Asia House Film Festival Preview: Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching Movie Still
   This week was a particularly galling one for me as a Bradfordian, a movie lover and a supporter of all things cultural.

   A news report - which began with the announcement of my beloved National Media Museum voluntarily surrendering at least 400'000 historic photographs to a London-based institution (one without a specific remit to care for such treasures) - soon spiraled into a tsunami of further upsetting developments.

   The former National Museum of Film, Photography and Television, we learnt, was potentially going to be re-branded with the new name of Science Museum North - an act of cultural vandalism and intellectual philistinism which highlighted the low regard the institution was held in by a board of trustees who largely considered it beneath them to visit "the regions".

   On a personal note, however, the most discouraging and disheartening acquiescence of the Media Museum came with the acknowledgement that Bradford International Film Festival had officially folded after what had initially been labelled as a year's sabbatical. As a local lad, one who had the pleasure of working on the final BIFF and discovering the joys of cinema at the festival for over a decade as an attendee, this was a cruel blow.

   Thankfully, however, the UK is currently in a golden period for film and festival programming - there are numerous institutions and individuals across the land who understand the cultural, educational, community and even commercial value in curating events around the moving image. Asia House are one great example of this.

    This year's Asia House Film Festival, show-casing a plethora of pan-Asian delights, shines spotlights on movies, and cultures we may otherwise never discover - this is invaluable. These films, however, don't just ask us to peer outwards, but to look inwards too. Whilst the pastoral opening gala movie Stranger (Zhat) confronted us with questions on what it is to be human, to be civilised, Seoul Searching - a John Hughes-esque comedy directed by Benson Lee - ponders the very nature of identity. As with all great teen films this is a movie about belonging, about coming to understand and accept one's self, and one which is smartly told as both a knockabout comedy and as a transnational meditation.

   Seoul Searching is partially based on a very true series of events. During the 1980s, the South Korean government created a summer camp programme for foreign born, ethnic Korean teenagers to return to the "motherland" in order to learn more about the nation's culture, heritage and Korean identity; perhaps they can discover a thing or two about themselves too over their stay? The initiative, we learn, was abandoned after two years due to the rowdiness and raucousness of the incoming teens.

   We meet the first camp class during the course of the film - the characters includes a straight-laced Berliner, a Madonna copycat, a racist military kid, a swaggering rebel who names himself after Sid Vicious and a Mexican womaniser. As we witness the group of teens interact with each other, loosening their social shyness with the help of Korean intoxicant soju, we begin to empathise both with the government who will halt the summer camp and, crucially, with each of the adolescents who populate the narrative. They may have been born all over the globe but the camp attendees are, ultimately, united by the hopes, fears and insecurities we all have as teens - their circumstances may be specific but their concerns are universal. Who hasn't struggled to express their romantic desires coherently during our younger years? Who hasn't done something embarrassing we may come to regret?

   Whilst the film may, superficially, initially appear to be not much more than an (admittedly highly enjoyable) culture-clash comedy in which decadent Westernised youths collide with their more conservative Korean seniors, Seoul Searching soon presents itself to be an incredibly smart and nuanced study of globalisation. That the film may may appear to be something of a simulacrum of American cinema (recalling fare such as Meatballs) is an intentional decision - this is a movie which highlights how ideas, culture, and even love, flow freely ignoring the constraints of nation-states' borders. As the youth learn more about their forefathers, and the Koreans who tend them begin to understand more about the wider world, the differences and similarities between the two cultures are highlighted and the two groups learn to co-exist in harmony. This is fitting for a hybrid film which appropriates American genre conventions whilst filling them with localised Korean concerns and issues - toxic masculinity, physical abuse and alcoholic dependency are recurring tropes in South Korean cinema and represented here too.

   During the early 1990s, Korean auteur Im Kwon-taek made his masterpiece Seopyeonje - an atmospheric movie about a traditional folk music form known as pansori. To the surprise of many, the movie became an unexpected smash and broke all South Korean cinema records. The reason why, scholars ultimately concluded, is that people like to discover themselves on-screen - this was a hyper-local production rooted in the Korean emotion of Han and dealing very much with Korean suffering. Yet, surprisingly, Seoul Searching fulfills a similar role for audiences as Im's film but does so in a completely different formal manner - here, American pop music replaces the melancholic vocalising of pansori, and questions of the Korean identity are addressed in context to their place in a globalised world rather than in isolation.

   The more one knows about Korean culture and history, the more one will understand and appreciate many of the references and occurrences within Seoul Searching - Claus the studious German-Korean, for example, draws parallels between his homeland's division with that of Korea's separation into two distinct countries. However, such knowledge is not a pre-requisite to enjoy a sweet coming-of-age feature - anybody who has ever faced the insecurity of teenage years will recognise themselves on-screen.


Official Coverage Credit: ASIA HOUSE FILM FESTIVAL takes place from 22 February to 5 March at London venues - 

New Balance ML2016 Tokyo Design

New Balance ML2016 Sneakers
   After recently writing about the launch of New Balance's inspired, limited edition 998 Made In The USA kicks, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to review another of the brand's premium 2016 trainers. As in the case of the former range, these are sleek, stylish, and a victory of modern design.

   The ML2016 series, as they have been dubbed, have been released as part of New Balance's 110th anniversary. Fittingly, and as with the best commemorative products, these are shoes which manage to look back into history whilst simultaneously peering into the future. The classic materials provide a retro edge, whilst a contemporary minimalist design - as best represented by the perforated "N" logo - gives the footwear a forward-thinking aesthetic too.

New Balance Buffed Brown Heels

   The special-edition sneakers, created by New Balance's Tokyo Design Studio, also include one of the brand's true innovations - the "Abzorb" sole. Anyone who has ever sported a pair of the footwear giant's trademark trainers will agree that the cushioning provided through a unique blend of rubber and foam creates an unparalleled level of comfort. This is as true as ever with the ML2016 Buffed Brown sneakers which illustrate this post - walking in these feels like walking on pillows (It should be noted that this same design is also available in black and grey).

   One of the many reasons these sneaks represent an essential Spring/Summer 2016 purchase, however, comes from the sheer versatility they provide to a man's wardrobe. Whilst obviously the ML2016s can be utilised as part of an athleisure composition, this writer humbly suggests that fulfilling the real potential of the shoe comes from their utilisation as part of a more smart-casual ensemble. Using the shoes as a sartorial substitute for more formal choices - such as brogues or loafers - can enliven any outfit, replacing sobriety with pizzazz and energy. Indeed, I would suggest that even with the adoption of neutral colours for the rest of one's outfit, the tonal life which these trainers provide is undeniable.

SS2016 Trainers from New Balance

   For any dapper gentleman looking to add contemporary twists and casual elegance to their everyday appearance, I simply cannot recommend the ML2016s enough. Whist there is a propensity for many a young man to sacrifice style for comfort - or, indeed, on rare occasions vice versa - these New Balance kicks mean that one does not have to make such tough decisions any more. The durability traditionally associated with the brand's footwear, and the aforementioned comfort factor, make them a perfect choice of shoe to adorn our feet in our day-to-day lives.

   New Balance's full catalogue can be browsed here - this writer would suggest that you put aside a full afternoon to give them a browse because, even more so than the trainers highlighted and mentioned in this post, the brand have an incredible collection of shoes to consider adding to your wardrobe. Be sure to follow them on Twitter here and Facebook here.

Male Blogger OOTD SS2016

Stranger (Zhat) Film Review

   The thrill of discovering the new is one of the many attractive and essential reasons to attend international film festivals - as passionate as any one person can be about the medium, it is simply impossible to know everything about the cinema, past and present, of each country on Earth.

   Thankfully, then, attending a well-curated movie marathon can open up our eyes to corners of the globe we've never peered into before: this is the case with the 2016 iteration of the Asia House Film Festival. This year, we are introduced to the unheralded cinematic terrains of Kazakhstan and to the film-maker Yermeck Tursunov - two of the director's works are presented during this festival's run.

   Stranger (Zhat), the festival's opening film, is a startling and vivid movie which show-cases the sprawling, vast expanses of the director's homeland. The radiant, sumptuous cinematography enchants us and it is no surprise to read of the multiple comparisons made between this feature and Akira Kurosawa's largely forgotten, Soviet-filmed 1975 masterpiece Dersu Uzala.  Both titles capture a real and sensational feel of the Eastern European wilderness; the lush scenery and the invisible elements of nature are as central to each film as their characters and plots. Both deal, too, with man's relationships with the wild and our place within it.

   Tursunov's tale begins in the Kazakhstan of the 1930s - the country, in its darkest hour, is in the midst of Russian purges which makes dissidents disappear into the night. Ilyas (Yerzhan Nurymbet) witnesses his father taken by Russian authorities and, armed with little more than paternal advice and a small blade, runs away to the hills and mountains to raise himself. The wolves that provide him company are surely no less beastly than the monsters who have ripped apart his family?

   Throughout the years Ilyas has little contact with society - he returns to civilisation to trade animal furs for items he cannot create or find in the wild. We do suspect, however, that a less pragmatic reason may govern his re-appearances in society too; his returns see him continually meet a lady we suspect he holds a torch for. Just because Ilyas lives in the wild doesn't make him any less human - in his heart, he still desires companionship, comfort and love. Equally, however, Tursunov shows us through the barbaric and bureaucratic implementation of communism, that people who live in "civilisation" aren't always civilised either.

   Stranger is a pastoral meditation on what it is to be human and how our humanity comes to be shaped by events we cannot control. This epic, set over the course of one lifetime which runs parallel with Stalin's brutal rule of the USSR, allegorically addresses a number of profound socio-political and philosophical issues and provides an entry point to a period of history which may have remained unknowable to many - this is invaluable cinema.

   "Art," one of the characters intones "is a deception that helps us comprehend the truth of life". With its stunning aesthetics, then, Stranger is one magnificent and beautiful deception filled with ugly truths.

   Official Coverage Credit: ASIA HOUSE FILM FESTIVAL takes place from 22 February to 5 March at London venues

New Generation Wrestling Live in Pudsey

Bubblegum NGW wrestler
   There is an old wrestling proverb, paraphrased from Thomas Aquinas' meditation on religious faith, which truly captures the essence of the art-form:

"For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not understand, no explanation will suffice."

   I fit clearly into the former category and nearly always have: I'm an unrelenting believer in this unique blend of pantomime, athletics, morality plays, meta-textual drama and soap opera. Since I was a young child I have been captivated by the larger-than-life characters who command the squared circle - I marveled at giants with fists the size of bowling balls dueling against gymnastic underdogs courageously propelling their bodies through the air with the grace of a gymnast but the impact of a wrecking ball. These were comic book characters brought to life and Hulk Hogan was the greatest hero of them all. To me, and countless other Hulkamaniacs across the word, he still is.

   So, when I heard British grappling league New Generation Wrestling were coming to my neck of the woods (Pudsey Civic Hall), there was no way I could possibly turn down the opportunity to attend the event. Tickets were booked instantly and all that was left was to wait impatiently for January 30th to come.

El Ligero NGW 2016

   To those who still believe professional wrestling to be populated with barely mobile giants such as the fondly remembered Big Daddy or Giant Haystacks, NGW would come as something of a shock. Their roster, consisting of the creme-de-la-creme of British talent, is largely filled with true athletes whose technical acumen, fitness and toning is astonishing. It is little wonder that El Ligero, the charismatic luchador, and Bubblegum, the NGW GenX champion, are held as amongst the most talented performers in the entire industry by many in the know.

   The show, which consisted of seven matches plus an intermission, impressed from top to bottom and on every conceivable level. Whilst NGW broadcasts weekly on free-view and at BritishWrestling.TV,  the evening made no assumptions that we'd be up to speed on the story-lines, who was feuding who or why - before each bout, then, large screens would present the lively audience with recaps of on-going story-lines and present context to the matches we were about to witness. This was a neat touch and a testament to the phenomenal story-telling the promotion featured throughout the night.

   The evening begun with the arrogant and brash Bubblegum defending his GenX title against the heroic Matt Myers. The stipulation of the fight was that a winner must be crowned within a ten-minute time limit put in place to encourage the competitors to seek a quick victory, taking risks they otherwise may not. Of course, despite his cockiness, Bubblegum showed a cowardly streak: every time Myers got the upper hand, the reigning champion would bale to ring-side to collect his thoughts and breath. The tactic, to the crowd's dismay, proved successful.

   As Myers finally appeared to vanquish his foe, the referee began his three-count which was interrupted by a bell signalling the time limit had expired. A draw signified that Bubblegum would keep his title. Myers, of course, was despondent, begging and pleading for a further five minutes to give the bout a conclusive victor. Win, lose or draw, he said, he was willing to put a large amount of his own money on the line for nothing more than the opportunity to win the title. These were the actions of a hero we could truly root for. Sadly, before Bubblegum could give an answer, Lionheart - a cold, methodical heel from Ayr - jumped Myers from behind and laid him out with one devastating finisher after the next. This calculated ruthlessness foreshadowed the nights main event rather pleasingly.

   As Bubblegum vs Myers demonstrated, NGW is an incredibly well-booked promotion which gives us reason to care for each match and to become emotionally invested in the action which unfolds before us. Over the course of the evening we met an array of well-rounded characters who elicited real enthusiastic and cathartic reactions from the crowd. Stixx, the salt-of-the-earth warrior, took on a brace of corporate-chosen villians; mod "Flash" Morgan Webster (hailing, brilliantly, from "A Town Called Malice") fought The Wild Boar; the gargantuan Rampage Brown, aided even further by an outside entourage, took on the intense Zack Gibson.

   Yet, the twin peaks of the night consisted of the tag team bout (pitting El Ligero and Liam Slater against Dara Diablo and "The Righteous One" Joseph Connors) and the title-match main event (which saw reigning champion Nathan Cruz retain over the menacingly mechanical Lionheart). Whilst Cruz had the audience in the palm of his hand with his explosive offence and a winning smile, Lionheart perhaps stood out as the greatest performer on the card. Boasting a powerful and ominous presence, Lionheart wasted not a single movement, radiating a threatening aura even in the stillest of moments.

   In an evening of high-flying and crowd pleasing spots,  however, one of the stand-out moments featured Liam Slater sacrificing victory to protect his brother (celebrating his 16th birthday in the front row) from his menacing foes. El Ligero appeared angered upon realising what had occurred at the match's conclusion; however our masked superstar soon came to the conclusion that sometimes there are more important things in life than wrestling. In this one particular instance they may have been correct but, on this night which made me feel young and un-jaded once more, there's not much which can top it.

El Ligero and Me

Shooters Sports Bar's Superbowl Packages

   There's nothing quite like the atmosphere one experiences when watching a sporting fixture communally. The fears, the hopes and dreams too, of each person in the crowd becomes amplified as we cheer on our heroes and rail against the opposition and their no doubt nefarious ways. This is especially true of the "big events" - a raucous crowd does nothing but multiply the excitement one experiences when watching the FA Cup final, Wrestlemania or the upcoming Superbowl.

   Shooters Sports Bar in Leeds is a venue which understands this well. Its a venue which has clearly been created specifically to enhance the sporting moments which will go down in history, the moments you'll always remember as the years pass. The feng-shui of the layout ensures there's no such thing as a bad seat anywhere in the house as large screens are placed all around meaning its almost impossible not to be sucked into the action as it unfolds. This is a winning start.

   However, any fan of any sport will tell you that the two main things, aside from good company, that are truly necessary for an event are a selection of ice cold beers and food to sustain you through the highs and lows of the event - particularly if, as in the case of American sports, staying up late into the following morning is required. The bar has both in spades.

   With the Superbowl just around the corner - the Carolina Panthers are set to take on the Denver Broncos on Sunday 7 February - it would be remiss to not look at some of the special VIP Packages available at Shooters.

   To coincide with the biggest events in the sporting calendar, it is possible to book various options to secure not only a VIP seat in front of a big screen but dedicated table service including food: the only thing one would have to worry about is which team is winning.

   The packages, which start at £10, include a selection of meal choices - ranging from American classics such as Hot Dogs and Burgers up to full food platters - and, of course, beverages to complement them too. So, for example, the £20 Gold package includes VIP seating, a free shot, an American food platter, two bottles of Budweiser and dedicated table service too. This, we can agree, is incredible value.

   The service at Shooters is fantastic - convivial, friendly, informed - and the food itself is spot on. Whilst, on previous occasions, I've been content to stick with humble bar snacks including crisps to fuel my though-the-night sports endeavours, I can safely say this won't be the case again. I've got nothing against Walkers Cheese & Onion crisps, for example, but they simply don't contend with the sumptuous chicken wings, wedges and dips that constitute Shooters' food platter. Their Hot Dogs too, served with a side of fries, represent a fine gastronomical choice of snack and, whilst the bar is well stocked with an array of fine beers, complementing my meal with a Coors Light seemed fully in keeping with the American theme.

   Whilst I've always subscribed to the theory that the only way to watch sport is live and communally, I think I'll need to add "with a food platter" to my criteria - and I can think of nowhere which does this as well as Shooters.

    Aside from live broadcasts of the big sporting events, Shooters also hosts a number of fun evenings including free pool nights and, a must for all darts fans, an evening with Eric Bristow (taking place on February 4th).

   To keep abreast of all the latest evenings, offers and events at Shooters, be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter. For readers outside of the Leeds district, please note that Shooters has venues across the country - be sure to swing by if you find yourself in Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff too.

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