Opinion: Your Racial Slurs are not Comedy

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Warning. I will be using some strong language. And I get a little pissed off.

I’ve not been a consistent viewer of Saturday Night Live for many years now. I have managed to catch a few episodes over the last few years and still found it mostly entertaining. When news broke that for the first time in over 40 years, SNL had hired its first cast regular of Asian decent, my reaction was “What took so long?” Rob Schneider, a former SNL alum is one quarter Filipino and fellow alum, Fred Armisen is a quarter Korean, who for the longest actually thought he was a quarter Japanese. But Bowen Yang is the first full-Asian cast member. He was a staff writer for the show last year and stepping in front of the camera is a big step up for him and a significant, though long overdue step for representation.

Also announced as new cast members were Chloe Fineman whose claim to fame is her range of impressions. And the third name joining the cast was Shane Gillis, whose claim to fame, apparently, is using racist slurs in the guise of comedy. Gillis and Matt McCusker are seen in a clip from their podcast Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast he is seen mocking Chinese overtly. Interestingly, the podcast episodes have since been scrubbed from YouTube and iTunes. It was only through digging around by journalists that these comments surfaced. And it’s not as if the comments are old and could be attributed to being outdated, they were from 2018. :

A September 2018 episode of “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast,” which Gillis co-hosts with fellow comic Matt McCusker, shows the comedian mocking Asians. “Damn, Chinatown is fucking nuts,” Gillis says in the clip, before adding, “let the fucking chinks live there.” Gillis and McCusker then mock Asian accents and complain about the “fucking hassle” of ordering food from someone who doesn’t speak English well.

Source: The Daily Beast

But it is not only Chinese that Gillis disparaged:

In a separate podcast, “Ep 144 – A.I. is Racist,” Gillis and McCusker make fun of Asian accents about 22 minutes and 20 seconds in, referring to the video game “Clash of Clans” as “Crash of Crans” in a mock Chinese accent.

A little more than 21 minutes into “Ep 146 – Live from Shane’s Parent’s Basement,” while talking about the Battle of Gettysburg, Gillis refers to soldiers yelling as “so gay.” About 29 minutes into the podcast, Gillis uses the word “retard,” and “f-ggot,” and shortly afterward he and McCusker joke about “hot Southern boys” being raped during the Civil War, comparing it to “having gay sex in jail.”

Gillis, in describing women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the war, refers to them as “flat chested f—ing bitch[es].”

Source: Variety

His homophobic comments did not stop there though:

… Gillis and McCusker chat about comedians who adopt a more confessional style, like Judd Apatow and Chris Gethard, and mock them using homophobic slurs, calling them “white f*ggot comics” and “fucking gayer than ISIS.”…

Source: Vulture.com

Let’s be perfectly clear here. He was not playing a role. It was not some heated conversation and it was not a stage performance or persona. These remarks were during a podcast where everything is casual and open. He was playing himself. They weren’t putting up an act, they were two dudes talking racist shit. There was no fucking joke there.

When these comments from only a year ago resurfaced, he issued a twitter response:

You know what the real false outrage is? The real false outrage is from people defending him saying that comedy is no longer sacred and that pioneers like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy would be silenced in this current culture. I am old enough to remember Richard Pryor’s comedy. I have never herd him use a racial slur against any other race. Yes, he did use the N word, but he never used the word chink as far as I can remember. Here is audio from one of his famous bits about Chinese food:

Here is Eddie Murphy who is in this famous segment mocked people mocking Chinese:

Now, the above bits were genuinely funny, told on stage as part of an act. Shane Gillis was not on stage. Look, as a comedian, you get pretty much free reign to say whatever you want. You should be allowed to be provocative. but you should also be ready for that pushback. Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special for Netflix Sticks and Bones received some pushback for offensive material. I have watched it. Yes some of the material pushed the boundaries of good taste, some of which wasn’t even funny — such as his bit in the beginning about Michael Jackson’s victims. But if someone is holding up Chappelle’s latest comedy to Shane Gillis, they are stretching it. Now there are plenty of people online defending Gillis — especially since SNL decided to fire him. Theses defenders just happen to mostly be white. As for an Asian voice, Rob Schneider (he is one-quarter Filipino) is also defending Gillis. So to Bill Burr and Jim Jeffries, here’s a joke for you — go fuck yourselves. Rob Schneider has his own history of racially insulting acts so he is probably the last person that should be defending racist comments. In fact, he should be the last person defending comedy. So Schneider should shut his punk-ass mouth.

So let’s have some perspective from persons of color. The fine dudes at Double Toasted offered their perspective and main host, African American film critic Korey Coleman went and substituted the N word for what was said about Chinese people, except for Chinatown, he used Compton. “You’d have to dig a hole, apologize, and hide in that for two years before you showed your face again.” Korey goes on to say, and I’m editing a little, “Everybody wants the N word for themselves…and listen, not everybody’s gonna get that word. My man talking about being called Fredo (referring to Chris Cuomo being called Fredo)…that is not the N word. But as far as that C word goes, I’ll give y’all that, because it was used to put people down.”

There have been, of course a few online reactions from members of the Asian American community to Shane Gillis one of which is from fellow blog and podcast site, the Nerds of Color. It was also addressed by They Call us Bruce podcast. Chinese American YouTube personalities, the Fung Brothers have put up their reactions to Gillis’s comments. David and Andrew Fung have had a long career usually focused on food, but they have also been outspoken about Asian American issues and our place in American culture. David Fung: “Just because you’re a strong comedian if you’re racist, you get in trouble…nobody is saying he can’t live his life. Nobody is saying he should be thrown in jail, killed. I’ll just say this, I think a lot of Asian Americans are affording him a lot more humanity than he affords us.”  I highly recommend both the Double Toasted and Fung Bros videos.

I am glad that Shane Gillis was eventually fired from being on Saturday Night Live. But it should not have come to this. SNL should have done a better job of vetting its new cast members. And on the note of Saturday Night Live’s own history, defenders of Gillis point out the show’s own history. So let’s address one of the elephants in the room, John Belushi’s Samurai skits back in the 70’s. That was forty years ago, and we knew it as a parody of Samurai films that were popular at the time. And  most racially charged skit was a a classic skit that commented on how words can be offensive.

See, there is actually nothing inherently wrong with these words. What is wrong is their context. And Shane Gillis as some bloke sitting at a table with some other guy complaining about Chinese and gays is providing a window into what his personality really is. There is a big difference between Mel Brooks using the N word all over Blazing Saddles, who was making a comedy about racism, compared to Quentin Tarantino who feels he can drop the word all over his movies just because he feels like it.

The whole Shane Gillis situation shows that we still have a long way to go as far as how race is addressed in this country, even in comedy. You can not disguise your racist rants as “just comedy.” There’s no “just” anything. Yes, they are words, until you use them wrong and in a malicious way like Gillis. I’m glad SNL fired him and I hope he can learn something from this as he is still a young 31 years old. But of course his supporters are all up in arms about “cancel culture” and “political correctness.” Go fuck yourselves. How’s that for political correctness? Now don’t get all upset because I wasn’t being a nice obsequious Chinese.

For further insights from better more enlightened people than me about Asian Americans and Asians in pop culture. I recommend following The Nerds of Color and They Call Us Bruce. Both podcasts are on iTunes and wherever you prefer to get your podcast fix like Soundcloud or Google. Believe me, they are better spoken on these issues than I am. Hopefully I wont’t have to write another post like this again. But I have a feeling it won’t.

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Carole & Tuesday is a Netflix Must Watch Anime

 

carole-tuesday-titlecardNetflix has been getting into the anime streaming game for some time now with some exclusive titles, some of which they genuinely produced as opposed to slapping their name on it as a Netflix original. Their binge model of dropping all episodes at once has largely been a success for the streaming company. In the case of anime that they have exclusive licenses to, the show may have been running for months before it shows up on Netflix. Carole & Tuesday is such a show.

Carole & Tuesday is a 24 episode series that is produced by Studio Bones with exclusive international streaming rights belonging to Netflix. Though the streaming giant was not involved in actual production, it is still labeled as a “Netflix Original.” Netflix has decided to cut that 24 episode season into two parts and deliver part one while second half is still being broadcast in Japan. They have also included an exceptional dub to go along with the show which I think fits it all the better as we shall see in a little bit.

I had been anticipating Carole & Tuesday since I’ve seen early preview clips on YouTube and even more excited after seeing musical clips from the performances. I’m anxiously awaiting the second half of the show. Hopefully it’s only a matter of a few months because this show is a delightfully entertaining with an infectious spirit that will have you falling in love and rooting for the title characters.

We are first introduced to Tuesday as she runs away from her wealthy home with a robotic rolling suitcase and a guitar (a Gibson acoustic, of course) on her back. In an opening montage it becomes clear that the setting is not only the future but that it also takes place on a terraformed and colonized Mars. Carole is a girl that seems to have trouble keeping a part time job. While performing on the street with her keyboard, Tuesday is captivated by Carols’s music, and the magic of the show is born.

It is the most simplest of stories, two girls meet, form a bond, discover their love of music and decide to make their musical dreams come true together. Carole writes great melodies and Tuesday has a knack for lyrics, all they need is work. Unfortunately in this futuristic world, songwriting and music composing have been replaced by AI and efforts are seen at best quaint, and at worst unwanted.

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In contrast to their lofty dreams is Angela, an already successful model who is being steered towards singing by a controlling mother who also acts as her manager. She is coached by an unemotional vocal “coach” that is training her voice to conform to his Artificial Intelligence created songs.

Tuesday and Carole end up getting the attention of Gus, a down on his luck music manager, who has seen better days who usually spends his days drinking his sorrows away lamenting better days. After seeing a viral video of the pair singing, he leverages his way out of the bottle and into their lives as manager. Dragged along for the ride is Roddy, the nerdy sound technician(and source of the viral video) who has an awkward crush on either Tuesday or Carole. It is possible he’s crushing on both. It’s not really clear, and that is somewhat charming.

Things go a bit rough at first for the pair in the beginning, especially after they get conned by a little beer-guzzling robot video director. But all the pieces will gather together for Mars’ Brightest, the biggest singing competition on the planet that is similar to modern singing competition shows like American Idol that are popular now.

Underlying the story is a few commentaries about the nature of stardom and also of social media. One of the featured singers is best known as a social media star, basically posting Instagram or YouTube videos of himself just being in front of things calling attention himself. Yes, it’s very similar to our present day “influencers.” Stalking is personified in Cybelle who has an unhealthy obsession with Tuesday. And of course, the main crux of the story is that Carole and Tuesday write their own music as opposed to ling an AI do it for them.

Overall, the show is just plain fun and will make you feel good on a dreary day. The characters are all interesting and the acting in both Japanese and English are exceptional. In fact, I lean more towards the English dub as all the songs, except for one in French, are sung in English as they were in the Japanese broadcast version.

The show’s lead director is Shinichiro Watanabe, who is best known for the classic anime Cowboy Bebop. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that somehow the two shows are connected, not just because of the Mars setting. And if you are familiar with Cowboy Bebop, then you should be prepared for top notch quality in not only animation but music as well. In fact, every episode title is named after a famous song such as True Colors, Every Breath You Take, Born to Run, Dancing Queen, etc. Each episode also features the corresponding 45 RPM that the title refers too as eyecatches (title cards that appear in what would be the beginning and end of a commercial break in Japan). Details like this really show that the producers love their classic pop music.

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It must also be pointed out that even though this is an anime with some exaggeration of characters, the character design of our main stars is not only beautifully done but done in a manner that does not overly sexualize them — in other words they look like normal young women. And I must also add that this particular anime has done an exceptional job in not making persons of color look like the racial caricatures they have looked like in the past.

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I found myself, like Roddy, just crushing on the pair of rising stars and found their spirit of not giving up while climbing uphill and keeping their spirits positive to be infectious. It’s as easy to root for these girls as it is to love them. The first twelve episodes complete a major story arc. But it does not close out the show as the second half promises to continue the next phase in their story. Even the show’s rival and antagonist, Angela, is a fascinating character who may have a bad attitude, but is still sympathetic.

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Carole & Tuesday is an absolutely binge-worthy series and will be a delight for everyone. It is appealing for most ages except for some light swearing and one song in particular which is filled with f-words. It’s played for laughs but it is extremely catchy. For reference, it’s Episode 9’s performance by the Mermaid Sisters. Below is the video.

I highly recommend this show not only as an anime but as television series. Like Cowboy Bebop, this is one of those titles that anime fans can recommend to non anime viewers. It is extremely accessible and filled with great tunes that blend naturally into a animated series filled with delightful characters of heart and charm. And for days when you are feeling maybe a little down, tune in to Carole & Tuesday for a show to make you feel a little better about the world. Oh, and you too will want a robotic AI owl alarm clock. Although I’d go for a penguin one.

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Final Score: 9/10

The first volume of the vocal collection is available on iTunes digitally. Amazon Music sells individual songs as opposed to the album.

If you are interested in artists behind the singers in the show follow this link. http://caroleandtuesday.com/music/artists/

Con Report: Silicon Valley Comic Con

This year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con has come and gone and as Silicon Valley’s largest pop-culture and comic book convention it has had ups and downs. As in the last two years prior, it took place in the San Jose Convention Center. Unlike mot comic cons across the nation, SVCC is unique in that they actively incorporate science as part of their programming. In a prominent area right beside the official con merchandise, NASA had an information and merchandise booth.

The con itself was well attended and for the first time it was held in the summer. Previous cons were held during the Spring, around spring break period. I have mixed feelings about this. According to the convention it was due to popular demand that the convention be held in the summertime. But there is a reason that summer is also called Con season and having it in mid August is right in the middle of other conventions as well. For myself I prefer the Spring as summers in Silicon Valley can be unpleasantly hot. Either way, it will be interesting to see the number of attendees this years compared to previous years.

As standard for comic cons, the were plenty of celebrity appearances and opportunities for autographs and photos with these celebrity guests. Silicon Valley Comic Con has had a history of doing reunions of casts. A few years back they re-united the cast of Back to the Future. A year after that it was a reunion of members of the cast of Star Trek the Next Generation. This year it was the re-union of the cast of the first three Terminator films and members of the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers American cast. Unfortunately, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance on Sunday for autographs and photos, he was not on hand for the stage appearance with other cast members from the Terminator films such as Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Jeannette Goldstein, and Michael Biehn.

Also making an appearance for autographs and photos was Jason Mamoa (Aquaman, Dune) who has been building up a huge following over the years. Unfortunately he could not attend any stage appearance either.

Missing out on these two celebrities on stage was a disappointment but unfortunately it is the nature of the business when you have to work around the schedules of two busy individuals like Arnold and Jason. Too bad I was never a power rangers fan, I would have geeked out.

I did not cosplay this year. Part of that was the South Bay heat was not comfortable for me. And on top of that, some of my costumes no longer fit around the waist. They must have shrunk in storage or something. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Nevertheless, other attendees did cosplay and much of them looked really great.

 

 

 

I did however spend a good amount of time in the main exhibit hall with my shopping list of comics I was looking for and also connecting with acquaintances in Artists Alley. I did notice one thing about the programming track that was interesting. For a comic book convention, there seemed to be a lack of comic book centered programming. Maybe it’s a reflection of the industry that there are plenty of pop culture panels about things such as movies that were influenced by comics but sadly there were hardly any panels about comic books themselves. Maybe no one submitted panel ideas for comic book coverage, which is a shame.

One odd programming choice about panels I did not understand is the overlapping of panels. Half of the panels would start at the top of the hour while another half of the panels scheduled would start at the thirty-minute mark.

As with pretty much all comic conventions these days, the cultural divide is still evident in the total lack of anime and manga programming. Perhaps it is the fact that anime and manga is so huge now (manga sales are actually higher than comic books) that there is some unwritten understanding that they just may as well have their own convention. In fact, Crunchyroll Expo came two weeks after SVCC. .

Overall, the convention this year was slightly disappointing from previous years as not everything seemed to go as planned. I don’t know if there were any plans for either of the big name draws of Mamoa or Schwarzenegger to participate in stage panels but if there was no plans as such it probably should have been announced ahead of time.

Lines to enter into the convention were exceptionally long as the security company hired seemed confused about some of the simplest details such as what snacks could and could not be brought into the venue. People were made to pour out water bottles and and snacks confiscated, this included little bags of M&Ms and trail mix. All beverages including coffee had to be consumed before entering. There was apparently a special entrance for VIP ticket holders, unfortunately, hardly anyone knew about it, not even the ones at the door. And on a personal note, when I had thought that I had lost my car keys inside the convention and tried to get in just after the convention had ended, guards at the door were in total confusion as to what to do.

But the con experience, despite some nitpicks, has been steadily becoming the major pop-culture convention for Northern California. But because it actively cultivates a balance of science and technology with all things we love about nerd culture. Without movie and television studios trying to dominate the convention with major announcements or trailers, this is definitely more friendly towards fans just having fun together.

“Penguin Highway” is a Surreal Anime Delight

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What would you do if one day dozens of Adelie penguins started showing up in your little suburban town for no apparent reason? This becomes the trigger event for a surreal, yet beautiful, coming of age anime from anime film Penguin Highway that is sure to bring some delight to a dull day. And if, like me, you happen to have a love of penguins, you will be in for a joyful animated treat.

Aoyama is an overachieving self admitted genius. He is also in the fourth grade. Yet he keeps extensive notebooks on daily observations in life as his goal is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He has a natural scientific curiosity about everything which is encouraged and cultivated by his parents. But frankly, he’s not as much of a genius as he thinks he is as he is a little clueless in may other areas as will be shown in the film. But he is definitely above average in the class. Fellow classmate, Hamamoto is a girl that he admits just might be smarter than him. His best friend, Uchida serves as the devoted sidekick who tends to states obvious facts that everyone misses such as who has a crush on who.

Aoyama has a fascination with the local dental assistant who is never really named but either addressed as Miss, or Onee-san, the honorific for big sister. We normal people would call it a crush, but he has no clue about that aspect of life. He also has an odd curiosity and fascination with her breasts. Though charming initially, it does become a little creepy as the film continues. Aoyama may be precocious but he is appropriately awkward in the world and sometimes his curiosity gets the better of him as he tries to see how long a person can go without eating.

One seemingly normal school day, penguins are spotted by many people in town and Aoyama decides it is his mission to investigate the phenomenon and solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. He discovers that they are Adelie penguins which are native to the Antarctic and not escaped zoo animals. A Japanese suburb is definitely not their natural habitat. Aoyama discovers that the ones that were rounded up by the local authorities suddenly vanished while in the truck carrying them.The mystery deepens and the game is afoot as Aoyama feels he has to get to the bottom of this enigma. And in true young kids fashion, the film’s Scooby gang is soon on the case.

He is of course teamed up with his classmates and Onee-san in his effort to solve the mystery of the penguins. By using observation and deduction he is determined to get to the truth. This truth will end up leading Aoyama and company on a road filled with surreal penguin appearances and disappearances,  inter-dimensional bubbles, and of course a little young romance.

Penguin Highway is the debut feature film of Hiroyau Ishida, but you would not think so as he deftly handles the story elements of the children with quite a bit of finesse  and never makes them seem annoying in their rambunctiousness as so often happens anime. Based on the novel of the same name by Tomiko Morimi, each of the characters are given their main moments and even the bully character is not really all that bad.

The final act comes together in a literal flood of adorable penguins and a dreamlike town that bends reality like a drug induced vision that is cute, funny and mind bending. Don’t let the fact that I absolutely love penguins and animes that feature them are especially endearing. This is a film that is heartwarming and quint and tells a story that can only be done in animation. On top of that it celebrates intellectual curiosity and the belief in science and the scientific method of evidence gathering.

But the final act may not make a lot of sense to many people and may leave some with more questions than answers while the final credits roll. But perhaps that is a good thing and maybe we’ll have to keep thinking about it later. Of course this is also all the more reason to watch it again.

At its heart, Penguin Highway is as simple a coming of age story as they come — except there’s space-time bending and penguins. It is uplifting and the visuals are absolutely stunning. If you happen to catch it dubbed the young characters are actually played by age appropriate actors. Although in some scenes, their young inexperience in voice work is evident.

I first saw Penguin Highway as an early screening during 2018’s Crunchyroll Expo and was deeply impressed. When it received a theatrical release, it was fairly limited but now it is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo at all major retailers by Eleven Arts Entertainment and Shout Factory. If you are interested in a Collector’s Edition, it is available to order from RightStuf.com which is probably the largest online retailer of anime and Manga in the world if not America.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Blinded by the Light

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There was a certain genre of films back in the mid to late 80s that featured teen characters who felt trapped or stuck in where they were in the world. These circumstances could be because of economics, social status, or even family keeping the main character down from embracing their dreams and aspirations. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, even The Last Starfighter had themes of  chasing a dream that others say they can’t achieve or defying your parents who are keeping you down.`

It is perhaps providence that circumstances align for the existence of the uplifting comedy drama Blinded by the Light which not only feels like an 80’s movie but since it is based on a true story, takes place in the 80s. Based on the memoir by Safraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is a comedic drama that is joyful and heart warming as well.

Javed Khan is is a sixteen-year old Pakistani Muslim living with aspirations of being a writer living in 1987 Luton. Unfortunately for his dreams, his working class father does not see writing as a career and on top of that the family is very traditional Muslim which still believes in arranged marriages and familial piety. In other words, a father’s word is law in the household. And one of those laws is no girls, and graduate college and get a good job as a doctor, or lawyer.

While at Sixth Form College, which is like an advanced placement school before applying for university, Javed begins to take writing classes. He also meets and befriends a Sikh friend that would change his life. While talking over lunch Roops lets him borrow a couple of cassette tapes to listen too. They are two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music who Roops claims speaks to their situation as marginalized kids from Luton.

One night, at a particularly low point of frustration with the world, he puts on the Springsteen tape and listens to The Boss. Almost instantly the raw voice and the lyrics about struggling through in a working class world resonate with him. Not only does the music speak to Javed, it is as if the lyrics of Springsteen become a character itself, floating across the screen as if it were alive.

Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could wrench one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

Rejuvenated by the music of his new found hero, Javed finds enough confidence in himself to start turning in his poems to his supportive English teacher, played by Hayley Atwell. It also gives him the confidence to start talking to fellow classmate, Eliza.

But not everything is great for Javed as his father is laid off from the local auto plant where his traditionalist father had been working for years. His mother must take on more sewing work all the while preparing for the wedding of his oldest sister. Javed faces increasing pressure to conform to the traditions of his family and obey his father’s wish that he do better than becoming “just another Pakistani cab driver.” His father has no understanding or belief that a writer can actually make a living and scoffs when Javed is given not only an internship at the local newspaper but a front page byline. And music of Bruce Springsteen is definitely not understood by his father, who he calls “that Jewish American singer.”

Yet despite his problems at home, he still finds joy in the company of Roops and Eliza. His budding romance with Eliza is an almost by the numbers teen romance. With the music of Bruce Springsteen blasting through his Walkman leads to an impromptu serenade of “Thunder Road,” comically accompanied by a whole street full of shoppers. There is another semi-musical moment later where Roops and Javed hijack the school radio station to play Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”  Along with Eliza in true 80s montage style, they dance and cavort about the streets of Luton. These scenes are meant for laughs, are absolutely unrealistic, but are also infectiously fun.

Blinded by the Light is, on the surface, a rather trope filled standard comedy drama. But what it does different and does well is tell its story from the unique perspective of an immigrant family amidst the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s England which was a tumultuous time both economically and racially. It can not be ignored that being a Pakistani Muslim during that that time was not easy as Britain’s neo-Nazi National Front party were openly harassing them in the streets. The story is one many of us may already see play out ahead of time with no real surprises. But as with my review of The Farewell, it is the reason that inclusion and representation makes a difference. It is unique because it tells a story of a culture that is often ignored or marginalized. Yes it is a different culture, but the themes about family and working class struggles are universal.

Director Gurinder Chandra weaves everything together and allows us to peer into a family and community that is not shown enough in cinema. Probably best known for directing Bend it Like Beckham, it too dealt with rebelling against traditionalism.

The cast is filled with relatively unknown actors. Viveik Kaira is absolutely charming as Javed and is easy to relate to and empathize with throughout the film. He starts off as the typical awkward kid, shy and hesitant, but when he is in the Springsteen zone, he is a force of exuberance, charm, and confidence.

Kulvinder Ghir deserves special recognition as Javed’s strict traditional father. It can’t be easy being both comedic and dramatic in the same scene as he carries the weight of both deftly, especially when playing opposite Viveik Kaira.

Hayley Atwell may be the best known of the cast but she is literally there as support for Javed. Yet her character is the first one that offers  encouragement to pursue his dream. She channels that one teacher that we all remember that was always there to encourage us.

As a son of immigrants and also Asian, many of the family issues that Javed faces about identity and where one belongs in society resonated with me, especially the desire to be a writer. Blinded by the Light may be a little clichéd, but it has enough working for it from its engaging cast to win you over. And of course the music of Bruce Springsteen helps a lot too.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Movie Review: The Farewell

The Farewell is a small budget film from Lulu Wang set mostly in China with dialogue mostly in Mandarin. It stars an almost all Chinese cast that comes to grips with a family dilemma that many people, not just Asians have to deal with, saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time while that loved one is still alive.

Current rising star, Awkwafina, hot on the heels of her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, takes on a more serious role as Billi Wang. Billi is an aspiring writer who was received the bad news that she was rejected for a grant. She also receives the news from her parents that her Nai Nai, her paternal grandmother is dying of cancer. With the pretense of a all the family going to China to visit her for the wedding of one of her grandchildren, and Billi’s cousin, the family come to not only pay respects to the matriarch of the family but to also say their goodbyes. It is also decided among family members that the little time she has left she not be told about her condition.

This may sound odd to western audiences, but it is not all that unusual in Asia. Billi is not asked to join her parents as she would be the one most likely to tell Nai Nai the truth. She is also the most westernized of the extended family. Nevertheless, she scrapes up her own money to fly to China as well. While there she reconnects with her extended family and her grandmother. Yet underlying that is the fact that she is back in a China that has changed. her childhood neighborhood is no longer there and her understanding of the family dynamic his different as she had grown up with strained relationships with her own parents.

Yet, Billi has amazing love for her grandmother and internally and with other members is the constant debate on whether to reveal the truth to her grandmother about her condition. To a one, they all believe not to because it would place a burden on her. Whereas the family members take on the burden of her illness so that she may enjoy her last days surrounded by loved ones. And for someone like Nai Nai, she would see herself as a burden on others with her illness.

Being among her family brings out a sparking joy to Nai Nai as she is with her loving family. Billi especially has a rekindling of her bonds with her grandmother and finds the comfort and closeness that she has seemed to have lost with her own parents. And it is through her that she begins to understand her parents more.

The wedding subterfuge is rather interesting as it is for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao, who like her is a transplant, but to Japan. His girlfriend is Japanese which gives just a little bit of cultural tension as she does not speak Mandarin like everyone else. An it is never really stated how much she is in on the deception. Chen Han, as Hao Hao may not have much dialog, but he is always seen in the background feeling the pain of the deception that he must pull off in from of the family matriarch.

Crazy Rich Asians may have been Awkwafina’s breakthrough role, but this is without a doubt her starring breakout. Her comedic talents were a highlight in Crazy Rich Asians, but here where she is the star, she brings a strong dramatic turn as an Asian American caught between the multiple cultures, American, Chinese, and Chinese-American.

Bili’s father is played by Tzi Ma, a veteran Chinese-American actor with one of those faces that like many other Chinese-American actors has popped up in film and television for decades. It is about time he got as meaty a role as he got with The Farewell.

Nai Nai is played wonderfully by Zhao Shuzhen who does not seem to have any other credits to her name according to IMDB, but she turns in such a natural and charming performance that it is as if she embodies all that is good and beloved of everyone’s grandmother.

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In a theatrical field that seems to be flooded these days with big budgeted blockbusters and tent pole titles, it is significant that a film with a $3 million budget is actually one of the best films of the year. We are blessed that films such as The Farewell still exist. It is full of charm, heart, performances that are filled with natural verisimilitude. That natural verisimilitude may be because, as the opening title card says, that the story is based on a real lie. Lulu Wang based the screenplay on her own family experience and relationship with her own Nai Nai.

One of the reasons why representation matters in Hollywood is that even though on the surface, this is a family melodrama, it is from a perspective of Asian and Asian-American culture that much of movie goers in the west may not be familiar with and certainly something that Hollywood has been reluctant to include in their searches for the next big hit. What films like this, Crazy Rich Asians, and Netflix’s Always be my Maybe show is that Asian-Americans can tell their stories just as well as mainstream Hollywood. And because of their diversity they can tell these stories in a unique and original way.

I lost both my parents some years ago and managed t be by their bedsides for their last moments. Unfortunately the circumstances being what they were, neither time were they in a very conscious state and neither of their passings were what the family was prepared for. Lulu Wang’s new film, The Farewell deals with a touchy subject that is handled deftly with both humor and heart-touching drama.

Final Score: 9/10

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10