Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Two documentaries that benefit from being viewed on a big screen (Film reviews)

Most, if not all, movies benefit from being viewed on a big screen 

Into the Inferno (UK-Germany-Canada, 2016)
- From the HKIFF's Galas program
- Werner Herzog (who also scripted) and Clive Oppenheimer, co-directors 

It may have been made for Netflix, whose customers stream the movies they watch onto computer and smartphone screens or watch them on TV screens courtesy of DVDs, but Into the Inferno really is one of those documentaries that really is best viewed on a big theater screen.  An ambitious, sprawling work which transports its audience to far flung places with landscapes that can look incredibly unearthly, it also has truly incredible footage that not only shows the power of volcanoes but also how mesmerizingly as well as frighteningly beautiful lava can look when it churns about, erupts and/or flows out to envelope whole landscapes.

Peter Zeitlinger's cinematographer makes sure that Into the Inferno is no run of the mill documentary but what really makes certain of this is the distinctive imprint that director Werner Herzog (who also scripted this effort) leaves on it.  And while the German auteur may have given Professor Clive Oppenheimer a co-directing credit and had the Cambridge University volcanologist be the main man in front of the camera, the fact that this work takes pains to explore the spiritual side of volcanoes rather than just their scientific aspects is something that comes from Herzog steering the production towards subject matter that truly interests him.

Over the course of the film, Herzog and Oppenheimer -- who met in Antarctica, when Herzog was filming his Encounters at the End of the World (2007) -- journey to the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific, Indonesia (the country with the most volcanoes in the world), Iceland, Ethiopia and North Korea (home to an active volcano that all Koreans consider sacred).  In addition to getting up close with some really spectacular volcanoes and related physical features (such as caldera lakes), they also interact with a diverse group of individuals, including members of a cargo cult, outwardly super-patriotic North Koreans (who often act like they too belong to a cult), and paleoanthropologist Tim White and his dedicated crew as well as volcanologists from various countries.

In the hands of lesser (or plain different) filmmakers, the different sections of Into the Inferno wouldn't feel like they could all fit into a single work.  However, Herzog successfully weaves them into a pretty fascinating exploration of the passionate -- often to the point of obsessiveness -- human quest for meaning, all of which involve volcanoes in one way or another.  

My rating for the film: 8.0

Makala (France, 2017)
- From the HKIFF's Global Vision program
- Emmanuel Gras, director, scriptwriter and cinematographer
- With: Kabwita Kasongo, Lydie Kasongo

One of the sights that invariably strikes visitors to the African continent is of people -- men, women and children -- forced to walk far distances because they don't have money for public transportation, let alone a car or even motorcycle of their own.  Adding to the misery is that many of these people are effectively their own beasts of burden, carrying all manner of things on their heads as well as in their arms and on their backs.    

Even when the subject of Makala (charcoal in Kiswahili, the native language of its protagonist), a Congolese charcoal maker and seller by the name of Kabwita Kasongo, has use of a bicycle, it's to load with many heavy bags of charcoal and then push into town rather than actually ride.  Observing the massive effort this takes, one can't help but feel for him.  Knowing that considerable effort also is required beforehand to do such as cut down the trees whose wood then gets turned into charcoal gets one concluding that his is a life that so many of us would not be able to lead and endure for long at all.

While much of this affecting film is taken up documenting mundane activities, there are elements in it which can disturb despite being depicted in a matter of fact way rather than sensationalist manner.  One example is rat being part of the diet of the protagonist and his family.  Actually more upsetting though is how it can seem that the closer he gets to town (and supposed "civilization"), the more unpleasant Kabwita's encounters with his fellow humans get.  In addition, there are scenes in this documentary that get me questioning why he has so much faith in God when there seems to be so much inequality and suffering in this world.

Rather than look upon him merely as an unlucky wretch condemned to a Sisyphean existence, however, I came away from my viewing of Emmanuel Gras' documentary thinking that Kabwita Kasongo is one of those heroic as well as admirable individuals who, somehow, against the odds, manages to not only eke out an honest living but also provide for his wife Lydie and their children, and continue to dream of, and plan for, a better future for them all.  And it is my sincere hope that he's been amply rewarded for agreeing to appear -- nay, star -- in this work which has gone on to garner a number of accolades, including the Critics' Week Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Monday, March 19, 2018

Omotenashi gets the 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival off to a promising start! (Film review)

The director (second from the right), lead actors (far left and 
second from the left) and lead actress (third from the left) 
at the international premiere of their film
Omotenashi (Taiwan-Japan, 2018)
- From the HKIFF's Galas program
- Jay Chern, director, co-scriptwriter (with Mami Sunada), co-producer (with Junichi Kitagawa) and cinematographer
- Starring: Edison Wang Po Chieh, Rena Tanaka, Kimiko Yo, Lea Yang, Yao Chun Yao 
The 2018 Hong Kong International Film Festival got going this evening with a rare Opening Film that, unlike the likes of Aberdeen (2014), Trivisa (2016) and Love Off the Cuff (2017), is not a local production.  The disappointment felt by some film fans can be gauged by tickets for Omotenashi not having sold out as quickly as for, say, the two Opening Films of recent years that were directed by Pang Ho Cheung.  
Still, the director and stars of this Taiwan-Japan co-production whose title is the Japanese word for the Japanese form of hospitality were received warmly enough when they showed up to greet the audience before the screening and, more importantly, they and their movie received an even more enthusiastic round of applause as the end credits rolled on the screen; one that, in my (not so) humble opinion, was well earned.
The first feature film of 36-year-old Jay Chern to receive a cinematic release, Omotenashi is a mature drama that makes sure that its veteran cast members get chances to shine along with the fresh-faced lead actors.  Edison Wang Po Chieh (who face, not just first name, can call to mind Edison Chen's!) plays Jacky, the young, upstart son of Taiwanese construction magnate Charles (Lea Yang), who goes to Japan -- ostensibly to supervise the renovation of an old ryokan located on the shores of Lake Biwa that's run by Charles' old flame, Mitsuko (Kimiko Yo), and her daughter Rika (Rena Tanaka), with the help of  Bo Hao (Yao Chun Yao), a young Taiwanese man with a love for Japanese manga and anime.
The only one of the quartet to be unable to speak Japanese, Jacky also is in a different camp from Charles, Mitsuko and Rika in his working behind his father as well as the two women's backs to sell off the ryokan that Charles acquired to get Mitsuko out of financial trouble after the premature death of her husband (and Rika's father).  But with each passing day that he spends at the ryokan and in Japan, where his father went to university and fell in love, Jacky (who also has a Japanese old flame whose heart has been won by another of his own) gets his heart and mind being tugged in different directions from what he's used to.    
As preparation for the ryokan to host its first ever wedding, Mitsuko get Jacky, Rika and Bo Hao take lessons on omotenashi from strict but good-hearted Kimura-sensei (Tae Kimura) who, among other things, arranges for them to meet Shimizu-sensei, the kind of gracious as well as graceful lady who, as Bo Hao remarks, looked like she had stepped out of a Yasujiro Ozu film.  Since she's played by Kyoko Kagawa, who really did feature in a number of Ozu movies, this is one of those moments that will make cineastes smile; with more layers to this in-joke coming from this movie that's so respectful of the past having been co-produced by Shochiku, the Japanese film studio that Ozu's most associated with
Lest it be thought otherwise, however, rest assured that Omotenashi contains some truly novel touches.  For one thing, it's the rare film that has Japanese actresses delivering the bulk of their dialogue in Mandarin (in the case of Rena Tanaka) and English (in the case of Mina Fujii, who portrays the woman Jacky loves) along with two Taiwanese actors (Lea Yang and Yao Chun Yao) playing characters fluent in Japanese as well as Mandarin and another (Edison Wang) fluent in English as well as Mandarin (but not Japanese)!    

Rather than feeling muddled, it all makes sense.  Indeed, the film's multi-lingual nature actually adds layers to the heart-warming movie's story and also produces funny moments: one of which comes about because someone understands a language it's forgotten in the moment that she understands; another of which comes about because another person shows that, while she doesn't understand Mandarin, she nonetheless is familiar with a beloved singer from Taiwan whose fame's not restricted to that island!

My rating for the film: 8.0

Friday, March 16, 2018

Beautiful as well as delicious sushi at Fukuoka's Tenjaku!

Beautifully cut ika (squid) sushi!!
Shiny kohada (gizzard shad) sushi in the foreground
(with portions of negitoro maki in the back)
 Anago (sea water eel) sushi, with so many other toppings 
I wanted to try behind glass in the background!
Considering how much I love to eat sushi, it can come as a surprise to those who know me that I don't eat sushi every day whenever I'm in Japan; and this particularly since, almost needless to say, there's so much delicious sushi to be found in the country where this delicacy was invented and it also being the case that so much of it is a good deal less expensive than you might expect (with my actually never ever having paid more than 10,000 Yen (~HK$739 or US$94) at a sushi-ya in the Land of the Rising Sun; and my regularly paying one third what I would do in Hong Kong for the equivalent quality).
One big reason for this is that there are so many foods I want to try and/or want to eat when I'm in Japan, including regional specialties (such as Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, Osaka kushiage, Obuse's kuri okawa and Funabashi's sauce ramen!) that are hard to find in other parts of the country, let alone beyond Japan's shores.  Still, it's true enough that I frequently end up going to a sushi-ya for the final meal of each of my Japan trips!     

On this most recent Japan trip, the restaurant in question was a sushi-ya located in Kawabata-dori, Fukuoka's oldest shopping arcade.  When looking at Tenjaku's understatedly shop front, I got a really good feeling about the place and I also thought that its advertised lunch set was a pretty reasonable 4,320 Yen (~HK$319 or US$40) since it consisted of an appetizer, bowl of chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), sides of pickles, miso soup and dessert (which turned out to be a super large and sweet seasonal Hakata Amaou strawberry) along with seven kinds of nigiri sushi and one order of maki sushi.  
And so it proved, with Tenjaku's chef/owner proceeding to serve up some of the best sushi I've ever had in my life (and most definitely the most worth it in terms of quality at its price point)!   And yes, I know that is indeed quite the claim but just look at the photos at the top of this blog post!  Put another way: Look how big that tiger prawn and consider that the portion of rice on which it was placed on top is a regular sized portion for nigiri sushi; check out how masterfully cut the slice of squid I was served was; and just marvel at how beautifully shiny was that delicious slice of gizzard shad that I had at the restaurant!
Speaking of beautiful: I must admit to being one of those people who often makes happy noises and will let Japanese chefs know how I oishii I find the food they have prepared.  But I don't think I ever told a chef how beautiful I thought the food he put in front of me as many times as I told Tenjaku's chef/owner over the course of that one meal I had at his restaurant!
And on the subject of the chef: one big contributing factor to my thorough enjoyment of my lunch at his sushi-ya was my interactions with him, which included him obviously wanting to see and hear my reactions to the sushi he served up, and appearing to derive quite a bit of pleasure from witnessing how happy his creations made me!  In addition, thanks to a friendly customer able to speak English as well as her native Japanese (who, much to my surprise, was the only other customer there in the restaurant the entire time that I was there), we got to chat quite a bit -- and I also got to add two more slices of nigiri sushi to my overall order.
On occasions like this, I wish I had a greater stomach capacity than I in fact do.  If so, I'd have happily ordered even more sushi to eat at Tenjaku!  As it was, I reluctantly stopped myself from asking to try the akagai (ark shell clam), awabi (abalone) and other hikarimono (shiny blue/silver-skinned fish) I saw in the glass cases on the sushi counter besides the kohada and sayori (Japanese halfbeak) I couldn't resist getting.  And while I know there are people who'd be horrified at the thought, the main reason why I didn't try kujira (whale) sushi at Tenjaku was because I felt too full to eat anything as fatty looking as it by the time I spotted it in the glass case and asked the chef what that was!
For those wondering what else I ate: I definitely remember eating a decadent piece of chu toro (medium fatty tuna) nigiri sushi and also delicious pieces of ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin) gunkan makiAnd while I cannot recall which were the two other types of nigiri sushi I was served, I think I can state with some confidence that they were pretty tasty affairs too! ;b  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Machiya and museum in Hakata, Fukuoka

A Fukuoka craftsman fashioning figures out of wood
 A craftswoman at work on a Hakata Weaving machine
The first time I ventured into a machiya was in Kyoto a few years ago.  Having seen many of these traditional wooden townhouses when moving around in the city (be it by bus or on foot), I was happy to discover that a restaurant serving up delicious kushiyaki could be found in one of them and consequently was open to the public if they went and had a meal there.
In the years since, I've come across machiya in a number of other Japanese cities and towns.  While many remain private residences, others of these buildings -- which, be they in Kyoto, Nara or Fukuoka, follow a long and narrow design that made them far more spacious than they look from the front -- have been converted into museums that give one a fairly good idea of how they were traditionally furnished back when they were occupied by merchant families, many of whom customarily set aside areas in the houses to store and sell some of their goods as well as keep other rooms as their living quarters.
In Fukuoka, specifically the section of the city built by merchants, there's the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, part of which is housed in a machiya but actually encompasses three buildings.  More ambitious in scope than, say, the Ohashi House in Kurashiki or Nara's Nigiwai-no-Ie and Koshi-no-ie, it has exhibits on Hakata's history and area festivals (including an informative video on the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri hosted by the Kushida Jinja located just a stone's throw away from the museum) as well as the traditional merchants townhouses themselves.
In addition, one can observe traditional craftspeople at work inside the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.  The afternoon that I visited, an elderly man was fashioning a group of figures out of wood on an upper floor of the main museum building while a younger artisan was operating a weaving machine that was producing Hakata-ori (thick, tightly woven silk cloth specific to this part of Japan) in one of the rooms in the restored machiya section of the museum.
I must admit to generally having mixed feelings with regards to seeing people effectively put on display in a museum.  But my discomfort at encountering this at this Fukouka museum was eased quite a bit by both of the craftspeople taking it upon themselves to engage me in conversation when I approached their area.  
Incidentally, our conversation utilized a mix of English and Japanese.  And while there is no way I can claim to be fluent in Japanese, I must say that I'm actually amazed how many Japanese words and phrases I've managed to pick up over the years -- though it probably won't come as a surprise to those who know me that a good bulk of the Japanese vocabulary I possess pertains to food and drink! ;b    

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Colorful sights abound at Fukuoka's Kushida Jinja (Photo-essay)

There are certain cities and towns in Japan, notably Kyoto and Nara but also such as Onomichi and Tomonoura, where visits to Buddhist temples and/or Shinto shrines feel like a must do for even the non-religiously inclined.  Although I wouldn't consider Fukuoka to be one of them, it happens to be the case that I've spent time at the most important shrine in Kyushu's largest city -- and on more than one occasion too! 

It may not be the biggest Shinto shrine I've been to but Kushida Jinja is one of those places where it feels like there are a lot of interesting things to see.  On my first visit some twelve years ago, I found the colorful as well as very large portable wooden floats carried around during the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri which the shrine plays host to every July -- a couple of which are on display at Kushida Jinja -- to be particularly awesome.  But while they continued to fascinate me on my second visit, I found a number of other colorful sights catching my eye too...       

This otabuku mask installed at one of the shrine's entrances ahead
of Setsubun is what got me to visit Kushida Jinja once more!
An even bigger otabuku mask at the shrine's main entrance
that, at 5.3 meters high and 5 meters wide, is Japan's largest! :O
Pass through the giant mask erected for Setsubun to 
get good luck and, also, to enter into the shrine grounds
As luck would have it, I witnessed a priest performing what 
looked to be a ritual blessing on my visit to the shrine
Puppet Ponyo poses with ema that have different depictions on them :)
Barrels of donated sake and other shrine accoutrements, including a 
Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri float, on display for all to see
I think it'd be remiss of me to not include a close-up photo of 
one of the festival floats installed in the grounds of the shrine... ;b

The decorations on the float are as beautifully 
elaborate as the float itself is big!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Polling Day urgings

Hong Kong's best!

The Hong Kong Legislative Council by-election to fill four seats left vacant by the ouster of their pro-democracy incumbents involved in "oath row" is taking place today.  A few hours after polling began, I went to my local polling station to cast my vote.  With it being just one minute's walk away from my apartment and the polling station being far from crowded, I was there, in, out and back home within minutes.  

For all the ease of casting one's ballot though, the early signs are that voting numbers are down this time around.  This is less because Hong Kongers don't care about politics per se but, rather, because many people think any elections in Hong Kong are now a farce when the politicians they vote for can be ousted from office because they did something as innocuous as quote Gandhi when taking his oath like Nathan Law did and a 21-year-old political campaigner gets banned from seeking office.  

While I can understand their frustrations, I honestly think such folks are playing into the hands of, and strengthening, the very groups they actually oppose and loathe.  Remember that during the Umbrella Movement, protesters and supporters were urged to register to vote, if they hadn't already done so.  And the likes of Nathan Law and Agnes Chow still obviously believe that voting matters since they've been out on the campaign trail for the likes of Au Nok Hin (who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Agnes Chow's disqualification).

The power of the vote may not seem like much these days but, as far as I'm concerned, it still represents a vote for Hong Kong and a slap in a face of those who think that Chinese people are better off controlled rather than free.  So please, those of you who are eligible to vote and actually care about Hong Kong, go and exercise your civic rights and fulfill your civic responsibilities before the polling stations close at 10.30 tonight!

Friday, March 9, 2018

An underwhelming Fukuoka yatai experience

 Scene inside a Fukuoka yatai

More than a decade ago now, my mother and I went on vacation to Taipei.  Among the attractions we were most looking forward to checking out was at least one of its famous night markets.  But our visit to the one at Shilin turned out to be on the underwhelming side.  

Upon wondering why it was so hyped, my mother was moved to suggest that those visitors who make such a big deal of it do so because they have never been to Penang, where there are lots of places to eat street food -- and a great variety of food to eat -- at night.  The more I think about it, the more I think she may have been right.  And I got to thinking again that growing up in Penang has spoilt me as far as this kind of thing is concerned when I went and checked out the similarly famous yatai scene one evening in Fukuoka and found the experience rather disappointing.

It may not have helped that the night I went out to get a meal at a yatai was a Sunday; the one day of the week that many -- though by no means all -- of them are closed.  So there may have been less variety as well as fewer options numerical available.  In any event, I figured that I might as well as go for it and selected a food stall that looked popular, yet didn't have too long a line of people waiting to get a seat at it, which turned out to have oden (fish cake stew), yakitori (chicken skewers), ramen and gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings) on its menu (which was written in Japanese and Korean but not English!).

To be fair, the bowl of oden that I had was pretty tasty.  And I liked that it had a good assortment of items; with mushroom, offal and shirataki in the mix along with the "classic" daikon and boiled egg.  But the gyoza that I followed that comforting winter dish with was disappointing -- in that I didn't only think that it was over-cooked but also wasn't handmade.    

Worst of all was how expensive it all (together with the one bottle of beer that I also ordered) proved to be.  Given the spartan conditions of the yatai as well as the by no means high quality of the food and drink on offer, I most definitely wasn't expecting it to be more expensive than a meal of equivalent size in an izakaya with more room, comfortable chairs (as opposed to rickety stools) and indoor heating!

While I wouldn't go so far as to say that I think I had been ripped off, my Fukuoka yatai experience didn't feel as much of a bargain as well as pleasant as I had hoped that it would be.  Feeling unsatisfied and unwilling to return to my hotel just yet, I went and found a dining establishment nearby where I could eat in heated, indoor comfort -- and which turned out to have better food and drink as well.  Put another way: the Fukuoka yatai experience seems over-rated and since it's so easy to eat (and drink) better elsewhere in the city, I think that's what I do from now on whenever I'm there!