Friday, December 9, 2016

Leung Chun Ying to step down but the struggle continues for genuine universal suffrage (and Hong Kong self-determination)

"Leung Chun Ying, ha toi (step down)!"  One of the most chanted phrases on July 1st and other days of protest looks like it'll be retired soon in view of this afternoon's unexpected announcement by 689 that he'll not be seeking a second term as Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 2017

The official line is that Hong Kong's current super unpopular Chief Executive has opted not to seek reelection for the sake of his family.  And there may indeed be some truth in that; what with news filtering out that his often strange-acting second daughter, Leung Chai Yan, has been in hospital for the past month.  
At the same time though, I definitely recall discussions with people at Occupy Admiralty and elsewhere during which suggestions would be made that even while Beijing wouldn't want to lose face by admitting that CY Leung had been the wrong choice to be Hong Kong's third Chief Executive, the possibility existed that 689 would announce later down the road, like his predecessor Tung Chee Wah, that he'd not seek re-election for such as health or family reasons -- when, in reality, it had been decided from above/up north that a different person needed to be in charge for things to get better, including relations between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Those who believed in this possibility often were divided between those who believed that Beijing would opt for an alternative who genuinely would do better by Hong Kong (in part because a more stable Hong Kong will be less trouble for China) and those who think that Beijing will favor someone who will be even more hardline -- and even more loyal to Beijing -- than 689 (because it believes the stick works far better than the carrot).  Consequently, even while some people (particularly the ABCs (Anybody But CY) brigade) are ecstatic over today's developments, others are cautious, even fearful.
For my part, the news makes me happy because I actually feel that it's one positive -- even if delayed -- outcome of the Umbrella Movement (which I honestly don't feel was in vain and also feel is still ongoing).  At the same time, I'd agree with those pro-democracy activists and supporters who maintain that that we should not let down our guard and that there's still much fighting to be done for a better Hong Kong (and a Hong Kong government that genuinely cares for Hong Kong and Hong Kongers).  
After all, in discussions as to why we want genuine universal suffrage and a real choice that involves being able to vote for candidates that Beijing hasn't screened and selected, nightmare scenarios involved the 2017 Chief Executive election candidates ending up including the likes of Regina Ip and Starry Lee -- and it remains a genuine possibility that those two pro-Beijingers will seriously be in the running to succeed 689.  Alternatively put: the possibility remains that Hong Kong will actually have a Chief Executive after Leung Chun Ying who could actually be worse than him! 
To try to prevent that from happening, we must continue to battle on and make our voices heard -- at protest rallies and marches, if not through votes cast at those elections where we are eligible to cast votes.  And talking to and generally trying to open the eyes of those of our fellow Hong Kongers who have not yet awakened or were too easily disillusioned when immediate results weren't achieved during and in the immediate wake of Occupy Hong Kong shouldn't hurt either, I reckon!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Song Kang Ho delivers the goods once more in The Age of Shadows (film review)

Song Kang Ho looks like he's gazing at you
from out of the poster for The Age of Shadows!

The Age of Shadows (South Korea, 2016)
- Kim Jee Woon, director, co-scriptwriter (along with Lee Ji Min and Park Jong Dae) and producer (along with Choi Jae Won and Choi Jung Hwa)
- Starring: Song Kang Ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji Min, Um Tae Goo, Shingo Tsurumi 

Even before I realized that The Age of Shadows had been chosen as South Korea's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee for 2017, I knew I wanted to see it.  This wasn't so much because of Kim Jee Woon's period spy thriller's story -- which, on the surface, can appear to be yet another South Korean movie set during repressive Japanese colonial rule -- but, rather, its main star being Song Kang Ho.

Not only is this man a great actor but he also looks to be great at choosing movies to appear in, what with his filmography including major box office hits cum critical successes such as Shiri (1999), Joint Security Area (2000), The Host (2006), Secret Sunshine (2007), and The Attorney (2013).  And Song's fantastic track record continues with The Age of Shadows: seeing as it's a suspenseful cloak-and-dagger work which turns out to pack quite the emotional punch; so much so that certain scenes caused me to gasp out loud when viewing them and others have seared themselves into my memory -- thanks in no small part to the contributions of its complex main personality and the lead actor who portrays him.

For a large part of this atmospheric effort that's set in the decade after the Japanese annexation of Korea, Lee Jung Chool (Song Kang Ho) is a man many people hate, and certainly wouldn't trust.  Once a member of the fledgling Korean independence movement, he's changed sides and has risen up the ranks to become a captain in the colonial Japanese police force.  When we first catch sight of him, he -- together with a veritable army of menacing men -- are out to corner a desperate but defiant freedom fighter who just happens to have been a former classmate and friend of his.

The painful final moments of that doomed patriot's life give a sense of how much courage and sacrifice is required of those fighting for freedom, and suffering the audience will come to see and hear over the course of The Age of Shadows.  A film with the kind of torture scenes that are bloodcurdling as well as bloody, it most definitely hammers home the message that freedom is not free (a phrase I've seen used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, whose cause I sincerely hope will not reach a point where people will act in desperation like in this South Korean cinematic offering that's actually inspired by a real-life event that took place at the colonial Japanese police headquarters in Seoul in 1923).         

In what could be likened to a desperate throw of the dice, the decision is made by the upper echelons of the Korean resistance -- whose charismatic leader (Lee Byung Hun) operates out of Shanghai, along with trusted men (and at least one woman (Han Ji Min)) -- to try to turn the turncoat one more time; with this formidable task falling primarily to Kim Woon Jin (Gong Yoo).  A handsome charmer with nerves of steel along with far more fortitude than may be good for him, he'd be the protagonist in a more conventional -- and lesser -- film than The Age of Shadows, whose makers actually manage to throw up a number of surprises even while its general trajectory is actually fairly predictable.       

As a cat and mouse game ensues, Kim has to effectively put his life in Lee's hands even while believing that the latter's Korean patriotism -- and also his realization, upon seeing his Japanese superior (Shingo Tsurumi)'s favorable treatment of a repugnant junior compatriot (played by Korean actor Um Tae Goo) at his expense, that he will always be a second class citizen in the Japanese-occupied country -- will eventually triumph over his pragmatic attempts at self-preservation.  And the stakes become even greater when it turns out that Lee's cooperation is key to the success of a planned attack on the Japanese in Seoul using explosives acquired in Shanghai from Hungarian anarchists.   

Full of breathtakingly intense dramatic moments, The Age of Shadows also excels in its action scenes which are incredibly well choreographed and visually breathtaking.  Both the ones near the start and conclusion of the film are pretty amazing but the beautifully edited set pieces which take place on a train and at a train station will have their fans too.  And while the choice of music initially irritated and threatened to distract, I actually did enjoy the movie's use of Ravel's Bolero and reckon that it played a big part in ensuring that the scenes in which this classic piece of music is heard really were rather spectacular!             

My rating for the film: 8.5     

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Red leaves, and pink Puppet Ponyo! :)

Puppet Ponyo and red leaves in Tokyo this past November :)
Puppet Ponyo and orangey-red leaves in Nagano in May!
There are many people who go to the Land of the Rising Sun in the fall expressly for its koyo season.  And the colorful autumn leaves are a pretty big deal among the Japanese too, with such as autumn color guides and reports being issued so that people know where are ideal locales to visit and what's the optimal time to do so.
Especially upon seeing that some of the leaves are redder than Puppet Ponyo (who's noticeably pinker than her plushie sisters and how the feisty character's depicted in Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), I can understand some of the koyo passion, even mania.  And then there's their transient nature, which makes catching sight of these natural things of beauty feel even more precious than they'd otherwise be.
Especially when in Hakone last month, I really did appreciate how it is to be able to gaze at vast swathes of colorful fall foliage.  And seeing photos of such places as Shodoshima's Kankakei Gorge and Kyoto's Kiyamizudera in their autumn glory makes me want to re-visit those places when the koyo season's at its peak in those locales. 

At the same time though, there's something to be said for seeing a red-leafed tree out of season and among ones sporting the expected green leaves -- an experience that I actually had when strolling around the grounds of Nagano's magnificent Zenkoji this past May.  As evidence, I hereby furnish (at the top of this blog post) a snapshot of Puppet Ponyo posing amidst those bright orangey-red leaves.  And I don't know about you but she seems to me to be smiling a bit more in that photo than the one I took of her in Tokyo this fall! ;)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Enjoying the colorful sight of koyo in Hakone

The very first photo I took after checking into the wonderful 

 Not all the leaves on the trees were red when we were in
Hakone but there were enough to take the breath away
 When viewed up close, this is the kind of sight 
that causes people to literally ooh and aah ;b 
When a friend asked my mother what her favorite part of our recent Japan visit was, she answered first that there were many highlights but then came right out and said that for her, it was seeing the red leaves.  Even given the possibility that my mother was particularly bowled over by the koyo (colorful leaves) that have been described as the autumnal equivalent of spring's cherry blossoms on account of her living in a part of the world where the seasons of the year are described as "dry" and "rainy" rather than spring, summer, fall (or autumn) and winter, I really do reckon that the fall foliage in Japan is quite something to behold.
As it so happened, we were in Hakone when the koyo there were displaying their peak colors.  And it's true enough that not a single day passed by when were in this popular resort area that we weren't moved to sigh at the beauty of the fall foliage around us. (On a related note: it really did add to our enjoyment of being at the lovely Gora-Kansuiro that our suite of rooms offered up views of many a red-leafed tree in the ryokan's expansive garden.)
Early on during our Hakone sojourn, we were treated to the eye-catching sight of clump upon clump of koyo on our ride on the Hakone Tozan Train that took us up into the mountains from Hakone-Yumoto down in the valley.  In retrospect though, I feel that it was only on the third and final day of our stay in this very scenic part of Japan that the fall foliage revealed their true glory to us.
The thing is that, as it so happened, the first and second days that we were in Hakone were on the misty side.  Consequently, when things cleared up considerably on the third day, my friend who lives in Japan got all excited at our finally having a chance to see Mount Fuji in Hakone -- and highly recommended that we forego our planned visit to the Hakone Open Air Museum that day (which was fine by me since I had been there on my previous visit to the area) in favor of aiming to catch sight of Fujisan while riding on the Hakone Ropeway.    
Since that approximately 30-minute-long ropeway/cable car/aerial lift ride may well be my favorite part of Hakone, that was perfectly fine by me.  And this time around, the experience was made so much better -- not only with Mount Fuji sightings but also by it offering up super clear as well as panoramic views of whole forests of trees sporting beautiful fall foliage that threatened to take the breath away and, at the very least, had me grinning madly at times! ;b

Monday, December 5, 2016

Feasting on fabulous food in Japan this fall (Photo-essay)

Since returning from Japan two weeks ago, I've only been twice to eat at Japanese restaurants. Granted that in this time, I've been to a Japanese cocktail bar once and Sake Bar Ginn twice.  Still, that's way fewer times that I've eaten Japanese food over the course of a fortnight than has become the norm here in Hong Kong.

It's not that I've gone off Japanese food.  Rather, it's because I ate so much and such fabulous food on my recent Japan trip -- among things, I returned to Kabuto for more eel parts on sticks, ate primo sushi or sashimi every day of the trip, had decadently rich ankimo at least five times, and amazingly juicy wagyu beef at three different meals -- and have such strong memories of those oishii and umai experiences that I'm afraid that what Japanese fare I eat here will inevitably disappoint!

Doubtless at some point in the near future, the urge to go have more Japanese food will surpass my fear of feeling underwhelmed by what I do eat here.  But in the meantime, here's offering up a selection of photos that hopefully will give a good idea of the kind of dishes I had on my recent trip, and loved so very much... ;b

Shirako (described as "codfish soft roe" on the English menu) 
was served along with spinach, Enoki mushroom, green onion, 
grated carrot and radish, and gingered vinegar 
at our first dinner at Gora-Kansuiro ;b

That same dinner's delicious seasonal dessert of persimmon,
Kyoho grapes and mango pudding looked like a work of art!

No ordinary soup for our second dinner at Gora-Kansuiro;
instead, we got one whose ingredients included scallop, 
Matsutake mushroom, green bean, leaf bud, gold leaf and citron!

Another standout course at our second dinner at the ryokan 
was the deep fried mixed pink shrimp, which was so tasty it 
didn't need any salt but which I did squeeze a bit of lemon juice on 
and ate with great relish with the grated radish and ginger

One dozen oysters from three different parts of Japan
-- and all just for me! :)))

At the same lunch in Tokyo, I also had this repast whose
main dish consisted of a generous portion of zuke-style tuna and 
tororo (grated mountain yam) on a bed of fluffy white rice!

Vegetarian nabe (Japanese hot pot) with four different kinds
of mushrooms -- yes, mushrooms were in season! :b

And for the final lunch of our Japan trip, my mother and I opted for
wagyu beef: hers prepared as sukiyaki, mine in steak form :)))

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hike and camera thoughts and talk

View from near the top of Black Hill (aka Ng Kwai Shan)
showing the close proximity of city and country in Hong Kong
It may be winter in Hong Kong but it still can be 
warm enough for the butterflies to come out to play :)
Two friends and I hiked Stage 3 of the Wilson Trail this afternoon.  While it was their first time, I had been on this scenic section of trail before -- and consequently knew to look out for the often strangely placed signs to be found on this portion of one of Hong Kong's major hiking trails.
Because of this -- and also the fervent wish on the part of one of my friends to make sure that we maintained sufficient distance from another hiker out today, whose blasting of Cantonese opera music on her radio was threatening to drive my friend nuts! -- we ended up completing this section of trail in a shorter time than the official estimates.  And this even though I spent quite a bit of time testing out my new camera along the way.
Before anything else: yes, my Sony Cyber-shot HX50V camera has died -- close to three years after it replaced my beloved Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 after that other camera gave up the ghost after having to deal with what, in retrospect, appeared to be too much dust and rain on my 2013 Vietnam visit.  Rather than add phantom rays of light into dark pictures (like my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 began to do in its final days), the Sony Cyber-shot HX50V signalled that it was on its last legs by first over-exposing zoom shots, then going all dark on me less than two weeks after showing signs of malfunctioning.
In light of my previous Panasonic camera having lasted five years to the Sony's three, I leaned towards getting a Panasonic camera again this time around.  And after reading positive online reviews for what looks to be the current edition of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ2 (which retains its 24mm wide-angle lens feature but now also has a 30x zoom (like the Sony Cyber-shot HX50V)), I've gone ahead and got a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ80 (aka Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS60), and hope that it will serve me well for at least the next four or five years to come.
Judging from the photographs I took today (a day that actually turned out to be hazier than the rest of this week -- and warmer too! -- but still pleasant enough weather-wise), this camera looks like it'll satisfy.  Put another way: I like both the landscape picture and macro shot of a beautiful butterfly at the top of this blog post (and took with my new camera), and trust that you do too! ;b     

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Derek Yee's Sword Master harks back to the past but also breaks new ground (film review)

The official poster for Sword Master
(courtesy of Distribution Workshop)

Sword Master (Mainland China-Hong Kong, 2016)  
- Derek Yee, director
- Starring: Kenny Lin Gengxin, Peter Ho, Jiang Mengjie, Jiang Yiyan

Earlier this week, I viewed a Mainland China-Hong Kong co-production which -- like with Benny Chan's Call of Heroes a few months ago -- felt like a welcome blast from Hong Kong cinema's glorious past.  But whereas that historical actioner which starred Hong Kong actors Lau Ching Wan and Louis Koo alongside Taiwan's Eddie Peng and Mainland China's Wu Jing brought to mind those kinetic Hong Kong action movies with plenty of heart from the 1980s and 1990s, this stunning blockbuster wuxia work feels like the inspired spawn of Tsui Hark at his demented best and a classic Shaw Brothers production.

As it so happens, Sword Master was produced by none other than Master Tsui (who showed with The Taking of Tiger Mountain last year that he's back in gloriously manic form), directed by Shaw Brothers actor turned filmmaker Derek Yee, and co-scripted by the two of them (along with Chun Tin Nam).  Moreover, it actually is a remake of Death Duel, the 1977 Shaw Brothers production in which Derek Yee had top billing among a star-studded cast that included his half-brother David Chiang, Ti Lung, Lo Lieh and Yeh Hua! 

Considering this pedigree, it's little coincidence then this film's eye-catching aesthetics look to have been inspired by the Shaw Brothers hyper-theatrical movie sets which prioritized splendour over realism.  Adding to the visual delight is the not at all insignificant matter of Yuen Bun and Dion Lam's inventive action choreography and Chan Wai Lin and Chan Chi Ying's cinematography having successfully combined to make thespians not known for their action prowess look like martial arts masters (like was the case with many a 1990s Tsui Hark wuxia production, including the Ching Siu Tung directed and beautifully action directed Dragon Inn and Swordsman II).

In Sword Master, Lin Gengxin (who had a major part in Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain) has the titular role which had gone to Derek Yee in Death Duel.  Having mastered his powerful clan's sword style at the age of 11 years, the still not that old Third Master of Sword Mansion is close to attaining martial arts supremacy after having vanquishing challengers and family foes galore over the years.  But he has grown tired of all the bloodshed and seeks to not only retire from the martial world but has his death announced and takes on the guise of a lowly servant in a brothel in Bitter Sea Town.

In so doing, Third Master Hsiao Feng -- who takes on the nondescript name of Ah Chi in his new life -- abandoned the woman he was betrothed to, the formidable -- and, in fact, often pretty frightening -- Mu Yung Chiu Ti (Jiang Yiyan).  And without realizing it, he also dashed the hopes of another master swordsman, the eccentric, facial tattooed -- and consequently evil looking -- Yen Shih San (Peter Ho), of engaging him in a duel that would decide who truly was the greatest swordsman alive.

These wuxia stories being what they are, however, you just know that Hsiao Feng's path will cross with Yen Shih San, and again with Mu Yung Chiu Ti; after which much fight action and bloodshed ensues.  Before that, however, Hsiao Feng finds caring friends among the most humble of folk, and even falls in love -- with Li (Jiang Mengjie).  A hard-working prostitute in the brothel, whose impoverished family doesn't realize for the longest time how she's earning the money that they so clearly need, she's worlds apart in status but also temperament from Mu Yung Chiu Ti, whose ambition and nature marks her out pretty much from the start as the story's chief villain(ess).

In what can seem to be another characteristic Tsui Hark touch (but actually goes all the way back to the source material by wuxia novelist Gu Long), Sword Master is a film in which actresses as well as actors have prominent parts.  And while the main roles in this Mandarin-language movie do rather naturally belong to native Mandarin speakers, I'm sure that if the work's director and producer had not been Hong Kong cinema veterans, there wouldn't be so many faces familiar to Hong Kong movie fans among its supporting cast.      

But if the on-screen roles played by the likes of Norman Chu, Paw Hee Ching and Henry Fong Ping could easily have been played by Mainlanders, I get the feeling that's less of a case with regards to the many Hong Kongers working behind the scenes of this offering which feels positively path-breaking in a number ways (and not just because its 3D effects actually work).  All in all, a good measure of Sword Master's impressiveness was shown in it being the rare theatrical release I've seen where the vast majority of the audience I viewed the work with staying seated throughout the entirety of the end credits rather than bolt for the exit long before that, as Hong Kong audiences are prone to do!     
My rating for this film: 8.5