-musical, however, it is the opposite. Here we have the good boy (Mels, a model student and Komsomol[1] member) who falls in love the bad girl (Polya, a hipster).

The Russian word stilyagi translates to those who are obsessed with fashion, or “hipsters.”

In a city like New York, it appears that everyone is or borderline (or trying very hard) to be a hipster. But what does a modern-day hipster look like? Continue reading