E^st, West, a movement through an album and a film

East, West, through song and film


Welcome to The Culture Wrap! Our Friday feature edited by Jessie Tu, that shares her pick of things to read, hear and watch – just in time for the weekend.

What to watch:
The Farewell (Dir. Lulu Wang, 2019)
Amazon Prime

The over-extended hours of domestic confinement in the last few months means we’ve all had time to re-watch some of our favourite shows and movies. For me, I took two hours off this week to re-visit a film I’d seen almost exactly a year ago at Dendy Newtown with several friends, at the Sydney premiere where the director made an appearance.

Lulu Wang is one of a handful of female directors working in Hollywood, and one of the scarcer females of colour in a profession that’s still chiefly dominated by men. She was a classically trained pianist before pursing a career in filmmaking after watching Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary in her early 20s. She wrote and directed several short films, began her own production company and in 2016, wrote and narrated a story for the radio program This American Life about her family’s decision not to tell the family matriarch (her grandmother) about her illness. East versus West.

In the East, you don’t share your grief with the people around you to save them from the hurt and burden of messy realities. In the West, you’re encouraged to talk about everything; open up so that people can share in that load, that burden. 

I remember watching the trailer for “The Farewell” before the premiere and wanting to cry because I saw my own dizzying struggles at trying to be an Australian while negotiating my identity as Taiwanese; and I finally saw it in this heroine, played by the infinitely charming Awkwafina. But here’s the thing that surprised me most; after watching the film with my friends, several who are non-Asian, I was surprised by how the film had touched them and reminded them of their family, and their stories of migration and loss.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film when Billy, our heroine, leaves in a taxi, and the camera follows Billy’s perspective as, from the back of the taxi, her grandmother stands on the street, waving, dissolving into a small figure. In the cinema, I remember struggling to suppress a cyclopean howl. I wanted to let it out. But I didn’t. And neither did my friends, sitting either side of me, their shoulders, ricocheting up and down, up and down. They too, were consumed by this grief, and this joy; of suddenly, finally, seeing our stories, our families, our language; up on the big screen.

Before you sit down to watch this film, tuck a hand-towel between your palms. Or a large box of triple ply soft tissues.

What to hear: 
E^ST – I’m Doing It

Each night, I run through the underpass upon which MacDonaldtown Station opens out, passing rows of over-sized posters advertising the latest iteration of Star-Wars merchandise, Amazon series, or album release. This past week, I’ve seen a poster for Cafe Recovery Project, Kanye West’s DONDA, and then something that made me stop: a triple-set row of a woman on her back, reverse plow, with checkered yellow and white pants, yellow socks, yellow Adidas, half-swallowed by a blowup zebra. And the name of the artist, “East” , with the A replaced by a caret (^).

I switched my phone on a pulled out her latest album “I’m Doing It” on Spotify, and then had it playing over the next three days. I don’t follow musicians the way I follow authors, so I let chance determine the soundtrack to my life. And my repertoire of albums is distressingly low compared to films, books, and plays.

But I took notice of E^AST because I remember sending her a heart-felt fan letter six years ago, when I heard her song “OLD AGE” on Triple J . When you hear the lines “I’m living in the past / cause the future has no appeal/ I’d die of old age if I could ” sung by a 15-year old teenager, you take notice. I felt the pores on my arms expand and my nerves spark in an electrifying pulse. You know a good song when you hear it. 

I’M DOING IT is her first full length album, a 13-piece sonic itinerary through the distinctive, peculiar juncture of young adulthood — E^ST is just 22 years old. What does she sing about? What does any 22-year old sing about? Love, loss, discovery.

The opening track “Fit For Company” – scratches to life with an orchestra tuning itself on a concert A; then a melodious, dreamy guitar riff; “You’re in my brain / Like it’s your domain / You shut my doors and I don’t get friends here anymore.” 

“Maybe It’s Me” is a refreshing take on the volatility of the pursuit of romantic relationships – where she sings “Maybe it’s me / I’m not unlucky / ‘Cause maybe it’s just me.”

Favourite tracks include “Fresh out of Love”, “I’m Not Funny Anymore”, and “Get Through” which feature thick, tender piano chords and puts one’s disposition into a sad, melancholic reflection. Some songs, like “No One with You” feels rather Taylor Swiftequse circa 2010 – joyous, boppy and full of youthful energy. “I Wanna Be Here” slammed me back to 2003, where Avril Lavigne sang with an almost identical melodic riff in her song “I don’t give.”

Life as a 22-year old is perilous, daunting maybe, but it’s also fun. And the best things are life are temporary. So don’t take things too seriously. This artist knows this. 

Nice White Parents, NYTimes Podcasts 

The public school system in America is really, really complicated. Decades of school reform initiatives have been tainted by systemic inequality, racism and complex issues of disparities in urban education. What’s wrong with white liberalism? Hm..seems there’s quite a lot.

This podcast has a thesis; that white parents are the most powerful force shaping public schools. The five-part series dives into the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Cobble Hill, a northwestern portion of this NYC borough that’s been gentrified in the last few decades. This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt hosts the show and interviews parents of one public school, sprinkling her own thoughts about the dilemmas she faced in trying to choose a school for her young child.

Joffe-Walt has reported on education and school segregation for the NPR since 2009, and examines the complex power of whiteness when it comes to the education system in the States. This is a very enlightening series.

What to read: 
Revenge – Murder in Three Parts
S.L Lim

Rarely do I pick up a novel by an author whose name I am unfamiliar and find myself arrested by the prose, the language, the sentences on the page. From the first few pages of S.L Lim’s latest book, I felt solid, anchored, fortified by a writer who knows what she’s doing. Immediately, we’re thrust into the private miseries of a traditional family in South East Asia, where the daughter, our heroine, Yannie, acquiesces to the physical and physic abuse perpetrated by her family; her brother hits her, her mother tells her she’s useless.

The first fifty pages binds the reader into a barrel of visceral, unpalatable griefs. But this is exactly why I kept reading. I felt it all, through Lim’s sharp, careful descriptions and judicious choice of words. The story’s pace is mildly disrupted by events that see our heroine travel to Sydney; but here, the narrative takes a turn. I’m ten pages till the end, and slowing down my pace, because I don’t want this experience to end. Genuinely good, sharp, thoughtful writing is so rare these days. This is an unmissable novel, for its scrupulous prose, rigorous character studies, and a few lacerating moments.

I hadn’t lost my breath reading a scene from a novel in a very long time, and there is one scene in this book where I literally stopped breathing.

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