Monday, March 30, 2015

Two museum documentaries viewed at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival

A set of paintings I wouldn't be surprised to see in a museum
like, say, the National Gallery but actually is 
currently located in Freiburg's Munster! ;b

The New Rijksmuseum - The Film (Holland, 2014)
- Part of the Portraits of Museums programme
- Oeke Hoogendijk, dir.
- Featuring the staff of the Rijksmuseum, etc.

In what can seem like another lifetime, my ambition was to become a museum curator.  Actually, at several points in my life, I did work in museums and related institutions -- and happily for the most part.  And while I haven't done so for years, I still do retain an affection for museological establishments and happily visit them from time to time -- and also sometimes do get tempted to check out a book or film just because they are about museums (e.g., Dinosaurs in the Attic) or even just because they have the word "museum" in their title (e.g., Art Museum by the Zoo)!

While I've yet to make it to Amsterdam and its Rijksmuseum, this film has boosted my urge to do so.  Somewhat ironically, much of this documentary actually focuses on the problems and difficulties of renovating this grand Dutch museum that was founded in the Hague in 1800, moved to Amsterdam in 1808 and only relocated to its current location in 1885.  At the same time though, what definitely comes across throughout what turned out to be a 10 year renovation that cost 375 million Euros (~HK$3,156,450,000!) is the large amount of thought and care that went into ensuring that things would really be done right.

Shot over a number of years, the documentary begins with Ronald de Leeuw as the museum's general director but sees him give up and resign after a few years, and replaced by Wim Pijbes (who remains the director in charge of the Rijksmuseum to this day).  Both of these men feature in the work, as do a number of other museum staffers -- including Menno Fitski, the curator of Asian art, who comes across as a lovely human being as well as a super dedicated museum professional, thanks to the  sub-story involving two Japanese temple guardians now ensconced at the Rijksmuseum -- along with the architects who designed the renovations, the interior designers, and bicycling activists who had quite a bit to say about the changes to a main passageway through the museum!

With the great bulk of the museum being closed to the public for pretty much 99%  during filming, what largely gets shown in The New Rijkmuseum - The Film is what goes on behind the scenes.  As a former museum worker, it was really nice to see a lot of usually unsung heroes and their work being shown -- people such as the curators but also the restorers, the exhibit designers and also such as the press officer and the people actually doing the painting of the walls along with those who decide what color paints should be put on them.

This being the Dutch equivalent of the Louvre, the documentary also shows us processes such as senior staffers discussing works that they seek to acquire to add to the collection, and then a museum representative going to an auction to see if they can successfully purchase them.  And yes, I think it was pretty interesting to see how things work on that level these days.  

To be honest, this is one of those films that you have to generally be interested in the subject (museums -- thought not necessarily The Rijksmuseum in particular) in order to find the film worth watching.  But if you are, then this superb documentary should prove really enthralling! :)

My rating forthe film: 8.5

National Gallery (France-USA, 2014)
- Part of the Portraits of Museums programme
- Frederick Wiseman, dir.
- Featuring the staff of the National Gallery

Having enjoyed viewing The New Rijksmuseum - The Film, I looked forward the next day to checking out a documentary by a highly respected documentary filmmaker who is a Hong Kong International Film Festival favorite (what with his At Berkeley having been part of last year's HKIFF and Crazy Horse the year before); and this all the more so since the subject of National Gallery is a beloved museum that I've paid a number of visits to in the past.

Sure, this documentary is on the lengthy side -- with IMDB stating that it's 180 minutes long, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival programme having a running time of 174 minutes -- but that's still not even half as long as the 5 1/2 hour long Carlos which I viewed at the 2011 HKIFF!  And it -- along with the other films in Portraits of Museums -- came highly recommended, including by Hong Kong International Film Festival Society executive director Roger Garcia.

Sad to say, however, I found this work to be on the meandering side and to also not tell me that much new -- seeing as a considerable amount of the documentary was shot in the publicly accessible sections of the museum, and shows museum docents and other educators delivering talks and lectures at various segments of the National Gallery's visitors.  (In particular, I think my familiarity with the museum and certain of the highlighted paintings worked against my enjoyment of this film -- for, let's face it, Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks looks better in real life than on film, and I not only studied Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors but wrote an art history research paper on J.M.W. Turner's The Fighting Temeraire!)

Worse, I also found some bits of this documentary repetitive -- with the same painting being used to make different points (something I consider a real shame since this British institution is home to thousands of works of art) -- and certain of the museum staffers to be on the irritating side (including by showing how out of touch they actually appear to be with "the real world" or by not only being allowed to waffle on for minutes but being filmed, sans edits, doing so!).

On the subject of the museum staffers: it would have been informative for them to have been explicitly identified by name and title (as was the case with the equivalent people in The New Rijksmuseum - The Film).  And on a filmmaking note: I can't help but feel that some disciplined editing would have not only considerably shortened this documentary's length but also made it more interesting and focused.   

While I don't think it absolutely horrible to the point that it'll be the 14th worst film I'll watch this year, I will admit to walking out of the screening with about half an hour ago in order to go catch another film at the fest; this because I honestly didn't feel like anything especially exciting or revelatory was going to happen in the final 30 minutes or so of this documentary.  At the same time, because I've seen more than two hours of this film, I feel like I still can give it a rating, so...

My rating for this film: 5.5 (and even so, it's mainly because the subject is a really interesting one!)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Conflagration at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

The fictionalized version of Kinkakuji appears in
Kon Ichikawa's Conflagration

Conflagration (Japan, 1958)
- Part of the Kon Ichikawa: 4 Classics Restored program
- Kon Ichikawa, dir.
- Starring: Raizo Ichikawa, Tatsuya Nakadai, Ganjiro Nakamura, Tanie Kitayabashi

In 1956, Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was published.  Two years later, Kon Ichikawa made a film with a similar storyline to Mishima's book -- and it's widely assumed that Conflagration is an adaptation of Mishima's novel.  However, there's another school of thought that Ichikawa's film actually is an alternative story of -- and interpretation behind -- how a mentally ill novice monk came to burn down a beautiful Zen temple cum national treasure on July 2, 1950 in Kyoto.

Although I have a copy of Mishima's book in my collection, I have to confess to not having yet gotten to read it.  Perhaps I'd like the book better when I read it.  In any event, going into the screening of Conflagration knowing the bare facts rather than major story details may have allowed me to more greatly appreciate this drama whose protagonist is a novice monk with a stutter but is named Goichi Mizoguchi (rather than Hayashi Yoken, as was the case with the real life arsonist) -- and whose fabled temple is known as Shukaku in the film (rather than Kinkakuji or Rokuon-ji (trans. Deer Garden Temple), the latter of which is the temple's official name).

Conflagration's protagonist is the person that some people'll look down upon and others feel sorry for.  The only son of a consumptive priest of a minor temple in an out of the way village, Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa) had the misfortune not only to have his beloved father die prematurely but also to find out -- along with his father -- that his mother (Tanie Kitayabashi) was having sex with his uncle.  Already socially awkward on account of his having a stammer, these events further make the young man withdraw further into a shell that few people can crack.

After arriving at the fabled Shukaku in Kyoto, which his father loved, and where an erstwhile classmate is now head priest (Ganjiro Nakamura), Goichi does befriend another young apprentice monk.  Fate cruelly intervenes once more, however, when his friend is first called back home because his mother was dying and then dies in an accident himself!  And Goichi's life is further put into a downward tailspin when his hated mother is also taken in at Shukaku and the young man makes the mistake of seeking the friendship of a man with a crippled leg and twisted mind (Tatsuya Nakadai).
Something else that is made clear in Conflagration is that Goichi is one of those people who veneration of what they consider spiritual pure can make them unable to deal with the real world and its people being imperfect, sometimes even fundamentally flawed.  Insanity will result if you believe in the existence of perfection, Ichikawa seems to be telling the audience; and this all the more so in times and places when change comes suddenly and dramatically -- as was the case in Japan in the 1940s, a decade that saw Japan go to war and come out defeated and having to adapt (to) what had hitherto been foreign ways.

Although Goichi clearly is shown going along the path to madness, I have to admit to feeling moved by his character.  One reason is because he did genuinely want to do good for a time.  Another is that he was an underdog in so many ways that it seemed like he was unfairly doomed pretty much from the start.  If nothing else, those of us who have at some point in life felt like the gods were against us surely will emphatize and sympathize with at least some of this young's man burdened lot, even if we never ever would carry out as dramatic an action as his with regards to that which he had venerated but then also came to serve as a symbol of much that was wrong with the world!

My rating for this film: 8.5      

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The first film I viewed at the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival

An image from the first film I viewed at this year's 
Hong Kong International Film Festival

The 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) kicked off this past Monday with the world premiere of "filmmaker in focus" Sylvia Chang's latest directorial effort, Murmur of the Hearts.  I had the chance to see the film even earlier than that but so far have eschewed viewing it in favor of other offerings -- partly because I don't have the greatest memories of her previous directorial effort before this one (2008's Run Papa Run, which also premiered at the HKIFF) and also because I know that her latest film (in which she doesn't appear on screen) is getting released in Hong Kong next month.

So I began my HKIFF-ing with a film that I don't think will be getting a general commercial release in Hong Kong any time soon... and here's giving advance warning that my Hong Kong International Film Festival viewing choices do tend to be made in terms of opting for the cinematic version of the road less travelled... ;b

The Look of Silence (Denmark-Indonesia, 2014)
- From the Reality Bites programme
- Joshua Oppenheimer, director
- Starring Adi Rukun

Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an Indonesian filmmaker who's had to remain anonymous to protect his/her safety's The Act of Killing (2012) receive much acclaim for its sensational coverage of the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966 many decades after they occured that involved the killers openly re-enacting some of the atrocities for the cameras.

If anything, I find this follow-up film -- that now has the Danish-based American filmmaker as its sole credited director but continues the practice of having a multitude of "Anonymous" crew members in its credits -- to be the more powerful work; this in large part because The Look of Silence gives a larger voice to family members of those who were wronged rather than the unrepentant guilty party involved.

The man at the center of this documentary, Adi Rukun, is an optometrist whose brother was killed in a most terrible way by people from the same village, and who the middle-aged man and his parents continue to live amongst.  Born after his brother's death (which gets described in a graphic manner by the actual murderers), Adi is told time and time again by people not to delve too deeply into the past, otherwise -- they chillingly warn him -- the terrible events that occurred then may reoccur again.

Stubbornly (and admirably), however, the soft-spoken man courageously continues with his quest to not only uncover the truth but see if those involved in the massacre of thousands, if not millions of people, feel any regret about the parts they played in the killings; with seemingly only his elderly -- but still very lucid -- mother, who remembers events that took place decades ago like they occured yesterday, and  director Oppenheimer (who more than once is directly addressed by subjects in the film) understanding his need to do what he does. 

Sadly, the bravery of Adi, Oppenheimer and co don't look like it's been really rewarded thus far.  At least Oppenheimer gets critical kudos for his documentary work but he may never feel able to return to Indonesia after making this film. Coming off worse is Adi and his family, who have had to relocate to a different part of the country for their safety.  This because not only are the killers still alive but they are very powerful people or remain backed by them.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Pat Sin Leng Country Park hike that passed through many villages, some of them abandoned (Photo-essay)

One day, I'll conquer  Pat Sin Leng (Eight Immortals Ridge).  To date, however, I've mainly contented myself with gazing at the formidable northeastern Hong Kong mountain range from such as Tai Mei Tuk -- though it's also true that I've also spend time hiking in Pat Sin Leng Country Park and even been up to Hsien Ku Fung, the 514-meter-high mountain that's the furthest east of Pat Sin Leng's eight peaks.

One cloudy winter's day, I went with a multi-national group of friends (including people from the US, Japan, UK, Taiwan, Germany and Hong Kong) along a hike that began at the Tai Wan (large bay) located in Nam Chung and concluded at Tai Mei Tuk.  Along the way, we stopped at both the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Pavilion and the Spring Breeze Pavilion -- and noticed that there were flowers left at the latter in memory of the victims of the 1996 Pat Sin Leng wildfire.  

Rather than take photos of them, however, I opted to train my camera on other sights -- including those that can be seen in the following photo-essay, and help me to remember a lovely hiking day:-

 The village of Nam Chung Yeung Uk is located in one of the more 
scenic parts of Hong Kong that I've passed through over the years :)

Interestingly, the village's temple is located closer to
Nam Chung Cheng Uk than the village of the Yeungs!

The route our group opted to take that day had us going
along a old stone village path for part of the way :)

The path led us past ruins of a few long abandoned villages

 The ruins help make more an evocative landscape

I wonder how many villages lie under the waters of
Plover Cove Reservoir that is Hong Kong's largest reservoir

These days, the largest settlements in the area are to be found 
-- like Tai Mei Tuk -- on the edge of Plover Cove

 Before heading downhill to Tai Mei Tuk, we paused to admire
the beautiful cloudy sky that the sun was trying to be a bigger part of ;b

*And for those who are wondering: yes, the 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival began this past Monday and I do intend to write about what I see there -- but will only do so after viewing more of the fest's offerings first! ;b

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hong Kong lantern display whimsy

Yes, those are anthromorphised sheep couples 
standing atop non-anthromorphised elephants!

 Another sheep couple -- this one atop a building 
and in get ups that get me thinking of Central Asia!

Better late than never?  Since February 12th, there's been a Lunar New Year lantern display at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza over at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.  

Last weekend, I walked by it during the day and it didn't looked all that interesting.  But after attending the Cassandra Wilson concert this evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, I decided to return to Hong Kong Island by ferry, and my walking route to the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier involved me passing by the lit up -- and consequently brightly colored and more eye-catching-- lantern display. 

The first figures that caught my attention were ones atop two elephants.  My first reaction on seeing them was "They don't look very Chinese nor lunar new year themed!"  Also, until I read the information on a display panel, I wouldn't have known that the figures are meant to be sheep couples -- but that is apparently what they are!

More specifically, I learnt, "A number of Asian "Sheep" couples dressed in various ethnical (sic!) & traditional wedding costumes would like to invite you to join their happy wedding at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza. Let's celebrate the Year of the Sheep with this spectacular and joyful lantern display!" -- one which actually was on display for the final time tonight!

Oh, and for those who are wondering how come I wrote about seeing goats at the Hong Kong Flower Show yesterday but sheep tonight, it's because the Chinese "yang" (whose year this is) can be translated into English as goat, sheep or ram!  As for why this year's lunar new year lantern display is wedding-  -- as well as sheep- -- themed, that I really have no idea! ;D

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Amusing and aesthetically attractive displays at the 2015 Hong Kong Flower Show

Floral goats on display? It can only be the

I'm not sure what this creature is 
but it sure does look happy! :)

Among the curiosities on show are displays 
which actually aesthetically impress

On a day when Google's commemorating the first day of Spring (and the March equinox) with doodles of flowers on its page titles, it seems appropriate for me to pay a visit to the 2015 Hong Kong Flower Show which began yesterday and runs through to March 29th. 

There are some snobs who think this event's lower class and not all that cool -- this not least on account of admission to it being just HK$14 (US$1.80) and free to senior citizens aged 60 years and above, and also persons with disabilities and their minders.  But I have to say that it's an event I look forward to checking out each year -- not least because I find much fun and amusement along with aesthetic enjoyment to be had from seeing the imaginative floral displays to be found at Victoria Park courtesy of the Hong Kong Flower Show

What with our being into the Chinese lunar year of the goat (or ram or sheep), I expected to see floral goats on display -- like there had been snake-shaped floral arrangements a couple of years ago.  And sure enough, that was indeed the case!  But entering Victoria Park from the Causeway Bay side like I did, I actually saw some other floral creatures first.

The first displays that caught my eye were ones that gave pride of place to female figures with intricate floral gowns, large yellow chicken (a nod to Easter being around the corner perhaps?) and colorful birds in flight.  Also notable were the Housing Authority's display area which featured human-sized anthromorphized -- or, at least, cartoon figure-like -- bees, as floral display and also a costumed character which many people were angling to go pose with.

Most impressive of all for me was a display from one of the district authorities that didn't just incorporate flowers, green plants, bronze sculptures and water but also dry ice as well!  In all honesty, it's quite amazing to see the efforts that some groups and organizations put into the exhibits they set up here at the Hong Kong Flower Show.  And it's only fitting that they attract the attention -- including from enthusiastic shutterbugs -- that they do during these few days that they're there for people to see and enjoy! :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Sunset Peak on the first day of Chinese New Year (2013!) (Photo-essay)

If I told you that this blog entry is of the first hike up Sunset Peak that I went on three Chinese New Years ago, then you'd know how far behind I am in terms of posting my hiking photo-essays!  So here's going ahead and doubling the number of hiking photo-essays that I normally put up in a week... 

And for those who wonder why I bother to put up this photo-essay since so much time already has past since I went on the hike that I'm chronicling: I think the pictures I took back then still are worth sharing -- not least because much of what's in the photos are still there some three years on!  Besides, my memories of this hike up Hong Kong's third highest peak (at 869 meters above sea level) are still pretty vivid -- which says to me that in the grand scheme of things, three years is actually not that long after all! ;b 

The trail up this Lantau Island peak 
is on the rocky and rugged side

On the misty afternoon that a friend and I went up Sunset Peak,
it literally was a trek up to the clouds!

 Midway up the mountain (from our hike start at Pak Kung Au), we spotted
a wild dog which, fortunately, seemed more curious than aggressive!

Whether you start from Mui Wo, Nam Shan or Pak Kung Au, 
it's quite the trek to go up Sunset Peak and also down it!

 On the way down, one has to beware tired legs which can
cause one to slip lest one fall off (not just down) the mountain!

Is that a stone guardian in before me? 

The trees grow taller in the lower reaches of the mountain,
 so the sight of tall trees is a sure sign that the end of the hike is near! :)