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