Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 89, No 2

农Æa乐 PEASANT FAMILY HAPPINESS. A film directed and produced by Jenny Chio. Reviewed by Jinba Tenzin

バ ンクーバーの朝日 THE VANCOUVER ASAHI. A film directed by Yuya Ishii; screenplay, Satoko Okudera; producer, Inaba Naoto, Kikuchi Miyoshi. Reviewed by Bill Staples, Jr.

DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. A film directed and photographed by John Pirozzi; produced by John Pirozzi and Andrew Pope. Reviewed by David Novak

 

农家乐 PEASANT FAMILY HAPPINESS. A film directed and produced by Jenny Chio; camera, sound, editing, Jenny Chio. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Media, 2013. 1 DVD (70 min.) Sale: US$275.00; Rental: $95.00. In Chinese with English subtitles. Url: http://www.berkeleymedia.com.

The film title Peasant Family Happiness is quite suggestive. We may wonder: What does visiting peasant homes have to do with happiness? Are peasant hosts happy, too? Jenny Chio’s film shows that both the visitors and the peasants being visited seem to be quite happy about the benefits tourism has brought or is expected to bring. This is highlighted by the lyrics of the song sung by a woman from Ping’an Village at the start of the film: “today tourism has arrived at every home, every life has become a happy one.” However, some peasants are not equally happy, or at least not happy all the time, since tourism has also had a great impact on locals’ minds, traditions, and day-to-day living in a way that does not always appear to be rosy or positive.

At its initial stage of development in the early 1990s, the notion “Peasant Family Happiness” had no particular ethnic context. It was the time when the suburbs of big cities started to appeal to urban residents for the imagined rustic and simple life to be found there. Very soon the notion of Peasant Family Happiness spread all over China, including small cities and towns. Ethnic tourism in China incorporated this model. The incorporation reflects great sociopolitical changes in the last two decades that have contributed to intensive negotiations of rural, cultural, ethnic, political, regional and other identities among ethnic minorities. As (ethnic) tourism is both a product and agent of social transformations, many ethnic regions have taken on a new look with an influx of tourists. The locals hope to take advantage of tourism to live a better life but have to deal with its consequences at the same time, such as an exploitative development model that benefits outside investors by sidelining the locals, dilution of traditions or conventional bonds, fierce competition among the locals, sexualized objectification of local women (and men), environmental degradation, and so on. This film doesn’t explore all these aspects in the same intensity or detail, but it provides a snapshot of the unprecedented changes the local societies are going through.

Peasant Family Happiness in ethnic areas appears to be even more appealing to city people. With the rapid economic growth and accelerated urbanization, the countryside embodies an “authentic” and “pure” past that the cities are leaving behind. Since most ethnic communities live in mountains, valleys, and grasslands that are supposedly remote from modernity and urban civility, they are conceived as being even more “traditional” and “natural,” and thus “primitive.” As a result, Peasant Family Happiness is booming in ethnic regions. The two villages in the film, Ping’an in Guangxi, with predominantly ethnic Zhuang people, and Upper Jidao in Guizhou, with primarily ethnic Miao people, are two of the thousands of such ethnic villages engaged in tourism throughout the country. Ping’an is congested with tourists and more hostels and shops are being constructed to receive them, but Upper Jidao is still finding its way, trying to upgrade its tourism and attract potential investors and more tourists. Through a comparison, the film identifies various differences in the two villages, ranging from the degree of development and commercialization to the locals’ attitudes towards undergoing changes.

For instance, while many a migrant worker from Ping’an has chosen to return to his or her native village thanks to the increasing tourism-driven profits at home, men (and women) at Upper Jidao continue to go to cities to search for odd jobs. While charging tourists for taking photos with local women is largely accepted as a normal practice at Ping’an, doing so is not yet counted as reasonable at Upper Jidao. While some people at Ping’an complain about the unfair development model in which a corporation manages and leads tourism, Upper Jidao villagers are looking for the opportunity to have the first company come and invest. While the profit-oriented focus is starting to disconcert some locals at Ping’an, a critical local concern at Upper Jidao is how to leave behind poverty. However, both villages are conscious of the fact that their ethnicity is a major tourist attraction that they can promote through colourful costumes, “exotic” songs and dances, traditional buildings, and so on. At least, we can ask why it was normally male tourists that were “invited” by the girls with ethnic costumes (who could be Han, too) for photos. What is the implication of this? In a way, it is a reflection of unequal power relationship between tourists and tourees (host population) as much as that of between the Han and ethnic minorities (this aspect is thoroughly discussed in my book: In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity, University of Washington Press, 2014).

I am personally interested in the role of Jenny Chio in it. She arranged a learning trip to Ping’an for villagers from Upper Jidao. The latter is now catching up in developing ethnic tourism or Peasant Family Happiness, and Ping’an appears to be an excellent model for it. Will her intervention be successful? In what way? One possibility is that Upper Jidao villagers will become more skilled at attracting tourists and making money. In the last two decades I have witnessed so many changes in Sichuan’s Tibetan area, where I am originally from, partly as a result of tourism development, and one notable change is that many locals are learning “smart” tricks, including cheating and coercive dealing, for the sake of more tourism income. Would Upper Jidao’s tomorrow be different? Surely, with or without tourism, with or without Jenny’s intervention, Upper Jidao will change. Can we say with certainty that learning to play tricks or becoming profit-oriented is a bad thing? There are always different ways to interpret the locals’ or the marginal population’s strategies and concerns, as well as the role of an ethnographer in the field.

In a nutshell, the film opens a whole range of important questions to be further discussed, debated, and reflected upon. Therefore, I strongly recommend it to an audience and students who are interested in indigenous responses to and consequences of tourism development, as well as in ethnicity and rural development in China. I also suggest that you read her newly published book A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China (University of Washington Press, 2014) for more contextualization and deeper analyses.

Tenzin Jinba, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou, China                                      

507-509

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THE VANCOUVER ASAHI = バンクーバーの朝日. A film directed by Yuya Ishii; screenplay, Satoko Okudera; producers, Inaba Naoto, Kikuchi Miyoshi; cinematographer, Ryuto Kikuchi; editor, Fushima Shinichi; music, Watanabe Takashi. Tokyo: Distributed by Pony Canyon; produced by Film-makers Inc., 2014. 1 online resource (134 mins.) In Japanese and English with English subtitles. Url: www.vancouver-asahi.jp.

Nikkei baseball is perhaps one of the most overlooked and underappreciated chapters in baseball history. Thanks to director Yuya Ishii and his excellent work on the award-winning film The Vancouver Asahi, one of the most important and celebrated Nikkei teams is introduced to a new generation of baseball fans in both Japan and North America.

The movie is based on the true story of the Vancouver Asahi, a Japanese-Canadian baseball team founded in 1914. Ishii and screenwriter Satoko Okudera collaborated to tell a story that compresses the team’s 27-year history into a 134-minute script.

The Asahi played their games at the Powell Street Grounds in the heart of Vancouver’s Japantown. Today their former ball field is known as Oppenheimer Park, where a commemorative plaque was unveiled in 2011. The plaque summarizes the team’s significance and inspiration for the film:

Asahi Baseball Team – Between 1914 and 1941, at a time when Japanese Canadians faced racism, Vancouver’s Asahi Baseball team thrilled fans by winning championships in senior amateur leagues. Its signature offensive strategy, “brain ball,” emphasized bunting and speed on the bases, reflected the values of discipline and team work, and, coupled with sparkling defence, levelled the playing field with more powerful opponents. The Asahi became a symbol of the Japanese Canadian struggle for equality and respect, and despite being disbanded during the Second World War internment, left a legacy of inspiration for future generations.

The movie begins in 1937 Japantown of Vancouver, British Columbia, where racial tension and a lack of economic equality create hardships for Japanese Canadians. The hero of the film is fictitious ballplayer Reji “Reggie” Kasahara (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the son of a hardworking, seamstress mother (Eri Ishida) and an alcoholic, labourer father (Koichi Saito). Reji works at the local sawmill and plays shortstop for the Asahi. Despite being perennial losers, the Asahi are the pride of Japantown.

Other members of the Asahi ball club include Roi “Roy” Naganishi (Kazuya Kamenashi), the team’s ace pitcher who works as a fisherman; Kei Kitamoto (Ryo Katsuji), the team’s second baseman and co-worker of Reji; Tom Miyake (Yusuke Kamiji), catcher and tofu shop worker, and third baseman Frank Nojima (Sosuke Ikematsu) who works at a local hotel. With the exception of the film’s star Satoshi Tsumabuki, all of the actors cast to play Asahi team members are experienced ballplayers in Japan.

Despite being disciplined and determined, the members of the Asahi team are physically outmatched by their taller and stronger white opponents. As the new team captain, Reggie recommends that his teammates adopt a strategy that involves more bunts and stealing bases. The Asahi team finally starts winning, and the local sportswriters soon call the Asahi smarter style of play “brain ball.” Fans of all races eventually start to cheer for the Asahi and buy tickets to watch their gutsy, entertaining brand of baseball.

Despite their success on the field, off the field struggles for equality continue. Reggie’s sister Emmy (Mitsuki Takahata) tries to assimilate by working and making friends within the Caucasian community, but is still treated like a second-class citizen. Reggie’s father seeks work to make enough money to send back home to relatives in Japan, but finds that his job opportunities are limited due to his age and failing health. Racial tensions are made even worse when the Asahi players get into a fight with the opposing white team after one of their batters is beaned with an inside pitch.

The climax of the film centres on the championship game between the Asahi and the formidable Caucasian team from neighbouring Mount Pleasant. By the end of the game, the Asahi have won the hearts of fans—Nikkei and Caucasian alike. With the game tied and runners in scoring position, the Asahi batter hits the ball over the head of a charging third baseman to score the winning run and secure the championship for Japantown. The movie closes with the outbreak of World War II, the immediate hostile reactions of the Caucasians, and eventual incarceration of the Japanese-Canadian community.

The Vancouver Asahi movie is a must see for baseball fans or anyone with an interest in WWII-era history and North America-Japan relations. The recreation of late 1930s Vancouver Japantown, throwback baseball uniforms and equipment, and wardrobe are both visually stunning and historically believable. Aficionados of Japanese baseball will also appreciate the finer attention to details like the Asahi coach taking time to clean the bats and equipment, a practice not commonly found in North American baseball.

Unfortunately, this attention to detail is not consistent throughout the film. For example, viewers are given the impression that the ballpark is the home field of the Asahi, yet the Asahi are listed as the visiting team on the scoreboard. Also, in what appears to be a tribute to pitcher Hideo Nomo, actor Kazuya Kamenashi mimics Nomo’s trademark “Tatsumaki” (Tornado) windup delivery when portraying Asahi ace Roy Naganishi. For those who know the modern game, seeing Nomo’s windup on a 1930s-era pitcher is both anachronistic and somewhat distracting.

Film critic Mark Schilling of The Japan Times suggests that the “for all the rah-rah moments of Asahi triumph … the subplots occupy much screen time and make the film a rather downbeat viewing experience.” Moviegoers in both Japan and the US appear to agree with Schilling’s assessment, rating the film three out of five stars.

Perhaps like anyone who plays the game of baseball, The Vancouver Asahi is not perfect. It is, however, excellent. Despite its few moments of failure, the film is a winner, especially for those who love baseball and stories about the underdog coming out on top. Ultimately, director Yuya Ishii’s homage to the Vancouver Asahi is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with their story and their legacy.

For those wanting to take a deeper dive into the history of the Vancouver Asahi after watching this film, they are encouraged to view the 2003 documentary Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story (National Film Board of Canada), read the book More Than a Baseball Team: The Saga of the Vancouver Asahi, by Ted Y. Furomoto and Douglas W. Jackson; visit the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (where the Asahi were inducted in 2003), and visit Oppenheimer Park, in Vancouver, British Columbia (Japantown).

Bill Staples, Jr., Nisei Baseball Research Project, Chandler, USA                    

509-511

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DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. A film directed and photographed by John Pirozzi, produced by John Pirozzi and Andrew Pope; film editing, Daniel Littlewood, Matt Prinzing and Greg Wright; original music score, Scot Stafford; executive director, Youk Chhang. New York; Argot Pictures; presented by Harmony Productions/Primitive Nerd/Pearl City, 2014. 1 online resource (106 mins.) In English, French, and Khmer with English subtitles. Url: http://www.dtifcambodia.com/.

At first blush, Cambodian rock music might seem like an unlikely topic of fascination for North American listeners. Until fairly recently, few outside of the Khmer diaspora knew that a full-blown rock-and-roll culture had developed in 1960s Phnom Penh, or that this music was still widely remembered in contemporary Khmer communities, and painstakingly maintained as a cherished archive representing a golden era of prewar Cambodian popular culture. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014; director John Pirozzi) reveals a hidden history of musical innovation, bringing viewers into the rapid efflorescence of a shimmering creative and social world just as abruptly torn apart by war and genocide.

In the course of exposing viewers to this little-known musical scene, the film presents an engaging and informative history of modern Cambodia. Norodom Sihanouk, crowned king of Cambodia in 1941 at the age of 18, represents a poignant and recurring through-line in the film’s development, which traces his tragic path against the country’s sickening disintegration into violence. In the 1950s, immediately after having successfully negotiated a peaceful transition from French colony to independence, Sihanouk appears as a dapper cosmopolitan, proud of his country’s dedication to the arts, and to peace and neutrality during the nascent Cold War. The music reflects the mix of forces shaping mid-century Cambodia. As a composer, singer, and saxophonist himself, Sihanouk was deeply passionate about music, forming Western-style and Cambodian traditional orchestras, and also encouraging the local production of pop music that emulated the French chanson and pop styles of Edith Piaf and Johnny Hallyday, as well as the Afro-Cuban influences of cha-cha-cha. Nightclub culture thrived in Phnom Penh throughout the 1960s, where vocalists Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea were the undisputed stars of the scene; guitar bands like Baksey Cham Krong brought the surf sounds of the Shadows into circulation; and by the early 1970s groups like the Drakkar Band and Yol Aularong tuned into the hard rock and soul influences (Santana, Wilson Pickett) flowing in from US Armed Forces radio in Vietnam.

The atmosphere of the film slowly tightens as the escalating war next door begins to simmer, and then boils over into Cambodia. As Viet Cong forces pour across the border in 1970, Sihanouk’s thinly veiled police state is deposed by US-backed Lon Nol. Musicians are forced into writing propaganda songs for the newly militarized society: one chilling lyric demands, “My friends/don’t be afraid to kill/chase and slaughter/pick up a weapon now.” The urban culture of Phnom Penh becomes increasingly isolated, as the Khmer Rouge slowly builds (joined by the desperate Sihanouk) in the wake of massive US bombing campaigns, and eventually overruns the city in 1975. The film is perhaps most effective in having built up so slowly to the horror of the genocidal purge that drove musicians, artists, and intellectuals into exile, and in many cases, execution.

The emotional climax, then, seems to arrive suddenly and shockingly, as surviving musicians and fans capture, in few but powerful words, the traumatic destruction of their lives. As they remember families slaughtered overnight and a world silenced by violence and the brutal authoritarian social order of Pol Pot, Pirozzi juxtaposes their brief testimony with increasingly abstract images of violence, backed with eerie original soundtrack music that heightens the sense of incredulity and displacement. When the Khmer Rouge are finally driven out in 1979, Sihanouk, disgraced and in exile, appears in a tragic coda on French television, voice shaking at his deception and enumerating his own numerous losses of children and grandchildren murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

Director John Priozzi dedicated over a decade of work to the production of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, and it shows: the film’s rapport with its subjects is far deeper than the less substantial examples that dominate the growing field of music documentaries over the past decade. Having first come to the region as a camera operator on the 2002 noir City of Ghosts, shot in Thailand and Cambodia, Priozzi returned to document the popular LA-based Cambodian rock revival band Dengue Fever in Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (2007), which chronicles the group’s 2005 tour of Cambodia. Simultaneously, he worked with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and other archival sources to uncover a trove of footage that reveals the sophisticated urban world of mid-century Phnom Penh, conducting interviews with surviving musicians and fans, and gathering rare recordings to flesh out the vibrant and tragic story of the city’s music scene in the 1950s and 1960s (many of which are featured on the film’s soundtrack, released by the award-winning Dust-to-Digital label).

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten will undoubtedly spark interest in this music, but also in the personal history of the lives pushed underground by genocide and war, and the survivors who have begun to emerge to speak, and sing, through this film. Several premiere screenings of the film in spring 2015 featured performances by surviving members of Baksey Cham Krong, The Drakkar Band, as well as Chom Nimol of Dengue Fever and Sinn Sethakol, grandson of Sinn Sisamouth. When I spoke with Pirozzi in May 2015 for a radio interview, he told me that at the Los Angeles screening, one of the audience members approached him after the film and identified himself as Yol Aularong’s brother. Other recent screenings have brought Khmer families together to recollect, and reconsider Cambodian rock as part of a diasporic legacy.

The film, then, does more than document a lost moment in time—it may also generate new knowledge and connections through its circulation, as the historical picture continues to be filled in by survivors and Khmer populations. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is a moving and valuable project that works on many levels: as a “Cambodia 101” for those unfamiliar with the nation’s tragic modern history, as a touchstone of memorialization for survivors and their families, and as a well-deserved celebration of a classic, and surprisingly fresh-sounding, repertoire of Cambodian rock music.

David Novak, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA                         

512-514

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