Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Reel Asian International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit reelasian.com and follow theReel Asian International Film Festival on Twitter at @.
9-man (dir. Ursula Liang, 2014)
On the one hand, 9-man is street volleyball usually played on asphalt and refereed by players. On the other hand, it is a phenomenon and tradition among diasporic Chinese communities and subsequent generations that have grown up in the U.S. The film begins with interviews with young Chinese Americans involved in 9-man teams, predominantly on the east coast and parts of Canada. As one of the players states, they constitute ‘the exception to the stereotypes’ (of the ‘effeminate’ Asian man and male physique). For masculinity is an issue that accompanies the athleticism necessary to the sport; Liang includes images of the players’ bodies at play to further address this point. But she does so in a moderate fashion so that it does not overdetermine the documentary’s representation of the sport. For it is also a cultural legacy—even rite of passage, in some ways—in terms of continuing their fathers’ and uncles’ tradition of cultivating the sport. To this end, the film brings in former players who shed light on 9-man’s ardent development among male Chinese immigrants.
9-man has thus a backward and forward movement with regards to charting the sport. By ‘backward,’ it traces 9-man’s unclear origins, which are nevertheless related to the cultural exchange between American missionaries and overseas Chinese, who then brought it back to China—specifically Toison/Taishan, the ‘country of volleyball.’ Liang interviews former players such as Jimmy Wang, Henry Oi, Arthur Wong, and Reggie Wong (also the tournament president) to emphasise the deep historical genealogy that is being kept alive today. From a sociopolitical perspective, the sport’s development is intimately linked not only to the history of Chinese emigration but also to racism in America (particularly through the exclusion acts of the 1880s-1900s) and the initial politico-economic impulses behind the formation of Chinatowns. In this way, the documentary identifies a strictly urban history through the topography of Chinatowns in metropolitan cities, which are in turn tied to family histories and a specific homosocial environment and culture.
By ‘forward,’ it presents a number of teams (e.g. Boston Knights, Washington Cyc, Toronto Connex) that will compete in the upcoming annual national championship tournament during Labour Day weekend, the oldest street volleyball title in Boston’s Chinatown. In the process, it covers the New York two-day mini regional tournament that leads to the national championship. On this note, the film is explicitly east coast-centric; it does not feature west coast teams at all, despite the fact that the San Francisco Westcoast are the reigning national champions, with their star player Kevin Wong.
While not necessarily ground-breaking in form, Liang expertly draws out and weaves together the social, political, and cultural issues that 9-man presents, including the delicate matter of the sport’s ethnic eligibility rules and how the tradition of 9-man remains a challenge. Using a mixture of interviews, actuality footage, captions, music, animation, and drawings, she crafts a seamless and engaging narrative, while making sure to devote substantial time to the sport itself and showcasing its speed, the tournament’s energy, suspense as teams are gradually eliminated, and team dynamics.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (dir. John Pirozzi, 2014)
Along with Davy Chou’s 2011 documentary Golden Slumbers, on cinema and film-going, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is an archival/oral history project of recuperating the history of Cambodian popular culture before the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) and the genocide that took place under their leadership. Through a series of interviews with popular cultural figures, their family members, everyday fans, and even Prince Norodom Sirivudh (whose half-brother was former ruler Norodom Sihanouk before and after the Khmer Rouge), John Pirozzi pieces together—albeit in a rather clunky way—what had been, what was lost, and what lives on in memories and sounds.
The history in question is a fascinating, moving musical journey from the 1950s to the early 1970s: its prominent figures, international and domestic influences, and gradual disappearance. Undoubtedly the central figure of this journey was Sinn Sisamouth, the ‘father of popular music.’ Sisamouth embraced the traditional and the popular/new, young and old, which accounts for his importance to Cambodian music history and his appeal to multiple generations. He served as a lightning rod and prismatic lens of the waves of international influences in the 1960s, such as French pop and Afro-Cuban sounds (especially the cha cha cha). The film also delves into 1950s guitar bands, foremost among them Hong Samley’s Baskei Cham Krong (and later Bayon Band), and female vocalists like Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran, and Houy Meas. During the Vietnam War, American culture constituted another wave of influence on Cambodian popular music, giving rise to the 1970s psychedelic group Drakkar Band and the soul/funk music of Yol Aularong. ‘We made it Khmer,’ which explains the fantastic Khmer language version of Santana’s ‘Oye como va.’ As a primer on Cambodian popular music, then, the documentary delivers well enough.
On a visual level, the film would have worked just as well as a radio documentary, if not better. While the graphics and album covers are interesting, the interviews important, and the archival footage compelling (none of which is identified, however), the unimaginative imagery that stitches together this material and accompanies songs is no different than that found in karaoke videos (exceptions are sequences that use shadow puppets or animation). On an aural level, the sound effects/music befitting horror films to denote the Khmer Rouge and heighten the terror is in rather bad taste. That Sisamouth, Pen Ran, Huoy Meas, and family members of each singer died during the genocide is already horrific and tragic enough, which the interviews capture; such stories do not need genre-fication. Moreover, so many interludes that are meant as laments have instead the effect of space-fillers.
Yet the film significantly elaborates the sad irony that brackets this period of Cambodian music. The opening sequences establish Sihanouk’s encouragement of the arts in the country, which segues to the nostalgic pre-Khmer Rouge/post-colonial climate of the 1950s and 1960s. Later, the film recounts Sihanouk’s alliance with the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in a civil war between the U.S.-backed General Lon Nol and his troops and the Khmer Rouge-led Communists. This war changed the musical landscape forever: only patriotic songs; sixties songs banned; singers mobilised and killed.
Manny (dirs. Leon Gast/Ryan Moore, 2014)
What is perhaps most palpable in their documentary is the respect that co-directors Gast and Moore have for their subject, world-record holder Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao. They present an informal (since it is by no means an exhaustive) biography of a man who is a fighter, in boxing as well as in life; an individual who has known struggles growing up, having a family, being famous, and being burdened with various tasks from within his circle or outside (and sometimes not necessarily to his benefit). With access to a range of archival and actuality footage of Pacquiao, and to the man himself via interviews and a voiceover in English and Tagalog, the documentary provides a close view of the man, which perhaps accounts for the choice of his first name as the film’s title.
The documentary can be a part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series; standard in terms of documentary form but very compelling in the story it tells: one of hardship, a rise in the ranks, and triumphs, precisely due to Pacquiao’s fighting spirit. The film begins by establishing this characteristic in the man: footage from the December 2012 Pacquiao vs. Marquez fight segues to actuality footage accompanied by a voiceover from Pacquiao speaking of why he fights, which Liam Neeson then echoes through his voice-of-God narrator about the nature of fighting and Pacquiao’s indomitable will. In this vein, the archival footage of his early fights as a teenager is a sight to behold, especially given the back story of him having to drop out of school at sixth grade and beginning training at age twelve. He continued his boxing trajectory at age thirteen, when he moved by himself to Manila and convinced others that he was eighteen (when he was in fact only sixteen at the time) in order to get a boxing license. Where he has gotten this will is merely implied in the present-day sequence of Pacquiao revisiting the site where his family’s house once stood and of his difficult childhood during the tumultuous era of the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s under Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship. This particular sequence with Pacquiao in his hometown is genuinely affective and visually striking; seeing him fishing with others as he did as a child also solidifies his humble but very hard-working origins.
But Gast and Moore do not paint a saintly figure with Pacquaio. They address the good—Los Angeles trainer Freddie Roach (supported by great footage of his rapport with Pacquiao), strength/conditioning coach Alex Ariza—the bad, and the ugly sides—manager Rod Nazario and advisor Michael Koncz—of Pacquiao’s career. It does not flinch from Pacquiao’s different phases of his career, or rather his multiple careers apart from boxing, however dubious they may be: acting, singing, politics. Moreover, it is nonjudgmental. It does not make the corruptions within his entourage bigger/smaller than they are; the same with his life of poverty, various career choices, and his losses in boxing (unjust or earned). In this way, Gast and Moore ultimately highlight first and foremost Pacquiao as an extraordinary athlete.