Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Salvation and Redemption: Key Themes for Asian Films at Cinequest 2014

Now in its 24th year, the Cinequest Film Festival, held annually in San Jose, Calif., once again presents an impressive and eclectic array of independent films from all over the world. Each year, ThingsAsian posts my reviews of Cinequest’s Asian and Asia-related entries. This year, only six of the Asian films were available for pre-festival review: TheDesert Fish; A Thief, a Kid, and a Killer; Funny Money; The Circle Within; Papilo Buddha, and Life is Love. And whether real or fictional, all feature characters in need of salvation, with their own unique ways of finding redemption.

The Chopstick Cinema Cookbook!

Explore the Far East from the comfort of home through the cuisines of ten Asian countries, paired with movies by some of Asia’s most visionary filmmakers.

With Asian food and film blogger Celeste Heiter as your guide, and Chopstick Cinema as your culinary and cinematic passport, savor the delicacy of Vietnamese Crab-Filled Summer Rolls as you inhale the intoxicating Scent of Green Papaya; relive the bone-chilling saga of a haunted village over a steaming bowl of Pad Thai; spend a contemplative evening on a serene lake in a floating Buddhist temple as you nibble on Korean Kim Bap and Mandu Dumplings; feast on Samosas and Chicken Vindaloo while cheering a rag-tag team of Indian locals in a cricket match against the British raj; or spend a summer in rural Cambodia to learn the true meaning of a simple bowl of rice.

Based on her belief that anyone with basic cooking skills can prepare an authentic Asian meal using ingredients that are readily available at almost any well-stocked food market, Celeste has selected her favorite Asian dishes from among the hundreds of recipes featured on her Chopstick Cinema blog. The menu for each country is a collection of ten dishes: nibbles, cold and hot appetizers, soup, salad, noodles, main course, two side dishes, and dessert, along with a shopping guide and online sources for hard-to-find ingredients; followed by a review of Celeste’s favorite film from each country, and recommendations for several alternate films.

With a pair of chopsticks in one hand, and your remote control in the other, satisfy your appetite for Asian food and adventure that’s sure to be as memorable as the real thing.

Three Cinequest Favorites: Amal, The Civilization of Maxwell Bright, and Firefly Dreams

Each year, I watch and review all the Asian entries for the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA. Over the years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of watching dozens of rare film that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Three of those films are now among my favorite cinematic works.

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Amal

Amal is the happiest rickshaw driver in Delhi. Not because life is going especially well for him, but because he remains true to himself no matter what life brings. When a mischievous moppet snatches the purse of Amal’s best customer, he gives chase on foot, only to discover around the next corner that the child has been hit by a Rolls Royce that simply drives away leaving her for dead in the street. Wracked with guilt, Amal, takes her to the hospital and sees to it that she gets the best care. But the best care costs money.

In the competitive world of rickshaw drivers, Amal is fortunate to have a few regular passengers on his daily route, but throughout the rest of the day, he ferries strangers around the bustling city in his tiny green and yellow taxi. Little does he know what the fates have in store for him when an ornery old man gets into his taxi one day. In a dispute over the fare, Amal gives him a discount and refuses to accept a tip. A few months later, everyone who knew the old man is suddenly searching for Amal.

Co-written and directed by Richie Mehta, Amal is a gem of a film that really delivers. Featuring stellar performances by Rupinder Nagra, Koel Purie, Naseeruddin Shah, Seema Biswas, Vik Sahay, Roshan Seth, and Tanisha Chatterjee, the story moves along at the speedy pace of Amal’s little rickshaw, with dramatic irony at its best, and an air of mystery and suspense that unfolds at every turn.

 

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The Civilization of Maxwell Bright

Meet Maxwell Bright: a successful home theater and big-screen TV dealer, fully frontally nude in the driveway outside his Los Angeles home as he chases after his also-naked girlfriend, hurling at her the most obscene, hair-raising, sexually derogatory insults ever captured on film. It seems that they've had yet another lovers' spat while engaged in sexual intercourse and, in the heat of the moment, have gone public with their little melodrama. A shovel upside his head gets his girlfriend hauled off in a squad car and leaves Maxwell Bright with a gaping wound, both literally and figuratively: He's through with American women.

While sitting around the poker table with his buddies a few days later, the notion of an Asian mail-order bride is introduced, and faster than you can say 'Eights over Aces', Maxwell Bright is off to the bride broker. But not just any bride broker. Mr. Wroth, a man of aristocratic refinement and infinitely discriminating taste, prides himself on hand-selecting a perfect match for each of his clients. Six weeks and a hundred thousand dollars later, Maxwell Bright answers a knock at his door to find Mai Ling, his beautiful Chinese wife-to-be.

Life is paradise for the first few days as Mai Ling satisfies his every sexual fantasy, waits on him hand and foot, and brings serenity and order to the once chaotic squalor of Maxwell Bright's bachelorhood. Paradise, that is, until Max, in a moment of swaggering indiscretion, orders Mai Ling to disrobe for his poker buddies. When she refuses, Max does the deed himself, humiliating his new bride in front of three gaping men, who are just as embarrassed as she is. In that instant, the honeymoon is over, and the following day, Mai Ling hauls Maxwell Bright back to the broker to air her grievances. In this pivotal scene, a secret is revealed about Mai Ling that will profoundly impact the life, and ultimately the death, of Maxwell Bright.

Patrick Warburton stars in the title role of this small-budget independent film, with a finely-crafted script and stellar performances by such familiar faces as Marie Matiko as Mai Ling, Simon Callow as Mr. Wroth, Eric Roberts as best friend Arliss, and cameos by Carol Kane, Nora Dunn, John Glover, and Jennifer Tilley. With a CV that lists only a handful of films, writer and director David Beaird really pushed the margins on this one to win awards at film festivals all over the world. Be forewarned that much of Act I contains abhorrent male chauvinism, and profanity so vulgar that will leave you gaping in dismay, but if you can ride it out, the film takes an unexpected turn in Act II, and concludes in a spiritual and loving way that will make it all worthwhile.

 

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Firefly Dreams

With its debut in Nagoya Japan under the title Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (The Most Wonderful Summer), and now making its way around the international film festival circuit, Firefly Dreams has set the world of independent filmmaking abuzz. Not only because it stands on its own as a stellar cinematic work, but also because its creator, Welsh-born filmmaker John Williams has succeeded in going where no filmmaker has gone before: Beyond the international frontier and deep into the exclusive world of Japanese cinema.

For Williams, the call to filmmaking came early, at age 14, while watching Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God in a series of foreign films televised by Britain's BBC2 . From that moment on, it was never a matter of if, but when. Williams made his very first film that same year, and, with ten prior works under his belt, including a 50-minute documentary on the political killings in Sri Lanka, and a 70-minute Japanese film called Midnight Spin, he went on to write, seek financing, scout locations, cast, direct, edit and personally promote Firefly Dreams.

This engaging film tells the simple tale of Naomi, a misguided Japanese teenager who routinely ditches school for shopping and goes nightclubbing with friends to escape her troubled home life. When Naomi's adulterous mother runs off to live with her lover, Naomi's father packs her off to the mountain resort town of Horaicho, where his sister runs a small country inn. There, Naomi is reacquainted with the elderly Mrs. Koide, who was once her nanny and who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Naomi is assigned to the task of being Mrs. Koide's companion and caretaker, and over the course of the summer, a rare friendship that transcends both age and time blossoms between them.

The characters in the story are loosely based upon people from Williams' own life, and the cast was mindfully chosen from among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the film. The casting of three newcomers for the youthful characters in Firefly Dreams was a keen instinct for John Williams. In the role of Naomi, Maho Ukai steals every scene with her slangy cityspeak and pouty disposition. Etsuko Kimata is convincing as Naomi's developmentally disabled cousin Yumi, and Tsutomu Niwa, as Masaru the smooth-talking loverboy, delivers a candidly unaffected performance. The exception to the neophyte cast is one of the granddames of Japanese stage, cinema, and television, Yoshie Minami, who brings a quiet dignity and grace to the role of the aging Mrs. Koide as she slips further and further into her darkling world of nostalgic dementia.

All is implicit in Firefly Dreams, with its many-layered subtleties and refreshing lack of melodrama. But according to Williams, who first wrote the screenplay in English, his original dialogue underwent many changes as it was professionally translated into Japanese, and later fine-tuned by the actors themselves. Firefly Dreams is not so much a film about what happens to the characters, but more importantly the transformations that take place within their emerging and evolving relationships.

Like the unfolding of a lotus blossom, Mrs. Koide's mysterious past is revealed. Petal by petal, Naomi learns that Mrs. Koide was once a beautiful young war widow who turned to the stage and screen to make her way in the world. Yet Mrs. Koide's past remains enigmatic throughout the film. From her delusional episodes, it seems that rumors of her reputation spoiled a proposal of marriage. However, much like trying to construct the truth from bits of gossip, one can only piece together an approximation of what may have happened, but it is never made entirely clear.

In the midst of her budding relationship with Mrs. Koide, Naomi also grapples with the exasperating tag-along companionship of her simple-minded cousin Yumi; an ill-fated tryst with Masaru, a local delivery boy; and the love/hate feelings she harbors toward her mother. Over the course of the summer however, Naomi acquires a sense of acceptance and belonging. She learns humility and grace. She learns to sit still, to endure the passage of time. And for the first time in her life, she learns what it means to love.

All the requisite elements come together to create the magic that is Firefly Dreams. The film's dual settings cast a striking contrast between the savoir-faire chic of urban life in Nagoya, and the stifling tedium of provincial life in Horaicho. Deliberate pacing evokes the feeling of a lazy summer in the country, and the soundtrack hums with chirping cicada and the ambient sounds of nature to produce a palpably realistic backdrop for the lush cinematography of Yoshinobu Hayano. Music director Paul Rowe has overlaid each scene with a musical motif: a fecund guitar track for the carefree feeling of youth, the gravity and pathos of the piano for Mrs. Koide's waning twilight days, and a heartfelt blend of both instruments in the Japanese pentatonic scale as the film draws toward its lovingly crafted conclusion.

John Williams is indeed a talent to watch as his star rises upon the horizon of independent filmmaking. And if the firefly is a symbol of inspiration and hope, then Firefly Dreams has already set the heavens ablaze.

With its debut in Nagoya Japan under the title Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (The Most Wonderful Summer), and now making its way around the international film festival circuit, Firefly Dreams has set the world of independent filmmaking abuzz. Not only because it stands on its own as a stellar cinematic work, but also because its creator, Welsh-born filmmaker John Williams has succeeded in going where no filmmaker has gone before: Beyond the international frontier and deep into the exclusive world of Japanese cinema.

For Williams, the call to filmmaking came early, at age 14, while watching Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God in a series of foreign films televised by Britain's BBC2 . From that moment on, it was never a matter of if, but when. Williams made his very first film that same year, and, with ten prior works under his belt, including a 50-minute documentary on the political killings in Sri Lanka, and a 70-minute Japanese film called Midnight Spin, he went on to write, seek financing, scout locations, cast, direct, edit and personally promote Firefly Dreams.

This engaging film tells the simple tale of Naomi, a misguided Japanese teenager who routinely ditches school for shopping and goes nightclubbing with friends to escape her troubled home life. When Naomi's adulterous mother runs off to live with her lover, Naomi's father packs her off to the mountain resort town of Horaicho, where his sister runs a small country inn. There, Naomi is reacquainted with the elderly Mrs. Koide, who was once her nanny and who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Naomi is assigned to the task of being Mrs. Koide's companion and caretaker, and over the course of the summer, a rare friendship that transcends both age and time blossoms between them.

The characters in the story are loosely based upon people from Williams' own life, and the cast was mindfully chosen from among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the film. The casting of three newcomers for the youthful characters in Firefly Dreams was a keen instinct for John Williams. In the role of Naomi, Maho Ukai steals every scene with her slangy cityspeak and pouty disposition. Etsuko Kimata is convincing as Naomi's developmentally disabled cousin Yumi, and Tsutomu Niwa, as Masaru the smooth-talking loverboy, delivers a candidly unaffected performance. The exception to the neophyte cast is one of the granddames of Japanese stage, cinema, and television, Yoshie Minami, who brings a quiet dignity and grace to the role of the aging Mrs. Koide as she slips further and further into her darkling world of nostalgic dementia.

All is implicit in Firefly Dreams, with its many-layered subtleties and refreshing lack of melodrama. But according to Williams, who first wrote the screenplay in English, his original dialogue underwent many changes as it was professionally translated into Japanese, and later fine-tuned by the actors themselves. Firefly Dreams is not so much a film about what happens to the characters, but more importantly the transformations that take place within their emerging and evolving relationships.

Like the unfolding of a lotus blossom, Mrs. Koide's mysterious past is revealed. Petal by petal, Naomi learns that Mrs. Koide was once a beautiful young war widow who turned to the stage and screen to make her way in the world. Yet Mrs. Koide's past remains enigmatic throughout the film. From her delusional episodes, it seems that rumors of her reputation spoiled a proposal of marriage. However, much like trying to construct the truth from bits of gossip, one can only piece together an approximation of what may have happened, but it is never made entirely clear.

In the midst of her budding relationship with Mrs. Koide, Naomi also grapples with the exasperating tag-along companionship of her simple-minded cousin Yumi; an ill-fated tryst with Masaru, a local delivery boy; and the love/hate feelings she harbors toward her mother. Over the course of the summer however, Naomi acquires a sense of acceptance and belonging. She learns humility and grace. She learns to sit still, to endure the passage of time. And for the first time in her life, she learns what it means to love.

All the requisite elements come together to create the magic that is Firefly Dreams. The film's dual settings cast a striking contrast between the savoir-faire chic of urban life in Nagoya, and the stifling tedium of provincial life in Horaicho. Deliberate pacing evokes the feeling of a lazy summer in the country, and the soundtrack hums with chirping cicada and the ambient sounds of nature to produce a palpably realistic backdrop for the lush cinematography of Yoshinobu Hayano. Music director Paul Rowe has overlaid each scene with a musical motif: a fecund guitar track for the carefree feeling of youth, the gravity and pathos of the piano for Mrs. Koide's waning twilight days, and a heartfelt blend of both instruments in the Japanese pentatonic scale as the film draws toward its lovingly crafted conclusion.

John Williams is indeed a talent to watch as his star rises upon the horizon of independent filmmaking. And if the firefly is a symbol of inspiration and hope, then Firefly Dreams has already set the heavens ablaze.