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  • Dumbfoundead1

    Courtesy of FilmRise

    The Asian-American experience in popular culture has been an interesting and sometimes troubling one. Where other minorities have made great, often vocal, strides in advancing their place in the pop culture firmament—music, movies, TV, comic books—Asians have not always been as successful. Bad Rap, directed by Salima Koroma and produced by Jaeki Cho, is an enlightening look at the careers of four Asian-American rappers—Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), Awkwafina (Nora Lum), Rekstizzy (David Lee) and Lyricks (Richard Lee)—as they struggle with prejudice and their own cultural expectations in a genre created and dominated by African-American artists. (Of course, white artists don’t exactly command the field either, but Eminem is shown as the obvious example of major success.)

    The film opens with scenes of Dumbfoundead–the best known and longest performing of the four—onstage in front of an excited crowd, as the others praise his talent and 2011 song “Are We There Yet?,” which specifically addressed the experience of his Korean immigrant family. He interviews that he hates being called “an Asian rapper,” yet admits to also embracing that identity. Ultimately though, “I’m American,” he says, a sentiment that is echoed by others throughout the film.

    Courtesy of FilmRise

    Bad Rap delves into hip hop history, starting with 1980s West Coast Filipino rappers who were heroes in the Asian community around the time that NWA and Ice Cube first became popular. We hear from rap pioneer MC Jin, who appeared at age 19 on BET’s “Freestyle Friday” battle rap competition and was subsequently signed to Ruff Rider Records (the first Asian American rapper to be signed to a major label), only to see his career stall.

    Various industry figures weigh in on the place of Asians in hip hop, including Snoop Dogg’s manager Ted Chung, journalist Oliver Wang, and Chinese-American rapper Decipher, who notes, “They want you to be that karate-kickin’, civic strivin’, SAT-takin’ dude. And a lot of us aren’t like that.” We watch the irrepressible Rekstizzy arguing strenuously for making a video (“God Bless America”) that includes squirting condiments on women’s twerking backsides. His manager (Cho, who also produced this film) is against it, with good reason.

    Of the film’s four featured artists, Dumbfoundead seems the most frustrated, having been at it the longest. A veteran of L.A.’s battle rap scene, he also has the most street cred. Citing Awkwafina, who has drawn a hipster following with drily ironic songs like “My Vag,” he asserts that female Asian rappers are more marketable than men, while she argues that it’s just as hard for non-sexualized female. We watch her perform for an adoring crowd, with Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy and Lyricks all cheering her on. There’s clearly a lot of support and mutual admiration among this group.

    Courtesy of FilmRise

    Courtesy of FilmRise

    Both Dumbfoundead and Lyricks are close to their mothers, who are featured in the film. We visit Lyricks, considered the best technical rapper of them all, as he works in his parents’ dry cleaning business. An eloquent speaker and performer, he talks about his upbringing in a deeply Christian household and the ongoing struggle between his faith and his career.

    In 2015, after years away from the battle scene, Dumbfoundead decides to take part in a major Toronto competition, hosted by Drake, who happens to be a big fan. At the press conference for the event, journalists think nothing of asking the Asian rapper outrageously racist questions in weak attempts to be humorous. Battle raps are notoriously no-holds barred, and Dumbfoundead’s sparring partner, the popular Conceited, trots out every stereotype in the book (from slanted eyes to Jackie Chan), while his fans cheer. Dumbfoundead acquits himself nicely (though he himself resorts to digs about Conceited’s short stature). With his nimble, inventive lines, it’s clear he hasn’t lost any of his edge.

    The film then jumps ahead two years and checks in with each of the four; all still rapping and hoping to make their mark. As Rekstizzy puts it, “We need that champion.” Bad Rap is an engaging film that leaves us hoping that one of these artists—or at least someone—does finally make it to that exalted place.

    Bad Rap premieres on all major VOD platforms on Tuesday, May 23.

    Marina Zogbi

  • Bucket List confession: It’s been a dream of mine for quite sometime to attend the Costume Institute’s Met Gala. Colloquially and affectionately referred to as “fashion’s biggest night out,” the Costume Institute’s Met Gala is PEAK celebration of iconic style.

    And as we all know by now, this year’s Met Gala was a spectacular showcase of quasi-wearable, avant-garde fashion, honoring the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition on Rei Kawakubo and her label Comme des Garçons.

    And unlike past Met Gala events this hullabaloo was loaded with an incredible mix of celebrities smoking in a bathroom and meme-inducing sculptural looks that are still keeping the internet in a frenzy.

    But if you still haven’t visited the 2017 Costume Institute exhibition on Rei Kawakubo and her label Comme des Garçons you are missing out on a treat.

    Here are three things you need to know about this incredible showcase.

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    Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art Of The In-Between at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Photo by Jemal

    #1 This showcase makes history 

    Aptly named Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between, the exhibition highlights the reclusive designer’s wide array of left-of-center, hyper-modern, sculptural constructions — retracing almost 40 years of clothing. And this is first exhibition since 1983 Yves Saint Laurent show that celebrates a living artist.

    #2 The show is weird and wonderful

    Fashion Unfiltered founder and CDG collector Katherine Zarrella tells Forbes: “I thought the setup was brilliant—very CDG in the way it made no suggestions. Instead, it invites the viewer to come inside and experience the garments for herself.”

    5REI1-superJumboAgaton Strom for The New York Times

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    Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art Of The In-Between at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Photo by Jemal

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    Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art Of The In-Between at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Photo by Jemal

    Selections from CDG’s Body Meets Dress 1997 collection pays homage to the ‘lumps and bumps’ of a human body  — even the ones that might sprout from the wrong places. Featuring dresses, skirts and jackets, made with vibrant, stretch gingham checks, stuffed with large goose-down-filled protuberances. It’s oddly beautiful.

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    Agaton Strom for The New York Times

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  • Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    Tomorrow Ever After is Israeli-American filmmaker Ela Thier’s second full-length feature (the first, 2012’s Foreign Letters, was inspired by her own immigration story). This smart, entertaining indie, about a historian from the year 2592 who is accidentally transported back to present-day New York City, mixes comedy and science fiction to tell a story that resonates deeply in these unsettled times. Unlike many time-travel movies, in which the future is a post-apocalyptic dystopia, Tomorrow Ever After features a protagonist, Shaina (played wryly by Thier herself), who comes from a much better era than the period known as The Great Despair (that’s us, folks!). She’s initially shocked by everything here, from litter to our isolation from each other. Through her eyes, we see ourselves and it’s not a pretty picture.

    We first see Shaina wandering the streets, wearing a long dress and pants ensemble that’s vaguely high-tech, but not enough to stand out in modern-day New York. She gapes at everything from heavy bike chains to cigarette butts and discarded fast-food cups. Spotting fellow humans at an outdoor café, she runs over and hugs one guy, happily introducing herself and asking what year it is. Of course he’s freaked out and she is repeatedly rebuffed when she hugs other strangers, asking for their help. Shaina tries to contact home on her “Implement,” a cool device that morphs from a small card into a tablet, and reports her shocking findings (“I’m looking at plastic and I’m not in a museum,” “Hugs are perceived as acts of aggression”). Accosted by a nervous mugger (Nabil Vinas), she agrees to accompany him to an ATM (whatever that is) and lets him use her card, which somehow works. “It’s for money!” she realizes with delight, having studied this outmoded concept of currency.

    Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    Milton the mugger, thinking that Shaina is a veritable jackpot (as well as a crackpot), reluctantly allows her to tag along home, but things get complicated with his suspicious girlfriend Imani (Ebbe Bassey), so he unloads her on a schizophrenic friend. The latter is the only one who both enjoys her hugs and believes her tale of a physics lab accident and resulting 600-year time trip. The rest of the film details Shaina’s misadventures as she tries to find a team of 21st-century physicists who might be able to repair her broken Implement, allowing her to return home. We also see the effect she has on Milton’s life and on others she comes in contact with.

    Though the theme of stranded time-traveler struggling to get home amid a hostile and disbelieving populace is familiar, Tomorrow Ever After offers a charmingly unique take. Its sharp yet whimsical tone is clearly the work of a singular mindset, namely Thier, who both wrote and directed the film, in addition to embodying its heroine. There are a few mildly disturbing scenes (Shaina manhandled in a bar and at Bellevue Hospital), but the film is generally good-natured and open-hearted.

    Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    Milton Kam, Courtesy of Thier Productions Inc.

    It’s fun watching Shaina discover and observe things she’s only ever read about: a laptop computer, drunkenness, advertising. It’s also illuminating to see her recoil from old-fangled things like packaged food, noting that it makes people sick (the average life span in 2592 is 160). Her observations, while humorous, serve to remind us yet again of how much we suffer both physically and psychically  in this data- and market-driven age. The film ends on an upbeat note, as dismay over the plight of 21st-century humanity gives way to the realization that things do get better. Tomorrow Ever After seems like a wish for the future of humankind, one that we can all share no matter how unlikely it may be.

    Tomorrow Ever After opens on Friday, May 5, at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th St., Manhattan.

    Marina Zogbi

  • Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    Nise: The Heart of Madness, directed by Roberto Berliner, tells the story of Dr. Nise da Silveira (Gloria Pires), a Brazilian psychiatrist who pioneered the treatment of schizophrenic patients with kindness and art therapy, resulting in both medical and artistic breakthroughs. Though a conventional film, Nise is fascinating and poignant. Not only is da Silveira a heroine well worth rooting for, but these outsider artists and their creative processes are portrayed with great respect. (And, unlike some depictions of psychiatric patients, the actors playing Nise’s charges seem believably afflicted.)

    The film opens in 1940s Rio de Janeiro. A small woman knocks repeatedly at a metal door unless it finally opens. This is a fitting introduction to da Silveira, who has come to work at the National Psychiatric Center, the only female doctor on the staff. In a meeting, lobotomy is discussed dispassionately as miracle cure, while a demonstration of a patient forced to undergo electroconvulsive treatment is looked upon equally casually by everyone but da Silveira, who can barely contain her horror. Refusing to take part in these conventional methods, she is relegated to supervising the Occupational Therapy Sector, previously run by a nurse and an orderly.

    Despite the fact that several of the hospital’s inmates have violent tendencies, Nise is compassionate and patient, unlike most of the staff, who treat them with cruelty and ridicule. Under her care, the previously filthy OC wing is cleaned and a group patients—most of whom are deeply entrenched in their own worlds–are led in. Rather than abuse those who act out, she observes and lets them be, repeatedly admonishing her hot-tempered orderly to do the same.

    Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    When sympathetic, art-loving staffer Amir (Felipe Rocha) suggests an art studio, da Silveiro agrees, noticing one patient who has been drawing on the wall with his own feces. (Berliner does not spare us off-putting behavior, all the better to appreciate da Silveira’s near-saintly forbearance.) It’s a long, slow process before many of the patients take to this new outlet. For them, the creative process is clearly very intense; Berliner shows how these poor souls, unable to express themselves conventionally, wrench out their thoughts and emotions onto canvas or into sculpture, through careful brushstrokes or energetic clay molding. Meanwhile, Nise’s husband has given her a book by Karl Jung and she begins applying the latter’s ideas about mysticism and the unconscious to interpretations of her charges’ creations. She writes to Jung about her experiment, enclosing photos of the paintings. Per the celebrated psychoanalyst, Nise uncovers her artists’ pasts and we learn what they are expressing in their artwork.

    Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    Courtesy of Outsider Pictures

    When the OCT puts on a show, major art critic Mario Pedrosa shows up, amazed by the work on display. He is convinced that the rest of the world needs to see this art. The hospital’s other doctors, however, are not as impressed. (Though the patients’ behavior has improved, they haven’t formally been “cured”). With every step forward (an encouraging Jung writes back), there’s a setback, such as the hospital’s callous response to the dogs Nise has brought to the center for patients to care for. Undeterred, the tenacious Nise is unwavering in her belief in her methods and support of the patients. Gradually, released from their minds, the previously silent artists begin to speak. One of them, formerly considered incurable, improves enough to go home.

    Championed by Pedrosa, the art is exhibited publicly in a show called Don’t Fear the Unconscious. Some of the artists under Nise’s care (including Carlos Pertuis and Emygdio de Barros) would go on to become highly regarded artists in Brazil.

    Nise: The Heart of Madness ends with footage of the actual patient-artists portrayed, and a video snippet of an interview with an elderly and spritely da Silveira. Though it is somewhat predictable in its good vs bad doctor dynamic and dialogue that is a tad obvious (“My instrument is a brush; yours is an icepick!”), this compassionate movie’s strengths outweigh any deficiencies.

    Nise: The Heart of Madness opens on Friday, April 28, at Village East Cinema, 181-189 Second Ave., Manhattan.

    Marina Zogbi