Sweet Bean

113 min.

This is such a delicate, kind little movie (I tried hard not to use ‘sweet’ there). I’m sure that Asian entertainment has dumb blockbusters, sappy, clich├ęd romances and downright disgustingly bad films as well, but those that find their way here, to our cinemas and televisions, have yet to disappoint. Maybe it’s in the cinematography, maybe because the script writers don’t seem to be afraid about keeping things small. Anyway, Sweet Bean.

Sweet bean posterThe movie is about food, but not just about it. How food is betrayed in Asian cinema is another thing that always tickles my fancy, by the way. Those people care. In this case, it’s about a man in a dorayaki (look them up for enjoyable pictures of food) stand, and an old woman that likes to help out. There’s a small plot line about a teenage girl as well, and in some way they’re all brought together by food.

Under that current develops a much harsher story, but the director manages to keep the balance between sweet and melancholic impressively well. This way, it’s not just something you watch and forget, you take it with you as a gathering of soft musings. And possibly with a craving for dorayaki.

Sweet Bean, Aeon Entertainment 2015

The Woo-Woo

“Miss Wong, you’re seriously ill,” the neurologist in a midtown office said, preparing to offer me a sympathy tissue.

Has it been more since a month since my last use of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Because Lindsay Wong’s truth is far stranger than fiction. A Chinese-Canadian woman that grows up in a family that is rife with mental illnesses and superstition, but completely refuses to acknowledge the first one and follows the second one in (self)destructive ways.

It’s always interesting to have a look behind someone else’s door, and I always try to learn more about contemporary Asians (immigrant or not). In this case, I felt like I was just gaping a lot at the page, because is this how it goes? Or is this solely the impact of the denial about mental illnesses? And is it bad that I laughed (in disbelief) so often?

Because there’s drug dealing neighbours that pay their neighbour’s children to hang out with theirs, disgusting-sounding meals, insults viewed as different level of endearments and barely a plain, ordinary family member with an ordinary, healthy life around. Lindsay isn’t easy to love either, but gosh darn it, no-one should grow up in such an environment. And I don’t ask for it often, but: I’d definitely read a sequel.

The Woo-Woo, Lindsay Wong, Arsenal Pulp 2018

Number One Chinese Restaurant

The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese.

One main disappointment about this story: not enough descriptions of food. In some ways, this one felt like an international version of De zoetzure smaak van dromen; also the (immigrant) family in and around a Chinese restaurant. Except this one has a lot more infighting and drama. And as I said before – less descriptions of food.

So, what does happen in this novel? No-one seems to be very happy with their place in society. All are connected to a Chinese restaurant, but some (feel like it’s) in the wrong way, and some want to cut all ties. There’s the son of the owner, employees that have been there for decades, and those at the fringes of their lives. A fire doesn’t make things easier, even though it was slightly expected to.

It’s not the most accessible of novels; there are very few people to like and sometimes side plot lines take a bit too much space. On the other hand: it’s mostly the male characters that are the annoying ones, and all of it shows humanity. With a title and subject like this, it could have easily become a collection of stereotypes about Asian Americans: instead you’re shown that family and finances issues work the same in every (sub)culture.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lilian Li, Macmillan Publishing 2018

Amal Unbound

I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.

This story sometimes feels a bit too much like those introductions to subjects in school books, but is enticing enough to not be bothered by that.

It’s a short story as well: I checked twice if I didn’t happen to download just the first book, or even an incomplete version (I’m so sorry library, it’s me that has the mistrust, not you that deserve it). In 166 pages Amal’s story is told.

She is a young teenager that lives in a small Pakistani village and dreams of becoming a teacher. Her entire life is turned upside down when she says no to a (blackmailing) landlord, moving her from future potential teacher to indentured servant.

This story is inspired by Malala Yousafzai, and as mentioned before, sometimes it shows. Through hardship this young girl learns things and acquires a new view of the world. For that second part (unless you come from a small Pakistani village as well), you should have a look at the novella.

Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed, Penguin Books 2018

Green Island

My mother Li Min’s labor pains began the night that the widow was beaten in front of the Tian-ma Teahouse.

I’m a sucker for family epics, “spanning decades”. Honestly, you can just get my attention with those two words. Add a not-western background (because honestly, aren’t we familiar enough already with those?) and I’m in. So that’s how I ended up with Green Island.

You follow the main character from birth to seniority, over two continents and through so much political unrest that it’s sometimes boggling to realise that these are real life events. How much do you know about the history of Taiwan, after all?

Shawna Yang Ryan leads you through the casual horrors different governments exercise while juxtaposing it with (immigrant) domestic life, making some chapters almost surrealistic. The narrator is always chafing in her surroundings, sometimes making her annoying, but the story continuously enticing.

Green Island, Shawna Yang Ryan, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

Crazy Rich Asians

121 min.

So much fun, so sparkly, so cute, so many beautiful people. What do you mean, you’re going to need more than that to go watch it? Or go read it? The Crazy Rich trilogy got a movie, and most of the first book has been used for this movie.

crazy rich asians posterAnyway, this is a romantic comedy about a woman who discovers that her boyfriend is just about a couple of million times richer than she knew. And she discovers this because he invites her over to his family home.

This story line is literally and figuratively brightened up with a lot of beautiful mansions, houses, cars, outfits and colourful side characters. The majority of the cast is lovely to look at as well.

Is any of it groundbreaking? Possibly how the complete cast has an Asian background, but this movie will satisfy your romcom-need all the same. And if you can’t wait for the sequel: there’s the books.

Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Brothers 2018

 

Pachinko

History has failed us, but no matter.

Yes, a much better start for the new reading year than Acceptance. Much better than any recent books, and it’s January 24th. Anyway, Pachinko was lauded and I’m glad it didn’t disappoint me.

It’s a family epic of a Korean family, starting in 1910. Generation after generation takes you past living in poverty, living in a colonised country, war, prosperity and loss. There’s born family and created family and all the other connections that happen in society.

Sounds terribly vague? Simply because this is a book you should allow to overwhelm you, instead of going in with any expectations. “Meh”, you think, “a soap opera spread through time”, but that’s an insult. Pachinko is history, humanity, entertainment and mind boggling (the things I didn’t know as a white woman). Oh, and the descriptions of food might make you drool a little.

Pachinko is nominated for the American award ‘National Book Award for Fiction’. It has my vote.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, Hachette Book Group 2017

Rich People Problems

PROBLEM NO. 1

Your regular table at the fabulous restaurant on the exclusive island where you own a beach house is unavailable.

Follow up from Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, now with even some issues that everyone that isn’t a billionaire or millionaire could relate to. Maybe.

Does one read books of these series for recognising situations from their own lives? Probably not. Bring in the details about the clothes, the planes, the houses, the spending.

Again, there’s so many characters that the genealogy in front of the book can be helpful. The author ramps up the amount of notes as well, this time using them (more often) to comment, instead of to explain. But in between all of that is a brightly coloured, very expensive (looking) story full of dramatics and diamonds. It’s silly, it’s superficial, it’s quite delicious (especially in between Year of Wonders and writing essays about The Catcher in the Rye).

Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2017

Miss India America

95 min.

Sometimes the best love stories are the ones involving friendship and self esteem. Although you could just call this a cute coming-of-age story as well and don’t worry about in your face Life Lessons and soppy scenes.
miss india americaMain character Lily always wins, no matter what the battle is. She has her entire life planned out, but of course life – being what it is – doesn’t go with that. Her boyfriend breaks off with her, because of a pageant miss! One of those dumb, shallow creatures (it takes her some time to realise her misogynistic ideas)!
Of course this means that Lily is going to have to win a pageant to win her boyfriend back. Even though she knows it’s a superficial mess, pulls her best friend away from what she wants (to participate), and just doesn’t know yet that you can’t ‘win’ people.
Boyfriend is just the katalysator for things here anyway, and nary a man is found after the first few scenes. They’re all weaker than Lily and her friends and competition, whom are learning about their culture, their place in it and that there are lines you don’t cross to win.
That’s how we get Lily recognising that you can’t keep an iron clad grip on everything-/one, and that life is nicer with people around than medals.

Miss India America, Simhan and Kapoor 2015

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

In a single year, my father left us twice.

This was work. I don’t know how I managed to read two similarly build up novels (the other one being Disappearing Moon Cafe), but this one was the tougher of the two. Maybe because the comparison material was so recent. Both left me wondering how I’d like something contemporary written by an Asian actor.

Anyway, time moves every way but chronologically in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Keep your head with you, because there’s a lot of characters going through a lot of things. The most brutal one, probably Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the horrors of Tiananmen Square.

These aren’t light, bright stories. There seems to be no end to what a family can be put through, and the small, mythology-like side steps only make the difference starker. How did anyone come out alive?

It’s a novel to take in in small doses, to learn and see through another set of goggles.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, Granta 2016