By Valerie Soe. Posted Oct. 23, 2022.
As summer winds down into fall I wanted to share my most recent playlist of films, music, books, and art that I loved this year. In no particular order, here are some of my Asian/American cultural highlights from the past few months.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
I saw this earlier this year in a movie theater and my mind of course was blown. Rewatched it on DVD with my fam and it only was better the second time around as I was able to catch more details and appreciate the intricate narrative structure. My 89-year-old mom wasn’t impressed, but my 13-year-old nieces loved it.
The supernatural K-drama Sell Your Haunted House is another rewatch for me, now that it’s available on Netflix in many countries (though still not in the US for some reason). I used my handy vpn to watch it on Netflix UK and it was great to see it in HD after previously seeing it on some janky pirate site when it came out last year in South Korea. A ridiculously entertaining drama about a badass female exorcist/real estate agent and her conman partner, this one has humor, action, and a bit of scariness. The acting by my fav actor and musician, CNBLUE’s Jung Yonghwa, and the brilliant and beautiful Jang Nara is excellent and the writing and directing is solid. I’m hoping it shows up on Netflix US someday but until then I’d recommend firing up your vpn or getting a viki subscription and watching it that way. You won’t regret it.
A beautifully written, directed and acted piece of work, Our Blues is one of the most engrossing K-dramas that I’ve seen. Intelligent, empathetic, compassionate, and emotional, this slice-of-life drama follows the intertwined stories of several residents of a small fishing village on Jeju Island. Told omnibus style, with each character taking center stage for a few episodes, Our Blues is chock full of some of the biggest stars in South Korea (Lee Byung-Hun, Kim Woo-Bin, Shin Min-A, Kim Hye-Ja, Lee Jung-Eun and Cha Seung-Won, to name a few). When it’s their turn in the spotlight each one shows off their brilliant acting chops and when the spotlight moves to another story, they ably support it.
Lee Byung-Hun in Our Blues, tvn, 2022.
Ruth Okeki’s latest novel is inventive and unexpected as usual from her. The book is about a teen boy who can hear objects speak and his sweet but hoarderish mom as they come to grips with the tragic death of their father and husband. Ozeki’s book is surprising and strange, and I couldn’t put it down. She sensitively investigates grief, mental illness, neurodivergency, and the lives of folks trying to hold it together after a catastrophic life event. Reading this during the endless COVID-19 pandemic was particularly resonant for me and I think the issues it explores are something we all can relate to right now.
Vanessa Hua’s second novel creates a slightly alternative reality of the Cultural Revolution, following a teen girl who becomes Mao’s lover and confidant. It’s an intriguing perspective on China’s history from the perspective of a young woman who becomes caught up in the grinding gears of history. Hua’s writing is strong and evocative, so much so that some of the sexy-time scenes and the depictions of the Cultural Revolution’s violence and cruelty might be a bit too squicky for the faint of heart.
Viet Nguyen’s collection of short stories ranges from tragic to sweet to sexy and humorous as it looks at vignettes of the Vietnam’s diaspora following the wars in Southeast Asia.
Nonsense, Jung Yonghwa and Jam Hsiao
Jung Yonghwa’s jazzy, propulsive collaboration with fellow Asian pop superstar Jam Hsiao mixes up syncopated beats, jazzy vocals, and a resonant, fluid bassline. As per usual, Yonghwa’s songcraft is excellent and exemplary and it perfectly showcases his and Jam’s powerful and smexy singing. Click here: Nonsense video.
Asian American artists exhibiting at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has been a long time coming so it’s great to see these two titans of Asian American art finally get their due at the AAM.
When I first entered the gallery and saw Carlos Villa’s glorious, feathered cloaks so beautifully displayed I almost burst into tears. The show also includes a range of work from Carlos’s long and illustrious career, including drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculptural pieces along with those spectacular cloaks.
Carlos also taught at the now-defunct San Francisco Art Institute for decades and he influenced many generations of Asian American artists, myself included. The show at AAM includes the work of some of his students who have gone on to make their own mark in the art world including Michael Arcega, the Mail Order Brides (MOB), Lian Ladia, and Paul Pfeiffer, which I think is an outstanding tribute to a critical part of his legacy.
Photo: Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Chinese American painter Bernice Bing, who attended SFAI back in the 1960s, integrated a plethora of influences in her work. The show at the AAM exhibits a selection of her large-scale canvases as well as ephemera including reproductions from Bing’s journals, exhibition catalogs, early drawings and sketches, and photographs and video clips of Bernice herself at various stages in her career. Some of influences on Bernice’s work include Abstract Expressionism, Chinese brush painting, the San Francisco lesbian community, and Buddhism, among many others, and the show weaves in these elements into its displays.
Lotus/Lotus Sutra (detail), Bernice Bing, 1986, mixed media on rag paper. photo: Asian Art Museum.
A nice coda to the summer, CNBLUE’s latest three-song CD dropped in Japan in mid-October. CNBLUE debuted back in 2010 in Japan and South Korea as a K-pop band and has since then been remaking itself constantly. Each song takes a little bit of power pop, EDM, and rock and liberally mixes and matches them, demonstrating the band’s flexibility and range. The title track, Let It Shine, is a funky rock tune that crosses classic J-rock with War (think Low Rider)–it’s guitar-driven, with an anthemic chorus, but set to a funky beat with horns, handclaps, tambourine, and cowbell. The second track, Trigger, is a danceable 1980s synthpop throwback. And the last track, Moon, is a soaring mid-tempo guitar-based tune with a hint of Coldplay. Click Let It Shine video.
Bonus: not Asian American-specific but jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter was in town for about a week recently and I was fortunate enough to attend two of his shows. I saw Charlie’s stint as a guest artist with vocalist Kurt Elling’s combo SuperBlue at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley and it was an excellent show. Elling’s strong and supple vocals were ably supported by Charlie on the seven-string guitar as well as Elling’s band, which included a keyboardist and drummer and the three-piece Huntertone Horns.
I also caught up with Charlie at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the huge free music festival in Golden Gate Park that returned this summer after a two-year COVID-induced hiatus. Charlie sat in on bass with North Carolina gospel music steel guitarist DaShawn Hickman. With Wendy Hickman on vocals, Scott Amendola on drums, and Vicki Randle on percussion, the combo played a rousing and passionate, funky set that brought the (sun)-baked HSB crowd to its feet.
DaShawn Hicks with Charlie Hunter and Wendy Hicks at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2022, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Video: Ted Silverman.
Author’s Bio: Valerie Soe’s most recent award-winning film, Love Boat: Taiwan, premiered in 2019 and her essays and articles on Asian and Asian American art, film, culture, and activism have been published widely. Soe is the author of the blog beyondasiaphilia.com. She is Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.