Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"My biggest crime is that I'm Japanese"

As part of my research for my thesis I watched a Japanese trilogy called The Human Condition (人間の条件), which was a Japanese movie set against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Although the movie was melodramatic, one line stayed with me which was (roughly remembered):

It seems my biggest sin in something I can't be blamed for, being Japanese

The hero Kaji (梶) tries and fails to implement a more humane form of colonialism. It's failure is that the very structure of colonialism and its presumptions are inhumane. In Brian Friel's The Home Place the "anthropological" projects that were going on represent the guise of something that looks innocent enough but is actually equally part of the colonial machine. That Christopher allows these projects to be carried out angered me, but when Con interrupts Richard's experiment by threatening the harmless and benevolent Christopher, some of the anger was replaced with pity, This made me think of the usual response to the descendents of Planters in Northern Ireland and its usual association with the Israeli occupation of Palestine (in Northern Ireland this can be observed by the Israeli and Palestinian flags flying alongside the tricolour and the Union Jack on telegraph poles and wall murals throughout the North.)

But to go back to the point I raised from The Human Condition we come to the question of responsibility, blame and inheritance. All the planters who made a conciouss choice to take part (for whatever reason) in the colonial project in Northern Ireland are now long dead. The rest were born into a status quo. There is, in essence, a difference between maintaining the colonial system you were born into and making a choice to partake in a colonial project - and so there is a difference between the descendents of Protestant (English/Scottish) planters in Northern Ireland and the first generation colonialists who are pushing into the Gaza Strip for more territory. Can one then blame someone for being born? One can say that this person once born can choose to fight the colonial machinery, but this is fighting to annhilate himself. The problem with blame in postcolonialism is the ephermeral nature of human life.

The Irish characters in the play are sympathetic to this situation, they take exception only to Richard Gore's measuring of the head sizes of "natives" but respect that Christopher was a good landlord and a generous man - even if born into a colonial household. This does not stop him feeling a traitor to "his kind".

The conclusion Friel draws is unclear. The threat of violence in the play seems almost a superegoic voice of history, enunciating the crimes of the Gores's forefathers. But how long can one hold on to past wrongdoings, when does a colonized settlement or territory become just a "home"?

"It will not ripen well"

I started this book, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, expecting something similar to Don Quixote and an antiquated redo of servant master relations. The book was, however, hilarious, it demolished the American Dream and American romantic notions of their own history with tender satire.

The tale is a fleshing out and reimagination of the travels of Alexis de Toqueville, a noble from an old Norman aristocratic family who wrote Democracy in America after his travels there in 1831.

His book not only brings to life the attitudes and society one can imagine in the era just after the French Revolution and the United States Declaration of Independence, but it also encapsulates the essence of French, US, and British character which shape the way the countries have evolved.

At university I was friends with an Etonian and another guy from a public school who constantly extolled the virtues of an aristocracy (or from the more politically correct of the two, the need for a leading class and a Conservative government). This was material for much debate as I was repulsed by the presumption of these two Englishmen, who claimed some sort of superiority for no really credible reasons (one a birthright the other money). The arguments circulated around the common people not really knowing what was good for them etc. This is the voice in the book that Olivier represents, who demand a life of leisure which requires others to work their hands to the bone. The only qualification is to keep them pacified enough to prevent revolution, which the French had overlooked in their overindulgence. The book however, while satirizing the Garmonts, is even more cynical of the "democratic spirit" of the New World, which essentially reduces equality to a monetary concept, or as it is put in the book:

Equality exists only in the marketplace

The other character in the novel, Parrot, Olivier's English servant, originally the more cynical of the two, in the end holds out hope for America and is entranced by the American Dream. However, the nature of American democracy was he states essentially a nominally distinct version of monarchy:

Democracies and monarchies, it does not matter - the world is filled with poor men tortured by the state. The rich man makes an endless supply of them, and when the Americans won their independence the king must find a new place to put his prisoners. So - Australia was invented by the British, that whole dry carcass, its withered dugs offered to our criminal lips.

The naivete of Garmont in his mission comes to a cynical end when his relationship with an American girl and America itself comes to and end:

'Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of science and geography, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theatre gaudy spectacles, the painting made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeios and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist.

This made me think of the way that we conceive of politicians in general, and particularly the way the American president is perceived. There seems to be an effort to elect an every day person as a president or there seems to be some joy taken in the idea that anyone could become the president in a democracy. Is this then a good thing? And in a century were there is no moral impediment on people (the multitude of churches are all subordinate to the state in most countries) only a legal impediment. So in effect if it's legal then it's ok. This leads one to question the awe or leadership of the president or other politicians if there is no hierarchy in society. By electing people that are average or ordinary there seems little value in their leadership. As is stated in the book:

All official positions are given for political reasons; the spirits of faction and intrigue grow here as they do under monarchies

That money is the deciding factor over justice, and that this is acknowledged by the Americans themselves is something distasteful to the French noble:

It was an event impossible to conceive in France, for I obtained this justice - and justice it was - with the ditribution of dollars [...] you would think this such a truly disgusting matter that it needs be transacted in the dead of night, but no. The beneficiaries had come straight from their homes or counting houses, the otherwise elegant Mr Peek carrying a small dot of egg yolk on his dimpled chin.

I think what Olivier criticises here is the openess of the role of money in securing justice. If the French were unfair in their treatment of prisoners, it was under the understanding that they were "guilty" even if this a pretence. But in American society this facade of justice and right and wrong even is subordinate to the rule of money. So for all the promise of democracy, its virtues were also victim to what Olivier calls:

this national manner of joking, where the main point, by dint of boastfulness and exaggeration, was to make the visitor appear a fool

I thought this was interesting when you look at the recent controversies on torture and Guantanemo Bay in the US. These are discussed in terms of legality, but not so much in terms of morality, because morality perhaps isn't seen as having a role in government in the US when it comes to security issues.

I'd be interested in what the two of you think, given that you're both Americans even if you haven't read the book.

Definitely worth reading 5/5

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I just finished this intense personal account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster.  More than half of the book is primarily exposition and background information on the sport of mountaineering and on the individuals involved.  Then once they've reached 8,000 meters (approx. 26,000 ft) and things start getting dicey with the oncoming gale, the books starts getting seriously tense and I couldn't put it down.  While, the book is engrossing and truly an important warning for any inexperienced climber harboring romantic notions of reaching the roof of the world, this should serve as a sobering realization that Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha) is no small feat that relies not merely on technical skill and experience but also interminable will, self-discipline (to turn back around at the agreed-upon time even within a stone's throw of the summit), timing, and sheer luck.

I'm very grateful that Krakauer summoned the courage and resolve to write this harrowing personal account of the tragedy, but at the same time I can't help but agree with some of the criticism by the relatives of the deceased.  At many times throughout the tale, Krakauer seemed to heavily criticize certain individuals or even groups of people who he felt directly contributed to the disaster.  As I wasn't there I cannot judge the veracity of these allegations but they just rub me the wrong way.

Scott Fischer's sister, Lisa Fischer-Luckenback wrote:

What I am reading is YOUR OWN ego frantically struggling to make sense out of what happened.  NO amount of your analyzing, criticizing, judging, or hypothesizing will bring the peace you are looking for.  There are no answers.  No one is at fault.  No one is to blame.  Everyone was doing their best at the given time under the given circumstances.

No one intended harm for one another.  No one wanted to die.

What did shock me was how he described how callous some individuals were.  For instance, the Japanese team who apparently saw the dying Ladakhis on the trail coming up from the Tibetan side of the mountain and merely ignored them without offering any assistance whatsoever.  Then when interviewed about it, their (Hanada and Shigekawa) only response was, "We didn't know them.  No, we didn't give them any water.  We didn't talk to them.  They had severe high-altitude sickness.  They looked as if they were dangerous."

"Shigekawa explained, 'We were too tired to help.  Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality.'  Turning their back on Smanla and Morup, the Japanese team resumed their ascent, passed the prayer flags and pitons left by the Ladakhis at 28,550 feet, and—in an astonishing display of tenacity— reached the summit at 11:45 A.M. in a screaming gale."

This passage made me take pause and I had to put down the book for a minute and get something to drink since I could not comprehend putting the dubious goal of reaching the summit over helping fellow human beings on the brink of death.

Having lived for a period of time in Taiwan myself it was also disheartening to hear of the poor actions and behaviors of the Taiwanese team, which was apparently universally panned and derided by the other groups.  First for their incompetence in mountaineering and for their debacle on Mt. McKinley in Alaska where they placed the lives of others in danger.  Then, this time on Mt. Everest, when one of their Taiwanese team members fell to his death while trying to evacuate his bowels, the team leader, 'Makalu' Gau, just replied, "O.K." on the radio and continued to make his ascent to the summit. (He explains his questionable actions and attitude in "Frontline:  Storm Over Everest," but I'm wondering if this was just rationalization ex post facto.)

Of course, this book isn't entirely a chronicle about the foibles and frailties of man, but also about the triumph and heroism of common people.  Stuart Hutchinson and Neal Beidelman stepped up when others collapsed due to hypoxia, hypothermia, severe altitude sickness (HAPE, HACE, etc.) and/or severe fatigue.  Also, Rob Hall died almost entirely due to the responsibility he felt as leader of the expedition.  He stayed up on the summit because Hansen could not budge without bottled oxygen.  He could have easily left him and gone down to base camp but heroically and obdurately, he refused to leave him and as a result died due to exposure.

I think this message from a Sherpa hits the message home:

I am a Sherpa orphan.  My father was killed in the Khumbu Icefall while load-ferrying for an expedition in the late sixties.  My mother died just below Pheriche when her heart gave out under the weight of the load she was carrying for another expedition in 1970.  Three of my siblings died from various causes, my sister and I were sent to foster homes in Europe and the U.S.

I never have gone back to my homeland because I feel it is cursed.  My ancestors arrived in the Solo-Khumbu region fleeing from persecution in the lowlands.  There they found sanctuary in the shadow of "Sagarmathaji," "mother goddess of the earth."  In return they were expected to protect that goddesses' sanctuary from outsiders.

But my people went the other way.  They helped outsiders find their way into the sanctuary and violate every limb of her body by standing on top of her, crowing in victory, and dirtying and polluting her bosom.  Some of them have had to sacrifice themselves, others escaped through the skin of their teeth, or offered other lives in lieu. . . .

So I believe that even the Sherpas are to blame for the tragedy of 1996 on "Sagarmatha."  I have no regrets of not going back, for I know the people of the area are doomed, and so are those rich, arrogant outsiders who feel they can conquer the world.  Remember the Titanic.  Even the unsinkable sank, and what are foolish mortals like Weather, Pittman, Fischer, Lopsang, Tenzing, Messner, Bonington in the face of the "Mother Goddess."  As such I have vowed never to return home and be part of that sacrilege.

I'm not sure if sacrilegious hubris is what truly angered Sagarmatha and caused her to wreck revenge on her hapless victims but ever since the British first decided to conquer the world's tallest mountain, she has claimed 200 lives and a 120 of those lifeless remains are still frozen on her slopes.

(For those interested, you can read the original Outside magazine article that Jon Krakauer authored here.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Овсянки / Silent Souls (2010)

This is a Russian film by director Aleksei Fedorchenko (Алексей Федорченко) which was shown on the 14th November 2010 as part of the Golden Horse Film Festival (金馬影展) held in Taipei annually. The film lends itself to comparison with a recent Taiwanese film which is also being shown at the festival Seven Days in Heaven (父後七日). Both films deal with the grieving process, although the way it is dealt with is and its cultural significance differ greatly. Silent Souls deals not only with the death of Tanya and the protagonist's father, mother and sister, but also with the death of the Meryan culture, which the protagonist sees as a necessary evil, that should be let be. Although the Finno-Ugric Meryan language had been lost, some of the traditions, like tying coloured threads onto the pubic hair of new brides and dead women and "smoking" i.e. telling someone else all about the intimacy secrets between you and your lover before their body is cremated, had been preserved by some. The protagonist had collected these cultural remnants, along with photographing the typical Meryan features, but he knows that with his death the only traces of the Meryan way of life will drift into oblivion. The Meryan customs bring comfort to the man whose wife has passed and to the protagonist when his father passes. Seven Days in Heaven, in contrast, although it also shows the traditional funeral rites, uncovers with gentle humour the artifice of these rites and how distant they hold one from the real emotions of grief. The two films on the surface seem then to work to opposite ends, the former is a melancholy eulogy for the great Meryan cultural tradition in anticipation of the imminent extinction of its memory, while the latter is a tender but satirical look at the traditional culture of Taiwanese.

With similar yearning for the past to the protagonist of this film, the notion of Irish Nationalism, which invents for itself a pre-colonial conception of Ireland which a United Ireland could hypothetically inherit, it insists that Irish cultural traditions should be resurrected, and Irish language and culture should be imposed in what is now called Northern Ireland, which would be incorporated into the Republic of Ireland. It is likely however that it was Ireland's colonizers that endowed a collective identity upon the Irish, whose concept of the world I doubt fitted into the modern concept of nations or indeed "the Irish". This in my opinion would change the nature of those traditions, reinventing them into autocratic conventions that mimic the very cultural hegemony that erradicated them in the first place. The protagonist's resigned entreaty from beyond the grave is to "let it be", to let the cultural traditions that he so painstakingly researched fall into irrelevance is moving and reminiscent of the words of Hugh in Brian Friel's Translations:

"a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of ... fact. [...] We must learn those new names. [...] We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our new home. [...] It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. [...] We must never cease renewing those images, because once we do, we fossilize."1
This then is the element that unites the two films, the necessary evolution and dissolution of cultural rites with the passing of time. Nothing can be forcibly retained in the cultural
mêlée, retaining anything by force will change its nature.

The film is beautifully shot, and the emotions behind the stolid 'expressionless' faces are intriguingly moving. There is no doubt that the film is open to a variety of interpretations and at times, given my unfamiliarity with Russia, some of the jokes were lost on me, however, there was a remarkable anti-dramatic quality to the film, with the unresolved love triangle, the raging passion of grief and the death of a culture all faced with a melancholy abandon, and acknowledged dispassionately by the characters themselves. The activity of the birds in the film could be taken as a proxy for the human emotion, when the men are silent the birds call excitedly, and just before the violent crash that concludes the film, the birds become silent.

Film Rating:
Slow moving but beautiful for that

Watch the trailer here

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Der Baader Meinhoff Komplex (2008)

This German film, directed by Uli Edel and written by Bernd Eichinger (the same guy who wrote "Das Parfum" and "Der Untergang"),  gives my generation a glimpse into 1970s Germany, where the social and cultural revolution was even more intensified than in the U.S. as the youth of Germany felt a personal responsibility to prevent fascism to rise again.  At the time, the university students in Germany felt American imperialism was encroaching around the world and they felt compelled to prevent another Hitler from assuming power.  One of the protestors, shirtless and brazen, shouted, "Dresden! Hiroshima! VIETNAM!"  I believe this summed up their anger and frustration at the American military response to the 'red terror.'  (In an earlier scene, Gudrun passionately decried America's involvement in the escalation of the Middle East conflict by supplying Israel with fighter jets and munitions.)

The film later focuses primarily on a radical faction of the disaffected youth — the Red Army Faction (RAF).  This group grows increasingly violent as they find peaceful civil disobedience to be ineffective for immediate change.  Their protests and minor crimes for attention soon escalate into organized bombings, robberies, kidnappings, and assassinations.  This film lets you get in the shoes of the terrorists and show what was the impetus for this movement in the first place.

One of the arsonists, Gudrun Ensslin, was interviewed while in custody and she told the journalist:  "This time we will put up resistance.  We have a historical responsibility.  People here and in America eat, eat, and shop, so they can never reflect or gain awareness, because otherwise they would have to do something. [...]  I'll never resign myself to doing nothing.  Never.  If they shoot our people... then we are going to shoot back. [...]  All over the world armed comrades are fighting.  We must show our solidarity. [...]  Such sacrifices have to be made.  Or do you think that your theoretical masturbation will change anything?"

"What we need is a new morality.  You have to draw a clear line between yourself and your enemies.  Free yourself from the system and burn all bridges behind you."

Trailer (in Deutsche because the English trailers don't do the movie any justice):

The movie starts off great with a string of interesting characters, great cinematography, and a gripping storyline.  While the acting is superb by all the major actors and actresses, the film tends to drag a bit after the exposition.  Also, the denouement also seems to be sloppy when compared to the rising action.  The ending also seemed abrupt and unfinished; an epilogue might have helped with closure.  Overall though, I thought the film was great and it stirred up great interest in me concerning the RAF, which I've never heard of before.

I also never knew about the disturbing fact that denazification was not complete in Germany in that many ex-Nazis assumed positions of power in Germany after the war.  (source:  Wikipedia — Red Army Faction).

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Whispered Life (2010) Marie-Francine Le Jalu, Gilles Sionnet

This film dealt with superfans of Japanese writer Osamu Dazai (太宰治). At first sight, given that the focus of obsession for these fans is an author and his novels, these fans might seem to transcend our expectations of the vulgarity of worshipping popstars, or cultural icons, it is soon clear, however, that this is not the case. The fans' obsession differs little from the teenage girls who scream hysterically at boybands. Throughout the course of the documentary the fans consistently glorify suicide and death, all the characters in the film were slightly repugnant in this way. Suicide in the film was ironically portrayed as another way to become eternal, similar in a way to the very egotistical act of writing or to the very concept of American Idol. The dramatic pathos of suicide is an attempt to endow their empty lives with meaning; an attempt to supercede the boundaries of life and death. I remember one of my teachers telling us about a Chinese poet who tried to launch his fame by commiting suicide after the completion of his book, in an attempt to mimic the suicide of other literary greats in Chinese literary history, like Qu Yuan (屈原) and Lao She (老舍). His plan failed because his writing was so bad, so he garnered attention by his suicide but his work was quickly forgotten. Each of the characters implied that "they were writing" and are attracted by suicide and mental illness as a way of marking their imaginary genius. This marks their lives with melancholy and depression, which they suppose to be central to the creative project when it in fact is seemingly incidental to creativity. The character in the film who writes her blog believes herself to be writing something of great value, and ties this value to depression and suicide, but what she is writing is the mundane description of common depression. The film echoed Dazai's call for "Love and Revolution", the directors went on to explain that they had interest in Dazai for the French qualities of this very call. This call rang false for me though, as this urge to mark one's life in the taking of it, is in essence a strong statement of one's belief in the world; one has to believe in something to be subsequently disappointed in it. Every one of the fans seemed to me to be no different from those desperately untalented people who attend American Idol auditions with so much self-belief, only to realize that talent is not a state of mind. The message that the documentary communicated to me, was similar to that of shows like American Idol; to embrace the ephermeral nature of life, and renounce attempts to hold onto this world beyond the bounds of death and to live averagely.

Film Rating 4/5

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gallants 打擂台 (2010)

I thought this was a great movie. I watched a couple of weeks ago (sorry for the late post), and the core theme of this movie is nostalgia. At its base, it is a traditional Kung-fu movie, but I think its really about Hong Kong people feeling lost and disconnected in the new age of technology and globalization of culture, and yearning for the old life style in Hong Kong, which is reflected by Kung-fu and the small villages around the edges of Hong Kong.

The movie starts out with Cheung, a dweeby guy that works for a real estate agency and is pretty unsuccesful, but Cheung is kind of a dick because, even though he is a skinny guy, he used to beat on his neighbor. So, his boss sends him to some tiny village in Hong Kong because they want to smash everything and construct high-rise apartment buildings. Being a dick, Cheung starts picking on some fat kid, but the kid's brother comes and scares him off, and then Cheung is saved by Dragon (or Tiger? I forget whose name is what), one of two aging kung-fu students who have dutifully waited by their master who has been in a coma for thirty years. Then, Cheung meets up with the neighbor kid he used to beat up because he is supposed to help them take over the village to build the apartments.

Anyway, I would not say its a "deep" movie, but there are definitely a lot of nostalgic elements flying around, and its a fun and entertaining movie.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Shot My Love (2010) Tomer Heymann

This film won the audience award at the Taizhong Biennial Documentary Film Festival. It is an Israeli film which is compiled of a series of home videos, but not in the conventional sense that we regard "home videos". Heymann uses the camera to initiate serious discussions with his mother and his boyfriend, as well as recording their present lives, and bodies. His boyfriend is German and what I liked about the film was that it refused to focus on the "gay" relationship, instead focusing on the gay "relationship"; Tomer and his boyfriend discussed their relationship as two people and their families are both accepting of homosexuality. The difficulties and the focus of the documentary was love across two different cultures, especially across the sensitive bounds of Israel and Germany - with Tomer's boyfriend pursuing a policy of ignorance is bliss in terms of his possible Nazi heritage. The film was interesting because of its openness and reluctance to cower away from an invasive honesty; this included the boyfriend's discussion of life after being abused by his priest, and the doubts and worries he felt entering into a relationship in which he was willingly giving himself as well as the bitter pessimism of the director's mother about love given her divorce. The boyfriend's curiosity about himself and his relationship with his parents and Tomer is intriguing again for its honesty to his experience of emotion. He also points out that Tomer often saves up the "serious" conversations for the camera; this was not only pointing out the artificial nature of the presence of the camera recording "normal life" but also hinted at Tomer's retreat behind the camera, a safe place from which to carry-out serious discussions, which suggested a lack of self-exposure, unlike the vulnerability of the mother and the boyfriend, constantly subject to the objective gaze of the camera. In this way, he plays the role of the director, as opposed to revealing himself.

The perspective with which Stephen's examines his own role as "victim" and his rejection of the victim mentality stands in stark contrast with the caustic post-colonial self-victimization of Tahimik, who was also featured in the film festival as a focus director, throughout his films.

Film Rating 5/5

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"We needed each other desperately to survive so we wouldn't go mad and that's why we hated each other."

Crazy is a 1999 film by Heddy Honigmann, who will be featured in the Taiwan International Documentary Festival about to be underway in Taizhong (Oct 22 - 31, 2010). The film talks to former Dutch UN peacekeepers about their experiences of a variety of different conflicts including Bosnia, Korea andCambodia. The interesting thing about the documentary is that it asks the peacekeepers about their experiences by focusing on the songs that kept them sane throughout the conflicts. As well as classical music there were a good few almost comically dated songs, Guns and Roses hits, and Seal's "Crazy" to name a few, but these songs take on a more poignant meaning when the camera witnesses the former peacekeepers carried back into the horrors of their memories of what they saw and experienced. Even the most blasé of the peacekeepers were visibly affected by the music.

The movie is interesting whether you approach the it with an interest in terms of dealing with the stress of conflict, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or approach it with an interest in the definition or effect of music. A cheesy love song can become laden with unrelated pathos of tragedy of war, this film seems to probe the way different human psyches react to the pain of others, whether it is retreat into the fantasy of music, regarding one's job as just carrying out orders and thereby rejecting moral responsibility for the effects of those actions, or identification with the victims.

The excellence of the film comes through in its unwillingness to detour from its field of interest, and its refusal to indulge in heroising or criticism of the UN's role as peacekeepers; It's aim lies not in a political viewpoint which it wishes to forward but rather in the observation of the phenomenon of modern war and peace.

Rating: 4.5/5 Definitely worth seeing

The trailer is soundless unfortunately because of copyright (!?!)

and there's an interview in Spanish with the director:

and English

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Kadu, in my home there is nothing much, I can go camping for a month, nothing gets lost. That is my wealth"

Turumba is the 1981 film by Philippines director Kidlat Tahimik. The film is narrated from the perspective of a young boy called Kadu. It gives an account of the dehumanizing effects of the European system of mass production on the village where Kadu lives. The local craft of Papier-mâché prepared for a local festival called "Turumba" is distorted and homogenized by a German woman who starts to export the craft works to Germany en masse. What had originally been a family enterprise laden with tradition, becomes a sudo-sweat shop, and the models that had been used before are discarded for the 1971 Munich Olympic Games mascot. Kadu's father who originally had been the Kantore at the festival every year becomes the boss of this enterprise and becomes obsessed with accruing status symbols of wealth, including a TV, a Mercedes Benz, foreign travel. This material wealth is contrasted to Pati, a machete maker, who lives simply but happily without the pressures of trying to prove wealth in material possessions.

The theme of the film is consistent with Tahimik's debut film, Perfumed Nightmare which also talks of a disillusion with the Western "developed world" and a pastoral longing for a simpler life uncomplicated by a imported system of values.

This film reminded me somewhat of the short story 蕭蕭 (Xiaoxiao) by 沈從文 (Shen Congwen). The short story, in one interpretation, conveys a longing for life on the margins of civilization, as yet untouched by modernization. The old society's rules and laws although seemingly chauvinistic and oppressive are regulated by the institutions and the men and women within the society. This is represented within the story by the horrible things we hear about how women are treated in the society in which Xiaoxiao lives, but the relatively benign treatment of the protagonist herself. The film like the book seem to be praising this cultural wilderness while simultaneously acknowledging its coming destruction. Both the film and the short story question the prizing of the modern above the native, and seem to point to an already void desire to found an alternative Eastern modernism, independent of the perils of what is often called "The American Dream".

This film lacks some of the wit and creativity of the first film but it's definitely worth watching.

As far as I'm aware it's all available on youtube.

Film Rating: 5/5

Interesting Quote:

(Referring to moulds for Papier-mâché) "Suddenly they all have time. The lovers, the general, the horses, they're now unemployed for the first time in 50 years. [...] For 40 years the sound of her sewing machine created Turumba fashions, creations of love. After the Olympics, Papa's factory shall rise here, creations without soul."

Les Roseaux Sauvages (Wild Reeds)

"Wild Reeds (1994)" is a French coming of age film by director André Téchiné.  It centers around the sexual awakening of four high school students with the backdrop of the ongoing French-Algerian war.  The moody, sulking Henri Mariana is French Algerian and after witnessing his father's death has become withdrawn and unmotivated to graduate.  The main protagonist, Francois, discovers he is queer after a chance encounter with an Italian immigrant, Serge Bartolo, who struggles in French class.  Serge has a proposal that they become friends since they are complete opposites and thus complement each other.  Serge is good at math and precocious in sexuality, while Francois is exceptional in French and knows many females but doesn't score with them.  Francois' best mate is a female named Maïté Alvarez, whom both Serge and Henri lust after, but Maite is afraid of intimacy with men so she avoids their individual company and instead clings to her best friend, Francois (At one point, Maite says, "I don't like guys who look at girls just as girls" and Francois replies that "It's human nature."  She states, "Then I don't like human nature.")  Maite admits that she wishes she could just grow up and be rid of her mum and Francois but at the same time she loves them both dearly.  After Francois admits that he has been with a man, she quickly reassures him that she doesn't care and that she still needs his emotional support.

The namesake of the film comes from a fable by Jean de La Fontaine, "The Oak and the Reed:"

The oak said to the reed:
"Nature did you wrong.
To you a tiny wren is a burden.
A mild puff of wind forces your head low.
I, a huge Caucasian peak, defy the sun's rays and the raging storms.
A gale for you is a breeze for me.
If you let me shelter you, you would suffer less.
I would defend you.
But you were born on the edges of the kingdom of storms.
Nature was unfair to you."

"Your pity," answered the reed, "is kind, but unnecessary.
I fear not the wind.
I bend without breaking.
You have borne its gusts without flexing your spine.
But wait and see."

And as he spoke, from the distant horizon
came the worst storm the North has ever known.

The oak remained rigid, the reed bent.

Harder, the wind uprooted him whose head touched the sky
and whose feet, the empire of the dead.

(This translated version is transcribed from the Andre Techine's film.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Your mother is wise to know a simple tribute is more powerful than the giant monuments of our civilization

This film, Perfumed Nightmare (1977), is directed by and stars Kidlat Tahimik, a Phillipines born director who released this film with the help of Francis Ford Coppola. Although it will be shown as part of a documentary film festival in Taizhong at the end of October, the film does not follow the style of the conventional documentary, and incorporates what could be called performance art, or a performative rendition of memory, experience and emotion.

The director, in what seem to be fictionalized sequences traces his memory of setting out from the Phillipines to France and then the US. The director seems to attempt an experiential or sensous recreation of the trip. First setting out from his imagination of the West, a kind of Occidentalist structure with its foundation in Voice of America broadcasts and dealings with American soldiers. The film employs a lot of surrealist imagery to fragment the logic of the narrative, the events on screen quite often happen in contradiction to the narrative voice of the film.

The film seemed to be countering the notion that modernization in the guise of progress is a good blueprint for what in the West is referred to as "The Third World". The protagonist who had been eager for progress to occur rescinds his membership from a fan club of an immigrant to America who helped to build the Apollo space shuttle. The signals his realisation that the American dream is not the path to happiness. At first heis awed by France but as he grows accustomed to life there he realizes that technological progress does not endow places or things with the meanings and emotions that places and things are endowed with in his hometown. The faceless encroach of the supermarket on the 4 seasons market confirms for him this absence of meaning that he comes upon in the West.

Some excellent bits of the film include the Phillipino cast "whiting up" in a scene where they act as the white guests at a farewell party that make Kidlat feel small, prompting him to say:

I am Kidlat Tahimik, I'm not as small as you think, nothing can stop me from crossing my bridge.

Another scene, earlier on in the film, is where religious self flagellation is portrayed, and Kidlat goes to pray to the Virgin Mary, who speaks to him in a very crude manner, revealing the snideness of an icon who demands the pain of self-flaggelation. Mary describes Kidlat in the garb of self-flaggelation as "sexy".

The final quote I want to mention is the following:

The white carabao is rare, it is born against nature. The white carabao is beautiful but inside its cold and aggressive. One day, Kidlat, you will understand that the beauty of the white carabao is like the sweetness of the chewing gum the American soldiers gave you.
This seems to me to indicate the illusion created by Eastern imagination of the Occident.

Film rating: 5/5

The picture above is from a painful scene of circumcision - village style.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Solitude begets originality, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude can also beget perversity, disparity, the absurd and the forbidden."

A Single Man is a 2005 film by director Tom Ford. The movie is subtle but brilliant. It follows the life of an English professor in an American university, in the days after he hears the news of his lover's death. His life begins to fall apart as he sinks into grief and lonliness. In the film there are four threads of human contact in his life which run throughout the film.

The first is the relationship he has with a female friend he knew from London. Despite the fact he is gay, she still holds a flame for him and sees his relationship with his dead lover as indulging in perversity and avoiding true love and happiness with her. The second is his relationship with his neighbour, who, with her family and her slightly homophobic husband, seems to represent normal heterosexual America, or what is accepted in terms of life purpose. When the little boy squashes the butterfly while George peeps in from next door, it seemed to address this conflict between "straight" man and "gay" man, in dialect, as we see the pride and aggression of the homophobic father passed on to the son, the father and son both assume to have justifable and purposeful lives. I thought it seemed to allude to the more ephemeral nature of homosexual love, in that it stops at the first generation, squashed like a butterfly, being so much more delicate and fragile than heterosexual love. I thought this was interesting in that his partner's death challenges George's jusitifcation for living.It reminded me of a bit of Notes of a Desolate Man (荒人手記) by Zhu Tianwen (朱天文):
在那裡,性不必擔負繁殖後代的使命,因此性無需雙方兩造的契約限制,於是性也不必有性別之異。 女女,男男,在撤去所有藩籬的性領域哩,互相探索著性,性的邊際的邊際,可以到哪裡。性遠離了原始的生育功能,昇華到性本身及目的,感官的, 藝術的,美學的,色情國度。這樣,是否就是我們的終極境地?我們這些站人類百分之十屬種渴望到達的夢土?

From atop the palisade, a brief glance down was enough to make me dizzy. As I stood there, I felt something that maybe Foucault had experienced: erotic utopia.
There, sex would not have to shoulder the mission of procreation, so there would be no contractual demand on either partner, and gender difference would no longer matter. Women with women, men with men, in a sexual realm where all barriers would have been dismantled, exploring sex together and the borders of the borders of sex, as far as they wanted to go. Sex would now be removed from the primitive function of child-bearing, sublimated until sex became its own objective, an erotic nation built upon sensuality, artistry, aesthetics. But was this the ultimate realm for us? Was this the dreamland so earnestly sought by those of us who comprise 10 percent of the human race?
Foucault was silent.
Standing there, I seemed to understand that many erotic nations must have appeared in the course of human history. They were like exotic flowers that disappeared after blooming but once. Later generations could only dimly detect their existence amid vanishing, decaying texts, for they could neither expand nor grow. They became extinct in the frozen sorrows of indetermination and slow degeneration.

I liked the way the mother was portrayed with a certain sympathy and sensitivity, in spite of the sardonic disdain in which he seems to hold her on the surface. This embrace of ephermerality is magnified when as his colleague talks about the threat of the Cold War, George's mind is on the shirtless bodies of students playing tennis.

The nature of experiential living, how one experiences life, is portrayed brilliantly in the film, seemingly pointing to the absurd nature of thinking beyong the bounds of your own life. The third relationship is with a guy he meets outside a drugstore, who offers to sleep with him for money, the scene is not shot in a seedy way however, and after refusing they continue their discussion, talking about life and love.

The most focus is put on the fourth relationship with the student. There's a sexual tension between the two of them that is all the more ideal because it remains unrealized.This was very reminscent of the relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Through this unrealized sexual relationship, George is saved from suicide.

The film is shot beautifully, and his depression seems visible on screen, as it lifts the brightness increases at moments like when he makes the university secretary smile, or when he stares at Russ in class, when he sniffs some lady's dog and when he observes Carlos's beauty.

I thought that some interesting quotes were as follows:

Of course the Nazis were wrong to hate the Jews but their hating the Jews was not without a cause. It's just that the cause wasn't real. The cause was imagined, the cause was fear... a minority is only thought of as one when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority, a real threat or an imagined one. And therein lies the fear, but if that minority is somehow invisible then the fear is much greater

Carlos: Es la contaminación lo que le da su color
George: I've never seen the sky like this before.
Carlos: A veces las cosas más
horrorosas tiene su punta de encanta

Rating: 5/5

The title quote is taken from Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, the english translation for Notes of a Desolate Man is from Howard Goldblatt's translation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"I've got knives in my eyes, I'm going home sick."

"Brick" (2005) is a taut, dark mystery/thriller directed by Rian Johnson.  It's a movie about a high school student that infiltrates a drug ring in order to investigate the possible murder of his ex-girlfriend.  It's an unconventional drama/thriller based around high school characters.  I especially enjoyed the clever, smart lingo employed by the Brendan and 'the Brain.'  The writing (dialogue) for this film also by Rian Johnson is brilliant.

It's highly stylized and not that credible, but I like how it delves into the darker elements of high school life rather than focusing on the cheery, saccharine caricature portrayed by movies like "High School Musical."  I do think the movie could have been trimmed up and the pace could have been a bit quicker, but I was in also in an impatient mood when viewing it. 

A lot of the acting is melodramatic and theatrical as well but Joseph Gordon-Levitt really carries the movie as the protagonist, Brendan.  Norah Zehetner also puts in a commendable while understated performance as Laura.

I liked the scene in the parking lot when Brendan confronts Tugger over seeing 'the Pin' and Tugger drives his car full-on towards Brendan and Brendan just shuts his eyes... 

This movie is definitely worth a rent.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Since the title of this blog is "Shida Book Club," I feel chagrined that this is my first entry regarding a book.  It's about time I guess.  It's not that I haven't been reading, but that the reading material I've been perusing has been abstruse, esoteric and in most cases so ancient and irrelevant to modern society that I found it inappropriate to write about on a shared blog.  This novel by Krakauer, though, both moved me and is relatively contemporary.  It follows the tragic tale of an idealistic youth that graduated from my alma mater, Emory University in Atlanta.  His personal code of ethics and compulsion for communion with nature are all aspects that I highly resonate with.  Hence, after watching the film (2007, directed by Sean Penn) by the same name,  I was committed to reading the book as well.

Chris McCandless a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp has been vilified by numerous Alaskans for his supposed hubris and ignorance and lack of respect for the Great White North, where he perished.  However, I am never one to pass judgment on another and on the contrary, I find his feat not to be a failure but an exultation of the human spirit in spite of apparent appearances.

I end this review with a short excerpt from a letter written by Chris himself to a man, Ronald Franz, who had only known Chris for a short period of time after picking up a lone hitchhiker (Chris) but grew so fond of the boy that he asked Chris for permission to be his adopted father.

"The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure.  the joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.  If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be a crazy.  But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Let It Be

片名:無米樂 Let It Be
發行單位:公共電視發行日期:不明 (2004上映)



Rating: 3/5

No Impact Man: The Documentary (2009)

This unpretentious documentary is about a family who tries out a novel experiment to go one year without any environmental impact.  They gradually phase out all disposable items so that they produce no garbage.  They stop using carbon-powered transportation, so they only ride bikes to work.  Then they stop using electricity.  This forces them to go outside and stop being cooped up inside watching reality TV.  A company donated them a solar panel so that they could still use their computer to update the blog.  They made radical changes like not using plastic disposable diapers, doing laundry in the bathtub, composting all of their food scraps, etc. but they seemed to grow accustomed over time.  Some things didn't work well like the pot-in-a-pot (Nigerian refrigeration), but overall it seems even the biggest skeptic, the wife, seemed to turn a new leaf before the experiment ended.  She seemed to no longer be pre-diabetic because of the organic, plant-based local foods diet from the Farmer's Market, she weened herself off her caffeine addiction, and she even got over her reality TV obsession.  It's a simple documentary that lets you witness how an average American family living in NYC copes with the trials and tribulations of living with minimal environmental impact on the world.

It was rather surprising the backlash they received from environmentalists, who claimed he was only doing it for fame and fortune.  Even if that were true, I don't see why that should set people off.  He's doing something good for the environment and if he wants to make a living while doing it, it shouldn't affect others.  Also, he seemed very earnest in his belief in reducing a negative carbon footprint.  His wife, who was an admittedly addictive consumer (who spent nearly $1,000 on Chloe boots right before the project) resisted him most of the way so it wasn't an easy task.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

 I just watched this gripping albeit disturbing crime thriller/mystery (also known as "Män Som Hatar Kvinnor" or "Millennium: Part 1: Men Who Hate Women") based on the Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson.  I went in knowing nothing about the plot except that it was based on a bestselling book and that's usually how I like to watch movies.  This movie completely caught me off guard with the no-holds-barred graphic detail of sexual abuse, violence, and brutality.  I definitely cringed and winced at more than one scene.  Even though Lisbeth practiced un-PC vigilante vengeance, I felt it was poetic justice and even savored the sweet vindication when she meted out her own form of retribution.

I thought it was interesting that the author, Larsson, writes about these misogynistic characters due to one seminal instance in his life — he witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15.  He did not go to the aid of the victim and felt guilty ever since.  The rape victim was named Lisbeth, the same as the heroine in his tales.

In the movie, the main protagonist is played by Noomi Rapace, and she does a fantastic job in portraying the emotionally damaged and scarred character of Lisabeth Salander.  The detective is played by the famous Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist.  I'm looking forward to watching the sequel to this movie, "The Girl Who Played with Fire."  

《石頭夢》 胡台麗 2004







Wednesday, September 22, 2010

〈周鄭交質〉 《春秋左傳》隱公三年


Chinese Text Project




Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.(李爾王)

I really feel like things clicked into place at some point,Or maybe its the fact that me and Alison really got on.Or maybe its that i realised that it is true; No-one's really there fighting for you in the last garrison.
No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.
You are the one who's got your back 'til the last deed's done.
Scott can't have my back til the absolute end,
'cause hes got to look out for what over his horizon.
He's gotta to make sure he's not lonely, not broke.
It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above.
(英國樂團The Streets, 歌名: Empty Cans)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Carriers (2009)

This flick is in the category of "horror" but would probably be better labeled as a drama.  It starts out like a coming-of-age tale of carefree, young friends out on the open road up to no good, but the tone changes sharply as they encounter an unexpected blockade in the road.  A man has blocked both lanes of the street with his large SUV and is standing in the middle of the road holding a wrench.  All the passengers in the car tense up and immediately roll up the windows.  The man identifies himself as a father who just needs some petrol.  Then, we catch a glimpse of the little girl in the back seat wearing a medical face mask with dark splotches of fresh blood.

I won't spoil any more of the film, but suffice it to say it's not a conventional "horror"film.  This group of twenty-somethings have to make hard decisions; for in their world, following your conscience can mean signing your own obituary.

In one telling scene, they've nearly run out of gas and they see a sedan coming up.  Brian as usual decides to take an aggressive stance by barreling head-on towards the car and then immediately slamming on the breaks while turning rapidly so that they stop obliquely to the car but still blocking it's path entirely.  The more sedate and intelligent brother, Danny, tells Brian to let him handle the diplomacy.  The women are noticeably frightened and tell him to back away.  There is an ichthys symbol hanging prominently from the rearview mirror.  "Ivy league," as Brian likes to call his brother (because he got accepted to Yale before it closed due to obvious reasons), played on this to garner sympathy.  He said he hoped as "fellow Christians" they would find it in their hearts to spare some oil.  When that didn't work he lied and said that his wife in the car was pregnant and they only wanted to get somewhere cool where she could deliver in the shade.  This is when his riled up, uncouth brother comes out with guns a blazin', literally; however, it didn't exactly turn out as planned because that female Christian passenger was also armed.

Certain groups reacted to the pandemic differently.  Many holed up with trusted comrades while arming themselves to the teeth against strangers that were possibly infected.  Others, despairing their current situation decided to lash out at the marginalized, minority factions of society.  In one vivid scene, a group of men armed with shotguns chases down a lone victim and shoots him dead.  Our small band of protagonists are unwitting witnesses to the gruesome crime.  The next morning they are reminded of the night's grim shooting.  The group looks out from their windows at the grisly sight in silence.  The perpetrators had taken the corpse of their dead victim and tied him to a high post with rope.  They hung a large placard around his neck that read:  "Chinks brought it."

I liked witnessing the how the characters reacted when their personal moral convictions and close relationships were pitted against pragmatic expediency and their survival instincts.  This small band of friends started out with a simple plan to survive the pandemic by merely waiting for the rest of the world's infected population to die off, since this would mean the demise of the disease as well, yet following strict protocol isn't so easy when human emotions are also involved.  

I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

《崖上風景》(The Cliffside) 創劇團 Genesis Ensemble

I saw the Friday night performance of this modern play, as part of the "Taipei Fringe Festival" (臺北藝穗節) on the 11th September 2010. I didn't know exactly what to expect, as I hadn't seen any of the advertisements or the blurb, as my friend bought my ticket and I said yes on the spur of the moment. I've been to several of the experimental or amateur theatre performances in Taipei, often without knowing the titles in advance, with very mixed results. I remember sitting through a very low tech play about aliens that was possibly the worst play I've ever seen. Another play contrasted traditional opera performance with modern life, a lot of which was incomprehensible; Yet another was a well directed but weak plotted play set to the music of Chen Qizhen (陳綺貞).

The most interesting was when I turned up for "Human Condition III" (人間條件III) and despite not anticipating that the whole thing would be in Taiwanese, I was really moved by the performance (albeit this was not experimental).

I arrived in the theatre which was near the Huashan Creative Park (華山), due to the limits of this space, the different scenes of the play were all incorporated on to one stage, one behind the other as you viewed from the audience perspective. There was a projector used also to incorporate video into the performance. On arrival at the theatre I started to worry. There was a white kid in a wheelchair flashing up on screen with a Chinese explanation next to it that was too small to read from my seat in the back row. It was a play inspired by real life events my friend told me, and briefly whispered something about a broken neck before the play crawled into action. This led me to conclude that the plot would be about the heroic life of a young disabled child, which didn't appeal to me, in that I don't have much capability for pity at the best of times, especially when used as a blatant sentimental appeal to the heart strings.

The story turned out to be slightly different from what I had expected. It dealt with how the true story of a white foreigner and his Japanese wife jumped from a cliff to "join" their son after his death affected a pregnant Taiwanese woman and her husband who subsequently miscarry.

The couple were not very believable in their affection for each other, and there were too many glasses of water offered by the husband to the wife (My friend felt compelled to draw a cartoon satirizing this compulsion to solve any dispute with a glass of water). Towards the end, after the miscarriage there was a moment when I started to believe the couple, during quite a graphic argument, but the stage design left me an unfortunate view of the back stage staff chatting idly backstage while all this drama was going on. There was also some sort of Taiwanese broadcast going on just outside the theatre which lent a comic edge to the "tense" silences between the couple.

To summarize, the play was an immature approach to the topic matter, which was emphasized in one of the questions in the questionnaire they gave out at the play:

"Do you think this play was brave in its topic matter?"

I didn't think the play was brave. I remember a drama assignment in class when I was 15, requiring each student to come up with a monologue. The topic of every single girl in our class (suggesting a severe lack of imagination) was abortion or miscarriage, the melodrama of the topic matter was boring. A different maybe even a humorous approach to the topic matter would have been more refreshing, but no, it was 90 minutes, of humourless, interminable (well I did say 90 minutes but interminable in experiential time) discussion between a couple, who I didn't even particularly feel inclined to like.

Miscarriages and abortions are common, and many people in my circle have dealt with them, I felt the emphasis on the drama of the situation was very un-Taiwanese, in the way that Wu Nianzhen describes Taiwaneseness in his advertisements: deliberate burying or shame linked to showing emotion. He describes this with the following example. A dad goes in late at night to look at his child, taking pleasure in the sight of his sleeping child, and we hear his wife's voice asking him where he's gone, and he replies gruffly "便所啦!" (The toilet). Not that I can dictate what is or is not Taiwanese, but this play lacked any flicker of ethnic consciousness, and could equally have come from the melodramatic imaginings of any 15 year old girl.

One of my friends told me a story recently which I thought would be an interesting companion to this review. She's had two abortions, on her second abortion she asked the doctor to give her the foetus afterwards so that she could bury it with a small ceremony. She put it in the refrigerator and forgot about it for a month until it surfaced in an argument with her mum when her mum challenged her saying "You think I don't know what's in that jar in the fridge?". Obviously abortion is different from miscarriage, but the story was told in a very light hearted tone, that interested me a lot more than the "hard hitting" excess of drama festering throughout the hour and a half and 7 glasses of water.

Play Rating: 2/5 (Aliens was 1)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Formosa Betrayed 《被出賣的台灣》

If we consider this movie just as a thriller, than it was an epic fail. While there is a bit of suspense, there is no real action to speak of, or plot resolution. The characters are pretty flat, the motives are not always clear, etc. On the other hand, this is a movie motivated by history and politics. Only someone who has an interest in Chinese and Taiwanese politics and history can enjoy it. It's actually a pretty good introductory film for a foreign who has no understanding of the subject. The writer/producer is a Taiwanese American, Will Tiao, and probably one of his biggest mistakes with this movie was casting himself in it; he's a pretty shitty actor. (Side note: Will Tiao is from Manhattan, Kansas which is where KSU is, which is KU's (my university) rival, but he went to Michigan, Tufts, and Columbia University. For a while he was involved in US politics working for Bill Clinton and George Bush).

The basic plot is your typical FBI/Cowboy movie. An American Professor (originally Taiwanese and from the get-go presumably DPP) is murdered in Chicago. Initial reports suspect that it was the work of gangsters, they are followed and escape back to Taiwan. The actor, James Van Der Beek (from Dawson's Creek!), plays an FBI agent and is sent to Taiwan, knowing practically nothing, as an observer, but we all know Americans don't sit back and observe, we like to take charge. So James waves his FBI badge left and right like a douche bag as if it was recognized by the Taiwanese government. Basically there is a connection between the murder and the KMT. The plot is pretty predictable.

The true value of this movie is as an introductory piece to Taiwanese Martial Law, US/Taiwan/China relations, and gangs in Taiwan. I actually thought this movie was going to be about Taiwanese Independence, and while that is a small part of it, it really focuses on martial law in Taiwan. There was also an accusation of Taiwan aiding Nicarguan Contras in exchange for US weapons, I have never heard of that before and can't really find anything to confirm it. It ends by saying that what the KMT was really concerned with was independence supporters, and not so much communist invasion (it takes place in the 80s). Other than that, it does not introduce anything that the three of us have probably heard of or read. There is also a lot of anti-communist rhetoric thrown around the American side, presenting it as a binary issue Nationalist vs. Communist, but what I think the producer wants to say is that the real issue is KMT vs. Independence supporters, and the anti-communist stuff is international rhetoric to get US support (since most Americans didn't/don't know the local issues so if it is reduced to communism than the KMT will get some US support). What this movie creates is the initiation of an international dialog of what happened under KMT rule in Taiwan. I think most people, except the most die-hard KMTers, would not treat the material in this film as controversial (the message, yes, but not the facts they are trying to represent). But overall it is still a pretty mediocre film so I give it a 3/5.

Edit: I forgot to say that this is an American movie from an American perspective. It's about Taiwan, but it is definitely not a Taiwanese film. Are there any Taiwanese films that talk about these political issues?

Angels in America

This 6 hour mini series got me hooked and interested in the lives of the characters, only to end with a very 1990s (in a bad way) "intellectual" conversation about politics that undermined the whole sincerity of the dialogue and acting of the entire series, followed by an extremely pretentious (almost Gerry Springer style) concluding resolution, this is the aforesaid atrocity:

The film deals with the lives of several gay men from a variety of different backgrounds who coincidentally or otherwise end up playing a role in each other's lives. One guy leaves his partner when he finds out his partner has AIDS, because he can't face the reality of the situation. He goes on to meet a Mormon who is wrestling with gay demons while coping with the mental illness of his wife, and an evil lawyer comes to terms with dying and the ghosts of his past. The series is carried with a comic poignancy, and the ramblings of Lewis's rationalization are undermined by the emotion and bizarreness of reality throughout the film, this is what almost makes the end so disappointing, as the resolution of the film brings everyone down to Lewis's level of nonsense logic and a need to comment on the wider world to avoid the truth of personal chaos.

The Mormon's mother, played by Meryl Streep was portrayed with a lot of sensitivity and there were some excellent lines in the film that really were food for thought. It's just a pity that the series was shunted to an end, in what was too obviously a result of an attempt to transplant the end of the play on to the screen.

My favourite scenes in the movie both involve the Mormon characters, funnily enough. The first scene is when the Mormon wife talks to a museum manequin about change:

Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.

Harper: And then get up. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

The second is a scene on the beach from (8.20 to the end)

I thought the whole thing looked great, and the concept was a good one, but the ending really annoyed me for some reason, and made me think that the whole thing was more corny than my mood had suggested it was before.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"I Killed My Mother (J'ai Tué Ma Mère)" by Xavier Dolan

 (photo taken from the website:

This French-Canadian film received quite a bit of accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, but I honestly have mixed feelings about it.  I nearly turned it off right from the start but then I decided to keep on watching since I was still in the middle of my repast — and I'm glad I kept on watching because it got better after the exposition.

The parts that irked me the most were the shouting matches between Hubert (played by director Xavier Dolan) and his mother, usually instigated over seemingly inane and miniscule trivialities.  I couldn't help empathizing with his mother; however, I tried to remind myself that the protagonist is playing a teenager (only 16 years of age) in the midst of tumultuous hormonal upheavals — in addition to harboring his sexual orientation from his dear old mum.  Later on, you can see that the Hubert's mother isn't a saint either and is also prone to explosive anger.  This feud continues on and off throughout the movie, countervailed with scenes of sweet tête à tête with his homosexual lover, Antonin, lending an overall bittersweet, melancholic mood to the movie.

The movie's saving graces are certain scenes of sheer cinematographic beauty coupled with an ethereal soundtrack.  Here's an example:

I also loved the scene where Antonin and Hubert decorate Antonin's mother's office with a Jackson Pollack-inspired "dripping" technique; this painting process then devolves into lovemaking.  I thought the slow-motion shots of the paint being splattered and overlaid set to French-Canadian music were beautiful.

I also really liked the ending, which takes place at a bucolic cottage in the countryside.  There isn't a concrete resolution to the plot but it still lends a satisfactory denouement and conclusion to an otherwise raucous exposition and rising action.

Also while the movie is technically gay-themed, the romantic relationship plays second fiddle to the main relationship between Hubert and his mother.  (So heterosexual viewers can rest assured that this isn't another clichéd, gay-themed movie that just continues the Brokeback model of two repressed male lovers seeking to express their unrequited love.) The love scenes are kept subdued and tasteful and manage to keep the movie light amidst all of the teenage angst.  Antonin's liberal family provides a perfect antithetical juxtaposition to the tense situation at Hubert's home.  The movie also touches on the social bias in society against single-mothers raising kids and if this might explain the dysfunctionality of the familial relationship.  I think one rather amusing scene answers this query quite clearly, where the mother thoroughly wrings out the boarding school's chauvinistic headmaster.

The movie is said to be semi-autobiographical and while the homosexual element is not shoved in the audience's face, it's clearly a crucial part of the film.  The writer/director/actor, Xavier Dolan, talks about his orientation in an interview. (He also refers to the scene in the movie — where Hubert is beat up at boarding school for being gay — as being based in reality.):