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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2


“And the Golden Chopsticks Go To…”
By Serena Renner


On June 7, UC San Diego’s Robinson Auditorium looked like the Academy Awards, except that the formally dressed actors and actresses were UCSD students instead of Hollywood celebrities, and they were competing for a pair of spray painted golden chopsticks rather than Oscars.

The Golden Chopsticks Film Festival is the spring quarter finale to Professor Paul Pickowicz’ popular undergraduate course on the Cultural History of Twentieth Century China. The class explores the beauty and tragedy of Shanghai from 1920 to 1935, using silent-era film.

But the students not only study Chinese film, they are also required to recreate their own original 20 minute movies, incorporating the styles and themes taught throughout the course. Pickowicz assigns four production groups at the beginning of the quarter and they work together in secret until all the films are screened the night of the festival.

This year, “Tragedy of the Jade Sisters,” “Melody of Tears,” “Adrift,” and “Lost Spring” were premiered, each in traditional black and white, complete with piano overtures, Mandarin subtitles and antique visual effects. The films reenacted scenes of class conflict, gender inequality, sexuality, and urban versus rural life — issues that were characteristic of Shanghai cinema at the time.

Students in the class are neither actors nor filmmakers, but rather history and Chinese studies students with no preparation other than Asian backgrounds and a working knowledge of the Chinese language. Pickowicz says he recruits amateurs on purpose because they start from scratch and learn more about 1930s Chinese filmmaking in the process.

“When you make a movie, you learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise learned,” says Pickowicz. “The pioneers of the time didn’t go to film school; they learned by doing. [I want students] to understand the decisions that had to be made.”

Although the films are only worth 25 percent of their final grades, students spend countless hours retaking and editing scenes until they are just right, says Lilian Loh, ERC ’08, who co-directed “Melody of Tears,” earning Best Director.

“You could take the easy route, but you don’t want to,” says Loh. “You want something you can one day show your grandkids.”

Besides finding the time to produce a film, it is also challenging to portray Chinese people of the 1920s and ’30s with whom modern students have little in common, says Yilian Pei, Muir ’08, who won Best Actress for her lead role in “Lost Spring.”

Free and independent contemporary women are transformed into vamps and victims, and personalities have to come across only through facial expressions rather than words.

Some students made personal sacrifices from cutting their hair to smoking cigarettes to make their characters come to life. Best Supporting Actor Charles Thunyakij, Muir ’08, tried smoking for the first time to fit the part of a mobster in “Melody of Tears.”

“After that first [drag], I was hacking up my lungs, but I had to take one for the team,” Thunyakij said to the audience while accepting his Golden Chopsticks at the festival.

“Melody of Tears” team members also challenged themselves by playing live music to accompany their film at the festival, as was done in theaters of the time. Joseph Ho, Revelle ’09, won Best Music for his solo performance on the piano and violin. He learned to adjust his speed and tempo according to the action on the screen.

Although difficult at times, “Adrift’s” director and cinematographer, Michael Tang, Marshall ’09, says it was rewarding to work with other students he did not know. Group interactions taught him how to work with new people and take on new roles, often producing unexpected results.

“I couldn’t have imagined the hidden talents my group members possessed,” says Tang.

The course also offers a close interaction with Professor Pickowicz, who meets students for coffee, does cameo performances in student films and opens up his home to get to know students in and outside of class.

Several alumni came from LA and the Bay Area to visit their favorite professor and witness the evolution that has taken place in the class. Among them was last year’s winner for Best Actress, Stephanie Wu, Revelle ’07, and Brenda Xu, Marshall ’05, who played two acoustic sets during intermission with the Brenda Xu Band.

While Golden Chopsticks is meant to be a fun spoof on the Oscars, according to Pickowicz, students take the filmmaking very seriously and raise the bar every year. Chinese history Professor Joseph Esherick, who served as a judge, added that this year was the most competitive he had ever seen.

“I’ve been doing this for a number of years and this was undoubtedly the toughest,” says Esherick. “[Results] could have come out any way on almost all of these votes.

Ultimately “Lost Spring,” a story of the corrupting power of the Shanghai metropolis on an innocent country girl, won the award for Best Picture, although Pickowicz says that any of the four films could have been taken straight out of the 1930s.

But the students know that the real reward is not the Golden Chopsticks; the class challenges them to see the history of the period in new ways, and it especially challenges them to watch movies with more critical eyes.

“We are going to look at films differently now,” says Tang. “We can realize how much work goes into them.”

2008 Golden Chopsticks Award Winners:

Best Picture
" Lost Spring"

Best Actress in a Lead Role
Yilian Pei for "Lost Spring"

Best Actor in a Lead Role
Hung Tien Huynh for "Adrift"

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Grace Hua for "Tragedy of the Jade Sisters"

Beat Actor in a Supporting Role
Charles Thunyakij for "Melody of Tears"

Best Music
Joseph Ho for "Melody of Tears"

Best Set Design
Malou Amparo and Jason Habel for "Adrift"

Best Cinematography
Xiao Ying and Eugene Lee for "Tragedy of the Jade Sisters"

Best Director
Lilian Loh and Danniel Kuan for "Melody of Tears"

Special Judges Awards:

Best Poster
"Lost Spring"

Best 'Face Slap'
Wua Park for "Tragedy of the Jade Sisters"


The Making of Golden Chopsticks

Golden Chopsticks Image Gallery

Golden Chopsticks Silent Film Clips


Students in the class are neither actors nor filmmakers, but rather history and Chinese studies students with no preparation other than Asian backgrounds and a working knowledge of the Chinese language.