26 December 2008

Happy Birthday แฮปปี้เบิร์ดเดย์

Spoilers galore!

I watched Happy Birthday tonight at Paragon Cineplex simply due to some positive reviews on-line. The film was good even though I think it's a little bit too cliche and sentimental. Perhaps I've been watching too many weird films that I just can't tolerate simple films anymore.

The relationship between Then and Pao starts from their common interest -- travelling around Thailand. Then loves photography and Pao loves drawing -- what an idyllic starting point for love among the Thai middle-class. Middle-class viewers will probably enjoy the first half of the film as the couple drive around scenic routes in the North of Thailand (the area around Mae Hong Son I think). However, while their middle-class romance is blossoming, a car crash results in Pao suffering severe brain injuries, which reduces her to a condition of living like a vegetable. That means theoretically she's dead but technologically she's surviving through the aid of oxygen.

Because of his middle-class promise made to her that they'll take care of each other until they die, Then takes care of Pao, cleans her, changes her sanitary pads, and takes her out shopping. His care for her borders on the level of insanity. Despite the protests from her parents to 'let Pao go', Then holds on to what remains of his girlfriend dearly. He's broke paying loads to keep her 'alive' and loses his job due to lack of concentration. In other words, the director wants to make clear that he suffers a lot because of her as he wishes to cherish their promise. The director also wants to show how heroic he is in trying to maintain his loyalty especially in the contemporary social context of fast love and easy sex.

However, I can't help but thinking that Then is making a serious mistake, trying to hold onto Pao's body. Throughout the film, we see him change lotuses in front of a Buddha replica. But one wonders whether he really understands Buddhism, especially the concept of 'letting go'. Lord Buddha preaches against desire, especially that for material objects. In a sense, Then's wish to keep Pao's body is like a child guarding a toy that's broken. It's obvious that Pao already exists in Then's vivid imagination. I think it's perhaps much better if the film shows his true understanding of Buddhism, that Pao's existence is not just physical but mental. Pao's body is just an external shell, waiting to decompose. Pao's existence in Then's imagination should be much more revered.

Besides, the film should've further raised the mooted topic of euthanasia, especially from the point of the person who suffers. We only see the opinions of her boyfriend and her parents, but of course we don't learn much about Pao's attitude towards life and death in general. The treatment of her character in the first half of the film should've focused also on her opinion so that this would shed light on another perspective on the matter. She functions as a silent body or when we hear her speak it's mostly from her boyfriend's imagination.

If we treat this film as a piece of middle-class propaganda, think about the effect it will cast upon middle-class viewers, how the film will shape their middle-class conception of 'true love' and its connection with the physical. Perhaps it's something to do with our age of consumerism and materialism that we middle-class people need an actual object to confirm our idea of love. Pao's body is unfortunately and paradoxically used selfishly by Then to confirm his everlasting love to her. Wouldn't it be better if he just accepted her death and continued with his life without her body but with his memory of their time together? Pao would surely love to see him happy rather than slaving over her unconscious body and getting crazy in the process.

I just don't find Then's love for Pao heroic; it's just possessive, middle-class and rude.

25 December 2008

Vive L'amour

Vive L'amour is an old film by Tsai Ming-Liang. It's probably a good platform to develop your understanding of his visual aesthetics and politics before you graduate to his more complex films such as I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. The plot centres around three characters (two men and one woman) whose lives intersect in an empty apartment. We don't know much about these characters in terms of their past, but we gradually understand their mental conditions, which are fundamentally similar in that they are all lost, alienated souls living in a city that suffers from interminable development and consumption.

The woman works as an estate agent, while the two men are homeless salesmen and illegally share an empty apartment. One of them sells a columbarium (a room with niches or shelves made to store cinerary urns) -- something typically Far Eastern; the other sells clothes on the pavement. I think for those of you who read de Certeau will adore this film as it puts into play his theory of strategy and tactic. The space of an empty apartment waiting for lawful tenants is usurped by two loners who barely have money but manage to pass themselves off as 'commoners'. They don't look like vagabonds so people don't suspect. On the contrary, the estate agent lives in a rather shabby apartment, presumably her own lawful place.

But this film is not only about physical space, but also how space shapes the mentality of the characters. These characters roam the cityspace, both in daytime and nighttime. But they don't belong to the urban space which empties them out. Symbolically, they may perhaps be compared to those urns stored separately in different niches in a big columbarium. Their lives intersect but they barely connect spiritually. Sex doesn't function as a remedy, but only as a source of pleasure that eventually confirms their difference. Like I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, the mattress functions as both a spiritual and physical sanctuary, but a temporary one at that.

The ending of the film may be surprising to some, yet for those Tsai Ming-Lian fans it's typical. We are shown a scene of the estate agent crying for a solid six minutes and twenty-five seconds. Nothing more. A requiem for the lost urban soul, perhaps.

23 December 2008

Le temps qui reste | Time to Leave

Directed by Francois Ozon, Le temps qui reste is more like a philosophical tract on death and life. The film is probably by far the best rendition of Italo Calvino's classic statement that "the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer to has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death".

Romain, the main protagonist in this film, scarcely believes himself when his doctor tells him that he only has months to live due to a growing tumor in his body. A successful photographer who takes everything for granted, Romain finds the whole situation difficult to take. With his success, he never reveals his own vulnerability, preferring to create his own small world of which he's a sole ruler.

However, his cancer diagnosis changes the whole picture. Not only does he need to communicate, but he also needs care. He can't turn to his family, which he has ignored for a long time. He believes that his parents don't have the gut to get divorced and that his sister is married to a loser. He doesn't wait to make it clear that he doesn't like her child either. So we see that Romain's success both in career and in love just spoils him, making him take everything for granted.

His incoming death makes him feel more vulnerable. Yet, it's pretty strange yet understandable that he chooses not to tell his family the truth about his health, but rather to confide in his grandmother, with whom he is no longer in touch and who he knows will die soon too. This encounter with the grandmother functions as a turn in the film, when Romain seems to learn something and change his attitude towards life. (It's my personal opinion, though, that Ozon should've made it clearer what Romain actually realises after his conversation with his grandmother. I still feel the gap is rather quite big here.)

Coincidentally, Romain happens to run into a couple who desperately want to have a child but simply are unable to due to the sterility on the husband's part. Romain offers to help, hoping that the son will be his legacy on earth. And Romain then seems to be happy after this, feeling his life fulfilled and realising that while he's dying there's another life about to begin.

What do I think about this? I just don't like it, of course. Needless to say, I hate children like the early Romain, as I find them pretty noisy and needy. Wouldn't it be more heroic if Romain just dies alone and accepts his own solitude without leaving anything in the world. If I were him, I definitely wouldn't want to have any children. My personal statement is that we've done enough to make this world a bad place. Perhaps it'd be better altogether if the earth doesn't have humans. We only create more rubbish and heat, doing nothing but gratifying our personal selfish needs.

Also, I feel like if we have children, we are bound to have expectations that will eventually do more harm to them. This is because, whether unwittingly or not, our children will try to live up to our expectations and they'll hurt themselves for this. Maybe the concept of having children to continue your line of descent is quite imperialist, as it means that you believe that you're good enough and that your children should be given a chance to continue developing this world. But the question is: do we have such a right to think so righteously about ourselves?

Perhaps it's something to do with age. Maybe I'll want to have children when I grow older. Let's wait and see.

21 December 2008

Visitor Q


If you believe that you know what a dysfunctional family means and you think it's something banal that probably happens to approximately 90 percent of families on earth, think again. If you think that dysfunctional family members don't engage in conversations and prefer to avoid contact or communication, then think again. Visitor Q is a Japanese film that will turn that stereotypical image of a dysfunctional family upside down.

You'll probably never think that there exists any family any weirder than that in this film. Kiyoshi Yamazaki, the 'salariman' patriarch, obsessed with his job as a TV presenter researching on youngsters' trends, chooses to exploit his own children for his own personal success and recognition. His elder daughter doesn't care much about her study but chooses to focus on her well-paid career as a hooker, while his son is an object of bully at school. The shock begins when the father interviews his own daughter and ends up having sex with her in the process. He also intends to conduct a picture-perfect scoop on how his son is bullied, without showing interest in his son's well-being. Keiko the mother doesn't fare any better. She's in turn being bullied and beaten by her oppressed son. She spends her free time prostituting herself to earn some money for heroine. During dinnertime, she just limps about quietly trying to please everyone.

It goes without saying that the dysfunctional family in Visitor Q puts Homer's family in The Simpsons to shame. The Yamazaki are by far in a league of their own, full of extreme oddities and crazy thoughts. Their weirdness just reflects the oppressive conditions of contemporary Japanese society, in which people need to compete and be successful at work. Social norms are intense as these Yamazaki family members appear very normal in public places. By contrast, in such private spaces as a bedroom, a brothel, or a car, they let loose their own 'deviant' selves and it is in these spaces that we see how society has damaged their identity, to the extent that they are unable to control their own split selves.

Of course, the director Takashi Miike aims to satirise his own society and puts a moral twist by introducing the mysterious character of Q, who brings the whole family back to conscience. If Kiyoshi the patriarch is no longer in control of the whole situation and lets himself be swayed by various temptations, it's high time the mother needed to come out and assert her right, Miike seems to say. Q teaches Keiko to realise something that she has always possessed but never really realises she has -- milk from her breasts. Through this blatant (and some might say obscene) symbol of breast milk, Miike seems to be saying that it's the mother who needs to stand up and usurp the centre stage of family rearing, not being brainwashed as a robotic servant as the patriarchal society of Japan would like to dictate.

However, this film doesn't signal any romantic return to the perfect family setting, but shows how such return is impossible. Keiko, along with other family members, are transformed into perverse creatures due to strict social norms. Even though they seem to realise the power of motherly love in the end, the whole thing happens in a highly artificial place, i.e., a greenhouse, with a big sheet of tarpaulin covering the mother figure as if it were a sacred shroud (as appearing in the picture above). For me this may be construed as a parody of Virgin Mary.

I prefer Visitor Q to Audition, Miike's work that's probably more well-known internationally. Visitor Q is very fresh and even though it's extremely violent and weird in its own way, it's incredible that Miike manages to hide some messages in the film but at the same time doesn't make this teaching look too cheesy. This moral perhaps is indispensable, otherwise I would probably feel too guilty to laugh at certain scenes of this film.

10 December 2008

Cachorro | Bear Cub

Cachorro or Bear Cub is a film that treads into a pretty difficult terrain of parenthood and homosexuality. The film is set in the metropolitan city of Madrid, one of the most tolerant cities on earth. The film centres around Pedro, a hunky dentist who prefers a single, yet sexually active life. However, his sister's visit to India affects his ideal life of a gay bachelor, as she leaves Bernardo, her nine-year-old son, with him.

Of course, you might easily predict what the film will be about: the positive relationship between the boy and his uncle, where both try to adjust themselves and learn about each other. With his sister being incarcerated in India for possession of drugs, Pedro realises that her stay in India will be extended for years. However, he is not concerned as Bernardo is pretty liberal and knows a lot about life more than he expects. This certainly strengthens their friendship and understanding, until the day Bernardo's evil grandmother steps in and asks him to leave for Valencia.

This turn of plot is pretty cliche as we are quite familiar with the motif of a wicked grandmother-cum-witch against that of the benign uncle-cum-prince. The political ideology reflects the contemporary climate whereby anything traditional is being cast as negative and gay people, by contrast, are aligned with the transgressive or the liberal.

What this film does is pretty much traditional in the sense that gay people are portrayed as leftist and leading a transgressive lifestyle as could normally be found in such magazines as Attitude or Gay Times. The characterisation of Pedro is so stereotypical to the extent that he can be labelled a 'traditional' gay who enjoys smoking pot and uninhibited sex. The portrayal of which has become an indelible, lasting impression not only on the mind of straight people, but gay people too.

What I perhaps would like to see is a more subtle depiction of gay characters, whose lives are not dictated by gay lifestyle magazines, gay people who question their own identity or who have problems conforming to gay lifestyle as promoted by magazines or credit card companies. That surely would be a way forward.

06 December 2008

The Namesake

One of the benefits of having cable TV is how it can surprisingly come in between you and your work. Today as I was planning my lecture on poststructuralism I couldn't help switching the TV on. Having found that The Namesake was on the Star Movies channel, I didn't have any choice but stop all my work and concentrate on watching the film. Part of the reason is that I was bored of work. But of course the name Jhumpa Lahiri also guarantees that the film that I was going to spend my next two hours on would be worthwhile, considering the fact that her Interpreter of Maladies was one of the most subtle stories I taught in the last semester. Her work is highly relevant, timely, and moving, especially to those who find themselves straddling more than one culture.

Based on Lahiri's bestselling novel, The Namesake focuses on an Indian couple, Ashima and Ashoke, who choose to migrate to the USA with the hope that their family will be freer and able to lead a better life. Despite her loneliness in New York, Ashima is eventually able to adjust herself to the new home and make new friends. They have two children and are later able to move to a new house in a better neighbourhood. It is not too far-fetched to say that they manage to follow the path of becoming a respectable middle-class family. However, things are not as easy as it seems. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, are Americanized and belong to a different world. They find arranged marriage and other Indian customs weird, if not obsolete. Gogol himself has a white girlfriend and doesn't appear to be able to relate to his parents that well, preferring to spend time with his girlfriend's family.

The moment when Ashoke dies seems like an epiphany for Gogol, who suddenly realizes his own Indian root and chooses to marry another Indian girl, whom he spurned when he was young. Had the film ended here, I would've turned my TV off and burned the set, as the whole film would then have been nothing but a propaganda for ethnic revivalism. But Lahiri's work surpasses this. Gogol's new relationship with his Indian wife doesn't work out either. Like Gogol, she's anything but traditional. Years in Paris have transformed her into a sophisticated, urban girl who knows better. The marriage with Gogol seems to restrain her intellectual growth and vibe, as Gogol still yearns for a traditional family with a wife who waits for his arrival from work and cooks samosa for him every Thursday. It goes without saying that the influence of Ashima remains strong as she retains the role as an ideal wife to Gogol's father. The ending therefore is open-ended, with Gogol travelling to find himself (like what his father did in the past) and Ashima deciding to live six months in her birthplace, practising the activity she loves best -- singing.

Of course, I need to say here it's virtually impossible to tell the whole story of The Namesake, but it's a really touching story that deals with such issues as homeland, root, and belonging. We've already gone past the age where cultural pluralism was blindedly celebrated. The Namesake reflects not only on the happiness but the problems this cultural pluralism may entail, such as the loneliness on the part of Ashima and the identity confusion on the part of her children. Even though the film seems to suggest that a marriage of people of different ethnicity doesn't work, it doesn't portray the same-ethnicity marriage in the positive light either. This is simply because, no matter what ethnicity one has, one is bound to change if one lives like a transnational. Lost, lonely, and lovelorn may perhaps be the three 'L's that best describe this new rootless, globe-trotting tribe. However, at least there's a benefit to be had: freedom. Even though life will be full of trouble caused by lack of or difficulty in communication, Ashima can choose to be who she is and dictates her own life. It's the sacrifice she's willing to take.

What's the message of the film? Although the film portrays the idyllic space of Indian past, it's no longer possible to return. Globalization and transnationalism have destroyed such disparity between Eastern vivacity and Western independence. You can't expect children of this new generation to be doting wives or highly responsible husbands; their easy lives have made them cynical and lost. But of course there's one thing that perhaps links the two generations together: their thirst for life. But isn't this just another American ideology?

29 November 2008

Sunflower ดอกไม้ในแสงแดด


For those regular theatre-goers, the name of Nopphan Boonyai has been established as one of the most interesting new-wave directors. Sunflower, one of his most popular plays, became the talk of the town when it was first launched at the Crescent Moon Theatre at the beginning of this year. Due to popular demand, it is currently being restaged at the same venue until December 7.

There are just three characters in this play but the number should not blind us to the dynamic that their interaction creates. Nop is a good-looking guy who is simply unable to be committed in a relationship. Orn is a confident woman who falls in love with a photographer who is already married. Tawan works as a 'love doctor' giving comments to those people who have problems about love. However, he himself doesn't fare any better, waiting for his partner, a real doctor, who will never return.

The influence of Wong Kar Wai reinforces the themes of love, loneliness, and urban angst. It's like these three characters just come fresh out of Chungking Express, lost and yearning at the same time. The motifs of a mysterious woman with a golden wig, pineapple cans, and the bird without legs are present in order to bring home such feelings as unrequirted love and desire with no definite directions. In other words, it may be said that these characters resemble us in the modern days, afflicted with yearning and desire, and the conditions are worsened by the fact that our desire is not fulfilled or once it's fulfilled we are not satisfied and want to move on.

Perhaps, quite accurately, the play portrays our long-lasting problem with desire. On the one hand, we desire something we don't have, can't have, or no longer have, such as Nop who remains scarred by his first love, Orn who desperately wants the photographer's love, and Tawan who injures himself simply as a pretext to see his estranged boyfriend. On the other hand, we don't desire something we already have and unconsciously try to reject this state of bliss so that we can desire once more. This, perhaps, may be caused by boredom and the contemporary way of life that requires us to obtain the newest, the latest, and the most modern. This lifestyle pushes us to fly higher and higher, until we forget it feels like to stay on ground.

But the play doesn't choose to portray only the negative side of these dire conditions. Even though the three characters have their own spaces in each corner of the stage, there're always three stools at the centre waiting for them to return, to chat, to communicate, to make pretense, to show off, or simply to tell stories. This interaction is equated with the sense of friendship these three people have. Perhaps friends are, of course, vital and their presence is needed, even though we all know that deep down we have our own space where friends will not, or cannot, intrude. Perhaps this is all there is ... Perhaps this is all we can have.

27 November 2008

The Fall

Spoilers alert ...

The Fall is a feel-good surreal film. If you've watched Hero by Zhang Yimou and have been astonished by its visual fantasy, you will not be disappointed watching this film. Directed by Tarsem Singh, the film portrays the psychological connections between the two protagonists, a little girl and a bed-ridden stunt man. The latter is suicidal and, like Scheherazade, tells stories to the young girl to get her to do what he wants.

The stories that he tells bear resemblance to his surroundings, despite their settings in the time and place so remote from his own. Of course, one may say that when you tell the story, you can't avoid putting yourself in the story. There's no such thing as impersonality or objectivity in story-making and story-telling. The film makes a good case for this and shows that there's a process of redemption and recovery in story-telling too.

I personally find the essence of the film quite similar to Stranger than Fiction, which I've just watched. What these two films are identical is the way they have faith in the narrator, especially in how this narrating figure can change the turn of the story. These two films make a case against the belief that we're somehow controlled by the stories we make for ourselves and put a positive twist, a rather existentialist one at that, that we human are capable of making a decision and thus bringing about a good change.

Perhaps this spirit is in the air at the moment as we see more and more people gathering and standing firm for what they believe, be it in the US where people voted for Barack Obama, having a total faith that this new voice can bring about a positive 'change', or in Thailand when 'yellow' people gathered at the Government House and then at Suvannabhumi Airport or 'red' people at Rachamangala Stadium, all believing that their presence would bring about change.

Returning to the film, the spirit of change can be seen in the end when the stunt man agrees to change the ending to please the girl. But what I think is the drawback of this film is how little we're convinced by it. I don't personally believe that the begging of the little girl is enough to make a suicidal man change his mind. There should've been something else that triggers his reconsideration -- an epiphany perhaps. Yet, this decision to change the ending -- not to let him be killed in the end -- is pretty elegant on its own, as it may be related to the fact that we're indeed all connected and our stories, though highly individualistic, may inspire others or make them feel despair. The stories, once told, are no longer ours. Once they enter the public realm, they belong to the world, enriching it so.

The Message ลิขิตนาคา


While Thai politics is anything but stable, it's understandable that a growing number of people resort to escape from this stalemate and put their interest in something else altogether. Hence, I didn't spurn the opportunity when a ticket to watch The Message, a contemporary li-kay performance, was offered to me. Do I need to tell you that I rarely frequent a traditional Thai performance, let alone the li-kay, the narrative of which I found too predictable and lengthy.

Of course that perception has changed since I watched The Message or Likhit Naga in Thai the other evening at Lido Multiplex. The show was led by the Silpathorn winner Pradit Prasartthong, whose dance was obviously majestic. Part of the lyrics were made more up-to-date and with the use of such visual aid as the LCD projector the show was anything but obsolete. However, the traditional elements of li-kay remain, including improvisation, bling-bling costumes, and plots concerning divine or semi-divine entities.

The story involves a sojourn on earth by an underworld god -- a Naga called Malan. However, little does he know that his trip will endanger his life, as people on earth are ready to exploit him for various gains, including tourism and commerce. Of course, the ending is quite predictable with Malan getting angry wishing to castigate the earthlings by creating a big flood. Even though this plot sounds all too predictable for those regular li-kay watchers, one can't deny that it's also timeless and pretty much relevant to what's happening in Thailand at present. I only wish more people would turn up to watch this and learn something from it.

The performance is part of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2008. More details can be found here.

16 November 2008

The Orphanage

The Orphanage is a subtle horror film, which gradually creates tension in viewers until the point where the climax sublimely flourishes. However, those viewers who want quick, dramatic ghostly appearances that scare their socks off might be disappointed. But those who want a rather slow-pacing horror-cum-detective fiction will definitely like it.

This is not just a horror flick that aims to make viewers guess what's happening, it's also a stylish film, too. However, one sometimes wonders why the samaritan couple would wish to live in such a big house. Of course I understand that the protagonist Laura wants to remake the house, which was once the orphanage where she grew up, and turn it into her little paradise where she and her husband can form their own team of adopted children. (This sounds pretty much like Madonna and Angelina Jolie, but this trend has yet to catch up in Thailand.) Her samaritanism is on the verge of madness, as if it were motivated by her own guilt to survive and prosper after life in the orphanage. Her friends there, by contrast, disappeared without a trace.

The more she wanders around the house, trying to refurbish it, Laura gradually discovers a series of shocking truths. Needless to say, it also involves her only adopted son Simon, who keeps talking and playing with his imaginary friends. The director did a great job in making us feel not only horrified by the whole past incidents but sympathise with Laura in shouldering all these responsibilities.

However, if there's going to be a drawback, it's how little we know about Laura and what is the cause of her good will. Surely she had been brought up in the orphanage, but we're given too few details why she chooses to come back. Maybe I didn't watch it properly, but I couldn't help but feeling that the film would've been even better had the director provided more clues or played upon the issue of Laura's guilt.

Stranger than Fiction

Directed by Marc Foster, Stranger than Fiction is of course a film about fiction. Will Ferrell, playing Harold Crick, is pretty tamed in this film, not unlike Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. The plot is simple: Crick discovers that he's a character in an unfinished novel by an author who is renowned for her "ability" to kill characters. Of course, Crick is scared and tries every possible way to stop the author Karen Eiffel from killing him.

In the course of the film, the characters gradually develop. Crick has grown from a cold, indifferent IRS agent to a sensitive person who manages to understand the author and even let her kill him. Ana Pascal, a baker with whom he falls in love, also gradually learns to love the man for what he really is, despite her first impression of him as a cruel tax man. However, most touching of all is the development of Eiffel who begins to understand how her 'fiction' has intertwined with reality and the implications of what she's been doing. I'm not going to reveal the ending but suffice to say that Eiffel's decision at the end is a moment of understanding that's truly beautiful.

In my humble opinion, Stranger than Fiction is not just a film that aims to showcase the scriptwriter's intelligence and wit, but it also gives an insight into how to lead one's life and how magic always happens. This film may be a banal cliche for some, but for me it's really touchingly heroic. Not heroic in the sense of a knight in the shining armour saving the life of a princess, but heroic in the way an ordinary person can be.

Perhaps in the world that is getting more and more complicated, this film teaches us that stoicism is still a good option to stick to and God may perhaps be kind and let you live. That's all I can say, otherwise there'll be spoilers alert.

Coming Soon โปรแกรมหน้า วิญญาณอาฆาต

Coming Soon is a new horror film by GTH. Fun to watch, the film is based on a rather postmodern premise -- what if the ghost on the film comes out to haunt viewers. This play with the levels of reality is by no means new, as we have seen what Deconstructing Harry and Tristam Shandy have earlier made progress in this line of development. However, what is rather innovative in this film is the impact it has made on the viewer, as the viewer is quite accurately portrayed as voyeurs seeking pleasure and thrill without regarding carefully whence their joy may have derived.

I need to confess that when I was watching the film, my viewing experience somewhat changed: it was pretty scary to see they film the actual cinema whilst you know that the ghost was lurking somewhere. I couldn't help but relate that to my actual viewing as we were watching the film around 8pm in a rather empty cinema. But of course, deadened as my senses are, my fright disappeared five minutes after the film finished.

In fact, when we come to think about it, Coming Soon is less scary than The Shutter. I believe the reason is that it's simply too predictable. Somehow I realised half-way through the film what the ending was going to be like and I could guess when the ghost was about to appear. There's only one scene that scared me -- that's when the protagonist was talking to his friend, and suddenly his friend's face changed to the ghost's. So I guess that's the way forward: try to scare the viewer by not giving the clue what's going to happen. Also, try not to use any music to lead the viewer's feeling, as the viewer is pretty sophisticated and can sometimes guess (automatically) when the ghost is going to appear simply by guessing when the climax of the music will be.

However, if you don't expect some ingenious twists, this film still delivers some thrill. And if you like clever films that turn you into an idiot, this film may be good for you. This is because it touches on the issue of viewing as voyeurism: filmmakers and viewers are portrayed as irresponsible people who care about nothing but self-interest. While filmmakers want to make good films that earn them a lot of money, viewers are selfish and think of nothing but pure enjoyment and cheap thrills. Of course most horror viewers fall into this category and those who go to watch Coming Soon are not excluded.

Now the question remains: why do you pay money just to be insulted? Or are there so fewer tricks to frighten us now that the filmmaker needs to make us their victims? I bet in the near future they should make the film when the viewers themselves are turned into ghosts to haunt the director. That'd be fun and more flattering to us.

21 October 2008

Zizek!

It's such a joyful experience to watch Zizek! At first, I expected it to be a very difficult film with Slavoj Zizek talking non-stop from beginning to end. Of course, the Slovenian theorist talks a lot and you will not be disappointed if you want to hear him talk. In fact, his talk will cover about 98% of the whole film, while 1% sees him fidgeting and the other 1% is spent on the landscapes of various places, including Buenos Aires and New York, where this globetrotting theorist makes a visit.

This is not a difficult film and somehow I can understand his thoughts here better than reading his dense books, which of course are entertaining. Throughout the 71 minutes we can catch a glimpse of the witty man, whose mental stamina never flags and sometimes viewers just wonder whether this guy ever feels tired, thinking or just surviving. Of course, my feeling for Zizek is more of respect as I'm absolutely in awe of his dedication to philosophy at the expense of other aspects of life as a human being. Of course, what can I say when he claims that even being 'human' is one of the most well-hidden ideologies of all times! That's why he has no qualms about being a 'monster', one whose interest is in the rather insular sphere of modern-day intellectual theory. (I think this really sounds familiar!)

However, it's exactly this point that I beg to differ. Throughout the film, we begin to see that there's something behind his beautiful (some would say obscene) mind and his rather gauche personality. There's this need to be recognised, a strong, passionate determination to get his opinions across. (Once he even ran for a presidential election in his home country!) This is what perhaps becomes a paradox of the film: while Zizek himself declares that being human is just an ideology, he can't help but reveal, though inadvertently, this human side himself in the film. Or perhaps is this just 'my parallax view' of his image? Or perhaps does Zizek himself allow some space for this self-contradiction? Or should we take what he says seriously? There's a sense of joviality that belies seriousness, and at the same time there's a sense of gravity that belies play. We can never be sure how to deal with what he says. This is Zizek's style that blends humour with intellect, perhaps to show the absurdity of our search for the impossible real.

There's one scene you should not miss: Zizek (half-) naked in bed philosophizing about something I can't even remember. Perhaps I was too shocked at the time, never expecting to see him in such an intimate setting. Perhaps he tries to blur the private and public spheres, symbolizing his use of psychoanalysis (a tool for the private sphere of human mind) to analyse the public sphere of global capitalism. If so, this scene is really ingenious.

For me, this film is good. How can I evaluate the success? I don't really know how to explain, but after watching it I just want to read his books. Perhaps less to find fault than to see how he 'enjoys' life through his verbal performance.

19 October 2008

Serbis


Serbis, a new film from the Philippines, is about a family who runs a soft-porn cinema. It's self-reflexive, beginning with a naked girl (unwittingly) seducing viewers with her repeated phrase "I love you" and ending with a couple trying to negotiate in a sex trade. Of course the whole film is about lust and unfulfilled desire among the cinema's own clientele, but it undoubtedly plays upon the film's philosophical status as a desire-generating machine, turning viewers into voyeurs whose desire remains held in abeyance.

The Pineda family who runs this cinema, strategically and ironically called Family, suffers various plights: the Matriarch Nanay Flor loses her court case against her estranged husband; Alan, one of her nephews, makes a girl pregnant whilst having no wish in getting married; and Flor's daughter Nayda, though married with a son, finds herself in love with Ronald, a relative. One may be right to claim that the family members are struggling to hold themselves together, but one may be wrong to claim that they are giving up hope. What I find refreshing in Serbis is perhaps the fact that life's just like that, with moments of despair and hopelessness, but these are not occasions to give up. Despite all these, Nanay Flor continues to fight the ups and downs of her fate with pride and dignity. Her old age should not blind us to her grace and determination, something that has yet to pass on to the next generation, who are generally portrayed as being subject to uncontrollable desire or resigning themselves to fate.

(On this count, I couldn't help but compare this family to the Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which Ursula the matriarch tries to hold everything together.)

I particularly like the fact that throughout the film we are led into the nooks and crannies of the cinema, as if we were led into the labyrinth of desire (if we take this Family cinema metaphorically as the production house of desire) of the Pineda family. Of course, we have Serbis boys who are ready to satisfy the cinema clientele's sexual needs, but we also realise that the lives of the Pineda family themselves are perhaps even more salacious. However, watching their family romances does not create a soap opera feel, but rather something more primitive and sordid, yet universal, like a sexual act itself.

Even though I'm sure a lot of people out there would certainly reject this kind of place, branding it as a place of ill repute, the Family cinema in Serbis is more like a haven for some people who are lost or marginalised by the outside world. We see some touching images of those people who loiter in this unholy ground, yet they are happy chatting away and making friends among themselves.

Perhaps this cinema is like a goat that appears in front of the screen -- it is used as a scapegoat when the authorities need to mete out a punishment. They shut down bars, brothels, and of course soft-porn cinemas like the Family, but they never seem to take enough time to think about the real cause why people frequent this kind of place in the first place. Of course the film does not reveal the root of all the problems, but rather dwells on a temporary solution devised by the marginalised. So temporary and fleeting, yet for some it's beautiful and brutal at the same time.

07 October 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


It's time I reviewed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one of the most beautiful films that I've seen this year. It's a pleasant experience to watch such an uplifting film when my life is shit: 300 papers and 12 reports to mark and another academic programme to look after. Yet I'm still alive and face all this turmoil with bravery, especially after I've seen what Jean-Dominique Bauby underwent in the film ...

Even though he suffers from a stroke that has eventually rendered all parts of his body except an eye paralysed, Jean-Dominique Bauby (or Jean-Do as he would like people to call him) still finds his conditions not totally hopeless and even feels inspired to write an autobiography, an act of courage that very few can actually face up to in that situation.

What's beautiful in Jean-Do's storytelling is that he manages to look at his tragic fate from another perspective. He doesn't feel like a victim, but more a sacrificer whose suffering enables other people around him to understand more about love and communication. Thus, more than once we see him metaphorically in a diving bell (probably representing his suffering from the so-called locked-in syndrome) but spreading his arms out as if he were Jesus (probably representing his condition as a sacrificer for other people's happiness). His suffering brings his family together, becomes a cause for his therapists to have faith in life. Thus, he can no longer afford to die, as his life and death means too much for people around him.

Perhaps what this film wants to say is that we are not alone. Our act always has consequences, wittingly or not, for people around us. No man is an island and everyone is connected with another. Jean-Do's suffering, though paralysing him as if he were put in a diving bell, becomes a way for people around him to understand life. For his secretary Claude Mendibil, Jean-Do becomes her 'butterfly' as his imagination actually frees his life and paradoxically his life is thus less restrained than hers.

Perhaps what this film wants to say too is that the purpose of our life is not for us, but for people around us. Before the stroke, Jean-Do's life so far has been self-centered and careless. However, after the stroke, he learns to live with the locked-in syndrome with grace and understands the value of life if it can bring about the others' happiness.

I know this is really another cliche, but I've been thinking about it and trying to interpret my life along that line. Perhaps this is the reason why I've chosen to be a broke brainwasher. Perhaps just for now ...

29 September 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's films are almost always about simple stuff that middle or upper-middle class people do or find themselves involved, be it love, money, relationship, life and death. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his latest film to date and it makes viewers wishing to forget their bleak and gloomy present and fly to Barcelona to enjoy the European sunshine and late night relaxation.

The film is simple yet elegant, touching upon human follies and cowardice when faced with choice. We have two main characters: Vicky, the stern and uptight woman working on a dissertation on Catalan identity, and Cristina, a carefree spirit on the pursuit of real happiness. The two fall for Juan Antonio, a painter who is charming and spontaneous, tending to let his emotion overcome reason. Thus, it's not surprising that Juan Antonio and Cristina hit it off pretty quickly, yet what's even more astonishing is that he manages to turn Vicky's life upside down, as she realises that she's not really in love with the man she's about to marry in two weeks' time.

So what we see here in the film is that love or attachment is no longer a two-way interaction; it's much more complicated than that. Somehow Cristina's relationship with Juan Antonio helps him relate to his ex-wife Maria Elena better. In the same way, Juan Antonio's relationship with Vicky casts a new light on her long-term relationship with Doug. Perhaps what Allen is doing is to show the audience that love is not simply an intimate relationship between two people, but involves the issues of comparison and contrast. One needs to look at other relationships in order to gauge one's own. In addition, Allen manages to convince that these issues of comparison and contrast can also bring catastrophic consequences to a relationship.

However, the ending doesn't promise any solution. It's really life-like in that Cristina's search for happiness or meaning of life still goes on, while Vicky settles for her bourgeois marriage with Doug. Perhaps what Juan Antonio says is right: life hasn't got any meaning, so why not just enjoy it?

In a way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona involves the politics of place, as Barcelona is seen as changing the characters' mindsets and helping them towards self-discovery (a journey that by no means promises satisfaction). In Barcelona, New Yorkers learn to discover their desire (not unlike the Italians' journey to Turkey in Hamam or the Germans' trip to Italy in Death in Venice). Yet, one wonders whether Allen here dwells too much on stereotypes. But he's nonetheless successful in making this film a commercial for Spanish tourism.

28 September 2008

Otto; Or, Up with Dead People


Otto; Or, Up with Dead People was shown here last week as part of the Bangkok International Film Festival. Directed by Bruce Labruce, the film showcases a lost gay zombie. I found the whole film pretty touching as we are led not only to the awareness of the plight suffered by Otto, an exploited, beaten zombie, but also his confused mentality.

Of course, the influence of George A. Romero's films are more than patent as the politics of 'the living dead' is used to the full effect here too. We tend to think that gay people can't be zombies simply because they're marginalised and tend to be aware of their living conditions. Common sense seems to tell us that only the mainstream or the majority can be zombies because they take their mainstream values and beliefs for granted. Thus I have seen zombies loitering in shopping malls or sometimes I can even see three hundred zombies sitting in an exam room, slaving away for best grades. However, Bruce Labruce turns the table around and shows that gay people can be zombies too, especially in their attempt to create 'gay essence' and stick to it. Examples of gay essence would be effeminate mannerism, clubbing, sleeping around and becoming good at languages. Perhaps in this sense gay people and mainstream feminists are more suitable for zombie-making than their straight counterparts.

However, in Otto's case, being a zombie has a different rationale all together. He becomes a zombie, not because he follows what the gay route dictates, but more because he is used ironically to show how other people around him, though living, are even more zombie-like than him. By being a zombie, Otto reveals his human side: his confusion, his victimised state, his alienation, as well as his exploitation. I can't help but sympathising with Otto's own trauma as a psychopath-cum-pariah and admiring his positive outlook in the end, when he decides to go north as it can help keep his body from corruption. Like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, despite the evils and prejudices against the marginalised in the contemporary world, Otto remains strong (in a zombiesque way).

There are many layers in this film and Bruce Labruce also parodies himself in the process. There is also a film in the film, with Medea Yarn directing (and exploiting) Otto in her new film about gay zombie liberation. Medea Yarn and her partner Hella Bent believe in the power of the film and Medea herself uses theory jargon that at times becomes inscrutable. In addition, we also see the parody of the cult film, especially its emphasis on flesh, sex, and death. However, the politics of this film is not to transgress or to ask questions, but rather to make fun of the whole cult film industry which at times tries too hard to be serious and forget one of the foundations of film-making: pleasure.

20 September 2008

Persepolis

It's not that surprising to know that Persepolis has been such a success in the Western hemisphere. Western people adore this coming-of-age tale of an Iranian woman who escapes the ruthless regime of her country to the free world of France. The whole film can be used as a propaganda and an excuse for the West to invade the Middle East, as it shows how living in Iran means you're always under the State's surveillance.

Of course, I don't deny that it can be such a gruesome experience where freedom is limited and moral collectivism is at an all-time high. The sense of morality, though, is portrayed as insincere and at best an excuse for bribery or tea money for those who have power, especially the police. Compared to Iran, Europe is much better as a place where one can enjoy freedom and choice. Marjane roams around Vienna wearing pretty revealing clothes and chain-smoking, understandably a reactionary result of the oppressive time in her motherland.

Yet, one shouldn't treat the whole story as representative of women's experience in Iran, even though one is tempted to do so. Part of the reason is that Marjane's is an individual case which probably differs from the majority. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Marjane's family is pretty posh, revelling in their bourgeois condition. They seem to be well-absorbed in Western ideology, especially when we look at the character of her grandma who wears pearls and is more like a philosopher than an old lady. It makes me wonder how many old ladies in Iran are like Marjane's grandma. Are we touching on a highly rare case here?

The film itself says that the majority of Iranian people were illiterate, thereby voting for a Muslim nationalist party to take control after the Shah's reign. Marjane's family resented this, wishing that the communist party should really have taken control. However, I wonder if that really had happened, what'd happen to Iran now? Would it be even more oppressive? In this case, we find that Marjane's family was pretty intellectual and should by no means be taken as representative of Iranian culture. Her family is traced back to the Shah of Persia at one point and she was sent to study in Europe at high school. I wonder how many Iranian women would receive this privilege.

Perhaps at best we should treat this work as an autobiography which reflects Marjane's own singular experience. This experience, however, should not be exploited and universalised as Iranian women's, even though this tendency is tempting as the film and the book have been marketed as an ethnic-related story that tells the story of the whole tribe. I think this type of marketing is dangerous and misleading. In this case, I'd like to hear more from those working-class women. Perhaps they'd like to remain a devout Muslim and perhaps even view a woman like Marjane with contempt.

My opinion of this work is that I wish it could be less one-sided. It'd be better to consider this story from another point of view with a different set of rationales all together. In this story, we only see the Iranian State as the axis of evil while Europe is the axis of light. These rather facile stereotypes are in line with the two-dimensional graphic, which admittedly is well-crafted and charismatic in its own way. Perhaps it'd be a good idea to look for a second witness.

14 September 2008

After Dark ราตรีมหัศจรรย์

After Dark has just been translated into Thai and I didn't hesitate to buy it upon first seeing. Of course, you may accuse me of getting lazy to read the work in its English translation. But my rationale is that even the English edition is the translated one. So why bother?

Like Wong Kar Wai, Haruki Murakami has done a great job in making us believe that being lonely is cool, as well as listening to jazz and smoking in public places, coffee shops especially. In After Dark, Murakami revisits his signature themes, such as urban angst, loneliness, and alienation. Characters in this sleek novel loiter in the dark world of an anonymous city (probably none other than Tokyo). They are probably the Japanese version of those in Thailand who belong to the so-called Sleepless Society clan, engineered by the mastermind named Narongvit.

All the main characters are lost in some way or another in the big city, not knowing what they want or why they live. Mari likes to read a novel in a cafe at night-time; Takahashi likes to play his trombone in a secret place underneath a building. Then, due to the weird twist and turn of events, Mari needs to be an ad-hoc translator for a Chinese prostitute who has been maltreated by an unsatisfied businessman at a seedy hotel called Alphaville. But the irony is Mari never feels estranged at this hotel, even wishing to return there to talk to people at work there. Of course, she's more comfortable talking to strangers than to those she "knows well".

Some might say that this novel represents another optimistic turn in Murakami's career, when he sees some hope in this city life, when Mari manages to learn about love and care in one single night as she eventually returns home to help bring her sister Eri back from an existential slumber.

However, I choose to look another way. I'm more interested in violence in this novel. The guy who brutally beats up the Chinese prostitute turns out to be a simple guy, someone really normal who works in an unknown office somewhere in the city. His plainness is somewhat errie, as it means that we city-dwellers are prone to commit such an act of violence. Life in the city has somehow bestowed pressure upon us, whether we realise it or not. And this violence is infectious, spreading like a plague. For those who wish to survive in this urban arena, you must either be an alpha-male slaving away during the day time and becoming a sadistic evil at night, or you must retreat from the whole thing, sleeping yourself away like Eri in a condition of social withdrawal called hikikomori.

One of the scenes I like is the Chinese prostitute's mobile phone, which is left by the businessman at a 7-Eleven, to be found later by Takahashi and a sales assistant. Threatening messages from a Chinese gangster are heard by these Japanese characters. By such a symbolic gesture, violence is committed across time, space, and even language, to those who are not directly involved in the original act. But then can we really say that they are completely absolved from the crime? In this cityspace of intertwining, net-like human relations, we are all connected in some way or another. Without knowing, I by listening to the music of Pink Martini today may contribute to the genocide in a far-away country tomorrow.

Perhaps what Murakami is saying is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid an act of violence (either us being victimised, or on the contrary us hurting other people) in the city where the relationships among city-dwellers are both complex and ultra-sensitive. To live (or to just survive) therefore means simply to acknowledge this and to help each other go through. But then where's the destination? No destination but really just another site of darkness perhaps.

31 August 2008

Brazil

Directed by Terry Gilliam, Brazil is a touching film for those (me included) who are swamped with paperwork and lost in the administrative labyrinth. Had I watched this film five years ago when I didn't start my career, I wouldn't have understood it or sympathised with Sam Lowry, the protagonist who works in the Ministry of Information.

The plot is simple: Sam is a normal office worker, soullessly slaving away under the dominion of Mr Kurtzmann. Until the day he meets Jill, the woman that has appeared in his dreams, he falls in love and decides to escape his dreary world of officialdom. Of course, things are not easy because everything that happens is recorded and monitored by the authorities. Those who decide not to conform to the State's stringent rules and regulations will be 'deactivated' and vanish without traces.

From this perspective, Brazil may be regarded as a Kafkaesque prototype of such dystopian films as The Matrix and Minority Report, in which people are trapped and closely monitored by the State through technological advances. Looking back, I think Brazil can easily be compared to such films as Blade Runner, which similarly portrays a futuristic world that is both unlivable and soulless. The tone however is different: while Ridley Scott's Blade Runner touches upon this dystopian world through a rather serious and poetical viewpoint, Gilliam's Brazil chooses dark humour and satire (something quite British, I guess).

There're quite a few memorable scenes, including one in which Sam is ushered into his new windowless office partitioned in half by a thick wall. He even needs to share the desk. The reason I find this amusing (and sad at the same time) is simply because it resembles my office, which is similarly divided into two by bookcases. Another scene is the beginning when a bug is hit and falls into a machine, producing a printing error that leads to a series of mistakes and the unnecessary death of a wrongly accused man. This is rather chilling: it not only shows how we depend so much on machines, but also how chance works its way into this apparently foolproof system. No matter how much we try to systematise and regulate our world, things are bound to go not according to plan.

The ending, which I'm not going to reveal, is also very touching and worth waiting for.

23 August 2008

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai never changes. His is the spirit of a loner, a city-dweller who loves aestheticising his own alienation. Non-smokers may start to smoke after watching his films.

My Blueberry Nights is his first feature-length film that speaks English. I couldn't help but recall those days of yore when I first watched Chunking Express and Fallen Angel (lent to me by Celine herself). These two films became the first in the series of eye-openers that have completely changed my viewing experience. Before this, I had thought that watching films was all about trying to grasp what's going on. But Wong Kar Wai's films were so emotional that sometimes grasping what it meant was not the point; getting the feeling right was perhaps more of what he aimed at.

That's why I rather treat My Blueberry Nights as another confectionary, an object that appeals to the senses rather than to the critical faculty. Compared to a type of dessert, what else could it be but a blueberry pie, a savoury pastry that is shunned by the majority of people (who would of course go for chocolate cake or apple crumbles) but is a precious item for the marginalised, myself included. I don't know why I love blueberries but I like the colour and its sour yet sweet taste, especially when the berries themselves ooze their dark aromatic juice. This film is like blueberries and I just like it for the sake of its appeal to my senses. If you use reason, you probably wouldn't enjoy this film. You are bounded to have the following questions. How come Norah Jones (as Elizabeth in the film) is so naive? Can you still find such an innocent girl in New York? Haven't all New Yorkers been transformed into cynical senseless automatons? Why has Jude Law (as Jeremy) been so loyal to her waiting for her for almost a year? Can you still find such a nice man in New York? These questions are just starters. Some people out there will have more queries, I guess.

The thing is, you need to relax when watching this film and just get the pure emotions. Relish it. All the better if you smoke and have a glass of wine while watching it. Not because having lung and liver cancer is fashionable, but because watching the smoke linger and enjoying a glass of wine makes you ponder as things around you are becoming slower. If you follow these instructions, things start to make sense.

However, it still doesn't mean that I really enjoy this film and give it a thump-up. Not really. I don't mind it being stylised but I do mind when it gets too cheesy. Like when Lessie's father dies in hospital waiting for the stray daughter to return. But some scenes do bring about powerful emotions, like Lessie's loneliness and Arnie's acceptance of his failure. But in my opinion, what somehow mars these is arguably the acting. Of course I think they're all great actors, especially David Strathairn starring Arnie. But wouldn't it be better if the acting had been a bit more understated? That's perhaps what makes this film differ from Kar Wai's other films, such as Chunking Express and In the Mood for Love, in which characters reveal less emotion and more weird, eccentric action that functions as key symbols. Of course, symbols abound in this film too, such as the collection of keys, Elizabeth's wish to buy a car, and the blueberry pie.

The ending makes me think though: isn't Elizabeth such a cunning slut, pretending to be asleep so that Jeremy can kiss her at the end? Perhaps travelling turns her into a sophisticated girl in the end, making her realise that men are indeed important and it's infinitely better to die as a wife rather than as a single spinster.

16 August 2008

Wall-E

We went to see Wall-E this evening. I didn't know anything much about the film, but the company name Pixar would naturally guarantee its quality. Of course, I wasn't disappointed and was even able to sympathise with both robots in the film -- Wall-E and Eve. Perhaps ironically if the characters had been real people I wouldn't have been able to do so. Perhaps I've simply lost faith in humanity.

The message of this film would probably please Al Gore, as it aims to criticise all of us (even Al Gore) who can't stop consuming and eventually making the world an ugly big junk heap. I couldn't help but feel depressed after watching the film even though there's some sort of hope at the end of the film when people are willing to give it another try, i.e. to make the world a better place.

But isn't this self-contradictory? To live is to consume, I believe. And as long as we breathe, we eat, drink, be merry, and produce rubbish. Perhaps the world will actually fare better without us. In this line of thought, the ending is not perhaps as optimistic as it may seem. Of course, humans will start rebuilding their civilisation, but we have seen the downside of civilisation -- rubbish and more rubbish.

I'll attempt another reading of the film. I believe what the Auto decides is right -- to abort the world and thus force people to remain on board in permanent exile in space. But this is not because the world has become unlivable, but because if we return we just do more damage to the world. Towards the end, you can see that plants do grow on earth without any help from us. The world has already begun the process of self-healing and it's us once again who return to destroy it.

What right do we have to claim that the earth is our home? What right does the captain have when he says that he wishes to return home? As long as we continue to think in this anthropocentric vein, the earth will continue to suffer.

The Dark Knight



I know some blog readers might've thought I've completely vanished from the Blog world. The belief is, I must say, not totally unfounded as I haven't updated my blog for more than a month. Some might've thought that after reading a self-help book like Compass of Life, Dechito would've been brought back to sanity and started living as a monk, filling his time with meditation and religious chanting. Well, sometimes cynicism dies hard, even though there're a lot of films and books nowadays that elicit a need to believe, to have faith in mankind, not to give up hope that mankind is essentially virtuous and capable of positive sensibilities.

Yes, I'm talking about The Dark Knight. I know there're a lot of people out there who love it and begin seriously thinking about putting it in the list of the top ten best films of all time. I like the film too, especially the Joker, who is just so indifferent to social order. For me, he's more 'amoral' than 'immoral', especially in the sense that his anarchy makes us acknowledge the imaginary foundation of our ethical system, i.e. that our belief in what is right and wrong is just our own imagination. Like Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, the Joker makes us realise that our ethics doesn't exist prior to the birth of mankind, but 'after' our society begins to take root. For some reason, this reminds me of Nietzsche's philosophy.

That's perhaps why people are so scared of the Joker, not only because of his appearance, but mainly because his presence reminds us of something even starker. We can find no determinate cause for his evil making. Even his stories vary. Perhaps, the Joker might like to remind us, we're not decent animals after all; we just want to believe that we're a far superior race, but in fact we're simply not. The case of Harvey Dent as a man losing faith in humanity even drives us further into the abyss of pessimism and hopelessness. One couldn't help but feel sorry for this guy, but alas it's even more terrible to learn that there're a lot more people out there in the real world facing the similar crisis of faith.

That's why we need the Batman. He's a confirmation that we as a race are capable of unconditional sacrifice and virtuous acts. In the modern day when people tend to do something out of their interest, unconditionality becomes a marker of good and the Batman's role at the end to shoulder the responsibility somehow gives us hope. This film perhaps heralds a significant shift in our Zeitgeist -- we can no longer be cynical and indifferent towards everything around us, we need to act and hold on to our ethics 'even though' we know that it's all imaginary. (But of course when we come to seriously think about it, the Batman is so terribly rich he could afford to be good. Is it possible that good acts are reserved to rich people only?)

This doesn't mean that I agree with this ending. I couldn't help but be embarrassed when Commissioner Gordon extolls the Batman at the end, saying to his son that the Batman is an outsider, destined to live in the dark, blah blah blah, ending with the words 'he's the dark knight'. I almost fell off my seat. It's such a shame, with an ending as cheesy as that.

The other thing that I feel could be improved is the role of the betrayers. When it turns out that it's Detective Anna Ramirez who betrays everyone's trust, I couldn't help but wonder who she is. Her role is too marginal in the film and this twist really needs someone more significant. I think if the betrayer had been Commissioner Gordon himself, it would've been much better in terms of suspense and surprise. (Of course, LA Confidential is a very good example of this kind of twist.)

Well, the film does raise a lot of interesting questions. Like The Mist, it's not just a Hollywood blockbuster, it's also a philosophical tract rewriting what such philosophers as Kant and Nietzsche pondered and wrote long time ago.

12 July 2008

Compass of Life เข็มทิศชีวิต


It's probably not too far-fetched to claim that The Compass of Life, a self-help guide by Thitinart na Pattalung, is a big phenomenon in Thailand. The version that I possess is a copy from its fifty-fourth printing, with other roughly half a million copies currently spreading on the surface of Thailand and other parts of this planet. The reasons I bought this book vary: (1) I wanted to know what the fuss was all about; (2) I saw it's on sale (more than 50% reduction) at my local 7-11; and (3) I was bored.

Reading the book was a pleasure but still didn't give me any clues why it's distinctively so popular, whilst there are tonnes of other self-help guides on sale too. It took me a couple of weeks to ponder on the issue (as long as my free time allowed) and I've finally come up with some conclusions.

(1) The marketing. Even though it claims to be a self-help guide that uses Buddhist teachings, we don't see any pictures of Lord Buddha or amulets in this book. In their place, we find minimalist, yet stylish, illustrations by a hiso woman. This strategy probably appeals to those who are atheists or those who think that straightforward Buddhism is not cool. However, Buddhist teachings are anything but absent in this book. There are quite a few parables that show how our desirous mind is perhaps the cause of all our suffering; this is one of the main tenets of Buddhism.

(2) Preface. Famous celebs, such as Marsha and Udom Tae-Panich, wrote prefaces to this book. Normally you wouldn't imagine them in the prefaces of any self-help. Apart from these famous celebs, you have the big names, including those of Dr Prawes Wasi and Khunying Chamnongsri, to endorse the quality of this book. The mix-and-match of these big names and those of the celebs is ultra-chic for contemporary middle-class people who want glamour as well as intellect. Ergo: possessing this book means they are both glamourous and intellectual at the same time. What more do you want?

Also, needless to say, the author herself once was a hiso. Look at her surname. She may now still be a hiso, if we take a look at how many books actually have been sold.

(3) The content. Of course, in the age where the rise in oil prices happens almost everyday, people are bound to suffer, especially those who don't need to drive but need to keep up their appearance. These people suffer more, partly because they know that they don't need to drive to go to work or to uni. This rise can be compared to a slap at their middle-class cheek, to make them acknowledge that they are living on the surface, on the need to have others acknowledge their materialist credibility.

This book caters for such middle-class people whose immanent threats are not immediate or urgent. Their problems may concern debts arising from their wish to live in a good neighbourhood, even though they could've bought a cheaper home. Another threat is perhaps they just want to imitate the lifestyle of those four women in Sex and the City but couldn't earn enough to pay for it. All these problems may perhaps be accounted for by the middle-class veneration of the exchange value, rather than the use value, of everyday items. Sorry to sound like Marx, but I believe that it's time for us to stop and have a serious look at how we, as part of the ever-bigger always-expanding group of the middle-class, lead our life. Or to use Baudrillard's terms, perhaps we are now surrounded by hyperreal images projected to us through mass media and these images (or simulacra) in turn instigate our desire and appetite. (It's thus my belief that all those working in marketing or advertising should be shot or at least sent down South to help the police. Perhaps they need to see what 'real' life is like.)

From this perspective, perhaps The Compass of Life is famous because it emerges at the opportune time when we no longer know who we are anymore, no longer know what we want anymore, simply because mass media and society dictate our life to the extent that we can't just live, but need some navigational instruments to guide us.

06 July 2008

Teeth

Teeth, a film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, was fun to watch, as it is based on the imaginary plot of one interesting what-if. What if a girl has a vagina dentata (toothed vagina)? The film manages to show how teenagers nowadays are surrounded by temptations, both through peer pressure and mass media, to be sexually active before marriage.

Dawn, a female protagonist, tries to steer her life through this modern-day labyrinth of corporeal desire and materialist society, in which premarital sex is getting increasingly commonplace. She tries to stick to her belief that virginity should be kept until marriage (this sounds like Ronan Keating of Boyzone). However, it is not until she meets a series of men like Tobey and Bill that she realises that her promise is hard to keep and that men around her are just a bunch of desiring machines who know what abstinence means but never bothers to seriously practise it.

After such encounters with wrong men, Dawn starts to realise her mutated private part and gradually learns to acknowledge its potential power to punish men. All in all, it's a very good film that sheds light on how the vagina dentata can be used as a tool to perpetrate poetic justice.

However, when one dwells on something below the surface, I think the director plays upon the characterisation that is too facile. Men are always hunters and women are always preys. In the real world, one wonders whether such a disparity on that terms can be seriously held true. One such scene is when a male doctor probes into Dawn's vagina. Of course, a message is got across of how this doctor can make use of such a situation to fulfill his own sexual fantasy under the disguise of science, but one also wonders why Dawn does not particularly choose a female doctor to handle her case.

In fact, when one comes to think seriously about it, the myth of vagina dentata is mainly created by men because they are afraid of women, especially their dark cavern where men's vital force (semen) vanishes. This film is perhaps then directed by a man to men rather than to women. If the vagina dentata is just a myth, it still means that men are still safe and their conjured fear is unfounded. Moreover, their fear of the female private part is no longer just an anthropological and psychoanalytical truth, it can also milk money. When viewed in this light, women are still exploited paradoxically through their empowerment.

15 June 2008

Queens | Reinas

Directed by Manuel Gomez Pereira, Queens is a feel-good film perfect for a Saturday afternoon. Some may be put off by its rather banal plot of homosexual couples being discriminated by their own families, but the film manages to add some spices into this seemingly overused plot. Sticking with the Spanish tradition of romance, Queens showcases the confusing, yet humane relationships centering on three gay couples who are to wed on the same day, the first day that homosexual relationships are officially legalised.

What I like about this film is that it doesn't linger on how gay couples survive through discrimination and hatred, but how their families, especially their mothers, learn to cope with their sons' sexuality and become supportive in the increasingly liberal social atmosphere. What is beautiful in this film is that it's life-affirming and so self-reflexively melodramatic (something which can be aesthetically done in films from Spanish-speaking countries where the strong, direct expression of passion is natural). Somehow through the sentimental lens mainly reserved for soap opera, it manages to portray how parental prejudices are indeed still present and difficult to eradicate, but also manages to show how they can be overcome or at least lessened through acknowledgement of love. I know it's another cliche. But believe me they know how to make it fresh and witty.


The main plot of homosexual relationships is just the tip of the iceberg. Other themes touched on in this film include class difference, political manipulation, the status of Latin Americans in Spain, and business-love complications. The overcoming of sexual barriers leads the characters to reflect on other imaginary borders set up through prejudices and of course realise the possibility to overcome these too.


The ending of this film offers something significant too. Watching it makes me realise that after all we're just a bunch of humans with desire and longing. We need to struggle (i.e. to live) to prove that we're still alive and to make us forget our unavoidable death. This is so Spanish!

12 June 2008

The Happening


Sorry. Can't talk about M. Night Shyamalan's film without spoiling it. Those who haven't watched it please beware. I've warned you ...

A new film directed by Shyamalan, The Happening just can't be compared to The Sixth Sense. It's an apocalyptic film about a new plague that makes people lose their will to live and attempt to kill themselves. However, after the film finishes I'm sure a lot of the audience will still feel that they probably need more information about the plague. It's not clear what causes it and why it lasts for just a day ... Of course, explicative attempts have been made by way of dialogues and news clips, but they just don't add up. We feel like there should be more to it than just some plants oozing some toxic gas.

Another point that needs mending is the cheesy love story between Elliot and Alma. I just don't see that they have any chemistry together. Their relationship suffers because of Alma's character. She's a bit weird with her glaring eyes and rather eccentric personality, while we're not given enough details how Elliot is seen as irresponsible. For me, he's quite a nice guy throughout but it's her that needs mending. The fact that the plague stops when both of them decide to come out from their hiding place is just too cheesy and embarrassing. I just can't believe that this can still happen right now in the twenty-first century when coincidences and happy cheesy endings only happen in those films that set out to be cheesy and shamelessly romantic. The Happening doesn't set out to be like that and I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

In comparison, The Mist is far better both in its deployment of mystery and in its political message concerning the existential condition of humankind and the fear of the unknown. What is the message of The Happening? Sometimes nature works wonder and sometimes it may make you want to commit suicide. Or it's we who have destroyed nature and it's her turn to destroy us. Well, have we heard this a million times already? But Shyamalan's means to get this message across still needs mending.