Archive for June, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival: No really, All Your Cultural Institutions Are Belong to Us

I have an affinity with the New York Asian Film Festival.  It’s got the same summer birthday as the little man in my life, so what’s not to like?

This year my son turns 10, and this month, the New York Asian Film Festival celebrates its 10th Anniversary – a decade of bringing over celluloid pyrotechnic penis guns from Japan, vengeance from Korea, and romance/ennui from the three Chinas (or maybe just the two, Mainland C and HK).

The Festival launches later this month and runs from June 25-July 8th at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center with screenings at the Japan Society July 1-4, and midnight screenings at the IFC Center downtown on June 25+26 as well as July 3,4,5.  Guests include the pillars of Hong Kong movie-making, actors Sammo Hung and Simon Yam.

But I wanted to talk to heavy-weight Grady (I-left-my-heart-in-Hong-Kong) Hendrix, who, along with the Subway Cinema team, put together this festival year after year and keep it going.  I’ve interviewed Grady in the past and he’s got the the love and affection for the movies coming out of East and South East Asia, an in depth knowledge of the various industries by country, and the business sense to bring it all together and weed out the best selection to bring over for New Yorkers.  (This year, team Subway Cinema chose 45 of 421 movies for the Fest.)  I managed to steal him away before a meeting to ask him what he’s excited for in this year’s line-up, the uptown/downtown venues, John Woo v. Jackie Chan, and why, after all these years, his heart is in Hong Kong.

Me: The New York Asian Film Festival has taken place at the Anthology Film Archives down on Second St., and its also screened at the IFC Center off West 4th st.  The Japan Society was added three years ago, and now the venue is Lincoln Center.

Grady Hendrix: It was largely accidental.  The Anthology became too small for us, they remodeled with larger seats and then had to cut back on the number of seats due to fire code.  But they were great to us when we were ugly and no one liked us.  We moved to the IFC and we love the location.  The Japan Society we’d been negotiating over the years.  But we came here [to Lincoln Center] because Gavin Smith (editor-in-chief of Film Comment) invited us.

We’ll see if our audience will come.  The IFC has been great for us, but this is the Upper West Side.  It remains to be seen whether this will be a love match.

Me: Is this a sign that movies coming out of East Asia are rising in status in the U.S.?

Grady Hendrix: It’s fallen.  When we started in 2000, no one cared.  Then in 2003 Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came out and everybody cared.  Then there was the Korean boom, and now, no one cares again.  It’s interesting, from 2003-2006 or 2007, the big companies were picking up these movies: The Weinstein Company, Sony, Lions Gate.  Now the companies picking these up are Taiseng – good companies, but small.

Me: Every year you host directors and actors at the festival, but this year you’ve got some serious heavy weights from Hong Kong – Sammo Hung and Simon Yam are both going to be here to introduce their movies.  These guys are huge stars and real cornerstones to the industry in Hong Kong.

Grady Hendrix: Which is great. It’s due to three things: Ip Man changed a lot of things. It came out in 2008 and it was a big hit. It’s not competing with Hollywood or CGI.  It launched a Hong Kong film making that’s returning to its classic values.   Also, the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office – we’ve been wooing them, and they’ve become our sugar daddy.  We wanted this and they made it come true.

Third, and I’m a sap, but for us it’s really poignant, in this year’s line up, Sammo Hung is almost 60, and he’s giving the performance of his career in IPMAN 2. Simon Yam – when I was growing up, he was the pretty boy, the leading man.  Now he’s playing this middle aged dad in Echos of the Rainbow.  Jackie Chan is 56 years old, there’s the Shaw Brothers movie and for us it’s like all these old lions have come roaring back and are doing some of the most amazing stuff ever done.  Across Asia it’s been huge – people are raving about Gallants; IPMAN 2 is the most successful movie. Even critics who only watch obscure arthouse movies from Asia like it.  It’s a tribute to them growing up.

Me: You’ve got two war movies in this festival that I want to ask you about.  For the first, you’re showing the 5 hour version of John Woo’s Red Cliff.  Second, you’ve got Jackie Chan’s new movie, Little Big Soldier.  They’re both war movies, but they take very different tacks from one another.

Grady Hendrix: Little Big Soldier is profoud and moving.  I find it so interesting.  Some people are taking about this movie in the context of the one China idea, but if you’re paying attention, the heros of movie are the losers.

In the movie, Hero, the message is that sacrifices had to be made for unity.  But in Little Big Soldier, the sympathies lie with the damaged.  For them, unification is a failure.  Jackie Chan is devoted to Hong Kong.  He’s more political than he’s given credit for.  There’s a little bit of Hong Kong in Little Big Soldier. All the politics, unification, these big ideas – Jackie Chan’s attitude is “I just want to make a living and not get killed.”  His concerns are more intellectual than John Woo.

John Woo’s movies are about irreconcilable friendships between two men.  Jackie Chan is about the working man in the world today.  But Jackie’s movies aren’t emotionally deep the way John Woo’s movies are.

What blew me away about Red Cliff is how good John Woo still is.  He’s got a 20 minute set piece about the weather that is riveting.  The Red Cliff battle is one of the biggest scenes in Chinese literature.  John Woo’s movie was such a hit and such a return to China for him.

Me: What are you excited about in this year’s line-up?

Grady Hendrix: I’m besotted with the nostalgia coming from Hong Kong.  Echos of the Rainbow is a sappy movie, but it earns sentiment.  There’s a nostalgia in Hong Kong for the way things were.  If you go there, people will point out the changes in landscape and business and say “this used to be ____”  “that used to be ____”.  “Used to be” is the operative in Hong Kong for what it was.  In the 80’s movies were made for the working class and the new middle class.  In the 90’s that went away, the 2000’s that went away –  it was all about cop movies, fantasy movies. Now we’re return to a nostalgia for the people that built HK, the clock punchers.

Beyond the Hong Kong stuff –  my heart is there but beyond that, we’ve got Cow and Crazy Racer which are both from a new phase of mainland Chinese film making that are not epic dramas and not art films about state oppression.  These movies are funny, and modern, and fast.  That’s huge.  Crazy Racer is a movie I’ve been excited about since last year.

Korea has a good line up, but Japan – I love Golden Slumber, not love as much as Fish Story, but Simbol and Confession – these are both huge. Confession is from the same director that did Kamikaze Girls, and it’s a big slab of something else, a true masterpiece.  It resembles Park Chan Wook’s revenge movies, but it makes him look like teenager who reads too many comics.  Confession is about a school teacher whose daughter drowns, and realizes that two of her students did it.  This movie has no value lesson, no pitch line, you come out staggered after watching it.  Some people will not like it, but it’s something major.  I can’t describe it.


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Scanlation Smackdown

It’s finally happening.  Manga publishers are mad as hell and they’re not taking it anymore.  Banding together in both Japan and the U.S., publishers have formed an alliance against pirated online manga (scanlations) and scanlation aggregators.

From the press-release:

Today a coalition of Japanese and U.S. publishers announced a coordinated effort to combat a rampant and growing problem of internet piracy plaguing the manga industry. “Scanlation,” as this form of piracy has come to be known, refers to the unauthorized digital scanning and translation of manga material that is subsequently posted to the internet without the consent of copyright holders or their licensees. According to the coalition, the problem has reached a point where “scanlation aggregator” sites now host thousands of pirated titles, earning ad revenue and/or membership dues at creators’ expense while simultaneously undermining foreign licensing opportunities and unlawfully cannibalizing legitimate sales. Worse still, this pirated material is already making its way to smartphones and other wireless devices, like the iPhone and iPad, through apps that exist solely to link to and republish the content of scanlation sites.

My editor Calvin Reid breaks the story at Publishers Weekly and gives some background on scanlation in the U.S.

Anime News Network picks up the story for a raucus gunfight in their comments section and discussion forum.

Over at Japanator, some interesting comments are coming in on this story, too.  My favorite so far is:

Next they’re going to start putting locked glass doors in front of the manga sections and forbidding librarys from buying their manga.

The above quote taken from the press-release issued earlier today from Viz Media is pretty wrenching in how widespread and out of control scanlation has grown.  Scanlation used to be something like a mixed tape – pass it around, share it.  Friend to friend, fan to fan.  And then the little guy was absorbed by the big guy.  And now aggregator sites make money off of pirated manga.  And apps have been built to better access those aggregator sites.  And publishers issuing cease and desist letters to scanlators are getting a strange response (in at least one case that I know of) where the scanlator has already pulled the scans of the license property years ago, but the scans have become viral – and collected by a big aggregator.  Cease and desist?

Better yet, fans who simply scan and upload the licensed, translated, and published manga that’s released in the U.S. by domestic publishers.  As Kurt Hassler tells it:

“These sites are run as businesses and include direct scans of licensed English-language manga editions. Some even include our copyright notices.”

I find this funny, but in the same way I find my son shooting chocolate milk out of his nostrils funny: hilarious, but also disgusting.

This is also the way I feel after reading some of the comments on the discussion thread at Anime News Network and Japanator.  One thing that technology has done – aside from tearing down borders, bringing everything foreign much closer to home, and democratizing information, is that it’s built this “free” experience that’s really only free for some.  It’s free for you if you’re consuming it, but it’s not free if you’re the person making it.  So essentially, the democratization of information is about privileging one side of the equation – the consumer side.  So instead of a global economy, what we’re really left with is a sense of global entitlement.

One card that fans have been playing in the scanlation hand is this sense of “scanlations are my only choice, otherwise I can’t read this manga” because it’s not available to American or English reading audiences, or because the American release is too slow.  I find this argument befuddling.  Just because you want it doesn’t mean you can have it.  A lot of times, what you want isn’t even up to you.  Take me for example.  I want peace in the Middle East and look what’s happening.

To further illustrate my point, I was in the spoon+fork office and founder and CEO Bryan Ong was kind enough to bring in some peanut brittle his mother had given him from her latest trip to the Philipines.  Anyone who knows me knows that I live on a strict diet of sugar and fat, so I was in love with the stuff.  It was buttery – the kind of buttery that you can smell when you take off the lid to the jar – and it was sweet, but not cloyingly so.  It was crisp without being so crunchy that my teeth hurt.  Basically, it tasted good and it was good to eat.  Unfortunately, we only had two jars and even after careful rationing, we went through the first jar in a few days.

Here’s the deal.  As it turns out, this peanut brittle can’t be found anywhere south of Canal Street or east of Grand in NYC.  Nor can it be found anywhere in Jersey.  In fact, it’s hard to find in the Philippines.  I couldn’t believe it.  Didn’t this vendor have distribution to major retail outlets in Manila?  No.  The peanut brittle had distribution on a roadside stall on a small, hard to get to island in the archipelago.  Once we were done with the second jar, there was no more peanut brittle.

So.  The moral of the story is: If I can’t have my peanut brittle, you can’t have your manga.

The other moral of the story is one that questions this rationale of “without scans I won’t have access to the manga I want” which I read as a bullshit excuse for not supporting the creators in Japan.  Manga isn’t a one way street that’s purely about fan pleasure.  It’s a club that fans are allowed access to by way of an entry fee – i.e. buying the book, not simply reading it, but buying it as well.  Somehow, fan culture here is about reading or consuming these properties, involving themselves in these narratives without supporting its creator or the infrastructure that allows for this material to be made.

Scanlation wasn’t always piracy.  In early stages, it was Robin Hood.  But now, instead of stealing and giving, it’s stealing and selling.  And that’s what makes it criminal.  Someone else who didn’t even make the scans, someone who doesn’t even care about manga but cares a whole lot about making a buck, is making money off of something that you, a fan, love.

If you’re reading pirated manga online at one of the aggregator scan sites, I invite you to buy the Japanese edition as well.  I’ve read scanlations of a bunch of series that probably won’t be licensed in the U.S., but I also buy the Japanese edition from Kinokuniya (they have an online store, by the way, so shipping is much less than ordering from Japan), or the Taiwan or Hong Kong licensed editions from one of the bookstores downtown.  This doesn’t excuse that I’m supporting piracy, but at the very least I can do a small part in supporting the creators and editors who are working their asses off to bring their stories to the public.

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New York Asian Film Festival: All your cultural institutions are belong to us

I hate this frickin’ recession, but I love me some Chinese movies.

Grady Hendrix and his gang of movie connoisseurs sent out word of their selections for this year’s New York Asian Film Fest (June 19-July 5), and like every year, it’s a  goldmine.

Schedules are up at the Subway Cinema website (which have been broken down by country/region ala World Cup – ie Korea/Japan/China-Hong Kong/South East Asia).  Full schedule on the festival blog.

Sign-up for the email newsletter and keep up with the festival as it tears through the IFC, the Japan Society, and Lincoln Center.

Grady and his gang also have a trailer up for the festival, edited by Yasu Inoue, whose tagline is “All your cultural institutions are belong to us.”

Such broken English is wet with offense and awesomeness.  Gotta love the NYAFF way ^_^

(As always, there’s more to come so stay tuned!)

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The World Cup is coming, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t be more excited. Possibly because my son is now at an age where we can really watch and play the game together, and because he’s fallen in love with the sport. (It’s coming in at a close second to baseballbasketballtennis.)  Quite possibly because I’m finding it ever so invigorating to personally chase around – and *kick* the shit out of – a round object resembling a human head.

Go to the FIFA website for deets and scheds.index.html

Click here for fun, spanky-pants way to watch the tourney at PlayBeautiful (if you’re in NYC)

And keep an eye out for North Korea – that’s the country I’ll be watching for cultural hybrid soccer star Jong Tae-se, Japan born and bred by North and South Korean parents.  Will they go head-to-head with Japan?  This is gonna be good.

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My Manga Highlights: Hiroki Otsuka and Manga at BEA

I blogged a few weeks ago about interviewing Hiroki Otsuka who has a residency at Japan Society in New York City.  It’s a long interview (feel free to read the entirety of it here, on the Publishers Weekly website) and I have a few favorite parts.  The entire interview had a sense of commerce underlying it, and the necessity to embrace the business of creativity – or at the very least, recognize and respect it.

The gallery people are looking at my work as money. You need to separate yourself from the value of your work. Some artists take six months to do a painting; I understand that. But I’m a cartoonist, I’m an entertainer.

The other thing that Otsuka said that I found hilarious and honest, is the manga business as a popularity contest.

It’s a business, honey. Popularity is important. I look at Kuniyoshi, he didn’t become a popular artist until his 30’s. How did he survive until then?

Speaking of survival, manga still continues to permeate the U.S. market, further proven by the wheeling and dealing at BEA last week.  With the cutbacks at VIZ Media and the closing down of CMX, there seemed to be this sentiment that manga is dying in the U.S.  Manga publishing is not dying.  It’s thriving.  Unfortunately, it’s thriving in a bullshit “content should be free” environment.  If this stuff should be free, then should aggregators  – and not creators – make money off of it?

P.S. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, and the answer is “no.”

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