16 April 2009

God Man Dog

It comes to me as no surprise that God Man Dog has been chosen to feature in quite a few film festivals. It also comes to me as no surprise that this film comes from Taiwan, a country with difference so vast both in terms of class and religion.

We see characters from different classes with various different religious beliefs. Involved are (1) an estranged middle-class couple, the man practising Chinese Buddhism and the woman starting to believe in Christian God; (2) a poor couple migrating from the Philippines, with their rigid belief in Jesus; (3) their daughter who practises San Da (a kind of kickboxing) and her girlfriend who wants to be a model; (4) a man called the 'Yellow Bull' who travels around collecting the unwanted replicas of gods or goddesses; and (5) a young vagabond who likes to hide himself in the luggage compartment in coaches.

Their lives crisscross and intertwine in various ways, begging us to ponder on the themes of fate and coincidence and how God is involved in all of these. For director Singing Chen, perhaps this concept of God transcends different religions as he seems to focus on the cosmic level of divine predetermination. No one can explain how it works and the law of karma seems to work its way subtly. For example, the Yellow Bull always seems to be unlucky even though he is a good man dedicating himself to repairing forsaken god replicas.

What I find beautiful about this film is that it makes me look at the chain of causal laws in a new way. We may not be rewarded in the way we want all the time but God always has his or her way in sending us signs and makes us realise the mystery of life. Or perhaps all this is just our interpretation in our attempt to make sense of this perhaps absurd universe. The film, I'm happy to say, manages to convey these levels of complexity in belief and faith.

I know some of you may have trouble understanding my review, but you need to watch the film to see what I mean.

11 April 2009

Memories of Matsuko

On the surface, Memories of Matsuko may appear like Amelie with its visual carnival and fairy-tale-like storytelling. But once the film finishes, there's something much heavier and interestingly more rewarding in this Japanese film.

The film charts the growth of a woman called Matsuko from her childhood till her death. What is special about Matsuko is that she just has too much love to give. Luck is, however, not on her side as her love is never returned: her father seems to devote all his love to his ailing sister, her boyfriends are either incapable of love or show their love through domestic violence (with of course Matsuko on the receiving end).

The fact that she is constantly beaten by her boyfriends has turned Matsuko into a pathetic creature who chooses to let herself be beaten than to stay alone without love. One may say that she's stupid, unable to learn from her mistakes, but I'd venture to say that the director manages to turn this stupidity into something rather heroic. She chooses not to learn from her experience, hoping that one day her whole-hearted love would be reciprocated both in similar quality and quantity. Her ability to absolve men's follies somehow equates her to God -- or at least a human god who is desperately in need of love.

The visual bonanza is somehow ironic. The colourful, flowery landscape of Japan should not blind us to the fact that there's a great deal of violence going on here. The contrast between the beautiful setting and the acts of violence (as in the scene where Matsuko is beaten by a teenager to death) is shocking. Yet, somehow this should be reserved to Japanese culture, whereby its pop culture, seemingly innocent, is laden with extreme violence and oppression.

However, like Happy Endings the film ends with hope. Even though the happy ending may not befall to Matsuko, it may be for those who learn from her, like her nephew Shou, or for those who are affected by her warmth and unrelenting faith in love. Hopefully this will happen to most viewers of this film.

10 April 2009

Happy Endings

I know this is an old film, released in 2005, but I just had a chance (and free time) to watch it. Now that Thai politics is anything but stable, it's perhaps my unconscious choice to watch a film with a positive name like 'Happy Endings'.

After viewing it, the title seems somewhat subtle: it's not plain Walt Disney-style happy endings, but kind of happy in As-Good-As-It-Gets style. The film plot doesn't promise any positive ending, yet director Don Roos manages to cast a positive light on it. The film involves lots of secrets and lies, and, if these aren't enough, lots of desires and confusions. It's set in LA and there are basically ten characters whose lives intersect and intertwine. It also seems like there's no morality here: a young girl and her stepbrother having sex with each other, a woman having sex with an older man for money, and an aspiring filmmaker wanting to be famous by exploiting other people's stories.

OK, this is America and what's surprising is that all these happen in a rather affluent suburb, reinforcing the claim made by such films as American Beauty that money doesn't promise benevolence or morality. In a way, the whole film can be construed as the American Dream gone awry, with these characters so lost, lonely and miserable. I think the film resembles Magnolia, but somehow chooses to portray these negative conditions in a lighter tone. However, there's a sense of optimism there when, towards the end, most characters dance together in a ballroom with Jude (superbly played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) crooning 'Just the Way You Are'.

I think the director prefers the status quo, saying that these characters are all too human, and being human means you are liable to make mistakes and seldom learn from them. There's no alternative but to accept our human frailty and weakness. However, as we're now entering the Obama age where (the possibility of) change is in the air, I wonder whether the director can do more than just portraying our all-too-human follies and giving up on all hopes for our redemption.

The paragraph I just wrote sounds weird to myself. Maybe Dechito's changing somehow, believing that he's a preacher who can change the world. Maybe he's no longer a cynic. Maybe he no longer wants to be an armchair philosopher. Maybe it's just his wistful thinking simply to be more than what he can be ...

01 April 2009

The Oxford Murders

In comparison with The Book of Murder, The Oxford Murders also by Guillermo Martinez is a literary gem. Everything seems to fall nicely together at the end and it shows that it's the work which probably had been in the author's mind for quite some time.

The story is simple: the main character is an Argentine exchange student who needs to study in Oxford for some time under the supervision of an Oxford professor. He studies mathematics, probably likened to the author himself who has a Ph.D. in mathematics. One day he finds out that his old landlady is brutally smothered to death. He witnesses the scene alongside famed mathematician Arthur Seldom. From then on, there occurs a series of murders that somehow can be linked to this murder, as the criminal intellectually leaves some signs at the crime scenes which puzzle both the student and the police.

There're possible criminals, such as (1) Beth, the landlady's granddaughter who dislikes taking care of the old lady, (2) Lorna, the student's lover who is an avid reader of crime fiction, (3) the father of a child who needs a lung transplant, and (4) Podorov, a bitter Russian student whose work was stolen. There're also some good symbols, including a dead badger which nobody dares to clear from the road for fear of bad luck.

The reason I like it is that there is a series of twists that happen in the novel until the last page. I thought I could figure out the ending yet the author's always one step ahead, already having taken into account what we thought. I found this ingenious and reminded me of Borges's 'Death and the Compass', a short story from Martinez's compatriot.

For those of you who are a fan of Eco's The Name of the Rose, you just can't miss this great work!

The Book of Murder

I didn't realise until today that I had disappeared for almost a month. There's no one but myself to blame. Anyway, let's review something different, this time a detective novel called The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez. Two reasons made me feel interested: the author is an Argentine and the crime is intellectual. These two reasons of course are related to my love for Borges in the beginning.

I need to confess that I've decided to sell this book to a second-hand bookshop before I leave for Bangkok this weekend. (I've of course bought some other books here in San Francisco so I need to sell those that I don't plan to keep.) Sadly this novel has to go, the reason being that the ending is a bit too weak (or for some too intellectual). I still prefer the old-fashioned detective story whereby all clues lead to a good end where all the knots are untied nicely and rationally. This one seems to lead to another sphere altogether. For fear of spoiling, I just can't tell you the ending.

The narrator is an aspiring author and he knows a young woman who takes dictation named Luciana B. Luciana works for another famous writer, Kloster, who is a mammoth figure in the Argentine literary circle. One day Luciana claims that Kloster tries to harass her sexually. This action leads to a series of catastrophic results, with Kloster's wife asking for a divorce and taking their only daughter under her care.

However, things don't turn out well for Luciana either. Even though she receives a great amount of money from Kloster, her family and boyfriend start to die for mysterious reasons with only her sister Valentina the sole survivor.

On a superficial level, one can perhaps safely say that Martinez's novel is about revenge but on a deeper level it concerns divine retribution and cosmic karma. The fact that Kloster is an author shouldn't be ignored here as his position can be pitched against that of God, who decrees the fate of mankind. So it goes without saying that when the series of murders that occur to Luciana's loved ones correspond to those in his novel, Martinez seems to concern himself with the serious issues of fate and fatalism.

However, when a detective novel concerns itself with fate and such divine retribution, it can't help but sacrificing the fun of causality and 'rational retracing'. If a series of actions can no longer be attributed to a law of causality (at least on a human plane) but to the arbitrariness of cosmic coincidences, then a detective novel is no longer a detective novel; it's become something more monstrous.

Yet I still can't explain why I don't want to keep The Book of Murder. Maybe the ending is a bit weak, in comparison with The Oxford Murders, which is simply marvellous. Maybe there are a lot of knots being untied. Maybe there're a lot of empty spaces that just remind us of how much of this cosmic fatalism can have a go at us.