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)