Surprise and Screwup

February 27, 2017
Yes, it was the most shocking moment ever, also most embarrassing, most awkward, most anti-climax, most Hollywood, most twisted, most dramatic, and most... most... in Oscar's history.

Yes, it was the most shocking moment ever, also most embarrassing, most awkward, most anti-climax, most Hollywood, most twisted, most dramatic, and most… most… in Oscar’s history.

Well, surprise, surprise, surprise, screwup, screwup, and screwup. How could a film that won 14 nominations, and won Best Cinematography, Best Lead Actress, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Song, Best Production Design, end up losing to another film that feels incomplete and uneven at best? Worst of all, the ceremony ended with an anti-climax that confused the whole world and shocked the whole film community! Call it the Best Rival of the 2016 President Election of the United States!

I don’t dislike Moonlight, and fully understand the message it wants to convey. But if there was no Trump Factor, the film would be only remembered as a daring indie at best. In this respect, I think the whole Moonlight team, including director Barry Jenkins, should thank DT last night when the fiasco unfolded on stage. It is truly an irony, isn’t it?

The (hard) truth is: for the years to come, people will remember Saving Private Ryan more than Shakespeare in Love,  Brokeback Mountain more than Crash, and La La Land more than Moonlight. After all, last night’s fiasco was “only a show”, as Jimmy Kimmel awkwardly quipped.


My Prediction of the 89th Major Oscar Winners, 2017

February 20, 2017

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Those who still have a fresh memory of last year’s Oscars are at least assured that this year’s nominations are exempt from the label of “color-blind” or “being whitewashed,” for three of the nine Best Picture nominations directly deal with the racial issue in the United States: Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences. Whereas Moonlight is set in contemporary period, the other two are set in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the issue of race started to surface in American consciousness and would eventually erupt in the civil rights movement. In addition, Lion tells the story of an adopted Australian who desperately wants to reconnect himself with the place of his origin: India, and Hell or High Water is not only a story about two brothers’ desperate act to save their mother’s ranch, but also a story about two Texas rangers’ longtime friendship, and one of them is a native American.

This year’s Oscar nominations are also diverse in genres. We have a war film, a sci-fi, a musical, a Western, a film adapted from a well-established stage play that looks very much like a Shakespearean play, and two coming-of-age stories. Also, for the first time in my memory (might be wrong), the Weinstein company did not win many nominations, only six for the less promising feature Lion (including adapted screenplay and best supporting actor), a blow to the company’s legendary indie “godfather” Harvey Weinstein.

After finishing my self-imposed annual watching obligation, I came up with the following major predictions, a week ahead of the official ceremony and announcement:

Best Picture:

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Well, not a single reason can justify why a film that wins 14 nominations, a significant tie in Oscar’s history (tying the record set in 1950 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and in 1998 by James Cameron’s Titanic), shouldn’t be the Best Film of the year. Yes, I am talking about La La Land. Every indication points to the final moment of the Oscar ceremony when La La Land is crowned with this trophy. Yes, it looks like a old-fashioned musical, but who does not love this slightly narcissistic retro-film that looks at the la la land  so romantically yet so heart-broken? Hollywood now and then loves to look at its self reflection. Remember The Artist several years ago?  Yes, La La Land is The Artist of 2017, and the only difference is that the latter is from the POV of a French, whereas the former is a tribute to Hollywood and the city of Angeles from the eyes of an American young man.

Best Director:

damienIn the past several years, there has been a separation between the Best Film and Best Directing awards, a trend not necessarily healthy. The most controversial upset was when Ang Lee became the first non-white person to ever win the Best Director at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, but his Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash, a story about race relations in Los Angeles. I don’t think the same will happen this year. Damien Chazelle, a Harvard graduate, will win the Best Director title for La La Land. Despite his young age (born in 1985), Chazelle has already shown his exceptional talent in Whiplash, particularly in the areas of film music and rhythm. La La Land cements Chazelle’s place in Hollywood history and, in the years to come, people will remember the film as a classic on pal with An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Best Actor in a leading role:

caseyIt was almost 100% certain that Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck’s younger brother, would win this prestigious trophy for his exceptional performance in Manchester by the Sea until Denzel Washington won the Best Actor award at SAG for his equally memorable performance in Fences. Now Denzel is the one to beat and Casey Affleck is considered an underdog. Although I admire Denzel’s role as a black street cleaner in 1950s’ America, I think the title should go to Casey Affleck, who conveys a man’s sadness and melancholy in such a subtle yet powerful way that few people could match. Manchester by the Sea is in fact a one-man show. Without Casy’s exceptional performance, the film would be far less powerful and emotionally absorbing. I could be wrong, though. Maybe the Academy members will choose Denzel instead, who is more charismatic and eloquent.

Best Actress in a leading role:

emma-stoneWell, this year belongs to Emma Stone. For some reason, her big eyes are mesmerizing and intoxicating. I think this is the very reason as to why she has won almost all the major acting awards since last year, and the only exception was the Golden Globe, at which French actress Isabelle Huppert was surprisingly crowned for her performance in Elle. This won’t happen at the Oscars, though, as SAG just gave the title to Emma Stone. Too bad her former lover Andrew Garfield, despite being nominated, could not share the stage with her with a Best Actor trophy in his hands.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

aliMy favorite in this category is Michael Shannon, who plays an about-to-die Texas ranger in the Western Nocturnal Animals. If he does not win, then the next one on my list is the veteran actor Jeff Bridges, who also plays a Texas ranger in Hell or High Water. Maybe that’s because I have a soft spot for Westerns, or maybe the two actors have perfectly captured the rawness of the Texas landscape with their acting style. Despite my personal preference, I think this title will go to Mahershala Ali, as many signs, including the SAG award in the same category, indicate he will be the winner. I liked Ali’s poetic and subtle depiction of a Miami African American, but I think his “sudden” and complete absence in the third episode of the main character’s life, “black”, seriously weakens his talented performance as well as his competitiveness (Yes, the audience has no knowledge about where the Ali character has gone in the third part of Moonlight).

Best Actress in a supporting role:

violadavisUnequivocally, this title will go to Viola Davis, who plays a resilient, resolute, yet oftentimes considerate black mother living in 1950s’ racially segregated Pittsburgh. Despite Denzel Washington’s towering presence, she stands out in her own right in the film adaptation of Fences. It is no wonder that she has been crowned for this title at ALL the major awards ceremonies, including the Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress. An Oscar trophy will only add one more title to this already successful black lady, yet the most important one, as she has been nominated three times but without a final win.

Best Foreign Language Film:

salesmanIt should and will (I hope) go to The Salesman from Iran, directed by Asghar Farhadi. This is not only because crowning The Salesman will show the moral solidarity of the filmmaker community, and highlight the principle that art transcends the nation, religion, race, and ideology, but more importantly because the film IS the Best among the five nominated ones. It seems Farhadi plans each frame, each shot, and each cut in advance. With extreme care, The Salesman, despite its lack of music, feels like a rhythmic piece with perfect tempo and pulse. This is the sign of a master in the making, and it proves great art could come from a politically restrained or repressive environment, as long as one sticks to his/her principle. Of course, in order to win this title, the “enemy” to beat is Farhadi himself, as he was awarded the same trophy five years ago for his extraordinary directing of A Separation.

Best Animated Feature:

zootopiaPeople of all ages loved Zootopia, and I think this love will translate into the Oscar award. Whereas the love is almost universal, and the animated feature is simply funny, smart, and pleasing to the eyes, the animal world is a lot like the human one, as it replicates the discrimination and social stereotypes of the human world. This is probably the reason as to why many critics also voted for this animated feature. To me, the funniest animal is the three-toed sloth, whose slow-motioned speech and act reminds me of my own traumatic experience at DMV many years ago.

Best Visual Effects:

rogueoneIt should go to Rogue One: A Star War Story. The reason is quite simple: making a dead actor alive again on the big screen is not an easy task, despite the fact that digital technology has made a lot of progress in this area. Rogue One, however, proves that we can, and we will. Here I am quoting Kyle Smith of New York Post: “The greatest special effect in Rogue One isn’t a planet being wiped out or the whizzing dogfights of the rebels’ X-wing fighters. What’s really breathtaking about the new Star Wars movie is the way its technical wizards show they’re close to conquering the final visual effects frontier: the human face.”

The 89th Academy Awards will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 26, 2017 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.


CFP: King Hu and Wuxia Films, May 2017

July 29, 2016

King Hu and Wuxia: The Chinese Martial Arts Film as an International Genre

Call for Papers

Center for Cinematic Studies, Shanghai Theatre Academy
The King Hu Foundation, Los Angeles, U.S.A.
May 26-28, 2017

The year 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of the great Chinese-language martial arts film director King Hu (1932-1997). With the works of Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Gate Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971) and the like, King Hu brought Chinese-language cinema to the spotlight of the international film community, and elevated the martial-arts genre to a globally recognized place. Blending elements of Japanese samurai films, Western editing techniques, and classical Chinese philosophy, King Hu nurtured a new school of martial arts films, which would subsequently inspire some of the most well-known contemporary filmmakers, such as Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, Tsui Hark, and Quentin Tarantino.

Director King Hu's memorial site at the Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

Director King Hu’s memorial site at the Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

To celebrate the legacy of King Hu, and to explore the martial arts film as an international genre, Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), in association with the Los Angeles-based King Hu Foundation, will jointly host the “King Hu and Wuxia” international symposium between May 26 and 28, 2017 (Registration Day: May 26, 2017), to be held at STA, Shanghai. In addition to exchange of ideas, participants will also get the rare chance to see some of King Hu’s personal items on display, the first such exhibition ever held in the world.

The symposium welcomes all articles and proposals related to the subject. It is particularly interested in the ones that address the theme of “crossing” and “transnational,” such as King Hu as a “border-crossing” or “transnational” filmmaker and the martial arts film as a “border-crossing” and “global” genre that is in dialogue with other global film movements. Please send your articles or proposals to Prof. Shaoyi Sun at shaoyis@gmail.com

Paper/Proposal submission deadline: May 7, 2017.


Book Launch Event on Sept. 12, 2016

July 14, 2016

The Fourth Edition of the groundbreaking work The Movie Business Book, which ushered in a new area of studies in cinema when it was first published, will be released by the Focal Press early next month.

The Fourth Edition of The Movie Business Book (editor: Jason Squire) to be released by the Focal Press

The Fourth Edition of The Movie Business Book (editor: Jason Squire) to be released by the Focal Press

The book was meticulously edited and organized by one of my former mentors at USC School of Cinematic Arts, Jason Squire. Jason’s longstanding research helped establish “movie business” as a distinct area of academic study. His global honors include Visiting Professor, Beijing Film Academy and Master of Entertainment Studies, DeTao Masters Academy, Shanghai. After an executive career of work with United Artists, 20th Century-Fox, and with producer Alberto Grimaldi (Gangs of New York; Fellini Satyricon; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), Squire joined the USC faculty. He has lectured in China, Japan and the United Kingdom. Media appearances include CCTV-6; China Daily; CNN Money; La Opinion; Le Monde; Los Angeles Times; Marketplace; NHK Japan; Reuters; The New York Times; Variety; Wall Street Journal.

Barnes & Noble at The Grove, Located in The Grove Address: The Grove, 189 The Grove Dr K 30, Los Angeles, CA 90036, U.S.A.

Barnes & Noble at The Grove, Located in The Grove
Address: The Grove, 189 The Grove Dr K 30, Los Angeles, CA 90036, U.S.A.

I feel extremely honored to be invited to contribute a chapter on the Chinese film industry to this brand new edition (more than 90% of the contents are new compared to the previous edition, which is also a reflection of the fast changing nature of the business). To promote and celebrate the publication of the book, Barnes & Noble at The Grove has organized a special book launch event at their Southern California flagship store. So, interested parties, please save the date and show up at the Grove:

Place: Barnes & Noble at The Grove, Located in The Grove;
Address: The Grove, 189 The Grove Dr K 30, Los Angeles, CA 90036; Phone: (323) 525-0270
Time: Monday, Sept. 12, 2016 at 7pm.


The Third Nanjing Forum on Film Art

June 11, 2016
The Third Nanjing Forum on Film Art, held at the Nanjing University of the Arts between June 6 and 8, 2016.

The Third Nanjing Forum on Film Art, held at the Nanjing University of the Arts between June 6 and 8, 2016.

During the Third Nanjing Forum on Film Art, held at the Nanjing University of the Arts between June 6 and 8, 2016, I delivered a keynote speech on the subject of “re-writing Chinese film history”. Titled “Cinema 1927: An Experimental Narration on History,” I called on film historians to draw inspirations from literature and history, and to approach film history not as a linear account of what happened cinematically in a nation-state, but as a globally interconnected phenomenon, in which horizontal interconnection is more important than vertical development. One way to highlight this is to focus on the year 1927, a time when cinema was under tremendous transformation and every major film country, including China, produced landmark films, which made this kind of history writing possible and legitimate.


The First Sci-Fi Film Festival in China

June 10, 2016
A dialogue on sci-fi film at the First Sci-Fi Film Festival held at Shanghai's Science and Technology Association Building on May 27, 2016, with professors Jiang Xiaoyuan (specializing in history of science; on my immediate left) and Jiang Hong (specializing in new media; my far left), during which we talked about "her" and "Ex_Machina".

A dialogue on sci-fi film at the First Sci-Fi Film Festival held at Shanghai’s Science and Technology Association Building on May 27, 2016, with professors Jiang Xiaoyuan (specializing in history of science; on my immediate left) and Jiang Hong (specializing in new media; my far left), during which we talked about “her” and “Ex_Machina”.


My Prediction of the 88th Major Oscar Winners

February 16, 2016

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I must first confess that I haven’t watched ALL the nominated films this year, particularly the ones in the “Foreign Language category.” This is partly due to the fact that I was not in the states after the nomination list was announced. Despite this, I managed to watch all the major ones on DVD, and felt comfortable to make the following predictions:

Best Picture:

revenantThe eight nominees are decent and deserve our long-lasting attention. But somehow I felt this year’s candidates are relatively weak and not a single one captures my immediate attention and compels me to vote for it (if I was qualified to vote). The one that stands out is once again Mexican American filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. To me, this film goes beyond survival and revenge, but captures the poetic and mysterious (sometimes religious) nature of the grand American West. The only odds against it is that the film is oftentimes bloody and violent, the elements that might turn some Oscar voters (particularly the old ones) off.

Best Director:

oscars201503It’s time to write a book about this cinematic genius called Alejandro González Iñárritu, or more generally about the “Mexican Invasion of Hollywood” (represented by the three “Amigos” active in Hollywood: del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a cultural phenomenon that rivals the “German Invasion of Hollywood” in the 1920s. I vote for Alejandro González Iñárritu, because he is not only a filmmaker, but an artist, a poet, and a philosopher as well. I hope the following won’t affect Oscar voters’ decision: if he wins, this is the second consecutive year Alejandro G. Iñárritu receives the best director and best film trophies.

Best Actor in a leading role:

leonardoFinally this year belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. The inside joke “Dear Academy, why do you hate me?” should eventually evaporate at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony. Leo deserves to have this golden statue and the Academy owes him a great deal for his continuous contribution to the film community. In this category, Leo’s only rival is Eddie Redmayne, who plays the first transgender person in 1920s’ Denmark in The Danish Girl. But Eddie’s disadvantage is actually to compete with himself, meaning that he has to top his depiction of Stephen William Hawking last year in order to win again, which he didn’t.

Best Actress in a leading role:

brie-larsonIt seems none of the nominees in this category stands out as convincingly as its male counterparts. The various awards prior to the Academy Awards, including the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the Critic’s Choice Award, the Independent Spirit Award, and most notably the SAG Award, indicate that Brie Larson, the relatively unknown actress and singer in Hollywood, will win this trophy. I liked her performance in Room, in which she depicts a kidnapped mother in a strikingly realistic manner. But I also found Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn convincing and captivating. For the sake of prediction, though, I go for Brie Larson.

Best Actor in a supporting role:

mark-rylanceIt should be unanimous and unequivocal: the Oscar goes to the British actor Mark Rylance, who portrays a Cold-War Soviet spy in Steven Spielberg’s new feature Bridge of Spies. I didn’t like the film, and thought Spielberg has exhausted his talent and passion in filmmaking after the WWII epic Saving Private Ryan, and there is always a little contrived American moral superiority when he deals with historical subject. Despite this, there is no denying that Mark Rylance’s performance uplifts this otherwise mediocre film. He is calm, restraint, canny, but at the same time smart, dignified, and understanding. It is strange that, just like last year, the “Best Supporting Actor” is usually the easiest to predict and pick (remember last year’s J.K. Simmons in Whiplash?).

Best Actress in a supporting role:

kate-winsletI am still debating on whom I should pick in this category: Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs or Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl? My intuition tells me that Kate Winslet will probably win this title, and it would be a historical moment if Leo presents the golden statue to Kate, a symbolic reunion of the two after their screen romance in Titanic. Just for this reason, I go for Kate Winslet, although Alicia Vikander’s performance is equally unforgettable as a woman painter in The Danish Girl.

Best Animated Feature:

inside-outI think Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out will win. It caused quite a splash among critics when this animated feature came out last summer. Although it is a little too childish, to be able to visualize a girl’s inside thought and emotion and present them on a big screen is itself a marvelous achievement. This is the primitive form of what I call the “brain screen,” meaning that the camera is no longer mainly interested in the depiction of what happens outside a character’s mind, but of what happens inside a person’s mind. Although it is oftentimes simplistic (only a few emotional elements are represented), this animated feature has at least made the initial attempt toward this direction.

Lastly, some general comments: the 88th Academy Awards mark the triumph of big studios, with the 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney, and Warner Brothers receiving 24, 14, and 11 nominations for each. This year’s Oscars is once again not free from controversies, and chief among them is the lack of diversity in its nomination list, or more bluntly, the “White Oscars” phenomenon as many people dubbed it. My reservation, however, is more concerned with the quality of the nominated films. As I said in the beginning, this year’s candidates are relatively weak and far from artistically outstanding. Maybe my expectation is too high, and let’s just enjoy the show, which will be televised live from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 28, 2016 beginning at 5:30pm PT or 8:30pm ET on ABC.