Saturday, April 19, 2014

Indigo and Still Life (This week's Photo Hunt themes)


There's a certain irony in my not having taken part in Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts last week when the chosen themes (of 'ginormous' and 'rocks') would have been far easier for me to find suitable photos for than this week!  Actually, Gattina's choice this week of still life isn't too difficult on its own but Sandi's choice of indigo required to really put on my thinking cap, especially when thinking of it in combination with still life!

In all honesty, about the only time I use the word indigo is when talking about the specific colors of the rainbow.  In fact, I talk more about 'indiglo': that is the electroluminescence display feature of my old Timex watch that makes me love it so -- and had to look up which shades on the color spectrum make up indigo on Wikipedia!

After doing so, I found a photo I took while out hiking of beautifully indigo-colored sections of a plant (which, bad naturalist that I am, I have to admit to not knowing if are fruits or seeds!) that I'd like to suggest to artists as candidates for incorporating into still life paintings. Perhaps the one who painted the colorful floral still life I saw while visiting his studio during the 2012 Fotanian Open Studios may be one of them? ;b

The Eastern and Oriental Hotel's E&O Gallery

At the E&O Gallery in Penang,
music can be heard as well as sight seen

Located in the Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel's 
Victory Annexe, the social history gallery is open to 
the public and doesn't charge for admission 
 It contains information about the hotel's owners,
guests and staff over the years -- and how much a part
of Penang's socio-cultural heritage the hotel is...
 ...and it's no small amount of pride that I can say that
I had a part in its coming into being, and am grateful
that my name can be seen at the gallery :)
This time last week, I was in Penang.  This recent short visit (of just five days) was the first time I had been back on the island of my birth for about one and half years -- and the first one in a while that saw me go back for an actual holiday rather than for work.  
While Hong Kong has been my primary workplace for close to seven years now, the period between May 2011 and October 2012 saw me also assuming a consulting position on a museological project in Penang.  In the time between then and this recent Penang trip, the E&O Gallery opened its doors at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel which occupies a geographical location close to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed sections of George Town (Penang's capital city) and also a place in the hearts of many Penangites and visitors to it.  
As might be expected, I decided that a visit to the social history gallery was a "must do" on this trip -- this not least because I wanted to see how many of my recommendations would be put into effect!  So one morning, I headed over to the E&O -- as it turned out, after revisiting some nearby areas to see new and interesting sights that had come into being there as well as appreciate some old haunts.  (More on that in a future blog entry, I promise!)
Should anyone wonder, I was well pleased with what I found at the E&O Gallery, and ended up spending close to an hour there marvelling at how wonderfully it all ultimately came together.  About the one regret I have is that the place looks so good that it actually might intimidate potential visitors and get them thinking that there's a high admission fee (when, in fact, there actually is none)!
So here's doing my bit to try to get the word out that entry to this air-conditioned oasis of a gallery that offers a multimedia experience really won't cost visitors a cent -- for I'd love more people to behold something that I am proud to have had a hand in creating, and that I actually think they might enjoy checking out! :)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From Shek Kong to Ho Pui - reservoir and village (Photo-essay)

Serious hikers will scoff but some days, I prefer to go on a paved trail that's on the flat side to boot.  This is so after days of rain gets me worried that many unpaved trails in Hong Kong will have turned super muddy and slippery -- and sometimes also have further obstacles in the form of broken tree branches falling to the ground. 

At the same time, I want to scratch that itch to be out and about in the countryside.  And on such days, I opt to go along trails such as that which begins in Shek Kong that I previously took to Ma On Kong.  This time around though, I didn't go all the way along that 11 kilometer route.  Instead, my hiking buddy on that hot and humid day and I elected to end our excursion at Ho Pui

From that Pat Heung area village, we took a green minibus to Yuen Long, where we first headed to a noodle shop and then shared a massive B Chai Grass Jelly dish at Kai Kee Dessert shop -- one of my favorite specialist dessert eateries in the whole of the Big Lychee!  Put another way: it was yet another Sunday where we enjoyed both the time spent hiking and also the post-hike repast! :b

It was a gray and cloudy day but, fortunately,
the rain that threatened to fall didn't!

 Whereas the previous week, I saw a snake near hike's end,
this time around, the snake spotting came early on in the hike, 
and was made even more notable by the critter appearing 
to be comfortable in water as well as on land!

 On clear air days like this, one can see clear across 
the water and border to mainland China

 Lest anyone feel inclined to go into the waters of any of
the reservoirs found along the way... 

 Yes, I do so love it when colorful butterflies
obligingly pose for my camera! :)

Yes, Virginia, there are organic farms in Hong Kong! ;b

we got a lovely view of the top of Tai Mo Shan

On occasions like this, I love that my camera's equiped with 
a zoom lens -- though for the record, this photo was taken with 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Desert of the Tartars - the final film I viewed at the 2014 HKIFF (film review)

The Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, South Korea, is far from 
the desert but still is one of the closest things to the Bam Citadel --
which featured in Desert of the Tartars -- that I've got photos of!

Desert of the Tartars (Italy-France-West Germany, 1976)
- From the Restored Classics program
- Valerio Zurlini, director
- Starring: Jacques Perrin, Helmut Griem, Vittoria Gassman, Max von Syndow, Guiliano Gemma, Francisco Rabal, Laurent Terzieff

When Hong Kong film fans think of desert epics, chances are that their minds will turn to Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time while Western cinema fans will invariably get to thinking of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. And although I wouldn't go so far as to state that Valerio Zurlini's Desert of the Tartars is as much of a cinematic masterpiece as those two films, it's true enough that images from it now will come to mind when I think of the desert post my having been treated to a Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of the 1976 work on the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's super big screen. 

Desert of the Tartars begins in a recognizably European locale but, along with its protagonist, Lieutenant Drogo (Jacques Perrin, probably better known these days as the director of nature documentaries Winged Migration and Oceans), spends the bulk of its running time in a remote -- and thoroughly exotic looking -- desert fortress at the edge of a far-flung empire (with a double headed eagle on its flag) whose eastern border has been deemed to require guarding by soldiers who need to be constantly vigilant against a Tartar threat.  

Adapted from Italian author Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe and helmed by an Italian director, this offering nonetheless is less a recognizably Italian film than an Italian-French-West German co-production with an international cast who play characters with surnames that sound more English (Nathanson), Spanish (Hortiz), French (Simeon) and German (von Amerling) than Italian. 

In addition, while the Internet Movie Database lists its language as Italian, the restored version that I saw (and heard) had its characters speaking in French.  Even more amazingly, the film turns out to have been largely shot at the incredible looking Iranian citadel of Bam which, together with the city of the same name, was sadly devastated by a major earthquake in 2003.

Although Desert of the Tartars focuses on military men, it actually features zero combat scenes.  Instead, the soldiers are seen patrolling, drilling, even dining and hunting game but, above all, forever waiting for -- and keeping guard against -- opponents that often seem more mythical -- and to exist in minds that are all too capable of being threatened by insanity, depression and other malaises -- than real.

There's a case to be made for not much happening in the film.  Yet, rather than be boring, things not happening for long periods in this 140 minute length offering actually heightens tensions and emphasizes how much people -- especially those who have to work and live in close quarters with others for long periods of time -- have to psychologically battle within themselves and also deal with in others.

Something that really stood out because I watched this work just a few hours after having watched the lust-filled Blind Massage was how sex-less are the lives of the characters in Desert of the Tartars.  (While this film has at least one more female character than Lawrence of Arabia, its world is also incredibly male and not very (outwardly) homosexual either.)  At the same time though, it also is full of people who are destroyed -- psychologically and even physically -- by their frustrations eating at them from within.

Even while the visuals enthrall, this production also happens to be psychologically and philosophically disturbing.  In the crumbling surroundings of the citadel (called the Bastiani Fortress in the film), people wreck their lives -- with the worst thing being that their efforts and sacrifices feel like such an unnecessary waste.  

At the risk of reading too much into things, Lieutanant Drogo's tale looks to me to serve as a particularly sad object lesson.  If only he had obeyed his initial instincts (to get away from the fortress at the first opportunity).  Instead, through a combination of such as inertia, developed obsession, caring too much about what his peers and nominal "superiors" thought, and feeling that his career was going somewhere as a result of getting small promotion upon promotion, he ended up going nowhere in life while thinking he was going somewhere professionally.  

My rating for this film: 8.0

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Blind Massage at the 2014 HKIFF (film review)

I bought tickets for some HKIFF screenings but used 
a pass for others -- which meant that I only got in 
after ticket holders and if the screening wasn't sold out

Blind Massage (Mainland China-France, 2014)
- From the Galas program
- Lou Ye, director
- Starring: Qin Hao, Guo Xiaoding, Huang Xuan, Mei Ting, Zhang Lei, etc.

For those who don't know already: Asian films won big at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, with mainland Chinese works doing particular well.  Of the three mainland Chinese films that featured in the official competition, Black Coal, Thin Ice came away with the Golden Bear and the Best Actor Silver Bear (for Liao Fan) while Blind Massage's cinematographer, Zeng Jian, was awarded a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.  

On the face of it, it may seem ironic, even weird, that a drama about a group of blind masseurs would possess award-winning visuals.  But Zeng Jian's genius lies in his having incorporated depictions of the world the way that people who are visually challenged -- but not 100 per cent blind -- perceived it along with the sort of views of the world that sighted people possess.  

Also technically impressive is the use of sound in this film, including in a sequence when there's a blackout in the building that houses the blind massage center.  In addition, I found the decision to go for a cast that included blind as well as sighted actors and actresses to be interesting -- and to have strengthened the drama's semi-documentary feel.  

On the other hand, two elements got in the way of Blind Massage coming across as a thoroughly realistic depiction of blind people who found employment as masseurs.  The first and lesser factor is the inclusion of an actor and actress who are too good-looking to pass for ordinary folk in Qin Hao and Mei Teng (with my familiarity with the latter by way of her having also appeared in Dante Lam's Unbeatable causing her presence in the film to be unduly distracting).  The second and bigger factor comes from the drama's director and his scripwriter spouse being too fixated on showing (blind) people being unhappy, to the extent that the work becomes way too emotionally unbalanced.

Put alternatively: I realize that blind people have difficulties and problems that sighted people don't.  However, I also am sure that they are capable of leading lives that are happy and fulfilling.  On a related note: certain of the blind characters are Blind Massage are depicted being lustful in ways that make them seem more like brutes than 'regular' human beings.  Something else that I couldn't help noticing was how the film focuses on the unhappier members of the blind massage center rather than those who appear to have fewer problems in their lives.    

I remember a director telling me some years back that it's easier to make interesting films about troubled, unhappy people than untroubled, happy folks.  But Lou Ye really does appear to have gone out of his way to go for a darker (no pun intended) portrayal of the lives of blind masseurs, even while, via a voiceover, the film's audience is told that the story was set in the golden age of blind massage!

The result, at least for me, is a work that's got a lot going for it technically but is not only dramatically less interesting than it otherwise could have been and also not an easy watch.  Perhaps most damningly, I can't shake off the feeling that the decision to emphasize the unpleasantness of these blind Chinese people's lives was motivated by a sense that doing so would make it more attractive to international film festival audiences, the way that I've often felt was the case with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou's critically acclaimed -- but not shown at home -- earlier works.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Rebel Without a Cause - viewed close to 60 years after its original release (film review)

The 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival ended 
this past Monday but my HKIFF coverage continues!

Rebel Without a Cause (USA, 1955)
- From the Restored Classics program
- Nicholas Ray, director
- Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus

I wonder if it's a sign of my increased age that the three films that I most looked forward to viewing at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival were made in the 1950s: i.e., Dial M for Murder (1954), Late Autumn (1960), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  As it turned out though, while Dial M for Murder and Late Autumn stood the test of time for me, Nicholas Ray's drama about disaffected American youth worked better for me when I watched it back when I was a teenager myself than this time around.

For one thing, whereas I previously could accept the then 20something James Dean as a high school student,  he now appeared on the old side to play Jim Stark, the troubled teen with obvious daddy and mommy issues -- on account of his father (Jim Backus) being too passive and not "man" enough for the son's liking and the mother (Ann Doran) being too shrilly overbearing.  More significantly, whereas I previously empathized with -- maybe identified with -- Jim Stark and his disaffection with society and his parents, he now came across as on the whiny side and also being insufficiently unsympathetic -- and even on the conservative side! -- with regards to how he perceived that men in his father's position should behave!

With regards to the "whiny" element: I had a similar reaction when re-watching the original Star Wars on its 25th anniversary -- i.e., whereas I had previously identified more with Luke Skywalker and thought that the older Han Solo was a blowhard, the second time around, I found Luke to be on the bratty side whereas Han now came across as quite the attractive hunk!  Put another way: it's not the movie that had changed, but me -- and consequently my perception of the film!!

Close to 60 years after Rebel Without a Cause's original release, certain elements in the movie also either become clearer -- or are likely to be looked upon very different from when the film first came out.  I'm referring, of course, to the way that Plato (Sal Mineo) looks upon Jim appearing to have homosexual undertones and it being far more understandable -- at least to me now -- why Judy (Natalie Wood) upset her father (William Hopper) with her wanting to still kiss and hug him the way she had when she was younger.

While these elements make the viewing experience more interesting, they also get one wondering how much of this was actually intended by the film's makers.  In any case, the portrait painted of middle-class suburban American youth comes across as quite a bit more troubled and alien(ating) than should be expected for a film from the 1950s, supposedly an era when life was more conservative and stable than they would become in succeeding decades.

At the same time though, there's no denying -- even when viewing Rebel without a Cause for a second time so many years later -- that James Dean had a magnetism and charisma about him that was extremely attractive.  As with another film legend in Bruce Lee, it's such a pity that he died so young -- before this particular offering was released even -- because he was the sort of actor who truly had a special something that went far beyond good looks, stylish poses and cool attitude.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Friday, April 11, 2014

Late Autumn at the 2014 HKIFF (film review)

The kind of Tokyo domestic setting that
wouldn't look out of place in an Ozu movie?

Late Autumn (Japan, 1960)
- From the Ozu: 4 Classics Restored program
- Yasujiro Ozu, director
- Starring: Setsuko Hara, Yoko Tsukasa, Shin Saburi, Nobuo Nakamura, Ryuji Kita, Mariko Okada

For many cineastes, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yazujiro Ozu are the indisputable big three of Japanese cinema.  As it so happens, the very first Japanese film I ever saw -- and on a big screen too -- was Kurosawa's Ran (1985).  Needless to say, I was bowled over by that epic work -- and went on to check out many of the director's other films.  

Years later, a viewing of Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954) similarly inspired me to track down other films by that auteur.  And almost needless to say, I'm now on a similar quest with regards to the works of Ozu -- albeit with a caveat that with this particular cinematic great, I really am glad that I waited, and have been able, to catch a number of his films on a big screen.

For while it's true enough that all of the Ozu offerings I've viewed thus far could be described as small-scale family dramas (some of which, like Late Autumn, also happen to have some wonderful comic touches), many of them have scenes whose spatial compositions really are very impressive indeed along with actors and actresses whose subtle facial expressions and body gestures can reveal so much.

Among those luminaries who've graced Ozu's films, my personal favorite is the mesmerizing Setsuko Hara -- who stars in Late Autumn as a beautiful widow whose loving daughter (Yoko Tsukasa) three well-meaning family friends (Shin Saburi, Nobuo Nakamura and Ryuji Kita) try to find a suitable husband. Later, when they realize that the main reason that the daughter says she is happy to stay single is because she doesn't want her mother to be left alone, the three men set about trying to find a match for the mother too -- but do so in such a bumbling fashion that they threaten to sow considerably more discord and unhappiness than anything positive.

Especially in view of the film's first dialogue-filled scenes taking place at a memorial service, one would not expect Late Autumn to be as amusing as well as generally entertaining as it in fact is.  This it not to say though that it doesn't have its dramatic moments -- and even while those don't involve physical violence, seeing the main character being made unhappy actually was pretty emotionally devastating as far as this particular viewer was concerned.

On a lighter note: I never realized prior to viewing Ozu's films that viewing them would leave me yearning to drink lots of sake (as was the case with Tokyo Twilight) and super hungry for Japanese food (as was the case with Late Autumn, where people are heard talking about or heartily consuming steak, tonkatsu, sushi, ramen and more, and drinking sake, beer and whisky in a number of scenes)!  

Do believe me though when I tell you that this particular Ozu masterwork is one more of those movies that shouldn't be viewed on an empty stomach -- and it's a real tribute to the filmmaker that I managed to enjoy viewing this work as much as I did even while also getting ravenous with each passing minute spent in the cinema.  (And for the record, yes, I did run to a Japanese restaurant immediately after the screening that evening!)    

My rating for this film: 9.5