Saturday, April 01, 2006

INSTANT YANG v.11: AZN, R.I.P.; Hello MTV Chi; Holiday Movies a Go Go; Support Your Local Asian American Superhero

...And we're back! Holiday schedules and turkey-induced comas all around led to a brief IY-less interlude, which I hope has cleansed your palate, like an icy sherbet, for this week's news-packed edition.

First of all, the bombshell: the much-heralded 24-hour Asian American cable net, AZN TV, has undergone what Comcast is calling a "restructuring." That's a gentle euphemism for saying that 70 percent of its staff, including all of its senior programming, promotions, acquisitions, and marketing execs (and all senior Asian American managers!) are being laid off, and the channel's ambitious plans to create an unprecedented volume of original programming by, for, and about Asian Americans are no more. Instead, what you see now is what you'll get--newsfeeds, films, soaps, and cartoons from China, Korea, and Japan--at least as long as the company decides to keep the channel alive. Comcast claims that the restructuring was the only way to keep the channel alive at all, but insiders believe the company wants what's left of AZN (now being run by about 15 or so staffers, mostly junior) to "die on the vine." There's much more in this week's exclusive look behind the scenes of the fall of AZN, in my column on SFGate.com:

ASIAN POP: AZN, R.I.P.
A 24-hour channel featuring unique original programming for Asian Americans, backed by the biggest and most powerful entity in the cable business? It seemed too good to be true. And apparently it was.

But even as AZN fades gently into history, its peers seem to be partying on. The day after AZN's massive layoffs, MTV announced the launch of its second MTV World channel, the Chinese American-oriented MTV Chi (www.mtvchi.com). MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA star (and universal hottie) Zhang Ziyi spoke charmingly halting words of welcome, followed by the channel's historic first video--fittingly, "Learn Chinese," by the rapper-formerly-known-as-Jin.

Scrappy indie ImaginAsian continues to prove early cynics wrong, too, with word that their early distribution challenges may soon be a thing of the past. CEO Mike Hong targets 50 to 70 million homes within three years. Oh, and they'll be unveiling another five ImaginAsian Theaters across the country, joining the one on New York's Upper East Side. Uh, wow.

Of course, it wouldn't be the holidays without popcorn and bloated Hollywood box office behemoths, would it? Here's my quick take on some of the films in multiplexes now (the ones with Asian flava, anyway):

--HARRY POTTER AND THE WHATEVER IT IS THIS TIME: Saw this one as the back end of a double bill. With my wife, who hasn't actually read any of the books, and could have cared less about the previous flicks. She found it totally incomprehensible, and even I had a hard time following, though I've managed to keep up with the little bugger's increasingly voluminous adventures. (Short of cutting each book into two back-to-back films, I don't know what they're going to do with the next few. As it is, this movie must set a record for the highest page-to-screen-minute ratio ever--entire backstories of the book are gone, characters and important magical devices get at best nominal introduction ("Hi, I'm Solumetrica Spandex, Ministress of Magical Masochism, and welcome to my plot point. CONDENSUS INCOMPREHENSIBILIS!"). This, by the way, is the volume where all the boys get their very own Asian girls to date. Not that there's anything wrong with that--but it'd be nice if the second-banana Patil Twins or Harry's crushmuffin Cho Chang had more to do than stand around being, you know, Asian love interests.

--MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: Thud. That's the sound of a narrative toppling over under the weight of its own exotic melodrama. The book, which I will candidly say I did not read, was accused by the real-life woman who inspired it of being an exercise in exploitative orientalism. The movie, directed by CHICAGO helmer Rob Marshall, has the added burden of putting all that ornate hoopla on screen. What starts out as being, at least, eye candy, ends up quickly going to inadvertent camp. If only Marshall had embraced the movie's inherent kitsch and made a musical! As I note in this week's PopMail, you can imagine the production numbers: "All That Enka," "When You're Good to Mama-san"...yeah baby!)

--BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN: I'll go on the record as saying that this is quite probably the best movie that Ang Lee has ever done, and one of the most honest-feeling love stories of any type I've seen. Luscious cinematography, a starkly luminous script from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx--plus letter-perfect casting from top to bottom, if you'll excuse the pun. Aussie-turned-Brooklynite Heath Ledger is eye-opening as a cowboy trapped in a closet as big as all outdoors, and Jake Gyllenhaal matches up marvelously as his rodeo romeo. Lee should get more than just an nod for this one--it's time enough he walked home with a statuette, don't you think? My guess: nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Heath, Best Supporting Actress (Ledger's new missus Michelle Wiliams), Best Cinematography, and oh yeah, Best Picture. Should win at least three, and I won't guess which, if there's no money riding on it.

--THE GRACE LEE PROJECT: Grace Lee's clever/hilarious doc was picked up by Women Make Movies after a triumphant run at the fests, and it's making it slow rounds in major cities, beginning here in New York at the Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., December 14-27). Gothamites: Here's your chance to see the film that's becoming an underground phenomenon--and bring the Grace of your choice along! (You can see trailers and read more at Grace's own site, gracelee.net...)

And now, a pitch for peace, justice, and the Asian American way: If you love comics, or even if you don't love them but love the idea of Asians getting their hero on, head to a local comic shop and pick up Marvel's "Amazing Fantasy" No. 15, which features a brand-new story by director-slash-comic-book-auteur Greg Pak. Pak's entry in the graphical jam session is titled "Mastermind Excello" and features as its protagonist a teenage Asian American supergenius named Amadeus Cho. Plus, manga-style art from Takeshi Miyazawa. How can you resist? (A word to the wise: Even if you're too cheap to spring the four bucks, visit the Marvel.com Web site and drop a vote on Pak for free -- the winner of the online poll gets a full miniseries for his character. Hey, it's the holidays.)

Finally, I need your feedback. In January, I'll be doing another roundup of the year's best, worst and weirdest in Asian Pop...your thoughts, suggestions, or snarky comments are welcome, so pile it on and send it in.

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