Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Torii and more at Hakone Jinja

One of Hakone Jinja's torii lies at the water's edge and 
makes for a lovely landmark on the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise
Further inland and hidden from the lake are
still more picturesque sights within the shrine precinct
Some day soon, I tell myself, I will make it to Miyajima and behold the great Torii located some 200 meters offshore that is its UNESCO world heritage listed Shinto shrine's most well known feature.  In the meantime, I love looking out for and at the torii of Hakone Shrine situated at the edge of Hakone's Lake Ashi when sailing on one of the "pirate ships" that transport visitors from the northern side of this beautiful body of water to its eastern end.
On my second trip to the area, I decided to not only view this eighth century shrine's most visible vermilion torii from afar but also to pay a visit to Hakone Jinja.  Unlike many a samurai of old, the group I was with didn't approach this ancient Shinto place of worship but, rather, walked to it from the pier at Moto-Hakone a few hundred meters away.  This way, we passed through a number of other torii and along an approach lined by over 800-year-old cedar trees before getting to the vermilion structure that is Hakone Jinja's most visibile feature from the boat.
Within the shrine precinct is a cedar tree with a shimenawa (a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips) around it denoting its sacred status.  Whenever I see such a sight, I get to thinking of My Neighbor Totoro, in particular the tree in the clearly enchanted woods near their home that the father takes his two daughters to pay their respects to/at.  
And as I've come to expect of Shinto shrines, there are a number of stone steps to climb up to its main hall.  Even while I made noises about shrine buildings often not being all that impressive, I still couldn't resist climbing up to the very top of the stairs to take a look around up there before making my way down to the water's edge and what I have to say is Hakone Jinja's more picturesque spot: by the torii that points out the whereabouts of this shrine to people sailing by on the lake.
As my mother and I approached that torii on the edge of the lake, we caught sight of a couple dressed in traditional Japanese wedding attire posing for photographs.  As they must have expected and resigned themselves to, the pair also attracted the attention of many tourists in the area -- and consequently had lots more people snapping shots of them than just the man they had expressly hired to do so.  And yes, I must admit to having taken a few snaps of them myself; all the while thinking that they were far more elegant and had picked a far more suitable spot than the Hong Kong wedding photo parties I've encountered at such as Shek O Beach and by a country road deep in the heart of Sai Kung East Country Park! ;D   

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Yellowing is a "fly on the wall"-style Umbrella Movement documentary with a visceral feel (film review)

Yellowing (Hong Kong, 2016)
- Chan Tze Woon, director, cinematographer, co-editor (with Jean Hu) and co-producer (with three others)

This past Sunday, I attended a special screening of a candidate for least seen Golden Horse Awards nominee at a little known cinema in Shau Kei Wan operated by a South Korean cinema chain. Despite having received positive word of mouth, Chan Tze Woon's Yellowing has not been screened in any of the multiplexes owned and operated by a major Hong Kong cinema chain; prompting intimations of creeping self-censorship here in the Fragrant Harbour in general and an effective "blacking out" of films about the Umbrella Movement in particular in the wake of the controversy generated by Ten Years (which, more than incidentally, is currently topping the video charts at the local HMV).   

With a 29-year-old policy studies and administration graduate turned filmmaker as its main man, Yellowing is noticeably rawer than Evans Chan's Raise the Umbrellas as well as less comprehensive, despite having a lengthier running time (of a total that's been listed as being 128 and, alternatively, 133 minutes).  And rather than featuring interviews with notable personalities (such as Benny Tai, Joshua Wong, Martin Lee and co), this documentary of a mass movement looks at -- and hears from -- young supporters of the Umbrella Movement such as "Rachel Senior", an amazingly articulate first year University of Hong Kong law student, and "Rachel Junior", a shy but courageous 14-year-old secondary student who went to the Umbrella Movement frontlines straight from school and in her uniform.  

Fairly early on, Chan Tze Woon discovered that it'd be well nigh impossible to stay a mere observer or witness to the pro-democracy protests when he was assaulted by a uniformed policeman while filming scenes at the Occupy Mongkok site.  It says a lot that not only did he go on to shoot some 1,000 hours of "fly on the wall"-style footage in "Occupied" space over 67 days of the close-to-three-month-long acts of mass civil disobedience that occured here in Hong Kong in 2014 but that he decided to go ahead and include in Yellowing footage showing the offending cop's visage, and reaction after realizing that Chan's handheld video camera was still recording after the filmmaker had fallen to the ground.

A visceral work which captures some of the more violent moments and phases of the street protests that -- it bears reminding -- were largely free of violence, this documentary, whose Chinese title translates into English as "Memoranda of the Troubled Times", also records a substantial amount and variety of talk along with action of the non-violent kind (such as manning supply stations at Occupy Mongkok and constructing a waterproof canopy for Occupy Admiralty's "study corner").  And even while some of the conversations and solo ruminations can be on the meandering side and seem almost too light-hearted and trivial at times, they ultimately work very well at painting interesting and insightful portraits of a number of the "on the ground" ordinary citizens turned political activists, many of whom are far from being the extremist hotheads that opponents of the Umbrella Movement often accuse the protesters of being.

Although their faces were unfamiliar to me prior to my viewing the film, I often felt while watching Yellowing that I knew many of the people given a voice in it -- or, at least, knew of people like them because they are so representative of the folks that I saw, passed by, came across, etc. at the protest areas of the Umbrella Movement this time two years ago.  The idealistic student.  The pragmatic older citizen.  The individuals wise beyond their years.  The ones willing to rush into the fray.  The reluctant street protester.  The accidental activist.  Everyone of whom came together -- for at least a short but (bitter)sweet period in time -- to fight for genuine universal suffrage and a brighter future for Hong Kong. 

At one point in this work, an Umbrella Movement supporter talked about how the Lion Rock Spirit could be felt once again in the Occupy sites.  It got me thinking about how ironic it is that the pro-democracy protests have been accused by its detractors of dividing and weakening Hong Kong when the likes of me personally never felt a stronger sense of community and possibility in Hong Kong than at those Occupy sites.  Indeed, I often feel like I see the best of Hong Kong in the Umbrella Movement and its supporters, and am, at the very least, truly grateful to Yellowing for being able to show precisely that so very well.  

My rating for this film: 8.0

Monday, November 28, 2016

A day of low humidity, pleasant temperatures and high visibility that made for a hiker's delight!

Click on the above image to get a wonderful
panoramic view of Hong Kong! 

And again -- and yes, these shots were indeed taken
while hiking on Hong Kong Island :)

As I know I've shared more than once before on this blog: whenever people ask me why I continue hiking in Hong Kong even on super hot (and humid) summer days, I tell them that there usually is a very noticeable difference in visibility levels along with air quality in Hong Kong from season to season; with the summer tending to make up for the high heat and humidity with high visibility, and the winter months tending to have lower visibility levels along with temperatures

Rarely, does one get a day when the temperature, humidity and visibility levels are all on the pleasant side -- but when they do, chances are that they'll be in November, my favorite month of the year here in Hong Kong.  On such prized days, I invariably am unable to resist the urge to venture outdoors and some place close to nature.  Sometimes, the beach calls out to meOn other days, it's the hills.  

And yes, I yielded to the siren calls again this afternoon -- which is when I took the panoramic photos (taken from the top of Mount Butler and Siu Ma Shan respectively) at the top of this blog post!  And believe you me: after not having gone hiking in more than a month for a variety of reasons (including unseasonably rainy weather but also such as my having gone off to Japan for a little more than a week), it really was wonderful to get that hiker's high again today! ;b

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hakone Ropeway and from the ground views of volcanic Owakudani (Photo-essay)

One of the highlights of my visit to Hakone back in 2012 most definitely was my getting to spend some time walking about Owakudani as well as viewing the active volcanic zone -- that's home to a number of active craters, steam and sulphur vents, and bubbling pools -- from the Hakone Ropeway.  So I couldn't imagine revisiting the area when that section of it was closed off (as was the case from May 2015 -- after a small-scale eruption occured there -- through to July 26th of this year) and am happy to report that much of Owakudani is accessible once more (albeit complete with health warnings and the handing out of medicated towels to breathe into in case one's negatively affected by the sulphuric fumes).    

Looking back, I don't think I did Owakudani and ropeway (which, to my mind, is more of a cable car than the Hakone Tozan Cable Car that's actually a funicular railway) to and out of there sufficient justice.  So here's dedicating a whole photo-essay this time around to them; one cobbled from photos I took not only over two days of my recent visit but also a few of the shots that I took four years ago!

A clear view of the sulphuric Owakudani valley 
from the Hakone Ropeway in 2012

The scenic view from the ground at Owakudani,
again back in 2012

Can you believe how much smokier it was on 
my second visit to the same area four years on?! :O

And it was somewhat chilling to look up at the Tamago Tea Shop and 
that I had visited in 2012 but now are closed off to the public 

This especially when I had seen that area looking 
so much greener and fertile just four years ago

Understandably, I think, the likes of Puppet Ponyo were 
happy enough to stay close to the ropeway station that 
stands at the edge of the super deep and steamy valley!

When we went again to Owakudani the day after,
it all was pretty clear once more!

And yes, that really is Fuji-san peeking out over
Owakudani, as viewed from the Hakone Ropeway! :)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The joys of sashimi, and more, in Japan!

The first night's sashimi course at Gora-Kansuiro
The sashimi course for the second kaiseki dinner 
we had at the same Hakone ryokan
The assorted sashimi selection on my most 
On the ferry ride today to our meet-up meeting point for today's beach clean-up, I found myself sitting next to a friend who doesn't like eating sushi and another friend who revealed that while she was okay with raw fish, she doesn't particularly care to eat a lot of other raw foods that the Japanese like, including raw horsemeat but also raw eggs.  While I share the latter's distaste for raw horsemeat (and, for that matter, cooked horsemeat as well -- more for ethical than gustatory reasons though), I absolutely love eating sushi -- and, for that matter, sashimi too along with, actually, raw egg (with sukiyaki, and also poured over a bowl of rice)!
As it so happened, I didn't have any sukiyaki on my most recent Japan trip -- but I did have a bowl of rice mixed with raw egg (that I ate with incredibly deliciously fatty chunks of wagyu beef steak!) on two occasions, and either sashimi or sushi (or sometimes both!) every single day of the eight day visit!  And while some people might deem this state of affairs excessive, it definitely speaks to how much I really do like those foods but also how sashimi does seem to be a pretty integral part of many Japanese meals (especially feasts!).

More often served as a part of a meal rather than sushi, sashimi also looks to be preferred to sushi by a fair few people, including two from the group that I spent the bulk of this recent Japan trip with.  Although sushi remains my first love (and would -- I decided long ago -- be what I'd eat if I could choose what would be my last meal before I die), I also can see sashimi's allure; especially when the pieces are sliced by a skillful knife-wielder and are made up of such as toro (be it chutoro, o-toro or some other fattier grade of tuna), lobster (which we were lucky to have on our second evening at Gora-Kansuiro) or sanma (i.e., saury, which is a seasonal delicacy to be treasured in the fall).

And yes, we're talking here about raw seafood for the most part.  Though I have indeed also been served sashimi consisting of raw wagyu beef (good) and raw horsemeat (which, if truth be told, I thought tasted like wagyu!).  And here's confirming that often times in Japan, the sashimi comes with garnishes consisting of the leaf and -- less commonly and consequently even more of a treat -- flower of the shisho plant; things which may be even more exotic tasting and to eat to many people who haven't tried out that many types of Japanese food! ;b

Friday, November 25, 2016

Raise the Umbrellas is an Umbrella Movement documentary I hope many people will be able to see (film review)

Umbrella Man at Occupy Admiralty back in the fall of 2014 

Raise the Umbrellas (Hong Kong, 2016)
- Evans Chan, director and scriptwriter

After that... who knows?  But those looking for a comprehensive, considered cinematic coverage of the Hong Kong protest movement variously known as the Umbrella Movement, Umbrella Revolution, Occupy Central and Occupy Hong Kong should do what they can to view this documentary offering that captures a tremendous lot of what the likes of me saw, felt and experienced during the 79-day sit-in street protests that occured in the Big Lychee between September 26th and December 15th, 2014, and more besides.

Covering events leading up to the police letting off 87 rounds of tear gas at weapon-less protesters and consequently prompting still more people onto the streets in support of the pro-democracy activists up through to those taking place earlier this year (such as the election on September 4th of "Umbrella Soldiers" such as Nathan Law into the Legislative Council), Raising the Umbrellas also goes out of its way to include the views and voices of pro-Beijing representatives such Jasper Tsang and 689 himself along with long-term Pro-Democrats such as Emily Lau and Martin Lee, political activist "Long Hair" Leung Kwok Hung, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai, and student activists Yvonne Leung and Joshua Wong.  

And unlike 75 Days: Life, Liberty and Happiness, another feature-length Umbrella Movement documentary which I viewed last month at the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, Evans Chan's film doesn't fixate on the rare -- but cinematically more exciting -- violent clashes that took place over the course of the Umbrella Movement but, instead, takes time and effort to also cover such as the pro-environment and community-centered aspects of the street protests that I really appreciated, and also the artistic creations and communicative efforts that could be seen in the various protest areas.  

On a related note: it was great to see the contributions of the likes of entertainer-activists Denise Ho and Anthony Wong Yiu Min -- both of whom, probably not coincidentally, are the rare "out" homosexual personalities in the Canto-pop world -- being included in the picture, and their voices heard -- in song and interviews.  And on a personal note: I loved catching sight of the big Totoro cutout which had been placed near a bus stop at Admiralty -- complete with raised yellow umbrella -- in the film!

Evans Chan has talked about a shorter version of Raise the Umbrellas needing to be made for an international audience which, presumably, may feel too overwhelmed by a close to two hour documentary that's so full of details, including some that would require explanation or elaboration to be understood by those unfamiliar with the Hong Kong political scene.  I sincerely hope that this streamlined version will still manage to be multi-layered and contain those elements of the street protests that show how there really often was a spirit of "love and peace" around in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and even much maligned Mongkok.    

Among the stories told in this veritable labor of love which most resonated with me was one by a protester about how, after sleeping on the street one night, she woke up to find a blanket had been placed on her and food and drink next to her.  This is because I too have been offered food, drinks (bottled water, packets of tea, etc.) and goodwill in the Occupy areas -- and honestly feel that I often saw the very best of Hong Kongers and Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement.  Indeed, it's the hope of being able to see more of that kind of care and spirit among Hong Kongers -- and when out and about in the Big Lychee in general -- that makes me feel that here is a society that's very much worth fighting for, and one in which I feel privileged as well as happy to be able to be a part.

My rating for this film: 9.0

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A wonderful ryokan experience at Gora-Kansuiro

It's hard to over-emphasize how relaxing -- as well as 
traditionally Japanese -- it feels to stay in an "old school" ryokan :)

Puppet Ponyo ready to call it a night by
snuggling into one of the futon laid out for us

The garden of Gora-Kansuiro is just one
of the Hakone ryokan's attractions

On my very first visit to Japan some three decades ago now, I stayed at a couple of ryokan as well as a number of more Western-style business hotels.  But while I've returned to the Land of the Rising Sun more than ten times since, I didn't stay again in a traditional Japanese inn until this most recent Japan trip -- when two friends with whom I had previously had an Okinawa rendez-vous with in early 2012, my mother and I went and spent two nights and the better part of three days in beautiful Hakone.   

Back in the summer of 2012, I made my first visit to this popular resort area up in the mountains.  During that daytrip from Tokyo, I got to thinking how I'd like to return one day with my mother in tow, and for a more leisurely visit that would include an overnight stay in one of the traditional ryokan to be found in Hakone.  But it wasn't until this past May, when hanging out with a Tokyo-based friend of mine at such as Sasagin (and she told me she thought it'd be great for not only my mother and I to spend some time together in Hakone but for her and her mother to hang out with us there!), that the possibility became pretty real that we would do so.          

After some months of planning and back-and-forth emailing among various parties, and on the second day of this recent Japan visit, the four of us took the Odakyu's actually not particularly romantic "Romancecar" from Shinjuku to Hakone-Yumoto, then the slower and more toy-like Hakone Tozan Train up to the hot spring town of Gora, located 553 meters above sea level and in bucolic surroundings.  A short walk later, we were at Gora-Kansuiro, the atmospheric 14-room century-old ryokan that would be our Hakone base.

Arriving just a couple of hours or so before that evening's kaiseki dinner would be served, our party elected to spend the rest of the day at the ryokan doing such as wandering about the place (in whose grounds could be found a traditional garden whose fall foliage was a truly lovely sight), resting in the suite of washitsu (aka tatami rooms) that our party of four were very happy to make ourselves at home, and enjoying bathing in natural hot spring water (like one's expected to do at onsen).  It's not that we didn't know that there's plenty to see and do in Hakone.  But we also really wanted to ensure that we'd get a major ryokan experience that'd be relaxed and relaxing, and not rushed nor abbreviated.

Having scored the second largest set of rooms at the inn (which for some reason were priced the same as some of the smaller ones), our party of four ended up spending the bulk of our time in the spacious main room -- where we had breakfast and dinner, but also ended up sleeping (on futon laid out in a row that made it feel like we were having a slumber party, but on which we all managed to get plenty of restful shuteye).  In addition, we majorly lucked out in having the principal ryokan staffer attending to us being the very friendly Okinawan whose name sounded like "Henna" (but which I think is more probably Hina or Hana) and took quite a shine to Puppet Ponyo (so much so that she'd greet and pet Puppet Ponyo whenever she came into the room and spotted my small plushie)!

So comfortable were we made to feel at the Gora-Kansuiro that we quickly got used to clothing ourselves in yukata (which came complete with a coat to wear when feeling cold) and tabi (socks with a separation between the big toe and other toes) provided by the ryokan for much of the time that we were there.  And there surely was some wishful thinking involved in my mother not realizing until 20 minutes before we were due to check out that our time at this wonderful inn was quickly drawing to a close!

Prior to our stay at Gora-Kansuiro, I did have some worries that the ryokan experience might be too foreign, the old traditional rooms would be overly cold, there'd be too many rules and regulations to have to deal with, etc.  But all those fears proved unfounded.  And while I must admit to still not wanting to stay in a ryokan by myself and in places where I'd want to spend the bulk of the day outside the walls of my chosen accomodation, I really can see now how a ryokan stay (with one or more friends and/or loved ones) can be a truly wonderful experience -- and a traditional Japanese inn (particularly one like Gora-Kansuiro with its lovely setting, fine furnishings, friendly service and super delicious meals) can be an actual attraction and destination in and of itself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Energy drinks to drive the zzzs away in Japan!

Kimono-clad women are a common sight in Japan
-- as are people sound asleep on trains and such ;D
Maybe that's why energy drinks look 
to have become quite the rage in Tokyo! :O

While walking on urban streets in Japan, it's almost as commonplace to get handed free packets of tissues (with advertising on them for such as restaurants, clubs and other businesses) along with advertising leaflets.  On hot days and evenings, one also is quite likely to be offered free fans (that, again, have advertising on them).  
But until this most recent trip to Japan, I had never seen people handing out free cans of energy drinks on the street.  And by the same token, the first day of this recent trip to the Land of the Rising Sun marked the first time ever that I found free energy drinks -- rather than, say, complimentary bottles of mineral water -- waiting for me in my hotel fridge!
Perhaps this development should have been expected in view of Japan being famously full of hardworking salarymen (and their female counterparts) -- and also infamously full of people whose ability to fall into a deep slumber on trains and buses, in bars, on park benches and sometimes also right on the street seems second to none.  
In any event, I not only found myself being prone to nodding off on trains when in Tokyo and beyond but also feeling amazingly invigorated after sipping just a few drops of the Raizin Green Wing energy drink the first afternoon that I was back there again.  Indeed, such was the immediate and strong effect that it had on me that I became decidedly afraid of finishing a whole (small) can by myself -- and told my mother (who underwent triple bypass surgery a few years ago) to not drink more than one mouthful at a time of what I can only surmise is a super caffeinated potion! :O

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mount Fuji, fall foliage and more on my most recent Japan visit :)

Fujisan is a breathtaking sight to treasure on a Japan trip! :)
In the garden of the lovely, century-old ryokan that two friends,
my mother, Puppet Ponyo and I stayed in at Hakone
 Click on the above image to view the enlarged version of the photo 
taken from a restaurant with a lovely view of Shinjuku Gyoen 
National Garden and the surrounding built-up area
Earlier this year, I achieved a long-time wish of seeing Mount Fuji as the plane I was on made its descent to Narita International Airport.  A little more than a week ago, soon after the pilot announced that the plane my mother and I was on was about to make its descent to that same airport located approximately one and half hours of Limited Express train from Tokyo, I saw light dawning and got to thinking out loud that "This really is the land of the rising sun!"
This time around, I had to wait until the fourth day of my Japan visit to catch sight of Fujisan.  Almost needless to say, I didn't mind the wait.  After all, decades had passed between my first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun and the visit during which I finally got to truly understand what an amazing experience it is to see Japan's most sacred mountain.  
And I actually would go so far as to opine that getting to see Mount Fuji on my second rather than first visit to Hakone actually made things feel even more special since I know full well the experience of going to that scenic area and being able to enjoy it without seeing Fujisan as well as realizing how seeing the mountain's snow-covered peak really can feel like having the cherry as well as icing on a lovely cake!
Something else that added tremendous aesthetic value to this most recent trip to Japan was my getting to see lots of colorful leaves (koyo) on account of this visit taking place at the height of autumn.  Pretty much from day one of this November trip, I got to see the kind of foliage that gets me remembering why autumn (or fall, in American English) is my favorite time of the year in those parts of the world with four distinct seasons.  And you know the leaves of such as the Japanese maple tree are really beautiful when even people who live in Vermont -- like one of the two friends I met up with in Japan this time around -- go on about how pretty it all is!
Other sights that made me a majorly happy camper for much of this Japan trip included that of pretty as well as pretty delicious food (some of whose lovely aroma I often found myself appreciating).  Then there were those kawaii sights that gladden my heart, including of a certain pear fairy -- and especially when visiting its home town of Funabashi.  (To its detractors: yes, I honestly would say that I had a great time in that not super famous city in Chiba Prefecture as well as admittedly more scenic locales like Hakone, Asakusa and more this time around!) ;b

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A hike in what may well be my favorite Hong Kong country park (Photo-essay)

Many of us have heard about "runner's high".  But even though I've done my share of running (and jogging) over the course of my life, I don't think I've ever achieved it.  On the other hand, I totally would subscribe to the existence of walker's or hiker's high.  What's more, it doesn't have to involve super strenous treks but, rather, ones where one passes through scenery that causes me to pause to better appreciate it and can even take one's breath away.

I've said it before but the Tai Tam Country Park really is may well be my favorite Hong Kong country park. Yes, it doesn't have any peaks to rival those on Lantau and its countryside is not as ruggedly scenic as those of, say, Sai Kung East Country Park or Sai Kung West Country Park.  But it makes up for this with its accessibility -- and, really, what one sees on a hike from, say, Wong Nai Chung Gap to the Tai Tam Reservoirs really isn't too shabby at all! ;b

Wong Nai Chung Gap is a trail head for a historical trail
Butterfly spotting was more my thing that particular afternoon
that I went over to Wong Nai Chung Gap, however!
I could have avoided going up those steps but I actually 
opted to get some exercise in from doing so! :O
I'm willing to wager that the majority of hikers care 
about the environment -- but how many are 
willing to do their (little) bit to help it?

View of a pretty full-looking Tai Tam Upper Reservoir and 
Tai Tam Byewash Reservoir from a higher elevation
A green view that extends further into the distance to include
Tai Tam Harbour, the Redhill Peninsula, and Dragon's Back
The dam of Tai Tam Intermediate Reservoir thankfully
looks pretty solid, strong and stable!
A historic stone marker is so weatherbeaten that 
it's hard to quite make out what it is, and is there for ;S

Friday, November 11, 2016

Boo Junfeng's Apprentice is a rare humanistic prison drama with a corrections officer protagonist (film review)

Apprentice's director-scriptwriter Boo Junfeng (right) 
and main producer Raymond Phathananiviragoon (left)

Apprentice (Singapore-Germany-France-Hong Kong-Qatar, 2016)
- Boo Junfeng, director-scriptwriter
- Starring: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su
No, I'm not reviewing the American TV series starring the orange-haired businessman turned reality TV show personality turned President-elect of the United States of America.  Rather, Apprentice (without a "The" in front of it) is the sophomore feature offering of a 32-year-old Singaporean filmmaker made with funding from various sources (including Hong Kong by way of Pang Ho Cheung) that had its world premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is Singapore's nominee for the 2017 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Boo Junfeng, the impressive drama's director-scriptwriter, attended at the post-screening Q&A of his film at this year's Hong Kong Asian Film Festival along with chief producer Raymond Phathananiviragoon.  As soft-spoken as he was articulate, the distinct impression one got from observing him discussing his emotionally affecting as well as thought-provoking work was that still waters run deep.   
The same could be said of Apprentice's protagonist, a former soldier turned corrections officer who is a man of few words even while appearing to devote substantial chunks of time to serious thinking and brooding.  The audience first meets Aiman (Fir Rahman) shortly after he's transferred to Larangan Prison, the nation's highest security correctional facility that possseses housing for Death Row inmates and an execution chamber that looks to see fairly regular use.  And although his entrance interview seems run-of-the-mill, one quickly gains the sense that there's more to Aiman's decision to move there than initially meets to the eye.    

Similarly, even while it initially seems fairly normal for Aiman to be living with his elder sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad) -- rather than, say, their parents, as would be more usual for a young Singaporean single man -- there soon is revealed to be a story behind this particular domestic arrangement; and, as it so happens, that particular detail of Aiman's biography is related to his wish to work at Larangan Prison, where he catches the eye of Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), the facility's veteran chief executioner who just happens to be looking for an apprentice with sufficient steel to be able to pull the lever for the machine that sends condemned men to their deaths by hanging (the preferred method of capital punishment in Singapore -- and, for that matter, neighboring Malaysia too).
An unusual prison drama which focuses on the guards rather than guarded, Apprentice also distinguishes itself by being humanistic rather than sensationalist or even exploitative in nature.  In addition, there's a masterful quality to the filmmaking/storytelling which makes it so that even while this work's characters are painted using fairly broad brushstrokes that don't actually reveal that many details about their lives, there most certainly is enough there to hint at the inner workings of their mind and the emotions they suppress as well as feel.   
Produced on a modest budget, Apprentice is understandably a small-scale effort with a cast consisting of fewer than a dozen folks with speaking parts.  Yet pretty much every one of those actors and actresses made their time on screen really count, by creating characters that are hard to forget, with such as glances that can penetrate into your soul (including the looks that two sons of a condemned man standing outside the prison give to people passing by in a taxi) and cries that tear at your heart (by a man making the slow final walk to his execution) along with many a line of dialogue delivered with such emotion that they look to have been uttered by real-life individuals rather than mere fictional characters.
Boo Junfeng is unabashedly open about his being against the death penalty -- and it shows in Apprentice in terms of there clearly being a psychological impact and emotional toll on pretty much everyone involved in an execution.  The condemned individuals, their family members, the executioner: all of them end up suffering in one way or another.  And even while the outwardly cool Rahim tries hard to affect a "someone's got to do it, and I'm tough enough to do so" attitude and transmit that to Aiman, the fact of the matter is that, ultimately, they are human with feelings that even years of desensitizing training and experience cannot completely eliminate.    
My rating for this film: 8.5

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A less gray outlook the day after

View of Tai Mo Shan on a cloudy day 
View of mist covered Lantau mountains 
from Cheung Chau's main praya
Things feel better after a good night's sleep.  That's something I've heard more than once, and it's something that I often do think is really true.  In any case, after having managed a full complement of shut-eye last night, I'm feeling more able to live in a world in which Donald Trump is president of its most powerful nation (even while not liking the prospect one bit).  At the very least, as I told more than one friend today, we're (still) alive and should count our blessings since we do have quite a bit to be thankful for.  

Among the things I'm happy about is that my German friend (who I met over the course of a Tai Lam Country Park hike the first year that I lived in Hong Kong, and spent more than seven years in the Big Lychee before returning to her home country) is back in Hong Kong again for a two week visit, and that I've been able to spend quite a bit of time with her doing such as taking part in The Gallery Walk for Charity last week and attending the wonderful Edgar Meyer + CCOHK concert this past Tuesday evening.  And despite today being on the gray and drizzly side, we went ahead and had an enjoyable time strolling about on Cheung Chau for much of the afternoon (and having a satisfying dinner at Hong Kee -- whose signs now identify it as a regular "restaurant" rather than unusual "respaurant").
Amazingly, today's temperatures were in the 17-19 degree Celsius (around 62 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit) range; quite a bit cooler than just a couple of days ago.  Funny but true: my German friend and I got quite a bit of amusement from checking out what other people were wearing; with some folks dressing like winter is already upon us (with knee length winter coats or down jackets on) but at least one hardy soul electing to walk around in just singlet, shorts and short socks along with shoes!  (For the record: I opted for something in between -- t-shirt, cargo pants, light fleece jacket and shoes with socks rather than my usual summer sandals.)
So even if the sun wasn't shining much today, my general outlook has improved.  I tell myself that one man shouldn't ruin my day, never mind four years -- even if he is the president of a country with more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world! (And ditto with the president of a neighboring country that seems unable -- or is it more a case of being unwilling? -- to understand Hong Kongers and deal with it in a way that actually would be conducive to peace in the region.)