#2124 | Disney Pixar’s Coco and The Pragmatics of Chasing your dream

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There are some spoilers in this post, so be warned!

We live in an interesting time – where we are both told to follow our dreams and forge our own paths, yet to also be realistic and unselfish with what we want. The technologies of today, in particular, have opened up so many totally new opportunities that for now: the unknown before us is unknown to anyone, not just to us. Thus — hope is mixed, often, with fear, caution, and concern.

So how do you balance dreams and expectations (external, internal) without one vilifying the other?

This is the question I think the making of Coco aims to pose, and it’s one that’s especially relevant to younger audiences. Now that the movie has been out for some time, I feel like I can finally talk about some of the more intricate details of the film for those of you who’ve caught it (and for those who HAVENT, spoilers ahead, please note!! You can read my non-spoiler commentary on Coco here: Coco is the most important animated film this year)

Coco’s elevator pitch is about a boy who chases his dream of being a musician despite intense family objection, and finds himself stuck in the land of the dead as a result. When you watch the film, you realise that, as with real life, nothing is quite as one-dimensional as it seems. The protagonist, Miguel Rivera, while cute, is not a blameless hero – it’s quite clear that he’s in this pickle because he stole a dead musician’s guitar (terrible behaviour), and his determination to achieve his dream leads him to lash out and hurt his family (at some point, he shouts: I don’t want to be part of this family, instantly and simultaneously breaking the hearts of three generations of the Rivera family. This is inexcusable behaviour: it is an unacceptable way to talk to one’s aunties, I would have grounded him if he’d been my son).

The challenges he has to surmount on his journey are not of villainous nature – his family, having been burned before by how an overwhelming desire for fame can hurt your loved ones (great great grandfather abandoned the family because he wanted to be a famous musician), overreacts and cuts music off from their family line completely, repressing Miguel and probably pressure-cookering him into rebelling. But the locus of their objection originates from a place of love and concern – it’s obvious that they honestly think they’re doing what’s best for him and the family, and they’re not trying to deliberately or spitefully deny him his life passion. It’s more likely that they assume it’s a phase he’ll grow out of, and being 12, he doesn’t exactly have the life experience nor maturity to argue that it’s not a phase (again: he stole a dead man’s guitar). So while their execution may not be right, their hearts are in the right place.

Here we are caught between two situations. 1. You have dreams and ambition – this is good. 2. You have family who cares for you – this is also good. These two things don’t play well together. How does one reconcile the two effectively while recognising that neither are inherently wrong?

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Miguel with his family

This hits home for many of us. Coco may be fiction, but this scenario is not. It’s actually one of the most common situations faced by anyone in non-conventional industries, and this struggle is something that anyone going into a creative field will probably have to deal with at some point.

Whilst I was in Pixar’s Emeryville campus on a press junket for Coco’s country day last month, I got the chance to sit down with and interview the filmmakers – director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K Anderson. One of the questions I asked them was:

As filmmakers and people in arts related industries (read: not the conventional science/doctor/lawyer route), how did they see their own journeys reflected in Miguel’s path, and what challenges did they meet in their career from their families?

Speaking to them, I realised that it was a mixed bag – some people within Pixar had supportive families, some had families who objected strongly. Unkrich and Molina were lucky enough to have had strong family support, but they worked with a lot of people within their team who had families objecting when they went into the arts. It’s not always clear how the arts can translate to practical utility, and when families are unsupportive, that does create a huge internal struggle which the filmmakers later tapped on in the writing of Coco. Molina mentioned in particular a writer on the Coco team who’s entire family had been in medicine and expected him to do the same, and the fact that his personal passion totally conflicted with his family’s expectations was very painful for the writer. All these experiences went into the writing of Coco. They wanted Miguel’s struggle not to seem cartoony, with a struggle derived from real human emotion, and they thought (rightly) that this would be something many people all over the world could relate to.

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With the Coco creators: director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K Anderson

Being some of the most iconic names in Pixar, I look at Unkrich and co and think: why wouldn’t any family support these obviously talented artists? Look at how they’ve made it. They’re legends in the scene. But it takes a moment to realise that you dont become a legend the minute you choose your major in school – and certainly not at the age of 12, ala Coco’s Miguel. They had no way of knowing that one day they’d go on to create some of the most unparalleled animated successes like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and so for a long time, the process of getting there meant operating as if on a tightrope: moving forward with intense concentration, step by step, with hope and a whole lot of fear. It makes sense that they’d face well meaning familial concern along the way, and although hard work is no guarantee of your dreams one day coming true, I think theres comfort to be found in the knowledge that the most successful of artists once grappled with the same concerns too.

In the Singaporean context, I think where this lands us is ultimately understanding that there is no easy answer or path, but also that this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Our society is extremely results oriented and conservative, and so the kind of parental / familial/ external concern that any young person faces when going into non conventional industries will inevitably be overwhelming. That shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your interests, but perhaps recognising these external concerns as well meaning can act as a checking mechanism to better prepare you for the path you’re about to take on. Everyone who’s ever achieved their childhood dreams will tell you that it wasn’t smooth sailing and probably still isn’t – achieving your goal also requires consistent hard work to maintain it, and this was echoed when I spoke to Audrey Wong, the first ever Singaporean to work at Pixar Studios. She’s the Simulation Technical Lead for Pixar, and she’s living her dream, yes, but she’s quick to clarify – it’s a lot of hard work.

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Audrey Wong – the first singaporean to ever work in Pixar. She moved across the world for this job, and currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and kids. When I asked her what movies she’s worked on, she laughed and asked if she could tell me what movies she *hadn’t* worked on – it’d be easier, she said.

I do think that knowing what chasing your dream will realistically cost you (in terms of time, money, and work) is a good thing, because taking stock of the reality of the situation will help you discern between it being a dream and it being a daydream. Eg. If you’re not willing to humble yourself and pay for acting classes after school and during your holidays instead of going out to play.. then you probably just wanna be famous, not be an actor? I’m just saying. And if after taking stock of the pragmatic realities of the situation, you are still determined to pursue your ambitions, this will also focus your motivation and drive to make it work rather than let your dream just float before you like some airy castle in the sky.

As the movie concludes, Miguel does follow his dream – but the choice is made knowing what the dream can cost him/his family when taken to unhealthy levels (ala his absent great grandfather), and so it is a much more informed choice, and one that is therefore more meaningful and weighted. After decades of depicting the traditionally single track follow-your-dreams route (Zootopia gravitates around a bunny that has ambitions of being a cop, Moana dreams of leaving her coconut-obsessed island, and Cinderella’s soundtrack tells you that A DREAM IS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES, so you know, follow either your dreams or your heart and you’re good to go), Coco acknowledging and cautioning viewers against blindly following their dreams is honestly, great.

At the end of the day, in Pixar’s movement towards telling more and more human and complex stories, the ones who truly win are the young viewers, the very same ones who are probably fast approaching one of the many cross junctions of life’s major decisions. In an era where the bulk of Hollywood’s stories spin stereotypical tales of love, romance, and epic adventure, I really think it’s incredibly valuable that Pixar is fleshing out the other side of the story and telling you instead to tread carefully and softly on your dreams (ala Yeats). Pixar’s story of chasing dreams while showing how they are vulnerable at the same time makes these dreams ever more real, with real life consequences, instead of being some lofty immovable ideal. Because in reality, people struggle with their dreams. Some days the dreams are more real than others. Some days these dreams are vulnerable and susceptible to abandonment. Some days the dreams are almost within grasp. Pixar’s Coco acknowledges all this and more, and that, to me, is one of the most precious things about Coco.

Coco is now showing in theatres

x
Jem

#2122 | Thanksgiving 2017 – My BB Love

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My BB Love – Original short film for Laneige Singapore
Executive Producer: Jemimah Wei
Director: Martin Hong
Producer: Liu Long Hao
Director of Photography: K Hanshen Sudderiddin
Production Studio: Savour.Love

Hey guys,

So this post is way overdue. In May this year I begun pre-production for the film that would finally end up to be Laneige’s My BB Love, and we filmed the entire thing (29 shots) over the course of a very long day in end-July. The conceptualisation of the entire campaign started a year before, and we only truly wrapped press for the film in mid-September. It’s been a long journey, is what I am saying.

I knew I wanted to document the process over on my blog, but I was severely burnt out in September and October (I was finishing up my Masters thesis at the same time, and starting work on another film project that’s coming out end Nov), and it felt like I had so much I wanted to say, so many things to be grateful for, that to even begin on the post for My BB Love seemed such a mammoth task. Excuses aside, that’s kind of why I hadn’t spoken about the film extensively till now. But thanksgiving 2017 seems a good place to start. 🙂

I dont think I’ve ever wanted anything as badly as for this film to work. I certainly haven’t embarked on anything as large scale in my life, and I think I lived in a constant state of paranoia for months because I was afraid I would screw things up or people would take the film the wrong way. The film is, make no mistake, a passion project from start to finish. It was not a campaign that came with a brief, or anything remotely like that. There was a certain story I knew I wanted to tell, but for a long time it was just festering at the back of my head, waiting for the right moment to mature. When I met Trishna last year, everything kind of clicked into place. Thus began almost a year of writing, rewriting, focus groups, proposals, pitching, and about five zillion reality checks.

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Laneige accepted the pitch in the first week of June, and that is where my first point of thanks comes in. I’ve been working with Laneige as their social media ambassador for the last two years (coincidentally, my first project with them was a video project for the BB Cushion as well), and they have always trusted me to bring my own creative concept to the table instead of policing the content I create for them with an iron fist. Often, this just means collaborating on individual instagram postings, in which case the amount of variation I can bring is probably pretty limited. Still, our relationship has always been mutually trusting, which I appreciate greatly, and which is what makes them one of my favourite long term clients.

But even then, I had all my fingers crossed when I went to them with my pitch and asked them to let me take over their entire marketing campaign efforts for mid-2017. Even in retrospect I think it was incredibly brave for them to have put their faith in someone who is not from the brand, and for that I really have to thank the team – Sherin, Yifang, Shiying, and Tina, with mega special thanks to Sherin who was heavily pregnant at the time but still put in an INCREDIBLE amount of effort into making this project a reality.

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My A team: Tina, Sherin, Yi Fang, Shi ying

I am so, so, so grateful to them for trusting me with this. Trish and I are not from Laneige, meaning we are neither employees of the brand itself nor their PR agency, and it is extremely unprecedented for brands to allow independent content creators to take over their brand-owned content. It’s more flexible if the content is put on the content creator’s own channels, but for brand-owned channels it’s normally quite strictly controlled, which is why this was such a huge thing for us. As much as this was a passion project for Trish and I, the content ultimately would sit on Laneige’s channels and have Laneige’s name behind it, and so I was mad grateful that Sherin and team were willing to take a bet on us 🙂 I know what a huge leap of faith it was and I am so, so, so thankful. I could not have asked for a better team :’)

Speaking of jumping into things. Trish – honestly, I sometimes think of our meeting as one of those love stories where you meet someone and elope immediately. I met her last year at an event, started talking to her, and then she moved away to London to study fashion. On and off we chatted (mostly about school stuff), and then one faithful day I sent her a Facebook message. Hey girl, I said, I have something to ask.. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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On set, in between scenes

The campaign we conceptualised was separate from the film itself, although they were correlated and often conflated, but the truth is, the roadmap of how the entire thing unfolded was so much huger than just the production. The overarching campaign was conceptualised based on Trish’s experiences, and I later translated it to film. Trish and I had long discussions where she told me basically her entire life story, we strained out key experiences, and weaved it into the motivation for a narrative. Obviously, you all know that Trish also ended up being the star of the film, and she was so good. The final film is so light hearted and fun that I dont think anyone would have guessed that this was the fourth iteration of the narrative – the first was actually science fiction, can you believe it! How far the story has come.

PS. I actually watched SO many korean drama clips to try and understand the humour and romance that K-culture emulates, and this was both very silly and very fun because Trish and I are both not typically kdrama fans. I did study scriptwriting in school for a semester as part of my Creative Writing minor, which helped a bit, but there was still a lot of researching the process of how scripts are structured for web. Definitely a learning process – I think from the entire campaign I learnt that I do enjoy scriptwriting and might have potentially considered it a career option in a different life, but unfortunately from what I understand there’s no market for scriptwriters in Singapore 🙁 Oh well.

Anyway. Down to the film itself:

In terms of technical expertise I have nearly nothing – I am not trained in film; my training is in storytelling and writing, and so I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started. I am so, so grateful for the kindness and guidance I was shown by my friends who do know film. A lot of hand holding took place over the course of this production. Martin, my dear friend and incredibly talented director, without whom this would not have been possible. Long, our producer, who taught me so much about the intricacies of film making. Before this film I had no idea what the difference between a shot and a take was. Now I can tell you about lighting and match-cuts. This is entirely to the team’s credit – they were incredibly patient with me, and they taught me so much.

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The set up that goes on behind crafting that one perfect shot

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Martin (why r u like this), Me, and Long (our producer)

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Me and Sham, our amazing amazing assistant director who ensured everything ran on time and smoothly

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THANK YOU

So much of film is visual, and so I greatly credit the amazing hair, make up, and wardrobe team for the gorgeous looks you saw on the film. My personal hair sponsor Hairloom immediately came on board to support this project when I told them about it – so thank you, my hairloom fam – Mervyn, Ben, and Calvin. Mervyn was our on set hairstylist, and he was amazing.

Makeup for the shoot was obviously done by the wonderful Tina from Laneige – their in house make up professional and someone who felt passionately about the project from the start. Both for the gorgeous looks and for the support, thank you.

My dear (and very stylish) friend Amanda volunteered to come on board as wardrobe stylist, thank goodness because honestly I happily committed to doing everything before realising that i had bitten off a bit too much, and anyway, Amanda has amazing style. Our entire wardrobe for the shoot was sourced from Zara, via Charmaine from Access Communications, so thanksgivings are in order there too. Everything looked absolutely incredible.

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Hair, Make up, and Wardrobe
PS. How AMAZING does Trish look?? I swear, she can pull off anything

All our friends who took a whole day off their busy schedules to play high school students. My sister also took a day off from her internship to help out on set and occasionally double as a student on set! Knowing how precious time is, I could not be more grateful:

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Thats my sister, who was a logger on set, which means she has to work with the AD to keep track of scene shots

We honestly got so, so lucky with Tae gu, our male lead. Special thanks to Han Dong Gyun, a director from South Korea, who recommended Tae Gu to us. We video-casted Tae Gu over Skype, and he was so brilliant that we just knew.

And how great that decision turned out to be too. Tae Gu was such a joy to work with – everyone who met him immediately loved him. Our shoot day was insane – budget constraints and what not meant that we had only one day for the entire shoot, and that was essentially a 21 hour day for me (including set up and tear down). Despite how long the day was he was a trooper nonstop, and never once gave any inkling of an indication that he was tired or bored or whatever. I mean ya la it’s my first film so I guess i wouldnt know if this is standard behaviour, but from my knowledge any kind of talent can be very diva ok! So I’m thankful that he wasn’t, and even more thankful that he was such a wonder.

We went for drinks the day after the shoot, and we were explaining to him the concept behind the campaign, and he immediately went from being our actor to being our advocate. We did a couple of interviews together after the film debuted, and I think it was so clear to everyone involved that as a younger-gen South Korean, he felt it was high time for a people back home to start opening themselves up to empathising with cultures other than their own. He actually went back to Korea and gave a talk at a school there where he screened the film and discussed it to great success. He texted Trish and I later to say that it was very well received :’)

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With Tae Gu on our ADR day!

And our crew – many of whom I met for the first time on set. They were incredible!! I think I really got so, so lucky with crew, and for that I have to thank Long our producer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with film, a producer is someone who gets all the internal workings of production together so the film can happen, and part of that is sourcing crew. I met Hans, our director of photography, on set and worked with him again the following month on a different film project, and it was so fascinating to me to watch how he and Dion (his camera assistant) worked the camera movement. Each shot was motivated by tracking the internal process of a character’s mental state, which makes a lot of sense when you watch the final product because all these subtle things add up, and when an audience watches the final thing, he/she feels strongly for a scene but cannot quite put a finger on where the magic is… yeah. No. After working on this and subsequent film projects I can tell you exactly where the magic is, and it’s a combination of hard work from the crew and many, many minute details.

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We shot on an Alexa Mini, which is the same camera they use in hollywood 😀

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The BTS Set up

Our Assistant Director, Sham, kept things running so smoothly and on time, which is a HUGE deal, way bigger than it sounds. Our schedule was insane and unrealistic from the start, and we were all praying that we could finish our shoot on time because if it overran we would be in a lot of trouble and our budget would be totally shot. The industry standard is normally 25 shots a day (a shot being a particular angle ish, and then within shots, you have different takes), and we (well, I) wrote 29 shots in which Martin nearly strangled me over. WHAT? It was necessary for the story!! But anyway we all went in with our fingers crossed because there was a high chance we wouldnt be able to finish shooting if something went wrong on set, and a MILLION things could go wrong – scenes overrunning, location problems, RAIN.. And thank goodness Sham was there to keep everyone in check and to keep us all on schedule. There were a few snap decisions that had to be made because we were battling the sunlight movement, and she made them, and I cannot even begin to explain how reassuring it is for someone to be steady enough to do that under pressure.

Our Art director, Karen, a total sweetheart and crazy talented, also did Art for the Crazy Rich Asians movie coming out soon, which I think is so insane because how on earth did we get her?! Art Direction for film sets are really a whole world of their own – everything you see we had to build on the existing location, and it’s the reason why the film looked the way it did. The dorm room, in particular, was a thing of beauty. It’s such a pity we could only show part of it!!!

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EVERYTHING here is built on from the bare bones of the NTU dorm room. Our Art team replaced the curtains, installed fairy lights and lamps, and themed everything around the Laneige Blue and complementary colours. And if it looks like my old dorm room.. its cos half the stuff is mine HAHA. We raided my home and office for props so we would have to purchase less

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This is what the same dorm room looks like without embellishments!!!

Am also extremely grateful to my alumnus, NTU. We filmed the entire thing on campus – in order of appearance in the film: outside NIE, the new NTU Sports Complex, outside the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, NTU HSS Sem Room 9, and NTU Hall 3. Special thanks to Christina from HSS and Angela from NTU Housing who were so kind and helpful when we were trying to secure locations! After the film came out it occured to me that the film could easily be an ad for NTU being a beautiful campus – and I think they had the same idea because NTU Corporate Communications reached out to me afterwards to request permission to screen My BB Love onscreens across the school!

And after all that..

The film debuted on the 24th of August on Laneige’s Facebook page, and immediately went viral, with over 100k organic views over the weekend. It went on to hit over 300k views and 1k shares, not counting the illegally ripped versions floating around FB where other pages ripped the video and reposted it (thus accumulating views on separate pages that don’t link back to us).


Full HD Version hosted on their youtube channel

Trish and I also handled PR for the film after the release, and that included pitching the news story and giving interviews, but the way the story was picked up so quickly and across so many channels blew us away. We had commentary pieces (read Rice Media’s think piece here), beauty centric articles (Read: Buro 247 and Cleo, articles measuring the online community’s response to the film (Read: Asia One, Mothership) and even write ups from internal advertising industry magazines (Read: WARC’s coverage here)

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Looking back at the whole thing, it really seems so surreal that I cant believe it happened less than six months ago. Trish had to return to London for studies quite shortly after we finished filming, so we never had the chance to properly celebrate the launch together, though she’s coming back this Dec so I think we’ll probably have our very delayed wrap party then 🙂 But seriously, we had so many great moments of hysterics over the net – for nearly a month we were waking up in Singapore and London respectively to messages from each other going OMG OMG OMG DID YOU SEE WE MADE IT ON MOTHERSHIP/CLEO/ETC ETC ETC because of the time zone difference.

This whole campaign was such a ride. Honestly, I don’t think I had ever been so stressed in my life before. On the day of the shoot, I actually broke out into hives on my face because of stress, and this has NEVER happened before, so you know shit is serious. Trish and I had SO MANY panic attacks before the shoot itself, we debated every single line in the film with Martin (a godsend, a born talent) to make sure nothing was superfluous, and in between the shoot and the actual film launch, we panicked over how it would be received (poor Trish was all the way in London so she was panicking like, alone) and then when it launched, we were NEUROTICALLY monitoring the online response and refreshing it every few seconds.. Actually, I think everyone involved on a creative level was extremely stressed haha, including Sherin from Laneige who I mentioned was heavily pregnant yet still running rounds to make sure everything was ok. And that fear that came with both doing something completely new to us and new in general was overwhelming and all-consuming, I think no one ever tells you that, and nothing can ever prepare you for it.

I think it is also in my personality to work myself up and start shit with myself, so every little fear got mega blown up in my head as we were leading up to the shoot date, and many times I think Trish and I felt paralysed by fear almost. But it came to a point where we had to ask ourselves: yes we are afraid, but does that mean we won’t do it? The answer was a clear no – there was no option for either of us to drop the idea at all. And from there, things became a lot clearer. What was left was to just get to it, and do the thing we said we would do.

And we did.

Thank you.

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x
Jem

#2121| “Coco” is the most important animated film this year

When I was 10, I was sitting in a dark theatre with my parents, two hours into a movie, and I heard a sniff. Scrap that: I turned around in my seat and the entire row behind me was a hot mess. Tissues were out, tears were streaming, some people were openly bawling. I looked up: my mother was next to me, staring straight ahead, eyes glistening. I think it might have been the first time I saw my mother cry. The year was 2002, the movie – I not Stupid by Singaporean filmmaker Jack Neo.

Since then I have bawled at many movies, but no movie has had the same effect on me: entire rows behind me, eyes wet, openly crying, all of us sitting in the dark and communal in a kind of vulnerable, open emotion. That is – not until Coco.

I was in San Fran for the Coco Country day last month, an immersive full day experience at Pixar Studios Emeryville dedicated to understanding the process behind the art, research, and animation, as well as running interviews with pixar employees and the filmmakers. I got very excited over the technical aspects of the film there – the art direction is brilliant, the film is a visual spectacle, and the fact that it was created by the same team that brought us the Toy Story franchise was also very promising. They had just finished the final version of the film the friday before I reached, and so we watched a 20 minute screening whilst there, which was just enough to confirm the above: gorgeous, vibrant, engaging, etcetera.

But when I watched the movie in its entirety back in Singapore? I was blown away.

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Repping SG in Pixar Studios

The best Pixar films in my opinion have always been able to operate on two levels – the first being a straightforward (yet enchanting) story, the second being a unique ability to offer insight into some aspect of human nature. The Toy Story franchise explored the parent-child bond, Wall-E commented on the human tendency towards unchecked excess and its consequences, and UP was a touching ode to the process of ageing. All of them also operate at a basic level of technical excellence, dont get me wrong, with cinematic technique that classify them more as animated films than simply being cartoons. But they’ve always been able to tap on a deep emotional and dramatic vein, and that is what has made the most successful of their films so iconic during their Golden Age.

And at the end of Coco, I found myself wondering if this might just be the film to bring the Golden Age of Pixar back.

The film is set against the annual Mexican celebration Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is a celebration of life, and a display of respect and love for deceased family members. It’s a day of family festivities, and in this particular story, we follow twelve year old aspiring musician Miguel Rivera growing up in a family which sees music as a curse (this is explained at the film’s beginning with some exposition about his great great grandfather walking out on them to pursue a musician’s life). Despite this, Miguel makes the decision to pursue his passion for music, and things get a little complicated when he steals a famous musician’s guitar and gets transported to the actual land of the dead. His hero’s journey, then, is figuring out how to return to the land of the living by obtaining the blessing of his idol, a (dead) suave musician who uses too much hair gel, before the sun rises and he’s stuck in the land of the dead forever.

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Admiring the coco concept art that’s hung all around the Pixar campus

When watching any film, the first thing that strikes an audience is the technical proficiency of the storytelling, and Coco is a visual feast. A good 70% of the movie takes place in the land of the dead – who knew animated skeletons could look so expressive? – which gives the filmmakers space to be visually creative with the rules of the underworld, and the result is a dazzlingly rendered cinematic universe. The graphics are accompanied by a solid soundtrack – Disney Pixar for some reason won’t officially call it a musical film, but that’s what it is to me. The soundtrack is fantastic (scores by Michael Giacchino – Ratatouille, Inside out, Zootopia, Doctor Strange, Rogue One, Spider-Man: Homecoming, UP, and so on) and it really shows off amazing vocal range from the cast. Goosebumps when they break out into song, all around. The story itself is also compelling – it’s the classic chase-your-dream story, with heavy emphasis on familial love. This recurring theme of familial love turns out to be the strongest emotional bloodline for Coco, and different iterations of this resonate throughout the movie – the overwhelming love that teeters on suffocating, the idea that family knows best, and the young protagonist’s struggle between finding his individuality while balancing his love and respect for family. At the end of the day, the cumulation of all these things climax in a beautifully emotional sequence that will play your heartstrings like a fiddle. And as the credits roll, you think, damn, Pixar has done it again.

So on that level, the film is already a triumph. It is emotional and beautiful and yes, it will probably make you cry.

But on another level, the film centers itself as iconic in today’s world because there is no considering Coco without a subtle nod towards the political situation in the West right now. In a time when the real world threatens to build walls, Coco’s animated world sings it down, Jericho-style. This is the first film Pixar has released since Trump became president, and while it doesn’t directly comment on politics (how can art, really?), it’s a film designed to make you fall in love with Mexico and it’s rich culture. Disney’s recent movement towards a more diverse, inclusive storytelling world has never been as straightforwardly laid on the table as it has been with Coco, and yet, the filmic universe surreptitiously charms the viewer into being immersed into a world where the humanity of interpersonal relationships is key. When the film concludes and we are left with the hot mess of today, you can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the animated world you were invited to participate in for a short moment. And if anyone really needs it spelt out, director Lee Unkrich has famously called the movie “A love letter to Mexico.”

You can feel it whilst in the film, too. Coco is the first Disney Pixar film to feature an all-Latino cast, but beyond the voice actors themselves, the set designers, show runners, and technical designers all hail from various backgrounds, and all of them emanate immense pride at being part of this project. The film itself is a celebration of Mexican culture – beyond the obvious reference to the biggest annual Mexican celebration, the film highlights other aspects of Mexican culture as well: the traditional ofrenda (family altars that welcome the spirits of your loved ones back to the land of the living), the recurring image of the magnolia (a mexican flower) as a bridge between the land of the living and dead, the heavily featured Alebrijes (colourful fantasy Mexican spirit animals), and even the protagonist’s animal sidekick that isn’t randomly chosen – it’s a breed of Mexican hairless dog called the Xoloitzcuintli. There is an insane amount of care that has obviously gone into making sure the film represents the culture and celebration accurately (Disney hired cultural consultants, and the filmmakers made multiple trips to Mexico for research), and even then, Lee is quick to state that he is not trying to make “the definitive Mexican movie” – he’s just telling one good story, and hopefully more will follow.


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Character design for Coco, pasted on the walls of one of their meeting rooms

As an audience member born and based in Singapore, the amount of contact I have had with Mexico to date remains minimal and firmly limited to the F&B realm. Coco dazzled me with it’s fully realised and vibrant universe – and I enjoyed it so much that it made Mexico, a place I’d never been to before, seem so real to me that I felt close enough to reach out and join the Rivera family’s group hug. And I can only imagine how important the film must be for Latino children all across the world. Pixar’s greatest strength has always been the creation of emotional empathy while making a larger point on humanity (read: the hidden message in pixar films), and now they are using this empathy as a means of showing solidarity in a divisive time. I am here for it is what I am saying.

Coco is not the first film about Mexican culture – Daniel Craig’s SPECTRE 007 opens with a Day of the Dead sequence shot, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) has a scene sequence featuring the festival, and 20th Century Fox’s 2014 animated film The Book of Life also gravitates around Dia de los Muertos – but the fact that it’s Disney Pixar doing it does make a strong statement that immediately cements the film as iconic. Here’s to hoping Coco opens the floodgates for more films celebrating different cultures to take centerstage, but for right now: may we all sign off on this love letter to Mexico.

Disney Pixar’s Coco opens in Singaporean cinemas on November 23rd, 2017.

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Jem

#2120 | 40 degrees in a Goyang Autumn

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Goyang, Korea

I was in Korea two months ago to film a web travel short with Klook Asia, and as it happens, my body betrayed me two days into the trip. I woke up on night zwei, clammy with horror, and I thought, oh boy. If my life were a netflix original this might have been the turning point where our dear protagonist (aka me) had an epiphany on the nuances of transitioning from girlhood to adulthood, etcetera, but.. no. There is no romanticism to being bent double over the cold tiles of a toilet floor, gripping the sides of a bowl and staring at your half-digested ddeokbokki from the night before, I can tell you that.

The following four days I had a fever which stubbornly refused to break, and if you know me, you’ll know how damned affronted I was by this defiance. I fall sick precisely once a year, and then, only for a maximum of forty eight hours at a go. This was my third time this year. Obviously, at twenty five, I have reached Peak Asian, and from here on it is just downhill. How else does one explain this nonsense? Also, as if just for dramatic quality, the daily call time was about 630am, and the shooting itinerary involved 1. paragliding off a freezing mountain, 2. hair tosses atop a speeding open air bus, and 3. ice skating. I adore these things separately, but when they collide with a forty degree fever in fifteen degree weather, well, the only thing you can really do is throw back your head and laugh.

In the photo above I am standing outside the ice skating rink and drinking banana milk, sipping emotional comfort associated with korean childhoods that I consumed in droves from dodgy streaming sites. In all the television shows, korean children drink banana milk, and if you are not a child and are being given banana milk on television, you must be emotionally distressed or crying or something. Invariably characters are happier post-banana-milk, having had absorbed some kind of wisdom from the mysterious banana milk. Later, at 24, when I took Korean classes, the first thing the teacher taught me to say (and the only thing that stuck) was banana milk – pa-na-na-uu-yuu. Commercially, emotionally, and in terms of national pop culture importance, this banana milk is obviously a timeless icon. You can get it for 1,000won in any korean convenience store.

This is to say that I am a sucker for branding and marketing, because I immediately felt better after that banana milk, and I did not throw up that night. A magical recovery it was not, but I definitely experienced a mild uplifting in spirits, I might have even heard the strings of a korean OST play in the background of my mind. There is a scientific term for this – the placebo effect – and I remembered laughing when I thought of it that night, vomit free. I went back for more banana milk the next day, convinced that it was the key to emotional and physical health. I must have had three servings of banana milk the day after. And I thought, this is it, everyone laughs at korean dramas for being unrealistic and fluffy, but here I am, nausea free and happy! It was wonderful. I bought more banana milk. It was a good time, I told myself, to be young and alive.

I should have seen it coming; it surprises me that I did not. It landed me right back on the toilet. I had conveniently forgotten the inconvenient fact that I was mildly lactose intolerant. And so it goes.

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Jem

#2108 | Graphic Graphic

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Creative work: Martin Hong
Client: Kenzo Parfums
Hair: Mervyn from Hairloom

So right after my Laneige film concluded I had a job come my way to shoot a freeform ad for Kenzo, and of course I engaged Martin to conceptualise and create the piece since he’s the strangest person I know. It’s actually a GIF, but I quite like it as stills too so I’m putting it here just for the memories. The actual ad went live on instagram awhile back, and I absolutely love how old school cinema the visuals are styled by. From Kdrama romance to avant garde it seems there is nothing my friend cant do. (And yes, I am generally very proud of my friends!)

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Jem