New Video: Spellbinding Productions Showreel

This is 10 years’ worth of video projects (and my life) compressed into 4 minutes. Please enjoy my film demo reel. It contains a brief montage of video clips from commercials, shorts, and feature films made during 2002-2012 by Spellbinding Productions and myself. A huge THANK YOU to every person who has supported our filmmaking projects and endeavors over the years! More films coming soon!

Featuring clips from rabito commercials, Fatal Game, Lucid Dreamers, The Second Wind, Blind Sight, Just One Person, Why Not Speed, Marguerite, Janet, Speechless, A-Typical Romance, The Shadow’s Desire, Friends and Enemies of Sonya Park, Kung Fu Lightsabers, and several early video tests.

The 85th Oscar’s Best Picture Award

The Academy Awards (a.k.a. “the Oscar’s”) are more than a celebration of Hollywood films and filmmakers. They are irreversibly tied to American politics and culture. As such, they are also connected to the international political and cultural sphere. Current ideologies and social views affect who is nominated and who wins. In turn, this selection process can impact how society views itself.

For example, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Oscar’s including Best Picture in 2003, it was acknowledging that Hollywood had become increasingly decentralized and more international. It resulted in dramatic changes to the film and tourism industries in New Zealand. The Best Picture nominees for 2012 are particularly interesting for what they each signify. Let’s take a look at my openly biased opinions.

Amour – A co-production from Austria, France, and Germany, this could be the third non-Hollywood film to win Best Picture. As the film’s dialogue is in French, Amour is the ninth foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture, but could be the first to win! While I have not seen this film myself, from what I have read, its story takes one particular stance towards old age, death, and euthanasia. A win for this film could indicate a shared sentiment towards suffering, if enough people watch it (probably not). This film is more likely to win Best Foreign Language Film since it is also nominated in that category.

Argo – While this film was praised by many critics as an effective thriller with comedic elements, one has to consider the larger framework. It is an attempt to recreate history from the American perspective. Most Iranian characters are portrayed negatively. The U.S. and Iran aren’t on particularly great terms right now. Will selecting this film as the winner, thus drawing more attention to it, have an effect on international relations? With Ben Affleck not nominated for Best Director, I don’t see this film winning. But it is possible.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – I predict this film will be the winner. Or perhaps I just hope that it will win. This film came out of nowhere (no big names involved) and tells a unique story. The main actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the youngest person ever to be nominated (age 9) for Best Actress and she is brilliant in the film. It deals with real issues of hurricanes, rising sea levels, erosion, alcoholism, poverty, and the challenges of being a single parent. But it addresses these issues from an interesting perspective: a strong little girl with a big imagination, living in an isolated community. A win for this film is a win for all independent filmmakers, and would make me very happy for them.

Django Unchained – In the context of the other nominees, this film stands for those who don’t wish to learn more about the real history of slaves or confront modern political issues. A win for this says, “Bring on the gory popcorn blockbusters! Don’t ever change, Tarantino! We need more films like yours!” As if we don’t already have enough Tarantino imitators…

Les Misérables – While the director is not nominated, this film has a good chance of winning. It received a lot of critical and media attention, and a full-blooded musical hasn’t won since Chicago – 2005. Many of the actors in the film are already beloved by the Academy. But it is a British film, and the Brit’s won in 2010 with The King’s Speech. So I am going to predict it wins Best Original Song or an acting role instead. A win for this film would say: “We like French history, but we prefer the English language. Take that, Amour!”

Life of Pi – A win for this film would be a delayed award for Ang Lee’s previous film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sometimes the Oscar’s work that way. Not to say that this film isn’t worthy, only that it wouldn’t be the sole factor for its win. I think this would excite a broader audience of people in terms of demographics, and would be a smart move for the Academy. It is the most accessible of all the films nominated. It might also result in increased co-productions with India. But with Slumdog Millionaire winning in 2008, I don’t think this will be the winner.

Lincoln – This would be a predictable win: an established director, well-known actors, and history that’s old enough not to be controversial. It would be a boring win, signifying that Hollywood has little desire for change. (Apologies to all of the ardent Lincoln fans out there for my lack of enthusiasm, if any of you even read this).

Silver Linings Playbook – This would be a surprise. Politics are absent from this film, and it deals very personal psychological issues, but in a warm and affectionate way. If this film were to win, we might see more character-driven indie films released. But this film hasn’t generated enough media buzz, except for the leads’ performances. It is more likely to win in the acting categories.

Zero Dark Thirty – Like Argo, this film is a political thriller, but it has generated greater controversy (both domestic and abroad). A win for this film will emphasize the patriotism of the Academy Awards, and perhaps distance international audiences. It could also result in more copycat movies where Osama Bin Laden is the villain, instead of Hollywood’s go-to bad guy: Hitler. The Hurt Locker already won in 2009, and the Academy seems to play a game where the same filmmakers don’t usually win rapidly in succession. So I don’t think this will win.

Who do you think will win? Let’s see what happens!

The Future of Language Teaching

(Note: This article was originally written for my friend Aaron Posehn’s highly informative site: For the Love of Languages.)

Will language teachers ever become obsolete, replaced by technology? Can the traditional classroom setting still compete with the numerous (and often free) resources available online? What is the current best way to learn a language, and how will that change over the next decade?

One can only speculate about the future, searching the past for trends and patterns. It is nearly impossible to select one instruction method as the best, since no two people learn exactly the same way, at the same rate, and with the same goals and expectations. But if we consider human nature as constant, then there are aspects we can predict. For example, it is generally more comfortable to speak with another human than to a previously recorded message or an artificial voice. It is also a human tendency to use whatever language is most familiar to us, the instinctual escape route for a language learner struggling to express themselves. English speakers may become even more numerous, or Mandarin may become the new lingua franca. It is currently uncertain. But knowing multiple languages will always be more useful than knowing one. As someone who has studied four languages (French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean) and taught one (English), I would like to offer the following recommendations for both language teachers and learners.

1. The more you know in one language, the more you can learn in others.
Languages are interconnected, living in the same part of our brain. We naturally translate in order to understand. In my studies of Chinese, I came to know much more about my native language: English. Being able to read and listen in another language also grants you access to the wisdom of scholars whose articles, books, or lectures may not be available in your mother tongue.

2. Nothing can fully replace all of the benefits of a language teacher.
This I learned through trial and error. There are many good books, ebooks, CD’s, podcasts, online videos, educational TV shows, websites, and other resources online for learning languages. The self-study method works if you can keep yourself motivated. Taking a class may be more expensive, and sometimes the teacher’s methods don’t work for you. But think of the benefits: a language teacher can answer your questions, create customized lessons for you, listen and correct your speaking mistakes instantly, share real life examples of how the language is used, share cultural background, act out different scenarios with you for practice (at the grocery store, bank, etc.), praise your accomplishments, build your confidence, and ensure that what you say or write will be understood by others. There isn’t an app that does all of those things.

3. Classrooms are places where we try not to fall asleep.
This is something we all grow accustomed to feeling. An ideal classroom shouldn’t feel like a “classroom”. This is why good teachers move desks around, hang up artwork, invite guest speakers, show media, lead activities, suggest group projects, encourage presentations, and supervise discussions. It’s hard to learn anything when you feel like a microphone recording a lecture. Learning is not entirely invisible. In the best classrooms, you can witness learning actually happening.

4. Immersion isn’t enough.
I lived in South Korea for 1 year. I traveled in China and Japan for several months. I have spent many hours around people not speaking English. I could pick out the words I knew and understood. Then I could imitate and mimic those words or phrases later. It made my pronunciation and intonation sound more like a native speaker’s. But this alone did not expand my knowledge or vocabulary. Study is an essential component for improvement, as well as output: speaking or writing. Travel isn’t always necessary for immersion either, since you may find native speakers of your target language in your hometown (or online).

5. Vocabulary cards and tests are good for short-term memory, but not long-term.
This has proven true for me with every language I have studied, including English. I remember words that I have used in sentences in writing or speaking. I could write down that “Raconteur” is a noun with French origin, meaning: a person who tells stories in an interesting way. Or I could write: “By reading Life of Pi, I discovered that Yann Martel is a raconteur.” Take a word and make it your own.

6. Word Usage > Vocabulary > Accent
Reducing your accent when speaking a language is the least important element. As long as you speak clearly, who cares if you have an accent? It is much more valuable to have a large vocabulary. But even with a large vocabulary, one should ideally know how to use each of those words. Word usage includes grammar and context. While specific grammar rules (the “why” of language, isn’t always necessary), the “how” is essential to build comprehensible sentences and questions.

7. Listen to yourself.
One advantage of current technology is how easy it is to record your voice with a camera or phone. This is an extremely useful tool. Although you may hate the sound of your voice, listening to a recording of it will help you understand what others hear when you speak. You can use recordings to compare your speaking from the past to the present, as well as with other learners, teachers, or native speakers.

8. Imitate. Act. Play!
We all start to learn through imitation. This is a form of acting. Why not embrace it as acting? When my students pretended to be waiters, job applicants, airport staff, or salesmen, they had a “language experience.” This can be much more engaging because using the language is initiating actions and producing consequences. If it’s fun and makes you laugh, it will be even more memorable. This is why games (physical games, board games, computer games, etc.) can be very effective teaching tools when used properly.

9. A little each day goes a long way.
I taught English to classes of High School students in South Korea for 50 minutes each week. Unless they were working on a project, I could see some brains shutting down after 30 minutes. A week would pass and it would be hard to remember what they learned in the last class. In comparison, I have friends who study their target language just 10-20 minutes per day (3-5 times per week). They are able to remember what they’ve studied and build upon it. This is the current study model I follow.

10. You will improve if you keep practicing.
This little motto is is the easiest to understand but the most frequently forgotten. Don’t give up!

The best way to learn a language is to take it in (by listening and reading) and use it (by speaking or writing). There are many methods of doing so, and the trick is to find what works for best for you. Technology won’t replace motivation or practice, but can be helpful in giving you more ways to practice or feel motivated. We shouldn’t fear a tool for communication just as we shouldn’t be afraid of learning a new language. Robots or software may one day make effective translators in some situations, but it will take immense innovation to make them into good teachers.