July 28, 2011 Multiculturalism Not Dead! Movies Reviewed: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Rocksteady: the Roots of Reggae
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.
Last week — when the biggest worry seemed to be how hot the weather is, where to go for summer vacation, or how to fill one’s time without school – came a piece of news out of Europe shattering the calm and quiet. Someone had set off a car bomb outside government buildings on the ordinarily peaceful streets of Oslo, Norway. And, as the story developed, there was someone shooting people – kids! – at a summer camp nearby.
Who could it be? The usual suspects? Must be those “Islamists”! the newswires were saying. Immigrants were angry about being deported, online sites said. Or it must be because of those political cartoons: Denmark and Norway are both Scandinavian, after all. But why were they bombing buildings of the current left-of-centre government? And why had the chosen a summer camp for the same youth wing of the very same party?
It’s a self-described conservative Christian Norwegian man who is trying to foment a right-wing revolution across Europe. Shocking! And what is his enemy, what is it he’s fighting against? Listen closely, Canadians, because this is for us: The ideology he says he fighting is…
He chooses the most innocuous of all things Canadian as his bete noir? That’s like saying he’s setting off bombs because he doesn’t like poutine, or butter tarts, or Hockey Night in Canada, or dragon boat races or double-doubles, or smoked meat, or two-fours. He’s murdering children to protest against puppies, or mittens, or Banff, or the smell of coriander.
He claims multiculturalism is to blame for all the world’s problems. I strongly disagree: it’s what makes Canada a great country.
So, this week — in part to protest against right-wing villains like Anders Behring Breivik and their xenophobic hatred and fear of all things different or foreign — I’m looking at a couple movies about important aspects of Canada’s diverse culture: a drama about Chinese women, and a documentary about Jamaican music.
Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) is a young girl in 19th century Hunan, China whose mother binds her feet in order to marry her out to a good husband. You can hear the bones of her toes breaking, one by one. Tiny feet were the only path to class mobility, for a poor girl. And her feet make her suitable for a rich husband. But she’s surprised when her matchmaker also sets her up with a young woman as her Laotong – her BFF in modern language. She signs a contract and is more-or-less married to her as well, as a lifelong friend and confidant.
She and Lily (Li Bingbing) learn a secret language written in a Chinese script called “Nvshu” or women’s writing. Even after they are married – poor Lily weds a rich but loveless foot-fetishist, the formerly wealthy Snow Flower meets a boorish butcher – they continue to communicate via secret messages written in poetry on folding fans.
Flashforward to present day, sophisticated Shanghai. Now Lily’s descendent, Nina, lies in a coma after an accident, and her modern day laotong, Sophia, wants to find out what happened to her, and why they were no longer the best friends they were as teenagers.
The movie cuts back and forth between the parallel stories, as women’s past and present-day lives (played by the same two actresses) and status are compared. Nina’s fan-messages, that were saved over the centuries, provide Sophia the clues as to what really happened back then, and possibly what was happening between the two friends now.
The acting was good, and I thought the movie was pretty interesting and told me a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise know. But it was also sort of messy and confusing and meandering. The weaker, modern day scenes were less interesting than the hostrical ones, except for the scenes with the always entertaining Vivian Wu as a tragic Shanghai Auntie.
While not perfect, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a very rare thing: a Hollywood-style movie, with an all-Asian cast (from China and Korea), in Chinese, about a relationship between two women.
Now another movie about an important part of Canadian culture.
What is rocksteady music? Where did it come from? And what does it mean?
Rocksteady is ska… slowed down; it comes Jamaica, from an island of 2 1/2 million people that has recorded over 300,000 songs; and there’s a movie that explains it all for you.
The movie documents the big Rocksteady reunion that took place recently in Kingston, Jamaica when all the legendary musicians, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in 4 decades, got together to recreate the sixties sound. Sly Dunbar, Rita Marley, Leroy Sibbles, the Tamlins, U-Roy, Marcia Griffiths all talk to the camera and perform their music in studio.
This movie gives brief biographies of all the men and women in the rocksteady movement in Jamaica in the 60’s. Better than that is the rerecording of all the great songs from that era that every Canadian would recognize, songs like The Tide is High, You Don’t Love Me, No No No, By the Rivers of Babylon, and others.
What’s really interesting about the movie is the way the musicians explain the meanings of the songs, their contexts. I grew up hearing a lot of these songs — especially the soundtracks of The Harder They Come, and Rockers – liking the music without knowing what they were singing about. This documentary lets the songs original musicians explain what they meant.
For example, when Jamaica got its independence from Britain in 1962, it started to boom, with lots of construction, investment and industry in Kingston. But along with the economic boom there was a big influx of people from small towns into the capital, and not everyone got jobs. So some of the young men, jobless in the shantytowns and cut off from their families, became rude boys – the gangsters that terrorized the rest of Kingston. Hence Desmond Decker’s song Shanty Town.
And the people pouring into the city by train looking for jobs? Stop That Train….
Historical scenes are illustrated by black and white newspaper photos, record covers, and film and TV clips from the period, accompanied by new recordings by the original artists. Rocksteady is an enjoyable, nostalgic look at the golden age of reggae music in Jamaica.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is playing now, and Rocksteady is playing for free as part of this weekend’s Irie Music Festival. It’s playing under the stars on Sunday, July 31st at 9:30 p.m. There are also sound stages set up for concerts at Queens Park and Dundas square. For more information look at http://www.iriemusicfestival.com
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.