Try to remember the kind of September…

My few weeks of hiatus from the Pond led me to the bustling city of Toronto. Just the second weekend of September there were over 80 events planned across the city: festivals, concerts, food fares, cultural celebrations… In the downtown core, road closures, frenzy and chaos. The main attraction with international focus of course is the Toronto International Film Festival. Since this is the first in person TIFF after two years of Covid measures, I chose to avoid the huge gatherings and stay closer to nature, far from the madding crowd… I’ll have to wait to watch the selections hopefully later in the year.

Then came the sad news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years on the throne, the longest reigning British monarch and the longest female sovereign in history. Politics aside, being born and raised during my formative years in the former British colony of Hong Kong, I much appreciate the freedom to grow up in an environment where East meets West, unlike what Kipling had surmised.

I studied both classical Chinese as well as English literature in school, donning a uniform in cheongsam (do google it if you’re not sure what it is) but wore bell bottom pants when out; grew up watching numerous kung fu movies while following closely all James Bond flicks; savoured home cooked Chinese meals as well as those from international sources; yes, and love the fusion of Hong Kong style western cuisine, street foods and snacks. A prime example is Hong Kong style milk tea with condensed milk, best to pair with a pineapple bun with a piece of ice cold butter in the middle, oh, and egg tarts.

Pineapple bun with butter, egg tarts at back.

Looking back, it was a period when I was free to explore different world views and thinking. I still remember following a classmate to a secondhand bookstore in an obscure alley after school, looking up books on psychology and philosophy; or one time, catching another classmate secretly reading her own book held under her desk during class. When I asked her later out of curiosity what she was reading, no, it wasn’t a comic book or a teen magazine, but Somerset Maugham’s short stories. That was my intro to the wonderful writer.

My nanny loved Chinese operas. She was a versatile, middle age woman who lived in our home and acted almost as my substitute mother. She read Dream of the Red Chamber at night before she slept, daytime too busy for her. I grew up reading Chinese translations of world literature for children and some Enid Blyton, while also saved up enough pocket money to buy my Mad Magazine. I learned to play the piano and listened to The Beatles and The Monkees. The first LP album in our home was My Fair Lady.

What do all these memories have to do with the Queen? For me, it was a period of growing up experiencing both East and West in a British colony that didn’t require its citizens to sing “God Save the Queen,” or demand The Union Jack be hoisted in schools. I’d enjoyed the freedom to explore despite a rigid home environment. If I were to write a memoir some day, it would likely be in the theme of a growing up where East meets West, where the fusion of the two is exciting and appealing, and where opportunities are plentiful, and I was free to live life in an interesting, borderless fusion of cultures.

So, it was the end of an era when the Queen passed. Now the world seems to have grown polarized, tempers flare when people of opposite views confront, and where the ominous observation by Kipling is becoming all the more acute as autocracy begins to prevail.

As I was wandering the lakeshore in Toronto, I caught sight of some lively monarch butterflies. It was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting seeing them in such an urban environ. From one Monarch to another, may these monarchs be free and lively as they migrate thousands of miles south, following the instinct endowed by their Creator’s design.

From one Monarch to another:


Asian Heritage Month Reading List

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) in the US. At the beginning of May I posted a Movie List. Here’s a Reading List to wrap.

There are more than 400 writers, authors, and poets of AAPI heritage in North America listed on Wikipedia. I’ve only read a handful. So, glad to say I’ve many more to explore. Here’s a list of authors and their works that I’ve read in recent years, all with their own style and story to tell. Links are to my reviews on Ripple Effects or Asian American Press.

Ted Chiang – Hugo and Nebula Award winner

Arrival, previously published as Stories of Your Life, is a novella compiled into a short story collection. Chiang’s style is gentle and cerebral, melding together the humanity, psychology, and the transcendence with concepts of science. The New Yorker describes his writing as ‘soulful’. A worthy film adaptation came out in 2016 garnering 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture the following year.

Nicole Chung – Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography

Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is a bold and candid memoir. Born in Seattle but due to extreme health issues and family situation, her Korean parents put her up for adoption. Chung describes what it’s like to grow up in her white, adoptive parents’ Oregon home, and her urge to seek for her roots. The book details her search for her biological parents. What’s poignant isn’t the search but the results.

Mindy Kaling

While you might think of her as an actress, comedian, director, and producer, Kaling first started as a writer for the popular TV series The Office. Her personal essays are candid sharing of how a woman of Indian descent tried to find a place in a white man’s world of TV and movie production, and made it. Her audiobooks which she narrates––Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? and Why not Me?––are both revealing and highly entertaining.

Kevin Kwan

Don’t get misled by the title Crazy Rich Asians, for the heroine in Kwan’s trilogy isn’t rich, or crazy, and her love though rich, isn’t crazy either. Yes, blame it all on the family then. The not-as-popular newest title Sex and Vanity is my favourite just because I love E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation. This one from Kwan is screen ready… and don’t get misled by the title either.

Celeste Ng

Her debut novel Everything I Never Told You describes what it’s like growing up in a mixed race family, a gem of a book. Ng’s subsequent novel, Little Fires Everywhere is a more fledged out story about the intricacies of parent child relationships in the backdrop of a larger community of mixed races. It’s been turned into a TV mini-series. For this one, I’d enjoyed the book more.

Jhumpa Lahiri – Pulitzer Prize winner

I like many of Lahiri’s works describing Indian immigrants in Northeastern US, especially her short stories, from her debut work, the Pulitzer winning Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake, and her later short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. She had moved to Italy since 2011 and started to learn Italian and writing in her newly adopted language. Another unaccustomed earth to inspire new stories.

Jessica J. Lee – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 winner

Born in Canada to a mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee is a unique voice in environmental writing today. Her debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water describes her venture of swimming in 52 lakes in Germany in one year. Her next book, Two Trees Make A Forest chronicles her grandparents’ journey leaving China to settle in Taiwan after WWII and her own search for her roots on that island via its natural landscape.

Mark Sakamoto – Canada Reads 2018 winner

Forgiveness tells the coming together of two families, one a white Canadian family whose father was a former POW in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, and the other a Japanese Canadian family who had to be sent away to an internment camp while living in Canada during the same time. The marriage of their children bring them together. A very unique story, albeit the writing style and structure may not be as gratifying.

Souvankham Thammavongsa – 2020 Giller Prize winner

Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Canada with her family when she was a young child, Thammavongsa has come a long way from learning English to winning the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize with her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. There are trade-offs involved while gaining a new life. Clarity of insights and poignancy mark her stories as she creates with her adopted language on the page.

Madeleine Thien – Giller and Governor’s General winne

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. It details the horrendous experiences of several classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and the aftermath. Thien’s novel is an epic of a historical fiction set in both China and Canada spanning decades, and a poignant reminder that we should never forget history so not to repeat it, a crucial lesson much needed today.


Asian Heritage Month Movie List

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In Canada, it’s Asian Heritage Month. Asia is the largest continent in the world, encompassing countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. As this event is celebrated in North America, the term refers to North Americans born or naturalized and living in the US and Canada with ancestral heritage from these countries. Interestingly, I find this Good Housekeeping site highly informative regarding the AAPI references.

There are many movies made by filmmakers of this demographics in North America. The following are some worthy titles, each has its unique way of leaving a mark. Links are to my reviews on Asian American Press or Ripple Effects.

I’m presenting my list in chronological order to highlight the historical development.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Movie poster from 1993

The first studio film with a mostly Asian American cast flying into the ‘mainstream’ radar. Adapted from Amy Tan’s debut novel, it tells the stories of multigenerational Chinese immigrant families in America. The breakout film of director Wayne Wang, who at that time had been making movies for over 10 years. Unfortunately, it would take twenty-five more years for another feature of the kind to come out.

Water (2005)

India born Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s final work in the Elements Trilogy, Water was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film representing Canada in 2007. The heart-wrenching plight of a little Indian girl is told with beautiful cinematography. A ‘Foreign Language Film’ from Canada? Yes, just shows the multiplicity of our identity and the blurring definition of the word ‘foreign.’ This Oscar category was renamed Best International Feature Film in 2020.

The Namesake (2006)

Here’s a prime example of the multiplicity of identity. A film adaptation by the acclaimed Indian-American director Mira Nair. The Namesake (2003) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the London born American Pulitzer winning writer of Indian descent, who now resides in Italy and writing in her adopted language, Italian. The story depicts a colourful and conflicting journey of the America born second generation visiting their parents’ homeland.

Life of Pi (2012)

This adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel was the winner of Oscar Best Picture in 2013 and with it, Taiwanese American Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing. Stunning CGI visuals transfer Martel’s magical realism onto the big screen to tell the story of a 16 year-old youth adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Opportune time and place to explore existential issues. Both book and film are worthy of the accolades they had garnered.

The Big Sick (2017)

The real-life, mixed-race marriage of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his therapist wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote this screenplay about a mixed-race courtship between a Pakistani American comedian and his love interest, a white young woman played by Zoe Kazan, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. An entertaining depiction of cultural clash and final resolution.

Columbus (2017)

A quiet, visual depiction of the interplay between modern architecture, human relationships, and the existential search for meaning and connection. A most unusual subject matter aesthetically handled by Korean American director Kogonada. John Cho breaks away from the type cast as Sulu in Star Trek to prove himself worthy as a character actor of quality.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

The new trend Asian American filmmakers and talents hope to see, twenty-five years after The Joy Luck Club. Director Jon M. Chu turns Kevin Kwan’s breakout novel into a blockbuster hit, catapulting Asian American talents to mainstream fame: Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Henry Golding (ok, so he’s a British Chinese), Gemma Chan (she too), with the full support of international star Michelle Yeoh (the first Asian Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.)

Free Solo (2018)

Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captured the stunning climb made by Alex Honnold up the 3,000 feet vertical wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with only his bare hands and feet, solo and free from ropes and safety gears. Chin is himself a renown mountain climbing legend and photographer, having mounted Meru Peak in the Himalayas, as well as Everest several times. Oscar winner of Best Documentary Feature in 2019.

Driveways (2019)

Korean American director Andrew Ahn tells the story of an ageing Korean war veteran’s friendship with a shy 8-year-old boy (Lucas Jaye) who shows up with his single mom (Hong Chau) next door. A quiet and poignant portrayal of friendship that crosses the borders of age and race. One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his death in 2020 at age 81. A nominee for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.

Late Night (2019)

Daughter of Indian immigrants, Mindy Kaling has made a name for herself with her versatility as a comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director. Late Night is her own story, parallel with her career starting out in The Office as a writer and actor. Here, a girl of Indian ethnicity enters into a late night TV show as a writer, serving the very demanding host Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, a Canadian American of Indian descent. A delightful film.

The Farewell (2019)

Chinese American director Lulu Wang shares her own family experience boldly in this semi-autobiographical film. The cultural perspectives of how to deal with a family member with terminal illness could be totally opposite. Instead of a judgemental tone, the film uses an artistic styling and humour to tell a very personal story. Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Motion Picture for her fine performance.

Minari (2020)

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

The trend continues. With six Oscar nominations this year and one win by South Korean veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung who plays the eccentric grandma of the family. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is an autobiographical drama of Chung’s childhood growing up in an Arkansas farm operated by his immigrant father from South Korea. Gentle and slow-paced storytelling with a powerful punch.


38th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF)

The Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul will be presenting the 38th annual MSPIFF April 4 – 20. Every year, MSPIFF showcases more than 250 film works of various forms coming from as many as 70 countries.

On their ‘About’ page, the MSP Society states:

“We promote the art of film as a medium that fosters cross-cultural understanding, education, entertainment, and exploration.”

The more I watch films from international film festivals, the more I appreciate this  statement. It’s unfortunate that nowadays the term ‘foreign’ carries an unfavorable stigma. This I’ve found from watching foreign films: listening to languages I don’t know means I need to adapt to reading subtitles, which in itself is a conscious act of trying to understand. Just that simple act of attempting to listen is of value. Of course, many works are from English-speaking countries, so it’s not all strenuous workout all the time. I can’t think of a better way to be transported to another place and time by a story, as my empathy is honed (subliminally) while I sit back and munch on popcorn.

Back to MSPIFF. Here are a few selections from the various programs with my succinct, capsule review:

The Accountant of Auschwitz by Matthew Shoychet (World Cinema Program)

‘The Accountant of Auschwitz’ Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

Canadian director Shoychet sets up an informative background leading to the trial and sentencing of German SS Officer Oskar Gröning, the man who tallied all the properties confiscated from the prisoners as they entered the Auschwitz death camp. Holocaust survivors recall their experiences, seeking justice and closure. However, bringing those responsible to account for the atrocity remains an elusive task. Only 49 Third Reich officials out of 6,500 had been brought to trial. Many got away with just 3 years in prison during the post-war period. Currently, time is running out for the victims. Major obstacles for the prosecution: the old age of those accused, continued evasion, and proof of complicity. Shoychet’s documentary is a poignant reminder that a tragic chapter in human history still remains unresolved.


An Elephant Sitting Still by Hu Bo (Asian Frontiers Program)

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ Cast. Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

The 230-minute feature is an incisive depiction of the human desolation in an unnamed, northern Chinese city. Director Hu Bo’s cinematic capture of the inner void of his characters is intense and nuanced. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is alluded to, that piece of cracked soil deep in the human soul. Hu’s tracking shots place viewers in the midst of relational conflicts, from bored high school students to aimless adults to the despondent elderly. Random strangers somehow connected casually in Hu’s astute screenplay. And the elephant among their midst remains invisible, sitting as a metaphor for the resignation of life as well as a fantasy of hope. This debut feature sadly speaks as a last testament of a lost talent: Hu took his own life during post-production of the film. He was 29.

The Third Wife by Ash Mayfair (Women & Film Program)

the-third-wife_gallery-2 (2)
‘The Third Wife’ Photo courtesy of MSPIFF

Inspired by true events in 19th century Vietnam, 14 year-old May is married into a rich landowner family. She is the third wife of the patriarch’s son. Her sole purpose is to produce a male descendent for him, as the first two wives have only daughters. A film with minimal dialogues, The Third Wife is a visual story. Its aesthetics and sensual, dream-like sequences wrap a harsh reality: the plight of women in a patriarchal society. Mayfair was born and raised in Vietnam, an Oxford and NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate. This her debut feature is a quiet and potent voice in the #MeToo awakening.


For the full program of the 38th MSPIFF, CLICK HERE to their website.





‘Roma’ and the Power of Childhood Memories

This awards season, a black-and-white film stands out. Many have noted its cinematography and director Alfonso Cuarón’s versatility, from his multiple Oscar-winning space drifting Gravity (2013) and adaptation of P. D. James’s dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) to the current Roma, a semi-autobiographical work. Surely I agree to all these, but it’s the personal resonance that the film evokes that makes it so memorable for me.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

I first saw Roma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. The large screen effects are enfolding. Cinematography is thoughtful and the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound mixing–especially the climatic ocean scene towards the end of the film–was totally engulfing, as if I was alone in the raging sea, despite sitting in a fully packed theatre.

Watching it again this time on my laptop streaming from Netflix is another experience. The intimacy and allowance for repeat viewing and listening to specific dialogues (re-reading the subtitles) are the obvious benefits. Especially with our local theatres not screening the film, the streaming service has a definite role to play in bringing the worthy feature to more viewers. Certainly if Roma plays in your local theatre, do watch it on the big screen as the production was meant to be seen.

What’s most moving is the director’s gentle rendering of his maid and nanny Cleo (first-time performance by Yalitza Aparicio) in his childhood home in Roma, an upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico during the years 1970-71. Cuarón juxtaposes Cleo’s personal ordeal with the political backdrop of the time, and weaving an unassuming life of a maid with episodes of an earthquake, a fire and a threatening ocean climatic scene. Other than these, the everyday work of a maid are deceptively mundane, for underlying are the emotive elements of human relationships.

Cleo is an essential member of the household, cleaning, cooking, serving, and taking care of the four children and their parents. She’s the one who puts the younger ones to bed and wakes them up in the morning. From the nuanced, naturalistic framing and some deeply affective moments, Roma is an ode to those who care for children not just out of duty but genuine love.

The reciprocal sentiments from the children, mom Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandma Teresa (Verónica García) make the glue that hold the family together at a critical time when the father (Fernando Grediaga) disappears, supposedly on an academic trip to Quebec but coincidentally is seen on the street with another woman. Here the role played by Cleo, a maid, is delicate and precarious. “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone,” wife Sofia says to Cleo one night returning home by herself half drunk. Cleo shares her pain.

The film belongs to Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo with unadorned naturalness. Before this first time acting, she was a preschool teacher. This could well explain her instinctive fondness for the children under her care in the film. Cleo has her personal sad experience with a young man with a different agenda, and it is the family and the children that rekindle her zeal after a personal tragedy, a remarkable exchange of mutual support and kindness.

As the cinematographer himself, Cuarón’s planning of shots is meticulous and masterful. The camera captivates from the opening credits. We see the close-up frame of what looks like clay tiles of the ground, yes, they are, as water is splashed on them and sounds of sweeping and cleaning are heard. As the story unfolds we learn that it is Cleo cleaning dog wastes in the family porch. But don’t lose sight of this seemingly mundane scene. Once water is splashed on the flat, dirty tiles they reflect an open sky above with an airplane flying across from afar. That is the exact ending shot of the film. From waste-filled clay tiles on the ground to the open sky, water is the agent of reflection, a cleansing element, and towards the end, water marks a confirming love and new zest for life.

Last week, I made a long distance phone call to the maid and nanny of my family when I was growing up in Hong Kong. She is 97 years old now and living on her own, still goes to the market to buy fresh ingredients to cook for herself. I was able to chat with her and send well wishes. Childhood memories are powerful markers of identity and experiences; thanks to Roma for evoking such while one is unaware, as it works magic in creating new imagery to sustain them.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



‘Claire’s Camera’ is a Whimsical Look at Communication

A Korean director shooting a film while attending the Cannes Film Festival, with two prominent Korean and French actors in his cast, taking just days in shooting to make what seems like a spontaneous gig had resulted in this whimsical 69-minute dramedy. Looks like something only the prolific, Cannes-honored director Hong Sangsoo can pull off. The versatile Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, Elle) in one of her interviews said it took her only five days to do Claire’s Camera with Hong, with no script, except a daily run-through of the day’s story and lines.

Kim Minhee and Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sangsoo’s Claire’s Camera. Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild.

This is Huppert’s second time collaborating with Hong. The parallels in Claire’s Camera with real life are the very elements that lends to the film’s subtle humour. Claire (Huppert) is a school teacher from Paris visiting Cannes for the first time, accompanying a friend to the Film Festival. While wandering alone in this seaside resort taking pictures with her camera, Claire bumps into a triangle entanglement: a Korean director So (Jung Jinyoung), his film’s sales rep Yanghye (Chang Mihee) who has more than just a business relationship with So, and separately, her sales assistant Manhee (played by Hong’s muse Kim Minhee, On the Beach at Night Alone), whom she fires as she finds out Manhee’s one-night stand with the director.

Claire makes fast friends with Manhee after they meet on the beach. Here we see two actors from different countries using English to communicate, a language that’s not their own mother tongue. The verbal limitations may be a bother for some watching the film, but apparently not a hindrance for the two of them striking up an instant, equal friendship. They seem to know what the other is trying to say, and they care to ask each other questions, some quite personal, in order to know the other more.

Contrast that to a conversation where Manhee has with her boss Yanghye over coffee when she gets the message that she’s fired. They share the same Korean language, yet their interlocution is marked by unspoken sentiments and the boss’s minimal attempt to make it a two-way flow. Here’s a realistic depiction of a lopsided communication, one that’s not exclusive to the Korean culture. Those in authority hold the key to conversations.

In another scene, the lack of communication is what makes the naturalistic, deadpan humor work. When Claire first meets director So, the two are sitting at adjacent tables outside a café. As conversation begins, So asks Claire if he can sit with her at her table. She agrees and he stands up and moves to sit by her. But then the two have nothing more to say to each other, maybe due to language limitations. Claire then goes on to Google him on her phone to find out more about this director who’s sitting beside her. One has to take this as a comedic scene to appreciate the irony.

Jung Jinyoung and Isabelle Huppert in Claire’s Camera. Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild. 

The film is breezy and leisurely as the Cannes seaside, refreshing as the yellow jacket Claire is wearing; incidentally, her ‘costume’ is the actual wardrobe Huppert had brought when she was attending Cannes at that time. The setting is scenic and pleasant, whether it’s the pounding waves or the small lanes winding along cafes. No, we don’t get to see the red carpet or any of the glamour of the Cannes Film Festival, but we’re led into the side streets of storytelling.

The pitfall for those not familiar with Hong’s eccentric style could be the naturalistic, seemingly unscripted demeanours of his actors and their haphazard dialogues, and in this case especially sound laboured when characters try to interact with each other in a foreign language. And speaking of communication, the usual hard-drinking of his characters—director So here—could well be a language of expression in itself.

As for the camera Claire is always carrying, one would wish Hong could have used that a bit more, cinematically and imbued with deeper meaning. Hers is a Polaroid, so the image appears slowly on a hard copy. But we don’t get to see this effect or be led to any deeper relevance. However, in one notable dialogue towards the end when Manhee finally asks Claire a question that must have been on her mind all along, we finally hear something revealing:

Manhee: Why do you take pictures?

Claire: Because the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.

Manhee: That sounds very nice.

The unfinished part seems to be, “but do we do it?”

Considering Hong Sangsoo’s signature style of repeating his film sequences in a movie like we’re watching it all over again but towards different results, Claire’s words could be more layered than they appear, and the slow appearing of an image on the Polaroid print could well be a mirroring for reflection.

Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017, Claire’s Camera has since been playing in film festivals all over the world. Cinema Guild will be releasing the film on Blu-Ray and DVD beginning Nov. 6, 2018. For more details click here:

~ ~ ~ Ripples 


Related Reviews:

Let Things to Come be a Cooling Respite 

Art Imitates Life in Hong Sang-soo’s ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’

‘The Day After’ is a re-enactment Hong Sang-soo Style

It Takes an International Film Festival to Remind Us

It takes an International Film Festival to remind us that we live in a world with many countries and myriad of cultures, languages and experiences beyond our own. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) opens a window looking out towards such a diverse human kaleidoscope. (All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

TIFF on Festival Street

What better time than now for us to press on to connect and share when it seems the progress we had made in recent decades had been dismantled in no time. What better means than through the visceral medium of film art in exposing views, eliciting empathy, and inspiring minds. Films could well be the best avenue to reach out and understand, as well, to be understood.

TIFF is the largest public film festival in the world. Its top prize is judged by the audience. Named the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, the annual winner is often a predictor of the next Oscar Best Picture. Some past winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years A Slave.

Glamour aside, the variety of its film selections are examples of diversity and opened doors to places and issues that are foreign to many in the Western world. But then again, finding the gem of universality may just be the serendipitous reward.

This year, the number of films in TIFF’s various programs comes to about 342, representing 83 countries, from Algeria to Kazakhstan to Vietnam, just to go down the alphabetical list. These official selections are chosen from a total of 7,926 submissions, 6,846 from around the world, 1080 from Canada domestically. Among these three hundred some titles, over 80 languages are used. After watching half a dozen of the international entries, reading subtitles at the bottom and watching the whole screen at the same time will become a skill you’ll be happy to have acquired.

Share Her Journey

Further, the Share Her Journey Rally on Saturday, September 8, lends a voice to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, pressing for respect and equality for women on both sides of the camera. Attended by hundreds and led by actress Geena Davis among other distinguished guests, the Rally represents a united front to shatter the glass ceiling in the film industry. This year at TIFF, 35% of films are by women filmmakers, a statistic that TIFF is aiming at improving.

During the first few days kicking off the Festival, King Street West was closed for a few blocks for pedestrians to enjoy the fun, food, and free samplings. Here are some sights on Festival Street.

Fusion food is the best sign of diversity. Check these menus out:

Food Truck Menu where East meets West


Or, be transported to Paris just for a dream trip:

On Festival Street

and stop for a latté and croissant at Bistro Air France, if you don’t mind waiting:

Bistro Air France

To many, the fun part of TIFF is waiting. Many wait for hours to get just one glimpse of their favourite stars to arrive at a red carpet, there are several in different venues in downtown Toronto:

Star Gazing

Here’s another one, also waiting for their faves:

Still Waiting


(All photos in this post are by Diana Cheng, Sept. 2018)

In the days ahead, my list of film reviews on both Asian American Press and Ripple Effects will include (director’s name after title):

Burning, Lee Chang-dong, S. Korea, N. American Premiere
Capernaum, Nadine Nabaki, Lebanon, N. American Premiere
Hotel Mumbai, Anthony Maras, Australia, World Premiere
Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg, Belgium, Luxembourg, World Premiere
Maya, Mia Hansen-Løve, France, World Premiere
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón, Medico, Canadian Premiere
Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, Canadian Premiere
Shadow, Zhang Yimou, China, N. American Premiere
The Wild Pear Tree, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, France, Germany, Bulgaria, North American Premiere
Wildlife, Paul Dano, U.S.A., Canadian Premiere

Just to name a few. More reviews coming up. Check out the details of the programs from



100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century

The editors of BBC Culture had commissioned film critics all over the world to arrive at this list, polling “every continent except Antarctica.”  They received responses from 177 film critics. The list was published yesterday.

Sounds like a formidable task, albeit in actuality, the critics only had to look at 17 years of cinematic works (including the year 2000). Nevertheless, the titles are self evident of the positive effects of globalization, for the critics’ choices are markedly diverse.

You can check out the whole list here. I’ll just excerpt the top 50. Here, you can find directors from Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, North America, South America. What a fantastic representation. I’ve no apology for using the #2 film image here instead of the top one; with Wong Kar-wai’s “In The Mood for Love”, I’m totally partial and very glad it reached this spot.


No matter how you look at it, don’t get blown away by blockbuster mega productions. The independent cinema still remains the imaginary window to look into ourselves as well as out to the world, expanding our point of view with old tales to current issues.

50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015)
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Which ones have you seen? What do you think of the list? Mulholland Drive #1? You might ask.


Click on the link in the title to read Arti’s review.

November Wrap: East Meets West at the Pond

November is an eclectic month of reading and viewing for me. I’ve watched films ranging from a Chinese wuxia legend from the Tang Dynasty, to the English suffrage movement, to the scandal in the Catholic Church in Boston… and read books from crime thrillers to Westerns to the Gilded Age to India before and after independence.

Arti is a hybrid after all, constantly navigating between cultures and languages. When it comes to books and films, dashing between genres, periods and styles only adds spice to life.

Here’s the list of my November books and films.


The Assassin

The Assassin

Acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s genre-defying wuxia epic earned him Best Director at Cannes this May. Hailed as the most beautiful film at the Festival, this adaptation of a 9th century Tang Dynasty Chinese legend may not be as easily grasped in terms of its storyline as its visual appeal. The film is recently voted #1 on the reputable Sight and Sound Magazine‘s Best Films of 2015 list, that’s the result of a poll gathering the views of 168 international film critics. It is a rare gem indeed. My full review at Asian American Press.  ~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

(BTW, Hou’s last film? The Musée d’Orsay commissioned French feature on the Museum’s 20th anniversary: Flight of the Red Balloon.)


A highly watchable adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 Booker Prize shortlisted novel. Kudos to the actors Brie Larson as Ma, Jacob Tremblay as 5 yr-old Jack, and yes, to Donoghue herself for writing the screenplay. One of those titles that I’ve enjoyed watching more than the literary source. My review on Ripple Effects.  ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Update Jan. 14, 2016: 4 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture


Carey Mulligan has put forth a nuanced performance as the laundry gal turned suffragette in this Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007) directed historical drama. It’s worthwhile to watch the informative depiction of the actual events woven with fictional personal stories, especially Mulligan’s riveting portrayal of Maud, how her beginning naivety is forged into committed devotion to the suffrage movement. Prolific screenwriter Abi Morgan (Irony Lady, 2011, just to name one of her works) has laid out a fact-based drama with a heart-wrenching climatic scene. The sacrifice these voiceless, working women were willing to lay down is inspiring.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Secret in their Eyes

The Hollywood re-make of Argentine author Eduardo Sacheri’s crime thriller is a tall order, for its previous film adaptation is the Oscar winner of 2009 Best Foreign Language Film. My post on the book, original film, and Hollywood version is here. ~ ~ ~ Ripples


One of the best films I’ve seen this year, detailing the sequences of how the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team of investigative journalists uncovered the systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse among Catholic priests. The Pulitzer winning reporting is presented in the film as painstaking procedurals in matter-of-fact dramatizing. For those who may be a bit worried about the subject matter, there is no sensationalized scenes of abuse, and on the part of the reporters, no portrayal of heroism. Such may well be the praise-worthy elements of this production. The cast’s performance is convincing, in particular, Liev Schreiber as the soft-spoken but motivating, no-nonsense editor Marty Baron. Come Awards time, I trust the production, its cast and crew, and director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, 2007) will be duly recognized.    ~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Update Jan. 14, 2016: 6 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture

Fireflies in the Garden

My guess is, you haven’t heard of this 2008 movie. Neither have I until I saw it on TV a few days ago. The story about a father-son’s love-hate relationship from childhood to adulthood is realistically depicted. Caught in between the straining conflicts between the always angry and harsh father and a sensitive, vulnerable son, is the mother, always loving and protecting, something like the family dynamics in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It also echoes the Oscar winning Ordinary People (1981), the small-scaled, Bergman-esque chamber film of deep entanglement of unresolved parent-child conflicts. Another film just popped into mind and that’s Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent’s When Did You Last See your Father.

Fireflies has a well-selected cast with Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe and Julia Roberts. I’m surprised to see the low rating the film received among critics. Disappointed really that it wasn’t well received. What’s that to me, and why am I  concerned? There’s a half-baked screenplay in my closet that’s something along that line. I know, more rewrites.  ~ ~ ~ Ripples


Books (Click on links to my Goodreads reviews)

It’s all a chain reaction started with …

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly (Audiobook)

I’ve not missed a single one of Connelly’s Detective Bosch novels. This time I listened to the audiobook and was much impressed by the voice of its narrator Titus Welliver.

Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker (Audio MP3)

So I checked about Welliver’s other audio works, and found Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker. I’d seen the 2008 film adaptation with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen and quite enjoyed it. So I jumped right in and found it to be a very well-written book, one of the few Westerns I’ve read.

And from this Robert B. Parker, I went on to explore more about him and learned that he was the ‘Dean of American Crime Fiction’. Here are two of his works crime stories I followed up with:

Promised Land  (Audio MP3)
The Godwulf Manuscript  (Audio MP3)

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
From crime fiction to the Gilded Age. I bought this book at Edith Wharton’s home at The Mount during my New England road trip, during which I learned that Julian Fellowes was much influenced by Wharton and especially this title.

The Secret in their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (Audio MP3)

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (eBook) – click on link to read my one-line review of this title on Goodreads.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
Makes me think of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn which I’m rereading to prep for the upcoming film adaptation.

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Shifting between the English in India before independence and later the 70’s, a clash in cultures and the human toll of unfulfilled marriages. I reread this to prepare for the James Ivory Retrospective this coming weekend right here in my City, with the legendary director (now 87) attending. Yes, really looking forward to this event.


Currently Reading / Listening

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (for the upcoming film)

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (reread for the upcoming film)

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (Audiobook)


Related posts you may like:

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick

When Did you Last See your Father?

Appaloosa (2008)

October’s Abundant Harvest

October is harvesting month for me. The first week I was still cruising on some small country roads in Northeast U.S. gathering visual delights. As soon as I came back home, I sent off a travel article to an online newspaper. Visitors to my pond at Ripple Effects get the details in ten blog posts beginning here.

Funny thing is, In my almost two weeks’ road trip, I’d rarely seen birds and have not watched one single movie. So as soon as I got back home, I quickly sought to quench the dry spell. Sad to say, my avian friends have migrated without saying goodbye. But there are always movies.

Here are the movies I’ve watched in October after coming home. Most are current releases, a few catch-ups. I’m a detailed list-maker of unnecessary facts, so the titles are in chronological order of my viewing:

The Intern with Robert De Niro as the overqualified senior (in age) intern

A new genre has evolved in recent years to capture the baby-boomer cinema goers – A Walk In The Woods, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, My Old Lady – just to name a few. The Intern is pleasant enough, with an interesting proposal: make the best use of the resources seniors can offer in a business, here a startup created and operated by Jules (Ann Hathaway). The hipster way of running a company is explicitly, time and again, contrasted with the De Niro old school of management, etiquette and people skills, like Ben Stiller and Adam Driver in While We Were Young. But The Intern lacks a dramatic story arc to hold viewers’ (well, mine at least) interest and attention. I’ve been waiting for a twist somewhere but it never came, and Anders Holm who plays Jules’ husband Matt could well be a miscast.  ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Prince of Denmark

I bought the ticket to this National Theatre Live one-night screening months ago and am excited to report that I was one of 250,000 viewers worldwide to watch it. The date to remember: 10/15/15. It was a record for NTL for one single showing of a broadcast; Shakespeare would be ecstatic. I was squished in the last row corner seat in a full Cineplex auditorium, awestruck by the enthusiasm Benedict Cumberbatch had raised. There were young people in droves streaming into the theatre instead of the usually grey-haired audience at most NTL screenings.

Basically two things I’d like to say about this production at the Barbican in London via NTL’s camera work. First, the sound and lighting need to improve so we don’t have to strain our ears to hear that most famous soliloquy of all time delivered by Benedict Cumberbatch. Second, the performance was a bit uneven. While Cumberbatch had put on an energetic and affective act, and Ciaran Hinds as Claudius was very convincing and appealing even, there were roles that need to be pumped up to match.
~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Martian with Matt Damon as the best botanist on the Planet Mars

Well, science seems to be the saviour bringing Matt Damon back to Earth from Mars but director Ridley Scott knows the underlying secret. An evacuation of his teammates after a dust storm has left astronaut Mark Watney all alone on the Red Planet. To survive, he has to science his way out. Director Ridley Scott knows too well that he is working with flesh and blood, and science without the human touch will best be a fine documentary but won’t capture hearts and can’t triumph at the box office. Thanks to all his teammates in the space capsule coming back for him and all the smart people in NASA and elsewhere calculating to the dot of how this could take place, we get a captivating and entertaining human interest story. Look at the cast, it’s not rocket science that the film has fine materials to build on: Other than Damon, there’s Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean…

A blogging success, Andy Weir first published his story as blog posts, followed by eBook, sold movie rights, movie production, and now the phenom. But what was I most impressed? That the film doesn’t use CGI to imitate the Red Planet but was shot on location in the magnificent Wadi Rum, southern Jordan. Previous films with Mars as setting had used the location as it’s probably one of the most Mars-like places on Earth. I had the experience of getting to about seventy miles north of Wadi Rum in Petra many years ago, beholding the city carved out of the red mountains. It was indeed out of this world.  ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Update Jan. 14, 2016: 7 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture)

Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks as the reluctant hero

Steven Spielberg knows what audience wants too, and that the formula of the “hero’s journey” works. Not to say this film is formulaic but it is predictable even when I didn’t know anything about our reluctant hero, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who later turned master negotiator. Bridge of Spies is set in the Cold War era, Donovan is asked to do the nasty task of defending an arrested Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). As a result, Donovan has suddenly become public enemy no. 1 together with his defendant. As the real life events begin to take their course, Donovan is pulled into the journey with real gusto. He saves Abel from a certain death sentence, keeping him for more useful ends, you know, some sort of like insurance for the future. And rainy days finally come.

This is a highly watchable film, despite the fact that many might have known about this part of American history, the character Donovan and his ultimate endeavour to exchange Abel for American U2 pilot Gary Powers shot down from Soviet airspace. As with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Spielberg knows it’s not the dry, actual negotiations that will interest the audience, but the added suspense and the human bond between Donovan and Abel that would appeal more. And so he threw in those elements; Spielberg is good at that. It’s the humanity behind his characters that capture his audience. And what’s more, shot like a Cold War era film, we get some thrilling noir type of camera work and the reminiscence of the denser and tenser spy films of the 60’s, like Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But of course, in this day, audience would welcome more Spielberg’s offer of lighter entertainment. ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
(Update Jan. 14, 2016: 6 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture)

Jafar Panahi’s TAXI where the banned Iranian director creates video selfies 

Banned from making films for twenty years for his outspoken stance against the government, Iranian director Jafar Panaji uses creative and bold ways to make his ‘non-films’. Here he is in the driver’s seat in a yellow cab, picking up his fares on the streets of Tehran with a camera mounted on his dashboard. We get a slice of what it’s like to live under an authoritarian power. Rather than a gloomy view, this 2015 Berlin International Film Festival winner brings us a light-hearted, human display of life in Tehran, however limited the crack is opened for us to look in from the outside. My full review here.  ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

This is Not A Film where banned director searches for new ways to speak out

This is Jafar Panahi’s 2011 work after he was given a 20-year ban by the Iranian court from filmmaking, screenwriting, giving interviews, and leaving the country. This is not a film, but a video selfie made in his home by friend and documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb who was later arrested. We see a somber, stoic, but at times frustrated Panahi up and about in his home with his daily chores, and ‘telling’ a banned screenplay. He is also shown using his own iPhone to record a young man coming to his door to collect garbage, a film student helping his sister out for that night. The depth of human interest and the desires and aspirations of people in constraints depicted in this ‘non-film’ is poignant.  ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Remember where Christopher Plummer is a 90 year-old revenger with dementia

So what if the plot is implausible as long as we have a talented director (Atom Egoyan) conducting a fine orchestrated production with the riveting performance of Christopher Plummer. I mean, there are lots of implausible storylines in our movies nowadays, think Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep, ok, throw in The Martian even. The charismatic performance here in Remember by Plummer makes it believable and absorbing. Why, he has grasped and portrayed a dementia patient to the dot, forgetting who you are, where you are, and the essential why for your actions. A Holocaust survivor seeking revenge on the German officer responsible for his family’s death in Auschwitz is the premise. But Canadian director Atom Egoyan had led us into a thrilling story of suspense and unfolding. No, this is not ‘another Holocaust movie’ but a riveting thriller. Plummer has effectively led us to see the fragility of our mind and the nature of the memories we hold.  ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Meet The Patels where Ravi Patel shows us the Indian version of Meet the Parents

But with one major difference: This is a lively documentary. That makes it all the more fun and realistic. The Indian parents of their American born, and almost 30 year-old son Ravi Patel lend a helping hand to find him a wife by distributing his ‘bio dates’ resumé to friends and family and practically to the whole Patel clan. This is not incest but expanding the target market of about 50 miles radius of where the Patels come from in India. Ravi himself had gone through the ‘biodating system’, online matrimonial websites, and Patel Matrimonial Convention. But before all these, he’d had an American girlfriend whom he had kept as a secret from his parents and with whom he had just broken up. Ahh, that adds to the complication in this vividly told multi-visual doc.  Most gratifying is the conclusion… regardless of culture and traditions, loving parents just want their children to be happy. I can’t agree more.   ~ ~ ~ Ripples  My full review here.

The Past where Director Asghar Farhadi elicited some amazing performance

My third film from Iranian directors in just two weeks. Asghar Farhadi’s first French language film shot in Paris. I was much impressed by his previous work A Separation, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. The Past came a year later. So this is a catch-up for me; I’d long wanted to see it. Saw it on BluRay just a few days ago and again I must say, don’t let them just stream movies online, for the special features are just as good. Here we have Farhadi sharing with us the creative process in the making of The Past at a Directors Guild interview. This is too good a film to just write a couple of paragraphs on. A full review coming. But I can tell you, it’s going to be ~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples.