Friday, April 13, 2007

Beijing Rocks

As I've mentioned previously, a special movie interest of mine are Asian films that are contrary to the kinds that usually receive a mainstream theatrical release in the U.S. Rather than period or martial arts films, my tastes run not to just the kind of action films that John Woo originally made popular here, but also art-house films and screwball romantic comedies. As I've said, I particularly appreciate the glimpse these movies give into the lifestyles of modern Asia's urban young (and stylish) twenty-somethings.

A movie that definitely falls into this category that I rented thru Netflix is Beijing Rocks (2001). The film follows three young wannabe rockers: the lead singer of a garage band who seeks a contract and to be taken seriously as an artist; his girlfriend; and a semi-successful pop artist from Hong Kong who hits the road with the band to overcome writer's block.

This movie definitely has higher ambitions compared to some of the more fluffier, pop Asian fare I have developed a soft spot for, and it succeeds. Beijing Rocks trades on the same sense of disaffection that have characterized youth films and youth culture dating back to Rebel Without a Cause. A love triangle, of course, develops, and though it gives the movie some emotional scope, it doesn't cheapen the movie by becoming a major point of conflict in the film (aside from perhaps emotionally). In fact, the film is bittersweet and tragic, and to its credit does not go for the easy "feel good" audience-pleasing ending, though the film very easily could have gone there.

Beijing Rocks also definitely provides a fascinating peak into a China I'm sure most people would be surprised to know exists, consisting of garage bands, glam rock clubs, and mosh pits. And look out for the montage sequence featuring a rock version of the Communist anthem, "The Internationale"!

Full disclosure: I admit that one reason I rented this film was for actress/Asian pinup girl Shu Qi, for whom I also have a soft spot. She's appeared in her share of throwaway Asian formulaic films (some personal favorites include So Close, Gorgeous with Jackie Chan, and Love Me, Love My Money), and she crossed into mainstream Hollywood with the modest hit The Transporter. But along with another art-house film of hers that I viewed and was impressed by awhile back (The Foliage), a restrained romantic drama set during China's cultural revolution!), and the recently released art-house film Three Stories, she demonstrates that she is a serious, ambitious actress who possesses some real acting chops.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

No School Like Old School

Like a lot of comic-book artists working professionally, it's difficult to stay on top of current work due to the simple lack of time. Mainstream super-hero comics are particularly difficult because of the over-arching story arcs that not only go on for multiple issues but also cross over into other titles. It's just not the kind of longterm commitment I can make anymore! And let's face it, now being close to middle age (okay, not "close to" but actually), I'm just not the target audience for many of today's comics. While I like being challenged and enjoy seeing innovative work, I'm not into "edgy" fare just for the sake of it.

Graphic novels have lately become an area of real growth for the comics industry. And not just compilations of series, but original works released specifically in graphic novel format. While I have picked up many that have received much critical attention, I have to admit, for the most part I've been a bit underwhelmed. For me, they tend to be too episodic, oblique, and "slice of life-ish" for my taste, rather than truly engaging and compelling. In short, partly jaded by age, I guess, it just seems few and far between that I pick up a comic-book and feel really excited and blown away.

Surprisingly, just recently I experienced this kind of visceral response when I came across an old friend in the form of Fantagraphics' new Love and Rockets series from Los Bros. Hernandez, Jaime and Gilbert.

I am a big fan of the Hernandez Brothers from way back--in fact, believe I own the entire original full run of the series, including early if not first editions of the first issues. (I also had the good fortune once to sit next to Jaime over the course of a day during a book signing many, many years ago. He was fun to hang out with, and though I'm not sure he'd still remember me, we actually have some mutual friends. Their brother Mario was a fan of my work at the time, and Jaime seemed to be familiar with my work then.) I must admit, however, that during the latter part of that early run, I fell behind in my reading and lost the thread of the multiple, intertwined storylines of Jaime's Maggie and Hopey stories, and Gilbert's Palomar tales.

I did pick up the first issue of the new series, but I don't recall it having much of an impact on me. When I was at the comics shop few weeks ago, however, I picked up a more recent issue (I think it was #16) and suddenly found my enthusiasm for the series re-ignited. I ended up picking up the preceding issues at my next stop.

I can't pinpoint exactly what it is that drew me back in, but they're certainly still at the top of their game. They have a great knack for telling details and capturing the kind of human quirks, flaws, and inconsistencies that make their characters come to life. In Jaime's case, it's great to see the characters aged, while pursuing romance, careers, and working out their personal lives.

A comment by Gilbert in a recent interview probably puts it best:
It's a type of alternative comic that only my brother and I do, for the most part. Everybody else is going over to Pantheon because they've got a tragic biography to tell. I'm fine with that, but I'm just trying to do just stories with imagination—just old fashioned stories, you know?
(BTW, for the record, a few additional titles that I do follow religiously include the Spirit Archives compilations of Will Eisner's great series, the all-new Spirit series being produced by Darwyn Cooke through DC Comics, and Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve (when it comes out!).)