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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest Post: Desert Flower Review by Melissa Silvestri

Desert Flower is a deeply emotional drama (with light comedic moments) that tells the true story of Waris Dirie, a Somali woman who had undergone female genital mutilation at 3 years old, escaped her rural home village before an arranged marriage at 13, became an indentured servant to the Somali ambassador in London, and then, by chance, was discovered and became a supermodel. But despite her fairy tale rags to riches story, Dirie was still haunted by her past, and all the celebrity brought on by her looks couldn’t deny that what happened to her as a child was an unnecessary act of violence, so she used her position and fame to raise awareness about the issue and became a UN spokeswoman against female genital mutilation (FGM).

Director Sherry Hormann (Father’s Day) tells Dirie’s remarkable story, and supermodel Liya Kebede stars as Dirie, in a performance that was deeply honest in portraying a complex woman. Dirie is introduced as being homeless on the streets of London, speaking limited English and dressed in fine scarves and wraps. Through a chance encounter, she befriends aspiring dancer Marylin (Sally Hawkins), who initially treats Waris like a lost puppy, but comes to find her as a caring and sensitive friend.

The scene where Waris slowly begins to understand that FGM is not the usual practice for all women, via speaking to Marylin about sex, is an incredibly sad and painful scene. Kebede plays this scene as if Waris has just been punched in the stomach, horrified that she is denied the pleasure which Marylin can take for granted. And Hawkins, up until this point, has played Marylin as a bit self-absorbed and flighty, more of a girly-girl friend who is unaware of her new friend’s cultural background and history. In this scene, she is just as shocked as Waris at this injustice that has been forced upon her due to traditional ideas about women and their sexuality being controlled by others. From this moment, Waris and Marylin’s friendship grows deeper, and with a richer meaning than just being friendly girlfriends.

The second half of the film focuses on Dirie’s modeling career, after she is discovered by photographer Terence Donovan (Timothy Spall), while working mopping floors and cleaning up trash at a London McDonald’s. She is completely clueless to the superficial world of fashion and marketed beauty, but Donovan’s trust in her gives her more confidence and freedom in the world. The fashion world scenes are more comedic, poking fun at the superficiality of the fashion industry, as exemplified by Waris’ agent Lucinda (Juliet Stevenson.) But, even with more mobility and success in the world, it doesn’t erase the pain that Waris feels at being an anomaly in more ways than one.

Waris’ courage in speaking openly about a deeply painful subject is commendable and truly brave, and her advocacy to end FGM for all women is a step forward in taking back control due to sexist ideas about women and their sexuality. Desert Flower portrays Waris Dirie as a strong woman who, through challenges and adversities, became a hero for many women around the world. Kebede plays her as a touching, compassionate human being, and her story leaves an indelible mark on the viewer afterwards.

Desert Flower opens in NY and LA on March 18.

Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the Korean American Film Festival New York Pt. 2

Editor’s Note:

Cinespect is proud to bring you coverage of some of the highlights from this year’s 5th edition of the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY), which runs from March 17-20. The festival promises many more films than the amount that will be covered here on the site but it is our hope that you’ll find yourself curious and eager to explore beyond what is reviewed here. This year’s edition offers more than 14 features and 25 shorts to choose from, which range from early Korean cinema up to the most current Korean American films.

For this second part of the coverage we have contributor Melissa Silvestri reviewing “The House of Suh,” which screens this Saturday, March 19. For tickets and information be sure to visit: KAFFNY – “The House of Suh”

Enjoy the festival.

Review of “The House of Suh”

“The House of Suh,” a documentary by Iris K. Shim, revisits the murderous brother and sister pair of Catherine and Andrew Suh, who collaborated to kill Catherine’s allegedly abusive fiancé Robert O’Dubaine in 1993. While 19-year old Andrew was the one who fired two shots into O’Dubaine, Catherine orchestrated the murder, and, going into their family history, had always had a strong sense of control over her younger brother, who always valued family loyalty. “The House of Suh” is less a murder story than a family drama of the Suhs, a Korean-American family in Chicago who held strained relationships with one another, and both siblings suffered tragedy early on.

Growing up in Chicago, the Suh parents were Korean immigrants, and had two very different children. Andrew was the reliable one, the one used to be the English interpreter for his parents during transactions, doctor’s appointments, and work-related tasks. He obeyed his father without question, an old-school father whose attitude was “My house, my rules, my way.” Andrew was also favored because he was the boy, whereas Catherine was not only the girl, but much more rebellious and questioning of authority. She always questioned why something was the way it was, and was at contentious odds with her father, at one point even battling to the brink of death with him. Catherine left home as a teenager, while Andrew, 11, was a child who attended to taking care of his father as he was succumbing to cancer in 1985.

Two years later, Andrew’s world was shattered when his beloved mother was murdered in a still-unsolved case, leaving Andrew an orphan and in the care of his sister and her new boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine. Andrew lived a double life from then on. At home he was closely guarded by the couple, groomed to obey them and know that they were his only family, O’Dubaine being the big brother he never had. At school, to hide his family problems, overcompensated by being incredibly popular and well-liked, a charismatic football player, and a fun-loving guy. These two worlds played side by side for years, until, due to familial pressures, he could no longer keep up the façade, seeing himself as the “lonely popular kid with nobody to talk to.”

The film succeeds with its candid interview with Andrew, who is currently serving a 100-year sentence in prison. He is open and funny and talkative, while well aware that he is marked as a murderer for a crime that he was pressured to do. He doesn’t so much express remorse as rather saying that he was a very young man back then, and may have not been thinking rationally in the name of protecting his sister from O’Dubaine’s abuse. While there is a glaring omission in the film of Catherine Suh’s presence (who did not respond to the filmmaker’s request for an interview), she isn’t really missed, as the film takes Andrew’s POV as the pawn in Catherine’s scheme to kill her fiancé. But as it is known, revenge for abuse never brings the closure or peace that one hopes for. Andrew states that he had “tried to destroy the monster, but in turn would become the monster.”

“The House of Suh” fascinates with its look inside the twisted binds of loyalty in family, and how control and manipulation can pull family members in deeper because of the idea that nobody else can love you as much as your family can.

Cinespect Presents: Impressions of the Korean American Film Festival New York Pt. 1

Editor’s Note:

Cinespect is proud to bring you coverage of some of the highlights from this year’s 5th edition of the Korean American Film Festival New York (KAFFNY), which runs from March 17-20. The festival promises many more films than the amount that will be covered here on the site but it is our hope that you’ll find yourself curious and eager to explore beyond what is reviewed here. This year’s edition offers more than 14 features and 25 shorts to choose from, which range from early Korean cinema up to the most current Korean American films.

For this edition of our KAFFNY coverage we have contributor Melissa Silverstri reviewing three films by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, who is being honored by KAFFNY this year with a retrospective that includes six films. The screenings of two of her films, “Sa-I-Gu” and “Wet Sand: Voices of L.A.,” will be followed by a talk between Dai Sil Kim-Gibson and Charles Burnett.

Enjoy the festival.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson

Review of “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives” and “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.”

The L.A. riots in 1992 were a tragic moment in the history of L.A.’s race relations, not only between black citizens and corrupt officers in the LAPD, but between black people and Korean-American people co-existing together on the same streets, where many Korean shop owners had black customers. Years of hostility between Koreans and blacks due to misunderstandings blew up during the riots, when many stores owned by Koreans were destroyed and burned down, and lives were lost in the terror. In the 1993 documentary “Sai-I-Gu: From Korean Women’s Perspectives,” and its 2004 follow-up “Wet Sand: Voices from L.A.,” director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson records the stories of the Korean women who were devastated by the riots, and who lost husbands and sons amidst the chaos. The film explores race relations, poverty, and the immigrant experience of making it in America, and how decades of hard work were lost within one week due to the riots.

Sai-I-Gu is Korean for April 29th, the day when the riots started. In L.A., many Koreans had come over and settled in an area known as Koreatown, where it was like their own country. No white people, no outside influences, their home culture within a new landscape. Many Koreans opened convenience stores, and the majority of their customers were black people. The local racism carried over into these stores, where black people viewed Koreans as being like white people, trying to assimilate by assuming the criminal worst about black people, and not treating them with respect. And Koreans would be seen as the foreigners, the ones who refuse to learn more English, the strange immigrants. Some of the women will admit to these perceptions of blacks by Koreans as having been carried out by others, and stating how if one is to have a store in a neighborhood, one should get to know their customers instead of openly disliking them or treating them like potential thieves. This would all come to tragic consequences during the riots, when stores were destroyed, particularly as revenge at Koreans who didn’t treat their black customers fairly.

More so, this film is about the disillusionment of the American dream. As stated by one of the women, “I thought America was perfect, since she helped others abroad. After the riots, I feel there is a huge hole in America.” When Koreans came to America, saving for years and packing up their families, instead of coming to the America as seen on TV, they came to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of South Central L.A., where they had to struggle to survive all over again and work hard to ensure that their children would have a good future. When their stores were destroyed, anger was not at the black citizens who did it, but at the LAPD and state government who favored protecting the wealthy and middle-class but allowing the blacks and Koreans to “fight over crumbs,” because it didn’t affect white supremacy.

One of the saddest moments in the film is Mrs. Lee speaking of her son Edward Jae Song Lee, who was killed by a Korean who thought he was a looter. Her disbelief at her son’s death (and still in disbelief and grief a decade later) is palpable, and her realization that he died based on seeing his photo in a Korean-American newspaper is heartbreaking.

“Sa-I-Gu” is a raw and emotional film that can be hard to watch because it puts such innocent faces over a tragic event, but it is painstakingly honest in showing the cracks in a flawed society. Its follow-up “Wet Sand,” revisiting the events and tracking how race relations have gone in L.A. since then, doesn’t offer much hope. Despite the formation of activist groups like the Association of Korean-American Victims, the Korean-American and black citizens of L.A. deny that there is a problem between them, and that the media played up the supposed rivalry to avoid confronting white/black tensions. The lack of good public education in L.A. leads many young people to the streets to make quick money, and the money that would go to education would go instead to wealthy developers. There isn’t a happy ending to either of these films, but a wider awareness of the immigrant experience in America and the tragic consequences when race relations is escalated to deadly ends.

“Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women”

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s 1999 documentary “Broken Silence: Korean Comfort Women” is a difficult documentary to watch, because the wounds that the elderly Korean women interviewed received as a result of being made into sex slaves by the Japanese army during WWII are still palpable. The Japanese military coerced or kidnapped Korean women and took them all over Southeast Asia to be sexual playthings for war-weary Japanese soldiers to use and abuse, raped over and over again. Yet decades after these violations of human rights, Korean comfort women are not recognized as victims of the war and not given public and legal reparations. It took a lot of bravery and honesty for these women to speak of these painful memories before the camera, capturing these stories before their ultimate passings (many of these interviews are from the 1990s and the women were quite elderly at the time).

These ranged in age from young adults to being as young as twelve years old, taken from their families and schools either by force or with the promise of job opportunities abroad. This is much like the human trafficking trade of today with Eastern European women in impoverished countries promised great jobs in Italy or Germany, but tricked into becoming sex slaves instead. In WWII, the military ships would pick up and drop off girls in foreign countries all along Southeast Asia, taking Korean girls as far as Thailand and Indonesia. Every girl was given a forced hysterectomy to ensure that there would be no pregnancies. They belonged to the government, and their bodies were to be taken advantage of until they were of no use to anybody. In a chilling recollection, a woman describes seeing half-dead girls being dragged out in front of new recruits, and the soldiers telling the new girls that if they don’t obey, this will happen to them, before shooting the wounded girls in the head. It is unbelievable how one can go through life having seen such horrible torture and death and not lose their mind, or not lose faith in humanity. When one woman states that she wishes that she could “have her youth back,” or another says that she would wish to be a man instead of a woman, it’s all one can do to not scream in agony at these horrible acts forced upon these women in the name of war and power.

The women weren’t just used for sex, but also used as expendable fighters, trained to kill Chinese civilians with bayonets, and forced to do it. Another woman remembers eating human flesh. Their dehumanization as comfort women broke their minds down to become mindless fighters and slaves, one woman even forgetting how to speak Korean and never re-gaining the ability, in regret as she lives on her death bed.

Japanese men appear throughout the film, mainly a teacher, a soldier, and scholars, in plain denial of what these women went through, or downplaying their stories as not being as bad as they say it was. It’s as if that if men say that women are crazy or exaggerating, then the patriarchy won’t take them seriously, and not see them as true victims of war.

Kim-Gibson’s film excels because she captures the stories of several women who are willing to speak on camera about such a horrific past, and ensure that they will be remembered and not forgotten after their passings for audiences today to be educated and aware. It is a stunning and unforgettable documentary, without any pomp or flash, just honest stories from women who could be your grandmothers.