Another sketch in an ongoing look at transitions on Oahu, this time looking at places from my youth: my childhood home, theaters, malls, skate parks, nighttime beach parties, the state mental hospital, summer bon dances.
An essay I made for Fandor's Keyframe:
Last year, I watched close to forty films about my home, Hawai‘i, and collected what I was seeing into a film, OCCASIONALLY, I SAW GLIMPSES OF HAWAI‘I. When I screened this piece in Hawai‘i, what fascinated me most was the deep nostalgia that some felt while watching these images. As if this piece was analogous to flipping through an old photo album. This was unexpected, and really got me thinking: Who controls our memories?
Hidden somewhere between Honomu and Hakalau, about 30 minutes up the Hamakua coast from Hilo is a small town called Wailea.
I'm here scouting for my film, digging for some remaining traces of Hawai‘i's past lives. Driving up the coast from Hilo we visit the old sugar plantation communities on the Hamakua coast, quaint towns with insane views of the Pacific Ocean. A lot of the former plantation workers have passed on and moved out, and the mainlanders are starting to build.
But then we arrive at the ghost town of Wailea. No development here, all the main street shops are boarded and abandoned. It smells like cat piss. Empty chairs and metal signs. I walk up the street -- there are a few homes left, and the old timers eye me like the suspicious tourist that I am.
"How many people live here?" I ask Akiko, our host.
"30? Every month it's less and less. Another one passed over just last month." Akiko closes her eyes when she speaks. Originally from Honolulu, she moved out here decades ago, opened a bed & breakfast in an old plantation home and built a zazen space next door. A storyteller at heart, she cares about the community. Every week she organizes a farmers market, and every month she holds a community lunch at the Japanese temple.
She changes the subject to a local artist that just passed, Randy Takaki, but I'm still stuck on the town. Who is left? Who calls this place home?
Nights in Wailea, the coqui frogs sing a chorus you wouldn't believe. This loud invasive species of frog has infested large swaths of the island, and without any natural predators to keep the population in check, they've flourished. One local told me that they've begun mating with other species of frogs; another told me that they've started to eat their own kind.
At night, these mutant cannibal frogs are all you hear.
As I lay in bed, listening to their mating song, all I can think is: the old timers are dying and the mutant cannibal frogs are thriving.
The next morning I look up Randy Takaki and realize that the artist Akiko mentioned had just passed was a fucking genius. I'd previously seen his work in passing but had not known his name. Now, I wanted to know everything. I find out that he worked as a parking attendant, or maybe a real estate agent, and that he struggled financially. That he died suddenly after visiting his ex-girlfriend, his muse, at her workplace. Or maybe he was at the library and later with his mother. That he lived like a monk. That his studio was full of unused slabs of wood he'd collected over the years.
That morning at breakfast, as I contemplated asking Akiko how I could visit this deceased man's studio without seeming crass, another visitor mentioned that Justin Bieber was staying at a home down by the shoreline. He was paying $10K a night to party at a mansion built on old plantation farmland.
Randy Takaki is dead, but Bieber thrives.
Just like the nightly dreamscapes we all spend a fourth of our lives wandering, my excursion through Kaili Blues was an astonishing puzzle. First time filmmaker Bi Gan had taken the language of my film heroes and remixed it with a flagrant disregard for cinematic perfection. It was brazen and carefree in the way that gives every filmmaker some hope. But it was also bewildering. Although the other two individuals I saw it with seemed to roll with it completely, I had no idea what the fuck was going on.
And yet emerging from this hallucinatory trip, I tried to hold onto the confusion because although I didn't completely know what I was watching, I felt it in my gut that I'd glimpsed the precipice, briefly. I held on because I had the feeling that this young man had done it, had done the thing filmmakers have been trying to do since the beginning of the form: he'd reached into the essence of cinema (TIME) and found something new.
So I watched it again.
On the second watch I realized that, yes, the film is demanding, yet only because we've been trained to expect narratives to move in a line. Bi Gan's film, on the other hand, moves in circles. Like the clocks that adorn the walls of this film, or the slow circular pans that inhabit its spaces, we return again and again to familiar scenarios, characters, details: brotherly rage, a dead love, a missing child, ominous wild men, and a memory of a place called Kaili.
And then [spoilers ahead]: an hour into the film there is a sequence that I believe most viewers will agree is its triumph -- what the film will most likely be remembered for after the first watch -- a tour de force, 40-minute sequence in real time with no cuts. It's an audacious feat in itself, one that filmmakers have deployed more and more as digital becomes the norm. But while most filmmakers wield the long take like a new set of biceps (e.g.: children of men, revenant, true detective, etc., etc., etc.), Bi uses it to show someone getting a haircut, a slow ride down a river, a painfully awkward karaoke performance. If all of these elements sound disconnected it's because this long take isn't about the anxiety of real time, it's about the anxiety of unreal time. There aren't any cuts in dreams, either, man.
And thus the film continues, circling back onto itself, while doubles of characters appear and disappear, culminating in the realization (for our main character, but also for me, watching it) that even while time is moving forward, we know the things that have passed will come around again.
Ultimately, it's either all a dream or none of it is, and if this sounds both pretentious and banal it's because of course it is when written down in words like this. But I'm convinced that the future of cinema lies in this very banal statement. Kaili Blues is a reminder that the future is rooted in the past, in that very thing filmmakers have been exploring since its invention: time.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Chinlin Hsieh's Flowers of Taipei, along with the documentary Our Story, Our Time that's included on the new A Brighter Summer Day criterion disc, and thought it a good opportunity to write a few thoughts on Hou Hsaio Hsien and Edward Yang.
"They were the spark that made me believe our memories have value." - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
I can't remember which film I watched first, it was either Hou Hsiao Hsien's Millennium Mambo or Edward Yang's Yi Yi, but I remember thinking about islands. Islands with deep colonial histories, struggling through an awkward adolescence into modernism. I knew almost nothing about Taiwan other than that my good friend Gene had told me that while he had grown up speaking Taiwanese with his family in Hawai‘i, when he returned to Taiwan all the young kids spoke Mandarin and he got teased for speaking like an old man. This fascinated me, how quickly history moves. History, memory, islands.
"It was like the match I'd been waiting for." - Hirokazu Kore-eda
This was around 2002 and I was devouring Asian art cinema. Up until this point, growing up in Hawai‘i, I hadn't seen many Asian faces in movies. And when I did it was Hong Kong action, or old Bruce Lee, or B&W NHK films I watched with grandma. But here was a group of ragtag Asian filmmakers making artful, progressive, deeply personal works about their people and their home. For the first time, very briefly, I saw a future for myself in filmmaking.
I was only just starting to understand film language -- a language that still overwhelms me -- but I felt an immediate connection to Hou Hsiao Hsien's formal ambition. He wasn't making experimental films, but his composition and pacing felt unlike anything else I'd seen up until that point, one that captured a pace of life that felt lived in and real. I remember thinking: oh wow, Hou kept his distance, but it wasn't cold like Antonioni; Hou focused on the movement of bodies in a frame, but it wasn't theatrical like Fellini; Hou's films were elliptical, essentially plotless, but weren't heavy on allegory like a lot of plotless Western films were. Taiwanese New Wavers used real locations and real people. They were slow, relaxing, measured, and even though I could never understand the nuances of Taiwanese life, I felt there was a deep sense of history.
My favorite of Hou's films. Good Men, Good Women has it all: a film about filmmaking, obliquely connecting an untold historical trauma to the personal disaffection of modern life. A meditation on what it means to reconsider and recreate history, and on what stays constant over time: people and sadness.
And then there's Yi Yi, a masterpiece, I believe one of the best films of all time. I am trying to think of a few words to write to about this film, but fuck it, if you haven't seen it just go watch it. Then start from the beginning and watch the rest of Edward Yang's work. He's a fascinating, confusing director. Each film seems disconnected from the previous, but taken as a whole his work speaks to a profound understanding of how humans run from and collide into other humans, stumbling through life. While I was at USC, I would constantly think about how Yang was also at USC, but had dropped out, then later returned to Taiwan and just started making films. I wondered, if he didn't stay, why should I? Should I drop out, return home, and just start making films? Ultimately I stayed, because, alas, I am not Edward Yang.
"They were part of the reason I returned to Thailand. His work reminded me of home." - Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Fifteen years out from my discovering these works, they still continue to nourish me. Whenever I'm confused about what the fuck I'm doing or where I'm heading, or just, why, these are the films I turn to, the gospel of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang, and I immediately know ah, of course, this is why:
Back in New York City after almost a month on O‘ahu. Shooting, scouting, time with family & friends. Here are some photos:
Allow me to quickly fanboy out for one second: FINALLY.
Coming in March 2016. I am more excited about this than any other release next year. Fuck, this year even. But to be honest, I've gotten strangely fond of the aesthetic of my crappy video rip, watching a 4k restoration will be like watching a whole new film.
I'm currently working on a personal project and one of the films I came across in my research is this gem, Go For Broke. Produced by MGM, released in 1951, the film is a retelling of the infamous 442nd, employing Japanese-Americans many, many key roles. In 1951! The 442nd story has been told many times since over the years, and this film isn't perfect, but after watching many studio films of the era, consistently enraged at the Hollywood representation of Asian-Americans at the time, this film is a fucking miracle. Moving stuff.
Can't stop thinking about this pair of films I saw last last weekend. Highly involved. Seek 'em out.
Must-watch film by Shuji Terayama:
Back home in Hawaii this past summer, the one thing that mesmerized me was the massive amounts of development in the city. This shifting skyline — 22 condos going up in Kakaako alone, I’m told. I’m neither for nor against all this change but I’m not ambivalent either, transitions are always powerful.
Quick update from Hawaii:
Excited that "I was a Simple Man" will be attending IFP Week this year as a part of their Emerging Storytellers section.
I will also be heading back to those Utah mountains for Sundance Producing Summit this weekend. Then back to New York City.
Hawaii is nice, but I miss the city.
Nobuhiko Obayashi's HOUSE (1977) is bonkers fun, and in the end surprisingly moving.
Also recommended: kogonada's video essay on HOUSE:
My feature film in development, "I Was a Simple Man," has been invited to participate in the Sundance Directors Lab this June:
I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such good fortune this year. It makes me nervous and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop -- too much good news is weird in that way.
But I'm looking forward to workshopping these scenes at the lab. Because for the first time in a long time I've written something that is outside of my normal formal range. And I'll be pushing myself to try new things, new visual tactics, to really try to capture what I think is the core of this film: this film is a beautiful dark silence, but it's also an acceptance of transience.
And every morning I'm waking up to new images, coming in from who knows where.
I am more than thrilled to announce that I am going to be attending the Sundance Screenwriters Lab this January with my feature script "I Was a Simple Man." This is an opportunity to learn from some filmmaking greats and really push to get this thing in shape. Thank you thank you thank you to the Sundance Institute for their support.
2015 is going to be a great year.
Cinephilia and Beyond is one of the best filmmaking resources out there -- a daily dose of must-read inspiration. So you can imagine my elation that they've chosen to feature OBAKE on their site. Such an honor.
You can read their post on OBAKE here.
We've wrapped shooting on a new film. It's called "HE/SHE/EXIT/SIGNS" and here's a peek:
More news as it comes.
MAKOTO: OR, HONESTY is screening this Monday at CAAMFest in San Francisco. In spite of my skepticism about San Fran being a real city, I am very excited to be playing at this festival and if you're in the Bay Area check it out: