26 January 2007

The Tempest Retold พายุพิโรธ

This evening I just had a chance to watch a remake of Shakespeare's The Tempest or Payu Pirote at the Faculty of Arts Theatre in Building 4. It's the last one before the building is demolished to make way for a new state-of-the-art faculty building where there will be a new theatre, a jazz lounge, three swimming pools, a helicopter pad ... oops sorry I got too carried away!

The play was well-performed by a good cast. Though they're young, I was rather surprised at their ability to memorise those difficult, lengthy poetical lines of the Bard. (This sadly also means that I'm getting old and such a kind of memory is something I really long for.) Of course the verse has been translated into beautiful Thai, but I do wonder whether it would've been easier in English. Well, call be a snob but at some points in the play the profusion of beautiful Thai verse was a bit too fast and overwhelming. Maybe I was too used to cheap Thai soap opera and basically am in need of high-quality performance once in a while to cleanse my eyes and ears of filthy things they emit nowadays out of Thai television.

The setting was marvellous and I did love the fact that they did play with the concept of space. I sat by the side of the theatre and was able to be close to some characters. The room at the back became another part of the set, thus making the audience feel like they're stranded like the cast. I quite liked this philosophy and somehow felt like I was in a 3-D cinema where they had all sorts of equipments, like water spurting out and cold breeze blowing behind, to make you feel like you were actually in the scene where all this happened. (Mat and I went to a cinema of this kind once -- it was in the Paragon, next to the aquarium).

I really liked the guy who played Caliban. Whenever he appeared on stage, his witty and natural performance eclipsed other characters around him, even Prospero, who seemed a bit too stern and, with his sleeves a bit too long, looked more like a boy band singer than an island entrepreneur. But don't take me wrong -- I DO admire Prospero, his perfect memory, and his powerful voice, all these making him a rising star in future Thai theatre. But, to my opinion, it seemed like the guy who played Caliban looked like he was born for the role and his funny action didn't look forced at all.

The costumes were also good and pretty experimental. I loved Ariel's costume with inset lights. I really liked it when the whole theatre was dark and all I saw was just these lights from her costume, making me feel like I was at the bottom of the ocean. So hauntingly beautiful and scary at the same time!

The end of the play did drive home those messages the Bard tries to get across. Maybe what we need now is forgiveness and for Prospero it is a magnificent act. I didn't have trouble understanding this when I first read the play a long while ago. But watching the play once again this evening made me doubt. How could Shakespeare make Prospero change his mind so quickly it did make The Tempest a bit of an escape? Or maybe I've become too pessimistic to believe that people could reach such a state of epiphany and become benevolent? Or maybe I'm not that old enough to understand such act of kindness? Or maybe I'm just too evil? I think the last one is right ... :)

Anyway, that's nothing to do with the play. It's just my own reflections upon what the Bard tries to get at. The remake itself was overall beautifully rendered and those who appreciate the Bard's work shouldn't miss it at all, as the beautiful Thai translation of the verse has kept all these artistic merits intact. The music also complemented all this nicely. A thumb up from me! (But who am I to give this sort of opinion? This is clearly a gesture of a man who is so sure of himself and think of himself as an important critic. So I'd better put my thumb back and become humble once again ...)

For more details of the play, visit their official website.

14 January 2007

Utopia: Nowhere Or Now Here? ยูโทเปียในซอกเล็บ

Utopia under the Nail (or Utopia nai sok leb in Thai) is a collection of eleven short stories by a relatively new author, Mud Sudphathai. It might strike someone as weird to write its review roughly almost three years after the book was published. But I just got the book yesterday when I had a chance to go to the TBT (Thailand Book Tower). The other book I bought was Lu Xun's The Real Story of Ah Q. (I haven't read this one yet but will write a review soon after reading it, I promise.)

I feel that Utopia is relatively less known. I was not sure whether it entered the SEA Write competition, but I was quite sure that it's not short-listed. This fact alone says as much: it's been underrated and suffered the plight of a good book that should've been appreciated more. This is the reason why I'm here writing its review and will do everything I can to make people spot this book again. (Well, at least it's what I hope ...)

The ten short stories are mainly about people living in the city, their intersecting fates and consequences. Compared to Pravda Yoon's Probability (Kwam na ja pen), which I think had inspired this work quite a lot, Utopia, though less sharp or powerfully concise, is much more readable and the author's messages seem to get across fine.

Some stories in this collection deal with alienation in the city and how urbanites find it impossible to communicate or to reach out. Some deal with the issue of capitalist competition that turns Bangkok into a dog-eats-dog society, where people are left with not much choice but to vie against each other in a rather heartless fashion. Owing to these, some urbanites face tragic ends as in 'Ice Flakes in the Fridge' ('Kled nam khaeng nai tu yen'). Some choose to look at it from a brighter perspective, as in 'The Green Miracle' ('Patiharn see kheaw'), one of my favourite stories in this collection.

On my first reading last night, I had no difficulty comparing this to Chakapan Kangwal's collection of short stories A Traveller's Journey to a Room under the Staircase (Nak Dern Thang Su Hong Kep Khong Tai Bandai), which deals with the similar conflict between ruthless capitalist society and the conflict between traditional humanist values. This book was short-listed in the SEA Write Award competition, so I wouldn't see why Utopia was not likewise selected.

Comparing between the two, I find Utopia more optimistic as it strikes a lighter note, giving us hope and kindling our nostalgia. Of course, it does frankly portray the underside of urban lifestyle (greediness, shallowness, and all such stuff) but it also shows that we cannot easily escape this. So here's the choice: keep dreaming of another utopia or make this hell a proper utopia. The second choice is of course harder to swallow, but it may turn out to be more pragmatic than the first one, or at least this is what the author thinks. I, however, need to have some more time to reflect upon this before subscribing to it, as right now my urban world is not at all that bad. Or maybe I'm just too middle-class to notice all this ...

13 January 2007

Kira Kira คิระ คิระ งามระยับดั่งดวงดาว

Kira Kira, a lovely novel by Cynthia Kadohata, has recently been translated into Thai by one of my close friends, Sudakarn Patamadilok. So I took this chance to review this book to boost the already successful sale, as well as to leave my reflections on the book so that they will not come to pester me later.

A lot of people would classify this as children's literature, but I beg to differ. It has got a lot to offer to adult readers too, as the messages here are relevent perhaps more to adults than to children. One narrative layer of this novel is about a relationship between two sisters, Lynn and Katie, with a clearly Bildungsroman overtone. Underlying this narrative is another layer of darker truths, i.e. racial discrimination and capitalism. Kadohata is a great story-teller who manages to weave all these two layers together and makes it a pleasant read. I did finish it all in one go last night.

The characterisation is craftily done, as both Katie and Lynn are round characters, sometimes devilishly naughty sometimes innocently thoughtful, but what is impressive is that both learn to live together and understand each other, partly because of the harsh economic problems that surround their family. Both of their parents work hard to support the family whereas they grow up to learn to assist whenever and wherever they can. The ending comes a bit as a shock but I could see it coming. But a good, optimistic turn follows, giving a wonderful message of growth and self-learning. I'd like to suggest this lovely novel to middle-class youngsters in Thailand who are incredibly spoiled and never learn the harsh realities of life as they're too well-protected. I'm sure it'll make them look at their life in a new light and appreciate life more.

Perhaps a good book may just serve this purpose -- to make one appreciate one's and others' lives more.

09 January 2007

In Cold Blood

This month is pretty historic -- I've managed to write five entries so far (including this one)!!! It seems this mania is not going to stop. Let's see how long this blog craze can go.

Capote is one of the most beautifully painful films I've watched. The message is clear -- one cannot avoid exploitation and appropriation in an act of writing. There's also violence and a writer is always engaged in Foucauldian power relations, whether s/he is aware or not. In writing a new form of 'non-fiction', Truman Capote, whether he's conscious or not, shows us that the writer can never act as a sheet of transparent glass. Capote is never innocent in retelling the story of the cruel crime and in fact he himself can be considered as a 'murderer', no less cold-blooded by the two criminals who are executed at the end of the film.

In fact, we simply cannot blame just Capote. It's the whole publishing industry, which creates competitive atmosphere where writers are compelled to find something new and original to offer to the hungry public. Capote succeeds in this world and becomes a writer hungry to be in the limelight, enjoying being the centre of attention telling people stories. In writing his most famous book In Cold Blood he also suffers from this hunger and ambition, being put in an awkward situation whereby he needs to squeeze information out of the two criminals, one of which (Perry Smith) is portrayed as somehow more benign than him, blindly regarding Capote as a true friend and never suspecting that Capote's got a hidden motif in this friendship.

However, no one emerges innocent from this film. Capote's incident, in which the writer himself didn't seem to survive his guilt of extorting information from an 'innocent' criminal 'in cold blood', makes us revise how we look at other authors, such as Harper Lee, who also seem to have a benign cause in portraying lives of the less unfortunate and become commercially successful in the course of this. Capote the film makes us see the underside of this 'benign' business and shows us that true innocence and good will in this publishing industry are questionable. Even the film itself in rendering the life of Truman Capote also commits the same crime of thriving on the misery of another person's life. The irony is subtle and sad, hence the indescribably 'sad and clinical' sentiment of the whole film. Perhaps this business of exploitation is unavoidable. Even I myself writing a review of this film can also be construed as participating in this sad business. So maybe this is a good point to stop.

08 January 2007


'And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.'
Exodus 8:2

Another DVD that I bought Mat for Christmas is Magnolia, as I thought it would complement Short Cuts nicely. The former is of course P.T. Anderson's tribute to Altman's film and both are indeed similar on many counts. Both portray interlacing lives of many people, no one main protagonist who takes the centre stage. Both touch upon the issues of coincidences and chance.

On second viewing, I found Magnolia much sadder than Short Cuts, and the editing in the first half before Aimee Mann's signature song 'Wise Up' makes the whole thing pretty tense. I got the feeling that time is running out and we are all rushed somewhere, both the characters and us viewers. This probably has something to do with one of the main themes of the film, i.e. that we hold on to life and get carried away -- in fact, so carried away that we sometimes don't know who we are, what we do, and why we do it. This is pretty sad, yet the film offers a rather optimistic twist, with that boy Stanley refusing to play with the game (in contrast, Donnie Smith, another wise kid, didn't refuse and he grows up to be a loser). Stanley's refusal comes as a relief to me as it gives a message that we can still choose to stop and to learn to let go.

Well, that's Stanley, but there are other characters who cannot choose to let go as it's too late. Think about two characters dying of cancer, Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge. Their time is running out and they only have regrets and ask for nothing but forgiveness. This time the people who need to learn to let go are those on the other side, mainly those who have been wronged, such as Jimmy Gator's molested daughter (Claudia Wilson Gator) and Earl Partridge's forsaken son (Frank T.J. Mackey). However, this business of forgiveness and reconciliation is not easy, as one of the much-repeated sentences in the film: 'we are through with past, but the past ain't through with us'.

One thing is clear though: the cop is a good one (unlike that lousy cop in Short Cuts). He's the one who goes out preaching to other people and becomes the voice of the good. The scene of his bedroom with a cross on the wall is pretty revealing. Maybe the director thinks that in the modern world where people lose love, life is too demanding, and families are broken, religion may provide a solution. Unlike Short Cuts, which doesn't give any exit but a suggestion that c'est la vie so be it, Magnolia suggests that we can escape from this malaise by learning to love each other again, by saying what we think, and by learning to forgive. Also, what is important is not to commit the same mistakes again, as one thing leads to another.

However, cause and effect is also a problem in the film. Weird things do happen sometimes. Chance and coincidences, I mean. And this is why in the middle of the film there happens to be some mysterious event that affects everyone. Like the earthquake in Short Cuts, this rain of frogs can perhaps be construed as an act of 'something or someone out there' that is much more powerful than men, as suggested by the Biblical quote above.

Anyway, dense as the whole film is and powerful as these stories are, I reckon it is a tour de force and a worthy tribute to Altman's Short Cuts. I especially love the ending when we are able to see Claudia's smile for the first time. Maybe there's a way out of this urban malaise.

PS. Whilst watching the film, I was deeply moved by Mann's 'Wise Up'. I feel like there's no stopping for me now that I've started working and having a professional life which demands quite a lot out of me. I couldn't help but look back to those days when I was still a student and definitely was able to enjoy life from a less responsible position. Quite sad, eh ...

07 January 2007

Short Cuts: An Urban Symphony

This Christmas I bought Mat the DVD version of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, adapted from a collection of short stories of the same name by Raymond Carver. I also had a chance to watch it for the second time and it confirmed my belief that it's one of my favourite films.

There are altogether 22 main characters in the film with mini-narratives interlacing and intersecting each other in a highly postmodern fashion. That's why it's called Short Cuts, I guess, because Altman prefers to tell their stories in short cuts. Yet the film can also be thought of as a short cut to the complexity of contemporary urban lifestyle, in which there is a denser population but in which people rarely know each other that well. Alienation and isolation can strongly be felt, but Altman tries to show a panoply of feelings attached to this urban condition, ranging from indifference, loneliness, and melancholy to jubilation and freedom.

The film showcases modern families, in which people have problems like jealousy, insecurity, and boredom. It's a small town in LA and these suburban people desperately encounter their urban angst, but their reactions vary. While Zoe Trainer, the celloist, chooses to take her own life, the Finnigans don't have any choice but soldiering on despite the death of their only son Casey. Jerry Kaiser brutally kills a girl, perhaps an act of violence derived from his repression as a powerless husband in a family where his wife earns (probably more than him) from sexual calls.

Patriarchy rules in this small town, with incidents of women being assaulted, raped, and killed. There's actually a scene where there is a dead woman body drowned in a river, presumably after being raped. Stuart Kane and his friends don't rescue her body from the river, but simply leaving it there tied to a bank. This indifference on the part of the male characters signals a nonchalant attitude towards ongoing female violence. Yet, there are also powerful female figures who try to negotiate their ways in this patriarchal maze. Marian Wyman and her sister, Sherri Shepard, fight back (despite a limited success) by treating their husbands as morons who are victims of jealousy (Marian's husband is jealous of her sleeping with somebody else, and Sherri's husband is jealous of another woman whom he is after). Yet, one gets the feeling that these two women need to work hard to keep their family together.

This myriad of lives and intricacies are framed by main incidents such as the spraying of the pesticide that covers the whole town and an earthquake. Both incidents point towards the fact that perhaps we humans are nothing but small creatures. When looked from a wider, higher perspective, our lives may not differ from those of ants or small bugs that are insignificant. Pettiness is the word, I guess. We are too locked up in this 'prison of life', to be able to look out from another vantage point. We are too entangled in this mess of petty feelings, i.e. jealousy, anger, lust, and insecurity.

Thus it's no wonder why the film starts and ends with the meeting of two families, the Wymans and the Kanes, who barely know each other in a concert, yet for some reason, they agree to have a party. The end of the film, i.e. the scene whereby the Kanes are at the Wymans, having small talks and dressed as clowns, signal our lives today (especially in a town or a big city) where people are just acquaintances but there is this desire to meet other people, to reach out. Yet, in doing so, we need to wear a mask, not unlike a clown, needing to pretend to be who we aren't. It's an urban malaise and I think Altman does a perfect job in portraying this.

A Guide to Pronunciation

I've come across this poem while surfing the net. The poem is called 'The Chaos' and it's written by Gerald Nolst Trenite (1870-1946), a Dutchman. It's meant to show how unruly and whimsical English pronunciation is.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Pray console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear sew it.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation's OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation -- think of Psyche!
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough --
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

01 January 2007

The Others

I've lately been so busy, juggling so many things at the same time. I just hope this new year I will be freer and have more time to write this blog. Wish me luck!

Despite the bomb blasts, Bangkok is a lovely and quiet place to stay during major festivals, such as the New Year and Songkran. Most people flee and flock together elsewhere and Bangkok, with its empty roads, becomes a heaven.

I did see the film The Others (2001) a couple of weeks ago but I didn't have time to write a review until today. Imagine I need to keep the whole story inside my head for two weeks before penning it. The film has many layers and it can be viewed in intertextual ways. Let me show you how many ways it can be read.

Intertext I: The Turn of the Screw

The film, directed by Alejandro Amenabar, resembles one of Henry James's novella, The Turn of the Screw, as both narratives centre around a woman and two children. In James's narrative, the woman is a governess entrusted by a mysterious man to take care of two kids, whereas in The Others, the woman, played by Nicole Kidman, is an actual mother of the two kids, Nicolas and Anne.

If we relate the film to James's narrative, we can see that the film actually goes a bit further than James's narrative that stops short at the death of the boy, Miles, on the lap of the governess and we simply don't know whether the evil is actually real or the work of imagination. Tzvetan Todorov would use this suspension to mark the genre of the fantastic.

However, in The Others, not only the boy dies, but his whole family, including his sister and his mother. But they do not know that they die. It turns out that the whole thing is turned upside down: they are in fact 'the others', whom the living do not want. By resorting to such a supernatural ending, Todorov would call this film the marvellous and lump this film along with other horror flicks and fantasy films like The Adventures of Harry Potter, The Unseeable, and Silent Hill.

If James's narrative is set in the early twentieth century or late nineteenth century, it is because it is the period of social change, when victorianism was being replaced by more modern ways of life and scientific ways of thinking. By contrast, The Others is set during the WWII, and the sense of insecurity and confusion is engendered mainly through a perspective of a family living in the difficult time of war.

Intertext II: The Sixth Sense

However, to understand The Others fully, we also need to relate to another film, The Sixth Sense (1999), directed by M. Night Shyalaman. Both films have a surprise ending, all having to do with a shift in perspective. Normally it's the ghost that comes to haunt people, to make people scared. But these two films are different in that they're mainly from the point of view of the ghosts themselves, that even the ghosts are in deep trouble, not knowing what or who they are. In The Sixth Sense, it's Doctor Malcolm Crowe who does not realise that he's dead, and in The Others it's the whole family who never learns to accept the truth that they're dead.

It is this ingenious twist that makes the two films interesting. In our postmodern age, we are more ready than ever to be liberal and try to look at things from many perspectives. This time it's the ghost who receives the honour. Both directors interpret the ghosts in an anthropomorphic way, making ghosts resemble humans, the only difference being that they are immaterial. Ghosts still yearn and desire, like humans. They will leave the earth once they can accept the truth that they're dead and learn to let go of their worldly concerns. Quite a Buddhist belief, don't you think?

However, it is my personal belief that both films can be considered to approach the genre of magical realism, in that it signals an attempt to understand the psychology of ghosts and use the framework of the living to grasp the condition of the dead. Perhaps the day will come when we finally take ghosts as a common reality, no longer alienating them by imposing on them some spooky elements like protruding tongues and cold presence. Both The Sixth Sense and The Others can then be read as a critique of horror flicks that try to scare viewers by making ghosts look disgusting and ugly. Ghosts have a heart also, you know, and they can be alienated by us, the living, who try to turn them into well a ghostly presence, neither living nor dead, an in-between that, both Jacques Derrida and Homi Bhabha would argue, terrorises us.