11 March 2007

Madge the Cat

Some who read this weblog might have thought that I'm such a dork, doing nothing but watching films and reading books. Mind you, I've got a life too, you know, and it's time I introduced you to our little Madge. She's a beautiful tabby, who loves to watch birds flying by and pee right after the litter tray is cleared.

I fell in love with her at first sight when I saw her at CU's Friday Fair. Thanks are due to those people at the SOS (an animal rescue institute), without whom this little Madge would almost certainly still be left to fend for herself somewhere in Bangkok.

FYI, Madge loves the Gourmet Seafood Flavour Whiskas. (We did try all sorts of flavour but turns out this is the only one she favours.) She also likes me to rub my chin against the back of her neck. She finds ribbons irresistible. She loves to leave a lot of fur around, which makes Mat mad.

She also looks somewhat like the cat on the cover of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore (Thai version). But I guess she's not as alienated as those characters in that novel.

10 March 2007

Chao Karaket เจ้าการะเกด

Chao Karaket, a novel by Dan-Aran Saengthong, is intense, lyrical, and thought-provoking. I read it all last night in one go. It comprises a number of tales told by an old monk about all sorts of things before entering his monkhood -- his pilgrimage to India, his childhood experiences, and his relationship with his wife Karaket.

Despite the name, the novel does not centre around this female character, but rather a mesmerising experience between the narrator and a tiger. (It reminds me of Thang Sua (The Tiger's Path) by Sila Komchai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, one of the most inscrutable films I've ever seen.) His relationship with this animal is not a pleasant one, as his parents were both killed by tigers. Therefore part of the reason why reading this book is such a riveting experience is because I wanted to know who would win in the end.

Tiger-fighting is a literary motif that should not only be taken at face value; it retains a symbolic dimension. One can't help but associate this motif with psychoanalysis, as the tiger can represent that dark part of the mind, the ID that people want to suppress. His relationship with Karaket suffers because of this experience with the tiger, leading a tragic end which, I believe, confounds quite a few readers' expectations.

In this narrative, not only the tiger but the whole jungle are the prime antagonists. I can't help but sympathise with the narrator and his wife who try to turn part of this jungle into a paddy field, an act of which can be construed as 'civilising the untamed'. The novel powerfully uses this motif as it somehow captures the mood of Thai peasants in face of the darker side of nature.

I think Dan-Aran Saengthong is a very interesting writer and surely has a promising literary career ahead of him. 'The Snake', his profound short story, has been translated into many languages and, I believe, is one of the best Thai short stories of the past decade.

I don't know how to best describe this distinct writer. Perhaps he can be regarded as Carl Jung's 'visionary artist' who is inspired by some indescribable force to write. What comes out from his mind is more like a vision. Some people may say that his work is rude and cruel, but isn't our life like that? Isn't our life full of dirty truths that we long to cover up in the name of civilisation? In this light, his work reveals the price we need to pay in order to be called 'civilised'.

07 March 2007

The Queen

The Queen, the latest film by Stephen Frears, is a portrayal created to please most parties, from Tony Blair down to Her Majesty Herself (apart from Prince Philip of course). His main focus is the turbulent period immediately after Princess Diana's death when people began to criticise the silence of her and her family. The gist of the film is that the Queen's decision at last to make a public appearance mourning the death of the princess should be construed as an unprecedentedly 'generous' action that Her Majesty had to bestow on an ex-HRH.

I don't know whether much of this is a pure speculation or derived from a reliable source, but I believe that much, if not most, of it is from the vantage point of an outsider trying to understand and make sense of what was going on in the mind of the Queen and her family in such a difficult time. Of course, there's a direct critique of how the establishment has been slow to adjustment and modernisation (as the 'scapegoat' is created in the personage of poor Prince Philip, who seems to sport an extraordinary flat, one-sided perspective in this film -- who knows he's like that in reality?). But there's also a sense of the need to understand the Queen too, as we can see from Blair's rather angry reaction to Alastair Campbell's view that the monarchy is something irrelevant and obsolete in this modern time. The fault is not the Queen's, but apparently the media which dictate how people feel and who the public should sympathise and hate. I couldn't agree more with this, but I also see some irregularities, as Blair himself has hired a team of spindoctors who are always on alert to manipulate and create his image in the way he seems pleased. In fact, Alastair Campbell himself couldn't survive the PR disaster and resigned in 2003.

I guess this is why there lingers a nostalgic tone in the film. When the media have penetrated into deep layers of public sentiments, we cannot help but long for the lost past in which things 'are' what they seem and when our sense of reality is not conjured up by media moguls. Here that sense of 'unintruded' reality is personified in the Queen herself, who doesn't seem to understand how the media work and who longs for the old days when people are not hysterical or open about their grievances but bear these with dignity and stoicism. I don't know whether this actually is the truth, but the film needs to create this disparity in order that the Queen can be seen in a more positive light. The personal row between Princess Diana and the Royal Family is almost completely cut out, as it might lead to a rather negative ending.

In the end, what is the stag? I believe it's meant to be the symbol for the Queen and how she needs to develop up-to-date tactics to survive. The stag is beautiful yet mercilessly slain; the Queen however survives and thrives ... but, for how long? The film in the end shows the Queen and monarchy no longer as an untouchable long-lasting establishment, but as a vulnerable and at times threatened entity. Gone are the days when the Queen can rule with complete peace of mind that everything she orders or thinks will represent her populace; in her place is the rather sinister King who willfully manipulates the populace's heart and mind to serve capitalist ideals -- THE MEDIA.

03 March 2007

The Beautiful Washing Machine

A superb tale of urban alienation and sexual oppression, The Beautiful Washing Machine is quirky yet powerfully poignant. It's a story set in contemporary Kuala Lumpur, focusing on a young officer slave named Teoh and a second-hand washing machine. When the machine breaks down, thus setting a genie-like servant free, Teoh immediately seizes upon the opportunity and pimps her out to strangers.

Perfectly created to be a victim, the female servant is mute, yet responds to all orders by her new boss. However, the escape from such sexual oppression is limited as the servant is a robot-like creature, not programmed to be cognisant of freedom or free will. It is no wonder that men are crazy about her and follow her around like predators smelling an easy prey.

This theme of sexual exploitation is intertwined with that of urban alienation. Kuala Lumpur looks so clinical and lifeless in this film. The alienating sentiment is even increased by the use of fixed, frozen frames -- sometimes I even wondered whether the DVD got stuck as some scenes are so still and frozen. One of my favourite scenes must be the supermarket. It's so different from its Thai counterpart in that it's so quiet and funereal, like a cemetary populated by modern-day zombies. (In Thailand, we are different in that we are very loud zombies in a very loud cemetary -- this is definitely worse!) Both staff and consumers are shown as spiritless and devoid of life: no conversations, everyone taking interest in their own purchase or comparing their buying power with others. I think there's no sense of friendship in this space; it instead reminds me of jungles where humans are turned into animals hounding after what they want. This is clearly logical as postmodern consumerism plays upon our desire and turns us into a machine whose desire needs to be constantly gratified.

Hence, the beautiful washing machine. Perhaps all of us are desiring machines (think of Deleuze and Guattari), thinking only of having our needs fulfilled, no matter how dehumanising these acts of fulfillment are. Even the victimised female servant learns of this crude fact and tries to be a sexual aggressor at the end. However, the doubt is whether this state of letting desire roam free is actually beautiful, as most characters who let desire get ahead of them are punished -- needless to say how, otherwise you'll blame me for spoiling.

You can visit their official website.