Early Saturday morning, I was alble to sit down with friend and long time Asian cinema aficionado Art Black. Well versed and extremely knowledgeable, we discuss the sometimes difficult process of programming for the convention, the state of the industry, and share some memories of the convention.
Cesar: I’m here with Art Black, he’s been programming the live action track at the Otakon Convention at Baltimore. This convention’s 20th anniversary and he’s been gracious enough to speak to me about the status of live action at the convention. So thank you again Art.
Art: My pleasure
C: We’ll just get right into it. How long have you been programming the live action track at Otakon?
A: I think it’s 13 years now at this point.
C: How did you get involved with the convention?
Art: It was kismet, it was fate, it was being at the right place at the right time. I was friends with Terry Chu, I’m still friends with Terry Chu, he’s the current and past con chair. At the time he was a staffer here and he and I happened to work together in our day jobs. We talked a lot about Asian films, he insisted his father was a dead ringer for Chow Yun-fat and he knew I was a big fan of Asian films, in particular Hong Kong films. Otakon had what they called a “Hong Kong” track, it was the live action track but was almost exclusively Hong Kong action films back then. There was already somebody programming it, but there were issues and they asked me about midyear to come in and help out. It worked out pretty well, I brought in different types of films, I enjoyed it and the next year I was solo and the rest is history.
C: Besides the convention and just being someone who loves Asian cinema, what other experience do you have concerning Asian film?
A: Well, I used to write about music. I had a fanzine back in the day when they were printing fanzines (the pre-blog era) and in the back of the zine I had a few short pages on film. I got to know Michael Weldon, I’m not sure if you know him, he published a highly influential film fanzine called Psychotronic, then put out a book called The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, which is a tremendous book, then he morphed that back into a magazine. When he did that he asked me to contribute a column on music. After a little while he suggested I switch the subject of the column over to film, which I did. And that led to all kinds of different things. So I did a lot of writing about film, about Asian film almost exclusively. I did a lot of traveling around Asia, met a bunch of filmmakers, directors, actors; behind the scenes people. In fact, twice I brought overseas guests to Otakon. In 2000, I think it was, I brought Simon Yam.
C: I remember, I was there.
A: Were you?
C: Yeah he signed a copy of (Full Contact)
A: He’s a charmer.
C: Yeah, I glad, he’s an actor that I’ve always enjoyed, and what he brought to the films, and I’m glad that in recent years he’s really blown up, he’s doing around 5 films a year these days.
C: And Ching Siu-tong from was here as well right? Well there are some things I know about that which we’ll get into a little bit later.
In deciding a playlist for Otakon, what types of considerations do you have on what gets shown or doesn’t get shown?
A: Okay, we were talking a few minutes ago about the fact that there’s so many things going on simultaneously here at Otakon. There are dozens of things going on at any one time. A lot of people take advantage of that by walking down the hallway, popping their head in, seeing what’s going on, and if it catches their interest, they’ll stay for a little while or sit down and watch the whole thing. If it doesn’t, they move on. With that in mind, things like quiet drama don’t really play so well.
C: I can understand that.
A: Typically I’ll show some type of genre flick. Action, martial arts, horror, comedy, science fiction, something with a visual catch to it. So if somebody pops their head in they’re more likely to go “Wow. Okay, this is something that interests me.”
C: I think that unknown factor certainly helps with attendance in these rooms. It hopefully gets the word out because over the years, you’ve had some pretty esoteric choices.
A: This is true. I like to provide a mix as much as possible. Real crowd pleasers, things that I know are going to appeal to the sensibilities of the “Otaku Generation.” And at the same time I like to throw in things that are kind of ringers, you know, things that people wouldn’t see otherwise. They may pop in their head and say “what the hell is this?.” I’ll show an Indonesian film that there’s just no way they’re going to see anywhere else.
C: Sure, unless it’s directed by a Scot.
C: Now, we’ve established that you’ve been doing this for 13 years. In clearing movies, how has that changed from the beginning to today?
In selecting your track, what kind of leeway do you have for your personal choices?
A: It’s entirely up to me.
C: How does that feel, being able to control a whole weekend’s worth of programming?
A: It’s one of the reason’s I’ve been doing it for 13 years. It’s rewarding, it’s fun to do. They (Otakon staff) know I have a deep knowledge of this, not just one specific aspect of live action but a wide range of Asian live action cinema and bring in things that wouldn’t happen otherwise. So they pretty much give me free rein.
C: If you program your absolute perfect playlist for the weekend, what films would be in it?
A: I would probably do more historic stuff. Typically, what I’m doing here for Otakon is I’ll stick a lot to recent releases. This year there’s a decent amount of historic stuff going on, there’s a couple of Seijun Suzuki films, there’s Goke, the Body Snatcher…
C: You’re playing Tokyo Drifter this weekend.
A: We played that yesterday and tonight it is Branded to Kill.
C: Did you get in contact with HVE to show those films?
A: Criterion, yeah. It’s funny because yeah, of course Criterion puts out spectacular discs.
A: They are top of the line and highly respected, but they are the first to jump in and support us. I give total props to Criterion, they are very very good about that.
C: Their reputation as film lovers as well as distributors is well known. Anyone who’d be reading this article would heartily agree with you.
A: I love those guys they are so supportive. When I contact them and say it’s time to get started on this, they’re immediately throwing titles around, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” and it’s great to have that kind of support.
C: Besides historically important films, what other types of cinema would you like to show?
A: I would probably show more Indian cinema. I love Indian films and I actually have great fondness for Telugu films. But in a setting like this, a three hour movie that is surreal, semi-musical, semi-serious, semi-everything doesn’t really play that well.
C: To be fully honest, Indian cinema is probably one of my black holes of my typical viewing. I probably only really get the chance to see 3 or 4 films a tear froom there, and they tend to be the big one, with the superstars in them.
A: Sure. The Telugu films in particular really intrigue me because they have, to me, some of the feel of classic vintage Hong Kong films. You know the old Hong Kong films, they were made in a rush and there was just this energy to them. These Telugu films have that energy to them, they have that movement to them, and I don’t necessarily just mean physical movement. Part of the appeal to those movies is the unpredictability of them. Certainly that’s why I got into Hong Kong films to begin with. I used to watch more American films until I realized I was watching the same movies over and over again. In Hong Kong films I could watch an hour of a movie and not be sure where the hell this thing was going or even what kind of movie it was. Is this a comedy? Is this a tragedy? Or both? You have the same type of aspect in the Telugu films. That’s one of the things I find very appealing about them.
C: From all the years you’ve been programming this track, what do you hope attendees get or have gotten out it?
A: Two things. One, I am doing this to expose people to films they wouldn’t see otherwise, that’s one major aspect. It’s very rewarding to see people leaving the screening pumped up about some new film they just saw. And two; help the companies that are distributing them, to sell copies. That’s the bottom line as far as distributors are concerned. We’re working hand in hand on this. I’m trying to bring people in to see things they wouldn’t see otherwise with the intention, ultimately, that they will want to spread the word and/or buy copies themselves. That’s what the distributors are giving me copies to do. It’s self-serving of course, but it is audience serving as well.
C: Yes. At the same time, it’s the only you can support these filmmakers. You’re talking about film industries who don’t have huge budgets like Hollywood so a bootleg copy, or not supporting a film financially hurts them so much more than these filmmakers and actors in the United States who get paid millions and millions of dollars.
A: There are a lot of companies putting out Asian films right now. Some of them are major, some of them put out only a few things. A company like Miramax, they are pushing it across the board. But there are a lot of little companies doing it on shoestring budgets as well. There are these one-man operations or putting out films, putting out a lot of anime and a very limited number of live action titles. If we don’t support them, they’re going to stop doing it. We want these films to be available in these pristine copies that they are releasing and the only way that’s going to happen is if people buy these movies and continue to support these companies.
C: This is going to be a bit of a wrap-up question. This year is Otakon’s 20th anniversary of course. Now while you’ve been involved with the convention, do you have any favorite memory?
A: My favorite memory is bringing Simon Yam here. It was such a joy, he is just a wonderful person. He is obviously a movie star, but he is a movie star for a reason. He’s got immense charisma, and you see it on screen and it radiates off him. He was really a pleasure. I’ll give you an example. I spent a lot of time in Hong Kong over the years and I met a lot of people. Walking down the street with Anthony Wong, an actor who was well known for playing bad guys, people would see him coming and cross the street to get out of his way. Now Simon Yam has done his share of bad guys. In fact, there was a certain point where he was more known for bad guys than good guys. But walking down the street with Simon Yam, even back then people swarmed towards him, everyone wanted to shake his hand and get to know him, he’s so well loved. At Otakon, he was a little bit of a fish out of water because it’s an anime convention and he was probably the first live action guest, I’m not sure, but among them certainly. But people recognized him and they would see him and say, “C-can I take your picture?” and he would say, “Only if I can take yours.” He had this cool little gold camera from he had been given as the spokesperson for one of the camera companies and he was snapping away at the costumes here, having a great time[one_half]
C: Do you have any other plans to have any other live action guests?
A: Things went so well with Simon Yam. There are always little glitches of course, little minor things, but, he himself was so easy to work with that if there was a problem, he’d be like “Don’t worry about it, move on” and everything felt great despite the glitches. A couple years later I brought in Ching Siu Tong and nothing went right. There were problems from the get-go, starting with communication issues. He speaks very little English, he’s a Cantonese speaker and he was picked up at the airport, not by me but by someone from the convention and I don’t know what happened, but they didn’t speak Cantonese. It set a bad tone for the convention and it only got worse. There was also a major miscalculation on my part because people could recognize Simon Yam just walking down the hallway, but nobody recognizes Ching Siu Tong.
C: He has a couple on screen appearances but he’s a behind the camera guy.
A: And those onscreen appearances are in films that dedicated Hong Kong film fans are going to see, not your typical Otakon audience. So he didn’t look familiar, the name wasn’t familiar, it was the wrong guest and that was entirely on me. I thought I would be able to convey to people the significance of this filmmaker and it just didn’t translate. That was a large part of the problem. He was uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable, everyone was uncomfortable, it just didn’t work out. I kind of backed out of bringing live action people from that point on. It’s not impossible that it would happen again. This year, for the first time, I worked with a live performer that was Tatsuya Nakatani, you met him downstairs. It was not something I’d done before, but again it was not something people were going to see elsewhere, people weren’t going to have a chance to experience otherwise. He’s done a couple of similar performances, but not around here and not typically for this audience. That went very well; he’s a pleasant guy, very easy to work with, a professional, and things went very smoothly. I don’t know, I haven’t written off the possibility of getting another guest but it got kind of back burnered after that earlier experience.
C: If you would bring anyone else, those would be the people I would be most excited about personally.
I guess that wraps things up, I want to thank Art here for taking the time to sit with me and answer a few of my questions.
A: My pleasure, this was great.
C: For all you people, support your live action films if you take anything away from this, it’s all about showing you love these films and supporting the filmmakers and the companies willing to bring them out.