Journey Crossing the Border – Leang Seckon

REVIEW: Angkor Complex: Cultural Heritage and Post-Genocide Memory in Cambodia

(In Thumbnail: Journey Crossing the Border, 2016 – Leang Seckon)

In the UMMA from Feb 3 to July 28, the Angkor Complex is a profound exhibit that displays the tragedies of lost cultural heritage, colonialism, genocide, and the rebuilding of the memories lost from the shards that remained from post-genocide Cambodia. Through a mix of cultural artifacts and contemporary pieces, the Angkor Complex dutifully shows the emotions inlaid in the terrible death, suffering, and fleeing that resulted from the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge.

Bomb Ponds, 2009 – Vandy Rattana Photographs of ponds in craters made from US bombing during the Vietnam War

Gaining independence from French colonial rule in 1953, Cambodia has had a tumultuous history with the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, millions of people were displaced, forced to work in labor camps, or outright executed in the Killing Fields in the name of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In these labor camps, Cambodian citizens were subject to unending abuse from the soldiers: many died from disease, starvation, overwork, being forced to work through their infections, pregnancies, and sicknesses. The Killing Fields were where many were tortured, executed, and stuffed into mass graves; by any violent means men, women, and their children were slaughtered for their crimes against the regime. The regime also came with the destruction of traditional art, religion, and ways of life. By the end of the genocide most of the artists, buddhist monks, apsara dancers (traditionally female dancers that depicted classical/religious stories) and a quarter of the whole Cambodian population were killed. Due to the nature of these histories, it is absolutely imperative to understand the inseparable, lasting effects that the Khmer Rouge had on the Cambodian people to understand the sorrows and coping on full display throughout the exhibit.

Apsara Warrior, 2004 – Ouk Chim Vichet Displays an Apsara figure built of guns and metal tearing apart a rifle with its hands

While a few of the pieces on display date back to the Khmer Empire (802-1431) or during the time of the French Protectorate of Cambodia (1887-1953), most of the pieces in the exhibit are from contemporary Cambodian artists, many of which are members of the Cambodian diaspora—the dispersal of people from their homeland. These pieces provide the deepest insights into how post-genocide Cambodia copes with the loss of its culture with all of that they regain from the repatriation of colonially seized artifacts and the re-education of Cambodian traditions. My personal favorites are the pieces made  artists that lived through the Khmer Rouge’s regime. They tell their stories of which their pains sorrowfully resonated with the histories I was familiar with in my own Filipino identity. Though most of them regained hope of survival with their immigrations, it came with the loss of their newfound diasporic identities. Such complications become inevitable in the full extent of these tragedies, which shine through in their pieces that depict cultural and religious iconography juxtaposed with modern cityscapes (such as in the thumbnail of this post).

Full Circle, Unbounded Arc, 2015 – Amy Lee Samford A series of terracotta pots that have been broken and attempted to be reassembled with glue and string. It represents the difficulty in rebuilding what has been lost.

Overall, each and every piece of this exhibit carries unmistakeable weight in their messages, and I truly believe the best way to experience this exhibit is to read every piece’s plaque. Each of the experiences from the artists are on full display: their pain, their loss, their coping, their rebuilding. I hope that with this review, you are implored to see the exhibit for yourself and feel the emotions of each piece, for they should be grieved with just as they should be hoped with.

REVIEW: Return to Seoul

Return to Seoul is a film that is resonant in its essential question of “how does one consolidate the roots of one’s own identity when they are foreign to oneself?” The movie follows the 25 y/o Freddie as she navigates the country of her birth and its foreign cultures and people. Originally traveling to Korea on a whim with her friend Tena, she decides to pay a visit to the Hammond Adoption Agency that facilitated her adoption. The creation of these international adoption agencies began from the large amount of Korean orphans resulting from the aftermath of the Korean War in the 1950’s. From this, she is contacted by her birth father, who has been separated from Freddy’s birth mother, and she makes the decision to go see him with Tena. However, her trip there is mixed with reluctance, the ambivalence is painted on her face to the point that you can feel her stomach churning. Her worries are justified when she comes up feeling even more disconnected to the family that revels in her return. While her father wants Freddie to stay in Korea, she cannot as she is a French woman with a home, friends, and family back in France. He cannot accept this, however, leaving her discomfort to culminate in an encounter where he follows her to a bar, and she rejects his drunken fatherly embrace, screaming “Don’t touch me!”

Freddie markedly does not fit in with the culture in Korea, and her experiences in her first trip to Korea certainly show this aspect of her the most. She is explicit in her defiance of cultural norms and etiquette, making sure that others know that she is a French woman, not Korean. To this effect, Tena’s translations fail to express the harshness of her words, and the language barrier between her and the Koreans in the movie further complicate her disconnect from the culture. Additionally, Freddie is simply an interesting character, for she swaps between lifestyles, partners, and friends throughout the entirety of the three-part movie. She is brazen, indulging herself in music, soju, and hookups.

One final thing I was intrigued about was the use of extended scenes of music with the stages of Freddie’s life in mind. In any capacity, the music plays an integral role in representing the different phases of her life through all of the different time-skips. It helps to describe how her freedom and independence manifests throughout different genres, characterizing Freddie through her different stages of life: as a young woman moving through adulthood. It’s an intensely resonant narrative device that creates beautiful juxtaposition with her coming of age.

The film screening of Return to Seoul was shown as a part of the Korean Cinema NOW: Diaspora Edition event. These movie showings are presented by the NAM Center on Saturdays in the Michigan Theatre throughout the Winter 2024 semester. If you’re interested in Korean cinema—especially as they relate to the Korean diaspora or diasporic identities in general—then there are still many more films being put on, and they all have free admission with catering from Miss Kim herself (I have to say that the food is really nummy! (˵ •̀ ᴗ – ˵ ) ✧). So, don’t hesitate to indulge in a fun Saturday outing these movie are worth it!

Runtime: 1 hr 59 min 

Rated R

Screenshot of the movie taken from the npr Article: “‘Return to Seoul’ is About Reinvention, not Resolution”

REVIEW: Philippine Culture Night

My friend (left) and I (right) in the PCN Centennial jeepney cutout.

On November 18th, the Filipino American Student Association put on its annual culture night: Philippine Culture Night Centennial. This year’s PCN commemorates the hundredth year of having a filipino club at the University of Michigan, so suffice to say it was a particularly important celebration. It also dealt with a larger context for filipino and filipino american identity with the theme of “who are you?”, seeking to ask the audience what their culture means to them. As a half-filipino american myself, I found that this theme of identity connected greatly to my own personal experience of trying to understand and discover what being filipino means to me.

Wayne State’s Fil-Soc band performance

After speeches from FASA’s co-presidents and cultural executive board chairs and a dinner filled with filipino dishes supplied by M-dining (which surprisingly wasn’t bad), the night’s performances gave way. Beginning with amazing covers of OPM music—original pinoy music—I enjoyed UofM’s own Greenwood Sessions’ renditon of “Raining in Manila” by Lola Amour and Wayne State’s Fil-Soc Band’s rendition of “Hanggang Kailan” by Orange and Lemons (shoutout to my friend Jordan with the super awesome guitar and vocal skillz 😎). OPM is a genre of music that I love; even when I don’t understand the filipino languages that they sing in, connecting to the raw music and culture of filipino karaoke makes the genre invaluable. Besides the music can just be a good vibe, y’know?

Tinikling performers wearing barong right before their performance

Under dimmed lights did Pandanggo sa ilaw come to kick off the dance performances. Pandanggo sa ilaw is a traditional filipino dance where dances balance lit candles on top of their hands and heads to simulate the flight of fireflies. I especially enjoyed their teal and orange costumes—flawlessly unwrinkled thanks to the iron the choreographers took from me (joke lang).

Perhaps one of the most recognizable dances of the night, traditional Tinikling performed with a live Rondalla performance (an ensemble of various stringed lutes). If you’ve ever walked by Mason Posting Wall from 5-10 on Mondays and Wednesdays in the past few months, then you’ve definitely seen these bamboo sticks being clapped while people dodged bruising their ankles. Additionally, Purdue’s own filipino organization performed Maglalatik (a dance performed shirtless while clapping coconut shells strung up on one’s body) while throwing a lot of their ‘behinds’ on stage. For the first time I also saw a live Kulintang gong ensemble performed by PACE-MI (Philippine Arts & Culture Ensemble of Michigan) with their renditions of pre-colonial traditional dances as well.

Now, I also was a performer in this PCN as a part of the Modern Tinikling showcase. Displaying traditions with modern sensibilities, Modern Tinikling performed to the songs “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar, “America has a Problem” by Beyonce, and “Barbie World” by Nicki Minaj (with Aqua). Not to be biased but we were pretty hype. The two modern dances that followed were pretty cool too I guess >_>. In all seriousness, I was impressed with the choreography and fun both modern dance groups showed, for I will be humming “Asan Ka Na Ba” by Zach Tabudlo for months now.

One last note on the performances as well, I was glad to see Hawai’i Club perform their traditional hula dance to celebrate their culture as well. While the night was mostly comprising filipino cultural performances, the point of the night was to celebrate identities and cultures which it was great to see them given a platform to do so.

My FASA Lineage photo in-front of the pagapir fan wall

I would say that my first PCN experience set a high bar for next year. So, I’d especially like to give a big thank you to FASA’s cultural chairs for organizing the event, Philip Churchley and Isabelle Lamug (my ate, pictured above in the middle of the photo). I look forward to my involvement in FASA and their respective events moving forward, and I’m super glad to be a part of this amazing community!

REVIEW: Heathers the Musical

Pictured from left to right: Emelia Hughey as Heather McNamara, Bianca Garfinkle as Heather Chandler, and Lila Harris as Heather Duke taken from Musket’s Instagram (@ummusket)

On November 10th, the University of Michigan’s student-led organization, Musket, put on its opening night performance of Heathers: the Musical. The musical follows Veronica Sawyer (played by Kaylin Gines) as she navigates her senior year as a part of Westerburg High School’s class of 1989 while trying to avoid the titular Heathers, the cruel popular girls of the school. Heather McNamara (Emelia Hughey), Heather Duke (Lila Harris), and the queen bee Heather Chandler (Bianca Garfinkle) make high school a living hell for the other students including Veronica and her best friend Martha Dunstock (Ellie Omori-Sampson). Along with the Heathers, Kurt Kelly (Sohil Apte) and Ram Sweeny (Dylan Bernstein) torment them with their inflated jock egos. It’s not until Veronica becomes a Heather herself and meets JD (Aaron Syi) do her plans of a quiet senior year under the radar go awry.

Heathers: the Musical satirizes the high school experience, portraying it as a battlefield of hostile personalities. It describes high school as a mimicry of the outside world with all of the hierarchies of adult society, posing the question of why childhood had to transform into this. Themes of gun violence, sexual violence, suicide, and grief of loss pervade the story, understanding that, here, the perils and dangers of adult society are inseparably coupled with the insecurity, longing, and anxiety of coming of age. As Kate Ivanov, the director of the musical, puts it in the Director’s Note, “there is a constant need to change, fit in, and be loved and accepted for who you are, when you don’t know who you are yet.”

The production itself is masterfully crafted in the Power Center’s proscenium stage. The set remains simple yet dynamic, always portraying Westerburg High, comprising a catwalk with two movable staircases that lead up to it. Still, in scenes that weren’t set in Westerburg High, there were parts of the set that were present that helped immersion while not detracting from the immersion of other scenes, including the gas station for “Freeze Your Brain” and the pier for “Kindergarden Boyfriend”. This use of the set, by not having any major set changes, streamlined the viewing experience and made it easy to follow the constant stimulation that the musical provides. The catwalk also gives good visual symbolism whenever the Heathers, but especially Heather Chandler, enters, demanding attention to their presence through the fact they are physically and socially above everyone else.

This experience wouldn’t be possible without the amazing performances from each of the actors as well. The way that the Heathers seem like one indomitable unit with their synchronization make the play as they set the tone of power hierarchy to which all of the play centers around, especially in “Candy Store”. Chandler especially commands her presence showcases devotion to the precision of her character work as in every scene she’s in she steals the show with her attitude and poise. When they eventually break off too the actors play faithfully to each of their individual characters’ emanating their respective traits: Duke’s envy and conniving nature  shown through “Never Shut Up Again” and McNamara’s dumbness that gets deepened by the anxiety and vulnerability she shows in “Lifeboat”.

Kurt and Ram play their parts well as the comedic relief, their energy was outstanding, while still showing their ignorance and ego as almost perpetrators of sexual violence in “You’re Welcome” where they really expressed the childish entitlement they felt to sexual favors. Martha, although not playing the largest role in the play, stood out as not only someone with fantastic heart but an exceedingly impressive vocalist (I’m pretty sure “Kindergarden Boyfriend” held the largest applause of the night).

Of course, the leads Veronica and JD were the stars of the show, faithfully executing their characters to a caliber that exemplified the quality of their performance. As the leading lady, Veronica was intelligent and contemplative, executing the larger themes of the musical with ease and immersion. JD was a contemplative character that showed all the warning signs of his unhinged nature, yet the audience can’t help but fall in love with him the same way that Veronica does. They certainly complemented each other with several musical numbers that showed their exceptional vocal performance such as in “Dead Girl Walking”, “Our Love is God”, and “Seventeen” which I especially enjoyed.

Still, each of the members clearly showcased their love of the show of which I noticed their exceeding amounts of energy and the small details they implemented helped the immersion into the world of Sherwood, Ohio. Additionally, to provide a special shoutout, the production couldn’t had reached as high as it did without the performance of the pit orchestra. The score was excellently executed with each of the musical motifs highlighting each and every scene, not just with the musical numbers.

With my experience, I was overall blown away by the sheer skill, energy, and love of the show the cast had. The musical was comedic yet contemplative, energetic and fun yet satirical, tonally all over the place yet being able to ground itself when it needed to. Quality-wise, it was almost like watching an off-broadway production, and to think that Musket is a student-led organization speaks to the amount of time, skill, and effort it took to put out such a performance. I would definitely recommend to keep the productions UofM’s Musket in one’s mind if one wants to see great performances.