Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang interviewed

The contradictions of contemporary China are on display in Up the Yangtze (Zeitgeist Films)

At once overwhelming and outrageous, the documentary Up the Yangtze charts the excursion of a cruise ship filled with wealthy, non-Asian sightseers who are making a “farewell tour,” along the banks of cities being flooded by Three Gorges Dam. (For most of these passengers, this “farewell” marks their first experience in China.) The movie, however, spends as much time below deck as above, getting to know the Chinese youth employed by the cruise line as dishwashers and wait staff. Yung Chang, the 30-year-old Montreal-based filmmaker, who went on the cruise in 2002, saw a parallel to the ship’s class divide in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, another story of the working poor literally under the feet of the rich.

Chang’s movie (his debut feature) “began as a statement on tourists,” but “very quickly became something bigger than that. It had to go beyond the guardrails of this Disneyland cruise trip.” Specifically, Up the Yangtze goes on shore for an unsparing—one could even argue invasive—look at a family living in dire poverty near the river’s edge. The father is a laborer who can’t read or write. His daughter, Yu Shui, reluctantly goes to work on the cruise ship to help with her parents’ relocation expenses. Along with so many millions of others, the advent of rising waters brought on by the dam will displace them. By the film’s end, a two-minute segment of time-lapse photography shows the gradual, six-week submergence of the hut they lived in. Farmland of dense foliage turns into islands, until only water remains. And the ship sails on.

Continue reading at Northwest Asian Weekly.


The Ang Lee Session: Some notes on the making of Lust, Caution

This article was originally published as “Ang Lee, Outsider” in the October 13, 2007, issue of Northwest Asian Weekly. Reprinted by permission.

On a gray October morning in downtown Seattle, Ang Lee and I met to talk about his new movie, Lust, Caution. Although the film unfurls against a major event in Chinese history, the occupation of Shanghai by Japanese forces in the early 1940s, Lee narrows his focus from the war at large to a boudoir battlefield. The combatants are Tony Leung, in a demonic turn, as a collaborationist dedicated to snuffing out resistance fighters; and superb newcomer Tang Wei, as an unsure of herself student actress who lands the role of a lifetime: spying for Chinese nationalists and bedding down with the enemy. Their sex scenes are explicit, the milieu around them fatalistic, slippery.

Lee, who’ll turn 53 later this month, told me that he keeps the Best Director Academy Award he won for Brokeback Mountain in the basement-level study of his New York home. While he acknowledges that, “It’s a big deal for Asians, winning an Oscar,” he adds, “You can never use that as a mark of artistic achievement. You shouldn’t, because it’s a popular vote.”

Continue reading “The Ang Lee Session: Some notes on the making of Lust, Caution

Robert Benton’s Portland Feast

Writing in The New Yorker in 1977, Pauline Kael called the director Robert Benton “a sensitive craftsman infatuated with a painted whore.” The movie in question was Benton’s homage to the 1940s private-eye genre, The Late Show, an excellent film but one noticeably absent either of paint or whores. I wonder, then, what Kael would have made of Benton’s newest—the filmed-in-Portland Feast of Love. In the three-time Academy Award-winner’s vision of our city, Portlanders kiss passionately in public, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any of my rounds; Mississippi District baristas shoot a porn film to snag a little rent money (are NoPo tippers really that bad?) and the camera feasts lovingly upon each one of the four young actresses—Alexa Davalos, Selma Blair, Stana Katic, and Radha Mitchell—as they bare all in the service of movie art.

I caught up with Benton a few times over the summer, and for a man who’ll turn 75 on September 29 (the day after Feast of Love opens nationwide) he can be surprisingly tough to catch. Once in Benton’s company, however, his generosity becomes instantly apparent: He’s quick to praise the actors and cinematographers he’s worked with, often crediting his films’ innovations almost entirely to his collaborators. The critic Sheila Benson has said that, “His decades of writing and directing have created the most lasting and most meaningful body of work about the American experience.” In looking back at Places in the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Bonnie & Clyde, I wouldn’t dispute the claim.

Continue reading at Willamette Week.

The Malcolm McDowell interview

Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time.

My introduction to the screen work of Malcolm McDowell came on a Halloween night in the late 1970s, the year I decided I was too grown-up for the childish maneuvers of trick-or-treating, and instead went to the mall and slipped into Time After Time. Although I may not have realized it then, the soul of the picture lies in the lunch date between McDowell’s H.G. Wells, who has traveled from London to America in his time machine, and Amy Robbins, a modern-day career woman faultlessly played by Mary Steenburgen. In a revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency, the spires and blue mists of San Francisco swirl behind McDowell, as he and Steenburgen glow at each other like a couple of school kids. “We knew it had to be magical for the film to work,” McDowell told me on a recent October morning, nearly a full three decades later. And magical it is: Anyone who has listened to Time After Time‘s DVD commentary track knows that McDowell told Steenburgen he loved her prior to shooting the scene. The fluster that she exudes isn’t acting; it’s real. H.G. Wells tries to impress Amy by telling her he’s just published a series of articles on “free love.” When she bursts his bubble (“I haven’t heard the term ‘free love’ since eighth-grade”) his prowess turns momentarily to embarrassment. Hardly a few frames flicker past, however, and the McDowell/Wells goofy grin exultantly returns—he’s smitten (as was I).

Not to resort to Kael-like exaggeration, I can’t help but consider their exchange to be one of the most teasingly playful, emotionally satisfying comic romantic scenes that we have on film. It’s also beautiful for this reason: There isn’t anything else like it in the long line of McDowell’s career.

At age 63, he’s one of the few living links to a host of great British actors who are now gone: Gielgud, Olivier, James Mason, Alan Bates, Rachel Roberts. And while McDowell’s name is seemingly inseparable from Stanley Kubrick’s, it’s with the director Lindsay Anderson that McDowell forged a deeper, more lasting connection.

Anderson came to making movies by having first been a film critic. Several of his razor-sharp appraisals are gathered in Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, including “Stand Up! Stand Up!” the essay in which he chided critics who ignored the moral dimensions of the films they reviewed as “indulging in a voluntary self-emasculation.” To his fellow critics who objected to certain kinds of subject matter, Anderson lobbed this grenade: “There is another kind of philistinism, timorous rather than pugnacious, which shrinks from art because art presents a challenge. This can be an even more insidious enemy, because it often disguises itself with the apparatus of culture, professing the very values it is in the act of destroying.” (We are undoubtedly in a new era of timorous philistinism. Anderson’s diagnosis fits today’s alternative press like a glove.)

Continue reading at Slant.

Going Through Splat with screenwriter Stewart Stern

Topanga Canyon house party: Marlon Brando, Bea Lillie, and Stewart Stern cool one in Going Through Splat

Stewart Stern—it seems to go almost without saying—is best known for writing the screenplay to the seminal American classic, Rebel Without a Cause. This iconic film has overshadowed the rest of his cinematic output, which included collaborations with Fred Zinnemann, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando, among others, as well as the 1976 TV-miniseries Sybil, for which he won an Emmy.

“He gets tired of talking about Rebel,” filmmaker Jon Ward told me. And Jon should know: he produced and directed Going Through Splat, shooting hours of interview footage with the now 84-year old Stewart that covers the writer’s life-or-death ordeal as an infantry leader at the Battle of the Bulge; his clashes with Nicholas Ray over Rebel re-writes; the early loss of James Dean; and the slow descent into writer’s block that effectively ended Stewart’s screenwriting career.

Determined not to be one of those reporters who can’t see past Rebel Without a Cause, I arrived at Stewart’s house armed with questions about his scripts for Rachel, Rachel and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. Continue reading Going Through Splat with screenwriter Stewart Stern”

Ellie Parker


The first time I saw Scott Coffey’s Ellie Parker, back in June at the Seattle International Film Festival, I thought it was a “brilliantly observed and achingly funny satire.” In my review, written for the late, unlamented Tablet, I went on to say that the movie had made me laugh, “until my stomach actually hurt.” And something else happened during that first screening, something that ordinarily does not: I reached a point where I helplessly and involuntarily said out loud to the screen, “I love it!”

A second screening, a week and a half later, did not disappoint. I laughed just as much, if a tad less viscerally, and I noticed details that I’d missed before. The experience, if anything, was richer. Soon thereafter, Scott Coffey’s finely developed sense of the absurd was rewarded: Ellie Parker took home a Special Jury Prize from SIFF for Best New American Film.

Coffey wrote, directed, co-stars in, and co-produced the movie with his good friend and amazing leading lady Naomi Watts, who here displays tremendous range. Much of the movie’s pull comes from watching Watts, as Ellie, veer from comedy to drama, hearing her switch imperceptibly from Brooklynese to an Australian accent, and double back again, often within a single scene. As an aspiring actress who goes from audition to audition in LA, Watts creates all sorts of mini-characters within Ellie, and one of the exciting things about this picture is how convincingly Watts plays them all. Continue reading Ellie Parker

FROM THE FAVELAS TO NAIROBI: Fernando Meirelles and The Constant Gardener


Near the end of the closing credits to The Constant Gardener, the following dedication appears on screen: “to Yvette Pierpaoli and all other aid workers who lived and died giving a damn.” Pierpaoli, a friend of the novelist John le Carré, was working on behalf of Refugees International when she was killed in Albania in 1999. So moved by Pierpaoli’s rigorous commitment to helping the poor obtain food, money, and shelter, le Carré took from her example several qualities in fashioning Tessa Quayle, the martyred heroine of his 2001 novel. The setting becomes Kenya, and Tessa, an idealistic young Englishwoman devoted to improving healthcare for impoverished Africans, gets in the way of a pharmaceutical company that brandishes the Orwellian-sounding motto, “The world is our clinic.”

Continue reading “FROM THE FAVELAS TO NAIROBI: Fernando Meirelles and The Constant Gardener