Friday, December 24, 2010

you get an Apple tablet computer in Bangkok, is it a thaiPad?
Continuing escape interwoven among the slow but intriguing episodes of Sunzi Bingfa: The Postman Fights Back, The Warrior, and Donnie Yen's Legend of the Fist:The Return of Chen Zhen.

I really should get some sort of military commission or at least a federal job, maybe in the State Department or an intelligence agency, after all this strategy study.

I stumbled on The Postman Fights Back while doing Dec. 23 Christmas shopping* and wandered into a strange but well-organized little used-media shop at the mall.** I was looking for a copy of Master Hua-Ching Ni's I Ching commentary -- you never know what people have cast off -- and found serious cheap bargains among an odd tiny selection between "Buddhism" and "New Age": a nice large format book on Ba Gua, and, just for kicks, and possibly giggles, why not, "Qi Dao-Tibetan Shamanic Qigong" by Lama Somananda Tantrapa, who runs a qigong/MA studio in Portland, Oregon. LST looks more KGB agent than Tibetan Lama, on the cover manipulating what appears to be a giant ball of plutonium (green energy) and promotes a kind of improvisational qigong. (He claims some sort of complicated shamanic/triple-Buddhist lineage, like Rasputin but with better grooming.) Well, if I can buy tickets to Falun Dafa's Broadway-style propaganda, I can at least read this on the cheap and judge for myself. All the techniques look legitimate, but I may have to visit the place in Portland to decide if the guy is for real.

Then to an 18-inch shelf of martial arts movies, all but one of which I own or have seen. Never heard of The Postman Fights Back (Postman Rings Twice, and Postmen in the Mountains, but not this.) It's a reissue of a early '80s film with Chow Yun Fat, before he was a mega-gun-fu star, relying on intense charm and good looks, smoking cigarettes in scholar's robes (looking like a young Confucius) and not too bad kicking. The plot involved being asked to cart some mysterious packages to a warlord in the north who was fighting for Yuan Shikai after he declared himself emperor in 1916. (Interesting history here, kind of reactionary after the fall of the Qing; in true imperial fashion Shikai had 10 wives and 32 children. He didn't really get the concept of "republic." Not that Mao really did, either. All that chaos between dynasties.)

A trek through the mountains--this theme is like a recurring dream and recalled Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa's romp through Siberian wilderness. The mysterious packages turn out to be parts for a machine gun. Serious bloody gun-fu ensues. In the end, the protagonist/postman, (not CYF), overcomes the bad guy with a clever bamboo dagger, assembled so that after impaled in your gut, when you pull it out, it explodes like a firecracker. (Like some of the bizarre weaponry used in The Four.) Which suggests that machine guns and daggers do not kill people, people kill people, and themselves. But the bamboo dagger was much more elegant.

And even more elegant was Donnie Yen, who took out a WWI German machine gun nest with his feet and fists as Chen Zhen, though I think he did make efficient use of a conventional dagger.

Postman Fights Back used the mountain courier as an element, which was also central to Postmen in the Mountains, a lovely 1999 film, not at all martial or historical, that I enjoyed a few months ago, even if the last 10 minutes on my cheap DVD were unwatchable. I don't think it mattered, there wasn't much of a plot for climax.

Which there was in The Warrior, a 2005 Hindi film which featured the spiritual conversion of a warrior/tax collector on his romp through the Himalayas to escape his pursuers. A kind of Indian mafia story, shows it's hard to leave the family...but you can, though you might compromise you own high principles at the very end. No postal theme here; the mob didn't rely on courier services, they just raped and pillaged on their own.

Countering all the violence in these films, I must point out that in my three recent holiday visits to the U.S. Post Office, the postal clerks were all models of efficiency and compassion in the face of this busy season. In Sunzi Bingfa, communications are sometimes transmitted on silk, with calligraphy, attached to well-aimed arrows. Talk about express mail. But this holiday, no evidence of anyone "going postal."

* When you always find the coolest things for yourself.

**Cleverly called "Book-off" and run by an immigrant Chinese man who on check-out asked me if I had any books to sell. Mai mai, how the economy works. (In Chinese, mai (3) and mai (4) are two different words, with different tones, which mean buy and sell. When Vincent Zhao implores, at the end of the clip, "meiyou mai mai," he's saying "no buy, no sell." Can you not say meiyou to this man?)

***I have nothing but respect for the Post Office. Maybe not so much American Airlines Cargo, who seriously delayed a critical shipment I arranged last week. Was this retribution for making fun of their digital Christmas Card?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Just wondering. These were readily available in a street market, a mall of fresh delicacies, in Xian. The reality of China. Get 'em while they're hot...and cold.
Fire Turtles?

Ice Toads?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

While I have been enjoying a 36-episode mainland-produced Chinese TV-series about Sun Tzu and Sun Bin (The Art of War and the 36 Stratagems), I've taken a break now and then from the slow-paced drama, (by Korean drama standards), a little didactic at turns, even though the characters are interesting and attractive, and the Mandarin is slow and simple enough to make me think I can speak and understand it. I bought this set of DVDs in Hong Kong a couple years ago thinking it was an academic PBS kind of exposition about the Art of War, but I was wrong. It's a TV play. It has a quality that makes me think of peasants sharing a TV in a village and enjoying a cultural rendition of their heritage from 2,000 years in the past.

I was poking around on the Wizard's shelf of Teaching Company CDs which include pretty much the entire history of Western Civilization back to Mesopotamia and wondered why he never wanted to listen to my set of "From Yao to Mao," the only real Asian history course available from the company.

"I'm interested in where I came from," he said. Which leads me to wonder if I was Chinese in another life.

The entertainment breaks I take from Sunzi Bingfa are kung -fu movies. In a curious completion of a series, I watched Kung-Fu Master (called something else in Chinese) with Yuen Biao, an unintentional (?) third part of a trilogy by the intricately connected Three Guys (above right): Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and, Yuen Biao. Maybe not as holy as the three pure ones, but it might be fun to see them in a film as Fuk, Luk, and Sau, (below left) the Chinese Gods of Good Fortune.***

I kinda detested Jackie Chan's recent remake of Karate (Kung Fu) Kid, as much as I kinda liked his Wushu with Sammo Hung. Both had kind of the same theme, masters somewhat reluctantly bringing along young students.

But I wasn't quite sure what to make of Kung-Fu Master, with a more classical historical theme, which opened with some creepy scenes (kung fu with a coffin?) that blended an ambiance of King Hu's A Touch of Zen with surreal 1960s Avengers action. I rented the DVD from Blockbuster, watched about 15 minutes and returned it. But I added it to my Netflix queue, and gave it another shot.

The film is basically one long fight, with an incomprehensible plot. However, I understand it is an abridged version of a TV-series, which may explain why it was marketed as a film, for people who like to see the kung fu without caring why the action is taking place.

Yuen Biao, right, who is just wonderful, if like Jackie and Sammo, maybe just a bit long in the tooth, (like myself) works his way through a kind of test by an evil general who has some sort of grudge against the Shaolin Temple. Eventually, the Temple is destroyed and Yuen Biao, "Omitofo," and his band of brothers vanquish the evil forces and, since their temple has been demolished, one can only surmise they go on to perform shows on stages in Beijing, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

I was a little frustrated with an inexplicable reconciliation with one of the assassins who are out to get Yuen Biao, I think it was Nicholas Tse, and I eagerly waited for him to return to the action, but he never did. There was a scene, reminiscent of the guqin-accompanied imaginary duel between Jet Li and Donnie Yen in Hero, where the 7-stringed lute is used as a lethal weapon. And in a very Avengers surreal nightmare scene, Yuen Biao negotiates a HUGE tangled pile of Chinese benches. (I liked this, at left, a lot; it reminded me of when I broke the Taoist hermit's stool. And how I usually feel about housework. Not that I'm so skilled at it.)

My first impression was this was the worst kung fu film I'd ever seen, but the scenes are lingering in my mind, as hard to ignore as the strange mole on Yuen Biao's forehead, more noticeable than the burn scars on his scalp which identified him as a Shaolin monk.

With this still on my mind, I paid a visit to The Dragon Gate Bookstore where my video vendor read my thoughts and laid out for me copies of Tsui Hark's Detective Dee, and Donnie Yen's Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen.

I paused watching Detective Dee (which features Andy Lau as a character initially as raggedy as Vincent Zhao's drunken master in True Legend/Su this a trend?) to jot these thoughts down. Detective Dee, set in the Tang Dynasty during the coronation of the only female Son of Heaven of China, Empress Wu, opens with the frequent spontaneous human combustion ("self-burning") of some guys involved with constructing a REALLY HUGE Buddha in her honor, way bigger than Yuen Biao's pile of benches...this CGI Buddha makes Hong Kong's Big Buddha look like a lawn ornament. Andy Lau is retrieved from prison (and nicely cleaned up and shaved) to solve the case, where the Buddha is intended to literally topple the empire, and the most significant clue in which is highly poisonous "fire turtles," the seeming opposite of the medicinal ice toads, about which I have previously commented. I might note the fire turtles look remarkably like a delicacy I avoided in Xian a couple years ago.

I've recently watched a few Korean and Chinese dramas of a forensic detective nature (The Four, Damo), and I can only hope this will live up to those standards. Such as they are.

***And now I am getting a concept for a screen play about the Three Pure Ones; the number one of them, Yu Huang, the Jade Ruler or the Pearly Emperor, was said to have been so "super-eminently beautiful ...that none became weary when beholding him." So do I cast Vincent Zhao or Song Il-guk? Well, since there are three protagonists, I can throw in Tony Leung Chiu-wai and have a truly dazzling fantasy epic with all three, gods representing the entire Hong Kong, Mainland and Korean film industry.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

While beginning (and possibly, hopefully, completing) my holiday shopping at the mall last night, I bought a present for us, me and the Wizard, or more accurately, myself, two tickets to January's performance of Shen Yun. I'd just selected a couple of Aloha shirts at Macy's (the former Liberty House, as most of us who have been in Hawaii for some time still call it) for him and his father, choosing them in less time than it took me to pay for them. Was it my current preoccupation with K-drama that drew me to some really very nice shirts made in Korea? And 40% off. Which I discovered after I pulled them off the rack. I am at my most decisive, and lucky, at Christmas. (Read about picking out a tree over on the Yang Side.)

Then a stop at Sephora whose $20 discount coupon was burning a hole in my complexion. (Only Sephora discounts cosmetics; the big department stores like Macy's/Liberty House never do.) I have largely overcome my obsession with maquillage et parfum, but every now and then, I succumb to a girly desire. It was my birthday, more or less; they promised me a birthday gift. But the clerk forgot to give it to me. It is a test of my obsession: do I go back to claim it?

Still, good scores in hand, I was feeling a little drunk on plastic money when I was attracted to a kiosk promoting a big Chinese performing arts spectacular to occur in January at our concert hall where we have season tickets to the opera. On the signage, a leaping Chinese guy in a topknot with an archer's bow--that will stop me in my tracks any time. Two Chinese women were touting the show..."a visually dazzling tour of Chinese history and culture." Having missed Zhang Yimou's big production at Hangzhou's West Lake, and as an afficionado of shows like the Shaolin Monks (in Beijing); a bizarre Las Vegas/Disney-esque survey of 5,000 years of Chinese history in a different venue in Hangzhou; Cantonese, Peking, and televised Revolutionary Opera (in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Honolulu), to say nothing of the various odd Chinese vaudeville extravaganzas that come through Honolulu every year around Moon Festival and Chinese New Year, I was intrigued.

A very nice Chinese woman chatted with me about the show. I said I traveled to China frequently and had been to Wudangshan several times. She knew where that was. "Lots of Taoist culture there," she said. I told her I enjoyed the local Phoenix Dance Chamber performances. She knew who they were.

I looked at the brochures, curious that the performance was presented by The Falun Dafa Association of Hawaii, but you wouldn't know this without looking at the mouseprint. I know who Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) are. I said I'd think about it. "It has nothing to do with Falun Gong," she assured me.

Then, in a Costco/shopping network moment, get-it-while-it's-available, I caved and bought two tickets. The Wizard buys the opera tickets; I drag him to the odd Chinese culture events.

At home in a fit of shopper's remorse, I poked around the net for reviews and comments about the show, just starting its 2011 World Tour, which will not include the really big chunk of the world known as the People's Republic of China. Apparently Shen Yun has everything to do with Falun Gong. Shen Yun was banned in Hong Kong (now part of the PRC as an SAR; it is not banned in Taiwan) because its association with Falun Gong puts it in an adversarial position with the CCP. The reviews boil down to, on one hand, amazing art with a spiritual message, and on the other, propaganda (for Falun Gong) and mediocre art. (The Chinese invented propaganda. I say this while watching Sunzi Bingfa, a Chinese TV series about Sun Tzu, Sun Bin, and the 36 Stratagems, all of which is basically about deceitful strategy and propaganda, or The Art of War.)

But now I am committed. No refunds on the ticket. So, I look forward to the event as another research point in my ongoing independent study of Chinese history and culture. It's real-life drama, a little like Perhaps Love, an excellent Chinese movie I just watched, a movie about making a movie, with two levels of the same story. (I highly recommend it.)

I am caught in a yin/yang moment. Though, had I read the reviews and various commentaries prior to swiping my credit card, I still would have bought the tickets (but maybe only one, and a cheaper seat) just to find out for myself. I look forward to observing this, and will post my own opinion come January. Probably on the Yang Side.

5,000 Years of Chinese History in Hangzhou

Hong Kong 2008

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Be sure to consider American Airlines, who just sent me the scariest Christmas card ever.
And this is for real.
What were they thinking?
Converging airplanes are never a good thing.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

While spending a few hours, no, a lot of hours really, swooning over Song Il-guk in Muhyul, at right, I did watch a few feature length films about which I feel a compulsion to comment. I recommend all these movies.

Address Unknown: Highly disturbing but intriguing Korean film, but you might want to avoid movies that include warnings that "no animals were harmed" in the opening credits unless you like to eat dog meat.
Wasabi: Confirms that the Japanese are the French of the Orient and that the French are the Japanese of Europe.
Dragon Tiger Gate: The usual martial arts school saga, who doesn't love Donnie Yen, but I can never understand why the subtitler can't tell the difference between a plague and a plaque.
Addicted: Things can get really confusing when your lover is in a coma and has a brother who is in love with you.

I may be too preoccupied with Asian film, but today while reading my freebie subscription to Time I found a couple of Western holiday releases I might plan to see: Helen Mirren in The Tempest, apparently filmed in Hawaii, who knew, and Johnny Depp in The Tourist.

Friday, December 03, 2010

What have I learned from Korean drama? Some King's English!

While watching Muhyul, (at right) via (highly recommended), I have been enjoying subtitles that are by and large grammatically excellent, well punctuated, and I can only hope, more or less accurate. The subtitling team actually takes credit for its work. (The Written in the Heavens Subbing Squad, aka WITHS2). But there is a curious tendency, like in the King James Bible, written the way it is to emphasize antiquity, to employ terms that I'm not sure even Shakespeare ever penned. Certainly nothing I've ever used, lyrical epithets, some of which you may recognize, but others which sent me to my OED. I hope to work some of these into corporate memos and telephone conversations:
  • you anserine...innoxious ...undextrous... dullards
  • you miserable begonians
  • you yeasty slattern
  • those facile runagates
  • you inutile (not a word I can find, but perhaps a pesky Taoist)
  • you fatuitous man
  • he's a pertinacious specimen
  • you ruthful nimwit
  • you wretched dotard
  • he's a felonious scapegrace
  • those comiserable rapscallions
All of these are usually repsonses to questions like:

What is this audacious pertness? Why did you beguile me with such:
  • mendacious trifle
  • dastardly prodigality
  • heedless nimiety
  • shady celerity
  • uncanny diabliery

At which point a warning may be issued that someone will "cark himself "(or perhaps, "cark you!"), asking forgivenss of his "peccancy," excusing himself to "micturate" while "perlustrating the intelligence." (I think this might mean taking a piss while considering the state secrets he has been entrusted with and possibly divulged.)

In light of such "ludicrous jabberwocky," due to a "fruit of my misreckoning," a battle fails despite someone having sent "oodles of troops." (Though that last one must have come during a quick ramen lunch away from the Oxford Korean-English Dictionary of Archaicisms.)

But my favorite phrase is "you harebrained mooncalf" which I have been employing recently as an acronym, HBMC.

Which is what I was wondering if I was, hoping not, when I noticed on my very cool iPad app called Luan, which puts the phases of the moon at one's fingertips, that today --my birthday (or as a spiritually inclined friend put it, the anniversary of my incarnation) --is the last waning crescent moon, which precedes the dark moon of Saturday, and the new moon on Sunday. I wasn't sure what a dark moon was but according to Wikipedia it is "the moon during that time that it is invisible against the backdrop of the sun in the sky. The duration of a dark moon is between 1.5 and 3.5 days, depending on the orientation of the Earth and Sun.

"In astronomicial usage, the new moon occurs in the middle of this period, when the moon and sun are in conjunction. This definition has entered popular usage, so that calendars will typically indicate the date of the 'new moon' rather than the 'dark moon.' However, originally 'new moon' referred to the crescent on the first night it is visible, one or two days after conjunction. Maritime records from the nineteenth century distinguish the dark moon (no moon) from the new moon (young crescent)."

The darkmoon, also called the dead moon (kinda creepy following my birthday) is regarded as preparation for the new beginning that begins with the new crescent.

So, I'm wondering if I'm just a harebranined mooncalf for paying any attention to this, or is it kind of cool. Old age is new age?

Speaking of Muhyul, (Jumong/Haesin Redux) it's everything I hoped for. Lots of Song Il-guk, on a horse, shooting arrows, gazing into his doomed lover's eyes, mowing down everyone with a sword. Well, if this gets me going, I guess I'm not THAT old.

Jumong & Haesin (Muhyul above)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Can't we make love, not war?
Some Song Il-guk diplomacy?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The North Koreans are moving right along, it seems, enriching uranium, if not their population's diet.
"Hecker said his first glimpse of the North's new centrifuges was "stunning."...The facilities appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea's nuclear arsenal, Hecker said. He saw no evidence of continued plutonium production at Yongbyon. But, he said, the uranium enrichment facilities "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel."

"From my perspective, it's North Korea continuing on a path which is destabilizing for the region. It confirms or validates the concern we've had for years about their enriching uranium," Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
All this Korean drama ...and I don't mean Hallyu, (which doesn't include stunning nudes or nukes)...just north of the DMZ. Maybe everyone involved would do well to settle in and watch Lobbyist. The script is all written.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Apparently the South Korean "nude" project has revived like Harry/Haili, according to interesting news I uncovered just now in China Daily (almost as strange to read as the subtitles in Lobbyist). Was it just coincidence that I watched this drama now? Perhaps Song Il-guk could become president of South Korea. Life seems to be imitating art. So intriguing.
@@@Spoiler Alert@@@
If literal clarity was what I was seeking, I would have done well to spend more for my DVD set of the Lobbyist, K-D with Song Il-guk. My cheap acquisition's video quality was just fine, but the subtitles decayed exponentially after episode 12 of 24. (And the half-life of Korean drama is really long.) Capitalization, spelling, and word order seemed to reflect the increasing boredom of the translator, whom I suspect was Chinese. I don't know if Korean shares the Chinese language's lack of distinction in third-person pronouns, but it was a challenge sometimes to determine precisely who, or what, the dialogue was about. Song-il guk? His mother? A sheep? A nuclear submarine? But one perfects one's skill at figuring things out from context, taking a Taoist approach to cognition, and I was grateful to pause the DVD from time to time to decrypt the meaning (and sometimes just to gaze at Song Il-guk's eyes). It did prove the observation that you can understand words in a sentence if the first and last letter of the words are accurate, but watching whole sentences turned into a word scrabble from time to time.

I have made a living correcting bad grammar, spelling and punctuation, and typos are as entertaining as irritating. But I rarely come across such delightful twists as a reference to someone having a "bad tempter." Later, he was called "the madness temper guy." The character was a bit of a devil. He was way too "forcefuk."

In Lobbyist, Song Il-guk's wacky devoted sidekick (there's always one or two) in a nuclear submarine project formerly was a hotel doorman and black market racketeer. When he first met Harry/Haili (SIG's character) he suggested that if he wanted to impress his long lost childhood sweetheart, he could procure for his gift-giving what every girl likes: "bracelet, watch, cothes, shoes, handbag, case, golf cue, abd bear gall bladder (all sic)." (Forget the knockoff LV bag, bear bile always works for me!) Never mind that this girl was into submarines and revenge.

This guy, a little dorky, but one of the drama's most endearing characters, with spiky gelled hair and retro '50s eyeglasses, moves on to "Guba" cigars and Russian "eggbeters" (helicopters) before the really big acquisition...plans for a nuclear submarine featuring French technology and German engineering, a sure winner in any domestic arms build-up.

Lobbyist features the usual plot points involving orphans, love triangles, manipulative parents, naked ambition, (but never naked sex), revenge, politics, and weaponry, in this case not my personal preference, swords, arrows and martial arts skills, but guns, helicopters, tanks and submarines. (Although SIG does get to show off some nice kicking. And he's pretty cute when he's tinkering with a tank.) The political plot is driven by South Korea's longing for a nuclear fleet which Harry will help to acquire.

Until the American ambassador/CIA rep puts a stop to the plan. "Only conventional subs for you," he sternly warns the South Korean minister of the navy.

"But," the minister sputters petulantly, "China has nude!" Earlier he had lamented to Harry the lobbyist (or as sometimes translated, "persuasive talker"), "I don't have the ability to help in nude project." But South Korea can't argue with America. No nude! We mean it. (Nude:sic.)

The story comes to a not-nude climax (in episode 24) at a New Year's kick-off party for the submarine program on the deck of a dry-docked WWII-era destroyer. Save-the-date cards had been distributed much earlier by the conventional sub side. A peculiar element of this scene is when the bad guy sings The First Noel in Korean, very poorly, reminding us of Song Il-guk's earlier and utterly charming impromptu performance of I'm in the Mood for Love ...if it should lain we'll let it*** a book signing party for the President's son who was a naive proponent of nuclear forces for South Korea in addition to being an accomplished cocktail pianist. These talented persuasive talkers and government officials! And Song Il-guk can tango too! What a guy! If Ronald Reagan can be US president, maybe SIG can be Korea president? Anyway, I've been to events like that kick-off party and book-signing.

But never like this: after searching all over the ship, Harry/Haili/SIG comes finally to the aid of his competitor (Maria/Malia, the love interest) who was representing the conventional sub promoter, albeit being horribly exploited by her boss, who is now holding a gun to her head, in a stand-off with Saturday night specials...the bad guy is killed, the exploited girl is saved, and it's not clear what happens to Harry. I suppose this is a metaphor for nuclear MADness, what happens when you have "a bad tempter."

But despite profusely bleeding wounds to the gut and drooping off into deadly unconsciousness, Harry is miraculously resurrected to join Maria who has given up her international arms ambitions to teach English to children in Kazakhstan, where she and Harry were really happy together before. Harry suddenly appears radiantly in the middle of her class in a meadow where sheep are grazing, not the first K-D where Song Il-guk makes a sort of Messianic return. (Though he failed to fulfill his promise to the Korean defense minister to "succeed in nude career with my own hands."*****) We see Maria is wearing the crystal pendant** he gave her when they were ten years old.

Lobbyist predicts The Divine Hero/A Man Called God. Only in Emperor in the Sea (Haesin) was it obvious that SIG would not survive the dozens of arrows piercing his body, like Saint Sebastian. (Here is a You-tube clip which accompanies Yeom Moon's death scene in Haesin with the U.S. Navy Hymn.)

Having finished the contemporary Lobbyist, I now look forward to Muhyul, a sa geuk follow-on to Jumong. I found it to watch on-line, with better subtitles. In Muhyul, Song Il-guk (of tremendous Jumong fame) plays Jumong's grandson, demonstrating one interpretation of immortality. I'm thinking SIG is in fact immortal one way or another. These dramas are accumulating like Gospel stories, and I fully expect him to be cast as Jesus one day. If you looked at that Haesin clip, you will agree, he could do it really well.

A curious side note to Lobbyist is its sponsorship by the Swarovski Crystal company. There is not a scene in which some elaborate crystal construction is not set on a desk or side table, dangling from a cell phone or ears, to say nothing of a franchise shop being a cover for one of the international arms dealers. Swarovski appears even in a terrorist camp in Kazakhstan, in particular an amber quail egg of a pendant which first is seen around the neck of ten-year-old Harry when he and his girl first develop their curious shared passion for submarines. The pendant gets passed back and forth between them from episode one to 24, a symbol of their lasting affection, but really, incredible product placement for Swarovski.

Actually, don't you think this scans better than "rain?"
Let sleeping lains lie?

****This title is gonna get me a LOT of hits!

*****And this is making me think of scripting a drama of my own, working title, Cloning Vincent and SIG, a three-some love triangle with Zhao Wen Zhou and Song Il-guk...and me. Filmed in Hawaii, Wudang, a Buddhist Temple in Korea and, why not, Kazakhstan.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Here's a funny story. A Chinese person tries to seek asylum in Canada wearing a Hollywood-designed mask to get through airport security.

Masking turns up not infrequently in Chinese and Korean dramas to assist a hero in his efforts. In The Divine Hero, Song Il-guk used a Mission Impossible-style mask to disguise himself as his enemy to fool someone. (His real visage is much more attractive than the mask.) And historical swordsmen are always covering their faces with bandanas. Perhaps the practical use of masks is cultural; the masking in Chinese opera is elaborate and deeply significant, clearly identifying characters and their motives. I always felt truly transformed with my Halloween masks as a child; when I apply makeup it is to elevate myself to something I am not quite. (Even though makeup artists will insist makeup is to ENHANCE your natural beauty, there is a transformative element going on.)

Still, I would like to know just what mask this Chinese refugee was using. Whose identity was he borrowing?

Makeup (Mask) Styles of Peking Opera

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I interrupt myself in the first few moments of hour six (of 24) of The Lobbyist, a contemporary Korean drama about international arms trafficking, and a kind of precursor to The Divine Hero, also staring the divine Song Il-guk. The only reason I'm watching this. So hot! With a simmering plot. Still, I pause to share some subtitled dialog which just made me choke.

A little arranging of a marriage for a clearly wrong (at least in episode six, who knows?) union of two attractive young Koreans who have no prior interest in each other is going on over a dinner table where the powerful parents are plotting the future.

Dad of the squirming groom-to-be (not SIG's character but hardly unattractive) says, "He has a goof future." (SIG=Song Il-guk. It would be confusing to indicate "sic" as I quote these subtitles.)

The FoG continues, "...but your doughter (so malleable? so rich?) is more excellent."

"To be honest, Meilan (the yeasty doughter) is not bad too," the father of the bride agrees.

At which point, the prim, proper and wistful mother of the apparently willing bride chimes in to point out, "Mr. Jiang, your son is hot."

If I had a daughter, and had a chance to marry her off to Song Il-guk...what else could I blurt out?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

I am intrigued by a scene in my current K-D indulgence. The female protagonist, escaping an arranged marriage, has gone to the temple to pay respect to her dead parents. Her "wanted poster" identifies her as someone in mourning clothes. Coming down from the mountain, she is inadvertently close to a sword fight and her white hanbok gets splattered with blood. Her sword-fighting paramour, one third of the requisite love triangle, is very clever. He searches the body he has dispatched for a piece of charcoal. In the next scene we see that the sleeve and skirt of her dress is not blood-splattered, but sports an elegant plum-blossom design. Her savior has drawn in branches, no more mourning dress, but now tres chic.

Actually this technique, connecting splatters, is one taught by my Chinese painting teacher. I don't think I would have fully appreciated this scene without taking the painting class. How everything fits together! You just have to be open to the connections.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

And everywhere. In the midst of enjoying "Rosy Business," a superb HK TVB series set during the Taiping Rebellion in Wuxi, in Cantonese with English subtitles, I watched for the sixth time Wong Kar Wai's "Ashes of Time," the movie that really got me interested in wuxia and the martial arts genre, done in Mandarin with a convoluted plot and an outstanding cast that never bores. It was Tiny Tony Leung (Chiu Wai) I actually sought out the movie for, but it also includes Tall Tony Leung Kar Fei, Brigitte Lin, three Cheungs (Maggie & Jacky & Leslie) and Carina Lau, Tiny Tony's wife. Talk about all-star cast!

But like some kind of addict, I return to Korea for The Slave Hunters...subtitles for which must have been translated by someone with a really unusual dictionary.

"ferine little twerps"..."wobbling like a parturient wench"..." "her fugacious smile" ..."cunning little varlet"... Who talks like this?

The subtitler must use the "Special Oxford Korean-English Dictionary for Asian Drama for Westerners." I enjoy all these things to expand my mind, (never mind the swashbuckling swordsmen), picking up Mandarin, Cantonese and to a lesser extent, Korean. But I never thought I would be expanding my own English vocabulary!

If you don't know these words, just look them up. You'll learn more that way than if I just tell you what they mean.

I think I may have use for "cunning varlet" at work this week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Just completed John Blofeld's Taoism: The Road to Immortality, which may be the loveliest overview and exposition of Taoism I have ever read, though not sure I would have said that three or five or ten years ago. Blofeld is one of the spiritual "Old China Hands" whose name turns up among the folks, like David Kidd and Graham Peck, who were lucky enough to be in China in the mid-20th century, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for spiritual ones.

In this book, nostalgic, informative and objective, I found an explanation (or at least a curious reference) of something that intrigued me in a Hong Kong kung fu drama I enjoyed some months ago: the ice toad. I shouldn't be surprised that scriptwriters of popular Chinese TV series might have heard some old stories of Taoist immortals. Wuxia literature and film is replete with references to Taoist practices.

In a discussion of the "mysterious portal," the gate to immortality, Blofeld retells a classic story of "A Gift from the Moon Goddess." A seeking scholar is invited by a Taoist to follow him into a gleaming white landscape.

"Passing through a 'rockery' of ice pinnacles skilfully (sic) arranged to resemble a chain of mountains, they came to a moated place...wherein a venerable toad of prodigious size, its body seemingly composed of lustrous white jade, sat working with the kind of pestle used by druggists."

The seekers moved on, advised by the toad, "Brother, you know I cannot stop now,"and taking no further notice of his visitors, it "continued pounding some gleaming crystals from which arose what looked like the rainbow mist one sometimes sees above a rainbow on a sunny day." The seekers leave the toad to his labors and ultimately come to see Chang O, the Goddess of the Moon.

The actual meaning of the toad is still completely opaque to me. In the drama, the ice toad absorbed poison in characters so afflicted. I only know it must have some larger older mythical significance than a weird idea in a TV series.

A little googling about Chan Chu, the jade sitting frog, reveals:

Moon Goddess Tradition

  • Historically, Ch'an Chu is also associated with the Chinese moon goddess, Heng O, according to "Myths and Legends of China" by E.T.C. Werner, a Fellow at the Royal Anthropological Institute and author of several noted studies of Chinese culture and folklore. In Chinese mythology, the moon is associated with immortality and the feminine principle of "Yin," as opposed to the masculine principle of "Yang." Because Ch'an Chu dwells with the moon goddess, the sitting frog is able to use "Yin" energy to drive out negative energy and welcome positive "Qi" energy, according to Werner's studies.

  • I actually have a copy of Herr Werner's book; how funny that a Google search would send me back to my own bookshelf. Now, would someone tell me where to get an "ice toad." Maybe eBay?

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    An element in classical Taoist practice and philosophy is the concept that the physical body, the structure of one's life even, is a patterned microcosm of the larger phenomena and forces in the universe and society. The dynamics of yin and yang, the wu xing, the bagua, the hexagrams, all can be used to understand and describe the world --from the internal processes of your digestion and inner spiritual progress, to the forces of nature and socio-political events. We may long to be hermits, separate from the dust and noise of the world, but it's hard to do that in today's society; we are left to create the hermitages inside ourselves.

    I have been thinking about this after a blog-o-pal observed how technology --particularly cell phones and digital media players-- contributes to the noise, virtually addicting their users, blocking them from any spiritual understanding or development. Or at least that's what I think he meant...he may beg to differ. "The master does not own an iPod," he says. This thought was ironically communicated via the internet.

    Like practically everyone in China, our Taoist master in Wudang was always on his cell phones, sometimes dueling cell phones; he used one of them to provide quiet background music for our Eight Brocades practice. Sometimes a sound track can be useful; other times it is distracting. Indoors it can add to the practice; outdoors it competes with the sounds of nature. I'm reminded of the singing speaker-rocks on some of the mountain trails, annoying Buddhist music but certainly much more tolerable than the Maoist-propaganda broadcast (with no on/off switch) to an earlier generation used to imposed noise. Because of this, perhaps the Chinese can tune it out more easily.

    "On my way home, just leaving the temple...."

    Yin Yang Phones

    My other teacher, a scholar-meditator, carried a laptop and could sometimes be found updating his website.

    Though working within ancient traditions, these guys use state-of-the-art technology. Technology that has replaced the obsolete tools of swords and gourds. (Will the cell phone someday become symbolic?)

    The challenge, like that of quieting the noise of one's own mind, is to know when enough is enough. Having mastered my new car radio, I am enjoying Teaching Company CDs, and certain music on my iPod soothes me on commutes home. I have yet to succumb to the actual radio parts -- I have been more likely to choose silence over NPR, even.

    Worse than the noise of technology though, there is the noise of society, i.e., that hell of other people. I am constantly bemused by a running theme in the Chinese and Korean drama I have been studying (possibly an addiction, more likely just something I have to explore to its zenith so I can let it go, an exercise in attachment to Vincent Zhao and Song Il-guk). The theme is of the orphan, the long lost family member who returns to revenge or heal the family from which he was stolen or abandoned...usually well before he knew there even was such a family. (Not infrequently this discovery is made during a death scene, at which point you learn the person you are in love with is...your brother.) Perhaps my own condition of only-childness --solitude comes naturally to me-- makes this puzzling. What is it about bloodlines and geneology that makes one person more family than another? It appears that the sibling is the most family-validating relationship in the here and now, even more than parents and children, which are projections of self into the past and future. I have friends (who have siblings) who say, "You are a sister to me." I treasure that, but not completely sure what it means exactly. I'm not sure what my reaction would be to someone who arrived at my doorstep to announce, "I am your half-brother; during the war, your father and my mother...." Soap opera fodder.)

    Carried to an extreme, the notion of siblings might explain the arguments over useless islands claimed by various nations; family is just nationalism on a smaller scale. Homesteads and remote islands...whom do they belong to? And when someone wants you to be on their side, they want to make you family, ohana, with invitations to big noisy family dinners, political rallies, school reunions, family-expanding ceremonies. I've always felt like a spectator at these things, celebrating my own sacramental moments privately or with a chosen few.

    As a Taoist-leaning only-child, I sometimes step back and wonder. What's with all this noise?

    "Can You Come to Tea?"

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    I have no idea how to express that in Chinese, but I wish I could. Something like xin nongcuo? Heart confusion? I'm just guessing. A dictionary can be a dangerous foolish thing and explains all those bizarre subtitles.
    Just watched the just-released DVD of The Karate Kid, remake of the 1984 classic (with Jackie Chan, who was actually kind of sweet in the Mr. Miyage role), a movie I never much liked anyway. I am left with a confused heart.

    I wanted to see it, had been advised to see it, because it has scenes shot in Wudangshan, a place I have visited three times and where a part of my heart remains. I intend to return. It is strange to see temples, mountains, and even people, really, that are part of my own private memory, in commercial film.

    Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wudang has become more known to a world that (in cinema anyway) percieved Shaolin as the ultimate center of Chinese martial arts. Shaolin is a Buddhist place; Wudang is a Taoist center. There is a difference in these outlooks, not just that the Shaolin guys shave their heads and the Taoists sport unshorn topknots. Shaolin is already widely commercially understood and promoted; who hasn't had the opportunity to see Shaolin monks (if they really are monks) doing their thing on stages all across America (and China)? I am concerned that the same thing may happen to the Taoists. I enjoyed a great kung fu show at the very site of Karate Kid's filming, by young adepts showing off their skills. I would like to think they will just stay there, not become promoted like Polynesian culture is in spectacles in Waikiki and the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.

    I should say that even though I was weeping at points during the movie, it is junk sentimentalism. What mother would allow her son to take on the bullying, to say nothing of the really brutal tournament...well, the Virgin Mary I guess, but really, there was no larger principle at work here. Or was there? A precocious 12-year-old who knows a little karate (he practices with a TV show) and capoeira, who thought he was street-smart in Detroit, can become a Taoist-inspired kung fu champion in Beijing in a matter of a few weeks?

    And there are some scenes that I think are not Wudangshan at all, but Huashan, anther Taoist sanctuary, but who would know? I am a little concerned that Wudang, an intensely spiritual place, is becoming a trendy tourist spot. More and more people (myself included) are drawn there the way westerners visit the Holy Land to tread the land where Jesus walked; in Wudang, to learn Taoist philosophy where Zhang San Feng created tai chi chuan.

    The film has been credited with showing a new contemporary China (the Olympic Bird's Nest, the CCTV building!), fabulous rural scenery (karst formations, trains through the mountains, the Great Wall) , and other places we might never see--hutongs and street markets. But if that's what you're looking for, I can think of many Chinese- and Japanese-produced films that do a far better job: Zhou Yu's Train; The Bird People in China; Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Yellow Earth.

    I would not tell anyone to not see this film. But I would tell you to not take it too seriously.

    Fantasy Set

    The Real Kung Fu Kids

    Real Masters Showing Off Skills

    Jackie & Jaden

    Saturday, October 09, 2010

    I have been struggling with my new car radio, which is far from intuitive and has a manual written by so-called tech writers whose resumes must include the production of countless VCR manuals. The radio's buttons are tiny, the legends hard to see. But it's JVC so it must be good? I managed to get it to receive local radio stations and playback from my iPod, but, like MS Word, it has countless unnecessary and unintuitive features and options. Somehow I locked the CD player, the feature for which I bought it in the first place, to play Teaching Company CDs so I could learn something on my daily work commute. Alas, the radio would display nothing but the cryptic ODAA-I, whatever that meant.

    I was all ready to just buy another radio, when I thought, "I'll give it one more try and then call customer service." Observing the time-honored tradition of RTFM, I retrieved the cryptic and convoluted user guide, printed in four languages, and noticed the big print on the manual's back page:

    With my Hello Kitty pencil's point, I activated the reset button, and, woo hoo, now the CD player works. I reset my four favorite station presets (who actually needs 15 FM station presets and another 5 AM?--to say nothing of an option to allow user-entered text-based IDs for the favored stations, like FOX TALK NEWS, or HIP HOP CLASSICS or OLD FART OLDIES. Perhaps this comes naturally to folks who have been sending text messages on phones for the past decade). I think I have finally mastered the sequence of actions needed to set the radio clock, although it seems like it should do that automatically.

    I admit all this digital technology is so cool, but I have never had the patience of a young friend who said, "When I get a new device, I just spend an hour or two with it figuring out all the commands." I want a wu wei radio. On-off. Volume up-down with a knob. A couple of push buttons for favorite stations. Maybe another button or two to activate the iPOD or CD.

    At least I didn't embarrass myself with a call to a tech support rep who would have thought I was an idiot, muttering to himself, "RTFM."
    Having finished the curious not-so-historical (and sometimes completely hilarious**) KD, The Divine Hero, and pondering the grand themes that might lurk in a TV drama based on a high-tech comic book hero, I watched with some interest the apparent transfer of power process happening in real time in Pyongyang.

    The Dear Leader, (son of the Supreme Leader, no divine hero, really, though appointed "eternal president") who has the worst fashion sense of any head of state in the world, seems to have appointed his pudgy youngest son to carry forward the communist autocratic patrilineal monarchy in North Korea.

    My observation was that perhaps The Divine Hero is a subtle political statement as much as a mindless sexy action thriller (accented with grand themes of justice, revenge, filial piety, "grobal" economic power, and romantic love). The fictional drama is about a gang of four corrupt businessmen, military and judicial friends who 25 years earlier stumbled into an arms and drug deal and made a huge amount of money, securing themselves in powerful positions in the economy and government. To protect their interests they tried to kill the family of the policeman who was a threat to their plans, succeeding in mom and dad's demise in a house fire, but unbeknownst to them, the children survived. The Divine Hero (played by the divine Song Il-guk, who is himself the grandson of a well-respected Korean general and recently married to a high court judge), carries out a revenge mission because the system was never going to bring the bad guys to justice. Their own children have been charged, in a Confucian way, to maintain their position and get rid of the the troublemaker. By keeping the power in the family, the tradition and the money remain intact.

    Oddly, it's the daughters who help, unwittingly, to bring down the empire. One of them (a cop) discovers, too late, that in fact she is the Divine Hero's sister; another (a reporter) that she is the daughter of one of the bad guys. One lives and one dies. And not who you expect.

    The Divine Hero, who has some serious issues with violence and taking the law into his own hands, is not exactly excused. At the conclusion of the drama, the reporter who discovered her father was one of the corrupt businessman, observes that if a legal system is inadequate, people will seek their own revenge and justice.

    I'm wondering now if The Divine Hero has some subtle meaning in Korean. One of the tycoons is a pudgy guy with an even pudgier son who is basically stupid and, lacking any kung-fu, surrounds himself with martial artists (including a particularly amoral and deadly guy acquired from the family's casino in Las Vegas, closest to a serious threat to SIG's more skilled character.) The other target of Song Il-guk's revenge is a retired general (whose hair style is vaguely reminiscent of the former Prime Minister of Japan's) and whose son is as calculating as the other's is dumb.

    They all appear to be archetypes in a corrupt economy and I would think some of these points would not go unnoticed by frustrated folks in Seoul who send care packages of ballpoint pens and plastic bags to impoverished relatives on the north side of the DMZ.

    That the avenger actually comes through Hawaii is also ironic. Was it only a year ago that the Dear Leader of North Korea alluded to blowing the Aloha State out of the water?

    **Subtitles and heavily accented English provide surely unintended entertainment. At one point in the story, Vivian, a gorgeous woman, yin to SIG's yang, who plays the Korean-Hawaiian connection, asks the hero, whom she has betrayed badly, "to have mercy on her soil." Also, she invites some businessmen anticipating high "levenues" (leveraged revenues?) from her project, on a tour of the planned island real estate development. "We can go up to the deck and then have a little butt cruise," she purrs in heavily accented English. Not making this up.

    Sunday, October 03, 2010

    An unexpected, unwelcome knock at the door Saturday afternoon. The Wizard called for me to deal with it, not being quite so bold as Liu Ling, one of the the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.**

    It was a neighbor, not one I really know, but recognize, and a uniformed officer of some law enforcement agency, holding a USPS Priority Mail parcel.

    I listened to a lengthy and unnecessary explanation how the good neighbor had found the key to the parcel drop box on the floor of the mail plaza and summoned the officer (who I think had a U.S. Customs patch on his shoulder). The package was retrieved and tracked to my address.

    I'd earlier gotten my mail (apparently overlooking the key that fell to the floor) and had been a little disappointed, anticipating my latest shipment of Korean drama DVDs might arrive. I'd had a similar false hope the night before with a package, but from my friend who is moving and sent me some remnants of her purging --cosmetics, room fragrance, a miniature bonsai kit, books, a fantastic red Japanese dragon kimono).

    But yesterday, I was delighted, "Ah, it's my Korean Dramas, I was hoping they would come today," then thinking I should have bitten my tongue when I contemplated the possible customs violation.

    I'd ordered these things earlier in the week from a site that was mysterious and ambiguous in its marketing and payment mechanism. It was hard to tell where they were coming from and though the DVDs were cheap, the shipping costs were rather high. But since I'll try anything once, I placed an order at the only source of the complete English-subtitled "The Divine Hero--A Man Called God," and for a few other things, but neglecting to specify my "free movie" with purchase.

    So I was pleased to get an email within 48 hours, with a USPS tracking number, and a note that since I had failed to select a free movie, they would make a random choice for me!

    I didn't expect the parcel to be hand-delivered. After I took delivery, the neighbor and the cop, who is a resident of our complex, lingered at my doorway; was I supposed to tip them or something? Sign a receipt? I thanked them and did the Hawaii thing and gave each a big hug. I've never before spontaneously hugged a lawman. (Or even not spontaneously.) At least there seemed to be no issue with customs. The DVDs came, legitimately, from Texas. (How they got to Texas is not my concern.) I recommend the vendor if you're in the market for these things.

    Sorting through the package, I wondered what the free DVD would be. They guessed my preferences pretty well with "The Legend of the Shadowless Sword," although they couldn't have known I already have a copy of that movie, but still, what were the odds? Into the Christmas gift pile, along with a duplicate copy of "House of Flying Daggers" which my Chinatown vendor once gave me free. Free film with purchase of a certain size seems to be a standard practice. Makes up for the high shipping costs.

    I loaded the "Divine Hero" disc with episodes 13-24, which I had previously downloaded in Korean with Chinese subtitles but now am hoping for the clarification of a couple of plot points. (It's not like it's hard to watch again; SIG's hairstyle is more reasonable in the later episodes.)

    There are English subtitles, but clearly by a Chinese translator who knows pinyin working from the Korean to render*** the English: some very curious phrasings, typos and utter lack of upper case, adding a level of entertainment and enlightenment. (You can learn a lot about language this way.)

    First, Song Il-guk's character, generally Romanized as Choi Kang Ta, becomes Cui Qianda or sometimes Qiangda. And "cos" means both "because" and "course." "Wanna" is consistently used as "want to."

    More for your entertainment:

    "Honey is closed to that man lately." (The female protagonist has been spending too much time with Song Il-guk.)

    "Don't worry, I'm a shoemaker, it's the same like mending the shoes." (A Korean who makes the most beautiful Italian-styled stilettos sewing up Song Il-guk's wound, a frequent activity in this drama. Actually, there's a lot of focus on shoes in this drama, now that I think of it.)

    "I thought of you cos I wanted to heard your voice."... "Of cos I saw the suspect." ... "Maybe here there's someone I gotta mee." ... "Then we pk." (Completely cryptic.) All these in episode 13. It's going to be a fun ride.

    And there's my favorite so far, a simple common typo, "Don't worry, he can survive even in the dessert." Which makes me think of Song Il-guk smothered in whipped cream with maybe a cherry strategically placed. I must help him!!

    **Liu Ling, a Taoist of the second century BCE, is described as a heavy drinker who never wore clothes in his own home. A visitor, perhaps his neighbor delivering a misdirected parcel, was shocked when he answered the door buck naked. Liu Ling said,"I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. Get out of my trousers!"

    ***I had a piano teacher when I was young named Ludwig who looked exactly like Beethoven. In addition to being a classical pianist, he was also pharmacist. I once said, "How did you like my rendition of the Moonlight Sonata?" To which he responded, "One renders lard; one plays music."

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    Finished the second half of The Divine Hero, with Korean audio and Chinese subtitles, neither of which I have any fluency -- and here I stumble in my own language--the conservative English speaker in me doesn't quite know how to say that:

    "in which neither of which I have fluency"...? Neither of which I understand much of? Editorial nightmare. Suffice it to say I can't understand spoken Korean and can't read Chinese characters. English is challenging enough.

    But back to Korean drama. Was mesmerized through episodes 13-24, I was even dreaming in Korean, or dreaming I could comprehend Korean. Though there are a couple of loose ends in the plot, that's probably because I don't have the script. There was some strange business dealing going on, with short-selling and investments and partners that helped to bring down the financial empires of the bad guys. It was pretty easy to figure out what was going on; it's mostly action and character anyway. Or mostly this extremely beautiful man behaving decisively and honorably--his mantra, "I never hurt innocent people," a counterpoint to House, M.D.'s "Everybody lies." And his poignant emotionalism: the scenes where his sister (whom he thought had been killed with his parents) and his gorgeous doppelganger assistant die in his arms are just heartrending. There's something about a serious icy cool martial/action hero who can cry real tears--copious spontaneous tears, sometimes with running noses, seem to be a requirement for all these Korean actors. Even the bad guys tear up.

    In the end, the woman who loves him (but who he used to bring her father down) and the woman he loves escape. And he apparently survives the finale explosion in a car, giving hope that he reunites with one of them (or both, why not) having ruthlessly, successfully avenged his family's death. Have heard nothing about a follow-on series, but I would watch it, even in Korean!

    Can you figure out who's the bad guy?