Thursday, April 30, 2015

A little adventure of a hike in a remote section of the northeast New Territories (Photo-essay)

When I first began organizing hikes in Hong Kong -- with one or two, sometimes even four friends in tow -- around seven years ago, I only ever would opt to go along routes I had read about in books such as Alicia Kershaw and Ginger Thrash's nifty Above the City: Hiking Hong Kong Island or officially designated trails such as the Kap Lung Forest Trail and Tai Tan Country Trail.

Some 100 or so hikes on, I got bolder and started "creating" routes of my own by doing such as cobbling together different sections of trails I had previously been on.  And in recent years, I've also been inclined to look at countryside maps and decide that "X place looks interesting", and then figure a way how to get there. Such was the case with So Lo Pun, a (near) abandoned village in a remore section of northeast Hong Kong with a reputation for being haunted

While my party (consisting of myself, a friend and a local hiker who, upon finding out where our hike destination was, asked if he could tag along!) found So Lo Pun to be atmospheric, it's our little adventure of a hike out of there that we found memorable. Rather than just retrace our steps, we had decided to go along a shortcut that turned out to be so overgrown that we ended up largely just looking for helpful ribbon markers left by other hikers along the trail until we reached familiar territory at Kuk Po and had an obvious path to follow back to the hike's start at Luk Keng! ;)

Much of the trail to So Lo Pun was by the edge of

Kuk Po and its surroundings are so picturesque it can seem
a pity that so few people live -- or even visit there now

This impressive grave with a statue guarding it looks out 
across the water to the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen

No, it's not a mirage -- but an actual (former) aircraft carrier
 On the way to So Lo Pun, we passed through another remote village
-- this one seemingly entirely deserted -- in Yung Shue Au

I think seeing sights like this is what spooked the lone hiker
we met there and prompted him to ask if he could join up with us
-- even if it was to go to reputedly spookier So Lo Pun! ;b

At So Lo Pun, we saw houses of more recent design than those
at Yung Shue Au along with older ones in a much more ruined state

Yes, the way out was generally this overgrown -- 
but thanks to those blessed red ribbons and some scrambling, 
we were able to get back to "civilization" okay! :b

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Delectable pork belly at Sake Bar Ginn! ;b

Vegans and vegetarians -- avert your eyes from this sight!

Omnivores and carnivores -- enjoy the sight of these 
generous chunks of pork belly post stewing with sake ! ;b

 What's possibly even more decadent -- fried pork belly served 
with a dash of sakura sauce (and yes, cherry blossoms are edible!)

Decades ago when I attended an English boarding school, a joke ran that we could only tell what kind of roast meat we were served by the sauce that it was served with.  For example, mint sauce on the table was a sign that we were getting roast lamb, apple sauce meant that we were eating roast pork and so on and so forth.

Little did I know then that years later, I'd be living in a society where not only are people very aware and particular about what kind of meat they eat -- but also what cuts and sections of the animal!  But that's indeed in the case in Hong Kong, whose culinary traditions include nose to tail cooking and eating, and where pork neck, pork knuckle and pork belly are among many people's favorite foods!

After some eight years of living in the Big Lychee, not only am I a fan of pork belly but I have favorite places to eat this particular cut of pig meat.  One of these is the place that also happens to be my favorite bar -- Sake Bar Ginn, where the food is something I enjoy along with the libations!

Among chef Billy's specialties is the sake stewed pork belly which I find hearty and flavorful, and particularly great to eat in cool weather.  Available all year round on the regular menu, it was one of the dishes I decided to order on a visit there earlier this month -- which started off being unseasonably warm but then noticeably and very enjoyably cooled down again for a couple of a weeks.

But although it was indeed available if I so insisted, Billy suggested that I try an "off menu" variation which happened to be on offer that evening: fried pork belly!  Despite my trepidation that it would be cardiac arrest-inducing, I decided to trust him and go for it -- and boy, was I glad I did when I had a taste of this deliciously prepared meat!

Thanks -- Billy later explained -- to its accompanying sour fruity-tasting sakura dressing, the fried pork belly appeared deceptively light and not super fatty.  But midway through my devouring the dish, I started burping -- a development I took to mean my stomach telling me that it was getting fuller faster than I thought was the case! 

Fortunately, both the Japanese and Hong Kongers are among the people who don't think that burping is inherently bad mannered!  So I was able to feel no shame at my burping as well as no guilt at all for having consumed such delectable fare!  And lest there be any doubt: yes, I definitely would order another portion of Billy's fried pork belly again; just not that same evening, as one portion -- along with an order of some other tapas-side dish (in this case, the goma ae -- spinach with sesame sauce and seeds) and a few drinks (but of course!) of sake -- is plenty filling enough for me! ;b

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mikio Naruse's Flowing (AKA A House of Geisha)

Peeking through the wooden screens into a building 
located in one of Kanazawa's geisha districts
- Mikio Naruse, dir.
- Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Hideko Takamine, Haruko Sugimura
In 1956, the Japanese Diet passed a law outlawing prostitution in the country. That same year, Mikio Naruse adapted Aya Koda's autobiographical novel, published the year before, about the females -- all adults, including a couple of middle-aged women, bar for one child -- who reside in a high-ranking Tokyo geisha house that, nonetheless, is obviously in decline and financial straits.
There are hints dropped that at least two of the geisha in the house have slept with men -- but it's hard to tell if they did so because they thought they were in love with the men or for purely professional reasons.  In any case, as with the majority of Naruse's films that I've seen thus far, there's not a single sex scene, nude scene or even kissing scene in Flowing.  
It's worth noting that this drama's primary setting is a house in which geisha live (okiya) rather than one where they entertain their clients (ochaya).  Furthermore, especially after one disgruntled junior geisha permanently departs from it around the same time that a widow named Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) is hired by the mistress of the household, Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada), to be its maid, there are more non-geisha than active geisha living at there for much of the film.    
Flowing mainly focuses on the trials and travails of senior geisha Otsuta as seen from the sympathetic perspective of Rika, whose name the house's other inhabitants deem too difficult to pronounce and decide instead to call Oharu. (When this is announced, there were gasps from those members of the audience who know that Kinuya Tanaka's best known internationally for portraying the titular character in Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu!) 
A gentle woman with immaculate manners, Rika/Oharu often seems the classiest as well as nicest person in the whole film -- pretty surprising and amazing given her being a domestic servant role and status in a world whose denizens include experienced and trained geishas!  Above everything, she comes across as selfless in a world where many people often are too selfish or, at minimum, self-absorbed (and it's to Kinuyo Tanaka's credit that her character still comes across as big-hearted human rather than unbelievable saint).
It's never mentioned what station in life Rika/Oharu previously held prior to the death of her husband and, sadly, also her son.  If I were to hazard a guess, I'd have thought she was an aristocrat -- except that she also seems very able at doing the household chores that she's tasked with carrying out.  
In contrast, the other women's characters are more straightforward.  Otsuta is a geisha whose talent for doing such as playing the shamisen is not matched by an ability to stand men she doesn't find attractive and also be astute with regards to judging characters and in financial matters, including the operation of the geisha house.  Given geisha training some years earlier, Otsuta's daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) is like her mother in not being good at flattering men and keeping her opinions to herself -- so had decided that the geisha's life was not for her, only to be unable to find a position in life for herself besides trying to be her mother's defender against those who go against the older woman.

Although she worries about being a financial burden on her mother, at least Katsuyo does more to (try to) help Otsuta than the latter's younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita), who also lives in the house and spends the bulk of her time looking after young daughter Fujiko or trying in vain to get Fujiko's father (Daisuke Kato) to love them.  And while junior geisha Nanako (Mariko Okada) and the middle-aged Someko (Haruko Sugimura) do go out to entertain clients from time to time, it's not like they're wildly successful at raking in the cash -- with Nanako coming across as on the flighty side and Someko as being on the second-rate side, even if that's not the case in her own mind.

Considering how un-winning many of these personalities are, and it being clear that fortune is not favoring them, time could have dragged by rather than flow smoothly while one viewed the film.  But aided by a stellar cast (many of whom will be familiar faces to those who've seen their share of classic Ozu, etc. as well as Naruse works), the director has fashioned an offering that's actually watchable.  What's more, Flowing turns out to be a thoroughly sensitive look at a female-centric world, one in which women may have lamented their being dependent on men but showed that maybe they'd be better off without the involvement in their lives of some of them!
My rating for this film: 8.0

Monday, April 27, 2015

A "Chinese Renaissance" style church in Hong Kong

One of the more interesting looking churches
I've seen in Hong Kong -- or anywhere, for that matter

The interior of St Mary's Church
is as visually unusual as its exterior

In particular, I really don't believe that I've seen 
a church ceiling that looks like this before! :)

As long-time readers of this blog know, in addition to hiking in the Hong Kong countryside, I also do enjoy strolling around and checking out various sections of urban Hong Kong.  When doing the latter, I particularly enjoy seeing older -- rather than newer -- buildings that exude character and color, and have to date thankfully managed to steer clear of the wrecker's ball.

Probably not coincidentally, a high percentage of these interesting-looking older buildings tend to be places of religious worship.  And while the majority of them are Taoist temples, one of the religious buildings I've long considered one of the most fascinating in Hong Kong actually is an Anglican church.

Opened for service on Christmas Day, 1937, the St Mary's Church located in the section of Causeway Bay close to Tai Hang -- whose full formal name appears to be Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui St Mary's Church -- was built to serve the congregation of a church first established in 1911.  As described on the church's website, "a new, beautiful and imposing Church of Chinese-Anglican architectural design, reborn from the old church out of its extended old site, stood elevated on a flight of granite steps, bearing a snow-white Cross, and beckoning, as it were, to her portals to all willing comers."

After reading in Jason Wordie's Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island about this building
designed by Franco-Belgian company Credit Fonciere d'Extreme Orient "to look as Chinese as possible, so lessening the cultural gap between the Christian religion and the everyday Chinese, I went about hunting for it and, upon finding "one of Hong Kong's most eclectically styled buildings -- religious or secular -- tucked away on an obscure backstreet corner in Causeway Bay", will state that it's the kind of sight that is so unusual that it makes you want to rub your eyes to make sure that you're really seeing what you're seeing!

But while I've passed by it several times now in the years since, I had never had the opportunity to venture inside this fascinating-looking building -- until today, when I spied on a post-lunch stroll that it was indeed open!  Eager to take advantage of the opportunity, I bounded up its steps and entered into a space that, while sharing certain commonalities with other churches (such as an altar, pews and an organ, albeit modern electric rather than traditional pipe ones), also most definitely had cool elements that appear to be entirely its own.

Both the inside as well as outside of St Mary's Church are designed in the syncretic style known as "Chinese Renaissance" (a notable secular example of which is the King Yin Lei mansion), one that has noticeably Chinese design elements but also Western ones.  In all honesty, if I had not read about it, I would not have thought that this building had been designed by Europeans.  And it's interesting (but logical, given the ethnic composition of its congregation) that I saw much more Chinese than English (or any other Western) writing inside this church whose denomination is nonetheless Anglican (AKA  Church of England)! ;)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tortoise Rock Wars: Cheung Chau vs Po Toi!

Earlier this week, I visited the dumbbell-shaped island of Cheung Chau.  There are many reasons why it's one of my favorites of Hong Kong's Outlying Islands, including it being the setting of Just One Look, a lovely nostalgia-tinged movie that could be said to be Hong Kong's Cinema Paradiso.  But even though the district authorities seem to take great pride in Cheung Chau's many fancifully-named rock formations, I have to say that they are probably the most disappointing part of the island to me.

In contrast, I find many of the rock formations on Hong Kong's southernmost island of Po Toi to be plenty impressive.  In particular, every time I see it -- the latest earlier today -- I'm amazed by how the Tortoise Rock (aka Turtle Rock) really does resemble a real life tortoise (or turtle) going up a hill!
But maybe it's just me so I'd like to ask you, gentle readers, what you think: i.e., which do you consider resembles a tortoise (or turtle) more -- Cheung Chau's or Po Toi's Tortoise Rocks (both pictured at the top of this blog entry)?  For me, there's absolutely no contest -- but how about you let me know your opinions in this blog entry's comments section? ;b

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) and related attempts to understand North Koreans

Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) 
is a British Council exhibition taking place at 
the Hong Kong Arts Centre through to the 28th of this April

All the photos in the exhibition were taken by
British photographer-filmmaker-travel writer Nick Danziger

For at least the first two decades of my life, North Korea was one of the countries that my passport was not valid for.  In recent years, I've been allowed to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- as the country is formally called -- but the only time I've been on North Korean soil was very briefly, when I visited the Korean Joint Security Area's Conference Row.

Over the years though, I've viewed a number of films about this famously secretive country -- including Songs from the North (which I saw earlier this month), and Daniel Gordon's The Games of Their Lives, a fascinating and entertaining documentary about the North Korean football team that played in the 1966 World Cup Finals and won the hearts of quite a few non-North Korean football fans over the course of the tournament -- and also done such as attended talks about this largely isolated land by people who've visited it (such as a Koryo Tours staff member).

In addition, while living in Tanzania (which -- for those who didn't know -- had a socialist past), I met a few North Koreans, all of whom worked for and at their country's embassy there.  If truth be told, the conversations I had with these folks tended to be on the surreal side -- what with their wearing enameled badges with their country's flags and leaders' faces on them, and forced fixed smiles for much of the time, while trying to foist copies of thin books purportedly written by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il into my hands. And then there was the time that I found out that South Korea was referred by them as "the puppet regime"...!

So it actually wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the films I've seen about this country with a population of 23 million (notably those made by the British Daniel Gordon, whose Crossing the Line, about American defectors to North Korea, I've also seen) actually give a more human account of its citizens than my actual personal encounters with them!

Above the Line: People and Places in the DPRK (North Korea) is another offering from Britons (in this case Nick Danziger and writer Rory MacLean, the latter of whom wrote the text for the exhibition) that tries to present a balanced view of the country and its people, and largely succeeds in doing so.  Featuring photos of people at play and at work in variety of settings (including at the beach, by roadsides, in a hair salon and even at a dolphinarium), they purport to show ordinary North Koreans -- but one still gets the feeling that they may be more privileged than many others of their fellow countrymen and -women.

In any event, it's interesting to see certain things that wouldn't be considered normal in much of the rest of the world such as the almost total lack of advertising about in the cities as well as countryside, the similar dearth of conspicuous branding on clothes, and the roads -- again, both in the cities and also the countryside -- being close to devoid of vehicles.  And while a case could be made for all of the previously mentioned things not necessarily being bad things, it's also quite noticeable that the physique of the North Koreans in the photos appear unexpectedly different from their South Korean equivalents -- in that the former appear thinner, not just less fat but also less toned and muscular in general.

Because so little is known for sure about North Korea, I do nurse a curiosity to visit it to see and experience things for myself there.  At the same time though, because I can't get away from feeling that so much of what I will get to see, hear and otherwise sense there will be controlled, stage managed and censored, my strong suspicion that a trip there won't actually yield many insights, with the result being that North Korea will still largely stay an enigma to me afterwards.

There is indeed a part of me that wants to believe that life can be okay there for many people but I can't help suspecting that this is not the case.  Otherwise, why is there such a need for the North Korean state to control images of it, and the movement of people -- visitors to the country but also, and more importantly, its very denizens?

Friday, April 24, 2015

High Island Reservoir hike sights (Photo-essay)

With a capacity of 280 million cubic meters, the High Island Reservoir is the largest reservoir in Hong Kong.  Arguably even more impressively, it's the first large scale reservoir in the world to have been created by by sealing off a coast with large dams!   In addition, it's a visually awesome sight.

Coupled with High Island (which, of course is no longer an actual island) being one of Hong Kong's more popular geological sites due to its being home to polygonal and hexagonic volcanic rock columns, this area seemed like one that would be worth hiking to -- even if the way to and out of it amounted totaled some 18 kilometers!  In any case, the High Island Reservoir -- in particular the area near its East Dam -- was where a friend and I decided to hike to, and then out, one spring afternoon that was pretty pleasant temperature wise... ;)

 A view that takes in the West Dam of High Island Reservoir

The artificial lake of the Chong Hing Water Sports Centre lies in 
the coffer dam area between High Island Reservoir and Sham Tak Mun

 High Island Reservoir was not at full capacity when we visited

from the mainland thousands of years ago 

Taken on its own, the East Dam of High Island Reservoir
is a pretty darn impressive sight!

The sheer scale and implied power associated with

 How much tectonic power was involved in creating 
this visually impressive geological phenomenon?

 The giant concrete Dolosse blocks used for the coffer dan
over at the East Dam are also visually impressive!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Peach Blossom Land (1992) some 23 years on

My favorite actress of all time starred in the film version of Stan Lai's 
The Peach Blossom Land (image courtesy of

The Peach Blossom Land (Taiwan, 1992)
- Stan Lai, dir.
- Starring: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Chin Shih Chieh, Lee Li Chun, Ismene Ting Nai Zang, Gu Bao Ming

For fans of Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, this 1992 Stan Lai film can be like the Holy Grail.  An acclaimed adaptation of a popular Performance Workshop play by Lai that premiered in 1986 in Taipei and has gone on to have multiple runs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and even mainland China, The Peach Blossom Land has the Taiwanese screen goddess essaying the same role that she did on stage in Taipei and Hong Kong during the 1991 runs of the slightly differently titled The (Secret Love of the) Peach Blossom Land.

More than a decade ago, I came across a laser disc of The Peach Blossom Land in a Penang video rental store -- but my ecstacy at doing so swiftly dissipated when I found that particular version of the Mandarin language movie didn't possess any subtitles (in English, Chinese or any other language)!  And although there also exists a VCD version of the film (though, as far as I know, nothing in VHS or DVD), it too is sans subtitles of any kind.

Out of desperation, I enlisted the aid of a fellow Brigitte fan(atic) who understood Mandarin to watch the laser disc version of the film with me and provide the closest thing to live simultaneous translation that she could do.  Although the viewing experience was hardly ideal, I did manage to get something out of it -- including enjoying hearing Brigitte Lin's real voice; something that is actually on the rare side, since the vast majority of the movies she appeared in were not synch sound productions.  (Among the other exceptions to the rule are A Journey of Love and Chungking Express. Her voice also can be heard on the Mandarin language track of Ashes of Time, as voiceovers on Bishonen and The Peony Pavilion, and in the documentary about her, Portrait of Lin Ching Hsia.)

Still, it wasn't until after I moved to Hong Kong and attended a performance of The (Secret Love of the) Peach Blossom Land that I got to realizing how excellently written this drama is, and full of emotional meaning and significance too.  But while the play I saw was impressive, the film that I recently got to view -- on a big screen with English subtitles! -- is still more powerful, due to the cinematic medium actually making the work more intimate (with cinematographer Christopher Doyle often offering up close-up shots of people's expressive faces) and, of course, the caliber of the people involved in the 1992 effort.

Playwright and scriptwriter (as well as director) Stan Lai's offering -- be it the stage or film version -- is a complex work that combines two unrelated plays (a sober drama entitled "Secret Love" and a fantastical farce entitled "Peach Blossom Land") along with a story of two different theater troupes encountering and trying to overcome all sorts of difficulties, including their looking to have been booked to take up the same time slot at the same rehearsal space shortly before the first performance of both of their plays!

Brigitte Lin appears in this offering as the actress charged with portraying a character in "Secret Love" named Yun Zhifan as a young woman in Shanghai and also an older woman in Taipei.  Pig-tailed, white dressed and looking pure and innocent in her scenes taking place in a Shanghai park, Zhifan has no idea that she'll end up being separated for decades from Jiang Bingliu, (Chin Shih Chieh), her lover who, shortly after their meeting, will flee with other Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan for what many of them thought would be a temporary sojourn but turned out to be a pretty permanent stay.     

The story of "Secret Love" can seem on the melodramatic and maudlin side, and yet the fact of the matter is that historical events ensured that there were plenty of real life equivalents of Yun Zhifan and Jiang Bingliu in both Taiwan and mainland China for decades, and even now.  Perhaps realizing that the work would be unbearably tragic if it focused alone in this tale, Stan Lai "married" it with a broad comedy about a cuckolded fisherman (Lee Li Chun) who finds peace and happiness in a utopian Peach Blossom Land he accidentally stumbles upon, even though the two denizens he spends the vast majority of time there physically resemble his cheating wife (Ismene Ting Nai Zang) and the man with whom she went on to bear a child (Gu Bao Ming)!

Although "Secret Love" is a serious romance and "Peach Blossom Land" tantamount to a comedic anti-romance, they still have lines and themes in common -- as becomes evident in an amazing scene where the two theatre troupes take to rehearsing their plays at the same time on different parts of the same stage.  In addition, it's obvious too that the Taipei-based director of "Secret Love" sees the play as telling the story of him and the love of his life in Shanghai, something which increases the pathos in a later scene in which Zhifan and Bingliu are more akin to the director's real advanced age, rather than that of the decades younger actress and actor playing those characters.

Watching The Peach Blossom Land twenty-three years after it was made further adds to its emotional impact.  In particular, I found it unexpectedly affecting to watch a then 38-year-old Brigitte Lin poignantly playing a character in the climactic scene who now is actually far closer in age to the real life personality than was the case back in 1992.  

There are films that seem dated when you watch them decades after they were made, and there are those who are said to have stood the test of time.  One could comfortably state the case for The Peach Blossom Land being among the latter -- but I'd go even further and suggest that this work actually may have benefited from being viewed at this later point in time now that there's even more nostalgic feelings surrounding, and infused into, it (and the performance of its first-billed actress).

My rating for the film (viewed with English subtitles in 2015!): 9.0

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Critter spottings that get spirits soaring :)

They're called black kites but their plumage actually is dark brown!

The more usual perspective from which I see these birds of prey

 A view from even further away of these magnificent flying creatures

Some days, it doesn't take much to make my spirits soar; and this especially so when the weather's nice and I'm able to head out into...if not quite the wilds of Hong Kong, at least some sections that nonetheless qualify as its countryside. 

As I told a friend, while out on a hike last week, the sight of a squirrel scurrying along a tree branch made my day.  And on Sunday, it was another critter spotting -- this time of a long-tailed changeable lizard -- that I considered to be the visual highlight of that day's hike.  Then this afternoon, on a visit to Cheung Chau, I felt my heart leap upon my catching sight of a black kite perched atop a tree for just a minute or so before it took off to patrol the skies once more.

One reason why my catching sight of these creatures gladdens my heart so stems from these not being particularly common events in my life and that of most people living in Hong Kong.  After all, even though the Big Lychee has has the highest density of black kites in the world and those birds can be seen flying above high density urban spaces as well as the countryside, one is more likely to see them flying high above rather than up close enough so that the whites of their eyes are visible!  (Okay, granted that I only saw these via a camera with great built-in zoom lens but, still!!)

In addition, there's a degree of pride involved in feeling like I've trained my eyes to be able to spot these creatures, especially those that make use of camouflage to protect themselves.  On a related note: the more I hike and am out in nature, the more I feel I'm able to see.  On my first few hikes, I tended to focus on scenic vistas.  Then I started looking around me -- not just at what was far away -- and seeing the trees, not just the forest; at which point, I got to appreciating nice bright flowers and butterflies too.  Later still, I got to noticing not only the splashes of color but, also, that whole green or brown sections of vegetation often teemed with interesting life!

Indeed, nowadays, it's often the camouflaged and/or uncommon critter spottings that tend to make my day, with some of my favorite animals to come across these days being skinks (a type of creature I did not even know existed until after I spotted one while hiking in Hong Kong), lantern bugs (ditto!) and stick insects.  (And -- oh yes -- I also do get pretty excited upon catching sight of pretty much any critters doing what comes naturally, as was the case for these dragonflies, beetles, stink bugs and butterflies!)

On top of it all, there's the sheer serendipity of many of these critter spottings.  To be sure, there are times of the year when one expects more of them (spring and summer) than others (winter is, not coincidentally, when I take fewer photographs during hikes!).  Still, it's not like one can schedule an appearance by a creature, especially one that is kind enough to pose for photos -- so when one comes by such, it does often feel like a treat bestowed by none other than Mother Nature herself! ;b

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Her Lonely Lane (aka A Wanderer's Notebook)

Even in a popular tourist spot like Shirakawa-go's Ogimachi,
one can find quiet -- and lonely? -- lanes ;)
Her Lonely Lane (aka A Wanderer's Notebook) (Japan, 1962)
- Mikio Naruse, dir.
- Starring: Hideko Takamine, Kinuyo Tanaka, Daisuke Kato, Akira Takarada
The fourth Mikio Naruse film I've seen thus far this month -- courtesy of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society -- is the first of the quartet to not star Setsuko Hara. Instead, this biography of writer Fumiko Hayashi (a number of whose works Naruse made into films, including Repast) stars the director's favorite actress, Hideko Takamine.

Like many of Naruse's other films, this is a drama that centers on a woman whose life is not happy for the most part.  Although Fumiko Hayashi went on to achieve major professional success and considerable wealth, and also eventually found a husband who appeared to care greatly for her, the early decades of her life were filled with poverty, frustration and unsuccessful romantic relationships.
Born out of wedlock, her mother (played in the film by Kinuyo Tanaka) left Hayashi's biological father for a man who, early on in Her Lonely Lane, is arrested for peddling cosmetic products that have the police scoffing at what they claim to be able to do.  For years, the trio roam around the country trying to sell wares that appear to have few takers until the day that Fumiko announces that she's adult enough to look after herself and thereupon stays in Tokyo to try to make her own living while her mother goes off to Kyushu to look after her hapless husband.
There's what appears to be an inside joke when at least two different people suggest that Fumiko consider getting work as a bus conductor (Naruse's first film with Hideko Takamine was 1941's Hideko, the Bus Conductor), only to be given various reasons why she couldn't get this job, including Fumiko not having the right temperament and also being too myopic.  Instead, the young woman becomes a hostess in bars (more than once) and, at other times, paints facial features onto dolls in a factory that resembles a sweatshop.
Terribly impoverished, to the point where there are days where she struggles to find money to buy food, never mind pay the rent, Fumiko nonetheless manages to scrape together funds to buy books (which she often needs to re-sell later) to avidly read, and pen, ink and paper to indulge her passion for writing.  From her remarks and actions, it's clear that she loves food, reading and writing -- so much so that she's happy to get published without being paid.  And although she regularly rebuffs the romantic advances of a nice widower (Daisuke Kato), it soon becomes apparent that she finds it hard to resist handsome men -- like fellow struggling writer Fukuya (Akira Takarada) -- who, sadly, tend to let her down eventually.

In a manner that reminds me of Tang Wei playing Xiao Hong in Ann Hui On Wah's The Golden Era, Hideko Takamine (whose work usually impresses) doesn't quite convince as a struggling writer who spent years being so financially strapped that she often literally went hungry.  At the same time, she does convince as a woman who clearly relishes whatever foods she is seen eating on screen and talking about -- to the point that this is one more Japanese film (like Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking) that, despite it actually not being specifically food-themed, made me hungry for certain dishes described in it!
More importantly, Takamine is indeed compelling in her portrayal of a woman who, for various reasons, was limited in terms of her professional opportunities and personal options for much of her life.  And yes, Fumiko sometimes did make wrong decisions along the way -- but in Her Lonely Lane, it's often made understandable why she acted the way she does. So when fortune finally does smile on her, one does feel good that it did indeed happen, and think it well deserved on her part.
My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The wonders of nature -- and the destructiveness of humans -- on show on a hike from Tung Chung to Tai O

Is that a long-tailed changeable lizard I see before me?!

On this hike, we so much evidence of humans' impact 
on the environment - in the sea and on the land

 Before one despairs though, consider that nature can be 
stronger and more capable of regeneration than one thinks!

Earlier today, I went on yet one more hike from Tung Chung on a circa 15 kilometer trail to Tai O that has become familiar to me as I've been along it at least four times now.  And as with the previous excursions along this route, I saw sights which were new to me as well as passed by places that I have come to expect to see and enjoy doing so along this particular trail (such as the plane spotter's pavillion across the waters from Chek Lap Kok airport, and the Yeung Hau Temple dedicated to Hau Wong on the edge of Tai O).

With spring well and truly already here, there were plenty of butterflies and dragonflies flying about -- and the sound of cicadas often disturbed the peace, when planes taking off from Chek Lap Kok Airport and flying overheard were not already doing so.  Early on in the hike, I thought that my critter spotting of the day would be a beautiful swallowtail butterfly which deigned to let me take a photo of it, albeit only from afar.  But a few kilometers further along the way, a lizard poked its head up above the concrete barrier along the path my friend and I were strolling on, and then was nice enough to stay still while we took a closer look at it and admired this small reptile's very long tail as well as the rest of it!

As far as human-made developments are concerned: this particular hiking trail offers up clear views of the progress being made in the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.  Although this project which I first heard about on a visit to Macau in 2006 is not yet near completion, its impact on the Hong Kong environment is already pretty clear -- including in terms of the waters near where its being built being on the brownish side -- and one shudders to think about the environmental degradation to the area that will (further) ensue after the bridge becomes operational.

On the last leg of the hike, humans' often negative impact on the environment also could be seen in large swathes of land having been burnt and left looking like a wasteland courtesy, I think it's safe to assume, of one of more than 150 hill fires that were reported in Hong Kong this past Ching Ming. While there fortunately were zero human casualties from hill fires thus far this year (unlike in 1986, when a hill fire on Pat Sin Leng claimed five lives), there's little doubt from the devastation that I still could see some two weeks later that thousands of trees and blades of grass, and probably also a number of creatures, were unable to escape the fire(s) that raged in the area.

Walking through this burnt black area was on the eerie side -- and my friend was moved to suggest that this part of Hong Kong was now ripe for landslides to occur now that there was so little vegetation and their roots holding on to the soil.  But then, here and there, we also noted signs of life in such as the a young and very green blade of grass, lichen growing on thin tree trunks, and new sections sprouting out of tree ferns that were (still) growing in the area -- and got to thinking, and feeling relieved, that nature truly can be so much more resilient than we often give it credit for (and thank goodness for that, considering how much and often we humans are prone to abusing it)!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A hiking mini-adventure in the Northeast New Territories (Photo-essay)

Every time I hike in the area around Wu Kau Tang, I find surprises in store.  On my first visit to this section of the Northeast New Territories, I came acrosss abandoned villages and beautiful purple rocks, and checked out a section of Bride's Pool that I've since never been able to locate again!  On a Chinese New Year hike one year which began at Wu Kau Tang, I finally made it to Lai Chi Wo and found that there a number of other lovely near abandoned villages to the northwest of it at such at Kuk Po.

And on one more hike that began and ended at in the vicinity of Wu Kau Tang (specifically the bus stop at Bride's Pool that the 275R only goes to on Sundays and public holidays), my hiking buddy and I did such as get lost for a time and, as a result, ended up on trails that I had hitherto never been on and saw vistas I had never previously seen, at least not from those angles! Happily, we did not have to resort to calling for help from the emergency services.  Instead, and especially after getting back to a trail that was familiar to me, we can look back at the experience and consider it an actually not bad mini-adventure in the Big Lychee! ;b

I reckoned it was going to be a good hike when I spotted 
this near-camouflaged critter before we had even got off 
the road proper on the way to Wu Kau Tang

If not for the dates inscribed on them, you'd think that 
these village houses were older than they in fact are, right?

The first big surprise of the day -- discovering that the
nearby village of Kau Tam Tso looked to have been re-inhabited!

Shortly after passing Kau Tam Tso, we took 
a wrong turn and ended up along this hilly path!

If we hadn't veered off course though, we wouldn't have 
come across this interesting looking lizard ;)

 We wouldn't have gotten to see Plover Cove Reservoir
from this particular angle and vantage point either!

After realizing that we had strayed on to a section of the 
not wanting to go along it for long, we were relieved
to find a dotted trail leading northwards and downhill from it  

It was only after we were exiting that particular dotted trail
that we saw this warning notice about going along it! :O

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sound of the Mountain -- part of the HK Cine Fan program for April and May

The serenity of the Daibutsu was missing from the 1954
set-in-Kamakura Mikio Naruse film I saw one day after the
2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival came to an end

Sound of the Mountain (aka The Echo) (Japan, 1954)
- Mikio Naruse, dir.
- Starring: Setsuko Hara, So Yamamura, Ken Uehara

The 2015 Hong Kong International Film Festival drew to a close on April 6th but my film viewing -- and reviewing -- goes on, including of some fest offerings that also are being screened this and next month in the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society's HK Cine Fan program.  Most notably for me, the Mikio Naruse cinematic feast continues -- with not only with additional screenings of such as Repast and Daughters, Wives and a Mother side but other films starring Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, two legendary Japanese actresses whose exalted reputations are well earned, which did not play at this year's fest!

Among these additional Naruse offerings is Sound of the Mountain, in which Setsuko Hara and Ken Uehara once more play a married couple.  In this adaptation of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata though, their characters -- housewife Kikuko and businessman Shuichi -- reside in the lovely temple town of Kamakura (where the actress retired to in 1963 and has remained a resident) with Shuichi's parents, who are far more grateful of the care and respect that their daughter-in-law accord them than their son is of his wife.

So affectionate is Shuichi's father Shingo (So Yamamura) towards Kikuko that his wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka) is moved to point out that he's not as nice towards their own daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita).  Even so, Yasuko herself chastises Fusako, who ran away from her husband's household on two separate occasions -- what is it with wives running away in Naruse's movies?! -- by telling her that her in-laws would treat her better if she behaved well towards them, the way that Kikuko does towards Shingo and Yasuko.

In contrast, Shuichi finds his wife wanting -- criticizing her for being too child-like, with the implication being that she's not as sexually sophisticated as he would like. Dissatisfied with Kikuko, he has an affair with another woman, and so obviously that his parents and wife know what's going on (despite his mistress living in Tokyo, where Shuichi and Shingo regularly commute to work from Kamakura).  And after Shingo -- who also happens to be Shuichi's boss -- decides to try to put a stop to his son's philandering ways, further revelations are made that really are pretty shocking -- especially in a 1954 mainstream Japanese domestic drama!

Once again, it seems almost effortless for Setsuko Hara to play the kind of woman with both inner and external beauty, whom only a callous cad and moral degenerate would not be able to appreciate.  At the same time, behind her luminous smiles, there is so much suffering, sorrow, and sufficient steel to carry out the kind of dramatic action that shows that, socially constrained as she may be -- given her being a married woman of a certain class in 1950s Japan -- she still can exert significant control over certain parts of her life and that of others.  

For his part, So Yamamura convincingly portrays a good-hearted establishment patriarch whose rule nonetheless sadly is found wanting, leading his children to stray from the respectable ways one would have expected them to follow while Ken Uehara once more manfully takes on the thankless role of a husband who doesn't appreciate having the spouse that so many other people would love to have.  In their own way, both of their characters reveal how men who appear in privileged positions still can't always have what they want, in the domestic sphere, if not professional one.  In so doing, they collectively help to paint a portrait of the Japanese family that's far more complex than the stereotypes would have it being.

My rating for this film: 8.0