Saturday, April 30, 2011

Square (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

This Photo Hunt entry contains photos taken in Hong Kong and its sister Special Administrative Region of Macau.

The upper photo shows the kind of square table with a permanent Chinese chess board (marked out in ways that divides the playing areas into what looks to be numerous squares) on its top surface that is frequently found in official "sitting out areas" in Hong Kong. (N.B. because Chinese chess is a two person game, there always are two chairs permanently attached close to the table -- it's just that I "cut" the second chair out when moving on for a close-up shot of the table! ;b)

The lower photo is of the Fountain of Luso taken in Macau's Lilau Square. A Portuguese residential quarter developed around that which historically where the main source of natural spring water in Macau was found and which now is situated deep within the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Historic Centre of Macao area.

A (once) popular Portuguese saying went to the effect that "Anyone who drinks from Lilau never forgets Macau". However, each time I've passed by the square, I've never seen anyone, Portuguese or otherwise, deigning to drink the water that still comes out there -- albeit as more than a trickle than healthy looking flow, and from out of the mouth of a metal cherub who may look cute enough but, frankly, not necessarily all that clean!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Romance and Sex -- Hong Kong Cinema-Style!

Love, lust or just doing what comes naturally

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2011)
- Johnnie To, director
- Starring Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan, Daniel Wu, Lam Suet

This past weekend, more than a month after the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival began, I finally got to watching one of its two official opening films. One reason I had delayed my viewing of it was that I had been rather put off by its trailer (which had looked like Johnnie To was trying to pin some of his action sensibilities onto the romantic comedy with less than satisfactory results). In addition, some reports and reviews I read of the movie had made it seem as though that the Milkyway Image boss who had, for many years, proudly deigned to pander to the Mainland Chinese market, had finally, sadly given up that particular fight.

In the end, however, curiosity got the better of me -- particularly after I read Stefan S.'s positive comments on this romantic comedy which revolves around a now Hong Kong-based female executive who's originally from Suzhou (Gao Yuanyuan), a handsome local high flyer (Louis Koo) and a talented Canadian-born architect (Daniel Wu). And how glad I am post-viewing this charming offering that I did go ahead and check it out after all -- if nothing else because I finally got to see an English translation of the lyrics of a song I have loved for ages now after first hearing it sung by Faye Wong!

More seriously though: its director may be well known for preferring to make crime dramas over romantic works but the fact of the matter is that when Johnnie To puts even half of his heart into it, he comes up with gems like Needing You... (as opposed to Linger -- which I still can't believe he really directed rather than merely lent his name to). And it's not a bad thing at all when I state that Don't Go Breaking My Heart reminded me quite a bit of the 2000 office romantic comedy starring Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau.

For one thing, this 2011 Johnnie To romantic effort is largely set in the world of offices where people fall in love as well as work. For another, this movie's female protagonist -- like with Sammi Cheng's Needing You... character -- most definitely has some cute personality quirks that many viewers will undoubtedly find endearing. And most strikingly, she finds herself having to choose between two attractive men who both have strong feelings for her.

Ultimately, however, what made me come out of my viewing of the film feeling very satisfied was that Don't Go Break My Heart actually goes along a different path after a stretch which got me worried that the story was going to develop way too similarly to how Needing You... had done. And for the record: yes, I definitely agree with the female protagonist's choice of man to marry.

Also, yes, I do think many a heterosexual female viewer will invariably put herself in the female protagonist's shoes and empathize with the difficulty she has making her important decision -- even if the truth of the matter is that it is only in their dreams and fantasies (or in the movies they watch) that they would get to be wooed by one super attractive man, never mind two, at any point in their lives! ;D

My rating for the film: 7.5

3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (Hong Kong, 2011)
- Christopher Sun, director
- Starring Hiro Harayama, Leni Lan, Tony Ho, Vonnie Liu

Close to a week ago now, two friends collectively e-mailed invitations to several friends -- male as well as female -- to go and view the Hong Kong movie that's currently the talk of the town. In the end, however, only three of us went this past Monday evening to go take in a screening together of 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.

Before the over 2 hour movie came to an end, one of the two women who had initiated this excursion had walked out of the screening while the other was so shocked by what she had seen that she felt physically sick and decided she couldn't have dinner after the film after all! And while I didn't have as extreme a reaction to this soft porn work that also has its share of violence as them, I must say that I do really regret having contributed to its box office -- and towards what I fear will be a wave of flicks like it in the near future.

Strange as it may sound, 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy actually started out promisingly -- with opening credits that looked admirably artistic as well as made good use of the effects of 3D. But within a few minutes, whatever promise this film with an unexpectedly mean streak held of being aesthetically pleasing quickly disappeared. For even while it does have higher production values than some might expect, there really isn't much beauty in this 3D retelling of a Ming dynasty tale about a lustful learned man who decides he wants a bigger member than his own that already had been made into a Hong Kong film back in 1991 and, indeed, I'd go so far as to say that there is much that is ugly about many of its characters, overall story and so much more.

More specifically, early on in the movie, a woman gets described by another character as the perfect female -- perfect in personality as well as physically. Within seconds of this supposedly serious (as opposed to sarcastic or jesting) assertion, this same woman proceeds to throw a major temper tantrum that prompts her to act incredibly cruelly towards a fellow female. And I have to say in all honesty that not only is the actress who played this supposed major beauty not all that great looking, her looks are actually so unremarkable that I don't think I'll be able to recognize her if I see her in another film.

For that matter, I feel the same way about all the women I saw in this offering -- all of whom additionally seemed to look similar to one another. Put another way: none of the actresses in this offering evinced the charisma or had the kind of looks that, say, Chingmy Yau, Carrie Ng, Patricia Ha, Julie Yeh Feng and other memorably sexy sizzlers from past eras of Hong Kong cinema.

On a perhaps related note: none of the women in the 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy ever looked like they were experiencing true sexual ecstacy -- only the men. And for the record: this is something that more than one female viewer has noticed, as I found upon having conversations about the movie with those woman friends I know who have also viewed the work.

Small wonder, then, that the general conclusion of many a female who checked out the movie is that it was, in the words of one gweipo, "by men, with men, for men". Indeed, I personally would go so far to describe this effort as distinctly misogynistic and thus most emphatically not a work that was all that pleasurable to watch or one that would put women "in the mood" (the latter of which I reckon makes for a pretty damning criticism of a soft porn work!!)!

My rating for the film: 3

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A hike of two halves (photo-essay)

Close to a year ago, my regular hiking companion and I went on a hike along Smuggler's Ridge and more that I've come to think of as one of the worst I've been on in Hong Kong on account of our encountering a bunch of stupid people in cars doing such as illegally feeding as well as gawking at whole troops of excited wild monkeys during the last leg of the hike through Kam Shan Country Park. But upon looking again at the photos I took over the course of the hike, I got to remembering that the parts of the excursion that had taken us through Shing Mun Country Park and the northern portion of Kam Shan Country Park had actually been enjoyable enough.

More specifically, things only started to get unpleasant shortly after we went south of marker M120 of the Maclehose Trail along a paved road that private cars were driving up (illegally?) along from the entrance to Kam Shan Country Park from Tai Po Road. So, as it turns out, I do have some good photos to positively remember the hike with after all (along with some that made me angry even after all this time :S ). At the same time, here's definitely stating that this is one trail that I don't plan to hike along again any time soon until the situation with illegal feeding of monkeys in the area gets dealt with more satisfactorily by the authorities...

I'm guessing that the shape of this structure
near the hike's start was inspired by
the historical Shing Mun Redoubt in the area

An entrance to the Shing Mun Redoubt that's
really close to the hiking trail

So if you have a torch and a sense of adventure, one
can't help but want to venture into at least part
of the redoubt to have a bit of a look around

Before too long, however, the hiking trail and views to be had
along it will get you wanting to head out into the open
once more (and yes, that is indeed Lion Rock in the distance)

Looking northwards from the southern edge of
Shing Mun Country Park

Monkeys at home in Kam Shan Country Park

Illegal feeding of monkeys and humans gawking
(in the path of a pair of hikers) in Kam Shan Country Park :(

Since this hike is one I remember most vividly for the large number
of monkeys (and annoying people) encountered over the course of,
here's ending this photo-essay with a monkey-grooming photo!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dressing for a Hong Kong hike

Please click on the photo to enlarge and
take a good look at the fellow in the photo!

For contrast, check out the attire of a sporty female
out on the same trail today! :b

Earlier today, my regular hiking companion and I hiked along Stage 5 of the Hong Kong Trail. As it was a beautiful day (with bright blue skies, good visibility that was enhanced by it having rained yesterday, and weather that was pleasantly dry as well as not too hot), we weren't too surprised to encounter quite a few other people along the trail that began at Wong Nai Chung Gap and officially ended at Quarry Gap (but actually required us to extend our route by a further 3 kilometers in order to get to the nearest public transportation by walking downhill along Mount Parker Road).

This being Hong Kong (and, particularly, Hong Kong Island), we saw many types of hikers that we have become familiar with -- including expat families out for an outing (often with a dog in tow), local retiree couples who keep fit by regularly hiking, younger couples that usually consist of one happy hiker and one not so happy significant other, and super fit individuals who easily run up and down the parts of path that most others alternately huff and puff and warily tread along.

But then came a sight that struck me as quite surreal: a man carrying an umbrella and wearing a long sleeved Oxford shirt along with what at first glance looked like a regular pair of slacks (but turned out to be a bit more sporty than that) -- looking like he would be more at home strolling along a flat street surrounded by buildings than out on in the hilly portion of a country park!

As I asked my regular hiking companion, "Surely he's got more casual clothes than that (which we saw him wearing today)?!" In any case, he seemed to have been faring far better than some other more sportily attired folks we saw out today... though it also tends to be true enough that more than once, we have been able to gauge by the clothes they wear how prepared (or not) quite a few folks are for Hong Kong's hiking trails not always being all that easy to venture on as they are to get to!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dusty (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Talk about showing two different sides of Hong Kong in a single blog entry but this week's Photo Hunt theme has given me the opportunity to do precisely that! In that here's offering up two photos of Hong Kong featuring a dusty dirt trail in Ma On Shan Country Park and a dusty mega-construction site right in urban Hong Kong.

More re the first photo: Hong Kong gets a considerable amount of rainfall in a year (with its driest area getting 1,300 milimeters (approximately 51 inches) and its wettest area more than 3,000 milimeters (approximately 118 inches) of rain over a year) but what can be even more striking is that some 80% of the rain falls over just 5 months of a calendar year (between May and September). Consequently, fall and winter regularly offer up several optimal hiking weather days in terms of their being dry as well as cool. (I'm actually personally okay hiking on hot days with temperatures in the high 30s on the Celsius and Centigrade temperature scales but I draw the line at going hiking on rainy days.)

Re the second photo: One of the more striking things about the Big Lychee for visitors is how much construction is going on in the city at any one time. On a related note, very little of this construction is taking place on "pristine" sites. Rather, older buildings get torn down and newer buildings -- that are invariably bigger and taller -- get built in their place or, as is the case in the photo that actually dates back to 2009 (so the scene's quite different there now), land gets reclaimed from bodies of water such as Victoria Harbour and built on.

The result of all this construction, reclamation and destruction is that the physical landscape of Asia's World City is noticeably ever changing -- with quite a few places I counted as landmarks in previous years now being no more... including the more conveniently located Star Ferry Terminal in Central that I used on many visits to Hong Kong and Queen's Pier, both of which used to stand within the area covered by the above dusty construction site photo.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Only connect...!

One of the more old fashioned looking utility poles
I've seen while out hiking in Hong Kong

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted..." Thus goes one of the more famous passages in E. M. Forster's Howard's End, a book I was introduced at boarding school in England and quickly went on to love.

And "only connect" was my wish and cry for the past twenty-two hours or so in between my home computer modem went kaput and it finally getting replaced by another by my internet service provider a few minutes ago!

Although I do remember having lived life without e-mails and the world wide web, the fact of the matter is that for around a decade and a half now, they have become such important, integral parts of my life -- my means to stay connected with family members and friends, many of whom live in different parts of the world, and thousands of kilometers and miles away from me. And then there are the friends I've made via the internet (through reading their writings and/or viewing the pictures they create and share on various websites and blogs) -- many of whom I've yet to meet up face to face with but feel like I know pretty well despite this being the case...

Some years back when I was living in Philadelphia, I had a house-mate who would scoff at what he called my "cyberfriends" (as opposed to what he looked upon as "real" -- and an online buddy described as "meatspace" -- friends). So it's rather ironic that I've ended up continuing to keep in touch with more of the "cyberfriends" than my "meatspace" friends from that era -- and that my housemate is one of those then members of my "meatspace" circle who I quickly lost touch with once I left the U.S.A.

On a more positive note: I love how the internet really does make me feel more connected to humanity as a whole as well as broaden and/or deepen my knowledge of lots of different elements and parts of our world. On a personal note, I am really grateful for the experiences I regularly have such as communicating via e-mail with an American friend who I met via an online Asian film forum about possibly meeting up again in the future in Japan or with my mother about an English football team whose fortunes we follow from afar by doing such as reading onlines match reports and analyses along with watching 'live' on satellite or cable TV; experiences that were really not part of the realm of possibilities just a scant couple of decades or more ago!

In any case, apologies if this all sounds like babble -- but I'm just so happy as well as relieved that I'm able to connect to the internet again (and in my leisure time rather than just at and for work)!!! :)))

Postscript: Of course, getting visitors to -- and comments -- on my blog help me to feel connected to the rest of the world. So thanks to those who check out this blog, particularly those who visit regularly... and do please comment (more) on my entries! :b

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

From Violet Hill down to Stanley via the Tsz Lo Lan Shan Path

After going over Violet Hill from Wong Nai Chung Gap, my regular hiking companion and I went down it to Tsin Shui Wan Au (AKA Repulse Bay Gap). At that intersection, we found ourselves with various trail options including one that would take us down to Stanley via The Twins and another that leads eastwards to Tai Tam Road via the edge of a couple of the Tai Tam Reservoirs.

The one we went for took us towards Stanley via a far gentler trail than that which goes over The Twins. Part of the Tsz Lo Lan Shan Path whose northern section skirts the edge of Violet Hill, it also largely runs parallel to a catchwater before descending towards -- and offering great views of before ending near -- southern Hong Kong Island's largest town:-

On the way down to Repulse Bay Gap from Violet Hill,
one is treated to this view of
The Twins

In this part of Hong Kong, there clearly is
far more
greenery than humanity! :b

Further along our hike, tall buildings become visible
once more (even while still being far away)

Especially along the Tsz Lo Lan Shan Path part of the hike,
many butterflies flew by us but only this one
deigned to
come close and stay still enough to be nicely photographed

Private boats and a mansion by the sea belonging
to some people
living the high life in Hong Kong!

Then there's me who can get happy enough upon managing
to spot
and photograph such as this beautiful dragonfly! ;b

I wonder how many people traveling on that road know and
think to look up at the hikers looking down at their vehicles!

A wonderful view near hike's end -- wonderful, that is,
if one can overlook the band of smog visible in the distance! :S

Sunday, April 17, 2011

2011 HKIFF addendum: two films by Minoru Shibuya

A familiar HKIFF sight: a waiting queue of film fans
at venues such as the HK Science Museum

As I write this, the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards are taking place (and The Golden Rock, for one, is live blogging about them). But although my mind is on films this evening, it's not Hong Kong films from the last year or so but, instead, a couple of over 50 year old Japanese films that I viewed for the first time just this week at what is officially Part 2 of the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival but can feel more like a mere addendum on account of such as its offerings being far smaller in number than Part 1.

Still, to judge from the two films I viewed this past Friday and Saturday, the portends are good that the quality will be good even if the quantity is lacking. Alternatively put, I liked both of these works so much I felt like I had to do my bit to spread the word about them so that should this blog's readers get their own chance to check them, they will want to go ahead and do just that! :b

Doctor's Day Off (Japan, 1952)
- From the Shibuya Minoru, Master of all Trades programme
- Minoru Shibuya, director
- Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Keiko Kishi, Chikage Awashima

Although one of his films (Modern People) screened at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1953, I think it's safe to say that Minoru Shibuya (or Shibuya Minoru -- if you opt for the traditional surname first, personal name second order that would make it so that Akira Kurosawa is Kurosawa Akira) is not one of the better known Japanese filmmakers outside of his home country. (And, yes, I do reckon that it's pretty telling that his Wikipedia entry is one of the paltriest I have ever seen for a respected director, particularly one with over 40 films to his credit.)

For my part, I don't think I had even heard of Minoru Shibuya prior to checking out the 35th HKIFF's program booklet and finding an eight film retrospective programme dedicated to the Shochiku filmmaker who lived between the years 1907 and 1980, and was particularly active professionally 1937 and 1965. So I did feel like I was taking a chance when I decided to get tickets to two screenings of his movies on the face of their description in that booklet.

Doctor's Day Off had been billed as a "tragicomic melodrama... considered a highpoint in Shibuya Minoru's ouevre". But although this offering revolving around a hard-working and caring doctor who cannot turn patients away even on his day off -- and, in one instance, despite having had too much to drink -- does have its sad elements (including a rape victim and a war veteran made mad by his military experience), I came away from the viewing experience with a much lighter heart than I thought I would based on that mentioned description.

For one thing, the film's affable doctor main character regularly breaks out into the kind of laughter that isn't only infectious but makes those who hear it liable to feel that things really aren't that bad with the world. For another, the movie (whose events actually unfold over more than just one day) is filled with a number of good-hearted and good-natured people whose willingness to help others -- strangers in town as well as colleagues and close neighbors -- is really heartwarming as well as admirable; with the doctor's first patient at the hospital he opened 18 years ago coming very close to topping the physician's in term of colorfulness along with good-heartedness.

Made as it was less than a decade after the end of the Second World War, Doctor's Day Off comes across as an affirmation and testament that while Japan undoubtedly was (still) scarred from the war (its demands of the people throughout the war years as well as the final defeat itself), it was also slowly but surely healing through the efforts of good people like those who populate this movie. So even while the Japan depicted in the movie was a good deal more ramshackle and poorer looking than what we have come to be used to seeing (at least pre March 11 tsunami), there definitely was a sense that the future was something that one could see being bright and, also, that a more humane society already was being built in place of the more conservative and militaristic one that had been there before it.

My rating for this film: 8

- A Good Man, A Good Day (Japan, 1961)
- From the Shibuya Minoru, Master of all Trades programme
- Minoru Shibuya, director
- Starring Chishu Ryu, Chikage Awashima, Shima Iwashita

After viewing the Doctor's Day Off, I was eager to check out more films by Minoru Shibuya and as luck would have it, another Minoru Shibuya film was indeed on the schedule the day after.
Made nine years after the first movie by the director that I had viewed, A Good Man, A Good Day benefits from technical improvements -- on the part of the filmmaker but probably the Japanese film industry as a whole -- in the time in between.

Furthermore, this work appears to have had a larger budget. And I definitely do feel that the movie benefited quite a bit from not only being shot in color (rather than Doctor's Day Off black and white) but, also, having location shots that set it squarely in Nara -- whose magnificent Todaiji Temple and deer-filled Nara Park (both of which I visited decades ago) prominently figure in the offering.

In many other ways, however, A Good Man, A Good Day and Doctor's Day Off have so much in common that it really would be hard for anyone who's viewed them both to not think that they were made by the same filmmaker. Indeed, the two films' main themes are so similar that... let's put it this way... the title of "A Good Man, A Good Day" would have worked for both -- rather than just one of -- them!

This time around, the good man in question is an eccentric genius of a math professor with a wife and daughter who love him dearly. Although highly respected and clearly very accomplished in his chosen field, he -- who gets invited to teach at Princeton University and becomes quite the celebrity after he is awarded a prestigious medal by the Emperor -- can act more like a willful child (albeit one who's addicted to caffeine and nicotine) than mature adult with familial responsibilities. At the same time though, he does show often enough in the movie that he actually is a caring man who is deeply grateful to his wife for all that she has done for him over the years and a sensitive father who wishes very much for his daughter to be happy.

When viewing this film, I found myself breaking into smiles very often. To be sure, there were many times when this was the case because something that happened on screen made me happy and glad. However, there also were times when I smiled very broadly -- and also broke out into laughter -- because the segment I had witnessed had amused or been downright funny. (Prize scenes and sequences include one involving the professor getting called an old fart by the young man his daughter wishes to marry and another in which his wife and a good friend openly talk with amusement about him.)

For even while, like with Doctor's Day Off, the film contains references to the second world war (and in a way that clearly shows the director considering jingoism to be an absurd way of viewing the world) and also the poverty that many Japanese people were saddled with in the post-war years, A Good Man, A Good Day is clearly a good-natured comedy -- full of good-hearted people whose admirable way of dealing with life's harder parts including doing so with a smile and/or seeing the funny side of it.

After watching these two of his films, I have to admit to thinking that Minoru Shibuya couldn't have been anything other than a good and warm-hearted man because both his Doctor's Day Off and A Good Man, A Good Day so consistently evince a gently as well as generously positive view of humanity -- one that leaves this viewer, at least, feeling as though bathed in a warm glow and convinced that seemingly little acts of humanity really can mean and count for so much.

My rating for this film: 8.5

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Road (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

"Hong Kong's roads are among the most heavily used in the world." So goes the opening line on a page on the Hong Kong road network on the Highways Department's website. And when looking at the above photo of a jammed Gloucester Road, few would disagree with that statement.

With a limited amount of land and space to place the roads along with other human-made structures that are part and parcel of urban living, the planners and constructors of Hong Kong's roads have gone underground and overground in addition to staying at ground level. For instance, parts of Salisbury Road -- which many pedestrians dislike because of it being almost impossible to simply cross at ground level (and instead are forced into some of the many pedestrian underpasses and tunnels that crisscross Hong Kong to get from one side to another) -- run underground even while others are at ground level.

Incidentally, some people checking out this Photo Hunt entry might wonder how it is that roads in Hong Kong -- and in its equally Chinese sounding districts of Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui -- might have such Anglophilic names. This is because even though British rule in Hong Kong came to an end on July 1st, 1997, Asia's World City has -- for better or worse -- not seen fit to go about wholesale wiping out traces of its British colonial past, Consequently, there not only remain parts of the Big Lychee that have retained their British names but, also, other parts of the cultural space that still feel distinctly British -- including such as its British pubs and the number one most popular spectator sport remaining association football (i.e., soccer to Americans).

Still, this is not to deny that Hong Kong is predominantly Chinese culturally. Also, the majority of non-Chinese in Hong Kong are actually other Asians as opposed to non-Asians -- and the largest non-Asian expatriate community is no longer British! In addition, the French also have a pretty significant cultural presence -- not least through its Le French May cultural extravaganza which, despite its name, now stretches from April through to June!! ;D

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eat Japanese!

A Japanese delicacy I tried for the first time recently
-- hotaru ika (i.e., marinated firefly squid)

Not your usual bowl of ramen --
one with a surprisingly large lobster in it!

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of Japanese food -- both in Japan and outside of it, including Hong Kong. So it was to be expected that the day after I viewed my last film of the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival proper (officially part 1 but, really, part 2 is so small in comparison that it's more like an afterthought than a proper second part), I headed to a favorite Japanese restaurant for one of the first dinners in a week that I could eat leisurely and/or in a part of Hong Kong of my choice (rather than dictated by screening venue).

To my surprise, I found that the Taikoo Shing branch of Senryo that I go to so regularly that the waitstaff know me by sight (and the manager knows my name) was unusually bereft of customers -- so much so that I could walk right in and find an empty seat by the counter. Seeing my shocked expression, the manager came over to talk to me -- and told me the woeful tale of how patronage has dramatically plummeted since the news of radiation having come out of the stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant started being reported in the media.

Although I'm no scientist, I think I know enough to be able to judge that the fears about radiation out of that northeastern Honshu nuclear plant is generally way overblown. In addition, I also happen to know that none of the sushi I regularly eat comes from the seas off northeastern Honshu. So I most definitely have no qualms about eating sushi now (as well as previously) -- and proceeded to demonstrate just that that evening.

Unfortunately, I seem to be in such a minority these days that the waitstaff are ever so grateful for my patronage to the extent that a couple besides the manager actually told me how happy they were to see me again and thank me for eating at their restaurant that evening. Even more embarrassingly, when I went to the same eatery again this week, they gave me a complimentary portion of seafood salad that normally is one of the pricier items on their menu!

Still, it was at another sushi restaurant yesterday evening that a foodie friend and I got our most dramatic taste yet of the crisis that Japanese, particularly sushi, restaurants are currently facing in Hong Kong. More specifically, at Sushi Shin, a high end sushi-ya that normally you have to book in advance to get into, we saw only four other customers in total in the two and half hours that we were there for dinner!

For the record: I've enjoyed the sushi I've eaten this past week or so as much as before, and have not felt sick from having eaten all those portions that I have. (And, oh yes, during the meals, I also partake of Japanese alcoholic drinks -- be it sake or beer -- and have been none the worse for wear from doing so too!) In addition, I'll come out and say that last night at Sushi Shin, I had the most delicious as well as biggest botan shrimp I've ever had in my life (as well as quite a few other tasty treats, including mackerel sashimi which was served with shiso (perilla) and sesame seeds, and uni (sea urchin) and flounder sushi)!!

So, to say the least, I don't see any reason to stop eating Japanese food any time soon. Indeed, I feel like I might want to go and eat Japanese food more often than I normally do in part because I want to show my support for Japan in this time of crisis (and with trade and patronage rather than "just" aid!) as well as -- more selfishly -- because I don't want many of my favorite Japanese restaurants to close down any time soon! And, yes, I would like to urge like-minded supporters of Japan and fans of Japanese food to do the same wherever you are in the world!!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A scenic Violet Hill hike (Photo-essay)

Back to regular programming now that I've finished reporting on the 21 films I viewed at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival... and that means the first hiking photo-essay since the one I put up close to a month ago about the Lau Shui Heung Country Trail hike that my regular hiking companion and I went on last spring! (Something that should please those of my friends and this blog's readers who have missed seeing photo- as opposed to text-rich entries when visiting the past few weeks!!)

Going further back in time: fairly early on in my Hong Kong residency a few years ago now, a hiking fiend friend introduced me to the wonders of Tai Tam Country Park via a hike up Violet Hill to Repulse Bay Gap and then eastwards along the banks of a couple of the Tai Tam Reservoirs. Close to 60 hikes later, I decided to hike up Violet Hill again -- this time with the woman who's now my regular hiking companion -- but then follow the Tsz Lo Lan Shan Path southwards to Stanley. Also, this time around, the plan was to take things slower, with frequent pauses to satisfy the shutterbug parts of us, with the result that I have at least a couple of photo-essays worth of photos to share from the day's outing:-

Unlikely as it may seem, these steps
lead to an area of hiking richness!

...and in the case of the path up Violet Hill,
lots of steps await to be climbed!

The view looking southwards into the
central green heart of Hong Kong Island

Back northwards lies the hazy urban jungle

If you don't glance back from time to time
while on this trail, you'll not realize
how close you actually are to the city...

Whenever you spot this structure in Hong Kong,
it means you're at a trigonometrical station
and the top of a peak :)

View from Violet Hill of a couple of the Tai Tam Reservoirs,
Tai Tam Harbour, the Red Hill Peninsula and more

Green land through which a hiking trail snakes its way,
and the pale blue sea beyond that looks like it melds with the sky

To be continued next week! :)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bringing my 2011 HKIFF coverage to a close with a film each from South America and Africa

2011 HKIFF advertising -- featuring festival
ambassador Miriam Yeung and mascot Puppet-kid

With this blog entry, my coverage of the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival comes to a close. Beginning with Carlos on the afternoon of March 20th, I viewed a grand total of 21 films at this year's film fest (all of which I will have reviewed in 12 blog posts over the past three weeks or so -- all (not including this one for now!) of which I'm happy to say have attracted a fair amount of comments -- thanks to those who gave me proof that people have been indeed reading these entries!).

And for the record: I really did pay for all the tickets to the screenings out of my own pocket -- and have no media or other official affiliation with this fest that I've come to not be a fan of in a professional capacity but still very much love in my leisure hours!

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Brazil, 2010)
- From the Gala Presentation programme
- Jose Padilha, director
- Starring Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, Andre Ramiro, Pedro Van-Held, Maria Ribeiro, Sandro Rocha, Milhem Cortaz, etc.

Three years ago, I viewed Jose Padilha's Elite Squad. The 2008 Brazilian winner of the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear as well as a multi-award winner at the Brazilian equivalent of the Oscars actually didn't impress me all that much at the time -- and in the records I keep of films I watch, I rather dismissively described it as a "[s]implistic, crude and violent action[er]" even while conceding that it "nonetheless is undeniably engrossing to watch".

In the years since, however, I have come to hold a more positive opinion about the crime drama which sees an elite police squad (known as "BOPE" for short after the initials of the Portuguese Portuguese equivalent of "Special Police Operations Battalion") wage a no-holds barred war against drug dealers and associated criminals in Rio de Janiero; not because I re-watched it again but, rather, due to certain memories of the film having lingered longer and more vividly than I thought anything from the effort would.

So I was very excited to see Jose Padilha's follow-up film getting its Asian premiere at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival -- and, of course, made it a point to get a ticket to one of the film's two screenings at the fest. (More than incidentally, I really felt like I was in Movie Mecca when, at the screening I attended, I found myself sitting just two seats away from Teddy Robin Kwan... aaah, Hong Kong, where one doesn't only get to see cool movies but is liable to have these cool chance spottings of celebrities one admires and/or respects!)

Getting back to Elite Squad 2: the 2010 follow up film largely takes place 13 years after the events of the first Elite Squad. Some flashbacks help get the viewer up to speed with the latest events and developments -- one which sees BOPE's Lieutanant-Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) now a government under-secretary, his former BOPE lieutanant (Andre Ramiro) disgraced and demoted, and their biggest enemy now being corrupt policemen who have become de facto militia kingpins who have whole communities under their thumb and at their mercy.

This time around, there is less brutal action on view but no less of an adrenaline rush when viewing this movie that doesn't lack for plot twists, complex plotting and intriguing characters -- and a pulsating soundtrack that keeps things feeling energized, even when the movie pauses to have characters offer up whole lines of expository dialogue -- be it on screen or via a reflexive narrative voice-over.

And whereas I found the first Elite Squad to espouse a simplistic, close to fascistic "the ends justify the means" point of view, Elite Squad 2 really does feel more admirably complex in terms of the opinions that are tendered in the film as well as in its story-telling. For one thing, the protagonist (who still is referred to as Colonel Nascimento even after he ceases to wear the uniform and skulled badge of BOPE) is now able to take a wider view of things, including one that reaches back several years in order for him to pinpoint where certain things starting going wrong and such.

For another, even while Wagner Moura owns the screen whenever he's on it, the film has some other interesting characters -- notably liberal activist turned legislator Diogo Frava (Irandhir Santos)... who just happens to have married Nascimento's ex-wife and now is co-raising Nascimento's son along with his spouse! And while this kind of twist can seem soap operatic, it actually does help the film -- and, of course, increase tensions -- that Nascimento doesn't just take his work personally but actually ends up having personal reasons to go after the bad guys.

My rating for this film: 9

A Screaming Man (Chad-France-Belgium, 2010)
- From the Auteurs programme
- Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, director
- Starring Youssouf Djaoro, Diouc Koma, Emile Abossolo M'bo

A friend and I were talking earlier today about our respective 2011 HKIFF experiences. Interestingly, we had not seen a single film in common -- despite her having viewed 16 movies and I 21; a state of affairs that got me recalling David Bordwell's observations about an earlier HKIFF and how it can feel as though "you [and your friend have] both been in the same town, and probably hit the same venues, but you've been to different festivals".

This friend also shared that the last work she had viewed at the 2011 HKIFF had not been great -- and how disappointed she felt that her personal HKIFF-ing had not ended on a high note. To which I replied that I can relate... for even while the final film I saw of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival -- or, at least, its mega part 1 -- was actually okay, the fact of the matter is that it sadly lacked the adrenaline rush and high of Elite Squad 2.

Instead, A Crying Man is a generally languid work about a middle-aged African man trying to do generally mundane things like hold on to a job he loves while living in increasingly desperate times. Modest in scope and feel, its protagonist is a former Central African swimming champion who has worked for decades now as a pool attendant at a plush -- by African standards -- hotel now managed by a French-speaking Chinese woman. Taking no small amount of pride in being his country's first ever pool attendant, he has brought his son in to be his assistant.

As times get rough though, some workers get let off and the man popularly known as "Champ" (but whose first name, we also learn, is Adam) finds himself coming up against his son in a battle for the pool attendant job. What he proceeds to do -- or not do -- in the days after he learns about this development is something that will come to haunt him and cause him a significant amount of pain and remorse.

A study in understatement, A Screaming Man is one film in which screams tend to be silent but are perhaps even more heart-wrenching because they are not heard by others for the most part. On an associated note: quite a few significant developments largely happen off screen or internally -- though, and here I'll credit helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, much does get realized and understood.

Stylistically, things are on the minimalist side as well. For example, the singer-girlfriend of Adam's son is never heard singing with a band or any instrument accompaniment, only a cappella. Additionally, the cinematography is so restrained that it's only after a shot lingers for several seconds on screen that the viewer is liable to realize that it is indeed beautiful or consumately composed.

In theory, all this is well and good. And I must say that I did come away from the screening with much respect for the film's maker. At the same time, I must admit to wishing for some (more) "oomph" and "pizazz" to the work -- so that I could come away not only respecting the restrained effort but possessing more emotional reactions to the sad and bitter story that unfolded within it.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Saturday, April 9, 2011

One more 2011 HKIFF report (the Devils on the Doorstep edition)

Scene inside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre --
my favorite of the HKIFF venues due to its Grand Theatre
having by far the largest screen of the fest

As I write this blog entry, the most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner and a famous artist-activist who served as the artistic consultant for the Beijing stadium popularly known as the Bird's Nest are being held against their will by the Mainland Chinese authorities. Some of you might query why am I writing about this in a Hong Kong International Film Festival report.

One of my reasons is that Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei are both fellow countrymen of Jiang Wen, the director and star of the film that is the main subject of this blog post. Another is to make clear that the on-going attempts to silence Ai and Liu are not new -- and to note that, for making Devils of the Doorstep, Jiang Wen was effectively banned from directing films for seven years. (Though no official declaration was made about this, the record shows that Jiang did not direct a film between the 2000 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner and 2007's The Sun Also Rises.)

In recent months, however, Jiang Wen's latest directorial effort, Let the Bullets Fly has emerged as Mainland China's biggest ever box office hit. And I hope that in years to come, Liu and Ai will be able to emerge from the metaphorical ashes like the mythical phoenix, this son of Tangshan, and the city which has been able to rebuild and revive in the years and decades after a devastating earthquake lay waste to much of it.

Devils on the Doorstep (Mainland China, 2000)
- From the 20th Anniversary of Fortissimo Films programme
- Jiang Wen, director
- Starring Jiang Wen, Kenya Sawada, Yuan Ding, Teruyuki Kagawa, David Wu, etc.

You might not expect it of a 2000 Mainland Chinese movie but Devils on the Doorstep eschews color for the greater part of it. Even more surprising though is how devilishly quickly a lot of the dialogue in this more than 2 1/2 hour long film actually is delivered. But suffice to say that these are just two elements of this period work set during the tail end of the Japanese occupation of China that seem geared towards disorientating and shocking its viewers.

Beginning with a scene showing a Japanese military unit marching jauntily along on a country road as its band blares out a lively tune that gets played several times in the film, the work's protagonist is first shown in the middle of having sex before loud knocks on his door gets him out of bed and into a right mess: one involving the hapless villager being handed the considerable responsibility of looking after a Japanese soldier and his Chinese interpreter until their captors return to collect them.

As a man of his society and station logically would do, he quickly informs several of his fellow villagers about this development -- and also tells them that all of their welfare is now tied to the welfare of the two captives. Feeling obliged to keep those two prisoners sound as well as safe, the villagers feed them and generally look after their needs (bar, of course, for their need to escape and be free). And as the days that the captives spend in the village turn into months, they begin to slowly but surely come to the way of thinking that maybe there are worse fates than to be held by those reluctant captors after all...

Containing elements of black comedy, outright farce, suspense, action, intrigue, drama and tragedy, Devils of the Doorstep is neither an easy film to categorize nor characterize. Seeing as it also alternate shows both the Chinese and the Japanese at the best and their worst, it additionally is too complex to simply describe as anti- or pro-Japanese (though it may be true to state that it paints a surprisingly critical and/or caricatured portrait of Chinese villagers than one would expect from a Mainland Chinese film).

At the same time, my feeling is that it is a close-to-maniacal (in terms of mood swings but also plot trajectory and overall pacing) movie that successfully shows up the many absurdities along with absolute volatility of war time life and attendant insanity that comes from viewing other people as devils rather than fellow humans because of ethnic and political dictates.

In addition, running through much of Devils on the Doorstep are the twinned ideas that fear often paralyzes and caution often causes people to make the practically incorrect as well as morally wrong decisions. And although the offering's conclusion might be interpreted by some as showing that freedom from fear may lead to reckless acts and premature death, it actually seems to me that the film's message actually is that even if your dread-free actions bring punishment upon you, at least you'll die more satisfied and happy than if you had continued to live a life over-burdened by sometimes justified -- but other times needless -- terror and worry.

My rating for this film: 8.5

Trees (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

When many people who think of Hong Kong, they seem to either envision it as place with a harbour exotically filled with sampans and junk or as a more modern concrete jungle. Neither of these conjured visions have a place for all that many trees but the fact of the matter is that "my" Hong Kong is so filled with trees that it would be pretty hard for to single out a single tree to focus on or even a single tree-filled photo to offer up for the Photo Hunt this week.

If truth be told, I generally tend to take the existence of trees in Asia's World City for granted -- and thus hardly ever consciously choose to include them in a photo. Instead, they often just happen to be part of a grand view (like in the case with the top most photo which I took from a vantage point in Tai Tam Country Park right on Hong Kong Island) or a good perch for interesting looking birds (as in the second photo from the top) -- or actually partially obscure what would otherwise be a better picture (like in the third photo from the top)!

Alternatively, when I visited South Korea, I came across a tree at Suwon's Hwaseong Haenggung that caught my attention because of its prime location in the courtyard of the former royal palace and, also, because of its being festooned by colorful strips of cloth. As I understand it, this particular plant has stood for centuries in those grounds. Consequently, it is one of those trees that is venerated as well as respected -- considered sacred even.

And while we're on the subject of trees: I find it intriguing that my blog records show that one of its most checked out entries over the years has been that with the title of Tree Tales. And yes, trees really are its subject matter -- unlike the other popular entries on this blog (which tend to be about Hong Kong movies for the most part!).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The 2011 HKIFF coverage continues with two more movie reviews!

The stars and director of Punished at
the film's HKIFF screening and world premiere

A more close-up shot of the trio of (from left to right)
Janice Man, Anthony Wong Chau San and Lo Wing Cheong

Although Part I (i.e., the main part) of the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival concluded this past Tuesday, the HKIFF reportage continues on this blog! Before I commence writing about another two movies I viewed between March 20th and April 5th, however, here's letting interested readers know that Part II begins this Friday -- and that I've already got tickets to a few of this upcoming programme's screenings... ;b

La Dolce Vita (Italy, 1960)
- From the Restored Classics programme
- Federico Fellini, director
- Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaus, Alain Cuny, Annibale Ninchi, etc.

When I lived in Dar es Salaam back in the mid 1990s, I used to go to an Italian restaurant there named La Dolce Vita. And here in Hong Kong, there's another Italian eatery with the same name. Although the phrase is a really nice one (seeing as it translates into English as either "the sweet life" or "the good life"), I can't help but think that one factor behind those dining establishments being named as such is because Federico Fellini's famous film made La Dolce Vita such a well known catchphrase.

So imagine my surprise to find -- upon my viewing this 1960 movie for the first time ever just a few days ago -- that it actually is not the cheerful, uplifting film that its title can make it seem to be. For even while its protagonist, a dashing gossip columnist named Marcello (played with no small degree of charm by the very watchable Marcello Mastroianni) leads a life that allows him to rub shoulders with the wealthy, famous and/or noble titled (and thus may seem glamorous and fun to outsiders), his actual lot is one that seems to lead a thinking man like him to frustration, if not outright or psychological ruin.

Granted that early on in this richly detailed work, especially in those segments where he's seen having an apparently fine old time with two attractive women in the form of a rich society beauty (portrayed by Anouk Aimee) and a sexy actress (essayed by Anita Ekberg), Marcello does indeed appear to have a pretty sweet and good life. Alternatively, the sections of La Dolce Vita in which the main character's jealous girlfriend, intellectual friend Steiner and father prominently figure do cast doubts and shadows over proceedings and the protagonist's life.

One problem is that even while Marcello battles hard against his girlfriend to not be stifled in the kind of domesticity she seeks but he reckons would be boring, he has allowed himself to venture along a professional path that is far from the intellectual world that he wishes he could permanently be a part of. At the same time, however, when the film's viewers are shown into that world, Fellini looked to have shown it to be ultimately as emotionally empty and unsatisfying as the other milieux that Marcello is obliged to venture into and spend time in over the course of his work.

Consequently, the further one goes into what can come across as a cautionary life tale, the more the protagonist's lot changes from one that seems to be the stuff of fantasy to one that could be described to be a hollow shell, and maybe even a living nightmare. If truth be told, I'd have preferred for a 167 minute work to have ended on a higher note than La Dolce Vita did. However, this is more a personal opinion than genuine criticism of this an undeniably enthralling masterwork of cinema -- one which is filled with lots of striking images and creatively conceived segments that will undoubtedly linger long in this viewer's memory.

My rating of this film: 9

Punished (Hong Kong, 2011)
- From the Galas programme
- Lo Wing Cheong, director
- Starring Anthony Wong Chau San, Richie Jen, Janice Man, Maggie Cheung Ho Yee, Candy Lo, Charlie Cho, etc.

First it was Carrie Ng and Pat Ha. This Monday evening, it was Anthony Wong Chau San and co. So I have to say that this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival has most definitely delivered in terms of celebrity appearances that please a Hong Kong film fangirl like myself!

Ironically, however, the 2011 HKIFF turns out to not have been that great for Hong Kong cinema as a whole. For one thing, this year's Hong Kong Panorama may have been its smallest ever -- with only six films in the programme. For another, none of the Hong Kong movies I have seen at this film fest have greatly enthralled -- and yes, alas, I include here this Milkyway Image production whose tale of vengeance sorely lacks the nihilistic intensity and emotional depth of, say, South Korea's I Saw the Devil.

Lest it be thought otherwise, this crime drama's star definitely doesn't deserve any blame for this -- and, in fact, Anthony Wong turns in an admirable performance as a man who is used to controlling circumstances and other people, so is liable to snap when situations spiral out of his control and/or people don't (re)act in the way he wants them to. Additionally, while he has his detractors, I thought that Richie Jen put in a good performance as the man that Anthony Wong's tycoon character turns to for help after his daughter is kidnapped and to do the dirty work demanded by the tycoon after his dealings with his daughter's kidnappers don't go as hoped and planned.

Where I will point a finger though is at the script, and its characterizations of two key individuals in the story. The first of these is the daughter (played as a young adult by Janice Man) who comes across as so devoid of virtues that it's hard to believe that even her father could actually still truly love her. The second of these is the chief kidnapper whose motive for wanting the woman he kidnapped dead comes across as just not strong enough to risk the expected wrath and furious repercussions that would follow from committing such an act.

Put another way: Since the script didn't give me enough reason to care for the kidnap victim and sufficient understanding of the main villain's thinking, I just didn't feel that emotionally invested in the movie's proceedings. Consequently, when I saw people being punished in the film, I generally did not feel much empathy for them and what they were going through.

The one exception came, however, in the movie's climactic scene -- and involved a character that had hitherto not appeared to be someone who was all that important to the story. All in all, I consider it to be Punished's redemptive as well as strongest section. And, looking on the bright side, at least it allowed the work to end on a high rather than low note!

My rating for the film: 6.5