Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2014

2014 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Screen shot 2014-06-29 at 2.59.57 PM

Last Friday night the NY Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) opened in New York. This is the thirteenth year for the annual event, one that I have been covering from its inception. After some general comments on Asian film, I will conclude with a review of “The White Storm”, a festival film showing at Walter Reade Theater tonight.

Unlike the Indian Film Festival that I covered a month ago, this one features movies that are geared to local audiences rather than Western film festivals and theaters specializing in indie and foreign films. So the typical NYAFF film will be about samurais or gangsters while one from the Indian film festival will be about the plight of Dalits. I would have preferred that the NYAFF curators include more political films but I confess that I am not even aware that they are being made. From what I have gleaned from the Japanese film industry over the past five years or so, there are very few—if any—directors or screenwriters in the Akira Kurosawa or Yoji Yamada tradition nowadays. Perhaps if there were a stronger left in Japan or Hong Kong for that matter, we’d see films being made with a social and political message.

That being said, I am totally devoted to Hong Kong and Japanese gangster and samurai films. In an age when Hollywood “entertainment” means the latest Michael Bay movie, we are better off with a lobotomy. I thought that Atlantic Magazine’s Christopher Orr got the latest installment of “Transformers” just right: “If it truly takes this long to save the world from the depredations of robots that turn into muscle cars, it may be that the world is no longer worth saving.”

It would appear that my first article on Asian action films dates back to July 3, 2003, just two years after the launch of the NYAFF:

Hit Men Movies

 posted to http://www.marxmail.org on July 3, 2003

 I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 “Le Samouraï” and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s 2001 “Fulltime Killer” pretty much at random from the local video store. But comparisons between these two ‘noirs’ involving hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves immediately. Especially after ‘fulltime killer’ Tok (Andy Lau), whose main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a thug for never having seen “Le Samouraï”.

 Melville’s Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville’s 1970 “Le Cercle Rouge”, a film I reviewed a while back (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.

 “Le Samouraï” begins with bogus quote from the East: “There’s no greater solitude that the Samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese “Book of Bushido”, this is the same gimmick that he used in “Le Cercle Rouge.” The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.

 Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” inspired the western “Magnificent Seven”, one might be led to take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film ‘lingua franca’ that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.

Speaking of cross-fertilization, even if you have never seen an Asian action flick, you can probably detect its influence here in many different ways. Quentin Tarantino’s films reflect the Hong Kong influence even before “Kill Bill” came out. His first film “Reservoir Dogs” was deeply influenced by “City on Fire”, a 1987 Ringo Lam film whose title also adorned a scholarly study of Hong Kong cinema by a couple of Marxists and old friends, Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes. The book can be read in its entirety here. You can get a flavor of their approach from the first paragraph of chapter three, “Whose Better Tomorrow?”

What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo’s martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads? From “A Better Tomorrow (1986) to “Hard-Boiled” (1992), Woo has tackled ethical questions by pitting his hero against a corrupt world built on the value of a dollar, where ‘necessity knows no law.’ In these movies, gunplay abounds and high body counts result. In the history of capitalism, ‘weapons were the means of expansion for commerce and conquest.1 From multi-round 9 mm pistols to pump-action double-barrel shotguns, Woo’s films unleash the destructive power of an arsenal as internecine feuds erupt between Triads over money and turf, and cops battle the underworld.

Internecine feuds erupting between Triads over money and turf…cops battling the underworld. This pretty much describes “The White Storm”, the 134 minute film whose original title was much better: “The Cartel War”.

The three main characters are Hong Kong cops in the anti-drug department who are trying to track down the elusive Eight-Faced Buddha. With a villain so named, you know that you are entering the rarefied realm of Hong Kong policiers.

One cop is Chow, who is working undercover. The other two are Tin and Tsz-wai, childhood pals of Chow. Recently relations between the three men have become strained as Chow’s wife has threatened a divorce over his growing distance from her, now in her late pregnancy. As frequently occurs in this genre, cops are torn between loyalty to their mission and family ties.

Undercover cops figure in many Hong Kong gangster movies. They are a natural for dramatic tension since they are always in danger of being identified and for their uphill battle to maintain a life outside their job. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a Boston cop trying to penetrate a gang led by Jack Nicholson, obviously influenced by Whitey Bulger’s South Boston crew. It is nowhere near as good as the Hong Kong movie it was based on, “Infernal Affairs”, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

Eventually the three cops end up in Thailand trying to capture Eight-Faced Buddha in his lair inside The Golden Triangle. Without divulging too much, Chow reveals the plan of the impending assault to the gang in order to avoid a battle that might cost him his life. His wife has just given birth and is suffering major complications that might cost her life.

Expecting Eight-Faced Buddha’s gang to avoid running into the cops, Chow is shocked to discover that he has set a trap for them. In a wild fifteen-minute scene, gangster helicopters annihilate the cops until only a handful remain, including the three cops. Tin, Chow and Tsz-wai’s superior, is given a choice. Either Chow or Tsz-wai will be spared. Which one will it be? After agonizing for several minutes, Tin decides to sacrifice Tsz-wai who is shot in the chest and falls into a crocodile pit. Don’t forget—we are dealing with Hong Kong action films, not Sundance Festival mumblecore.

After returning to Hong Kong, Tin is blamed for not anticipating the ambush and demoted to running the police department’s IT. (Gosh, what a blow to my self-esteem.) Chow, of course, is stricken with remorse and even fails to save his marriage. And what about Tsz-wai, who was likely eaten by crocodiles? My recommendation is to go see “The White Storm” tonight and to catch as many of the NYAFF movies as you can. They will entertain you beyond your greatest expectations as well as give you an idea of where the future of filmmaking lies.

Look for more reviews of NYAFF films in the coming period.

December 3, 2013

2013 South Asian Film Festival in N.Y. — not to be missed

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 12:02 pm

In trying to explain my doubts about the latest installment in the “Hunger Games” series to a fellow leftist who adores the film, I stated that there is no radical art coming out of Hollywood. There is nothing like, for example, the movies I will be reviewing for the 2013 South Asian Film Festival in New York (https://www.saiff.org/) that opens today.

Over the past couple of days I have had the chance to see three of the films being shown there and am happy to have had my beliefs confirmed. As both art and as a political statement, “Good Morning, Karachi”, “Siddhartha”, and “The Good Road” are reminders that in a deeply divided class society like India, there are filmmakers rising to the occasion. It is unfortunate that America has so few willing to make such films outside the documentary genre. With “independent” film in the U.S. having become the province of the Sundance Film Festival and the “boutique” divisions of Hollywood powerhouses, there are two strikes against the radical filmmaker who has something to say. One only hopes that if any such person based in New York is reading this article, they will make an effort to attend as many films in this festival as possible since South Asia is leading the way.

As the title would indicate, “Good Morning, Karachi” (Friday, December 6th, 7:30pm)  is a Pakistani film. The title refers to a radio personality who starts his show each day in the same fashion as the deejay character Robin Williams plays in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. While there is no open warfare in Pakistan, the film depicts a low-intensity version that is ripped from the newspaper headlines as the cliché puts it. Set in 1996, the year of Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, the film begins with a scene of Islamic fundamentalists protesting a billboard advertisement of a skimpily dressed model. They chant, “American whore—out, out!”

Rafina is a tall and beautiful young woman who feels chafed by her mother and fiancé’s expectations that she will become a traditional housewife. Her main ambition is to get a job and be economically independent. Although she would never admit this to her fiancé, she also dreams of having her own apartment.

Arif, the fiancé, would have little use for the Islamists since he is an activist in the Pakistan People’s Party, the Bhutto electoral machine widely viewed as secular but corrupt. He is the son of Rosie, Rafina’s neighbor, who works as a body wax beautician not so much because she wants economic independence but because her husband has died and left her without any income.

Rosie works at Radiance, a Pakistani advertising agency that is responsible for the kind of ads that the Islamists were protesting in the opening scene. Rafina tags along as an intern to learn the waxing trade but barely tolerated by the bosses who never invited her there. Like a scene out of “42nd Street”, Rafina is asked to substitute for a model who has no arrived for a shoot. And like “42nd Street”, Rafina becomes an instant modeling star with a billboard showing up at the same exact spot as that in the opening scene.

The film is about as old-fashioned as it comes, hearkening back not only to the 1933 “42nd Street”, but also to “The Jazz Singer”, a film that preceded it by six years. Like  the character Al Jolson played, Rafina is forced to choose between family ties and a career she loves.

Director Sabiha Sumar combined filmmaking and political science majors at Sarah Lawrence College from 1980–83 and then studied history and political thought at Cambridge University so she is clearly the right kind of person to make such a film that combines politics and human drama. The film is a perfect companion piece to “Wadjda”, the stunning Saudi film about a young girl’s struggle against gender oppression that premiered this year. Sumar’s first film, the 1988 documentary “Who Will Cast the First Stone”, led to the overturn of death-by-stoning sentence for Shahida Parveen, who was accused of adultery. This is just another example of filmmakers constituting an informal worldwide vanguard.

“Siddharth”, that plays immediately after “Good Morning, Karachi” on Friday at 10pm in the same location, is spare but deeply moving neorealist fare about the human costs of poverty in today’s India.

Mahendra fixes broken zippers on the street on the streets of Delhi, another member of India’s vast informal economy who is barely eking out an existence. When circumstances become even more difficult than usual, he allows his twelve-year-old son Siddharth to leave school and sends him to work illegally in a far-away factory.

When Siddharth fails to return home on the expected date, Mahendra files a missing persons report with an indifferent police department that regards the case as it would a purse snatching it would seem. They assure him that Siddharth will return home on his own accord and that he should not worry. This leads him to borrow money from fellow “chain-wallahs” and go on a trek to find his son, who his roommate at the factory suspects has been kidnapped and forced to beg on the streets. In some cases, the child has his or her eyes plucked out to generate more sympathy and more alms.

Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” might seem outdated when considering the streets of London in 2013 but “Siddharth” corresponds unfortunately to a Victorian-era social problem that still exists in India. The National reports:

About $3.6 million is the annual amount collected by beggars in Mumbai, according to the Maharashtra state government. In Delhi, where an estimated 30,000 child beggars roam the streets, the figure is even higher, approaching $7m annually, according to researchers. Adults are also kidnapped and forced into begging. Often, to entice empathy among potential contributors, their limbs are amputated or they are disfigured with acid. Sometimes blood vessels are stitched to block blood supply to parts of the body, bringing about gangrene.

Director Richie Mehta is a Canadian who was interviewed by a N.Y. Times blogger on September 20, 2013. He was asked about the inspiration for the film. He answered:

I was stuck in New Delhi for five weeks because of the volcano in Iceland. I was staying in East of Kailash, and wanted to meet my friend Rajesh Tailang in Khan Market. I had worked with Rajesh on my first film “Amal”; he did the translations, and was [lead actor] Rupinder Nagra’s dialect coach.

I ended up taking an auto-rickshaw, and there was this old Muslim man driving it. I got in and asked him how long it would take me to get to Khan Market. He said, “10 minutes.” Then he asked me if I am from Punjab. No, I said, my father is from Punjab. He asked me if I knew where Dongri was. I said no, what is it? Is it a neighborhood? And he said, “I don’t know but I think that’s where I lost my son.”

I asked what his son’s name was. He told me it was Rehemat Ali, but he didn’t know how to spell it. He didn’t have a photograph of his son. I asked him if he had filed a police report, but he didn’t know how. I asked when this happened, and he said a year had passed. For a year, he’d been driving his rickshaw asking passengers for help. It was all he could do because he couldn’t take a day off of work. He had a wife and another child. I asked for his phone number. He didn’t have one, and gave me his neighbor’s phone number.

This is pretty much the plot of “Siddharth”, a testimony once again to Indian filmmakers’ commitment to combining art and politics.

Finally, there is “The Good Road”, the final film in the festival that can be seen on Sunday at 7:30pm. What a perfect way to end the festival since this film, also about missing children, not only makes important political points about Indian society but is stunning as a work of art. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The film bears some resemblance to the “coincidence” genre that includes works such as “Amores Perros”,  “Babel”, and “Crash”. In such films, people with not much in common find their paths being crossed in plots that often defy logic. “The Good Road” is not one of them. It breathes new life into the genre and does so by making the coincidences not only plausible but also deeply emblematic of Indian social reality.

The film begins with a husband and wife driving along a desolate stretch of road in Gujarat in their SUV, with a bored 7-year-old Aidtya in the back seat. They are out on a vacation that appears to be the Indian version of a “rough guide” vacation.

At a road stop diner (nothing like the American, to say the least!) Aditya wanders off to play with a puppy and is left behind by his parents. Eventually he becomes the passenger of truck-driver Pappu and his assistant Shaukat, who are involved with some kind of shady deal. Since they are taking risks to start with, Shaukat urges that they leave Aditya by the side of the road. But Pappu, who is reminded of his niece of the same age, refuses. The interaction between the two men and the child will remind you of any number of films in which gruff and criminal adults find themselves accidentally in the care of a child, such as “Tsotsi”, a South African film based on an Athol Fugard novel.

Another child figures prominently in the film. Poonam is a 9-year-old girl out on the road trying to find a ride to relatives in a nearby city. When she ends up unwittingly in a brother catering to men exactly like the truck drivers looking after Aditya, she becomes the ward of a protective young prostitute. In the climax of the film, she and they literally bump into each other.

“The Good Road” has been nominated by India as the best film of 2013 for the Academy Awards. It will certainly be my choice for best “foreign” film at the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting next Sunday. I put “foreign” in scare quotes since movies like “Zero Dark Thirty”, a past NYFCO winner, seems much more foreign to me in terms of the word denoting strange or outlandish.

June 30, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 – Filipino and Thai films

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Limiting myself to the nine Vimeo-based press screenings for this year’s NY Asian Film Festival is proving to be a mixed blessing. While the menu is more to the taste of the curators than my own, it does give me a good idea of developing trends in the Asian film industry not to speak of the convenience. While my comments on the films under review today are decidedly mixed, I still regard what I have seen so far as an indication of the industry’s overall health.

“Aberya” is representative of what they call the New Filipino Cinema. If so, I think that I will stick with the old—moldy old fig that I am. “Aberya” is a willfully obscure film that obstinately refuses to tell a story, any kind of story. The two main characters are a boxer (with a face as pretty and as unmarked as a male in a Calvin Klein cologne) and a time-traveling drug dealer. Except for an early scene in which the drug dealer brings over a package to the hedonistic boxer, their paths do not cross.

The most frustrating scene has the drug dealer visiting another client—a gangster surrounded by his menacing looking bodyguards. Since the gangster owes him money, the package he is delivering does not contain drugs but a kaleidoscope. The gangster holds it up to his eyes but we do not see what he sees—an incredibly lost opportunity. Furthermore, as the dealer stalks off without his money and minus his expensive briefcase that the gangster has expropriated, he is heard muttering to himself about revenge. Finally, I say to myself, some kind of story might be developing. No such luck. The two men do not encounter each other again.

The entire film consists of the two men having conversations with their girl friends over the kind of “trippy” matters we used to talk about at Bard College in the early 60s after getting high. All about god, the meaning of life, love, etc. It is enough to put you to sleep.

When I was watching “Aberya”, I made mental note to myself to find out about the director’s influences. I found the footprints of people like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze all over the film. As it turned out, I was pretty close. Asked to name his five favorite films, the director named one very much in their spirit as number one.

Off the top of my head:1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – What’s not to love? How the hell could you do those crazy things in a film and still make it accessible? The ending ‘okay’ still works for me no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

Wikipedia says that with the advent of digital filmmaking, “indie” productions have flourished in the Philippines but mostly intended for international film festivals. This obviously describes “Aberya” to a tee. It plays tomorrow at 1pm at the Walter Reade Theater. If your tastes generally clash with mine, this should be a must.

Back in April, I reported on “Investment”, a feature that was par of the Indian Film Festival. It was a scathing portrait of India’s materialistic and grubby nouveau riche, and particularly the evil embodied in a teen-aged boy who is a pathological killer that his parents protect. While the film is focused on the family’s drama, it is obviously an indictment of the rotten social structure that neoliberalism has wrought. The next two films to be considered are very much in the same spirit but aimed at the moral rot of the Filipino and Thai middle class.

Directed by Gino Santos, the aptly titled “The Animals” is described on the NYAFF website as an “indictment of the Filipino 1% via a decadent high-school party that degenerates into an orgy of sex, violence and class warfare.” Just my kind of movie, in other words. I loved it!

The plot couldn’t be simpler. It is the last day of school and a bunch of rich kids are getting ready to go to a big party that evening. Their conversation is utterly banal and you grow weary of them, even as you begin to wonder what will happen to them. There is a pervasive sense that they will get nailed in the conclusion since the director and screenwriter hate the characters so much.

Two of the characters are trying to get into a high-school fraternity where the hazing is utterly sadistic. You have no sympathy for them since their goal is obviously to be able to make life miserable for the next set of applicants. When one of the two boys is asked to smack a stranger at an adjoining table in a restaurant, he shows no remorse after smashing a beer bottle over his head.

The final hour of the film takes place at the party where the obnoxious female characters drink themselves into a vomiting stupor and generally degrade themselves. All of the principal characters have private drivers who take them to the party. As they are inside debauching themselves, the drivers hang around outside laughing bitterly at the “animals” they serve.

“The Animals” plays on Tuesday July 2nd at 2:45 at the Walter Reade. While superficially related to John Hughes, it has much more in common with Buñuel. Just think of it as “Los Olvidados” featuring rich kids instead of the poor.

Finally, there’s an entry from Thailand that is not all bad. Titled “Countdown” and directed by Nattawat Poonpiriya, it is also a go-for-the-jugular attack on rich kids, in this case three bored and decadent “hipsters” living in downtown Manhattan.

Two have conned their parents into believing that they are in school but have been wasting their tuition money on partying and smoking pot. About fifteen minutes into the movie, they contact Jesus—a man of undetermined ethnicity—who is the guy who used to supply their old connection who has gotten out of the drug trade.

Jesus comes over to sell them some killer pot but before after they have sampled the weed, things take a turn for the worse. Jesus turns out to be fluent in Thai, even though they had assumed he was an American (for some odd reason). The more stoned they become, the more menacing Jesus becomes. At a certain point, the film evolves into a fairly standard capture-and-torture grindhouse affair familiar to anybody who has seen Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” or “The Strangers”. But the genre is wedded to a kind of morality play in the spirit of Dostoyevsky with Jesus exercising the wrath of god against the wicked. Since nearly the entire film takes place entirely in an apartment, it has the character of a staged off-off-Broadway play.

Like the director of “Aberya”, Poonpiriya has made a film targeted for film festivals rather than the local Thai marketplace. At least it has the merit of being less pretentious than “Aberya” even if it is nowhere near as successful as “The Animals”. It plays on Wednesday 10:20pm, July 3rd at the Walter Reade. It’s worth a shot for those of you into the grindhouse genre.

December 8, 2012

The blood on Alice Tepper Marlin’s hands

Filed under: Asia,workers — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

In the second and concluding article on sweatshop safety prompted by the Tazreen disaster in Bangladesh on November 24th, the New York Times focused on the nonprofit organization founded by Alice Tepper Marlin that gave Ali Enterprises in Karachi a clean bill of health. Just two months before the Tazreen fire that resulted in the death of 112 workers, Ali Enterprises was the scene of another and more devastating version of the latter-day Triangle Shirtwaist disasters wrought by corporate greed:

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

–NY Times, September 12, 2012

The brothers who owned Ali Enterprises are now awaiting trial for murder. They claim that they are innocent since the factory had gotten a stamp of approval from Alice Tepper Marlin:

Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.

The certificate that Ali Enterprises boasts about is considered the most prestigious in the industry. It is the creation of Alice Tepper Marlin, a Wellesley College graduate and former Wall Street analyst who, after starting an activist group in 1969 to push for greater corporate responsibility, eventually settled on trying to make the world’s sweatshops less horrid.

The problem is that the SA8000 certificate is awarded after local subcontractors have had a look at the factory, in many instances serving as a rubber stamp for unsafe conditions. Recently UNI Global Union, a grouping of 900 labor unions, quit the board of Marlin’s outfit to protest its ineffectiveness. According to Khalid Nadvi, an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England, certification systems like the SA8000, said, are “very patchy and in many cases totally ineffective.” He added, “Factories often know when the inspectors are coming. You have workers being coached what to say. There may be two sets of books.”

Buried within the article is a quote from Marlin that explains her differences with people like Khalid Nadvi and the labor movement:

Mr. Nadvi recommended that the voluntary monitoring system be replaced by a government-run system developed in consultation with industry and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

But Ms. Tepper Marlin warned that jettisoning certification programs could cause an exodus of apparel orders and jobs from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”

You know what I’d like? To see Alice Tepper Marlin and her “power couple” husband John Tepper Marlin, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, put in one of those locked-door sweatshops and see an “accidental” fire burn their sorry bodies into a pile of smoking ashes.

The Marlins are superstars of the liberal left going back for decades. Here’s a profile on them from 2008:

The Tepper Marlins are, in many respects, old-line Kennedy-era liberals, from blueblood backgrounds, steeped in sixties ideals, with Harvard and Wellesley, Wall Street and City Hall prominent on their impressive resumés. Yet just as they eschew the obstreperous, vein-popping Type A personas you might expect from such a pair of intellectual power brokers, they’ve also avoided becoming relics of a bygone era. Instead, they’ve evolved, adapting their careers to changing trends, responding to the events of the times.

Alice is acknowledged as the architect of corporate social responsibility in America. “She invented the field, which is now conventional wisdom and very hot,” says John, who cheerfully admits to being the second most famous person in the family.

What the Tepper Marlins represent is the ability of the ruling class to create the illusion of reform through nonprofits and NGO’s that use all sorts of progressive rhetoric reminiscent in many ways of Obama’s campaign speeches. For example, if you go to the website of Social Accountability International (SAI), you will see it described as “a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder organization whose mission is to advance the human rights of workers around the world. It partners to advance the human rights of workers and to eliminate sweatshops by promoting ethical working conditions, labor rights, corporate social responsibility and social dialogue.”

But if you go to the SAI board of directors page, you’ll see that the emphasis is on corporate rather than social responsibility.

The president of the board is one Tom DeLuca, who was vice president of imports and compliance for Toys “R” Us, a company that was inducted into the Sweatshop Hall of Shame in 2008. Sweatfree Communities detailed how they earned the award:

 According to the National Labor Committee, Guangzhou Vanguard Water Sport Products Company Ltd in Guangzhou, China produces swim gear and sporting goods for its major clients Speedo, Toys ‘R’ Us, and the giant French retailer Carrefour. Workers’ routine shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week. Workers report going for months at a time without a single day off. One worker, forced to toil a 23-hour shift at a compression molding machine, shed tears as he described how exhausted he was, and terrified that his hands would be crushed by the relentless motion of the machine if he slowed down for even a second.

You also have one Don Henkle, who is Gap Inc.’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “In this capacity, he heads a team of over 90 employees worldwide, responsible for the company’s social responsibility efforts improving working conditions in garment factories.”

Since many of the people who buy clothes at the Gap are young students tuned in to the evils of sweatshops, Gap Inc. has orchestrated an ambitious PR campaign to sell the public that it is different from the typical scumbag multinational. Somehow, the campaign has yet to meet the advertised goals, by the corporation’s own admission:

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the inspected factories supplying Gap from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean paid their workers below the minimum wage at some point last year. Between 10 and 25 percent of the factories in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and South America shortchanged their workers, the report said.

Now that’s not the minimum wage in the U.S. but the minimum wage in some hellish country like Honduras.

Another board member is Dana Chasin, a lawyer who used to be on the staff of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. Heard of them? I hadn’t myself but a bit of investigation revealed that the training he got there served him well as overseer of SAI policy:

NY Times, March 3, 1992
U.S. Moves to Freeze Assets Of Law Firm for S.& L. Role

The Federal Government sued a leading New York law firm and its former managing partner for $275 million today and moved to freeze their assets for their role in representing Charles H. Keating Jr., the convicted savings and loan executive.

The lawsuit is the largest ever to be brought by the Government against an adviser to a failed saving institution. It is the first time the authorities, who are stepping up their prosecution of lawyers and accountants linked to the savings and loan scandal, have tried to freeze a firm’s assets before going to trial.

Throughout the 1980’s, the firm, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, and its managing partner, Peter M. Fishbein, represented Mr. Keating, the founder of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, who was convicted of fraud in one of the costliest of savings failures.

In their lawsuit filed today in an administrative court, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Justice Department contend that Mr. Fishbein and other lawyers at Kaye, Scholer repeatedly misled thrift examiners by overstating Lincoln’s worth, and engaged in obstructionist tactics that kept the institution open and hemorrhaging for many more months and at a much greater cost than necessary.

The way I see it, if you are setting up a nonprofit whose goal is to protect Walmart’s profits, who else would you put on the board of directors except someone who worked for a law firm that helped pull off one of the most massive bankster crimes in American history. Who would you expect them to invite? Ralph Nader? Don’t be an idiot.

With credentials equaling Dana Chasin’s, there’s Nicholas Milowski, an audit manager for KPMG, one of the country’s leading accounting firms. Since most of you are aware that outfits like Arthur Anderson (put out of business for its role in facilitating Enron’s crimes) exist mostly to help their clients evade regulations and oversight, it should not come as any surprise to learn that KPMG was a bunch of crooks. From Wikipedia:

The KPMG tax shelter fraud scandal involves allegedly illegal U.S. tax shelters by KPMG that were exposed beginning in 2003. In early 2005, the United States member firm of KPMG International, KPMG LLP, was accused by the United States Department of Justice of fraud in marketing abusive tax shelters.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, KPMG LLP admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients dodge $2.5 billion in taxes and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties. KPMG LLP will not face criminal prosecution as long as it complies with the terms of its agreement with the government. On January 3, 2007, the criminal conspiracy charges against KPMG were dropped. However, Federal Attorney Michael J. Garcia stated that the charges could be reinstated if KPMG does not continue to submit to continued monitorship through September 2008.

In 2003, whistleblower Michael Hamersley testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and assisted the investigations of U.S. Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee’s report (S. Rept. 109-54) detailed the misconduct.

On 29 August 2005, nine individuals, including six former KPMG partners and the former deputy chairman of the firm, were criminally indicted in relation to the multi-billion dollar criminal tax fraud conspiracy.

If you want to see how truly outrageous these people can be, you have to go to the board of advisers page that is broken down into three groups, including one for business. In this group you can find Manuel Rodriguez and George Jaksch from Chiquita Brands International, formerly known as United Fruit Company. If I were to spell out all of Chiquita/United Fruit’s misdeeds, it would take me hundreds of pages. Of course, a good place to start is Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger’s “Bitter Fruit”, a book that indicts the multinational for its role in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and causing decades of near-genocidal suffering. You really have to wonder how shameless Alice Tepper Marlin was in lining up these bastards. I guess it was her way of telling the big bourgeoisie that she could be relied on to protect their vital interests, like Kerberos the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

Got the picture? The SAI boards are filled with characters who, to put it in the immortal words of Woody Guthrie, will “rob you with a fountain pen”. Now if it was just a question of robbing a worker of a living wage or the American taxpayer of their hard-earned savings, it would be bad enough. But we are talking about hundreds of workers being burned alive–all because fucking SAI was complicit in issuing clean bills of health for factories turning out cheap goods for Walmart.

A couple of people, who I consider good friends, had SAI figured out long ago. Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood got under Alice Tepper Marlin’s skin for writing a Nation Magazine article in 2001 that questioned the effectiveness of the SA8000 Certificate that gave the Karachi factory the go-ahead to put hundreds of workers’ lives at risk. Miffed at their impudence, Marlin wrote a letter to the Nation stating:

Unfortunately this article, lauding people who fight to improve the plight of workers, misrepresents a code of conduct with the same goals and an effective implementation record: SA8000, the Social Accountability International standard for decent working conditions, and its independent verification system. This information is readily available on SAI’s website, www.sa-intl.org.

I include Doug and Liza’s reply in all its glory:

New York City

Nowhere do we say that SAI is “led by multinationals”; we quote an outside observer who calls it a “PR tool for multinationals,” a characterization repeated by many sources. Watching Alice Tepper Marlin fawn over a Toys ‘R’ Us exec at the SAI conference this past December lent considerable credence to this view. On the advisory board, business members outnumber labor members by more than two to one (not counting the New York City comptroller, who manages one of the world’s largest stock portfolios).

Inspections every six months sounds reassuring, but scheduled at predictable intervals and announced in advance, they’re unlikely to expose abuses. Snap visits would be much more effective. We’re happy to hear that the offending factory eventually lost its certification, but it’s troubling that it got approved in the first place; auditors are supposed to see through managers’ attempts at bamboozlement. SAI’s auditor on the scene, Det Norske Veritas, told the South China Morning Post that it’s impossible to do reliable audits in China: “The factories always manage to find a way around the auditors.” We’re also happy SAI is broadly trying to improve the lot of workers in China, but certifying factories there implies that they meet the criteria of free association in SAI’s high-minded code, which they clearly do not. We don’t see how “parallel means,” whatever they are (and they sound like company unions), could possibly be a substitute for independent organizing.

As for Tepper Marlin’s “economic argument,” we’re always amused when NGO directors suggest they know more about running businesses than managers. If profits are fatter when workers are well paid and well fed, why are there so many miserably exploited people in the world? Businesses pay higher wages only when they’re forced to.



July 27, 2012

Three outstanding Asian films

Filed under: Asia,China,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

As nations with a distinct identity going back for thousands of years, China, Korea and Japan provide a deep well of historical sagas on a par with Beowulf, the Iliad or any other more familiar Western tales. Not surprisingly, the film industry of each country has tapped into this rich vein in order to create memorable works. This review takes a look at “Sacrifice”, a new film opening today at the Quad Cinema in NYC by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige of “Farewell, My Concubine” fame as well as two fairly recent films on Netflix streaming that will appeal to those who enjoy swordplay and thrillingly choreographed battle scenes involving thousands of men in armor, and to those who are tired of postmodernist irony. One is a Korean film titled “War of the Arrows” that is based on the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 17th century, an event that actually resonates with more recent history. The other is a masterpiece by John Woo titled “Red Cliff” that is set in 3rd century AD China and that thankfully rescues the great director from the hit-making CPA-driven machinery of Hollywood.

“Sacrifice” is based on the classic play “Orphan of Zhao” that was written in the 13th century by Ji Jun-Xiang and is the first Chinese play known to Europe. It was adapted by a number of important authors, including Voltaire. Like much of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revenge is a key element of the narrative in Kaige’s film as well as the two others.

As is so often the case in this genre, warlords are the dominant characters. The film begins with a bloody attack on the Zhao clan by a rival named Tu Angu who seeks to usurp his rivals in a Macbeth-like manner. Every last one of the Zhao clan is slaughtered except the chieftan’s son who is being delivered  by court physician Cheng Ying while the mayhem is occurring.

When one of Tu Angu’s henchmen comes to Zhao’s chambers to retrieve the newborn child and deliver him to be slaughtered, the mother and the physician plead for mercy. Against his better judgment the warrior allows the child to be delivered to safety. When Tu Angu learns that the infant is still alive and concealed somewhere in the city, he orders all newborn male children to be seized from the parents and brought to him, including Chen Ying’s own son who was born within hours of Zhao’s.

In a mix-up that is part deliberate and part accidental, Tu Angu kills Chen Ying’s newborn son thinking that he was Zhao’s, as well as the boy’s mother. Chen Ying is now left alone in the world with nothing but the son of the leader of the Zhao clan who is led to believe that he is the physician’s son.

Showing a shred of remorse for having killed what he thought to be the physician’s son, Tu Angu becomes a godfather to what he assumes is the physician’s son and teaches him the martial arts, including swordsmanship. Chin Yeng has an ulterior motive in allowing the boy to be groomed by his wife and son’s killer. Once the adoptee has reached adulthood, he will learn that his godfather killed his real mother and father. The physician is sure that  the youth will seek bloody vengeance.

Despite the expected presence of swordplay and pitched battles on horseback, “Sacrifice” is much more about human relationships and particularly the divided loyalties between Zhao’s son and the two father figures in his life. As one of China’s finest directors, Chen Kaige elicits memorable performances from Ge You who plays the physician and Wang Xue-Qi who plays Tu Angu.

Asked in an interview how he feels about the inroads that Hollywood is making into China, Chen Kaige answers that his films should generate mass appeal to audiences tiring of tinseltown superficiality. Considering his words, it should be obvious that “Sacrifice” is just the sort of thing that will appeal to American audiences tired of another stupid Ben Stiller movie like “Watch” that opens today as well:

What I can say is that we need to develop the market, if we want people to watch a variety of films; you need a variety of audience. This is a like a chain. Young people under 20, they go to McDonalds, they drink Coca Cola, they wear Nike and they watch Hollywood movies.

You can’t imagine the kids will say to you, “Let’s go to McDonalds, and then let’s go to the Peking Opera.” No way. It’s natural the young kids want to watch U.S. movies. The U.S movies are providing something interesting – high technology, a feast of visual and sound effects, it’s like playing a game.

What can we do? We are facing a big challenge from the invasion of Hollywood films. I think we should stay with the situation. We don’t need to be scared or screaming like crazy saying “The wolf is here!” I feel we should make more stories people can relate to and not just make big films to compete with Hollywood. You can have your own story to tell, which is wonderful.

“War of the Arrows” begins in the same fashion as “Sacrifice” with Chinese warlords wiping out another clan, this time Koreans. And as is the case with “Sacrifice”, it is left up to Nam-yi, the sole male survivor of the attack, to wreak vengeance on his father’s killer. The only other survivor of the attack is his younger sister Ja-in. So, basically you are dealing with a mixture of Macbeth and Hamlet with a lot more action. Who can ask for anything more?

In “War of the Arrows”, the main weapon is a bow and arrow as the title indicates. Nam-yi is a master archer who is living a purposeless life other than perfecting his martial arts. On the day of his sister’s wedding, the same warlords that killed his father raid the compound and seize his sister. The rest of the film is dedicated to his pursuit of the kidnappers and the vengeance for his father’s killing.

While vengeance is a fairly universal theme in Asian film, either of the costume drama genre such as this or in more modern gangster films of the sort that John Woo perfected, it probably resonates more deeply with Koreans who were victimized by both the Chinese and the Japanse at different times in their history.

In preparing for another essay on the Korean War as represented in Korean film, I began reading Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War”, a book published in 2010 that I can’t recommend more highly. Cumings is not only an authoritative and radical historian, he is also a gifted prose stylist who writes with genuine passion.

The book details the great feats of the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1930s that were led by Kim Il-Sung in Manchuria, the same location as the film’s narrative. Instead of a heroic resistance using bows and arrows, Kim Il Sung led a relatively small band (350) against far more powerful Japanese forces that relied on Korean traitors.

Director Kim Han-Min’s next film is titled “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea” and is scheduled to be released next summer. The AsianWiki describes it as follows:

Movie depicts the Battle of Myeongryang which took place October 26, 1597. The battle involved Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who had only 12 ships under his command, against the Japanese navy which had over a hundred ships. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was able to successfully defeat the Japanese navy.

I would like to think that the director is channeling the spirit of Kim Il-Sung but am really holding out for the day when South Korean filmmakers can tell the truth about Kim Il-Sung himself, who was one of the last century’s greatest nationalist heroes next to Fidel Castro and Ho Chi-Minh.

Currently the only version of “Red Cliff” that can be seen on Netflix is the theatrical version, which is an ample 2 ½ hours. Although my remarks are based on this version, I  would urge you to consider purchasing the 2-DVD uncut version from amazon.com as I just did.

Red Cliff tells the story of the war between the Han Dynasty’s Chancellor Cao Cao and two southern warloards Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The climax of the film is a naval assault on the castle at Red Cliff defended by the outnumbered southern forces in the summer of 208. Although John Woo said that only 50 percent of the film is historically accurate, a monumental battle did take place that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty.

While the historical details of the actual battle are murky, this much is known. It did take place on the Yangtze River, which plays as much of a role in Chinese civilization as the Nile does in Egypt or the Mississippi in American (such as it is.)

Woo’s orchestration of the climactic scenes are about as stunning as any I have seen in this genre and make its Hollywood counterparts such as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” look trivial by comparison. (Petersen, a rather good German director, should like Woo leave Hollywood behind if he wants to retain whatever integrity he still has.)

Like “The Orphan of Zhao”, the battle of Red Cliff has inspired many Chinese writers, including the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. There are also video games but I doubt that any could surpass Woo’s film which broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China, thus helping to realize Chen Kaige’s dream.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Woo’s work but suffice it to say that there would be no Quentin Tarentino if there was no John Woo. Tarentino’s films are practically a plagiarism on Woo’s work but without the visual poetry and the deeper moral sensibility.

After sixteen years in Hollywood, Woo returned to Asia to make a film that he had been dreaming about since the mid-80s. In an interview with the July 12, 2008 Singapore Strait Times, he explained his quest:

Woo says his patchy career in Hollywood was a learning experience: ‘In every film I make, be it an entertainment film or something more individualistic, I would search for some meaning that could sustain me for the period of film-making.’

But he hints that the experience had soured considerably by the time he did the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (2003), a widely panned sci-fi thriller. [I saw it for the first time myself a month ago and can recommend it without reservations, if for no other reason that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.]

The script passed through many hands and was hemmed in by market considerations and budgetary constraints and there was also little room for improvisation once shooting started.

‘It was very different from how I worked previously as I would make changes on the fly. And it was hard for me to find meaning,’ he admits.

At the same time, there was a momentous event which prompted him to look back East – China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

‘I was very excited and moved and I even cried. I thought I should return and make more meaningful movies. Since I have learnt so much in Hollywood, why not take what I have learnt back to China?’ he says.

Having straddled both East and West, he wanted Red Cliff to be a conduit to expose Western audiences to Chinese culture. That is why the West is getting a single-serving version of the film clocking in at just 21/2 hours.

‘Western audiences don’t understand our history. They might even have trouble telling Zhou Yu from Zhao Yun since the names sound similar,’ he says. Zhou Yu is the military strategist to Sun Quan while Zhao Yun is a key general in Liu Bei’s army.

With all due respect to John Woo, I don’t worry much about Western audiences in general. After all, 40 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution. My reviews are geared to the most intelligent Americans (as well as my readers worldwide), those who have come to the conclusion that capitalism is an irrational system or at least willing to listen to somebody who has such a belief. If you are looking for something to keep your spirit elevated in these most dismal times, I can recommend “Sacrifice”, “War of the Arrows” and “Red Cliff” without reservation.

August 26, 2011

Iron Crows

Filed under: Asia,imperialism/globalization,workers — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

The documentary “Iron Crows” that opens today at the Film Forum in NY derives its title from the nest made by a couple of crows in a tree on the desolate grounds of PHP, a ship breaking site in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Instead of using twigs, they build their nest from iron filings that are plentiful in a place where taking apart decommissioned ships is big business. The crows are a perfect metaphor for the men (and boys) who work there. At the end of each working day—the average wage is 2 dollars—they have to scrape iron filings from their feet and legs. Most of them work in bare feet or flip-flops and shorts. Until recently their employer, one of the more enlightened, did not even supply hard hats. An average of 20 workers dies in the ship salvaging industry each year. With a work force of 20,000, this is a shockingly high number.

“Iron Crows” is about as fine example of solidarity with the working class in film that I have seen since “Wasteland“, the documentary about the men and women who worked as recyclers in the world’s largest garbage dump at Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Artist Vik Muniz incorporated them in a series of large-scale photos based on classic paintings that used salvaged material of the kind that they extract from the dump each day.

Just as art can be created out of the bowels of Jardim Gramacho, it is gratifying to see Korean film-maker draw beauty out of a landscape that seems just as unpromising. But that he does. The sight of an enormous oil tanker floating silently into the shallow waters out of the morning mist near the PHP yards is as breathtaking as a Thomas Eakins seascape.

But the focus is almost entirely on men at work. Scaling the ships each day, they use blowtorches to “break” the ships into manageable blocks of metal that can be reused in new industrial production. Some 85 percent of Bangladesh’s iron comes from the Chittagong ship-breaking docks.

Except for the blowtorches, there is not a single labor-saving device at PHP. There are no forklifts or cranes. When a piece of the ship has been cut from a higher deck, the workers toss it over the side taking care that one of their comrades is not in the path of the projectile. Once it is on the ground, a crew of a dozen or so workers will hoist the slab of metal on their shoulders and walk it to an awaiting truck, all the while singing a work song that—to my astonishment—sounds exactly what I have heard from Leadbelly or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in a context that is not that far apart. Given the desperate situation of many of these workers who hail from northern Bangladesh and view PHP as a step up, there is a compulsory character to their labor that approximates prison labor in Mississippi or Alabama.

Despite their integration into the world capitalist marketplace, the workers retain customs from their village and a steadfastness to their Muslim faith that are not much different than the patterns Bengali people have followed for a thousand years. They sacrifice a goat at one point and mix its blood with sawdust. The mixture is then scattered into the bowels of the ship they are working on at the moment in order to ward off evil spirits.

As you watch them at their various tasks, you become mesmerized. Director Bong-Nam Park has an amazing ability to turn their labors into something approximating a ballet. The only other film that I have ever seen that comes near to delivering that sensation is “In the Pit“, a 2006 documentary about construction workers involved in building the second deck of Mexico City’s Periferico freeway that is available from Netflix, which I recommend highly.

The big difference between “In the Pit” and “Iron Crows” is politics. The Mexican film is primarily interested in the esthetics of work, while “Iron Crows” is also a cry for social justice that is often heartbreaking. A man who is featured in the film visits his home village in the north for his yearly reunion with his wife and relatives, where he sees his infant daughter for the first time. She was born blind because of an inadequate diet. While we are all aware of the crushing poverty of Bangladesh, seeing this man and his wife weeping over this tragedy makes it personal, which was obviously the intention of director Bong-Nam Park.

Clearly a turn is taking place in Korean film. Despite being one of the most exciting and innovative film industries in the world today, the emphasis has been mostly on genre, including ghost and gangster stories. Park’s documentary tells us that the wrenching changes brought on by globalization have inspired some Koreans into applying their skills to social and political topics.

Chittagong has a particular meaning for me since my old friend Bedabrato Pain, whose wife Shonali Bose directed “Amu“, screened his newly completed film “Chittagong” at NYU a couple of months ago. Chittagong was the site of an armed rebellion led by high school students in 1930 that was crushed by the British. I will have more to say about this film in a week or so, but will simply observe now that the promise of the struggle against British colonialism has only been partially fulfilled through independence. Nominally free, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are still prisoners of starvation.


Just received this email from an old friend from Bangladesh who actually lived not too far from Chittagong:

A minor comment on your review would be that workers retain rural customs and unorthodox Muslim traditions that are local to Bangladesh/ Bengal.  For example, theses practice, like sacrificing goats and warding of evil spirits, are also common among Hindu Bengalis, too.  Some of the workers in ship building industry in Chittagong are of Hindu origin too,  I believe.

Some of the religious/traditional practices of Bengali workers, such as beliefs in saints (“pir”), spirits (“jins”), etc. are not in accordance with (strict) Wahabi-type Islamic fundamentalism .  These beliefs and practices are often condemned by orthodox Muslim clergy and the likes of Jamaat-i-Islam.


May 13, 2011

Burma Soldier; City of Life and Death

Filed under: Asia,Film,militarism — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

Two films have come my way recently that deal in their own way with the systematic brutality of modern armies. “Burma Soldier”, an HBO Documentary that airs on Wednesday May 18, tells the story of Myo Myint who joined the Burmese army in 1979 at the age of 16 and trained as specialist clearing landmines. An attack by Burmese insurgents severely injured Myint, leaving him without a leg, an arm and most of the fingers on the hand of the remaining arm. What he lost physically was offset by a political and spiritual transformation that turned him into a pro-democracy activist. Not only is “Burma Soldier” a stirring portrait of one man’s struggle against physical and political adversity, it is an excellent introduction to the country’s history. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York, “City of Life and Death” is a fictional account of the so-called Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army’s assault on China’s capital city in 1937 based on Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller. I can recommend it but with major qualifications.

Even before his calamitous injuries, Myint began to question the cruel and anti-democratic role of the military. To start with, the dominant Burma nationality sought to impose itself on other ethnic groups in the same fashion as the Turks over the Kurds, or the Chinese over the Tibetans. The military that had seized power in 1962 sought to forcibly assimilate the “lesser” nationalities into its own warped vision of Burmese identity in accordance with the arrogant “modernizing” vision of both British colonialism and the “socialist” powers that forgot that there is no socialism without democracy.

He saw countless acts of brutality when on duty. Women, especially from the non-Burma nationalities, were forced to work as porters and even to walk in front of the soldiers in mine-infested terrain. Insurgent captives were routinely tortured. Myint recounts one incident in which a knife was plunged through the cheeks of a man during the course of an interrogation.

As you watch “Burma Soldier”, you cannot help but be reminded of the unfolding drama in the Middle East as one self-described “socialist” or “radical” government seeks to impose itself on a restive population. It is useful to remember that the brutal and corrupt Burmese military that has as dominant a role in the national economy as is the case in China or once was the case in Turkey.

General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.

After leaving the army, Myint embarked on an intellectual journey that led him to read a wide variety of philosophical and political books. He came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed. He became an activist and took part in demonstrations following the 1988 economic restructuring. He also started a secret library of banned books. When he was arrested at a rally, he told the judge at his trial that “I don’t believe in the military regime”. That act of defiance led to a 15 year prison sentence.

The oppressive system in Burma has led to remarkable acts of courage from individuals such as Aung San Suu Kyi who was under house arrest for about the same number of years Myint was in prison. In the 1990 general election, her party won 59% of the votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament. The army decided that the people’s will meant nothing and have ruled by terror for more than the past 20 years. One can only hope that the people of Burma will finally prevail since history and the unshakeable will of people like Myo Myint are on their side.

“City of Life and Death” is an unrelenting journey through the horrors of the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 that some scholars believe resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 civilians. Considering that these deaths occurred in the span of weeks rather than years, it has led some to consider it as one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century in terms of the time-frame.

Hewing closely to the findings of Iris Chang, Chinese director Lu Chuan tells a tale of unremitting cruelty that amounts to a holocaust for his own people. Indeed, this story included its own Oskar Schindler, one John Rabe, a German businessman (despite his Anglo-sounding name) that ran Siemen’s branch operation in Nanking, who confronted the Japanese army over its abuses and sought to protect civilians in a Safety Zone that was often disregarded by the occupiers. In one scene, they come into the Safety Zone in order to dragoon 100 Chinese women into working as sex slaves for their troops.

Rabe (John Paisley) has a Chinese male secretary named Tang (played by Fan Wei, a Chinese comedian in a decidedly non-comic role) who like his boss appeals to the dubiously better judgment of the Japanese. In a departure from conventional holocaust type narratives, John Rabe is a member of the Nazi party who uses his ties to Hitler to sway the Japanese military brass. In one of the unfortunately all-too-glaring missteps of this well-intentioned film, there is no attempt to put his humanitarian impulses into any kind of context. We can only surmise that Rabe had an emotional attachment to the Chinese people that stemmed from having living in Nanking since 1909.

As might be expected, Tang is a passive figure who follows Japanese orders in more or less the same way that the Judenrat cooperated with Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, at least until the full horror of Japanese occupation is revealed. In one of the film’s more wrenching scenes, the soldiers hurl his 11 year old daughter through the second story window of an apartment building killing her instantly. Her offense was to try to interfere with a Japanese detachment that was rounding up Chinese women for a “comfort station”, including her mother.

Given the unrelenting procession of horrors that are depicted in this 133 minute film (Chinese captives burned alive, etc.), one might ask what might motivate an audience to remain in its seats until the bitter end, about which there is no doubt from the very beginning.

The NY Times review puts its finger on one of the film’s strengths:

“City of Life and Death” isn’t cathartic: it offers no uplifting moments, just the immodest balm of art. The horrors it represents can be almost too difficult to watch, yet you keep watching because Mr. Lu makes the case that you must. In one awful, surreal interlude, severed male heads swing from rope like ornaments, while in another, Japanese soldiers — having buried some Chinese men alive — stamp down the earth as if planting a crop.

Although I recommend this film with some reservations, I have to wonder about the strange world we are living in when the “immodest balm of art” suffices. Somehow, the visual power of Lu’s film is expected as a pay off when all else fails in terms of our conventional expectations of drama. Shot in black-and-white, it certainly grips your attention with its flair for the macabre.

But despite my admittedly close attention to the gruesome action, I found myself troubled throughout by the film’s lack of context. There is nothing at all to explain why the Japanese occupation was so barbaric. In many ways, the film reminded me of the 1997 “Welcome to Sarajevo” that depicted the Serbs in pretty much the same terms, as demonic forces that killed for the love of killing.

Iris Chang’s book set the tone for the film by adopting the same stance toward the Japanese whose culture apparently set them on the course of a Nanking holocaust in the same way that German culture prepared the extermination of the Jews. Some critics of her books take exception to that view, however. In a 1998 review that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, David M. Kennedy wrote:

Elsewhere Chang serves notice that “this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character,” but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the “Japanese identity”–a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors’ code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that “the path to Nanking” runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.

In my view, wartime savagery is not the reflection of any national culture but instead the result of indoctrination that young men and women receive when they are drafted or when they enlist during the kind of fervor that arose after 9/11. Military training consists mainly of getting normal people to get used to the idea of killing, a most unnatural form of behavior no matter what a sociobiologist might tell you. It is not in our culture or in our genes. It is rather in the propaganda system of the hegemonic powers and their drill instructors that are carefully selected for their ability to transform ordinary people into killers. For insights into this, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.

June 21, 2009

7 movies from the NY Asian Film Festival 2009

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

This is a follow-up to my initial post on the New York Asian Film Festival, which included a review of a pre-festival screening of “High Noon”, a Hong Kong movie about disaffected teenagers. The festival began officially last night and I strongly urge people in the Greater New York area to try to make it as many screenings as possible since on the evidence of the 7 movies below you will simply not find anything better—starting with Woody Allen’s latest flop.

Unfortunately, only three of the movies discussed below have youtube clips with English subtitles. I do include still photos for the others to convey some sense of what these altogether marvelous films are about. I should add that if you do want to see the youtube clips sans subtitles, you can. All are available through youtube searches.

1. “When the Full Moon Rises” (Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang, Malaysia, 2008)

Remember “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, the TV show from the mid-70s that featured Darren McGavin as a reporter for a National Enquirer type tabloid? In each episode McGavin as Carl Kolchak tracked down one mysterious killing or another, inevitably involving some supernatural creature or another—from an abominable snowman to vampires. By many accounts, this show was the inspiration for “X Files”.

This Malaysian flick (the first I have ever seen) was directed by Mamat Khalid and stars Rosyam Nor as Saleh, a reporter in the Kolchak mold. But rather than playing it straight, Khalid made a movie that borrows liberally from Leslie Nielsen movies like “The Naked Gun”. Nor bumbles from one scene to another, having little clue about what is going on about him.

Set in 1956, on the eve of Malaysian independence, Saleh stumbles into a vast conspiracy of Communists who seem to style themselves as Nazis, ghosts, were-tigers, vampires and midget gangsters. The plot is almost incidental to the movie, which is much more about genre-subversion. Mamat Khalid is a huge fan of cheesy 1950s movies in Malaysia (apparently it was a thriving industry) and has created a pastiche that both honors and pokes fun at the past. The movie’s style is one part Tim Burton and one part Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous. Any attempt on my part to analyze the movie would prove futile, except to say that it is a pie in the face to conventional nationalist mythology.

2. Dachimawa Lee (South Korea, 2008)

This is very much in the spirit of the flick above. Dachimawa Lee is a comic version of the Korean version of James Bond anti-Communist movies of the 70s and 80s. Like Saleh the reporter and Inspector Clouseau, superspy Dachimawa Lee often creates havoc no matter his best intentions. The plot revolves around Lee tracking down Japanese spies who have stolen a Golden Buddha. But as was the case with “When the Full Moon Rises”, the real purpose of the movie is to set up one comic scene after another and to mock nationalist mythology, all of which involve a running sight gag—namely lead actor Lim Won-Hie’s baby face. It is rather like casting Lou Costello as James Bond.

3. Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2009)

This is a powerful study of a loan shark enforcer who despite his sadism and his misogyny emerges in the end as a sympathetic character, at least within the context of a society that accepts such behavior as normal.

Yang Ik-June, who directed, wrote and played the thuggish anti-hero Sang-Hoon, touches raw nerves in this his debut film. As a young boy, Sang-Hoon witnessed the killing of his mother by his father who has just been released from prison after 16 years.. This brutal act has done nothing except make Sang-Hoon eager to brutalize the rest of the world, including his father. In the very first scene, a man is beating his girlfriend on the street. Without a word, Sang-Hoon drags the man away and beats him to a bloody pulp. When he is finished, he begins slapping the woman around. Clearly, social improvement was not on his mind when he stepped in.

A day later he crosses path with a high school girl who calls him to order for spitting on the ground, a little too close to her feet. This prompts Sang-Hoon to punch her in the face. Yeon-Hee (Kim Gol-Bi) is no pushover and demands restitution from Sang-Hoon, who lives by his own warped code. Her insistence, however, impresses him and the two rapidly become companions even if much of their conversation consists of him calling her a cunt and her calling him a gangster scumbag.

Yeon-Hee developed her own callousness living with an abusive brother who aspires to be a gangster himself. As it turns out, he eventually lands a job as Sang-Hoon’s trainee and puts up with daily beatings for not being tough enough with the hapless souls from whom they extract repayment.

As is the case with the best Korean movies, the personal becomes the political. Sang-Hoon’s is the prototypical Korean male, even though his toughness is exaggerated for effect. Director/writer Yang Ik-June is really interested in diagnosing a deep-seated malaise through the film medium. Unlike “The Raging Bull”, which this film bears some resemblance to in its relentless brutality, this is more than just the portrait of an individual. In an interview with Twitch magazine, Yang tried to put the domestic violence that occurs throughout the film in a broader context:

As for domestic violence, the ones who commit that are always the fathers, as you can see in the movie. And there is a reason for that: in the past Korea was colonized very often, it was also invaded very often, so the economic situation in Korea was very hard, very difficult. And so the fathers, who were responsible for the family, they did not have an attitude of good behavior or love towards the family. What they were thinking was: “I need to earn money, so that my family can live good”. So there is a difference between that. Instead of love for the family they want to earn money. Because they are so obsessed with earning money they drag their family with violence towards that goal, instead of going there together. And that is where all that domestic violence comes from.

4. Equation of Love and Death (Li Mi de caixiang, China, 2008)

This movie should appeal to the audiences who go for the “coincidence” movies like “Amores Perros”, “Crash”, “Babel”, et al. As is the case in this genre that has gone viral in international film circles, the major characters bump into each other to life-altering effect. And as is the case with the rise of China economically, this particular film not only competes with the Western product but also exceeds them handsomely.

The main character is Zhou Xun, a young female cabdriver whose boyfriend disappeared years earlier and whose memory still haunts her. In the beginning of the movie, she runs into two poor and desperate peasants trying to make their way home. They are not above robbing her to pay for their airfare back to the rural village that they have not seen in practically as many years as she has been separated from her boyfriend.

In a scene that evokes the crashes in Paul Haggis’s dreadful movie “Crash”, Zhou Xun and the two desperados come together in a highway accident that sets the gears of the movie into motion.

What makes Equation of Love and Death far more interesting than its Hollywood counterparts is its relentless energy and brilliant acting. Of particular note is the performance of the two captors played by Wang Baoqiang and Wang Hanyui, who effectively stand in for the hundreds of millions of farmers and temporary workers screwed over by the Chinese capitalist system. Wang Baoqiang might be familiar to those who have seen “Blind Shaft”, another Chinese movie about super-exploited workers in the coalfields. Wang Baoqiang plays a hapless peasant desperate for work that is victimized by a couple of con artists promising work. He is outstanding in both films.

5. Plastic City (Dangkou, Hong Kong, 2008)

This has a most unusual setting for a Hong Kong crime movie, namely São Paulo, Brazil. This joint Hong Kong-Brazil production tells the story of a crime boss involved in counterfeit goods trafficking, a far cry from the drugs or professional assassination angle these movies rely on so often. It is also a male bonding movie with the older crime boss Yuda (Anthony Wong) relying on a young and handsome Japanese man named Kirin (Joe Odagiri). Their relationship is like father and son, but has homoerotic overtones as well.

Yuda and Kirin have rivals in the counterfeit goods business, as might be expected. They are also pressured and extorted simultaneously by crooked cops. Although I expected the movie to unfold according to the conventions of Hong Kong crime movies, it took on the character of a magical realist novel before long including a confrontation with an albino tiger in the rainforest.

6. Ip Man (Hong Kong, 2008)

An “old school” martial arts movie based loosely (very) on the life of  Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee in Kung Fu. As might be expected, the movie involves one choreographed fight scene between Ip Man (Donny Yen) and the bad guys after another. In keeping with the proud traditions of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, the fighting is pretty close to the real thing.

As it happens, the bad guys are Japanese soldiers who are occupying China during WWII. The movie makes no attempt to render them as complex characters and they serve mainly as punching bags for Ip Man, who seems capable of ridding China of its occupiers all on his own.

If you are looking for shaded characterization and subtle dialog, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for the exciting, kinetic action that put Hong Kong cinema on the map, this is a must-see.

7. Warlords (Tau ming chong, Hong Kong, 2007)

This is a historical drama based loosely (very, once again) on the Taiping Rebellion with superstars Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the leading roles. As the movie begins, General Pang Qingyun (Jet Li) finds himself the sole and bloodied survivor of a battle between the Taiping rebels (who had been led by a man claiming to be related to Jesus Christ) and the Qing army that Pang served in.

After being nursed to health by Lian (Jinglei Xu), a peasant girl that he becomes intimate with, Pang moves on to a nearby village where he tries to blend in with the local population that is being victimized by a bandit gang led by Zhao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Drawing upon his tested combat skills, Pang confronts Er-Hu and spares his life just when he has his sword at the bandit’s throat. Impressed with Pang’s prowess, Er-Hu invites him to join his gang. In no time at all, Pang becomes co-equal with the two bandit leaders as the three embark on a series of confrontations with the imperial army.

Showing his strategic acumen, Pang suggest to his two comrades that they enter the imperial army as a group so they can get their hands on rifles, which were essential to further success. In those days, soldiers were often rewarded with spoils of a vanquished city rather than wages so being properly equipped was a sine qua non.

As the three warlords become ever more powerful, Pang succumbs to hubris and begins to identify more and more with the royal family. When it becomes necessary to slaughter 4000 soldiers who have surrendered, Pang does not hesitate. This act of cruelty costs him the friendship of Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang who had long given up their bandit ways under Pang’s guidance. When they remind him of how he has forsaken his principles, he replies that the ends justify the means which for him is defeating the enemies of the throne.

Although the movie is first-rate entertainment, I was disappointed in its utter lack of interest in the historical context and which even the usually sagacious Subway Cinema, the organizers of the film festival, refer to as “an insane putsch led by a warlord claiming to be Jesus’ younger brother and it resulted in 20 million deaths.”

Despite the strange religious beliefs of the top Taiping rebel, farmlands under his control were seized from the feudal overlords and distributed to the peasants. He also banned foot binding and declared equality of the sexes. It also sought to eliminate class distinctions and in so doing was hailed by Mao Zedung as a forerunner to the revolution he led.

One of these days, a movie might be made that is sympathetic to the Taiping rebellion (if one has not been made already.) Now that’s one I’d pay good money for!

June 12, 2009

2009 New York Asian Film Festival

Filed under: Asia,Film — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Last week I mentioned to my wife that very few things keep me committed to the hedge fund manager’s playground that Manhattan has become other than the ethnic restaurants we love exploring and the film festivals that feature the offbeat and the interesting. Despite being a film enthusiast, I have only stepped foot in a neighborhood theater once this year and that was to see Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” (not recommended).

But when I received word a couple of months ago that the yearly New York Asian Film Festival was scheduled to open on June 19th, I felt like a tot awaiting a visit from Santa. I have been covering this festival as a NYFCO critic since it began and it has afforded me some of my greatest film experiences over the past decade.

As you might expect, the festival includes low culture as well as high. To be more exact, the low culture martial arts/gangster movies that Hong Kong pioneered incorporate many high culture aspects, incorporating innovative film techniques and penetrating looks at an Asian society where cops and gangsters often play interchangeable roles.  For those who want a Marxist analysis of this genre, I strongly recommend “City on Fire”, a Verso book written by my friends Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes which can be read online here.

Additionally, the festival screens movies that represent serious efforts to examine the human condition and that are clearly influenced by classic traditions in film going back to Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, not to speak of great American and European film.

Last night I attended a pre-festival screening for “High Noon”, a movie made in Hong Kong last year by a 24-year-old director named Mak Hei-yan who spoke during a q&a session. Mak’s movie utilized a screenplay about teenage angst and rebellion written by Tom Lin that also figured in companion movies made in Taiwan and Mainland China.  Each director took liberties with the script to capture the local conditions where the movie was made. Mak’s movie captures the febrile energy of Hong Kong where at least some young people from the lower classes apparently remain immune to its dubious charms. If her title “High Noon” evokes the 1952 western classic about a sheriff discovering himself under the crucible of an outlaw threat, then the plot and style of “Rebel Without a Cause”, the 1955 movie about teenage angst.

Whether or not Ms. Mak has seen the James Dean vehicle, she has as acted as a medium for its message. Like the U.S. in the 1950s, today’s Hong Kong seems to have lost its moorings despite material abundance.

During the q&a, in response to my question about what social or economic conditions could be driving its youth to self-destructive behavior, Mak stated that they still have hope that friendship and love are possible despite all odds. For someone like me who was about the age of the characters in “High Noon” when “Rebel Without a Cause” was popular, I felt that this dialog between James Dean and his love interest would have fit in with her film:

Judy: I love somebody. All the time I’ve been… I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody. And it’s so easy. Why is it easy now?

Jim Stark: I don’t know; it is for me, too.

Judy: I love you, Jim. I really mean it.

Jim Stark: Well, I’m glad.

The travails of Mak’s characters are not that different from those that afflict characters in American flicks, including drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and mindless gang violence. But it is what she does with these problems that set her apart from her peers in the West, including the feckless producers of “Juno”, a movie about teen pregnancy that treats it like a lark. Additionally, a key plot element involves one of her male protagonists uploading a video showing him having sex with his girlfriend that eventually becomes viral—to shattering consequences. All of these problems are treated without kid gloves and to greater dramatic impact than what we have become accustomed to from Hollywood.

Beyond her ability to treat the inner lives of her characters with a depth and maturity that belies her own youth, Mak has a flair for the dramatic visual statement that is the mark of a real genius with a camera. In one scene, one of her seven male students and a ketamine addict (a drug originally used by veterinarians but has emerged as a drug of choice at raves) tries to shut himself inside his mother’s vinyl suitcase, a gesture evoking a desire to go back into the womb in some ways. When he proves too large, he begins jumping up and down on it instead. This mad behavior serves to describe his psyche much more dramatically than the words of a social worker or priest, the customary Greek chorus in Hollywood teen angst movies.

“High Noon” will be shown again at the film festival. I can only urge New Yorkers to bend every effort to see as many of these movies as they can since they are unique opportunities to get a bird’s eye view of Asian society as well as superb entertainment. Scheduling information is here.

High Noon trailer

Interview with the director

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