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?