VCinema Takes Manhattan

In March 2012, I made my first visit to New York City since May 1994, at which time, I was a teenager, Times Square was still somewhat seedy, and Alex Proyas’ cult comic book adaptation The Crow (1994) was the number one box office attraction in the United States. The reason for this belated return trip was a generous invitation from Samuel Jamier, Programming Director of the Japan Society, to introduce selected screenings for Love Will Tear Us Apart, the sixth annual Globus film series that coincided with the publication of my new edited collection, Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2. Billed as a programme of, “twisted, obsessive, heart-blazing love stories”, the season not only included classic and contemporary Japanese films, but also incorporated thematically relevant titles from South Korea to note the manner in which these two national cinemas at once converge and diverge in terms of their approaches to similar subject matter. Within the season were mini-retrospectives of two remarkable filmmakers, Shinya Tsukamoto and Kim Ki-duk: Tsukamoto’s latest work KOTOKO (2011) opened the season, followed by A Snake of June (2002) and Vital (2004), while the prolific Kim was represented by Bad Guy (2001), Time (2006), and Dream (2008). KOTOKO was a bold choice to begin the season, as it is a typically unflinching Tsukamoto experience concerning the increasingly erratic mental state of a single mother (a fearless performance by pop singer Coco) that leads to suspicions of child abuse. Intimate scenes that explore Kotoko’s interactions with her son and a strangely smitten novelist are intercut with vividly-realised hallucinations that illustrate the central character’s psychological descent. Audience members were left shaken by the succession of disturbing scenes, either imagined or more matter-of-fact depictions of self-harm. However, the post-screening party, with a killer set from Brooklyn band the Hard Nips (complete with season-specific Joy Division cover), and a seemingly endless supply of complimentary alcoholic beverages, certainly helped to take the collective edge off.

Located at 333 East 47th Street, close to the headquarters of the United Nations, the Japan Society is a non-profit organisation, founded in 1907, that aims to enhance the understanding of Japanese culture, history, and society through a range of innovative arts programs, such as Love Will Tear Us Apart. The season ran from March 2-18, and I was in attendance for most of the first week to introduce screenings of Air Doll (2009), My Dear Enemy (2008), A Snake of June, Vibrator (2003), and Vital. Due to the marketing efforts of the Japan Society, which range from a lot of social media activity to a sensational Youtube trailer, screenings were well-attended by an audience with a genuine interest in seeing some unique films that have, sadly, received relatively little exposure in the United States. It was a great pleasure to introduce the aforementioned features, some of which are among my favourite East Asian films of the past decade: my introductions ranged from the general (the universal break-up scenario of Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy), to the culturally specific (the ‘lost generation’ of Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator), and the technical (Tsukamoto’s use of blue filter in A Snake of June), before letting the actual films do the talking. It was also a lot of fun to meet the staff and volunteers at the Japan Society as the time between introductions was spent discussing East Asian cinema and a variety of other subjects. Won over by their commitment to the organisation and wanting to assist in any way possible, I offered to carry one of the films from the projection booth up to the main office, but perhaps should have waited until a later screening before offering my services (My Dear Enemy was pretty heavy at six reels, A Snake of June would have been lighter at four).

Also showing at Japan Society during this period, but not connected to Love Will Tear Us Apart, was David Gelb’s charming documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), which received a special advance on March 5. Gelb follows Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi master who runs the world renowned restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, out of a basement in a Tokyo office building. The film examines both Jiro’s personal and professional life, revealing his family and business to be one in the same as he works constantly until it is time to pass the restaurant over to his son, Yoshikazu. In-keeping with its subject, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary that can best be described as tasteful: Gelb includes many mouth-watering closes-ups of Jiro’s dishes, with scenes of delicate preparation accompanied by the music of Philip Glass. As such, Jiro Dreams of Sushi rarely goes deeper than the restaurant owner’s unwavering quest for excellence – “I’ll always want to aim higher and work for it” – but Gelb clearly illustrates how daily effort has made Sukiyabashi Jiro the only sushi establishment to receive three Michelin stars, even though it does not have a bathroom on the premises. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the manner in which it examines the performative aspect of Jiro’s work, with his presence behind the counter and considerable reputation effectively making him the ‘frontman’ for the operation, with a number of well-trained employees adding significant contributions behind the scenes that are often attributed to the owner. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Gelb, the French chef Eric Ripert, and Masato Shimizu, sushi chef of New York restaurant 15 East who also prepared the food for the evening’s Sushi and Sake reception. Magnolia Pictures have since theatrically distributed Jiro Dreams of Sushi in the United States, and the documentary will be released to other territories throughout 2012.

I also had a lot of free time to see the city, pounding pavement to take in such attractions as Central Park, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim, while also wandering around Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. However, the highlight of this tourist activity was a visit to the International Center of Photography, which currently has a terrific exhibition entitled Weegee: Murder is My Business. Devoted to the brilliant photojournalist Arthur Fellig who, under the pseudonym of Weegee, documented the New York crime scene from 1935-1946, the exhibition shows how his street photography also influenced the aesthetic development of film noir. The style of Jules Dassin’s classic thriller The Naked City (1948) was heavily influenced by the work of Weegee, while his persona and professional approach also provided the basis for the character portrayed by Joe Pesci in Howard Franklin’s sadly neglected period noir The Public Eye (1992). Perhaps more relevant to VCinema readers are two smaller exhibits of on-going work by Greg Giard and Chien-Chi Chang, which are on display as part of a Perspectives series that aims to spotlight emerging artists in the fields of photography and video. Girard’s Half the Surface of the World, focuses on the replicas of American hometowns that are found on American military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, with an emphasis on such ‘ordinary’ spaces as ATM machines, shops, and suburban streets. Chang’s China Town captures the loneliness of immigrant life through images of Chinese workers who have relocated to the United States to better provide for families back home. Girard and Chang explore how people deal with dislocation by recreating aspects of their respective cultures in their new surroundings: one particularly striking Chang photograph shows an Asian man drinking a bowl of soup while sitting on a tiny New York fire escape wearing only his underwear.

Another highlight of the trip was meeting up with Stan Glick and Rufus L de Rham of the VCinema podcast for lunch at the Stage Deli. As with most film-related websites, the VCinema team is comprised of contributors who are based all over the world, so many of us have never met in person, although Facebook and Skype ensure that we are in regular contact. Stan, a former columnist for the legendary Asian Cult Cinema magazine, and Rufus, who is currently studying at the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University, are as much fun to spend time with as you would expect from listening to the podcast. After lunch, Rufus provided a tour of the Chelsea district, including the indoor market and nearby rooftop art project. I was running low on expenses by the last few days of my trip, so it was fortunate that Rufus is the master of the ‘budget tour’ ($2 for take-out coffee, conversation completely free). Such cash considerations meant that I visited the local branch of Japanese culture specialist Kinokuniya to browse the books, DVDs, and manga material, but left empty-handed due to steep prices and a lack of sale stickers. Still, this well-stocked chain is worth seeking out for Japanophiles who prefer to buy off the rack than through Amazon. When I arrived at Newark Airport to catch my return flight to Nanjing, China, I had just $20 remaining in my wallet ($10 went on the obligatory NYC T-shirt, while the rest covered a snack and a bottle of water), but I prefer to see this as a sign of six days of fun rather than as a negative reflection of the cost of hanging out in the Big Apple. Finally, I would like to thank everyone who made this such an enjoyable visit and I greatly look forward to my next guest speaker gig in New York City.

Suggested Links:

15 East

Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2

Hard Nips

International Center of Photography

Japan Society


KOTOKO trailer

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Stage Deli