Friday, December 14, 2018

Much to see at Sangumburi beyond its enormous and rare type of crater! (Photo-essay)

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's not every day that I get to view a crater.  But on the same day that I hiked up to the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong (and got to see its circa 600 meter crater that's among its recognizable volcanic features as well as the sunrise), I also ended up going to view a second crater: the even larger (with a circumference of over two kilometers) Sangumburi (Crater Mountain)!

A rare kind of geologic phenomenon known as a parasitic marr or low-relief crater, Sangumburi also is famed for having a photogenic expanse of silver grass (aka pampas grass) in the fall.  To be honest, its main attraction for my group (which included two senior citizens) was that its many sights are easily accessible as well as genuinely scenic.  Mind you, we didn't go down into the crater -- but, then, no one is allowed to do so as the sunken space is akin to a natural botanical garden, full of flora and fauna allowed to flourish undisturbed by humans for the most part.  But with so much to see in the area, this restriction really didn't feel like too much of a deprivation. :)
The painted ceiling of the "Glorious Phoenix Gate" that one has to pass 
through on the way into and out of Sangumburi park

 I drank water from the Lucky Toad Water Fountain
(and survived to tell the tale!)

Three different routes leading up to the crater rim

Take the route on the right and you will find yourself
surrounded at some point by a sea of silver grass
(and with a view of Hallasan in the far distance)!

View of Sangumburi's famed crater

 The side of the crater rim laid out as a 1.2 kilometer-long 
"Korean Fir Trail Healing Course"

 A statue of a deer stands as tribute to the area's wildlife,
and also Hangam, the guardian of Jeju's animals and hunters, 
who is said to reside at Sangumburi

Also within a stone's throw of the crater are ancient graves,
  whose occupants' identities appear to have been lost to time

Thursday, December 13, 2018

An oyster-heavy breakfast post-Seongsan Ilchulbong hike

Korean oyster pancake anyone? ;b

Every one of the main dishes on the table had oysters in them! ;D

After completing our pre-dawn hike up Seongsan Ilchulbong to view the sunrise from atop it and our descent a short time later (which took roughly the same amount of time thanks to our stopping a few times to enjoy the scenery and snap photos of it), my friend who had gone on this excursion and I went back to our hotel to collect the rest of our Jeju party and head off for our first real meal of the day (since a cup of coffee and chocolate bar for energy pre-hike really doesn't really count as breakfast!). 

Although there was the temptation to do so (since it too was (already) open for business), we actually didn't head back to the restaurant just a few minutes' walk away from our hotel where we had had our black pork feast the day before.  Rather, we decided to try a neighboring eatery which turned out to be an oyster specialist whose offerings included oyster pancake, oyster rice porridge, a kimchi jigae (stew) with oysters in it and rice on the side, and a tofu soup option that also turned out to come with oysters in it and a serving of rice.

As with any self-respecting Korean restaurant, we were given complimentary banchan (side dishes) that included a couple of different kinds of kimchi and also raw chili peppers.  The former I found went very well with the oyster pancake I ordered as my main option but was so big that I made everyone else on the table also have at least a couple of slices of; the latter I left well alone after having tried one at dinner the day before and found to be on the spicy side -- way too spicy for breakfast to my mind; and this from someone who has happily consumed curry noodles for breakfast in her native Malaysia!

I'm not sure if this is the norm in Korea but the meal we had at the oyster restaurant looked like it was considered perfectly acceptable to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Put another way: the restaurant's menu doesn't seem to vary for different meal times and it appeared to be open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and any the hours in between.  And for my part, I would be happy to have had our breakfast that day for lunch or dinner on some other day since I found it to be tasty and satisfyingly filling fare -- the kind that I love to have as a reward for my exertions post-hike! ;b

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Still Human is admirably full of humanity (film review)

From left: Crisel Consunji, Oliver Chan Siu Kuen, 
Wong Ting Him and Anthony Wong Chau Sang

Still Human (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Oliver Chan Siu Kuen, director, scriptwriter and editor
- Starring: Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Crisel Consunji, Sam Lee, Cecilia Yip

Back in 2011, a Hong Kong drama revolving around an older woman who had spent much of her life as an amah won many hearts and much critical acclaim.  After watching A Simple Life, a friend of mine told me she had been moved by it but also was moved to wonder if there ever would be a similar cinematic tribute to one of the too often underappreciated foreign domestic workers that have mainly replaced ethnic Chinese ones in many a contemporary Hong Kong household.

Seven years on, such a movie has indeed been made.  Still Human tells the story of a Filipino nursing graduate who goes to Hong Kong to care for a former construction worker paralyzed from the chest down as a result of an accident at a building site.  Allocated the room previously occupied by her boss's son (Wong Ting Him), who now resides in the US with his mother and stepfather, Evelyn Santos (Crisel Consunji) finds herself living in close quarters with Leung Chong Wing (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) in the small public housing unit that the divorcee calls home.  
Initially, Evelyn and Chong Wing have problems even communicating -- because, among other things, she knows no Cantonese and his English language facility is by no means great -- but they manage against the odds to make things work, develop a bond and inspire each other to dream again.  As their relationship becomes more that of valued friends rather than strictly employee-employer, their common humanity is highlighted along with the realization that they are human beings capable of dispensing joy and also experiencing much happiness. 

Although its overall story arc may not surprise, Still Human is fully capable of astonishing; not least by way of showing a number of beliefs that are widely held in its makers' home territory to be fallacious or even outright wrong.  On a related note: in view of its story involving societies whose cultures often make a big deal out of family ties, it's interesting to see people from different backgrounds portrayed as being able to connect, and sometimes be more sympathetic and understanding of one another than their blood relatives.    
Like with A Simple Life, Still Human is the kind of movie whose beauty and genius lies in its details and ability to feel so very real.  And like with Ann Hui's film, this admirable offering from debutant director-scriptwriter Oliver Chan Siu Kuen (whose childhood love of Oliver Twist got her to adopt that male first name!) benefits enormously from having two fantastic leads (one of whom appeared to be making her first film appearance here!!) with great chemistry, and whose acting is wonderfully nuanced.

An incredibly intelligent film that delivers a number of important messages and also makes many salient points, it is a work that speaks to the heart as well as wins minds.  Replete with moments that get people laughing out loud, Still Human also will move viewers to tears.  For the record: I'd go so far as to state that the screening I attended of this absolute crowdpleaser elicited the most and loudest sniffles from an audience I've been in since I went and watched The Joy Luck Club some two and half decades ago!  

My rating for the film: 9.5

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Ying Liang's A Family Tour is a tour-de-force (film review)

Viewed at the 2018 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

A Family Tour (Hong Kong-Taiwan-Singapore-Malaysia, 2018)
- Ying Liang, director and co-scriptwriter (with Chan Wai)
- Starring: Gong Zhe, Nai An, Pete Teo 

This expertly crafted dramatic offering from a Mainland Chinese filmmaker living in exile in Hong Kong (after this 2012 film, When Night Falls, ran afoul of his home territory's authorities) largely takes place in Taiwan.  Considered a renegade province by Beijing but independently ruled by a democratically-elected government, the territory has figured in films (such as Stan Lai's The Peach Blossom Land and Wang Quanan's Apart Together) which show loved ones torn apart by the Communists coming to power over in Mainland China.  

In Ying Liang's A Family Tour, however, Taiwan is where a family gets to reunite -- albeit for only a  limited time and under less than ideal circumstances.  After filmmaker Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) is honored with an invitation to take part in a film festival in Taipei, she and her husband, Cheung Ka Ming (Pete Teo, who I previously knew primarily as a singer-songwriter), hatch a plan to meet up with her mother -- who she has not seen in the flesh or spoken with for some four years now -- in the Taiwanese capital.    

In a perfect world, Yang Shu's mother, Chen Xiaolin (Nai An), would have gone to Taipei to view her daughter's film.  However, Yang Shu incurred the wrath of her country's authorities by making that particular work which now was going to be screened in Taipei and had to leave her native Sichuan -- where her widowed mother continues to reside -- and move to Hong Kong, the birthplace of her husband, and now also their young son (Tham Xin Yue).  

Bidding to get together away from the prying eyes and ears of the Communist Chinese authorities (whose influence on Hong Kong, it is noted, has been noticeably increasing), Ka Ming books Xiaolin on a group sightseeing tour and arranges for himself, Yang Shu and their son to unofficially tag along on a taxi and meet the older woman in publicly accessible tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants.  Things gets further complicated -- and stress levels significantly increased -- early on after Yang Shu realizes that her mother is significantly less healthy than she was when they last were together and, also, that the authorities had paid the older woman at least one disturbing visit in the intervening years.

There's no hiding how sad the story told by A Family Tour is -- and one's heart threatens to break even more upon realizing that it is rooted in fact, personal and semi-autobiographical.  At the same time though, because the mother and husband of the filmmaker in this touching offering come across as truly loving and caring, one comes to see the circumstances that the family in focus as tragic but not the individuals concerned and their lives.  

The first film made by Ying Liang as an exiled filmmaker, A Family Tour represents an admirable act of resistance.  A cinematic tour-de-force, this poignant offering shows the sacrifices that some people need to make in order to do and continue doing what they think is right, and also for their loved ones -- some of whom they may end up having to live far apart from but will always be in their hearts.   

My rating for this film: 9.0

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Seongsan Illchulbong's volcanic landscape inspires flights of fancy

The kind of landscape that looks alive to me

Can you see what looks like a monster 
peeking out of the bushes? ;)
From this angle, Seongsan Ilchulbong 
looks well majestic as well as nigh unclimbable!

After spending an enjoyable time at the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), the friend I had made the predawn hike up the peak with and I made our way down it along a different trail from that which we had taken to go up it.  In part because it was a more winding trail (that covered more distance), our descent took more time than our accent.  Then there was the fact that post sunrise, we could see more -- and ended up stopping from time to time to admire the views and volcanic landscape, and take photos of them.

For some time now, I've found volcanoes and volcanic landscapes fascinating, both geologically (I took a couple of geology courses as an undergraduate) but also purely on an aesthetic level; not least because volcanic areas feel alive to me.  To be sure, the sense that the actual rocks and other geological features are alive is particularly strong in the obviously active volcanic areas (such as Japan's Mount Aso and Owakudani valley).  But Jeju's Seongsan Ilchulbong also has the kind of landscapes that feel like they could spring to life -- in terms of the rock formations getting me thinking of monstrous creatures and such!   

Over the course of hiking in Hong Kong, I've come across many fancifully named rocks and rock formations in places like Po Toi and Cheung Chau.  To my mind, the volcanic landscape of Seongsan Illchulbong is well capable of inspiring similar flights of fancy.  

As it is, seongsan denotes a mountain shaped like a castle (or fortress) in Korean (while ilchulbong refers to a peak from where beautiful sunrises can be viewed).  Furthermore, the ring of 99 sharp rocks atop the rim of its crater -- that's some 600 meters in diameter and 90 meters in height -- has been likened to a giant crown.  And I'd go further still and state that there were angular sections of rock in the area that called to mind birds of prey about to pounce as well as at least one pair of holes high up on a rock wall that looked like they could be the eyes of a watchful stone monster or god looking down on the people hiking on the trail below!  

Even those without much of an imagination should be able to admire the spectacular sights that this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site presents from a number of different angles and vantage points.  And even while I wasn't able to view Seongsan Illchulbong from the air, I still would say that I managed to get views "in the flesh" of this justly famous Jeju landmark that rival those of many beautiful photos taken of it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Making musical associations while atop Seongsan Ilchulbong (and elsewhere)

Puppet Ponyo atop Seongsan Ilchulbong
Early morning view from the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong
Looking out towards the actually much higher  
Hallasan from atop Seongsan Ilchulbong
If anyone were to ask me, I would not describe myself as a particularly musical person.  Yes, I took piano lessons for several years as a child (like many Asian children are made to do).  And yes, I also learnt to play the recorder and pianica at school, and actually was in the school choir and orchestra back in primary school.  But I didn't have the musical passion that I've seen a number of other people have and, unusually for an Asian, have never ever been out to a karaoke bar (even while I have been to plenty of bars where the primary activities are drinking alcohol and chatting)!
At the same time though, I can't deny my liking to sing in the shower and sometimes even while out hiking in the countryside by myself or strolling about on a street.  And there really are celebratory and/or happy moments when a particular song will suddenly pop into my head and I may give into an impulse to sing it out aloud! 
On a visit to England's Lake District many years ago, I was moved to sing the theme song from The Sound of Music after hiking up a hill and coming across the kind of scenic vistas that got me thinking of the ones that saw Julie Andrews (as Maria von Trapp) burst out in song in my favorite movie when I was younger than sixteen going on seventeenAnd after hiking up Jeju's Seongsan Ilchulbong and seeing the sunrise from atop it, a part of me wanted to burst out in song while up there too.
But whereas I had felt free to sing out loud on that hill in the Lake District because there was just one other person up there at the time (and she happened to be my cousin, who happily sang along after I got going!), there were too many people atop Seongsan Ilchulbong (aka Sunrise Peak) at the same time as me for my comfort!  So I contented myself with drinking in the beautiful views from atop the 180-meter-high volcanic cone, taking snaps of Puppet Ponyo posing atop it, and periodically humming sections of Cat Stevens' Morning Has Broken and The Carpenters' Top of the World under my breath.
Incidentally, besides being places that have made me want to burst into song, the Lake District and Seongsan Ilchulbong also both happen to be UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites -- of which I count myself fortunate to have visited 75 (in 23 different countries) to date.  And so too is Salzburg, which I will forever associate with The Sound of Music, and where I also was moved to sing songs from that movie when I spent time in that fair city! ;b  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Predawn hike up Seongsan Ilchulbong to see the sun rise from its peak! (Photo-essay)

The majority of visitors to Jeju spend a night (or more) at Seogwipo, over on the southern side of the island.  My party of four didn't do so and, instead, spent two of our three nights in Jeju over to the east in Seongsan, a small town with one very big tourist draw in the form of Seongsan Ilchubong (aka Sunrise Peak), a tuff cone which rose out of the sea as a result of hydrovolcanic eruptions that occured some five thousand years ago.

On account of it being located on the far eastern edge of Jeju, Seongsan Ilchubong has the earliest sunset on the island and it's become very much the thing to go see the sun rise from atop this UNESCO World Heritage-listed site's 182-meter-high peak.  So the day after we had an early dinner and a far earlier bed time than we usually do, one of my friends and I got up and went for a predawn hike up Seongsan Ilchubong that we were able to accomplish in far less time (some 20 minutes!) than I had anticipated, with plenty of time to find a prime viewing spot from which to view what turned out to be a truly stunning sunrise... :)

It was still pretty dark when we approached and 
began our ascent of Seongsan Ilchulbong
The path up was clear enough though
thanks to there being lights showing the way
I really was amazed by how far up we got in so short a time!

The horizon was orange-tinged but the moon was still visible 
and far up in the sky when we picked our sunrise viewing spots
 Here comes the sun, looking as though 
it's rising out of the grayish-blue sea!
That's the sun, not the moon! :O
The sun looked to me like it was causing 
portions of the horizon to melt!
A sunrise that truly was worth the effort to see -- and this 
from someone who is far more of a night owl than early bird! :b

Friday, November 30, 2018

Seongsan sunset and twilight views

Sun setting behind Hallasan
Twilight view from the balcony of my Seongsan hotel window
In the hour after the sunset, South Korea's 
highest mountain loomed really large over the landscape
Shortly after arriving in Takayama by way of the Hida Limited Express from Nagoya last month, I was unexpectedly treated to a beautiful sunset sky show by Mother NatureIn Jeju earlier this month, I got more of an advance warning that I would get to see another beautiful sunset when, as my party of four were walking back to our hotel after our black pork feast, we noticed that the sun was casting long shadows and turning the western part of the sky a reddish orange.  
Hurrying over to the edge of the lagoon in front of our hotel, I managed to snap one shot of the setting sun before it vanished behind Hallasan (which, more than incidentally, was considerably further away from Seongsan than it looks courtesy of it being really pretty massive!).  Having learnt over the years by way of viewing sunsets at the likes of Tai Mei Tuk and Matsue that the sky show doesn't immediately end after the sun vanishes over the horizon, I tarried a while to enjoy the golden hour displays -- and, even after finally retreating to my hotel room because the temperatures fell pretty dramatically once the sun set, I still couldn't resist spending a few minutes checking out the views from my hotel room balcony.
For my troubles, I was rewarded with the kind of views that one feels very lucky to be able to observe; this even though the sun does set every day!  And okay, it might seem weird to segue into the following but I once was asked which of the five senses I feel least able to do without -- to which I pretty immediately replied that it would be sight.  Without it, I really think I would feel lost -- when venturing outside my home but also within it -- as well as be deprived of being able to enjoy two leisure pursuits I enjoy so very much: reading, and watching movies.  
I also would be unable to appreciate so much of nature's beauty; be they in the form of cool flora or fauna, and also amazing sky shows courtesy of the rising and setting sun.  So, truly, I am grateful that I do indeed have vision in my eyes -- and also am grateful that I have been able to see so much of the planet's beauty over the years. :)          

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Jeju meetup, with "bonus" shocks and culinary revelations!

Quite the spread for four people, right? ;b
Local custom dictates that the meat needed to be cut up 
(using scissors!) into bite-sized pieces before we dug into it! ;D

Less than a month after I got back to Hong Kong from my most recent Japan trip (which saw me spending time in Nagoya, Inuyama, Takayama and Hida-Furakawa), I was off again -- this time with my mother in tow -- to meet up in Jeju, South Korea, with the two friends I had an Okinawa rendezvous with some six years ago.  My mother had met this mother-daughter pair when we went off together for a Hakone holiday (that included two nights at the wonderful Gora Kansuiro) a couple of years ago and we all had clicked so well that we didn't only end up hanging out together some more in Tokyo but my mother also got to suggesting that the four of us should meet up again in Jeju some time. 

With our different schedules plus the four of us living in different parts of the world (Vermont, USA, for one of my friends, Tokyo for the other, Malaysia in the case of my mother and Hong Kong for me), it's not surprising that our Jeju trip took some time to plan and come into being.  But it really did happen eventually and the four of us were reunited at the airport when my mother and I flew in and were met by our two friends (who had arrived the previous day and done such as rent a car for us to drive around in for all but our final day on the island).
From the airport, we headed straight to the first hotel that we'd be staying in on Jeju.  Located in Seongsan, over on the eastern side of the island, it would require what to me would qualify as a long distance drive but what my friend who was driving had said wasn't all that far as far as she was concerned.  
A few minutes into our car journey, we received quite the shock when what my mother had thought was the sound of a train horn in the distance turned out to have been made by the driver of the car behind us who was so upset by our being in the way of his being able to make a turn that he got out of his car to pound on one of our car's windows!  As I later remarked to the people in the car, it made for quite the dramatic welcome to Jeju but perhaps we should have expected this sort of aggressive behavior in view of what we've seen of Korean people in Korean movies and TV dramas!
Speaking of K-dramas: that's the main reason why my mother and one of my friends had wanted to go to Jeju!  And we did indeed visit a few spots on the island which had been locations for Korean TV dramas.  For my part though, Jeju's primary attraction came by way of its specialty foods.  And when we sat down to our first meal together on the island, we all got a very good feeling that we'd be eating super well during our stay in this part of South Korea!
After checking in to our hotel, we went in search of a place that was open on a Sunday and came across a restaurant which served up Jeju black pig.  Following the waitress's recommendation that we get two dinner sets, we had our second shock of the day when we saw the large amount of meat as vegetables (to wrap the meat in and such) well as banchan (side dishes) -- which included a few varieties of kimchi but also less traditionally Korean delicacies like a sizzling creamed corn concoction! -- brought to our table.  On the other hand, being veteran consumers of Korean food, we didn't bat an eyelid when the waitress came over with a pair of large scissors and started cutting up the portions of pork that had been cooking on the grill into bite-sized chunks!
Although we all had not thought that we could do so, we ended up finishing up every bit of the meat we had been served.  All in all, I think it's less a testament to our appetites and more to how very tasty the Jeju black pig really is.  And for the record: yes, I most definitely would concur with those who say that it's the wagyu of pork and might even go so far as to say that it's the best pork I've ever had in my life!   And while one would expect the pork at a Jeju black pig specialist restaurant to be good, the pork at our hotel's breakfast buffet the one day we decided to try it was pretty fabulous too, making what otherwise would have been a rather average hotel breakfast buffet spread into something very enjoyable indeed! ;b

Monday, November 26, 2018

Project Gutenberg is a genuinely entertaining money-maker! (Film review)

I love spending a couple of hours in the afternoon
watching an entertaining movie on a big screen :) 
Project Gutenberg (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2018)
- Felix Chong, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Chow Yun Fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu, Liu Kai Chi
There are Hong Kong movie fanboys and fangirls who don't need a reason to see this movie beyond Chow Yun Fat being its first-billed star.  I know second-billed Aaron Kwok also has his share of devotees.  If anything, however, the Cantopop singer-actor being in this crime thriller's cast caused me to delay checking out Project Guttenberg for as long as I did.  And, in truth, it was my curiosity to see what kind of Chinese-language film could be a box office hit both in Mainland China and Hong Kong that finally got me into a theater to view this offering on a big screen.
Set in the 1990s, this visually stylish effort can feel at times like it's harking back to Hong Kong cinema's late 20th century glory days: most notably by giving a showy role to Chow Yun Fat that allows him to unleash the charisma and even certain action movie moves which he has not had much opportunity to display in his more recent film appearances.  At the same time though, this movie possesses the kind of substantial budget that Hong Kong filmmakers of yore could only dream of; which allows for the assembling of a quality cast (some of whom, Jack Kao and Alex Fong Chung Sun among them, can create memorable characters with just a few lines and minutes of screentime) and a story that unfolds in places as far flung as Canada, Poland and South East Asia's Golden Triangle along with Hong Kong. 
Lest there be any doubt: Chow Yun Fat owns every scene of this film that he is in.  Early on, however, it's Aaron Kwok who has the limelight in scenes that see his Lee Man character in a hell hole of a prison in Thailand before being extradited to Hong Kong, where he sets to telling a story that began in Canada a number of years earlier. 
A technically gifted artist who nonetheless was unable to sell any of his original works, Lee Man discovers one day that he has a gift for copying famous works of art.  His pursuit of this avenue for him to make use of his talents leads him to become part of a counterfeiting ring as well as part ways with Yuen Man (Zhang Jingchu), the woman he loves and -- he gets to bitterly recognizing -- is a far bigger artistic talent than him.  It also got him coming across like a cat in danger of having used up almost all of its nine lives after a number of twists in his life tale that included his being one of just two survivors of the gang that successfully produced thousands of perfect replicas of the US$100 bill before the majority of its members perished in a shootout in the suite of a Hong Kong luxury hotel.
A movie with a non-linear narrative structure that can frustrate some viewers (including those who see too much of a resemblance between it and The Usual Suspects), Project Gutenberg is one of those cinematic offerings that relies to a significant degree on the goodwill of those who watch it and their willingness to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Its complicated -- some might say convoluted -- story unfolds at a good pace and, despite being quite a bit lengthier than the average Hong Kong movie at 130 minutes, the film never over-stayed its welcome as far as this particular (re)viewer was concerned.
In addition to it being an entertaining watch, I reckon one reason why Project Gutenberg fared so well at the Hong Kong box office is that this Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese co-production has a lot more Hong Kong actors and actresses in significant roles than Mainland Chinese ones.  I also appreciate the way Felix Chong and Co managed to fashion a finale that was able to satisfy the Mainland Chinese censors but still surprise rather than be entirely predictable and, actually, be quite the moving affair.

My rating for the film: 8.0

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Beach clean-up at the Cheung Chau which sees the most trash washed ashore

The Cheung Chau beach that has the misfortune to be 

Beach clean-up in progress at Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) yesterday

A couple of weeks after Typhoon Mangkhut struck, the beach clean-up group I organize went and worked on Cheung Chau's Tai Kwai Wan one Saturday.  After ascertaining that the typhoon debris had been cleared so that the path to our usual beach clean-up spot was open once more though, we returned to Tung Wan Tsai (Coral Beach) over on the other side of the island, where the currents look to bring over far more trash than any of the other Cheung Chau beaches I've been on.

The sight that greeted my party of eleven last month was expectedly horrific, with large amounts of trash strewn all over the beach and also higher up it and the rocks in the surrounding area than I had previously seen.  Still, I reckon we made a good dent of the trash on the beach on a day when the sun shone so brightly that I ended up getting sunburned (but didn't realize it until later in the day when a couple of friends remarked that I was looking on the red side and I saw that it was indeed so!).

So it was quite a bit of a shock to return yesterday and see trash strewn on a good swathe of Tung Wan Tsai once more; and this especially so since there hadn't been any typhoon or even major storm occur in the past month.  Making our task feel truly Sisyphean, more trash kept on being washed ashore by the waves as my group (smaller this time around than the previous month but supplemented by a Cheung Chau resident who happened on us at the beach!) went about picking up bits of trash that ranged from the pretty sizable to small but still recognizably plastic and, in fact, after we decided to call it a day to head off for lunch.

Whereas I previously would make a point to pick up glass shards as well as plastic items, I tend to focus these days on getting as much plastic and styrofoam off the beach (and back into the water courtesy of the tides).  One reason is that I've seen how plastic -- even those that appear on the solid side at first -- and styrofoam can break up into tiny pieces that are frustratingly difficult to sort from sand and also am super aware that those plastic microparticles get eaten by so many fish.  And then there are all those plastic bags that, when floating in the water, resemble the jellyfish that a number of marine creatures (including whales and sea turtles) feed on.     

Something else that was in abundance on the beach (including half buried in the sand and often hard to dig out) yesterday, and which I also have come to abhor, are ghost nets.  Truly, I find it difficult to understand how the fishing community can be so irresponsible and uncaring of the sea when its very health is so important to their livelihood.  And yet, time and time again, I see evidence of this at beach clean-ups and can only wonder what it will take to make these people wake up and see that they are contributing to the depletion of what they are able to catch and make money from doing so.

On a positive note, I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of times now that a stranger or two walking on to this pretty secluded beach, that's some distance -- and a hike away -- from the famous Cheung Chau sights, and seeing our beach clean-up in progress has stopped to help out.  Of course there also have been those folks who've blithely strolled past up without so much as a word or even those who've come up close to find out what we were picking up and then walked off after discovering that it was only trash!  But I take heart in the existence of the more good-hearted folks I've seen at Tung Wan Tsai -- and also those who sign up to work on what can seem like a futile task (and more than once too, as was the case with everyone who did so for yesterday's beach clean-up)!    

Friday, November 23, 2018

Napping Kid irritates far more than it intrigues (Film review)

Not your usual movie advertisement in Yau Ma Tei

Napping Kid (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Amos Why, director-scriptwriter
- Starring: Ng Siu Hin, David Siu, Cecilia So, Michael Wong

Close to four years after making his directorial debut with the charming Dot 2 Dot, Amos Why's highly anticipated sophomore effort made it into local cinemas.  Made with a bigger budget (of approximately US$1 million) and greater ambition than that which actually was my favorite Hong Kong movie of 2014, Napping Kid also sees the director-scriptwriter turning from straight drama to a complex crime mystery with political undertones. 

An adaptation of Hong Kong-born, Canada-based writer Mannshin's award-winning same-titled novel, Napping Kid sees police detective inspector Tong Fu (David Siu) being approached by his ex-wife (Candy Cheung), on behalf of her boss (Michael Wong), to investigate an attempted blackmailing involving her investment bank's confidential report-financial analysis of a Chinese IT company.  After being told of the attempted blackmailer's surprisingly modest ransom request, Tong Fu decides that he needs to figure out what's behind the attempted blackmailer's actions as well as his/her identity.  

Thus begins an investigation that sees a number of the bank's employees -- including his wife, IT expert Dylan (Ng Siu Hin), junior analyst (Cecilia So) -- that sees them confined together in a hotel suite, put under surveillance and denied the use of their mobile phones.  For some reason that never was explained in the film, however, Dylan's notebook computer never was taken away from him.  And as pretty much any person would expect, he proceeded to make full use of it, including to do such as send and receive messages to the apparent criminal mastermind behind the whole affair.   

That major improbability bugged me for much of the time that I was viewing the movie -- and I know that I was not alone in this regard from conversations I've had with a number of people who have also viewed Napping Kid ((including a couple of scriptwriter friends and one who's a professional film critic).  I suppose that apologists for the film could chalk it down to the police officers assigned to monitor the suspects being bad at their job -- so bad, in fact, that one of the other suspects also managed to sneak in someone else's mobile phone into the hotel suite and use it a number of times -- but surely that would be too convenient a way to explain away what is in effect a pretty major plot hole (which resolved in this way would then get one asking why such a big deal was made then of the need to effectively sequester the suspects)?

If only this was my major problem with Napping Kid's story but the fact of the matter is that I found too many problems with it to want to list.  Adding to my gripes with the movie is its poor -- to the point of irritating -- use of background music and an editing style that looked to have been designed to complicate and confuse viewers in order to hide the lack of logic of much of the plot and script.  

At the end of the day, perhaps the greatest mystery of all for many viewers may well be why Napping Kid has received such positive reviews from certain critics.  My own findings lead me to the conclusion that this stems in large part from there being a lot of goodwill for the film's director and also sympathy for his good intentions (including with regards to local socio-political matters).  

For my part, I hope that Amos Why's filmmaking career will not come to a premature end as a result of this offering that just is not a very good movie and, deservedly to my mind, doesn't look like it will be able to break even, never mind make a profit, at the box office.  For one thing, he showed with Dot 2 Dot that he can make a good, wonderful even, movie.  For another, even with Napping Kid, he showed how good he is at getting much out of his actors and actresses (a good number of whom managed to make their characters feel like real people rather than one-dimensional character types) and I continue to appreciate how much Hong Kong itself is very much a character in his movies.

My rating for the film: 5.0   

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A super rarified dining experience at Ryotei Susaki

Not the most obvious looking restaurant frontage!

Its interior looks like that of a ryokan 
but it's actually a ryotei

The (entire) room that I -- and I alone -- occupied 
over the course of my dinner at Ryotei Susaki!

The first course (featuring salmon roe, chestnut, river fish, tofu, 
sweet potato and a whole, solid egg yolk) looked like this; 
the rest of the meal I'll leave to your imagination! ;b

Some ten or so blog posts ago, I wrote about having feasted on Hida beef at Hida-Takayama (or just plain Takayama), including at a multi-course dinner at an "old school" ryotei.  Today, I'd like to more specifically discuss the ryotei in question in the context of my dinner there being the kind of dining experience that I've only ever had in Japan -- and totalling just a handful in my life so far.

It's not just that Ryotei Susaki serves the kind of meals that many people would describe as kaiseki but which its purveyors describe as Sowaryu Honzen ryori.  Rather, it's also the setting in which the meal I had at this Takayama fine dining establishment was served: with the diner (if dining alone) or his/her party being allocated an entire room for the duration a meal; and that room inevitably having a tatami floor, a tokonoma (alcove) within which can be found a hanging scroll and ceramic work for the diner to look and appreciate from time to time during the meal, along with a beautifully landscaped garden visible through glass doors/windows.  

The first time I had this kind of rarified dining experience, I must admit to having been totally unprepared for it.  My mother and I were visiting the Kyushu temple town of Dazaifu, which I had read was home to a fantastic tofu specialist restaurant along with a super popular Tenmangu shrine and an ancient temple with beautiful Zen gardens.  After visiting the Tenmangu shrine, we decided to go to the Dazaifu branch of Ume-No-Hana for a lunch that turned out to be one of the most memorable -- as well as lengthiest (lasting circa three hours!) and fanciest -- I've ever had.   

Looking back, I'm amazed that we managed to get into that kaiseki restaurant as walk-in customers.  Knowing better these days, I sought to make an advance reservation in person at Ryotei Susaki soon after I arrived in Takayama -- only to discover that this dining establishment's very discrete premises was well nigh impossible to find in the dark (which had fallen less than an hour after I arrived in that mountain town)!

As it transpired, I had major problems locating the oldest ryotei in all of Gifu prefecture even during the day the next day.  In fact, I actually walked past its building -- which, like the restaurant itself, dates back to the 18th century! -- several times both during daylight and in the dark before I finally found the place -- and even then, it was after getting detailed information as to its location from a staffer at the third Takayama tourist office I visited (and also the one closest to the ryotei)! 

After having successfully made my booking, I duly made my way through super quiet and dark Takayama streets to the ryotei on the appointed evening.  At the lobby of the restaurant, I was met by a friendly kimono-clad woman who led me through the carpeted corridor of the ryotei to a large private room with a single table and chair in it that I quickly got to realizing was reserved for me alone for the duration of my meal!        

If my assigned waitress hadn't been so friendly, I think I wouldn't have felt as comfortable as I did dining at Ryotei Susaki.  Even so, I must admit to thinking that it's preferable to have at least one companion while dining at this kind of place, for the same reason that I have about preferring to stay at a traditional ryokan: that is, the service can so attentive as well as superb that it can actually feel rather overwhelming!

Funny but true: Early on during my dinner that evening, I wondered if there were a hidden camera in the room that enabled the staff to see when I had finished with each course as the next course was carried in by the waitress with such great timing!  Of course, I got to realizing after a while that that was not indeed the case.  Still, my harboring that thought for a time is a measure of how the staff seemed so able to anticipate my needs.  

Pretty much impeccable in every way, the staff treated this diner like an honored guest and Very Important Person.  And while I surely was not this storied establishment's sole customer of the evening, the service provided sometimes made me feel like this was so on top of my never having caught sight nor heard any sounds indicating that there were other customers in the ryotei the entire time that I was there! ;b