Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Borobudur temple compound's mysterious Candi Pawon

Central Java's Candi Pawon dates back to 
the 8th or 9th century AD 
 To this day, elaborate carved reliefs can be seen 
on this Buddhist structure's outer walls
On the second day of our first ever visit to Indonesia, my German friend and I took some time out to visit a small Buddhist temple that's part of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Borobudur temple compounds and, in fact, lines up in a straight line with the main temple complex and another temple further away from that massively impressive monument.  
In retrospect, my impression of Candi Pawon couldn't help but be impacted by my having already caught sight of the awe-inspiring Borobudur Temple located approximately 1.5-1.75 kilometers (~ 1 mile) to its west.  At the same time though, I fully realize that if I were to come across something like this example of ancient Javanese temple architecture anywhere in historical monument-poor Malaysia (or, for that matter, Hong Kong), I'd be super impressed by how it looks as well as the fact of its very existence some 1,200 years after coming into being!
Thought by some to pre-date Borobudur (whose construction is postulated to have taken place in the 8th and/or 9th century AD), Candi Pawon is a rather mysterious temple thanks in no part to there being no traces left of what had been housed in it.  Upon entering its inner space, pretty much all one can see are bare walls, though certain alcove areas and such exist to indicate that there must have been figurines or some such objects placed there at some point.    
If truth be told, the most interesting parts of this small temple -- which, nonetheless, is tall enough to tower over its far less old but also shabbier neighboring buildings (that house modest souvenir stores on one side of Candi Pawon and private homes on its other sides) -- are those sections of its external walls on which elaborate carved reliefs visually similar to those found at Borobudur remain visible.  Consequently, the greater part of the short time my German friend and I spent at the site -- which was quite a bit less than the amount of time it took for us to walk from our hotel (located within the main Borobudur temple grounds) to it, never mind back!
Still, while it admittedly disappointed visually (in comparison to Borobudur -- but heck, pretty much everything does!), the completist in me was glad to have visited this temple which some have conjectured housed Buddhist relics and/or remains; with the latter idea being related to the name it has given (since pawon means "hearth" and such spaces usually contain ashes).  And even though my German friend and I didn't follow the pilgrimage route that connected it to Candi Mendut -- which we had passed by on the way to Borobudur on day one and checked out on the way out the next day -- as well as the main Borobudur temple itself, at least we did end up spending time in each of the three of its main stops. 
At the same time, I doubt that many other visitors to the area have this completist tendency; this not least since a good bulk of the Indonesians I met at the main Borobudur temple were only in the area for a few hours and my sense too is that the vast majority of foreign tourists take day trips from Yogyakarta (some 40 kilometers away) to Borobudur.  Consequently, I would not have be surprised at all to learn that my German friend and I had been the Candi Pawon's first visitors that day, and maybe even that week or for the entire month! ;b    

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Lunching on fresh seafood at Kampung Pulau Betong, Penang

A fisherman bringing home his catch

Sorted catch for sale and catch being sorted

From boat to stall to table in a matter of minutes!

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Penang to meet up with my German friend -- with whom I was going to head over to Indonesia as well as spend some time in home state.  On her first full day in Penang, we joined my mother and a group of friends in heading over to Kampung Pulau Betong for a seafood lunch at an eating spot which I had expected to be Malay -- because the friend of my mother who had proposed going there is of that ethnicity -- but turned out to be operated by ethnic Chinese.

In addition to the Jin Siang Cafe's ownership's ethnicity being a surprise, I must admit to being unprepared for the food turning out to be so tasty; with the fish curry being my favorite of the many dishes we ordered along with that of a large (unpictured) plate of flower crab.  It's not that the decor of the eatery is on the "no frills" side.  Rather, it's also that I've seen noticeably better -- and fresher -- looking fish and other sea creatures on sale at Hong Kong wet markets such as those over in Shau Kei Wan and Causeway Bay's Bowrington Road.

In addition, it's true enough that both my German friend and I were somewhat put off by how muddy brown the water of the river by Jin Siang Cafe was.  Indeed, it was only after my mother hastened to assure us that the catch we'd be consuming had been caught in fishing grounds out in the Malacca Straits rather than the river flowing through Kampung Pulau Betong that we consented to join her and her friends in what proved to be quite the culinary feast!

Over lunch, I got to reflecting how it was that those of our party who've spent the bulk -- if not all -- of their lives in Penang were perfectly comfortable dining at the Jin Siang Cafe whereas those of us used to less basic and, well, more hygienic conditions might have opted against doing so if we hadn't been with the company that we were.  Still, the fact of the matter is that none of us had upset stomachs post-lunch as well as did find what was served up (including fish cooked a number of ways along with dishes of prawns, crabs and the kind of shellfish I know only by the Malaysian name of lala) to be pretty delicious!  

For those who're wondering: whenever I've dined with friends who are Muslim, seafood has been a good dining option at eateries that are not operated by Muslims.  Indeed, whenever a Singaporean Muslim friend of mine and I meet up in Hong Kong (where the meat of choice of the majority of the population is pork), we almost always head over to a Japanese restaurant for sushi

So, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been so surprised that my mother's Malay friend would lead us to eat at an ethnic Chinese seafood restaurant at Kampung Pulau Betong.  If truth be told, I was disappointed at first when I found out that was the case as I had been looking forward to dining on some yummy ikan bakar for lunch that day... ;S

Monday, May 29, 2017

Back from Malaysia, and Indonesia too! :)

One of a number of panoramic pictures I snapped of a UNESCO
(And yes, you can click on it to view an enlarged version of the pic!)

 Panoramic shot of one of the similarly UNESCO World Heritage-listed 
Prambanan's lesser -- I kid you not -- temples!

It's not UNESCO World Heritage-listed but this cave temple 
in Malaysia left me in awe also... 

As long-time visitors to this blog often realize, whenever I go on blogging hiatus for a time, it usually means that I'm off visiting a foreign land (or more).  This time around, I was back in Penang for part of my longest spell out of Hong Kong in more than a year and a half (i.e., when I spent both Christmas 2014 and New Year 2015 in the Netherlands) but I also paid my first visit in years to Kuala Kangsar and Ipoh  -- and, most excitingly, set foot for the first time ever in the neighboring country of Indonesia!  

In the world's largest Muslim country, I visited an ancient Buddhist monument (Borobudur) which I first heard about as a school student, another ancient religious site (Prambanan) whose existence I only learnt about a few years ago and, for good measure, the city (Yogyakarta) which has been described as the cultural capital, heart and soul of Java -- maybe even all of Indonesia.  Suffice to say that I took hundreds of photos during the six days or so that I was there, particularly at Borobudur, and intend to share some of them by way of this blog.

For now, here's offering up one panoramic photo each taken at Borobudur and Prambanan (which I hope will give you a good sense of how wondrous those sites are, especially when viewed in enlarged formats).  In addition, as unlikely as it may seem, I visited three cave temples located on the outskirts of Ipoh for the first time ever on this trip -- and at least two of them really did leave me awestruck at how wondrous they are.  So here's giving fair "warning" that I am planning a number of Malaysia as well as Indonesia-centric blog posts over the next week or so before returning to regular Hong Kong-centric "programming" at some point! ;b 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

One famous Hong Kong New Wave movie and another that's criminally less well known (film reviews)

Be they new or old, they're Hong Kong waves... ;)
The Extras (Hong Kong, 1978)
- Yim Ho, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Philip Chan and Ronny Yu)
- Starring: James Yi, Kenneth Tsang, Terry Lau
On the same day as I caught a screening of Leong Po Chih and Josephine Siao Fong Fong's entertaining Jumping Ash early last month, I also viewed the film that's often credited as marking the beginning of the Hong Kong New Wave.  Considerably lighter in tone than many of that seminal movement's representatives, Yim Ho's The Extras is actually a rare comedy by a director whose cinematic works (including 1984's Homecoming (the winner of six Hong Kong Film Awards) and 1990's Red Dust (the winner of eight Golden Horse awards)) tend to be on the serious side.
Often frenetic to the point of feeling ridiculously chaotic, Yim Ho's feature film debut revolves around Hakky Ho (James Yi), whose dark skin tone is referenced in his name (hak means "black" in Cantonese; and he actually gets referred to as hak gwei (black ghost) in the dialogue) but Cantonese abilities makes it so that he's pretty much accepted by everyone concerned as a native Hong Konger.  An aspiring actor who dreams of becoming a movie star, he manages to get a womanizing luminary (Kenneth Tsang) given to having flings behind the back of his producer wife (Idy Chan) to help him gain entry into the movie industry, albeit as a lowly extra who often gets landed with what appear to be some of the worst parts in filmdom. 
The villain who gets shot multiple times and then falls to his death?  The hapless cop who gets (nearly) drowned by an angry villager?  The martial artist who bites the head off a live snake?  Those are some part of the roles Hakky Ho gets assigned.  Worse, he invariably ends up botching the part so that disaster ensues in a farcically entertaining way (though he at least does manage to attract the attention and affections of a winsome starlet (Terry Lau is female despite having a masculine sounding first name))!

Years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, I passed up the chance to check out a VHS copy of The Extras that was available for rental at the Chinatown video store I went to regularly.  In retrospect, I really wish I had done so; not least because I have a feeling that the version of the film I viewed at the Hong Kong Film Archive (and which the facility has stated is its sole copy) may not be complete.  
Put another way: Even while Yim Ho has described his directorial debut as "an experiment", I find it hard to believe that a London Film School graduate would produce an offering so poorly edited; and this especially since, even with some story segues feeling nonsensical because sections of the movie were too "jumpy", this is a work which still manages to entertain quite a bit!
My rating for the film (in the condition I saw it): 6.0
The Servant (Hong Kong, 1979)
- Ronny Yu and Philip Chan, directors and co-scriptwriters (with Joyce Chan and William Ho)
- Starring: Paul Chu Kong, Michael Chan, Terry Hu, Philip Chan, Melvin Wong

Unlike Jumping Ash and The Extras, I had not heard of this other Hong Kong New Wave movie that I recently viewed courtesy of the Hong Kong Film Archive's Revisiting the New Wave screening program.  Or maybe I had -- since, among other things, I'm fairly familiar with its directors' filmography (and have even met and interviewed one of them) -- but then promptly forgotten about The Servant because its title is so, well, generic.  
While its title gets one thinking it'll be along the lines of The Help (or 1963 British movie The Servant), this Ronny Yu and Philip Chan film is actually a crime drama-thriller focusing on two very different cops and pitting them against two very different killers.  Inspector Chow (Paul Chu Kong) is a by-the-book policeman who lives at home with his mother and sister while Inspector Pang (co-director and -scriptwriter Philip Chan) is a rakish fellow who's been known to take bribes to help him compensate for his losses at gaming tables in Macau.  Friends despite their personality differences, they also are tasked with overseeing security at the local international airport (Kai Tak, since this film was made close to two decades before Chek Lap Kok would come into being!). 
Despite being behind bars, a crime boss (Nick Lam) continues to scheme to enrich himself and get people to do his bidding.  Seeking to effect a jewel heist at the airport, he dispatches a tough hatchetman (the ever menacing Michael Chan) to find ways to get Inspector Chow as well as Inspector Pang to effectively turn a blind eye and allow his people to get away with their lucrative haul.  Also brought onto the criminal team is a bomb expert (Melvin Wong) whose dashing demeanor belies his deadliness.
Its main characters may be broadly drawn but the character actors who play them do it so well that they end up feeling quite distinct and very interesting to watch as they go about their business.  Also, while The Servant's general storyline can seem fairly straightforward, the movie possesses rich detail and intriguing depictions of such as what appeared to be acceptable police tactics in the day along with interactions showing what happens when formal strictures and less rigid inclinations clash which, collectively, make it a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
In contrast to The Extras, this is a film whose editing is absolutely top notch (and the fact that Wong Yee Shun's credits include Yim Ho's 1978 effort as well as Hong Kong movie classics such as Story of a Discharged Prisoner, The Spooky Bunch and Chicken and Duck Talk make me even more convinced that there's a better version of The Extras that was made than what I got to see last month).  Among other things, The Servant has suspenseful scenes that are seriously tense, comedy scenes that are creatively framed, and action scenes that are taut and thrilling.  Best of all, it's the kind of movie is able to still feel like a fun rollercoaster ride even while also noticeably reflecting its time and age.   

My rating for this film: 7.5

Friday, May 12, 2017

Health is important, and exercise is good!

Totally agree with what's printed on the bag!

A man who believes in exercise, and probably also 
would second the sentiment that "health is important" 

Back when I was living in Philadelphia, I knew a woman who took pride in sleeping only three or four hours a night a la Margaret Thatcher.  After I learnt that she had suffered a nervous breakdown, I got to strongly suspecting that that lack of nightly sleep probably contributed to the weakening of her psychological state to such as an extent that she hallucinated that one of her employees was going to break into her apartment to try to kill her.

In a similar vein: when I read a couple of days ago that Donald Trump thinks that exercise is bad, and may even kill, I got to thinking that this might help explain his possessing what appears to be an unbalanced state of mind as well as pretty poor judgement and suspect intelligence.  And this all the more so since, unlike a couple of friends who claim to not exercise but at least actually regularly walk around a bit (at the very least), I think that the orange wigged one was actually serious in stating his negative views about exercise!

While I'd not say that I'm a fitness freak, I've pretty much always enjoyed playing sports from young.  Over the years, I've tried my hand at a variety of them (including badminton, tennis, squash, netball, handball, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse and soccer).  And while I haven't played the majority of those sports in years, I've become quite the avid hiker since moving to Hong Kong and have also taken to going bicycling every once in a while too.  And then there's the fact of my going about on foot -- not just taking public transportation -- quite a bit here in the urban areas of Big Lychee too.

Every once in a while when out hiking, the friend(s) I'm with and I will spot some senior citizens along the trail.  A lot of them seem pretty fit, and also pretty happy; and the sight of them often cause my friend(s) and I to sigh and hope aloud that when we get to that age, we'd be as healthy as those inspiring individuals.

Similarly, almost every time that my mother is in town, we'll see some hale and hearty senior citizen strolling briskly about or out exercising in a park or such like, making use of the exercise equipment found in those public spaces, doing tai chi or something else altogether -- and feel inspired by those folks.  Those spry fellows may not hold high positions like that of President of the United States of America -- but I wouldn't be surprised if they're not only physically healthier but also quite a bit wiser than that office's present incumbent!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Tai Lam Country Park hike whose trailhead is by the Tai Lam Chung Reservoir's dam (Photo-essay)

Every so often when out hiking in Hong Kong, one will pass by a correctional facility.  Even more surreal is the experience of walking past a prison guard post to get to a trailhead.  But that's indeed what one does when embarking on a Tai Lam Country Park hike by way of an entry way near the dam of Tai Lam Chung Reservoir

There are times when I wonder whether the inmates at the nearby prisons (there actually are two -- one for men, another for women) have any inkling of how close they are to areas of substantial greenery and scenic beauty.  Maybe it's for the best that they don't; otherwise, they might get frustrated at it being a case of "so near, yet so far" on top of the realization of their not free for a time to venture wherever they wish... :S

Here's guessing that those buildings are part of the 
minimum security Tai Lam Correctional Institution rather than 
the maximum security Tai Lam Centre for Women nearby... :S
The much thicker walled dam of Tai Lam Chung Reservoir
A view from the dam of the reserovir that has been 
nicknamed "Thousand Island Lake" by some hikers 
The dam's far in the distance at this point but we still were
far closer to the hike start than end! ;b

One of the waterfalls transporting water into the reservoir
A very dead and dessicated snake spotted along the way ;S
Pretty butterfly and similarly pretty lichen?
 One last view of Tai Lam Chung Reservoir -- and this time,
its dam is so far away, it's no longer visible! :)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Shock Wave is designed to shock and awe, and does so! (film review)

You'll likely think of, and view, the Cross Harbour Tunnel
in a different light post viewing Shock Wave...

Shock Wave (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017) 
- Herman Yau, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Erica Li)
- Starring: Andy Lau, Jiang Wu, Song Jia, Philip Keung 

Eight days after Herman Yau's 77 Heartbreaks and three days after the prolific Hong Kong filmmaker's The Sleep Curse screened at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, his third directorial outing of 2017 -- and third collaboration of the year with scriptwriter Erica Li, as it so happens -- opened in local cinemas.  When pondering why Shock Wave was not selected to appear in the fest along with those two other movies, I considered the possibility that the fest programmers had thought its quality was lower than the films that had made the cut.  

But after viewing this dynamite blockbuster, I'm inclined to believe that the reasoning behind this decision was more along the lines of the HKIFF programmers thinking that it was a mainstream crowdpleaser that would have no problem finding audiences at the multiplex (unlike the more niche likes of the Category III-rated The Sleep Curse).  For there surely is no way that anyone would consider Shock Wave to be a lesser work than the director's two other 2017 offerings.  And for the record: I also think this crime action-thriller is better than Nessun Dorma and at least on par with The Mobfathers, the two Herman Yau films that premiered at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival!

Produced by and starring entertainment mega-luminary Andy Lau, Shock Wave tells the story of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau (EOD) legend who makes a deadly enemy of a Mainland Chinese master criminal after the latter's kid brother is nabbed in a police operation that involved the protagonist going undercover to infiltrate the gang (and, in Peng Hong's eyes, betray them).  Superintendent Cheung (Andy Lau) regularly faces far more danger while doing his job than most other cops.  But he -- and, indeed, the entire Hong Kong police force -- are tested like never before after the vengeful Peng Hong (Jiang Wu) plots to have his brother (Wang Ziji) freed by way of an ambitious operation that involves blocking the Cross Harbour Tunnel and possibly even blowing it up.

There's little doubting that Shock Wave is first and foremost intended to shock and awe in an entertaining way.  This it does in spades, aided by having some absolutely stunning action scenes (directed by Dion Lam, with car stunts supervised by Thomson Ng) and also impressive set design (courtesy of art director Eric Lam and his team) that included producing a very realistic mock-up of the Cross Harbour Tunnel (which I only knew was not the real McCoy because there is no way that the world's busiest underwater thoroughfare could be shut down for the amount of time that it'd be needed to shoot the film's Cross Harbour Tunnel scenes!).  

But it's also interesting to reflect on some of the thinking behind certain story choices.  For example, at a time when the Hong Kong police are no longer automatically regarded as sympathetic heroes, Herman Yau and Andy Lau have chosen -- and managed -- to make a film where few people will have problems or trouble rooting, and even caring, for certain members of the local constabulary, if not the Hong Kong police as a whole.  And this feat is all the more amazing in view of there not having been that much time to get to really know certain individuals -- such as the dedicated Regional Crime Unit chief inspector (portrayed by Philip Keung) who often works closely with Superintendent Cheung and the young police officer (essayed by Babyjohn Choi) who is able to do his duty even when obviously terrified as well as in grave danger -- on account of this movie being super heavy on the explosive action.

It's intriguing too that the villains of the piece are precisely the kind of people that many Hong Kongers are inclined to not think all that well of: namely, Mainland Chinese individuals seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of Hong Kongers along with obviously non-ethnic Chinese mercenaries (who Peng Hong had enlisted to take part in his ultra-ambitious revenge operation), and the kind of slimy local businessman who is as financially wealthy as he is morally bankrupt.  I guess this all particularly stood out for me since, in pretty stark contrast, the regular Hong Kong folks -- not just its constabulary -- come across as filled with humanity, including the nice tour guide (played by Louis Cheung) who actually cared about the people he'd been entrusted with showing around his fair city! 
Nonetheless, there are certain expected filmic concessions to be made on account of Shock Wave being a Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese co-production: including the obligatory Mainland Chinese female lead since the movie's male lead is from Hong Kong.  About the best thing I can say about Song Jia is that she does exhibit some chemistry with Andy Lau when playing his character's (Canadian Chinese) girlfriend.  At the same time, I wish those who had dubbed her, Jiang Wu and Wang Ziji into Cantonese had worked made it less obvious that we were not hearing their real voices; and it's hoped that those who dubbed Andy Lau and his Cantonese-speaking cohorts for the Putonghua version of the the movie did a better job.   
My rating for this film: 7.5

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Kennedy Town hillside backstreet with a secret association ;)

A part of Hong Kong related to a famous secret... ;)
Buildings on this Kennedy Town terrace look so much
nicer than the ones that figured in Ann Hui's The Secret!

Not the most obvious place to be a movie location, right? :)
A friend and I were talking some time back about a self-professed fellow Hong Kong movie fan who, soon after moving to the Big Lychee, felt the magic die.  One noticeable way which we could see it happen was his no longer getting all that excited about spotting a Hong Kong movie location while moving about the city -- whereas for my friend and I, it still can feel really neat to come across a place we recognize from it having been featured in a movie (or, actually more usually these days, seeing a place we know appearing as a setting in a film scene).
Conversely, one of the saddest things about living in Hong Kong for me is how many classic Hong Kong movie locations no longer exist -- and disappeared long before I had a chance to visit them.  I think here of such as the tea house in Hard Boiled and the California bar-nightclub that featured in both Chungking Express and Royal Warriors.  And I'm so grateful that I did manage to check out (and even eat food from) the Midnight Express eatery that so prominently figured as a location in Chungking Express before it, too, became no more.
Then there are the locations that I wish I could identify but haven't yet been able to do so because they can appear rather generic -- or have changed so much over the years.  And while there's indeed a part of me that wishes that more locales could look pretty much unchanged from how they appeared in the film, it also can be nice to see them actually looking physically improved from previously -- rather than desolate, like the Cheung Chau cinema which figured so prominently in Just One Look.  
Such is the case with a Kennedy Town hillside backstreet that looked to be full of shabby tenements in The Secret, Ann Hui's Hong Kong New Wave classic film which was originally released in cinemas in 1979 (and has recently been restored and was screened a few months ago at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre), but now appears like it'd be a pretty nice street to live on.  Not only that but, upon further investigation, I got to realizing that that very street actually also is home to the very cool Lo Pan Temple (with its photogenic roof) -- and that when I visited the area a couple of years ago, I thought it to be pleasantly picturesque!  
On my latest visit to Ching Lin Terrace (which I recognized only because of the road sign that I saw in the film is still there on a corner of this backstreet!), I got to laughing at how unlikely a location for a horror movie it now looks, at least during the day, and wondering how many of the area residents know of its movie connection -- and, indeed, how many of them care.  And yes, I admit it: part of me would love to live in a place which has been a movie location -- though it's also true enough that a director friend has told me never to allow my apartment to be used for movie shooting as chances are that the film crew will end up trashing the place! ;b

Monday, May 8, 2017

The prominence of roast pig in Hong Kong (traditions)

Feasting on roast pig post blessing ceremony!
A number of delectable piggies got wheeled around 
on the streets of Shau Kei Wan during 
Around lunch time today, I passed by a group of people chomping on chunks of siu yoke (Chinese roasted pork) while standing on the side of the street, in front of a construction site.  Curious, I peeked in and saw that a roast pig cutting ceremony had taken place there -- and that plates of delicious looking siu yoke had been handed out to a bunch of people, including workers (still) wearing hard hats as they ate their food!  
Part of me wanted to walk in and ask if I could get a plate of that roast meat too.  But I felt like I had already acted unusually in some people's eyes by stopping to take photos of what was a normal part of Hong Kong life, so knew better than to confirm my serious weirdness to them!  Instead, I moved along, albeit with a big smile on my face -- since I do get satisfaction from seeing that the Big Lychee is a place where the traditional really still can exist along with modern practices and trend-fixated tendencies.   
In addition, I get a kick out of pig symbolizing good luck and plenty in this part of the world and  roasted pigs often being part of religious and cultural ceremonies as a result.  Think about it: how cool is it that eating a delicious food can have religious and cultural significance?  And then there's also the frankly pretty amusing realization (for the likes of me at least) that it's par for the course here in Hong Kong for whole roasted pigs to be wheeled about as part of annual birthday parade for a Taoist god that also features such as lion, dragon and unicorn dances! ;b 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Highlights of a Hong Kong Island hike with three very cool lizard spottings :)

Not a creature one expects to come across 
while hiking on Hong Kong Island! :O
A Chinese water dragon in the wilds of Hong Kong! 
Two days after spotting five skinks (and two pairs of randy insects) on Section 7 of the Hong Kong Trail, I went hiking with another friend from Victoria Gap down to Aberdeen.  As I was applying sunscreen by the entrance to Pok Fu Lam Country Park, I noticed something moving about quickly from the corner of my eye and managed to catch sight -- though not snap a picture -- of a blue-tailed skink hanging out in a section of The Peak where I previously had spotted another member of the same species before it vanished from sight.  
A couple of summers back, it seemed like every other hike would yield glimpses of at least one stick insect.  And I'm now wondering whether the summer of 2017 (and yes, it's starting to feel like summer has arrived or will do so very soon) will go down in my memory as the skink summer; though, actually, based on today's hike, it may well be a banner season for lizard spotting -- as the beautiful blue-tailed skink ended up being the least exciting of the lizards that today's hiking buddy and I managed to catch sight of this afternoon!
By far the most astounding of the creatures we spotted on today's hike has to be the first ever Chinese water dragon I've seen in the wild.  (I had seen a representative member of the species on display behind glass at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden some time back but I truly never ever imagined that I'd come across this large green lizard living wild in Hong Kong.  And, of course, my managing to snap photos of the critter (pictured at the top of this blog post) pretty much made my day right there and then!)
While I wish I had spotted it first, I have to give credit to my hiking buddy with having done that and then generously calling me over to get a good look of the Chinese water dragon for myself.  As luck would have it, as we were admiring the critter, a knowledgeable Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department officer happened to ride up the path on his motorcycle and identify the creature for us, and also tell me, almost unbelievably, that the large lizard in front of us was actually a baby and could grow considerably larger!
As if all this wasn't enough, we came across yet another lizard towards the end of our hike.  And yes, I've seen changeable lizards before but I got another first in that this was the first representative of the species that my friend and I both saw changing color -- or rather shades -- in front of our very eyes; with its neck region going from a bright to noticeably paler orange within a matter of seconds!  As my friend remarked: nature really is pretty incredible.  And it really can seem like we get proof and reconfirmation of this fact again and again while out hiking in Hong Kong! :)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Clash's picture of a bitterly divided society is one that people in too many parts of the world can relate to (film review)

Looking forward already to next year's edition
of the Hong Kong International Film Festival!

Clash (Egypt-France, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Global Vision program
- Mohamed Diab, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Khaled Diab)
- Starring: Nelly Karim, Hani Adel, Mai El Ghaity 

One and a half weeks after the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival drew to a close, its opening film is already playing in local cinemas.  And while a number of other HKIFF entries (including The Sleep Curse and Personal Shopper) are scheduled to follow Love Off the Cuff into Hong Kong multiplexes, that won't be the case with any of the three offerings from the African continent that I saw at the this year's fest.

Although I can see that Mimosas might seem too art house to play in a commercial theater and Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy's subject matter would seem too far removed for most Hong Kongers to care about, I actually think that Egypt's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee would resonate with certain sectors of local society.  In addition, director Mohamed Diab and his crew (chiefly cinematographer Ahmed Gabr, stunt coordinator Andrew McKenzie and editor Ahmed Hafez) deliver a technical masterclass -- involving both the impressive staging and shooting of much action in a small space, and incredible riot scenes that I had trouble believing were not real -- that most any filmmaker, especially those with limited budgets, surely would love to be able to emulate, if not replicate.

Set a couple of years after the Arab Spring, Clash shows a country that continues to be in turmoil and deeply divided between clashing factions of society whose members passionately believe that their side is in the right and will (eventually) prevail.  With military rule in effect, it's hard for foreign onlookers to discern if the uniformed men charged with upholding order in the streets are from the army or police.  And it seems just as difficult for those soldier types to distinguish whether someone is a bona fide journalist or foreign spy, and between friend and foe.  

Thus it came to be that, in short order, an Egyptian-American Associated Press journalist (Hani Adel) and his photographer (Mohamed El Sebaey), pro-military demonstrators (including a head-covering-less female nurse (Nelly Karim), her husband and teenaged son) and members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (including a modestly attired 14-year-old girl-woman (Mai El Ghaity) and her frail-looking father) all get locked up inside an 8-square-meter police truck whose barred windows are open enough to give people glimpses of what's happening outside but, especially in the hotter parts of the day, threaten to not be able to let in enough air for everyone stuck inside the truck to breathe.  

While it's difficult to remember all their names, it's amazing how distinct many of the characters stuck in that police truck do end up being; and how they collectively come to represent a diverse as well as vivid portrait of Egyptian society capable of emotionally bonding over certain things one minute but also clashing aggressively over something else the next (and vice versa).  As expected, political, religious and gender differences rear their heads.  But further layers of complexity are added to the picture when such as a normally privileged resident from a gated community and a homeless man are placed in the same small space, and an American-born ethnic Egyptian who tells of his late father's love-hate relationship with his native land sees that the listening Egyptians clearly can relate with those mixed feelings.  

Among the tragedies that Clash lays bare is how it is that divergent political views can tear families apart and that the road to what looks to be a hell on earth can be paved with idealism and good intentions.  As for whether the film is in effect a cautionary tale against political rebellion and revolution: there are those who will come away from a viewing of it feeling that “I never want my country/city/etc. to descend to this type of political chaos and insanity”; but I think it may well be the case that there are others who will optimistically decide that "it's darkest before dawn" and that out of chaos and clashes will eventually come a better tomorrow.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Friday, May 5, 2017

Diverse wildlife which caught the eye along a quiet section of the Hong Kong Trail :)

One of five different skinks spotted while out hiking today!
The first pair of randy bugs seen going at it on the same hike ;b
Different insects, similar inclinations 
now that it's that time of the year! :D
If you told me before today's hike that I'd be snapping as many photos during it as I ended up doing, I'd have been very much surprised.  For one thing, I've previously been on Stage 7 of the Hong Kong Trail a few times before this afternoon.  For another, the trail is scenic enough but still not as spectacularly so as, say, the Nei Lak Shan Country Trail or Section 3 of the Maclehose Trail (be it its first half or second).  

Then there was the fact of today not being a particularly high visibility day (though it was markedly less dark, gray and wet than yesterday, where not only did it rain quite heavily but the storm clouds that gathered in the morning made 9am, 10am, 11am and even noon look more like night than day).  And last but not least is it having been so that on previous hikes in the area, I hadn't come across all that many wild creatures, never mind particularly eye-catching (acting) ones as was the case this afternoon!
It wasn't just that the friend I was with and I spotted many colorful varieties of butterflies and dragonflies on today's hike.  Instead, we also spotted five different skinks within just a few hours; the most since the Tai Po Kau hike I went on with another friend close to six years back where we actually spotted more than 10 of these cool looking creatures -- and, unlike today, different species of this interesting reptile which can visually resemble a snake with legs too!
Normally, those skink spottings would be the highlight of a hike.  But this afternoon, I also came across not just one but two pairs of insects doing what comes naturally to many animals at this time of the year.  And what's even more unusual was that both the dragonflies and butterflies in questions were flying about in midair when joined together as well as inclined to take up more regular and stationary positions on a twig or atop some leaves!  

Another unexpected action on the part of one of the mating butterflies was that as it went about its business, it'd also occasionally open its wings for a second or two.  Indeed, if memory serves me right, that's the first time I've seen that happen -- and, well, I've seen quite a few pairs of randy butterflies (and, for that matter, moths too) while out hiking in Hong Kong!

More than incidentally, today's outing was my final one with the friend who has been my regular weekday hiking buddy for the past couple of years or so as she's headed back to the US on Monday.  Over the years, I've made a number of good friends and cemented solid friendships while hiking in Hong Kong; and I hope that, like three good friends and fellow hikers who left Hong Kong before her (to return to Singapore, Canada and Germany, respectively), we'll meet -- and maybe even go hiking -- again some time in the future; and if not in Hong Kong, then somewhere else in this world that sometimes can feel way too big but at other times can feel pretty small indeed.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mr. Long entertains and also warms the heart (film review)

Filmmaker Sabu and an (over-)animated translator at the
Hong Kong International Film Festival screening of his latest film ;b

Mr. Long (Japan-Taiwan-Hong Kong, 2017)
- Showing as part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Sabu, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Chang Chen, Bai Run Yin, Yao Yi Ti

What do you do if you're a filmmaker and you want a charismatic star who can't speak your native language to be in your movie?  If you're Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao Hsien, you cast Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a mute man in City of Sadness.  And if you're Japanese director-scriptwriter Sabu, you come up with a story where Taiwanese actor Chang Chen can have the leading role as a Taiwanese hitman who doesn't like to talk much and ends up spending time in an out of the way Japanese community with colorful characters who fall in love with his cooking!

With well-shot violent action segments, delicious food scenes and sweetly romantic moments, Mr. Long appears on one level to be the sort of movie that would be at home in a regular multiplex.  But the thoroughly creative way in which its story is put together, and confident and bravura filmmaking along with its extreme mood swings ensured that this cinematic offering would have a rapturous reception at its Asian premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival early last week.

Chang Chen mesmerizes as the titular character from the very first moment that he appears in Mr. Long until the very last in the film.  Early on, Taiwanese professional assassin Mr. Long shows how fatal he can be with the six-inch knife that's his weapon of choice.  But an attempted hit in Tokyo doesn't go according to plan and he quickly ends up becoming the prey rather than the hunter, holing himself up in the abandoned section of a small Japanese town where, it seems, neighborliness is the order of the day and strangers, even those who can't speak the local language, are welcome if they do such as reveal -- as Mr. Long does -- a talent for cooking, sometimes even with very humble ingredients.

In addition to having the good fortune to encounter generous-hearted Japanese townspeople who, without much ado, decide to help him to set up a yatai (food cart) serving up Taiwanese beef noodles, Long San (as he's referred to by the Japanese) also is befriended by a young boy named Jun (Bai Run Yin) who, helpfully, turns out to be able to speak Mandarin as well as Japanese courtesy of his having a Taiwanese mother and Japanese father.  Initially, all this comes across as disconcertingly improbable.  But as bitter elements are revealed to exist in the overall tale, this (re)viewer came to treasure the sweet moments that help balance things (along with the bursts of physical action that similarly complement Long San's otherwise generally still disposition).    

By far the most tragic figure in Mr. Long is Jun's mother, Lily (Yao Yi Ti).  A junkie when she first appears in the film, the audience also learns in flashbacks of such as her ill-fated love affair with Jun's father, Kenji (Sho Aoyogi), who, turns out to have a connection to the yakuza now looking for Long San.  Doing what she can to raise their son (including sell her body to unsavory individuals), Lily's care for Jun comes to feel quite heroic.        

Still, there's little doubt who the main hero of this movie is.  And while both Mr. Long the film and character may seem like it takes a while to get going or even truly find its way, chances are that audiences be won over by both the film and titular character way before things draw to a heart-warmingly satisfying close. 

My rating for the film: 8.0