3 Reviews: Heneral Luna, Kita Kita, & BuyBust

Back at the start of January, just over a month ago, my wife and I watched three Filipino films on Netflix: Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust. As I write this, the three are still on Netflix, included in the paltry “Filipino Movies & TV” category along with AmoBirdshot, and recent additions All of You (a romance/drama) and Goyo: The Boy General (a sequel to Heneral Luna).

Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust share the simple similarity of being Filipino films in the same way that GloryMy Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Dirty Harry all share the similarity of being American films. In other words, there’s nothing uniting them. And if I were writing these reflections closer to viewing, or if this blog were focused on film, then I would definitely give each film its own separate post with completely separate reviews.

As it is, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts on these films for a while, but I’ve put it off so long that I’m relying on faulty memory and my own brief notes, and this blog is far from a review site or film discussion platform. So here they are, all together, united only by national origin.

Kita Kita

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I’ll start with Kita Kita, as this was my favorite of the three, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who loves fun or, well, love. Kita Kita, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, is a 2017 romantic comedy starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. De Rossi’s character is a Filipina tour guide living in Sapporo, Japan, who develops temporary blindness after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Marquez is a dorky young man who moves in across the street, attempting to befriend her as she adjusts to her new life without vision. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, and the film just has a lot of fun without ever really laughing at itself. Marquez and De Rossi have excellent chemistry and are frequently funny. Absurd elements pile up in the background and foreground, including a silent banana sidekick, a subversion of the expected feeling-of-loved-one’s-face-to-see, a shockingly blunt third-act shift in plot and tone that revisits much of the film’s events, and a major plot thread hung on the fact that the Sapporo brewing company originated in and was named for the city of the same name. Yet the sillier it gets, the sweeter it gets, and I was touched both by the central relationship and the final moments of the film. I’ll admit that I read some moments of heightened sentimentality in an ironic way and enjoyed the movie for it; some might read it straight and find those same moments cloying (or at least cute rather than painfully, awkwardly funny). Kita Kita invites you to give in to fun and romance for an hour and a half, and whether you decide that it’s subversive and clever or absurd and stupid, you’ll probably at least laugh a few times. Oh, also, KZ Tandingan performs a version of “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” which is just great; she’s worth listening to even if you plan to skip the movie.

Heneral Luna

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In contrast, Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, who shares writing credit with Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha) is a 2015 Filipino war epic and biopic of the titular general, Antonio Luna (portrayed by John Arcilla). I thought the movie was campy and nationalist, heavy in symbolism but at best a modest success as a historical fiction or biographical production. I was only vaguely familiar with Luna’s life and only somewhat more familiar with his death, but my knowledge was enough to guide me through the dizzying whirlwind of factual and fictitious events depicted. I don’t think it’s meant to be read as pure history, either, as there are some surreal sequences that attempt to plumb his psyche and early years, and battles are played up for gallant heroism with the occasional grotesque carnage of war thrown in for emphasis. Seriousness is lost especially in every scene portraying the Americans, as the “American” actors dressed up cliche-filled dialogue in hammy performances and cheesy accents. General Arthur MacArthur is portrayed as such a goddamn cowboy general despite his pompous demeanor and portly body that it was tempting to cheer for the comic figure. The film teeters between cavalier depictions of violence and sentimental hero-worship, and Luna is presented as not just a hero but a doomed savior and martyr. I’d say that Luna was depicted as downright messianic, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Heneral Luna functions as a contemporary, nationalistic pasyon (while I don’t feel qualified to develop the argument much further than that, I’d be very interested to read any academic or film critic essays that explore that avenue).

BuyBust

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I did not like BuyBust. I hated BuyBust. BuyBust (written by Anton C. Santamaria and Erik Matti, with Matti directing) is the story of a militarized squad of law enforcement officers fighting the war on drugs, trapped in the labyrinthine slums of one neighborhood and killed off one by one as they mow down waves of drug dealers, enforcers, and virtually rabid slum-dwellers. Matti co-wrote and directed On the Job, and I loved On the Job. Matti is actually a critic of the drug war and of Duterte and speaks quite intelligently about what exactly he was doing with this film (“Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn’t let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.)

Still, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions (and regardless of the general critical response, which seems to be mostly favorable), I personally read much of the film as disgustingly classist and authoritarian. There are corrupt cops, and it slowly dawns on some of the surviving civilians that law enforcement and drug dealers are dragging them into a never-ending cycle of violence and vendettas that do not serve the common folk that both sides claim to protect, and there are some last-minute reveals about higher-level corruption and a cover-up of the violence, but I don’t think it would be too hard for a film-goer to interpret the film as pro-establishment. (Matti adds in that Reporter interview, “I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible . . . . I don’t really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government.”) After all, the cops, weighed down in body armor and piles of guns and ammo, are treated as the victims for much of the film, unfairly assaulted by the impoverished denizens of this back-alley realm.

The indigent population of Manila’s slums is treated as a horde of savage, mindless, and brutish animals. They are easily persuaded to blame law enforcement first for the deaths caused by the drug lords and then for the deaths caused by the police killing in self-defense against the early attacks by other homicidal slum-dwellers. The “heroes” are generic soldier types, a couple given exhausted tropes in place of actual personalities, most with no personality at all. Most of the film is spent in dark, drawn-out action sequences, and grotesque violence is apparently relished, especially when targeted against the poor. These exceedingly long, exceedingly brutal, exceedingly pointless fights pad out the run time to just over two hours, but with the plot of an hour-long TV special. In many ways, the experience was like that of watching a zombie horror film, or perhaps playing a segment of a zombie horror game, set in genuinely claustrophobic, winding, gritty urban slums (this is hardly a unique observation; while I felt clever in drawing the connection, apparently just about everyone else did as well, and Matti himself talks about “the zombie film without zombies idea” in that Reporter interview–and honestly, the interview is rather fascinating, and I’d encourage you to skip the movie and read that instead, or at least to read it first before going into the film).

There are two “twists” at the end of the film that are both pedestrian and unsurprising. First, the surviving slum-dwellers reject both sides and demand that what’s left of law enforcement and criminals leave. Second, we learn–gasp!–that there were higher-level corrupt police officers who use the cycle of raids as a way to profit off the drug lords.

I will say that I would have been more interested in the civilians’ final decision of non-interference and independence if we hadn’t had to watch them be butchered by the dozens, often in horrifying ways, up to that point. While Matti apparently tried to avoid an anti-poor take, the film still reeks of it to me.

The most powerful moment of the film is the closing sequence, in which a news report says that a drug lord was captured with thirteen dead, while we know that the crime boss had in fact been killed, and the camera pans across the slums in the daylight, covered in the bodies of dozens of the fallen. That moment is dramatic and ironic and poignant, but it’s too late to course-correct for the brutal two-hour drag leading up to it.

In conclusion, I’d recommend Kita Kita, I thought that Heneral Luna was fine but not vital viewing, and I hated BuyBust.

Pseudo-Review: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I watched Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes over this weekend. As if anyone needed a reminder, it established how evil a man Ted Bundy was. There weren’t any jaw-dropping revelations, and if there were any new insights into the man, I didn’t register them.

I don’t really want to write a full review for this. I’d rather just leave today with the pretty pictures from my other post. But I just wanted to share that I saw the documentary, and while it was morbidly fascinating, it was not really must-watch television.

I don’t think this documentary will really challenge your views or present you with much new information. I don’t think that we as an audience, as a society, benefit from the rehashing of murders committed by a very disturbing, yet very small, fraction of our society. But I recognize that the grotesque nature of the crimes and the alien psychology of the killers is…mesmerizing? Haunting?

Bundy’s kind of confusing because he doesn’t seem to have the same sort of triggers or childhood behaviors that are typically associated with serial killers. He’s frightening because he seems almost like he was just born evil, though I imagine it’s not as simple as that. But my opposition to the death penalty remained untested. I imagine that if you support the death penalty, your views will similarly be untested. I hope that if you disagree with me about capital punishment, you will at least agree that the people who celebrated his impending death with partying, drinking, and cheering are reprehensible and represent a deplorable facet of human psychology.

I actually have more thoughts–as usual, a lot more thoughts. But I don’t have the same desire to write them out. It can be depressing to dwell on these real-world monsters.

Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

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The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review: The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road to Jonestown is a compelling portrait of Jim Jones. He’s a fascinating human, and his combination of socialism and an increasingly spiritualist interpretation of the Gospel seems very enticing (though obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Jones was not a man worthy of following). Typically I don’t see the appeal in cults, but that ideology and service-driven focus could have easily snagged 19-year-old me if I’d been around at the time. Just as interesting, Jones was able to gain legitimacy by obtaining membership within a nationally recognized church and by integrating himself into civil rights campaigning in Indianapolis and San Francisco. For all the abuse, control, and killing that would come down the line, he started off doing a lot of good. Yet that doesn’t make up for the evil that was ultimately unleashed by his increasingly twisted, controlling psyche.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, cults in general, or even local histories of Indianapolis or San Francisco. Just a fascinating read, and quite well-researched too.

I had two complaints with the book that were perpetual minor irritants.

For one thing, Guinn repeatedly refers to “Indiana University” as “the University of Indiana.” There are a lot of universities in Indiana, but the University of Indiana ain’t one of them. No one I know who is an alumnus or fan of IU calls it that, and as far as I can tell, it never had that name in its history (certainly not in the mid-twentieth century). Despite this, it’s a misnomer that Guinn uses frequently in the first third of the book, and he even indexes the university under this incorrect name. While it seems like he did his research about Indiana and appears to have visited at least Richmond and Lynn, this nonetheless made me repeatedly question his rigor of research and understanding of the state that, after all, formed Jim Jones into the adult and pastor who would form a church and campaign for civil rights reforms all before moving on to California.

The other complaint is that Guinn freely mixes the use of the terms “socialism” and “communism.” This would be a minor irritant, but it made it difficult to understand what, exactly, Jim Jones was advocating for. It may be that Jim Jones left plenty of confusion on that point–his organization seemed socialist, but he was prepared to move to communist Cuba or Russia by the time of the Jonestown days. Nonetheless, if Jones’s basic ideology was really so muddled as to be unable to distinguish between these systems of governance, it would have been nice to make that clearer in the text (or to make it clear that the confusion lay in communist countries referring to themselves as socialist). Especially in today’s politically divided America of hyperbolic rhetorical extremes, where even commonly accepted government entitlements are derided as “socialist” and treated as equivalent to communism by an ever-growing subset of conservatism, I think it’s important to use these terms as carefully as possible.

Those were the only things that bothered me while reading. It was a fast-paced, informative, and disturbing read. Guinn appeared to approach the matter with honesty and good faith. While in retrospect I would have preferred to learn more about the specifics of Jones’s increasingly bizarre beliefs that appeared to combine government conspiracy theories with spiritualism, a belief in reincarnation, and socialism, Guinn still does an admirable job of tracing the public and private arc of one rather charismatic cult leader’s life and self-serving death.

View all my reviews

Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.

Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.

Review: Incensed

Incensed (A Taipei Night Market #2)Incensed by Ed Lin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw Incensed at the library, and since it was the library, I was willing to follow an eye-catching cover. I did not know that this was a sequel (in that it follows a character who was the protagonist of a previous book). I did not know what to expect in it. “Taiwanese gangland thriller” seemed about all that I could really gather from the jacket, but that was enough to sell me. I’m glad I followed my gut on this one.

Most surprisingly of all, while it’s technically a “Taiwanese gangland thriller,” the core narrative is about this food stand owner, Jing-nan (narrator and primary protagonist), dealing with the reintroduction of family into his life. He lost his parents while in college and dropped out to run his father’s food stand, which he did successfully. He lost a childhood love, found new love, and seemingly settled into a routine. Then his crime boss uncle reenters his life, and Jing-nan, who seems to long for family even if he doesn’t fully register it, is entrusted with watching over his teenager niece, who was kicked out of yet another school. Her father, Jing-nan’s uncle, is letting her visit Taipei so long as she promises to drop her biker boyfriend and refocus on school. Jing-nan’s a convenient guardian because he’s family and he already lives in the city.

This could have gone a few ways that would have felt predictable or safe. Instead, the story largely focuses on Jing-nan’s tenuous relationship with his newfound family, and on the city of Taipei itself. Jing-nan takes his cousin Mei-ling to a lot of restaurants, and he spends a lot of time at his own stand in the Shilin Night Market. You get a sense of the flavor (quite literally) of the city. There’s also a lot on the complex culture and politics of Taiwan, with a particular focus on Taiwan’s complex relationship with mainland China, the interactions between criminal organizations and the public, the ethnic tensions among Taiwanese, Taiwanese prejudices and opinions about immigrants, and the status of the LGBT community. These issues are framed both in a broader context, often through exposition or dialogue or background events, and in the characters and main plot of Incensed. It’s a focused way to tell the story that cleverly sets up the impending conflicts and revelations of the final act in the reader’s mind before it dawns on the protagonist.

That final act is triggered by the disappearance of Mei-ling. Jing-nan follows a series of clues and cleverly tracks her down, but the reader is left with a secondary investigation to piece through: just who his cousin really is. It sounds tacky, like there’s some big mystery, when I type it this way. The book’s jacket also suggests genre tackiness: “But Mei-ling is also hiding a secret–one that puts her in harm’s way.” That secret is interesting and earned, but it’s not nearly so dramatic as all that makes it sound. It’s fitting and ties into the novel’s themes. But to say more would be to spoil it.

I also liked that Jing-nan is an unreliable narrator. He’s twenty-five, and he has the mentality of a twenty-five-year-old: he thinks that he’s figured everything out, that he’s not so foolish as he was as a kid, that he has better judgment, that he’s wiser and more reserved. Yet he’s rather pretentious and still has some growing to do. He views himself as something of a hero for a freak occurrence, yet his alleged bravery is repeatedly undermined by what happens. He has loud opinions about music, and is an obsessive Joy Division fan, but doesn’t seem aware of how he’s constructed an identity around this fandom. And that fandom causes a huge blind spot–he can’t understand or relate to his cousin’s interest in singing pop music, and he openly derides her taste for much of the novel. (Fascinatingly, he has such a limited view of the creative process that he believes that musicians start out good, as though everyone doesn’t start at zero regardless of talent.) Jing-nan also reaches a number of revelations and does a bit of self-reflection throughout the novel, but he almost always attributes it to himself when the lessons he learns are often more-or-less dictated to him by his friends and family.

The writing itself is fast-paced and dynamic. Sentences are typically short and often blunt. Chapters breeze by. It’s a good read for a Sunday afternoon.

There are some references to Jing-nan’s past that are bewilderingly dramatic and under-developed–but only if you don’t know going in that this is a sequel! Frankly, as long as you know it’s a sequel, I don’t think that reading the first book is necessary to fully appreciate this one. It’s a good, fun read, and it’s deeper than I expected.

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And for those who already read the book or who don’t care about spoilers: I thought Mei-ling was a great character! She’s smart and funny and far more respectful to her cousin than her spoiled brat image suggests. I realized that there was more to her far earlier than Jing-nan’s gradual revelations. He was rude and self-obsessed; she was passionate and goal-focused. He couldn’t get past her surface image because of her tense relationship with her bigoted and criminal father and because she treated her father’s criminal goons with disdain. (The sexually exploitative pictures that he discovers don’t help, but that makes Mei-ling, in my mind, someone who doesn’t fully understand the consequences of her behavior, like a typical teen, and who was exploited as a result of her ambition and naivete. That interpretation sets up what happens in the final act quite nicely, I think.)

I also suspected rather early on that a lot of Mei-ling’s behavior problems were linked to her repressed sexual identity. Jing-nan really bumbles through things before he catches on. I was quite pleased with how Ed Lin explored the subject of queer sexual identity through the perspective of a hetero-normative outsider (and I suppose that’s appropriate, too; Lin’s married to a woman, and a more intimate depiction probably would have felt dishonest).

My biggest disappointment was that we don’t really see Mei-ling’s crisis of identity resolved. Once her ordeal as an exploited sex worker is ended and she is reluctantly “rescued” by her family, it is suggested that she will be put back into a fairly confined box by her father once more. It’s a tragic ending, and a dark one, and I don’t know how much of that was intentional. I’d certainly like to read a sequel that showed what ended up happening to Mei-ling.