Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Do You Know About Taiwan?

Last night at the Newseum the Formosa Foundation hosted an invite-only Congressional screening of “Formosa Betrayed,” starring James Van Der Beek as Agent Jake Kelly. This low-budget independent feature takes a highly complicated international murder scenario and removes the superficial glam but keeps the production quality. Some attendees were a part of the true events on which this film is based. For the rest of us, this film brought some truths to light for the first time in history. It also stirred the question, what do you know about Taiwan?

As with “The Last King of Scotland,” “Formosa Betrayed” combines real life characters and real events and twists them into a suspenseful political thriller. The challenge with “Formosa,” however, is that the audience has no historical knowledge of these events, or at least only an awareness of information “sanctioned” by governments as suitable to publish. Having to build in both a history lesson and a current events update gave these filmmakers an extra storytelling challenge. All of the script writers rose to the occasion with excellence. After four years of research, producer Will Tiao, who describes himself as “a creature of D.C.,” has produced a must-see film – not just because it’s entertaining, but because it’s a story that should not be suppressed any longer.

Imagine if Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, etc. had all been locked up in a room and killed just before the American Revolution. This is, in a sense, what happened in Taiwan in 1947. The intellectual leaders of Taiwan were assassinated by the Chinese government. To this day, it has been illegal to speak or write about what happened. So in the film, when a Taiwanese professor of economics in the U.S. starts to write a tell-all book, government insiders have him killed on the campus where he has just made tenure. (The professor's fictional character is based on several real life characters, one of whom was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was murdered in Pennsylvania.)

His murder launches and investigation by the FBI, which sends Agent Kelly to Taiwan under strict orders to “observe and report.” His senior colleague Agent Tom Braxton, played by John Heard (Sopranos, Pelican Brief), turns down the chance to work on the case landing Kelly in a Lone Ranger role. Without knowing the language or understanding the local culture, he is forced to rely heavily on a U.S. liaison, played by Wendy Crewson, with a hidden agenda. Even though Agent Kelly is an outsider, the local investigator's claim that the professor’s murder is connected with mob ties seems preposterous. Using the same reckless abandon that earns Westerners the label of “cowboy” overseas, he begins to follow his own leads putting his life and those helping him in grave danger.

Historical facts that would normally be alluded to in one or two lines, must now take up several scenes and lines of almost pedantic dialogue just to inform the viewer about the Taiwan's desire for independence from China. The passion behind this plea is pivotal to the plot. If outsiders learn more about what the Republic of China has been keeping secret, the two million Chinese who control the 18 million Taiwanese on that small, humid island, just might lose their position. The threat of this loss is so high that China has, in reality, 1,000 missiles pointed right at Taiwan.

In the film, the U.S. State Department plays a strictly “hands off” role in aiding the investigation, when, in real life (at least according to the representative at the screening), a much more complicated and adversarial role was taken. While some liberties with facts had to be taken, overall the film successfully tells a powerfully moving story. It also keeps the viewer emotionally involved while putting together a Rubik’s cube of background information. The movie reveals the motives of the professor’s murder while keeping the torture and deaths of those trying to unofficially aide the investigation on a personal level.

Without the hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on marketing the film, “Formosa Betrayed” will not be showing in a theater near you. The marketing efforts are viral however, and if enough requests pour in to local theaters, film festivals and even universities, you could probably get your own viewing. Maybe then more of us will ask why 23 countries recognize Taiwan’s independence but the U.S. does not.

Watch the trailer on YouTube:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comparitive Analysis of "The Women" (1939 and 2008)

Flipping through countless HD channels one day when I was home, I came across a 2008 movie called “The Women,” with an all-star line up. I vaguely remember hearing about it when it was released in theaters, but it didn’t sound like the kind of movie I would watch. I don’t know what made me think watching it at home for free would change that. After a few minutes, I realized I was watching a slow moving train wreck, but could not force myself to change the channel. I became obsessed with figuring out why someone spent all this money on this A-list cast for a film that, as a woman, offended every fiber of my being.

Since Diane English (who also did Murphy Brown and won three Primetime Emmys) decided to direct this remake, I decided to Netflix the original. After a little research, it became clear that the modern version suffered from what too many films suffer from: Executive Summary Envy. The original black and white version produced by Hunt Stromberg and directed by George Cukor in 1939 was one of the highest grossing films of that year. Based on a successful stage play written by Claire Booth Luce, the show ran for 666 performances and gained an earmark in history for the “novelty of an all-female cast…known for its nasty dialogue and unparalleled wit” (quotes take from the DVD features menu). With such a successful original, combined with a modern cast of beautiful, talented women, the overall summary of the remake sounds like a fantastic idea. People must have been so envious of that executive summary that someone forgot to read the script.

After careful analysis, I think I can put my finger on why this remake failed. In the 1939 version, the central character Mary Haines is aware that the women she is surrounded by are there because of their social status (they all married rich men on Park Ave). So when her “friend” Sylvie Prowler informs her of her husband’s infidelity with a shop girl through no small measure of taunting, Mary keeps a stiff arm in Prowler’s direction and keeps her chin up for her daughter’s sake – a daughter with whom she has a close and healthy relationship. (Prowler's character in the 1939 film reminded me of Lucille Ball). In the remake, Mary seems completely unaware that her social circle has formed around money, even if they didn’t marry a man to get to Park Ave. In fact, the Mary played by Meg Ryan seems to be oblivious to many things, including what it means to be a good mother, which removes any empathy the audience would need to have for the central character of the film.

Yes, the casting was off, but the writing flat lined faster than Ryan’s hairstyle. The original had lines like:

Personal trainer: “Women should enter the room vertical.”

Prowler: “Most women I know leave horizontally.”


Prowler to Edie Cohen (played by Edith Potter): “You should get your hair done where I do mine. I simply despise whoever does yours.”

The 2008 film attempted at strikes like these but wound up with lazy fill-in-the-blank jokes. I won’t even waste time repeating them.

I also think that English missed the depth of Mary’s character evolution. The original took Mary away from her Park Avenue circles where she found herself among other Reno divorcees (laws in New York made divorce harder to prove back then when there were fewer no-fault divorce states. Reno probably had the shortest residence requirements). This new circle of women barely knew Mary and could care less for her social status so they had no qualms talking to her straight, making them, in the end, truer friends than the girls in New York.

It’s called a character arch and even comedies have them. But in the 2008 version, it’s complete missing. Or rather, it has been replaced by a shallow epiphany which dawns on Mary while smoking pot with Bette Midler’s character at a yoga camp. Ryan’s character is told to be selfish and do “what makes you happy.” Apparently this is English’s modern translation of the original “pride is a luxury a woman in love cannot afford.” If that is how far we’ve come in 70 years, we’ve got bigger problems than a poor remake.

Without the real women in Reno to balance the superficial women in New York, without the dubiously delicious mantrap character made famous by Joan Crawford, and without a sympathetic central character, what remains? The most depressing comedy of 2008.

While a bad script may have slipped by the studio, viewers caught every line. What Julie Tareynal, a vacationer from Spain, posted on IMDB.com says it perfectly: “The Botoxed women is a rather depressing affair.” Don’t let the comedy genre fool you. English’s “The Women” captures the worst aspects of our gender and tries to paint over it with a clown face and perfume. The next time a film budget this big goes toward a remake, they might want to think about putting more of it towards a good writer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Women in Film 2009 International Showcase Filmmakers

When I interviewed these three women filmmakers for the Women in Film & Video e-newsletter, I quickly realized I was writing down more great quotes than would ever fit into the small 250-word allotment I was officially allowed. The article was intended to be a follow up with a few of the filmmakers who had popular entries in the annual International Showcase of women-made films, which usually occurs on International Women's Day. (the article can be found here on page 8: http://wifv.org/files/Sept09.pdf )

Their love of filmmaking and current sacrifices to achieve their goals called for more than just a brief mention in a 16-page PDF. Here are the outtakes, as it were, from those interviews (as well as a few corrections), and even this is edited down.

Jehan Harney:
1. Where did you get the inspiration for your film “Colors of the Veil”?
Everything involving the film was by chance. I knew the imam when I lived in Europe. When I came back to states, I met his family. I was able to chat with his wife, Kimberly King, and learned that she had an interesting story. You don’t hear this story often…a very unusual story. This is an interesting story for people in the Middle East, who think Islam and think of people who are usually dark skinned. You don’t see a former U.S. soldier converting. I found her very fascinating. She eventually gave in and let me film her. This film won the national award for best documentary from One Nation Many Voices…. You feel like people from different worlds can come together and become bigger than just themselves, extend their philosophy and you can see how people should treat each other…then to see it manifest itself in the community. Kimberly King and her husband have a great model.

2. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
When I do a short film you just try to get point out. What I like is for the story to be in their voices, no narration. I like it to have a conflict, and see how we made it work. That’s why we’re curious about people’s stories anyway. I always look for [conflict] in my stories to make it advance forward, make people wonder what happened next. A longer film I’m working on now “Friends of America” captures the life of Iraqi refugees in the U.S. funded for PBS. It’s ironic that the country that supported liberation of Iraq, the only place the refugees could find safety, is in the U.S. And yet, it is the one country that took in the least number of Iraqis. This film follows two families who fall through the cracks of the U.S. system Their family’s story represents one-third of the refugees here. Their story is under represented because they are afraid to reveal their identities. Luckily I found a couple of families who trusted me wbc we share religion, city, culture. It’s always good when you tell a story in three acts. Their past, present future; its’ good to break up the story. Ask yourself, What’s unique about it? What else has been done on the same subject? Once you find yourself as interesting other people will too. How you lead to [the mystery of the story] can’t be always reveal everything up front; reveal a little, bit but not everything. Give the element of surprise once they think they see the resolution.

3. What else have you been doing?
I got to sit in on class for proposal writing…Paul Taylor is amazing with words. He dissected my proposal. He is The Proposal Doctor! …The whole point is to stretch your imagination; have distance from you material; look at it analytically. It can be a great eye opener to see other people’s work and build a network.

Vanya Rose:
1. Where did you get the inspiration for the Montreal Stories?
It was my master’s degree thesis... I was studying history/fiction and how to combine them, the urban history/fiction… Lon Walter Benjamin philosophy, theoretical stuff. Composition. (Editor’s note: When this story ran in the WIFV e-newsletter I wrote that the little girl’s character in 1944 was French Canadian. She was not. The girl is the daughter of recently emigrated Polish Jews. There is not much in the way of dialogue in the film.)

2. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
A [film] has to come from the heart, even if you haven’t written it. I don’t think you can make a film if you don’t feel the attachment. It’s not a question of technique. I think you can tell a story around anything, even the most banal plots…Edith Wharton says there’s no originality… it’s about the ways of saying things. It’s having new eyes. I think that’s why women are on the frontier of [film]. There are a massive amount of men’s stories, which are great, but I think there are so many untold women’s stories, so keep a fresh eye on your own way of seeing the word and telling stories…not falling into the trap of all those rules because of story editors, etc. Naturally stories tell themselves a certain way. When you look at Asian cinema you see different ways of telling stories….

3. Can you tell us about "As the Night the Day"?

It’s really different. There is a male central character who is interesting. It’s much more traditional story telling because Mansfield lends itself to that. I felt like I was telling her story, ways I want to depict it. She was such a brilliant short story writer. When she died [Virginia] Wolf said “I have no one else to write for anymore.”….When it comes to directing, being an architect, instances where creative and control go together, women face a huge challenge. It’s the biggest issue for society….Women get less funding. People don’t mind women telling everyone what to do [in the case of running a corporation or a school]. What they mind is someone creative on set telling them what to do, expressing how they see the world. That’s really hard for people. As a straight women, I find it even more controversial.

Kat Candler:

1. How great is Jon Hamm?!?! (sorry, I saw your blog and could not resist):
I've only seen one episode of MAD MEN. Isn't that horrible? I've been making my way through WEEDS, EASTBOUND AND DOWN ... So I'm a little slow in getting to MAD MEN. I don't have cable so I only get an opportunity in a hotel room or parent's house to catch an episode not on DVD. But I've seen Jon Hamm on 30 ROCK and SNL and he's pretty awesome. And I just love his MAD MEN look. It's too perfect. He's what I envision for the lead in a family comedy I'm writing called CAPTAIN DYNAMO AND THE BOY RANGERS. (Editor’s note: In the WIFV article in the e-newsletter “Rangers” was misspelled.)

2. Where did you get the inspiration for “Quarter to Noon”?
I actually made QUARTER TO NOON the same month I quit that day job and went freelance full time as a filmmaker and film teacher. Very cathartic. For me, the short is about doing what you love.

3. What is your #1 rule in storytelling?
Every choice that you make should always be dictated by story. Music, sound design, costume colors, dialogue, it all goes back to the story and the bigger picture. I always tell my students, think long and hard about each choice you make. Don't do a camera move because it's cool, do it because it says something about a character, emotion, the tone or moves the story along…My #1 rule of filmmaking is to be nice. I don't work with mean or egotistical people. It ruins the experience and I think ultimately can ruin the film. I feel like a lot of hearts and hands go on a screen. And there's so much joy in the process of getting there.

Editor’s note: Check back later for a follow up on how these women’s films are progressing.