Friday, November 15, 2013

DVD Reviews: Beijing Punk, Live from Japan

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

Both of these films display the influence of modern Western music on parts of Asia. While one focuses on a singular style – albeit various subgenres – the other looks at a diversity of categories. Either way, the scenes are DIY, and independent of the general culture, which make it all the more interesting.

Beijing Punk
Written and directed Shaun Jefford
Seminal Films / It’s Time! Entertainment /Newground Films
83 minutes, 2010 / 2012

It comes as no surprise to me that this film has won a whole stack of international film festival awards, from Cambridge and Alaska, to New Jersey and beyond.

Filmed around the time when China was preparing for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Shaun Jefford gamely turns his attention to the various styles of punk rock bands that formed in the city thanks in part to the Internet, and from the Western presence of certain individuals who are presented in the film.

One example is Michael Pettis, a professor of Fine Arts at a university, who opened the D-22 Club, which is compared in the film to CBGBs, and, I would add, Max’s Kansas City, which has as much to do the origin of punk as CBs. But I digress…

There is also “Creative Genius” (film’s descriptor) Nevin Domer, who books the shows and helps run China’s punk label, Maybe Mars Records, which at the time of the recording had 40 releases. 

While there are a number of bands there, such as Joyside, Snapline and The Gar, the film focuses mainly on three or four of the groups.  They live in squalor in the “TZ” (Thingzou) neighborhood which is much like the East Village, which also fueled punk’s artistic nourishment.

Two of the bands that receive some coverage are P.K. 14, a Talking Heads-style art punk group which we don’t really see much of, and Hedgehog, who grabbed my attention and I wanted to see more. The main focus is on the tiny female drummer, Shi Lu (Atom), the only women musician in any of the bands in this film. She is definitely a power drummer in the trio, which has a ‘90s Seattle sound. Definitely a band I would have enjoyed back in the day. I can imagine them on a bill with the likes of The Mumps, Mong or Student Teachers.

The main focus, however, are on the bands Mi San Dao (or Misandao, or MiSanDao; it is shown all ways) and Demerit. I will discuss separately.

Mis San Dao, as far as I can tell, is Beijing’s only skinhead/Oi band. They have the standard Doc Martins (now made in China rather than England), suspenders, knee-high shorts, and bald heads. Lemmy and Mötorhead is their godhead, represented in a bootleg video they watch repeatedly.

The lead singer is a tough, wide dude, much like you would expect a skinhead to be, in the classic sense. Obviously, he doesn’t go for the white supremacist stuff, but leans more towards the nationalistic bent (e.g., anti-Japanese, saying some complementary things about Hitler as an artist, but not as a good leader because he made mistakes, such as with the Jews). We meet his wife, his two pitbulls, and watch the band on stage during a short music festival tour of Germany. Mainly what we see is the band drinking a lot of beer and cough syrup with codeine. Oh, and some stuff from Mongolia that looks vile that makes the director puke.

The other band, Demerit, looks like they could have come out of England in 1980, with the mohawks and leather jackets. Their sound ranges from overproduced Sum41/Green Day punk harmonies (lead singer is a fan of Good Charlotte), to Black Flag style hardcore. We even meet their No. 1 fan (i.e., groupie), who is seems right out of the Nancy Spungen overzealous and questionable character checklist.

The best parts of the documentary, of course, are when the bands are performing, either on stage on in their practice studios (usually a basement). What I find interesting is that all sing in English (subtitles are usually supplied anyway). In typical punk form, it is protest music about the Olympics, the government, religion and society as sheep. You know, punk rock. But it also is more dangerous there: think Tiananmen Square plus the push to cleanse for the international visitors attending the Olympics. The government does not exactly smile down on social dissonance. As one of the musicians in Demerit states, “We are not political, just about freedom.”

One aspect I found ironically amusing is that no matter where you are, musicians have a tough time in similar ways. For example, for Demerit’s record release show, they have no records due to a holdup at the record factory. Punk rock!

Jefford is not merely a disembodied voice here, but is actively seen talking to the bands, drinking various questionable liquids, and even getting his head partially shaven against his wishes (Oi!). The cameraman, Alexandre Kyriakidis, who we only see once, has a negative reaction to all the consumption, and ends up in (the) hospital at one point. Punk rock!

If you’re wondering, yes, there are mosh pits and crowd surfing (the latter mostly by Nevin). The audiences are small but enthusiastic, and this documentary shows that punk is a movement that cannot be contained by totalitarian control. They still need to open up more to women musicians, but in general, it feels good to see the music that formed me help (hinder?) so many others in cultures one would not expect.

This documentary is an excellent record of that, and I would like to see a Part II, updating not only these bands, but where the scene has progressed since (beyond the usual title cards at the end about the bands). Okay, one more time, with feeling:  punk rawk!



Live from Tokyo
Directed and edited by Louis Rapkin
Good Charamel Records
79 minutes, 2010 / 2011

Japan, once thought to take over the world through either might or commerce, has become a cultural sponge that absorbs much of what the West has to offer, from various generations. Yet, in many ways, because all this comes together through the social media, especially over the past couple of decades, things become new again by blending different facets into a synergy.

General Semantics states that time binding, or writing things down because they change over time, sort of dissolves as various forms of information arrive at the same time. This is especially interesting in art and music. And that is the focus of this documentary, showing the culture scene of a modern Tokyo that is overwhelmed by data.

In China, there are few markets for alternative bands, but in Tokyo, a multitude of showcases present music every night, so the scene is both nurturing and chaotic. The question, of course, is whether too much is as bad as too little. Nothing stands out when there are so many choices. This is discussed right off the bat here by W. David Marx, Chief Editor of Neohaponisme, Stan Eberlein, the owner of the Intervall-Audio Record Label, Craig Exton, of, and Dr. Jennifer Matsue, author of Making Music in Japan’s Underground (among others), who are Westerners. I realize this documentary is for the Western market, but still… At least the bands are Japanese.

Due to the large number of groups, the clubs there have the dreaded Noruma system, or pay-to-play, where a band has to sell a certain amount of tickets themselves, or pay the difference (which could be in the hundreds of dollars). They tried that in New York (some places still do this), but thanks to social media, some clubs became pariahs and bands would not play there, forcing them out.

A few musicians wisely posit that because rock music originated in the West, of course there are going to be Western influences. No doubt. But all music goes through a gatekeeping filter that changes and morphs the sound, unless it is a copy band. Any original written music is bound to be affected, though. There is definitely a higher use of technology in music there, from bizarre instruments (such as employed by Makoto Ohiro) to multi-media shows, and a whole lot of electronica (e.g., Sexy Synthesizer), even in jazz.

There are so many bands and varied styles shown here, many of which I find, well, annoying, such as rock/rap, electronica, and modern pop, so I’m going to discuss some of the ones I like, rather than all of them. First there’s Nu Clear Classmate. This is a guy on electric guitar while his female partner screams lyrics and plays an electronic keyboard in front of projected images. It’s wild and chaotic.

DMBQ are a heavy metal outfit that fits more into the leather jacket mode rather than a hair band (thankfully). They are loud and rhythmic, with a crashing guitar. They seem like a fun headbanging band. The Zoobombs are sort of a poppier version of the Heartbreakers (Thunders/Lure, certainly not Petty).

Sajjanu is an avant-garde guitar-based trio that reminds me of Tom Verlaine and Television, with fits of starts and stops and lots of dissonance.  My favorite band name presented here was My Pal Foot Foot, after the Shaggs song (though I don’t remember seeing a clip of them actually playing).

There is definitely a greater mix of genders in these bands than in the West or in China, which is encouraging.

We see many groups, including videos and playing live. There seems little focus as we are shown band after band, and don’t really learn much about them as people, even when we see them at home or in the studio. I realize the filmmakers are trying to be a bit comprehensive, but just as there are too many bands for a number of them to become successful, similarly we set a smattering of music and musicians, and it’s hard to get a clear picture.

There are lots of interesting comments how the music is effected by and absorbed into the culture in ways most of Asia could never even imagine, but since we do not get to know any of these people, the film is guilty of being exactly what it discusses in the first act, about oversaturation and lack of personality. That is a shame.

Many times while the bands are heard, we see street scenes of traffic, crowded sidewalks or buildings, sometimes outside of a moving car, or out the front window of a train, reminiscent of Koyaanisquati. This gets tiring really fast

Ultimately, while this documentary shows various ways Tokyo has become a music city, it fails by trying to do too much in its time frame. It would have been better to focus on a few bands so we can get to know them, and let some of the others be more peripheral. 

Live from Tokyo trailer (could not be uploated):


No comments:

Post a Comment