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.

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O Brother (cheerily), First of May

May has arrived! The Brothers Karamazov Read Along thus begins.

Your part of the world might be all green and colourful, more conducive to outings and nature wandering than reading. But then again, you can read outdoor too. Just bring the book along and sit under a tree … in a lawn chair, and enjoy the warm breeze.

As for me at the Pond, things aren’t that rosy yet. But I have blue sky, white clouds, and buds bursting out on trees.

All are welcome as we start our slow and leisurely reading of the classic which critics hail as Dostoevsky’s culminating, greatest work (pub. 1880, his last novel). Here’s a schedule of our posting dates, according to the four sections of the book:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

If you’re not a blogger, you can still read together with us. On the posting date, stop by and leave your thoughts as a comment. Or, you might have read it before, several times, I welcome your insights!

Happy May! Happy Reading!

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For more details:

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Invite Post

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along, May – July, 2021

Here we go again. Every few years on Ripple, I’d entertain an urge to have people gather at the Pond to read a book together, virtually of course. As we’re (here above the 49th) riding through a third wave of COVID right now with stay-home measures for many, how we need that camaraderie even more.

And why The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Just because I’ve always wanted to read it but haven’t. I know some of you may have read this literary classic already. Maybe now’s a good time to re-read?

I recently bought a Farrar, Straus and Giroux (NY, 1990) edition pictured above, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Opening it, the first line in the Introduction surprises me. But as I read on, the whole paragraph is motivation itself:

The Brother Karamazov is a joyful book. Readers who know what it is “about” may find this an intolerably whimsical statement. It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest is greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness. But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiousity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing. And therefore, finally, in its vision.

And thanks to Bellezza, I checked on Goodreads and found this quote by Madeleine L’Engle:

“The truly great books are flawed: The Brothers Karamazov is unwieldy in structure; a present-day editor would probably want to cut the Grand Inquisitor scene because it isn’t necessary to the plot. For me The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest novels ever written, and this is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its human faults.”

–– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Those familiar with my previous Read Alongs know I’m all for slow reading. I allow ample time to finish a book, mind you, these are usually longer titles. Read Along at the Pond is a leisurely enjoyment. Here are some previous titles:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Here’s a tentative schedule for The Brothers Karamazov Read Along. Read within the three-week time frame for each of the four Parts, then post your thoughts at the end of each. Non-bloggers are welcome to join as well. Instead of posting, just go to any participant and leave your thoughts as a comment in their post.

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Posting Dates:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

Hope you’d join in the fun! Let me know in the comment.

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Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Book Review

Klara and The Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel and the first after his Nobel Prize in 2017. This latest title is very different from his previous works. Here is a futuristic story in the style of a children’s fable. The language used is simple and descriptions explicit, written from the point of view of Klara, a humanoid robot. Ishiguro has dealt with sci-fi matter before in Never Let Me Go (2005) relating to human cloning, exploring the complexity of love and jealousy. Compared to Never Let Me Go, Klara and The Sun is a much lighter read.

Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, to fourteen-year-old Josie. They meet in a store where AF’s are sold. Klara is displayed at the storefront when Josie comes in; their fondness of each other sparks off at first sight. Every AF is uniquely created, and here’s Klara’s selling points as Manager explains to Josie’s Mother:

‘Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.’ (P. 43)

B3s are the newest and most advanced model of AF, but Josie insisted on having Klara. Mother gives in to her urging and Klara follows them home. Home is in a remote, rural area. The residence is big and offers views into a vast natural area. In this house the story of Klara and Josie begins.

Josie is a sickly teenager, walks with a limp and often bedridden. Klara is a faithful companion to her, follows her biddings to the dot. There are only two other characters in the house, Josie’s Mother and Melania Housekeeper, both are highly protective of Josie. Josie has a childhood friend, Rick, who lives nearby. Father resides in the city, the details are vague in terms of the reasons of the separation, but we know he cares for Josie very much but holds a different view from Josie’s Mother regarding how they should deal with Josie’s worsening health.

And then there’s Klara’s view of what she sees as a solution to Josie’s illness. Klara runs on energy from The Sun, a benevolent being watching over all. She will appeal to her source of life. As the story develops, we see how Klara’s empathy and love for Josie would put humans to shame. Ishiguro paints another picture of the artificial intelligence (AI) alarm which Sherry Turkle has set off when she writes about technology replacing human in Alone Together, or in the film Ex Machina where a humanoid robot eerily eliminating her creator. Ishiguro lets Klara’s story present the scenario where AI would surpass human in heart, thus implicitly posing the question: “What makes humans human after all?”

However, as the writing follows a straight forward, fable-like style of storytelling, questions such as this are not dealt with in any depth, albeit I feel they could have been explored further. For this reason, unlike Never Let Me Go, I find it hard to engage emotionally with the characters. As the story goes, I keep expecting that there would be some twists and turns in the plot or more complex handling of the thematic matter but which never come.

In a recent online conversation with Toronto International Film Festival’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Ishiguro says he does not go into details about the science and technology mentioned in the book, all for the purpose of allowing readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks. Technical details are prone to be outdated easily. He prefers readers to involve in the world building of the story rather than being passive recipients. My response to this point is that, not just with the technical details, he has left the novel quite open for readers to exercise their imagination.

A movie adaptation is already in development. Again, adhering to his personal rule, Ishiguro will not be writing the screenplay and he will give ample freedom to the filmmaker to create their own movie with the name Klara and The Sun, as long as they take passionate ownership of their story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Film

Ex Machina Movie Review

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Love Classics from Book to Screen

Love in all its forms: steadfast, unrequited, hidden, or blind… These classic novels aren’t just about romance, but deal with their subject matters in the context of their social milieu, gender relations, class disparity, individual aspirations and angsts, as the authors explore that elusive entity called love.

What better time than now to watch these movie adaptations again, or for the first time, since many of us can’t go anywhere under pandemic restrictions. So, here they are, the Ripple list of stay-at-home viewing for Valentine’s 2021. Links are to my Ripple reviews.

The grounds in The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from
1902-1911. Photo taken by Arti, Oct. 2015.

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – With this novel, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer in 1921, which makes this year the 100th anniversary of her Prize honour. Wharton’s depiction of the Gilded Age and Newland Archer’s inner torments are aptly captured by Martin Scorsese (1993), and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.

A Room with A View by E. M. Forster – Merchant Ivory’s 1985 production remains the definitive classic. Lucy opening the window of her (exchanged) room in the Pensione Bertolini to see the view of Florence, enwrapped by the voice of Kiri Te Kanawa singing “O mio babbino caro”. And what a cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Here’s a story of an unhappy family; true enough, epic in its unhappiness, as the ending shows. The Joe Wright directed, Tom Stoppard scripted adaptation (2012) is worth a look for its highly stylized rendition. How many other versions? At least three dozen.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn make ideal screen lovers, but life isn’t ideal. Holly Golightly singing “Moon River” by the fire escape of her NY apartment is heart-tugging. Yes, that’s her own voice. But major flaw I try to ignore is Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi. Have to forgive and forget that dated, racially stereotyped portrayal.

Emma by Jane Austen – It has been 24 years since the last full-length feature of Emma was made for the big screen, time for a millennial version (2020). Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy got two 2021 Golden Globe Best Actress nominations for her roles in Emma and The Queen’s Gambit. The multi-talented Johnny Flynn (The Dig) is the updated Mr. Knightly.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene – The 1999 movie came out three years after The English Patient, another one of Ralph Fiennes’s dead-end passion for someone he can’t have. Graham Greene’s classic is Colin Firth’s choice to record for UK Audible, a series by famous actors reading their favourite classic novel. What more can you ask?

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – As much as I enjoy Carey Mulligan’s works, for this one, I think the director and screenwriter had mishandled the adaptation, albeit I must say I love the lush green Dorset landscape. For nostalgic reasons, maybe it’s time to revisit John Schlesinger directing Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene (1967), with Alan Bates and Peter Finch.

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton – May not be on the list of early 20th C. classics, but the 1969 film is a gem. Peter O’Toole won a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role as poor old Mr. Chips, and Petula Clark is a natural. The scene where she sings out ‘Fill the World with Love’ at the school assembly is hilariously inspirational.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I like Robert Redford as Gatsby (1974), but Carey Mulligan as Daisy (2013), so, it’s a toss-up between the two versions. Also, I think Gatsby is great not because of his extravagance and opulence, on which Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version focuses. He’s great because of his steadfast, and you could say, blind, love for Daisy. The only reason he strives to climb to the top is to win her back. The 1974 version is more subtle, screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola.

Howards End by E. M. Forster – The 1992 Merchant Ivory production is classic, the more recent adaptation derivative of it. James Ivory directing, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Best adapted writing Oscar), cast Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson (Best Actress Oscar), Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter. Book and film worth revisiting time and again.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – With over twenty adaptations for the big and small screens, which one do you choose? I appreciate the newest 2011 full-length feature directed by Cary Fukunaga. The storytelling is fresh and cinematography stylish, screenplay by Moira Buffini who 10 years later scripted The Dig. As for the actors, I can’t say whole-heartedly that the Fassbender and Wasikowska duo are as good as Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton though.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life, and paints for us what love is all about. One of the best films I’ve watched in recent years and an updated version for today. This would make a fine 2021 Valentine’s stay-at-home viewing.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen – Best to be an armchair traveller during a pandemic, and let the movie transport you to a freer landscape. As for this one, lament a love unrequited. Being in Africa, Karen (Meryl Streep) should have known that she can’t chain a lion to one spot. Denys (Robert Redford) has to roam the mountains on his own. While Mozart might be able to subdue him momentarily, the wildness inside him can’t be tamed.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford – Ford’s tetralogy was adapted into a 5-episode BBC mini-series (2013), which didn’t get much attention this side of the Atlantic. The love between Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) is latent and restrained, and does not surface in more realistic way until the last episodes. Why, there are more important issues to deal with such as a World War, women suffrage, and Sylvia Tietjens (Rebecca Hall).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Here’s a dreamy scenario: time rolls back 25 years for Colin Firth to do a remake. This time, let’s have Carey Mulligan to play Elizabeth Bennet, ok, roll back 10 years for her, and never mind that she was Kitty in 2005. Failing these, I’ll settle for the 1995 BBC series again. But thanks to our dear Jane, we can always revisit her characters in our literary dreamscape,

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – I’m sure Emma Thompson would want to roll back 25 years too, when in 1996 she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her adapted screenplay of this first novel by Jane Austen. She’d no doubt want to bask in the limelight again, for that night she gave her Golden Globe acceptance speech that Jane herself would have applauded.

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A shout-out to The Classic Club, an admirable endeavour.

Reading the Season 2020: ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

Time for Ripple’s Christmas read, an annual post I name Reading the Season.

In the Pulitzer winning book Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to the aging Rev. John Ames in the fictional Iowa town Gilead set in the 1950’s. The book is a letter Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, leaving him with a legacy of family memories, love and forgiveness.

In Home (2008), we enter the house of Ames’ lifelong friend, Rev. Robert Boughton, and meet her daughter Glory. For an ephemeral moment, his son Jack––Ames’ godson––the black sheep of the family appears. Jack returns home after twenty years of self-exile, looking for solace but sadly leaves again without reconciliation.

Lila (2014) is the story about Ames and his young wife Lila, who is homeless and aimless when the old Rev. first finds her on a country road. A beautiful story of how love bridges the great chasm between two utterly incompatible beings and leads to a magical union.

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Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Jack (2020) is the fourth and last of the Gilead novels. It brings us back to the prodigal son in Boughton’s family, Jack, but this time, describing a sweet romance, albeit pointing to a challenging future. In terms of the time setting, Jack is a prequel to Gilead and Home. So we know how life unfolds for him. But for a moment, we dwell in some pleasant thoughts. The novel is like a reversal of Lila; here, Jack is the stray redeemed by Grace.

Nothing short of divine providence, Jack Boughton first meets Della Miles on the street, helping her in the rain to pick up papers blown by the wind. Della is a schoolteacher of literature, lover of poetry, witty, intelligent, and fearlessly independent. But, as fate would have it, she is a Black woman in segregated St. Louis during the 1950’s. Herein lies a precarious yet beautiful love story.

Jack and Della meet again one night in a cemetery serendipitously. Jack is destitute, just released after spending two years in prison, albeit for a theft he did not commit outside a pawn shop. Surely, justice isn’t on his side. Jack often gets roughed up or taunted, sometimes for no good reasons, but deep inside, he knows he’s not an innocent man. He’s destructive to others and himself, sometimes steals, and tries hard to remain sober. As mentioned in Home, years ago while still living at home in Gilead, Jack gets a girl pregnant, then just leaves town and disappears. The death of the baby later only adds to more burden and regrets.

Yet in Jack, Robinson’s depiction of the wayward protagonist is not without humour. Take this as an example:

Jack went out walking, trying to get tired enough to sleep, staying sober, so that if he did jump into the river, he could feel his demise has the dignity of considered choice.

Della has no reason to fall in love with Jack, the punishment for miscegenation is jail and being ostracized from her own family and both racial communities. The Miles are a reputable African American family of strong traditions and deep religious roots, the father being a Bishop in the Methodist denomination. No doubt Della is young and not tuned to the laws of a racist society that rewards the conformist and punishes the deviant. Yet, it is her internal light that leads her to defy unjust norms, look through Jack’s outward appearance to cherish his soul.

Della is Grace personified. The concept of ‘unmerited kindness’ is ubiquitous in the book, and Jack knows and is grateful to be the recipient of such. Receiving kindness might just be an understatement. He is redeemed and given a new life upon meeting Della.

Saying grace over pancakes in Della’s home after the cemetery meet, Jack recites spontaneously a verse from the poem “The Paradox” by African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) :

Down to the grave will I take thee,
Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me––
Death, then, no longer, but life.

Indeed, the paradox of finding life among the dead is the pivotal moment in the book. They talk through the night as soulmates, treasuring the freeing experience inside the locked gate of a cemetery; for Jack, Della is like an epiphany, life in death.

Flannery O’Connor’s notion of the ‘intrusion of grace’ comes to mind as I read the book, light shining into darkness, even just a spark. Also emerged in my mental association is Dostoevsky’s Sonya, the Christlike figure that is a saving grace to Raskolnikov. Not that Jack is an axe murderer, but he knows too well that he needs to be rescued from himself.

Insight and wisdom come packaged in lightness of heart and humor, often embedded in the bantering between Della and Jack. And yet, they are lovers in limbo; while the subjective force of love prevails, there are uphill battles to be fought in the social and systemic front, and an arduous journey awaits. As the story timeframe takes place before Robinson’s Gilead and Home, we know how their lives turn out, which makes reading Jack such a bittersweet experience.

And here’s an imaginary scenario… if the love which surpasses all human barriers could be frozen in time, and let Grace have the last say, that would be heaven.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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2020 has been a most extraordinary year when we find and admit how fragile human beings are. We all need to be rescued not just from a physical virus but a spiritual one and be saved from ourselves. The Christmas Season is an appropriate time to ponder once again on that first crack of light, the epitome of the Intrusion of Grace.

Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Related Posts on The Intrusion of Grace:

Homage to Flannery O’Connor: Looking for Intrusions of Grace in Films

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation by Robert Bresson

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

Multiplicity is what makes environmental historian Jessica J. Lee’s writing so unique. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, to a mother who had immigrated from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has since moved back and forth between England and Germany. Her biracial roots and her experience living in different countries have informed her nature writing, a voice that exudes a unique poignancy of a personal quest for identity and home.

In a previous post, I reviewed Lee’s debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she describes how she swam in fifty-two lakes in the Brandenburg vicinity outside Berlin while completing her doctoral dissertation there, an exceptional and original endeavour to overcome personal issues.

In her new book, Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee writes about another quest that’s more complex and adventurous. In 2013, she visited Taiwan with her mother after the death of her grandfather, Gong . In 2017, she went back on her own to spend a few months to explore the island’s natural environs and immerse in her ancestral language, Mandarin. At the same time, she wanted to get close to a family history that she had just begun to unearth. Upon her grandmother’s death in Niagara Falls, Lee’s mother discovered a sealed envelope containing letters that her Gong had written but never sent, maybe to record his own life before Alzheimer’s snatched his memory away.

Gong was a pilot with the famous Flying Tigers during WWII, at that time under the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, defending the country against Japanese invasion. After WWII, the country was torn by a civil war. As the Communists took control, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. That was when Gong moved to Taiwan and continued his pilot career and became a trainer as well.

Gong met Lee’s grandmother, Po , in Taiwan and made a home there for decades until they immigrated to Canada in the 1980’s. Being rejected his flying credentials and too old to start all over again to be a pilot in a new country, Gong conceded with a job as a factory janitor. A sad but typical immigrant story.

Lee’s grandmother, Po, was born in Nanjing, China, and was there at the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (Lugou Bridge 蘆溝橋事變), which sparked the Sino-Japanese war in July, 1937, often noted as the beginning of the Pacific front of WWII, two years before Hitler invaded Poland. As a young teenager, Po had to escape the subsequent Nanjing massacre in the hands of the Japanese. Lee’s short few pages of Po’s experience succinctly describe the horrors of the atrocity which she read about only in her twenties in the British Library. Po’s war experience had remained bitterly hidden. To some, grandparents sitting by the fire telling grandchildren their life story is a romantic myth.

As they settled in Taiwan, Gong and Po never returned to mainland China even after the travel ban between China and Taiwan was lifted in 1987. The home that each of them had known when they were young had long disappeared.

Lee’s book is a remarkable narrative of a granddaughter trying to piece together a family history while weaving in her own interests and specialization as an environmental historian and nature lover. The storytelling is a beautiful tapestry of multiple yarns. Lee’s use of metaphors from the natural world are exquisite and eloquent; the juxtapositions of natural history with family history alongside the author’s personal quest make Two Trees a multi-layered and intriguing read.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Rivas

Taiwan is an island just eighty-nine miles wide, but with a central mountain range that rises close to thirteen thousand feet, resulting in a huge variety of habitats rich in endemic biodiversity. The Portuguese first gave it the name Ilha Formosa: ‘Beautiful Island.’ But they later abandoned it, same with the Spaniards and the Dutch. Then it was colonized by the Japanese, and after WWII, occupied by the Nationalist Chinese. Records and management of the natural environs of the island fall in with the history of colonization.

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The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: Island, Mountain, Water, and Forest. The title “Two Trees Make A Forest” actually is a simple tip to write the Chinese word for forest, which is made up of two ideographic symbol for wood .

It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, , doesn’t involve water, but an ideogram of a bird hovering over a mountain. One doesn’t need to be surrounded by water to be insular. The natural environs point to that notion. When describing the biodiversity on Taiwan’s mountain peaks, Lee writes:

… for many species there is little place to migrate but skyward. Tree lines creep ever higher, and the realm of the cold-loving species shrinks. Bound to the summits, these species can live a lonely life. And in this way, mountains become islands of their own. (p.52)

The accounts of Lee’s hiking and the rare sightings are not all as idyllic as one would expect, like the frightening moment when confronting a territorial macaque (rock monkey) alone on a mountain trail, or the storm and rain that pounded her hiking group as they climbed the legendary, ‘haunted’ Qilai Mountain range. The feeling of being an outsider is particularly acute in situations like these.

This is not a place I could simply learn, and it is not mine anyway. I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves. (p.111)

Back to the liminal concept that pervades her previous book Turning about her experience in Germany. Again, Lee finds parallels of her personal situation in the natural world. Like the mangroves growing by the shore in between land and sea, she sees herself existing in such a liminal, in-between space. Having only a child’s level of Mandarin growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself unequipped to communicate in Taiwan. Here’s one encounter:

A taxi driver asked me why my Mandarin was so good for a foreigner. “My mother is from Taiwan,” I explained, and he turned on me in reprimand. “Then why is your Mandarin so poor?” (p. 106)

Wherever she goes, language grants her the potential for more meaningful engagement with the people in Taiwan, or in Germany. Instead of a geographical location, language could well represent home. “And where I couldn’t find words, I fell to other languages: to plants, to history, to landscape.” (p. 17) Indeed, Nature is a language unto its own.

The Taiwan sojourn is her attempt to be in touch with a family’s past. It is Gong’s death that elicits a deep lament in her. When he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s, Po took Gong back to Taiwan, found a care home for him and came back to Canada on her own. Gong died a lonely death, with which Lee strives to come to terms.

Edward Said wrote that the pathos of exile is the impossibility of return… Whatever the circumstances, there exists tragedy in being forced from home… Alzheimer’s brings another exile: from the imagined world of past and memory.

In Turning, Lee takes to swimming in lakes to confront her fears and personal loss. In Two Trees, dealing with regrets and longings for a grandfather who had died all alone, she has turned to the trees and deep woods in Gong’s homeland:

I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us. (p. 253)

Like her experience in Turning, Nature once again embraces and absorbs her joy and grief; it too is home.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts by Jessica J. Lee, Catapult, New York, August, 2020, 282 pages.

Jessica J. Lee is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She received a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics in 2016. Two Trees Make a Forest was noted in Best Books of the Year by New Statesman and The Observer. She is founding editor of the Willowherb Review, publishing nature writing by writers from diverse cultures.

My thanks to Catapult, New York, for providing the reviewer’s copy and photos.

More book to screen adaptations 2020 – 2021

Vikram Seth’s epic novel (1993) of over 1,300 pages is turned into a 6-episode TV mini-series. The setting is India during the 1950’s. The story is the all-consuming duty of a mother finding a suitable boy for her daughter. The story might be culturally specific, but the mission definitely surpasses ethnic boundaries. The BBC production is helmed by the acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, 2016; The Namesake, 2006). Screenplay by Andrew Davies, who scripted Pride and Prejudice (1995). He’s done plenty since, more Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo… now Seth. This did stir up some dissatisfied ripples questioning whether he’s a suitable scribe for this series.

Frank Herbert’s 1965 acclaimed sci-fi series is one of the highly anticipated movies to come out in 2020. Helmed by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a notable name with works such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Arrival (2016). Screenplay by Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008). Appealing cast with Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, 2014, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) and Timothée Chalamet (Little Women, 2019) as father and son travelling to the planet Arrakis. Top supporting cast with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (Skyfall, 2012), Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! 2008), Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go, 2010).

Another book by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt after his Sisters Brothers was adapted for the big screen in 2018. French Exit is a good one for those looking for short and quirky reads. A New York socialite, using up most of her fortunes and years is moving to Paris with her adult son and their cat to escape financial woes. The book isn’t much of a story I feel, so hopefully the movie will work better. Considering the cast, I remain hopeful: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots, and Tracy Letts (the cat).

Paulette Jiles’s National Book Award nominated novel is a Civil War era story about an aging itinerant news reader who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people. Goodreads says: “exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel … that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.” Tom Hanks is tasked to portray this character, reuniting with his Captain Philips (2013) director Paul Greengrass. Adapted screenplay by Luke Davies (Lion, 2016).


Directed and screenplay written by Joel Coen, I’m curious to see if this is a deadpan version of the Bard’s play. But then again, when I think of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens or just Joel here, could make it double toil and trouble, plain bloody too. Denzel Washington is Lord Macbeth, Frances McDormand is his Lady. Think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), this lady can wreak some havoc.

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And then there are the remakes. West Side Story and Rebecca are two of the more anticipated ones.

West Side Story (2020)

A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998, and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony, and Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood, 1961
Ansel Elgort & Rachel Zegler, 2020

Rebecca (2020)

Directed by Ben Wheatley, Armie Hammer is Maxim de Winter, Lily James, Mrs. de Winter, and Kristin Scott Thomas is Mrs. Danvers. What I’m most interested in, however, is the production design, which will be all burned down or undergo some tricky CGI effects is to be seen. Six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood heads up that department. Her works include Darkest Hour (2017), Anna Karenina (2012), and Atonement (2007) among many other titles. So, I think Manderley the set is in good hands. But will the whole production beat the classic 1940 Alfred Hitchcock noir with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine?

Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, 1940
Why do I think of A Streetcar Named Desire here?
Is Kristin Scott Thomas scary enough as Mrs. Danvers?

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Release Information:

(Updated Oct. 10, 2020) As this has been a strange year with lots of uncertainties, the dates and where to see them could change in the coming days or months:

A Suitable Boy – on BBC One TV now. E1 started on Sunday July 26 at 9 pm, and the rest on five consecutive Sundays after that. It’s not available in North America yet. It’s a selection at TIFF2020 Update: Scheduled to stream on Netflix on October 23, excluding the US, Canada and China.

Dune – Release date delayed till Fall, 2021

French Exit – Premiere at New York Film Festival, October, 2020. After that not sure about distribution.

News of the World – in theatres December, 2020 still, but may change.

Macbeth – to be released in USA 2021, details unknown.

West Side Story – Pushed back to December, 2021

Rebecca – Oct. 16 limited theatre release, on Netflix beginning October 21, 2020

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Related Posts:

Click on the links embedded in this post to read my Ripple reviews.

More Book to Movie Lists: Here, Here, and Here.

‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.

Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.

As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.

The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.

Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.


At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.

Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.  

Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”

Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.

Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.  

Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.

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A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.

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An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.

Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.

Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.

A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.

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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 … Continue reading Asian Heritage Month Movie List

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Kevin Kwan’s New Book is Screen-ready

As an homage to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, as well as a nod to the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation (1985), Asian American author Kevin Kwan has crafted another satire seven years after his Crazy Rich Asians started a surprise breakout trilogy.

If Forster were to read Kwan’s latest work, the stand-alone novel Sex and Vanity, would he be baffled by 21st century opulence, or shocked to see the social issues he wrote about in A Room with a View such as class and gender inequality still exist more than a century later? Kwan also throws in racism, of which Forster was keenly critical in his writing; A Passage to India comes to mind.

While the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was met with resounding applause from the Asian community, not everyone who shared the ethnicity felt represented, for they might not have been Asian born, or have never set foot in Singapore, Hong Kong, or China. This just speaks to the fact that there’s a myriad of cultural and geographical lineages when one uses the umbrella term ‘Asian’ or, ‘Chinese’.

This time, the net is cast out to those who are American born, second and third generations of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the hapas, Hawaiian for ‘half’, people of mixed Asian and white heritage. The net reaches to others too, in particular New Yorkers, and fans of the Big Apple. Indeed, Kwan’s book reads like a love letter to New York City, to which the author pays tribute as: “The City that took me in, nurtured me, and changed me forever.”

Sex and Vanity follows the same structure and plot development as A Room with a View, even keeping the first names of the main characters. Kwan only needs to plug in the modern-day parallels splashed with his over-the-top descriptions of opulence and extravaganzas.

For those who’re apprehensive to pick up the book because of the two words in its title, maybe this would bring some relief: the former wouldn’t even make half a page of note in Normal People (by Sally Rooney) and the latter is wrapped in mirth. The book is pure escapism for summer reading fun.  

To his credit, Kwan has a keen eye for social prestige other than materialism. When first mentioned, character names are followed by a list of schools they have attended. Surely, in America and many parts of the world, one is defined by one’s alma mater. Naming even the kindergarten is exactly the case in point. Prestige starts early.

Part One takes place in Capri. Nineteen-year-old, Upper East Side born and raised hapa Lucie Churchill (92nd Street Y Nursery School / Brearley / Brown, Class of ’16) is on the Italian island with her cousin, forty-something Charlotte (Rippowam / Miss Porter’s / Smith) as chaperone. The fun doesn’t end with these bracketed school names. For further reading pleasure, Google them if not familiar.

The cousins are there to attend the week-long celebrations of Lucie’s childhood friend, Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu’s marriage to the son of an Italian mogul. The Hotel Bertolucci fails to give them a room with an ocean view which Charlotte had requested.

Overhearing Charlotte’s complaint, fellow wedding guest Rosemary Zao offers to exchange with them their view rooms she and her son George occupy. Why, she’s inundated with ocean views. Her home overlooks the Hong Kong harbour and she has beach front properties in Sydney and Lanikai, Hawaii. But Charlotte doesn’t take this easily. The Churchills have their pride, and prejudice.

Unlike his mother, George (Diocesan Boys’ School / Geelong Grammar / UC Berkeley, Class of ’15) is a man of few words. Actually, he is the perfect son-in-law for any Tiger Mom: on top of his “surfer, pretty boy physique,” he’s a high achiever. He can keep his cool and administer CPR to save a stranger and play “Goldberg Variations” in spontaneity in front of an admiring crowd (not at the same time). What more, George is honest with his feelings and passion.

The Blue Grotto: An important setting in the book that is utterly cinematic. Source: Wikipedia

The week-long wedding celebration is screen-ready with Capri’s natural and architectural beauty as backdrops.

Throughout the book, Kwan has dropped a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search for famous names, real-life or fictional, like the Crawleys of Downton, Darcy of Pemberley, “The World of Suzie Wong” (The actress Nancy Kwan being the author’s distant cousin), Monsieur de Givenchy, who comes out of retirement to design the wedding dress, and sightings of one Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory.

What more, the renown diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs in the wedding celebration, singing several operatic numbers and culminating with “O mio babbino caro”, the aria with which she’d swept the film with such a romantic overtone. And yes, Kwan is a Downton fan, remember S4 E3? The diva is a guest at the house party.

For Lucie, however, the short yearning in her heart for George is soon suppressed as the week-long Capri escapade draws to a close.

Part Two sees Lucie in her niche, NYC, five years later. An up-and-coming art consultant, Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike, a billennial (billionaire millennials) raised with new money from oil-rich Texas. A Venetian canal flows through his New York West Village town house with full-time gondoliers in service. His marriage proposal to Lucie outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art involves the NYC Ballet, a marching band, the Mayor’s office, and the Big Apple Circus. Exactly.

Lucie has always been torn about her bicultural heritage, especially when she and her brother Freddie were left on their own with their mother after father Reggie Churchill died of a heart attack when she was just a child. The Churchills always boast about their pedigree being Mayflower descendants, rising in financial prowess through banking and inheriting Gilded Age fortune. In the building that matriarch Granny Churchill lives, even the doormen are snobbish.

Not that Luci’s Chinese lineage has nothing to be proud of. Her mother Marian Tang (Seattle Country Day / Lakeside / Harvard / Columbia PhD) is a well-established academic endowed with skin so young to look like a twenty-something. Despite being born in America, to the Churchills, Marian is a foreigner.

Lucie sees her situation clearly: “To Granny, no matter how graciously she behaved, no matter what she accomplished, she would always only ever be the poor little china doll.” So, marrying her WASP, crazy rich fiancé Cecil Pike should end all spite. But what she lacks is the view that she’s just a thing to boost Cecil’s ego and his brand.

Then George reappears. Kwan keeps his cues interesting to lead Lucie to see a clearer view of her situation, an obvious parallel with Forster’s story. Further, Kwan pinpoints racism even within families, as Lucie notes “it’s possible to love someone without realizing you’re being racist toward them.” Without getting serious and didactic, he handles these issues with bold, comical strokes.

If by the likely chance the book is picked up for a movie adaptation, my choice for a director would be New York born and raised Whit Stillman (Collegiate School / Millbrook School / Harvard) to balance with some soul and subtlety. Indeed, Kwan and Stillman (Love & Friendship, 2016; Metropolitan, 1990) would make a fine filmmaking hapa.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

NOTE: Reading Forster’s A Room with a View and watching the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation would enhance your reading pleasure of Sex and Vanity.

UPDATE: Sony Pictures and SK Global have acquired the film rights to Sex and Vanity.

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I thank Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer copy of Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Far Eastern Kindergarten / ACS / Clear Lake High / UHCL / Parsons School of Design), 315 pages, 2020.

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Summer Reads before the Coming Movies

Rewatching Little Women


Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is on Amazon Prime Video now. I watched it twice in the theatre last year, now rewatching it at home gives me another kind of pleasure: more intimate, easier to observe nuances, and replay memorable lines on demand. It remains one of the best films I’ve watched in recent years.

Reposting here my review. Hope you have a chance to watch it.

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Little Women is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.

So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.

The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.

Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.


The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War.

A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.

The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.

A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.

Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.

In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:

Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.

The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth. 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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