[ARTISTS] Takashi Miike, Michael Lau and J Church
- ASIAN POP: Cult filmmaker Takashi Miike's 'yakuza horror theater' to
hit U.S. screens; Hong Kong's Michael Lau is still the king
of 'urban vinyl'; and J Church rocks.
by Martin Wong, special to SF Gate
Here come the summer movies -- the usual formulaic action flicks,
dumb comedies and weak sequels. But there's at least one movie
you're guaranteed to remember. Also, plan a pilgrimage to the King
of Urban Vinyl's new store/gallery in Hong Kong and listen to the
latest songs by one of San Francisco's underground stars.
Be Like Miike
Filmmaker Takashi Miike enjoys cult status in his native Japan and
made Time magazine's Top 10 list of non-Hollywood directors in 1998,
but outside of the underground-film world, the director is still
relatively unknown in the United States. That situation is going to
change, however, when Pathfinder Pictures brings Miike's surreal
yakuza ("gangster") movie "Gozu" to American screens this June.
I attended an advance screening of "Gozu," (the word means "cow-
headed demon") as part of the Visual Communications Los Angeles
Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival. It attracted a colorful mix
of art-film aficionados, gangster-movie buffs and gorehounds who
knew the director's reputation for horrific romance ("Audition"),
ultraviolence ("Ichi the Killer"), hyper action ("Dead or Alive")
and taboo subject matter ("Visitor Q"). Since 1991, the prolific
Miike has directed 60 films, but in an e-mailed message to the
audience he said "Gozu" is the closest to his heart, adding that he
hoped we wouldn't hate him after seeing it.
"Gozu" begins like a typical yakuza film, with stock characters that
include a big boss and his sleazy underlings. However, the mood
quickly turns horrific when senior gangster Ozaki is revealed to be
psychotic. Declaring that a chihuahua is in actuality a "yakuza
attack dog," he smashes the tiny pet into a restaurant window before
stomping on it for good measure. When Ozaki's underling, Minami, is
charged with killing his demented boss and then loses the corpse,
the film takes a surreal, David Lynch-esque turn. Cross-dressing
waiters, dysfunctional siblings who operate a motel and the titular
horror are introduced, as is a beautiful woman who claims to be the
supposedly dead man. The lower-level gangster is torn between his
loyalty to the gang, his relationship with the boss and his
attraction to Ozaki's curvy new body. The scenario is mind-boggling,
and Miike handles it with a dry and sick sense of humor.
You will probably either love "Gozu" or hate it (or, as the director
fears, hate him), but you will not forget it. More polished and less
uneven than many of his other works -- some of which are made
specifically for video distribution -- it's a great introduction to
the twisted world of Miike. Film fans who miss the raw energy of
early David Cronenberg, John Waters and Sam Raimi should get a kick
out of it. Also worth checking out is a 400-page, heavily
illustrated book out from Fab Press by Japanese film buff Tom Mes,
Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike.
High and Lau
Before Hong Kong artist Michael Lau came on the scene, the market
for collectors of Asian toys was centered on vintage die-cast, vinyl
and tin pieces from Japan. Collectibles were generally based on
animated and live-action Japanese TV shows starring costumed heroes
and robots. Generally, the toys were cool; the collectors were not.
But Lau changed everything when he introduced his series
of "Gardener" figures. Based on his comic strip of the same name,
which East Touch magazine began running in 1998, the 10-inch pieces
were like one-of-a-kind, ultra-detailed action figures influenced by
street art, skateboarding and modern design. Lau's work appealed to
an entirely new audience -- people more likely to pay top dollar for
limited-edition Nikes than collect plastic dolls.
Lau's next step was to create the "Crazychildren" series. More
stylized than the G.I. Joe-like Gardeners, the vinyl figurines with
moveable limbs combined the geometry of modernist sculptures with
the flowing lines and energy of graffiti. Twelve 8-inch figures,
each made in a limited edition of 200 pieces, were sold by small toy
boutiques for about $100 each. On eBay, they went for twice that.
The crossover success of Lau's toys has triggered nothing less than
a toy revolution. Other Hong Kong-based figure designers such as
Eric So, Brothers Free and Jason Ching have helped grow the "urban
vinyl" scene, and Japanese toy giant Medicom has expanded from
specializing in detailed action figures to making smaller, more
stylized plastic pieces such as Kubricks and BE@ARBRICKS. In
America, there are brands such as Mini-Mates, and the Sprite
commercials, starring LeBron James and a small toy figure with an
Afro, can also be traced to Lau's work. Such figures are sold in
cool toy shops, hipster boutiques and all over the Web, including in
the Giant Robot stores in San Francisco and L.A.
In March, Lau opened Sixs, a Hong Kong toy shop that's set up like a
high-end gallery, with a high ceiling and minimalist fixtures. Many
of his figures, such as the "Science Fiction Crazy Children" series,
are now showcased and sold exclusively at Hong Kong's Causeway Bay
location (6/F Grand View Commercial Centre, 29-31 Sugar Street).
Lau's current project is to remake the 110 "Gardener" figures in
the "Crazychildren" format. What's next is a secret, but a new
exhibition is slated to open at Sixs in August.
J Church Is a Band
During its heyday in the early '90s, J Church was one of the pillars
of the Bay Area punk-rock world, playing with bands like Green Day
and Jawbreaker. Since then, leader Lance Hahn has survived the
implosion of the scene, heart surgery, an apartment fire and an
indefinite move to Austin, Texas, and still writes intensely
personal, politically charged, highly literate and intensely melodic
The music of J Church is not the kind identified with pierced and
spiked youngsters seen on Mountain Dew commercials. "We are an
underground band," says Hahn. "We're not interested in aboveground
music in general, whether that means MTV or Spin or whatever. We're
not interested in that kind of audience coming to see us play. It
would defeat the purpose, which for us is making music -- or art, if
you will. That means I'm doing this to try to express something with
no regard to the financial aspect."
Listen to any J Church album and you'll hear about Lance's
neighborhood ("A Bomb on Mission Street"), his politics ("Panama")
and his obsessions ("Faye Wong"). The CD booklets give further
insight into his world by providing reading suggestions that range
from Noam Chomsky to Julie Christie to Giant Robot magazine.
"I probably wouldn't be doing this if I weren't Asian American,"
says Hahn. "I feel like I'm constantly at war with the stereotypes.
I used to wish I had gotten married when I was young and finished
college. I've had to destroy that image of myself again and again.
Fighting the impositions is a lot of why I do what I do."
Society Is a Carnivorous Flower (coming June 15 from No Idea
Records) is J Church's first album as a four-piece, and the extra
guitar adds power and dynamics. The first side of the LP has six
catchy and clever cuts, including "Keep Smiling America," and the
new Austinite band members definitely add a harsher "screamo"
element to the mix, adding new layers of angst to the melodic punk.
The entire flip side is filled by the 15-minute title song -- a huge
departure for a group that has built a reputation on short and sweet
7-inch singles. Built up of many small movements, not unlike the
Who's "A Quick One" (or, perhaps more aptly, the Subhumans' "Cradle
to the Grave"), it's epic and exhilarating. I've heard it live, and
it's proof that the established band has learned new tricks.
Hahn hates touring during the summer, but the June release
of "Carnivorous Flower might change that. Keep an eye on calendars
for local all-ages clubs; the band is bound to play a few homecoming
shows in support of the album.