Taking Her for Granted

I never ever thought she would go.  I always thought, “Oh, it’s Aretha.  She ain’t going anywhere.  I’ll listen to her stuff more another time.  She’ll always be around.”  And guess what?  She’s gone.  Gone.  After all the history she’s made, Respect and Natural Woman may be the ONLY songs I know from her.  I’m sorry Aretha.  You deserved a ton more from me.  Maybe from a whole lotta others too.  You were a pioneer, an activist, the lady that helped usher in the Obama years and so much more.  Rest well in that throne of yours Aretha.  From what I gather, you will be hard to eclipse…

Naika Reviews “Tampopo”

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There is no greater film about food than Tampopo.  Period.  I’ve never seen Ramen Girl or Spanglish, nor have I raided my Barnes & Noble for Babette’s Feast.  Noodles, whether it’s ramen, liangpi, pho, char kuay teow, boat noodles, pancit and so on and so forth, have now found a place in the American food landscape, and there’s no better way to celebrate that than to savor the flavors of this movie.  In my youth, Tampopo was this mysterious film that would just sit in my video store, waiting to be discovered.  My brother and I finally rented the DVD in the 2000s and we were literally BLOWN AWAY.  You have to understand that for Asian-Americans like us, there was literally no respectful representation of Asian food in American TV or film.  Tampopo, however, was different.  Tampopo wasn’t just an indie darling, or some East Asian village flick that stoked white audiences’ “allure for the Orient.”  It was a daring, modern-day comedy that asked you to not only take food seriously, but to realize that serious people make it their life’s work to make good food for you.

But let’s take a step back and shoot the shit about the details.  Tampopo, for all the adjectives I’ve provided on the last paragraph, is, to its core, a movie about a struggling business.  Our title character is a working class Mom who’s struggling to keep her late husband’s ramen-ya afloat, and it’s only through a combo of factors that she runs into the gruff, cowboy trucker named Goro.  After sharing his thoughts about how bad her ramen is, Tampopo becomes driven to make her business shine and enlists the man’s help to fire it all up.  After giving her a few tips, Goro soon goes to work in getting our lovable Mom into fighting shape.  Literally.  Either through jogging, pot lifting relays or ramen assembly speedruns, Tampopo’s journey to become a true noodle artisan is just packed with so much fun that even the pickiest of viewers will watch.

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This leads us to the next big reason why Tampopo is such a fun flick: she ISN’T the only focus here!  Throughout the course of the movie, we’re treated to a wealth of vignettes from foreground characters who all have their own food journeys to share.  Some of these include a dim sum consumer with a toothache, a con man with a knack for Peking Duck and a stuffy Europhile whose course on pasta etiquette goes south for all the right reasons.  And, without giving away too much, let’s not forget the amazing Koji Yakusho with his portrayal as a scene-stealing gangster whose eye for food is second to none.  Thanks to these stories, Tampopo transcends its former status as a ‘Ramen Western’ into a full-blown celebration of Japan’s urban food scene in the 1980s.

However, Japan’s pre-bubble food scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the allure of Ramen and its status as blue collar cuisine.  When the film does shift back to Tampopo , we see how much consideration goes into every single element of a bowl of ramen.  From the texture of the noodles to the details of making the right broth, Tampopo’s desire to become a top chef reveals that making ramen isn’t just some process that comes out of a pot or a microwave; it’s the ultimate reflection of working class Asia, where humble, hard-working customers demand genuine food from genuine people.

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The times, however, have changed.  This is 2018, and, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, ramen is in the big leagues now.  That being said, Tampopo functions as a window into a not-so-distant past devoid of Yelp, overseas ramen-ya and our predisposition for Michelin stars.

All in all, Tampopo is a paean to the epicure in all of us, showing us firsthand that ‘slinging hash’ isn’t just a way to get by, but a chance to express ourselves through senses beyond sight and hearing.  Even though we’re unable to smell or taste what’s on screen, Tampopo is a visual feast that stokes both our hunger and curiosity without the need for explanations.  This is especially the case when it comes to the preparation of dishes that aren’t ramen, including omelette rice and Korean barbecue.  However, despite these gorgeous gourmet scenes, this film has more to offer than meets the eye.  When we get to the meat of it, Tampopo is, at its core, a heart-warming study on the values of passion and cultivation.  This is best exemplified through our title character’s own journey, where she transforms herself from a sullen cook and widow into a passionate, knowledgeable and vibrant chef whose determination and resilience blossoms beyond the evolution of her ramen.  From here, we can safely say that Juzo Itami’s film isn’t just an ode to the gourmet in all of us.  It’s a potent and vibrant reminder about our capacity to savor the tangible, to love furiously, to share joy with others and to realize just how timeless exuberance can be in the pursuit of mastery.

What a World Cup. What a GAME!!!

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20 years ago, I was in Thailand, where I witnessed the France ’98 final between France and Brazil.  That moment changed my life, making me a football fan forever.  Now with the 2018 Final all said and done, I’m happy to say that another French Golden Generation is on the cusp of greatness.  I’m totally sad for Croatia who, for the majority of this tournament, played some scintillating football from the start to the final, especially from Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric.  But France, dive aside, did the nasty and made sure they played compact, counter attacking football and capitalized on moments to get them through as 4-2 winners today.  What a game, and what an end to this tournament.  Hell, even Pussy Riot was able to crash the party!  How cool is that?  (which probably means jail time for them….crap)

However, a big thing to note this year was that it was just full of big moments.  From the big boys losing it big time to upstarts trying to make names for themselves, we were treated to highs, lows, and lots and lots of VAR.  And what about those upsets?  Surprises from Japan, Senegal, Russia and Mexico were some of the few of course. Now that it’s all over, I feel totally empty.  I mean, I’m not gonna watch MLB, so what the heck else am I gonna do?  I’m gonna miss talking about this World Cup and all the ferocity that was seen in highlights from every Group match to the Final.  Fox Soccer wasn’t kidding when they mentioned in their coverage of the Final that this event is the “the greatest collective experience we have as human beings.”  If you didn’t see that connection, that desire to win and celebrate in the faces of the fans, you definitely saw it in each and every player on the pitch.

With this, I feel like it’s time to say goodbye to the World Cup.  What a tournament, and what a win for France.  Who would’ve thought that they would do it again twenty years exactly after the triumph of ’98?  That’s football for ya, and from here on out, that a wrap until 2022.

Whirlwind World Cup

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Man oh man, it’s been one hell of a World Cup so far.  The Quarter-final between Russia vs. Croatia finished this afternoon and it was a total nail-biter.  Whether you think Russia’s gotten there fair-and-square or with a little help is the vague madness that, to me, helps to illustrate why this year’s tournament has been so wild.  Upset defeats from the big boys like Germany in the group stages, along with Round of 16 exits from Portugal and Argentina, have made this World Cup an emotional roller-coaster (especially since I’m a Germany fan).  However, one great thing that I enjoyed was seeing Messi and Ronaldo, the two best players in the planet, getting trashed by great teams.  No trophy for them, LOLZ!

But this cup isn’t just big on upsets, it’s big on up-and-coming stars.  Uruguay was very impressive throughout this Cup, especially against Ronaldo’s Portugal, but they, unfortunately, lost to France on the Quarter-finals (Cavani, their star striker, was injured).  Speaking of France, HOW ABOUT MBAPPE!!!???  This kid will totally be the next superstar of world football….once he gives up diving.  And while we’re on the subject of diving, we need to certainly talk about Neymar.  Now, to be fair, it’s not like anyone else isn’t doing this.  Maguire for England (a defender dammit), and Ronaldo for Portugal are obvious examples, but Neymar’s rolling is now one of the most iconic memes you’ll find from this tournament.  The agony on his face, the writing and the sheer drive that powers his tumbling are all elements worthy of laughs, especially when he gets booked for it.

However, what ultimately animates this World Cup is the football, and so far, it hasn’t disappointed (much).  Belgium in particular have been impressive against Japan and Brazil.  France isn’t as stylish as in past World Cups but they are totally getting the job done (with Giroud, Griezemann and Mbappe in attack).    However, sides like England have just been smash and grab for me, and it’s kinda boring (their game today versus Sweden was just….I don’t know, all over the place).  Now that we’re in the semis, things should hopefully heat up for Tuesday and Wednesday.  Until then, keep on watching folks!

Naika Reviews “The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter”

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Of all the Shaw Brothers films that I’ve watched over the last few years of my life, I just keep coming back to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.  I loved the ultra-violent Five Element Ninjas, and I just recently viewed the dark and moody Ti Lung film, The Magic Blade, so the studio definitely knew what it was doing when it made this immense, yet diverse library of action films year after year.  So in one sense, this movie shouldn’t have stood out that much.  On the one hand, 8 Diagrams is a by-the-numbers tale involving personal and familial dishonor, but on the other hand, it’s an action-packed whirlwind of mayhem featuring some of the best fight choreography imaginable. Director and fight coordinator Lau Kar Leung has helmed many, many excellent films for the Shaws throughout his career, including the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, My Young Auntie, Heroes of the East and Martial Club, but what makes 8 Diagrams so powerful is its raw blend of savagery, angst, betrayal and retribution.   There’s no doubt that this film has some flaws, but I guarantee you that it will be one of the most memorable Shaw Brothers offerings one can ever recommend to those who love kung-fu films.

The first thing that needs to be fleshed out about this film is the basis for the plot.  8 Diagrams is loosely based on a collection of  mostly fictional folk tales, novels and plays about the Yangs, a Song Dynasty military family known for their strength, bravery and loyalty.  Led by patriarch Yang Ye, the large family helped to defend China from both the Khitan-ruled Liao Dynasty and the Tangut Western Xia Dynasty.  Most notably, Yang Ye had seven sons who he apparently rode into battle with and two battle-hardened daughters, all with his wife She Saihua, who was adept in both martial arts and archery.  However, as some of the stories indicate, Yang Ye’s fellow generals had grown jealous over his exploits, including Pan Mei, who would be one of the main antagonists of the film.  These rough details would eventually become the backbone of the 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

The film basically begins with the jealous Pan Mei, as he, more or less, bullshits his daughter, a consort to the Song Emperor, into sending troops out to wreck the Yang family during their Northern campaign against Liao invaders.  From here, we cut away into battle where Yang Ye and his seven sons are introduced, fighting against the Liao.  They wreck the invaders with their immense spear-fighting, but out of nowhere, Pan Mei emerges .  With a Liao General and the Liao Prince (portrayed by the amazing Wang Lung Wei) by his side, it’s revealed that Pan Mei has laid a trap for Yang Ye in order to not only get rid of his rival, but to help the Liao Dynasty take over.  The Yangs are furious, but the Liao have a new weapon under their sleeve that’s basically a staff that ensnares the Yangs’ spears and makes their spear-fighting obsolete.  With this new weapon, the Liao make short work of the Yang family as brother after brother is slaughtered.  One is hung up by spears.  Another is trampled to death.  One is stabbed in the belly and so on, and so on.  Amidst this chaos, only Yang Liulang (the 6th Son, played by the late Alexander Fu Sheng) and Yang Wulang (the 5th son, our main character, portrayed by Gordon Liu) are left, while Yang Ye, cornered by Pan Mei to surrender, commits suicide instead.

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With Gordon Liu’s character lost in the wilderness after the battle, Fu Sheng’s 6th Son goes insane and straggles on home.  It’s through him that much of the film’s angst and dishonor is exemplified once he encounters both his mother and sisters.  This scene is particularly gripping given that the 6th Son details the deaths of all of his siblings under a spell of  child-like madness while both his family and servants react in horror with each new grisly revelation.  The scene ends in what would be one of the film’s penultimate scenes, where the 6th Son finally reveals the fate of his father to everyone.  His Mother’s faints, the sisters kneel in mourning, and these actions ripple out as the surrounding servants all kneel in sadness as they take in the realization that the entire family is finished.

After this, the rest of 8 Diagrams’ running time is spent cutting back and forth between what happens in the Yang household and the fate of Yang Wulang.  Much of what happens at home relates to how the family deals with the 6th Son’s madness while She Saihua, his mother, navigates new obstacles once Pan Mei names the family as traitors.  As for Yang Wulang,  I think it’s safe to say that it’s almost a retread of the 36th Chamber to some degree as he, after surviving a narrow escape from Liao pursuers, decides to leave worldly matters to become a monk at Wutai Mountain in Shaanxi Province (notice that this is NOT Shaolin Temple in Hebei).  Before doing so however, he angrily says goodbye to his life as a soldier by chopping off the blade of his spear, turning it into a staff.

What follows is a riptide of self-reflection, anger and training as Yang Wulang does his utmost to earn his keep as a monk.  The training sequences in particular are a highlight for their focus on staff-fighting with a wooden wolf dummy (a canny metaphor for the film’s antagonists).  Another thing to note is the amount of time it takes Wulang to ‘mellow-out’ his war-like temperament.  This is exemplified in an impressive training sequence where he uses his staff to untangle a bundle of tree vines.  It’s all about self-cultivation here, and for some brief moments in the film, Wulang’s desire for vengeance slowly goes by the wayside.

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However, things all go to hell once the great Kara Hui is involved.  Through a series of situations that will probably spoil a great deal of the film, Kara’s 8th sister tries to get in contact with Yang Wulang, but unfortunately for her, Pan Mei gets a whiff of this and decides to intervene.  Luckily for us, Wulang get wind of this himself, and feels compelled to save her.  By this time in the film however, Wulang is already a high ranking monk who is, more or less, a shadow of his former self.  The Grand Abbott, portrayed to amazing effect by the late, great Phillip Ko, senses this in his pupil and challenges him, giving us one of the most remarkable fights ever put into film.  Seeing this one fight on YouTube alone was THE reason why I sought out this classic, especially since it features some very complex set pieces.  If you don’t believe me, see it below.

However, a Shaw Brothers film isn’t complete without a final fight, and by all regards, it is MONUMENTAL.  I refuse to spoil the details but all in all, it’s a whirlwind of mayhem, revenge, blood, screaming and a demolished inn.  It’s one of the most satisfying brawls that I’ve ever laid eyes on and it continues to call out to me whenever I need my Shaw action fix.  If anybody is STILL on the fence about this film, then definitely see it for this last fight alone.

Overall, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is, to me, one of the best offerings I’ve ever experienced from the Shaw Brothers library.  It not only illuminates a little-known piece of Chinese history to Western audiences, but it does so with drama, angst and god-tier fight choreography.  Gordon Liu, Kara Hui and the rest of the Lau Kar Leung gang are at the peak of their powers here, and it’s a total shame that more couldn’t have been done with Fu Sheng’s character due to his death on set.  If there was anything else I could say that were negatives about the film, it would probably have to do with the inaccurate subtitles from Dragon Dynasty, along with the film’s brief conclusion.  Otherwise, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an amazing film that not only deserves repeated viewings, but it demands a spot on your DVD shelf, reminding us all how awesome Hong Kong action films used to be.