Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Insert Breaking Bad Pun Here


The end of Breaking Bad, I have to say, was actually a pretty disappointing end to a brilliant series, as I felt it didn't add anything that we hadn't already seen.

What had engaged me about the series was the premise of what makes a good man bad and inversely what makes a bad man good. Walter White was a family man and at the start of the series he seems goofy but essentially kind-hearted. Jessie, on the other hand, is a drug addict and a high school drop-out who picks on the vulnerable. As the series progresses we this change with Walter becoming increasingly "evil" and Jessie becoming the one who seems most under the burden of conscience.

At first it is the healthcare system that the show seems to target for criticism - a proud man who is trying to support his family is driven to illegal activity by escalating healthcare costs after being diagnosed with cancer. This, however, does not suffice in explaining Breaking Bad. We see through the fallacy of the good man driven to crime simply by a flawed medical system at certain key moments as the plot develops. One of these moments is when Walter lets Jane overdose when he could have saved her life to protect himself from blackmail. This is when we get an insight into Walter's "family-first", self-protectionist ideology, the guiding logic of which is that the suffering of others is secondary to the interests of him and his family - what falls under these interests develops throughout the show from being simply survival in the face of cancer at the start to inexhaustible wealth and power at the end of the series.We see him develop into a Napoleonic figure unwilling to relinquish any power, but still able to justify his encroachment in terms of a protectionist ideology - in part his victimhood (cancer) empowers this ideology, in that the random bad luck and unfairness that is involved in getting cancer undermines the American Dream and allows him to shift this bad luck onto other "hapless" victims that result from his activity.

The series has echoes of Dogville, in which the impoverished and hard-working residents of a town, who at first seem like honest, hard-working people, are slowly revealed to be cruel oppressors when given any power at all over another person, which they each rationalize in their own way.

I found it hard to work out if Walter White was an everyman and if he was a figure that we were all capable of becoming when left with little to lose or if he was meant to be an essentially amoral psychopath who had just been subjugated to social norms before his diagnosis, eager to mean something before he dies, revealing what exactly is most important in the way he strives to see himself.

The latter seems more likely when we compare Walter and Hank or even Walter and Jessie. Hank sticks to a "moral" path throughout the whole show, playing almost an alternate Walter when his whole career goes up in smoke and he is paralyzed from the waist down. He's, by no means, perfect, but we see in him more innate goodness than in Walter's desperate attempts at moral rationalization.

This is the sense in which the finale was disappointing to me. We get the dramatic, if expected, shift from Walter insisting on his family-centred rationale to admitting that he did it out of enjoyment and that it made him feel alive.

We can then take two interpretations to the show as a whole then. The first is that in American society, we are all a few bad choices away from becoming Heisenberg, but this is contradicted by the development of Heisenberg into the megalomaniac that he eventually becomes, and his complete lack of conscience when compared to  Jessie and Mike, who are more measured in their criminality and still maintain moral boundaries.

The second interpretation is a more conservative one, wherein, Walter is simply a "bad egg" in disguise, who gets punished for his misdeeds just as all the other "bad" characters get punished at the end of the series. This second interpretation seems to undermine what had been so interesting about the show in the first place, which essentially demonstrated the twisted nature of modern society, wherein a good man can only turn to crime to stay alive and keep his family from poverty.

I guess then, Walter White lies somewhere between these two different  conceptions, or maybe he is both at the same time: demonstrating the cruelty that is instinctual to mankind when threatened - he feels wronged by the world and takes this as license to discount the social contract or any conception of fairness or equality, justifying self-interest and individualism under the guise of "It's us or them".

Sunday, March 31, 2013

a visit from the goon squad - jennifer egan

This took a while to get into - the first couple of chapters were a put-off due to the pretentiousness of the first few characters that we are introduced to. After I picked it back up again (6 months later) the novel finally gripped me. 

Each character in the novel has a central story set in a certain time, some in first person narrative, some just focusing more heavily on the perspectives of certain characters, in their story another character will play a secondary role, and then in later chapters this secondary character will become the focus of their own narrative set in a different time - ranging from the 1970s well into the future - where we discover more about them, and in turn the primary characters of the earlier chapters are featured as secondary characters in these character's first person narrative, giving us more information from another perspective about them. The novel is essentially about time (portrayed as a goon) and how oblivious people are to the little cracks in their relationships with other people and how those cracks will sometimes deepen so that one will no longer recognize the self that was once in that relationship. It was almost shocking when the future life of a character that we've been following alongside is suddenly laid out for us in full, and the dramatic irony is almost heart-breaking in some cases. As the novel proceeds we find out more clues pointing to the reasons behind the bleak denouements of some of the characters' stories - and the stories all seem to echo each other: time brings people to a certain cynicism, comically defined by Lulu as Ethical Ambivalence, that allows them to survive or drives them to death. A severe critique of the media, the music industry, and the role played by technology in our lives runs through the novel - this functions in tandem with the loss of innocence from childhood to adulthood for each of the characters in the novel - as the world seems to have aged into something too cynical to take seriously (actually a lot of the themes related to technology were reminiscent of the Charlie Brooker "Black Mirror" series) 

The highlights of the book for me were the closet gay football player with a crush on his best friend's boyfriend, Dolly's (LaDoll) job acting as a public relations manager for a middle eastern dictator (and perpetrator of genocide), Jules's sexual attack on a blockbuster film actress, Rolph's relationship with his dad's girlfriend on safari, Ted Hollander trying (not very hard) to find his niece in Naples, as well as the difficulties in Drew's relationship with his son, despite the best of intentions, through the eyes of Alison, his daughter, and Alex and his friends' recommendations being bought on social media in an attempt to create stardom from nothing with 21st Century marketing techniques based reportedly on particle physics.

Definitely worth the trawl through the first few chapters (which I had to reread at the end when they became more interesting for the details they provided about later characters).

Friday, June 3, 2011

『再見,母親』 Mom, Bye

Wang Molin (王墨林)is clad in a Che Guevara t-shirt, the same one angry teenagers and naive politics students across the world are probably wearing at that same moment. His manner is distracted during the Q&A, and as in the interview we conducted with him previously, he brushes off any difficult questions with a sneer and a "Do I have to explain everything a thousand times?", seemingly a smoke and mirrors technique to evade addressing any of the arguments directed against him. The assumption that anyone who disagrees with him is illiterate or locked into a capitalist ideology that only he and people who agree with him are able to see through makes conversation with him tiring. This was mirrored in the way the play was presented, tiring.

There were a few very basic errors from a practical point of view that, given the director's long career in the "little theatre" (小劇埸) were preventable. These were little details, like a semi-transparent cloth hanging mid-stage with a light shining from behind it, that made the subtitles of the Korean dialogue in the play (the play was performed by a Korean theatre troupe) difficult to read, and resulted in people stretching their heads in different directions to try and look past the cloth. This wasn't aided by the reams of gas that were pumped out at random intervals throughout the performance, that made the subtitles slightly more difficult to read and triggered the asthma of a guy in the row behind me.

The play was about a protester in 70s' South Korea who fought for rights for labourers and died at the protest and his mother's reaction to his death. Although the topic was interesting, it was delivered stiffly and the attempt to humanize the hero through the mother/son relationship didn't move me as it must have attempted to. The play read like a Union propaganda film, with martyrs of the protest flashing up on the screen with rhythmic drums. It was then unsurprising to learn in the Q&A that the actors were in fact not actors but social activists and that the play had a very one sided political message to preach. This was then reinforced when Taiwanese "labourers" (I put quote marks around this word because in Taiwanese popular usage the word for labour "勞工" includes white collar office workers), who were basically people who had been hired by the government to do the same job as civil servants without the benefits of being a civil servant, bemoaned their plight. At one point one of them stated that their situation was worse than Korea in the 70s and worse than the plight of foreign labourers (勞工) and workers (工人) in Taiwan. Although to be fair I don't understand completely the nature of their situation, although it has been quite high profile in the media, but to be honest this seemed like a massive exaggeration as many of the plethora of documentaries about foreign workers in Taiwan can attest to. The preaching style of the play, did no justice to the issue, and the images and dialogue were cliche, reminiscent of the early works of Taiwanese literature and mainland socialist literature. This cliched dialogue and symbolism reinforced the image of the hero as an idealized hero, and had none of the depth of understanding of the disenfranchised classes of society of works like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman or John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row. Which suggests the distance of Wang Molin from the working class in Taiwan, as he only seems to conceive of them from a theoretical, iconic ideal as opposed to exploring them as more complex human beings with aspirations and vices.

On my way home from the theatre I saw the director again, grabbing a beer by the roadside with a group of youths that I supposed to be members of the stage crew, still wearing his Che Guevara shirt, and most likely still spouting the half-baked idealism of a 1st year politics university student.

Image taken from: http://katinkr.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/%E3%80%8A%E5%86%8D%E8%A6%8B%EF%BC%81%E6%AF%8D%E8%A6%AA%E3%80%8B-%E4%B8%80%E5%80%8B%E9%9F%93%E5%9C%8B%E5%B7%A5%E4%BA%BA%E6%AF%8D%E8%A6%AA%E7%9A%84%E6%AD%BB%E8%80%8C%E5%BE%A9%E7%94%9F/

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Performance Friday 15th April 2011, 7.30pm

My teacher gave me some tickets to see this performance, by the Tainaner Theatre Troupe. I'd been to the theatre in the Xinyi branch of Eslite before to see a play inspired by the songs of Chen Qizhen, a Taiwanese singer (膚色の時光 Once, upon hearing the skin tone). I remembered so clearly having been there before because the stage is slightly unusual in that it is a round stage that divides the audience into two sections at either side of the stage, which means they enter through two separate doors. The last play I'd seen staged here had been interesting technically but weak in terms of plot. This play was similarly weak plot-wise - think a school production of Back to the Future fused with the cheese factor of popular Taiwanese TV dramas (Meteor Garden, The Devil Beside You). The story is about several connected love stories gone wrong. The death of the female protagonist's mother halts her wedding to a closeted gay man, and her mother comes back through time via a magic doorknob acquired in Tibet from an antique seller (who was portrayed with possibly the weakest piece of acting in the whole play). This sets off a series of events which changes the lives of the protagonists (in Sliding Doors fashion), so that they get the chance to "Re/turn" to the scene of their unresolved regrets and "amend" them. The female protagonist is reunited with her lost love, and the gay man is accepted by his best friend as a teenager (again thanks to the magic doorknob) so gets the confidence to come out early in life and so avoids the pitfalls of soliciting rent boys and using (God help us all) marijuana (there is an amusing scene where a major police bust over one joint).

The major problems with the play was not the acting, which was convincing, but rather the whole concept of the play, certain elements of which seemed to be lifted right out of Taiwanese popular culture and films. The obsession with making the play "international" without incorporating any international actors was also a problem for the play. It pandered to the Taiwanese obsession with European and Japanese culture, in that a lot of the play was set in London - where the male lead Charles had apparently grown up with an American accent; there was also a Taiwanese actress playing a Japanese dancer, two very Taiwanese sounding Americans as well as a Taiwanese playing a British postman. Only the latter was vaguely funny, with deliberate use of British English terms designed specifically to make the audience laugh, and none of them sounded natural in english. The director and writer Cai Bozhang (蔡柏璋), though a good singer, was a little self-indulgent as he sang in Taiwanese inflected English through most of the play. My companion for the evening, one of my classmates pointed out something that I think speaks true of my experience of the contemporary Taiwanese Theatre: that because the writers of a lot of the plays produced nowadays also act as director and actors, the scripts that they write are not really the focus of their work, and do not stand alone as literary works. Rather, the event and the production takes first place. The result is the rather paltry, soap-operaesque dialogue seen in this production.
It was a pity that the talented acting of the actors wasn't put to a better use, more worthy of the stage, otherwise the only role of theatre in Taiwan would seem to be to give a live experience of soap operas.

If we are to take the piece seriously as a piece of theatre, the other thing I have a problem with is the moralistic pedagogy of the production, and its assertion that there is "right" path in life that we are diverted from, which seems a rather simplistic and egotistical exercise in self-affirmation by the director (people who don't follow my liberal ideology are following the wrong path). Any deeper exploration of the idea of regret and "fixing the past" is absent, sexuality too, receives quite a superficial treatment in the play. There are two major gay stereotypes in action within the play. The director plays the role of the "gay best friend" of the protagonist, described as her "妺妺" (little sister) that we "might think is a little unusual". There is, however nothing unusual to a Western viewer about this kind of character: the emasculated, non-predatory inocuous gay male referred to by terms usually reserved for females (think of a slightly updated version of Are You Being Served's Mr Humphries, or a character lightly based on Taiwanese celebrity Cai Kangyong (蔡康永). His "one true love", Peter, (pause - wipe off the vomit - continue) is dead, so his sexuality is essentially safely removed from the present for the audience. The closeted gay fiance reversion to type after coming out also suggests that his previous masculinity was but a ruse, and at the end of the play he is shoe-horned into the "gay best friend" role as evidence of his acceptance of his sexuality. The other two representations of gay men, are also stereotypes, the predatory older man who chases the closeted gay man when he is a high school student, and the rent boy, whose brazen sexuality and drug-use lead him to arrest, which can be seen as divine justice within the play. As opposed to representing sexuality in a more diverse way, the production instead homogenises sexual and gender roles.

To sum up, the play is easy watching, its ending is predictable and safe. This is the territory of liberal morality and its pedagogical unfolding is suitably bland. None of which is what motivates me to go to the theatre, why pay 600NT or more to see a low-budget, albeit live, rehash of a feel-good movie. The night I went the production overran by about 40 minutes, so expect to be impatiently looking at your watch while you watch the happy-ending play out at length to the crooning wails of the directors singing.

Don't expect much and you'll have a long but vaguely entertaining night. 2/5

For more information go to the blog here.

Below are some interviews with cast members in and out of character:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shortbus (2006) John Cameron Mitchell

I liked this film because of the way it dealt with emotion and sex, and the labyrinthine sexual and emotional struggles that people have to deal with. Its graphic nature lends itself to an argument that the so-called "pop philosopher" Slavoj Žižek made in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

Pornography is, and it is, a deeply conservative genre. It's not a genre where everything is permitted. It's a genre base don a fundamental prohibition. We cross one threshold, you can see everything, close ups and so on, but the price you pay for it is that the narrative with justifies sexual activity should not be taken seriously. The screenwriters for pornography cannot be so stupid. You know, these vulgar narratives of a housewife alone at home, a plumber comes, fixes the hole, then the housewife turns to him, 'Sorry, but I have another hold to be fixed. Can you do it?' or whatever. Obviously there is some kind of a censorship here. You have either an emotionally engaging film, but then you should stop bust before showing it all, sexual act, or you can see it all but you are now allowed then to be emotionally seriously engaged. So that's the tragedy of pornography.

This film's graphic sexual portrayals are more akin to the reality of sex in the strong attachment with emotion that they have - and the aspirations, deeply held unease that is held in our sexuality surfaces in the characters - pressure to perform, the pressure to enjoy sex with someone you love, pressure to convince yourself that you are happy and fulfilled.

There were definite moments of recognition for me in the film, whether it be the struggle to deal with and embrace the physiological reality of your body, the emotional payload of sex or just learning to interact in a relationship that is both sexual and emotional. I found a lot of the dialogue was funny and rang truer than either the aforesaid pornographic vulgarity or the archetypal demands of romance films or rom-coms.

I can see where the film might receive some flak - the self-conscious reference to 9 11, and a hipsterish romantic notion of "New Yorkers" and sex clubs, but on a whole I never felt the film lurched into pretentiousness, and the situations and characters were believeable to me within the context of the fim.

I liked the idea that the structure in one's life being portrayed as such a fragile thing, and that the surface actions of your behaviour can go on from one day to the next while underneath everything has already changed.

Here's the trailer:

And a rant from Slavoj Žižek:

Thursday, March 17, 2011



法1。言論的人都認為「海」對台灣人來說是一種陌生、可怕的存在。 這部紀


預告片可以去 http://cc.shu.edu.tw/~hlee9/NanFangAo.htm 下載

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

나쁜 남자 Bad Guy (2002)

What struck me most about this film was how a series of events can completely alter one's world view, what had seemed so important to the female lead, a clumsy romance with a conventional boyfriend, an art history degree, sexual purity, loses all it's relevance in light of her experiences in prostitution. One way of looking at the male protagonist's actions towards her would be a kind of leveling; she spat on him in the first scene and slapped him humiliating him, and he revenges himself by making her realise how fragile her morality and her dignity really is. The bond between them seems two-fold though, he watches her be violated, but then avenges this violation by beating her violators. He too, tries to violate her, but turns to one of the other girls instead to release the sexual tension; she knows he tricked her into prostitution but is drawn to him at the same time. The female lead at the start of the film is unlikeable, and it is through the eyes of Hangi (the male protagonist) peeping through the glass at her repeated violation and subsequent resgination, that the audience sees her change and become more in touch with human emotion. The protagonist on his first meeting with the girl stands out of the crowd, with a scar drawn across his neck, and her look of disgust is because she knows what kind of person he is. So instead of trying to leave the world he is in, he brings her into his world, he becomes her pimp, as opposed turning (in a familiar Hollywood trope) into her Prince Charming.

I felt for a moment on hearing Hangi's high pitched voice, that the film would lull into cliché with the anti-hero being ashamed of his voice but getting up the courage to say he loved the heroine. This didn't occur, although the protagonist perhaps is reflecting on his own feelings of inferiority when he beats up his friend, shouting at him that it was stupid for a hooligan to have dreams of love. It is not love that wins out at the end of the film, but a kind of acknowledgement of and resgination to the bond they have which they consumated when she spat in his face and he watched her lose her virginity by a paying client.

I thought it was a great film, the intensity of the male protagonist was played fantastically, and the way the plot played out was original and uncannily real.