25 April 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth is a beautifully violent film, a perfect mix of fairy tales and the (neo-)realist war narrative. My first impression is that it's very difficult to interpret what these whole symbols of Pan, the labyrinth, the key, the moon, and the princess, actually mean. There are gaps between the wartime world of Spain's civil-war period and the magical world seen only through the eyes of Ofelia. I reckon it's a challenge if one tries to closely link the two worlds together in a parallel.

Pan himself is a mischievous character residing in the jungle, set to lure passers-by. What comes out of his mouth should not always be taken as truths, as they can be just lies engineered to make hearers feel good or fall into Pan's trap. In this way, Pan can perhaps be remotely associated with a rather sinister force that makes us become beside ourselves. It goes without saying that Pan is a close associate of Bacchus, a god of wine and merriment. Hence, this magical world can be construed as (1) an allegory of how 'evil' force wishes to lure an innocent mind (well, this certainly has a biblical ring) or as (2) a projection in the mind of Ofelia herself, as she needs to escape from the 'real' world in which she is just a forsaken daughter whose dead mother leaves at the mercy of the tyrannical step-father. Needless to say that Ofelia might remind some of Ophelia, an estranged woman left to be mad in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The ending therefore casts light on how this little girl learns to love her brother and sacrifice herself in the process. Well, this may be a poignant message for a wartime period when the Resistance needed to sacrifice themselves in order to get rid of the fascist regime.

That is the most obvious layer of meaning that I've come across. But on a deeper level, there is a certain conflict that renders the rather positive, optimistic ending problematic. Allurement is a keyword here. The little girl is tempted to go in search of the key inside the rotten tree (as in the film poster above) that reminds me of the female reproductive organs -- the vulva, the ovary, the uterus, etc. This entrance into the female world is one of trickery and danger, as it is laden with traps and temptations. Notice when the little girl can't stop herself from sampling the grapes -- doesn't that remind some of how Eve is tempted to bite the apple of knowledge before being kicked out of heaven with Adam by God. This 'magical' female world is set in contrast to the male world of wartime realism.

Such opposition should not blind us to certain similarities -- that both spaces are full of temptations and violence and that to tread in these spaces require a lot of nerves and skills. But of course there are divergences -- the little girl may fail in the male world of the Spanish civil war, but she triumphs in her own female world. But here's the rub -- this triumph at the end may be just another trickery, a lie, a hallucination on the part of the girl herself to make sense of her own downfall (and of course to make her downfall more bearable).

The reason why I feel this is the rather slippery character of Pan himself, who cannot be believed even in the last scene. He just looks too mischievous. Well, to interpret this film is like entering Pan's labyrinth itself. I'm pretty sure other people who watch it will enter a different way and come out from a different exit.

08 April 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle บันทึกนกไขลาน

At last I finished reading Murakami Haruki's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the Thai version of which has seven hundred and nineteen pages. Normally methink I'm a quick reader, but in this case I couldn't help reading this in a snail's pace. Part of the reason is that I have been so busy (of course) juggling various stuff -- supervising theses, marking term papers, attending a funeral, and getting back on my Garcia Marquez's research. No stress though, which is good.

In general, I find this novel very entertaining and I got hooked towards the end of it, partly because it's written in the style of detective fiction. The usual signature motifs of Murakami -- parallel universes, the double, incest, etc. -- are here and I must say it's a pretty thought-provoking book, with a lot of issues being touched, from urban alienation to fatalism. Compared to other works of his such as Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Woods, and South of Border, West of Sun, I think this one has a lot more to offer and of course it helps establishing Murakami once and for all as a serious writer whose work has become at last a force to reckon with in contemporary Japanese literature.

The main plot is about how the search by the protagonist, Toru Okada, of his lost cat turns into an adventure into his own self and that of Kumiko Okada, his estranged wife. The journey leads him to a series of encounters with rather eccentric characters, such as Molly Kano and Creta Kano, the two sisters who agree to help him find the cat, and May Kasahara, a teenager who decides to leave school and stay at home.

It's quite difficult, if not impossible, to write a proper analysis of the whole book, given its sheer size. So I'd better limit myself to some interesting thoughts.

What I like about Murakami's work is its open-ended structure and slippery causal relation. It sometimes appears very hard to pin down who does what in his novel, part of his intention to interrogate our traditional concept of stabilised identity. Thus, it is no wonder why sometimes reading his book is a frustrating experience -- May Kasahara can be Kumiko Okada, or a mysterious woman on the phone at the beginning of the novel can also be Kumiko Okada too.

I particularly like the character of Cinnemon Akasaka, with his extreme tidiness and punctuality. He's almost like a machine, especially with his reticence and efficiency. He's the example of how urban alienation can turn one into a recluse, but a lovely one at that.

I also like its tone of detective fiction, especially the fact that Toru needs to find out who's the mastermind behind all this, who 'dehumanises' his wife and other female characters. I guess it's pretty obvious for those observant readers, but Murakami makes it more complicated by making Toru enter a possible world to find the culprit, thereby playing upon the idea that the whole scene may simply be the act of his mind -- the shadow play of his imagination. But for Murakami, what happens in the realm of imagination does have an impact on the real world, so the borders between the subjective and the objective become fussy.

One of the most memorable scenes is Toru's session in the deep well, shutting himself out from the world around him. Only darkness and nothing else. Even his own feeling of his body is alienating and disconcerting. This estrangement is closely related to the urban space of contemporary Japan. Besides Toru, almost all characters in this novel are alienated and try to find a way out from this labyrinth of angst and loneliness. With some sections of the novel set during the Second World War, such urban alienation is pitted against its similar feeling generated by war, when soldiers (no matter whether they're Japanese, Chinese, Russian, etc.) were asked to do some senseless stuff, such as killing animals in a zoo, protecting the secret at the expense of their life, and killing a hostage with a baseball bat. Such parallelism between the city and the war in engendering the feeling of angst and estrangement is distinctive and very powerfully crafted.

If there's a shortcoming, I think it's in the characterisation of Molly and Creta Kano, who seem to disappear towards the end of the novel. Their roles seem to serve some specific purposes at the beginning but towards the end they become a bit superfluous while other characters fit in the whole narrative pretty well.

All in all, a very good novel and perhaps one of the best contemporary Japanese novels.