Saturday, May 25, 2013

Life And Love In Yopougon.

I will be the first to admit that outside of some of my favorite televised football matches, I know next to nothing about Côte d'Ivoire (FIFA currently ranks Les Éléphants as the number one team in African soccer!).  I know next to nothing about Marguerite Abouet or Clément Oubrerie save for what little research I've done since coming across their work.  I didn't even know that there was a city called Abidjan before reading this book (third largest French-speaking city in the world!).  I'll tell you what I do know though: I know good comics.
I found Aya almost by accident.  I had been searching for something new to read after having just polished off my millionth re-read of the original Ghost In The Shell (trying to conclude my annual spring reading), and I was doing some research into what to read while I probably should have been working.  I was on the website of one of my local comic shops, looking through new releases for the past couple of months and I came accross some pretty promising titles.  So, as is my nature, I made a list of them on my phone and headed over there the next opportunity I had.  As this is turning into a stupid story, and without naming any particular books, I found them all a pretty big bust, and instead of walking away empty-handed, I tried my luck with the first volume of a book whose newest release sat on the table, staring at me with it's beautiful colors and distinctly French-looking illustration.

I kind of pride myself in the research I put into what I consume.  That's not to say I never just take a chance on something new; I do that all the time with new records or books or movies.  I love to take chances, but more often then not, I find myself with something kind of stupid, or at most, something I like, but really don't see myself picking up again for quite a while, if ever.  I would say that only twice so far this year have I picked up something new at random and had it really have a serious impact on me (the other will get it's own post in the near future). 

After only a few pages of Drawn & Quarterly's new collected edition, Aya: Life In Yop City, did I find myself totally immersed in the drama of Yop City, a working class commune that remains Abidjan's highest populated even today (and now home to a branch of the world-famous Pasteur Institute!  Research!).  A brief opening illustration spread depicts the main characters and their family in an easy-to-understand relationship chart, which helps a lot in the early parts of the book when you want to remember who everyone is; that is soon rendered unnecessary as you grow attached to each character rather quickly, and the excellent designs and illustrations keep them completely recognizable from one another, even through the myriad of clothing and color choices throughout the book (aahh, the colors!).  Everyone is such a distinct personality, and those personalities establish themselves so easily that any reaction or emotion, be it anger or joy, feels totally natural for that character, making them feel more like real people than the peripheral personality types often seen in other such books, and it's a real treat to watch the days become nights and to see time move organically.  The days have their own rhythm here, and as you read, you begin to feel the approach of evening, or the dread of the next sunrise, as if the backgrounds in the story weren't beholden to the authors' wills, but instead acted independently, as is the case in our own lives.
Although Aya isn't autobiographical, per se, Abouet claims that it exists in the Yopougon she grew up and lived in until she was a young teen before moving to France, where she now resides with her illustrator husband, Clément Oubrerie, in the Parisian suburb of Romainville.  Abouet wanted to represent her home country and focus on issues rather than the war or famine that is classicly associated with most depictions of Africa in the media.  The truth, we find, is that the Ivory Coast we see during our story, now a bustling, democratic center of commerce, is no stranger to the everyday dramas we find ourselves entangled in.  It acurately depects people being people; going to school, falling in love, having children, and planning for thier futures, though as in our own everyday lives, we quickly see that none of those things are mutually exclusive.
Aya is a wonderful story, and one I would recommend wholeheartedly, especially to someone who is as unfamiliar with the setting as I was.  It is one of those wonderful instances where we get to see how similar people really are, and it's humbling to find something from a place you barely knew existed and realize that it's denizens' dreams and loves are the same as yours, regardless of cultural or societal differences.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Can I Kick It? or Being, Knowing, Doing

It seems only appropriate for me to get back to work on here by reviewing a film I have been looking forward to for quite some time.  I feel like this movie had been in production forever, and I remember being interested in this film long before I had even heard of the other Ip Man films.  In fact, the project had taken allegedly fourteen years to culminate, with six years in production and at least three years spent filming.

Now, my interest in this film was as such that I deliberately avoided any of the other Ip Man films, to which I believe there are at least four others; the last of which, also released in 2013, was directed by Herman Yau, who, if you don't remember, also directed such films as the 1992 martial arts masterpiece, Best Of The Best, starring Eric Roberts, and Phillip "god-bless-his-soul" Rhee
So, moving away from the cynicism for a moment, I really enjoyed this film.  It's hard to say objectively what I like sometimes when I am such a fan of someone's work, but I feel like putting Wong Kar-Wai's past aside, I can truly appreciate this film on it's own merits.  Admittedly though, it is more difficult to forget one's past mistakes than successes, and My Blueberry Nights (this is the last time I will mention that film here, I swear) was maybe the worst film someone could make in between two of the best, so one could easily say that while I was very excited about this film during it's production, it was with more than a little trepidation that I pressed play and began watching The Grandmaster (一代宗師).

To give a little more background on this film before I dig in with my thoughts, The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-Wai's telling of the story of Yip Kai-man, the martial artist/teacher who was said to have been the one to make Wing Chun famous, and who even more famously taught Bruce Lee.  Sort of.  Though the film is initially billed as the story of Ip Man from the early 1930s to around his death in the early 70s, The Grandmaster reflects on not only his life, but the lives of those around him, so much so that the film's title could have easily survived a pluralization.
In contrast to the more action oriented Ip Man films, The Grandmaster is a more reflective piece, and focuses on the more philosophical aspects of the martial arts and the times in which these martial artists lived.  The film spends equal time on Gong Er, the daughter of Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from northern China, visiting Foshan in the south.  Gong Er, played by Zhang Ziyi, commands probably at least half of the film's attention, and is in excellent contrast with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's portrayal of Ip.  The only slight disappointment is that the character of "Razor" Yixiantian, played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, isn't given more time on-screen; though a peripheral character and not central to the story, The Razor was interesting enough in his brief moments to have many fans of the film claiming his character was underdeveloped.

This film reminded me very much of Wong's previous film, 2046 (which I consider to be Zhang Ziyi's standout role alongside her once-again exceptional co-stars Leung and Chang) in how it continues Wong's meditative examination of loss in a long-form narrative.  The Grandmaster is less a martial arts film and more a film, as Gong Er could be paraphrased as saying, about a certain time in which she chooses to stay.  It is almost as if one can only measure loss once it is lost, and sometimes the memory of love is as strong as love itself; and the film becomes two things, one horizontal, one vertical.
As a post-script, apparently both Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi spent three years training for their scenes in the film, and both have mentioned in interviews that the experience has more or less put a period at the end of their martial arts film sentence, so savor this film, as it will probably be the last time you see either one performing such elaborate fight choreography (Leung allegedly broke both of his arms and contracted a bronchial infection during the month-long shooting of the film's opening fight scene).

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sorry For The Delay!!!

So, yeah, my apologies for the inactivity on this blog lately, life managed to get in the way a little bit.  I recently moved and lost a couple weeks in the transition, but things have gotten back to normal for the most part and there will be a renewed and continued vigor throughout the pages of this still-young stream of consciousness...
Thanks for your patience, expect more in the next couple days.