Just got back from another two months of shooting in New Orleans. I was lucky enough to catch the Jazz Fest which was two weeks of wonderful music with top liners like Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Santana. Actually the most interesting are the local Jazz and Zydeco music. It feels like a combination of blues and country music with a French accent.
May is also crawfish season. I went to a couple of Crawfish boils, which were crawfish parties where spiced crawfish were boiled in 10 gallon caldrons. When it's done, all the crawfish were dumped onto tables covered with newspaper and everyone just dig in with both hands. Crawfish looks like little lobsters and the aficionados claim they taste better than lobsters. The best part was sucking out the heads. Well, eating crawfish, drinking cold beer and listening to Cajun music was one of my best Louisiana experiences.
I was blown away by my first NASCAR experience last week in Las Vegas. I have seen NASCAR races on TV, but nothing can compare to 170,000 screaming fans on their feet cheering for their drivers. They even drown out the roaring engines of over 40 super souped up "stock cars".
The race covered 400 miles on a 1.5 mile oval course which means 267 laps. The average speed was 170 mph. Cars were crashing into walls and each other. Surprisingly, all the drivers walked away a little shaken up but otherwise unhurt. Why can't our cars be safe like that?
Stock cars racing started in the 1930s when country folks were running moonshines. They souped up their cars to out run the police. Nowadays, the cars are altered so much that they bear little resemblance to the "stock" they come from. It is a big business and a sub culture that is no longer limited to the rural South. Some of the fans came all the way from Canada and Europe. It is a high testosterone and beer chugging crowd. A true slice of Americana.
Just got back from a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. Angkor Wat was simply amazing. I was awed by the majestic beauty of the temples. Thousands of artists and craftsmen must have sacrificed their lives for this project. And yet at the end nature is ready to reclaim this jungle. Evidenced by the trees that simply overwhelmed the buildings.
Vietnam is a country of stunning natural beauty. From fields of flowers in Dalat in the highland to the lush green rice paddies in the deltas, everywhere I turned there was a perfect picture. Cruising in Ha Long Bay was like floating in a Chinese landscape painting. Nature is still the greatest artist. Everything we do pales in comparison.
I really felt affinity with the Vietnamese. Historically and culturally they have been very close to China. We can see it from their Confucius temple to all the old writings on stone tablets. 70% of the Vietnamese language have Chinese roots. And in Cholon, one can conduct business in Cantonese.
I have been in New Orleans for the last couple of weeks shooting a new TV series. New Orleans has always been one of my favorite American city. With all the French, Spanish and African influences, it almost feel like a foreign country. It has the seedy and decadent charm of a party town that never stops. As the locals say: Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll!
At night the streets of the French Quarter are packed with people drinking and partying. They actually close Bourbon Street so people are literally dancing on the street. Music would be blasting from all the bars and clubs. From traditional Jazz to Hip Hop to rock 'n roll to zydeco. If music is not enough, there are always the strip clubs with naked dancers. In other words, it is one BIG PARTY every night.
The Cajun and Creole cuisines are to die for. Gumbos, jambalayas and etouffees are my favorites. Even a po boy sandwich is tasty. It is hard to have a bad meal here.
This morning I drove around the lower 9th ward, which was totally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Now, two years later, it is still not rebuilt. The desolation is heart breaking. The delay is not for the lack of resources but because of mismanagement and politics. Now Brad Pitt is jumping in with the "Make It Right" project which is supposed to help local residence to rebuild. Let's hope it's not another publicity stunt.
I have been in Athens for two weeks now consulting on a Greek TV series. It is very exciting to be in the birthplace of theater and very humbling to realize that whatever we do on stage had been done before by the Greeks.
The Greek people are very warm and friendly. They love to sit for hours in cafes and bars talking, arguing or just people watching. The night life is great. Dinner starts after 10pm and usually lasts for 3 hours. Then it's onto the bars and night clubs. My favorite is the rembetatiki which is like a blues club with heartbreaking Greek ballads. When the mood strikes, people would start singing and dancing. I think we should all do that more often.
Last Monday, we had a reception and screening of LUST, CAUTION at Directors Guild of America sponsored by the Asian American Committee. Ang Lee brought his star Tang Wei. She looks so young and fragile in person and yet delivers such mature performance in the film. I am sure she will be recognized for her work.
LUST, CAUTION is a fantastic story about improbable love. How does one reconcile love and hate when right and wrong are not clear anymore? Should she follow her heart or complete her duty? The way Ang explores the characters through their love making is ingenious. I am curious how the film survives the Chinese censors. Will it have the same impact?
The best part of the evening was the Q&A afterwards. It was inspiring to listen to Ang Lee and Jutin Lin talked about lives, dreams and films. Two Asian American artists at the height of their games sharing their loves and frustrations. I feel proud to be part of this community. I hope we can do more to share.
After spending more than a month in Russia, I have come to really appreciate the enormity of this country; the diversity of it's population and the strength of the Russian character. On the streets of Moscow, there are Middle Eastern faces and Asian faces among the blond hair, blue eyes of the Slavic people. The food is just as diverse and colorful. For some reason, sushi is quite the rave. Having sushi served by a six foot blond in kimono was an interesting experience.
There is a Chinese saying about 吃苦, eat bitter. The more bitter one eats, the better person one becomes. In that way, the Russian is very much like the Chinese. When Napoleon invaded Moscow, they rather burnt down the city than to surrender it. When the German laid siege to Leningrad "St. Petersburg" in WWII, the Russians held for more than two years, even though they were starving and down to eating the dead. Perhaps, it is the severe weather that makes this character trait imperative for survival. Whatever the reason, the Russian people have persevered under the harshest conditions. Adversity, seems to bring out the best of the Russians.
However, this stubbornness can also blind them from reality and logic. Once they stake out a position, they would not back down. Some friendly discussions can often deteriorate into shouting matches. All one can do is drink more vodka and toast each other's health.
I was also surprised by how the Russian Orthodox Church has survived the 70 years of Communist persecution. Churches were closed down. Monasteries and convents were disbanded. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that people were allowed to worship openly again. The devotion of the faithful is unmistakable especially in the countryside. Even small village churches are beautifully restored and well attended. There are no pews for the congregation to sit. Everyone stands through Mass.
Last week I got a call from Sony International. They asked me to go to Russia to consult on the remaking of "I dream of Jeannie" for Russian TV. Boy, we have come a long way since the cold war. Instead of shooting missiles at them, we are sending over American TV shows.
For the last several years, Sony has been licensing old American TV shows all over the world. Shows like "Married with Children" and "The Nanny" are being made in Greece, Turkey, Agentina and Indonesia. I guess that should not be surprising in today's world of cultural globalization. After all, we get McDonalds from Red Square to Tiananmen Square. We listen to Rap music in all languages. Hip Hop becomes the language of youths of the world. The tide is not just a one way street. America is also at the receiving end. Martin Scorcese won the academy award for remaking "Infernal Affairs", a great Hong Kong film. "Ugly Betty" started out as "Betty, la fea" a soap opera from Columbia. May be there would be less war if we all watch the same TV shows and laugh at the same jokes.
The vibriancy of a society can usually be measured by how well it adopts other cultures without losing its own. So here we are, multicultural artists, how do we take all our experiences and produce something new and unique? Can we heat up this boiling cultural melting pot?
The first Asian American Theatre Festival was held in NYC from June 11 through June 24. There were over 30 shows from all over U.S. From drama to comedy; from traditional to experimental; from one man/woman show to full blown production.
It was so exciting to check out what everyone is doing. The best part was to meet the artists from all over the country. So the whole two weeks felt like one big party.
There seems to be a trend, especially with younger artists to explore beyond the traditional ethnic themes. I think that's very encouraging. After all we should not be prisoners of our ethnicity. There was a question in the post show survey that asked: What does Asian American Theatre mean to you? I said: Anything Asian American artists do.
I am very flattered and encouraged by the responses I've been getting. It's great to feel so welcome.
Right now I am directing a play called TeleMongol. It is a sketch comedy about an Asian American TV station that tries to program for Asians, by Asians. We spoof on every Asian American stereotype, nothing is sacred. If you are ready to poke some fun at ourselves and not easily offened, please come join us for a riotous evening. It is part of the Asian American Theater Festival in New York from June 11 through June 24. Their website is www.naatf.org
Hope to see you there.
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