Monday, November 30, 2009

It seems to me that Hollywood spends an awful lot to package and distribute films that aren't even very good.  Then there's Hong Kong.  As a Tiny Tony Leung Chiu-Wai fan, I recently acquired a copy of "Infernal Affairs III" and was astonished at the way the DVD itself was packaged.

The disc came in a light plastic film bag, that was in a heavier plastic DVD envelope that was placed, loosely, in the standard DVD plastic box which was itself presented in a cardboard wrapper-box, the kind that opens like a book. The "cover/poster" image was repeated a total of five times; the back credits twice.  It was like a Russian nesting doll. But with no final Tiny Tony action figure inside.  More's the pity.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I have been deriving a lot of pleasure and some inspiring lessons from my recent deep immersion in the wu xia pian (films and the even more melodramatic TV series.)  Wu xia is the Chinese sword and sorcery genre, and can be set anytime from pre-Qin to post-Qing, and that's a lot of territory indeed. Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon (Qing Dynasty, you can always tell from the hair styles) was perhaps the first wu xia pian to have great broad commercial appeal in the West, but it was nothing new, and is not my favorite of the genre.

Even though the wu xia is topically mythical, (and spiritually inspiring like The Lord of the Rings) you still can learn a lot of history, culture and language (despite the bizarre subtitles) from these productions -- or at least that's how I justify my time spent with these extravagant historical TVB maxi-series, sometimes running upwards of 30 hours.  (Also I have contributed significantly to the local economy, particularly the Dragon Gate Bookstore in Chinatown, my favorite video purveyor.) And moreover, in a Jungian sense, myth is just another kind of truth.

Unabashedly escapist, there is something delightful in these films which are devoid of anything that smacks of modernity** -- cell phones, computers, broadcasting, fast food, cars, or dry cleaners (for all those silk robes). Right now I am in the midst of Twin of Brothers, set in the early Tang dynasty and filmed in mainland China with gorgeous sets, actors, costumes and horses.

Wu xia has the same moral and nostalgic appeal found in gunslinger Westerns (think Shane or Paladin), Arthurian legend, and BBC/Masterpiece Theatre costume dramas of Restoration, Romantic, Victorian, Edwardian England. And Shakespeare.  The constants are romantic characters (human nature) in beautiful silk clothes that stay clean without dry cleaning.  And tea.  And wine.  And weapons.  And the yin and yang of  duplicity and honor.

In the wu xia there is a lot of romantic and erotic tension, but in a Confucian chaste.  I am familiar with the delicate metaphorical treatment of sexual relationships and activities peculiar to some films coming out of Mainland China...but these Hong Kong wu xia dramas are even less explicit (even though there are plenty of Hong Kong movies that are extremely violent and pornographic).   Confucian values in the stories place tremendous modesty and self control on the characters, who may feel great love and lust for each other --but ultimately the restraint sometimes leads to unfortunate unrequited love.  In some cases, though, and it's usually the women, who are generally strong, the characters have larger committments to their fathers or shifu (sifu/sensei).

Central to the wu xia genre is the shifu /student relationship, something a little unusual for 21st Century Americans to grasp.  We have supplanted it with manager/employee relations in our workplaces, (shifu as boss or supervisor) but lacking completely the spirit and devotion, the larger purpose.  No martial arts manuals or magical swords and projections of qi for us, we have management tools and processes and procedures and regulations and Excel to accomplish our missions.  How dull and uncreative.  How I would love a sword to carry to meetings, a beautiful embellished dao to lay on my desk instead of a cell phone. (No, I am not hinting at workplace violence, just workplace power and magic...and a little romance.) How wonderful it would be to simply gather my qi and project it across a conference room table and then just fly away.

In the meantime, I have 25 more episodes of Twin of Brothers to enjoy.  Pity this one doesn't have Vincent Zhao or  Power Chan in the cast.

**Although there is a scene I must revisit...the good guys are escaping on a boat on a river, probably the Yangtze, and in the background, on the shore there is what appears to be a crane assembly for a container ship. A little fuzzy and out of focus, but there it is.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sure enough, when I feel overwhelmed by gloom and disappointment, it is a certain sign of a shifting in the energies of my little part of the universe.  Disappointed not only in the careless slaughter of my beloved albizia trees (see previous recent posts), but also in discovering that a couple of my very favorite YouTube videos have been vanished (due to ownership/copyright issues), I am heartened to realize the sun will be entering my own birth sign this weekend.  I am always pensive through Scorpio, a feeling my western astrologer friend says is only natural.  We evaluate ourselves before our birthdays, markers in the cycles of our lives.  Or maybe not. 

I will cope with not being able to visit my favorite Vincent Zhao wushu demonstration on You tube -- I can no longer even point you to it. I have pretty much memorized the routine, so if I just close my eyes, I can almost see it, and maybe practice as if I am following along. And since I have pretty much acquired his entire ouvre with English subtitles, I can hardly complain about the loss of a 2-minute sequence. (What do I want most for Christmas?  Private tai chi lessons with Vincent Zhao!)  And when he gets famous in the West when/if True Legend is ever released (apparently scheduled for a Chinese New Year release in Singapore), just remember, I knew him before!

And the missing Bob Dylan concert video? Well, even had I been AT those concerts, I wouldn't be able to remember them as well.  They all become just another dreamy memory.

Arriving at work, I notice the maintenance staff has put holiday wreaths on the building and are busy stringing lights up the trunks of the palm trees in the parking lot.  And Starbucks is fully in Christmas mode, decked out with snowy pine boughs, and coffee-themed gifts and Christmas CDs on offer.  If it wasn't for all this, it would still feel like July.  We got through the hurricane season (August through October) --the humid depressing late summer in Hawaii-- and now are coming up on the solstice.  The seasonal clues are so subtle here, but I can feel them (trade winds more reliable, cooler nights mo' bettah for sleeping) ... and with the help of Starbucks and the oddly out-of-place holiday decorations (as strange as a tiki bar theme for Thanksgiving in New England). While it seems a little early for all this stuff, I have decided to go with the flow and enjoy; it all comes down so soon after Christmas. 

In the meantime, I am planning my regular Thanksgiving getaway on a Neighbor Island -- Maui this year-- with my astrologer friend.  While we never take pork over the Pali, there is no prohibition about carving up a turkey in Hana!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I guess it's as creepy as taking a photo of a corpse at a funeral (which I actually did at my father's funeral, thinking his sister might want to see proof that her brother was nicely laid out but I never sent the photos on), but I photographed the remnants of the tree trimming.  At the same time, in a kind of funeral gesture, I dumped a bucket of old lei into the stream.  The disposal of lei, the beautiful Hawaiian gesture of aloha that ultimately results in strings of dead flowers and leaves, is problematic. It is disturbing to see a lei tossed in a trash bin. I am told that they should be reverently returned to their source, to nature.  If they can cut down my trees, I don't think anyone can complain if I dump my accumulated old lei into the stream. So here, the dried remnants float away.

And then I documented the corpses and skeletons of the trees.

This one below is actually three branches from the same trunk.  It is huge. It will be a major effort to remove it.

What was everyone thinking?
Working through my resentment at the tree removals, I find other things to look at.  I can now observe clearly the raging stream of muddy water coming down from the mountains as a result of recent rainy weather.

Sorry the image is not as clear as could be, I don't have a telephoto lens on my trusty little Casio EXILIM.

Insider information provided to me has indicated that liability was not the real issue in these tree sacrifices. (Really, that's what we have insurance for.)  The problem was partly that there were people who do not share our view, both literal and not, of the trees...they want a sort of controlled presentation of nature: those trees are in the way of modern order.  And there is the nature jingoist camp: the albizia is not a native tree!  (Like what is NATIVE in Hawaii anyway?) There is a school of thought that claims that anything that didn't get here on its own (through surf wash-up or bird droppings) is a non-native species. Thus, got to go.  Illegal alien. No passport, deportation. Bring on the chain saw.

Several years ago, when I worked for an environmental education non-profit,  I was privileged to visit one of the last remaining truly native places in Hawaii, a Nature Conservancy-preserved Hawaiian rainforest on Maui, on the north slope of Haleakala.  It is very beautiful, spiritual really, but it is odd.  The native Hawaiian rainforest is upside down: all the biodiversity is on the bottom, there is nothing reaching to the heavens.

In this ideological environmental struggle, there are concessions made about endemic (as opposed to invasive) species.  Endemics are acceptable, like coconut palms (the pathetic replacements for our albizias) because they were brought by native people, in the period pre-contact with Westerners.  So pigs and coco palms are endemic and acceptable. Although everyone agrees that wild pigs are a nuisance (but delicious--they can be hunted only with dogs and a bow and arrow).

If you come to Hawaii you will wonder why there are coconut palms high up in the mountains; the coconut is supposed to wash up on the shore and root itself.  It is said that a coconut was planted wherever a wild pig was killed. (And where did those pigs come from?)  Whether this is to propitiate some spirit, or to signal that "pigs have been found in this area" is not clear to me.  I am treading on sensitive territory here.

In my mind though, the bottom line is that in the larger scheme of things, a tree is a tree.  My albizias were really well established.  (Huge trunks, like this one, more than 4 feet from top to bottom.)

And I miss the beauty of the treetops, the birds coming and going in the branches, the fragrance of the blossoms that kept bees busy.  I am told the people (i.e., the condo board members, think "Congress") who voted for the removal of the trees do not live in or on my side of the building. Democracy in action. (I have often thought that if we want to present American-style democracy to the world, we should just invite a few of the potential converts to a condo board meeting.  Then we'll see what happens!)

Thursday, November 12, 2009


If our consciousness does create the universe, it must have manifested my concept for Kung Fu Doc, a version of House, M.D. where M.D. means Ming Dynasty! My latest in an ongoing preoccupation with Hong Kong TVB series on DVD is  The Herbalist's Manual based more or less on a true story of Chinese medicine.  Since I always fail to tune in to House at the right time, and I don't like to watch commercial television (i.e., TV with commercial interruptions) anyway, this HK series will keep me entertained until I download or stream a few of the current season's House episodes (or more likely wait for the entire DVD set).

THM doesn't have much going on with kung fu, but there are wonderful scenes of wandering around in the idyllic Guilin countryside gathering herbs and fulfilling destinies.  The main character has a little struggle in the beginning -- his father, a doctor, wants him to sit for the civil service exams and become an official, not to continue the lowly family tradition of herb doctor. Not exactly a contemporary plot. Can you imagine anyone saying, "No med school for you, you must work for the DMV!"  But the young man prevails and manages some medical successes, with the assistance of a crazy old coot of a sifu/doctor with extremely bizarre two-toned eyebrows called Little Buddha (played*** by the flamboyantly operatic and charming character actor Power Chan, below, as eccentric and goofy as Hugh Laurie) and his daughter, who is thwarted in her own desire to become a doctor (because she's a woman--now that does sound more contemporary). There are hints though that Little Buddha isn't who everyone thinks he is anyway.  A staple of these dramas.

The plot is wild and crazy (and I'm not even half-way through): Little Buddha/Power Chan inspires the young doc by intervening in a flu pandemic with treatments that involve eating live field mice and humidifying and fumigating living quarters with steaming vinegar!  Strangely timely, the flu pandemic plot --probably reminiscent  and meaningful to Hong Kong audiences used to panicking about SARS, bird and swine flus -- features quarantine in the mountains, where the government doctor, favored by the Prince, avoids doing any actual work with the local medical establishment, but does manage to get funding for "expensive imperial medicines" to supplement the common folks' folk remedies (various herbs and the mice and vinegar).  I think the government doctor is destined to become romantically involved with the homeopath/sifu Power Chan's wanna-be doctor-daughter, who actually loves and is loved by the stubborn young doctor who reluctantly married his original arranged fiancee, the daughter of the local Prince, believing that the sifu's daughter was going to marry his own brother.  Got that?  Chinese opera style!  There is a lesson in all these tales: not being forthright about your romantic intentions invariably leads to mis-marriages and unhappiness.

I was quite charmed by Power Chan as the Tolkienish-thief/sifu/military strategist with a pipe in Lethal Weapons of Love and Passion, where I recognized him from the Master Of Tai Chi, there playing a character that was relatively modern if emotionally volatile, but a good guy in the end, and best of all, in a cast with Vincent Zhao.  I guess I have gone over some threshold where I not only am recognizing (maybe, see footnote below) all these Hong Kong actors, but have favorites and opinions!

***I THINK it's Power Chan...the make-up is pretty extreme, but the acting style is the same.  I only wonder, because Power makes another appearance as a drunken prince a few episodes later in the series.  I can't find any definitive information to confirm that the crazy doctor is him; no reason why he can't play both roles.  I keep going back and forth in the video to compare the ears of the two characters.  I'm pretty sure they're the same, but not ready to bet my life on it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

but they can't steal my qi!

They're just doing their job, a scary one really.

And the Yellow Emperor doesn't seem to object.

And I can still paint, channeling the qi, to feel the dao.  It's a weeping willow.  I'll post the finished version over on the Yang TAO 61.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

And as in most wars, it is the innocent who are the victims in a campaign waged in defense of some social principle (misguided or not).  I pretty much knew that when I came home after work today I would be pissed--the tree trimmers were at it again this morning, taking out more of the "dangerous" albizias.  Sure enough, I arrived home to find my lanai view "improved" with a much better view of the parking lot.  Here are the views I have been accustomed to:

Invisible Parking Lot

Tranquil Treetops

Here is the view I now must turn my back on when lighting my morning incense

Parking Lot in Paradise

I have a feeling that the remaining trees to the right and left of the gaping area will be gone by tonight: the tree trimmer trucks are still lurking.

Such irony after returning from a brief autumn visit to Portland where the tree is pretty much the dominant life form.  I was talking with our hotel desk clerk there who told me that Portland was built by timber barons, much like Hawaii was built by the pineapple and sugar industry.  But things do change.  Paradise keeps getting adjusted and paved over for parking lots and developments, much as my peaceful memory of the Portland Japanese Garden has been overwritten with the new "landscape" view from my lanai.  Somehow though, Portland has a social consciousness that has preserved the tree despite the timber industry.

Of course it isn't really war against the trees themselves (that's more the case with kudzu); the battle conducted with chain saws and wood chippers is waged to protect against liability in the case of a tree branch falling on one of the precious automobiles in the parking lot (which appears much bigger than I previously perceived from the 10th floor).  Oh, and of course to avoid tree limbs falling on precious children, who are probably more likely to be run over by the precious automobiles than to be injured by the trees.  We couldn't possibly park the cars somewhere else. And I spent a lot of time as a kid running around in untended dangerous woods and never got clobbered by anything (although I did walk into a tree and knock myself out after getting hit on the head with a softball at a church picnic.)

Still, nobody seems to be mourning the trees but me; I think everyone else is inside watching TV, hyped up on news and commercials about the the health and auto insurance everyone absolutely must have.  Has anyone considered that the Geico gecko lives in one of the albizias? I've seen his cousins there.

I'm just a little bitter because my lovely lanai is now not quite as conducive to the mood I like for meditation and painting.  I'll get used to it; I have no choice, and I'm sure many people will say it's not THAT bad.  In the larger scheme of things, what're a few trees?  A real war is bloody, claims human life, causes famine, loss of livelihood, and even worse environmental destruction.  But peace is peace, and I have lost just a little of mine. And still...who mourns for the trees?