Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is it just me, or does the idea of having Jackie Chan (along with practically every prominent Chinese-American entertainer and politician in the country) at yesterday's White House State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, sound like a movie plot we've already seen somewhere?
Who would need the Secret Service when Jackie's there?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

As predictable as the Chinese (and Korean) TV series are with characters and plot...goofy sidekicks, scheming or wise parents, the secrets of heritage and revenge, historical context...I completely mispredicted the outcome of Land of Wealth.

In fact there does come an heir, the long-awaited son, legitimately through the patriarch's daughter, not the Mongolian servant, but practically everyone dies and the rest move on to a new era of the Republic and innovations in banking, with western suits, spectacles and automobiles. Traditions are carried on, but not necessarily by the people you expect to move them forward. And true love remains, if not exactly unrequited, unfulfilled in the end.

This wasn't my favorite of the TVB productions I've seen over the past couple years, but not bad, and I liked it better when it was finished. I learned some period history through reference and research, (always Googling with the iPad or poking around my own library), but Cantonese is still more or less opaque to my ear (but less so than Korean).

During and after Land of Wealth, I indulged in several Netflix-provided film features (The Heroic Trio, Chinese Ghost Story 2 and The Eagle Shooting Heroes), only one of which I will ever watch again or add to my collection.

And that's The Eagle Shooting Heroes, a completely hilarious wuxia parody shot at the same time as Ashes of Time with the same incredible cast. Ashes of Time was the film that opened up the world of wuxia and martial arts film for me. (Not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) I had been at Blockbuster a few years ago looking for the film in a quest to see the entire ouvre of the amazing Tony Leung Chiu Wai, (here, in AOT.)

"That's in the martial arts section," the clerk said directing me to a whole 'nother genre of "foreign."

Since then I have devoured this world, particularly the wuxia films and TV series (including Korean sa geuk), another world opened to me by a nice vendor in Chinatown and a friend who lent me the first 18 episodes of Jumong to download to my iPad which I enjoyed while traveling in China. (But I must say, that was like a free sample of a highly addictive drug.)

Which brings me to The Eagle Shooting Heroes, loosely based on Louis Cha's wuxia story, which was also the non-parody plot of Legend of the Condor Heros.

TESH is a parody of wuxia, in the way Airplane* was a parody of disaster (and pretty much all other) movies. And ironically, made concurrently with the extremely serious, fine Ashes of Time, with the same actors in an SNL-style joke. But you have to have some deeper knowledge of the genre, and even the story, to fully appreciate it. And not being remotely fluent in Cantonese, I'm sure there are lots of things I'm missing. But what a hilarious ride. Who knew Tiny Tony could be so funny and silly, and that Tall Tony could play drag as well as Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo (etc.).

Why do I watch so much Asian cinema and TV? Because it's unpredictable.

And next up...Sweetness in the Salt, another HK TVB series about salt-smuggling, also with Steven-not-Steve Ma, here, from Land of Wealth. I just started; don't know what to expect, except that I'll learn something about the economics of salt in the Qing dynasty.

*A little nod of gratitude to the marvelous Leslie Nielsen who died this past November.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

I know it's not fair to find such humor in the subtitles of the Asian drama I spend time with, but still, there it is. I can't turn off my inner copy-editor nature; it would be a boring job without the hilarity and irony.

Land of Wealth, my current Hong Kong TVB series recommended by my Chinatown vendor, highly enjoyable on my new 50" plasma TV, is about Shanxi banking during the Tongzhi Restoration, a theme I never expected to articulate. I have actually watched at least one other movie (Empire of Silver) that exploits this Great Wall Street theme, and have as a result learned a lot of interesting things about the economics and politics of the late Qing Dynasty. Although it is odd to hear the dialogue up near Beijing in Cantonese. Who knew Cixi spoke Cantonese?

The series has a lot in common with that old western Western, Dynasty, an oily soap opera about scheming families, with some romance and economics. (I think. I never watched it, part of the popular literature of a certain period in U.S. dynastic power, was it the 80s?)

Back to Land of Wealth. A lot of interesting women, from the Empress Dowager to the Mongolian maid to the tai tai and her evil older sister and the wide-eyed tai tai's daughter. And odd German, English and Russian diplomats' daughters. (The Russian/half-Han girl keeps taking the fiancee of the wide-eyed daughter up in a hot-air balloon, to float over the Forbidden City.) I never quite identify with the women in these dramas (although the Mongolian maid is kind of cool; she loves horses and eats mutton and is un-Hanly outspoken.) None of the guys (Moses Chan or Steven-not-Steve Ma) holds a lantern to Vincent Zhao or Song Il-guk (who would probably look terrible in a Qing queue; though Moses Chan pulls it off as well as Vincent does), although I am enchanted by David/John Chiang, who is my age and plays a classic Confucian benevolent head of family/business. I have enjoyed his performances in three other HK dramas. He is the brother of Paul Chun, my husband's age, who was in one of my all time favorite HK films, King Hu's Raining in the Mountain. There is a lot of talent in this family.

So, about that subtitle.

The Mongolian servant was beloved by David Chiang's tai tai, who insisted at her deathbed, in front of many witnesses, that her about-to-be-widower marry the servant. She brings their hands together, insisting that the Mongolian bear the son she was never able to give to her husband. (It was foretold by the feng shui expert.) The daughters are appalled (no one wants their father to marry someone their own age, and, in Confucian society, become their mother!) But even more appalled is the Mongolian maid, who is in love with the rising protege of the widower/banker. The protege, Moses Chan, is set on a revenge mission to restore his family's name (all these family things) after their public beheading by the imperial court; they were framed, but Moses missed out on the fun because he was off in a Buddhist monastery for a few years.

Despite their deep affection, Moses says he cannot marry the maid, not telling her he will after his revenge mission is complete. She consents to marry the banker/Lord out of spite (not really for the money...well, maybe a little) and things go downhill from there.

One day, the Mongolian maid/new tai tai notices that a panel in a carved relief decoration at the mansion is damaged. Since Moses once whittled a likeness of her (and her other lover, now deceased, at least at episode 25), she summons him, spitefully, to fix it, despite his bank duties.

A messenger arrives at the bank to tell the banker/Lord, "The Lady wants third steward (Moses) to go after work to do some CRAVING."

Moses is shocked. "I once CRAVED a pair of dolls for Lady...maybe Lady has some use for me." But Lady keeps rejecting his "CRAVINGS." Double happiness? No. Gourds? No. Mandarin Ducks? No. He labors long, explaining that "to CRAVE it anew takes a long time."

It's entirely possible that craving is indeed what the Cantonese script is all about. I'm going to have to listen to the Mandarin, study the characters. If nothing else, I'll learn the words for...carving?

I have several more episodes to find out how this all plays out. Given Moses' time in the Buddhist monastery, I think he might have the ability to control his cravings, as Lady seems to have reconciled with the benevolent banker. I expect a son to be conceived. It will appear to be the banker's, but I bet he's gonna wind up having exceptional skills at woodcraving.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

I thought I was just dissipated after 12 days of Christmas at home, away from the day job, but maybe it was something else. After a lot of Expensive Big Bangs on New Year's eve, supposedly the last ever since fireworks are being banned in strongly Asian Honolulu (and we'll see how THAT goes), it was January 1. Again. Didn't feel any different than the day before, or really, the year before...and neither did Sunday and Monday and Tuesday. But today does feel like New Year's Day to me.

The moon was calling the shots, demurring to the fireworks, until Monday's New Moon, Tuesday's Dark Moon and tonight, a little sliver of light in the sky, the first waxing crescent, like a delicate silver upturned cup waiting to be filled.

On Tuesday, the Dark Moon, Deng Ming-Dao's 4th passage of 365 was about reflection: "Moon above water. Sit in solitude."

But there was no moon to mirror the divine, to be receptive to the Tao. But tonight, something stirs: "Movement in stillness," the weird reference in Deng Ming-Dao's next passage. 365 Tao is sometimes as relevant as the I Ching. (I recommend reading it every morning on the appropriate day. It's become a sort of liturgy for me over the nearly two decades since it was published.)

My mind, a little fuzzy the past couple days, is suddenly clearing. In a burst of energy, when I came home, I cleaned the kitchen in a flash, disposed of the trash, fed the cats, and sat down to gather these thoughts. I blame it on the moon. (Or possibly the hefty dose of naproxyn sodium I took because the weather and air conditioning in my office were making my hand ache.)

Next New Year: Year of the Rabbit, February 4th. In just a month.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Year's resolution: visit the eye doctor. I've been really good about teeth, moderately good about internal affairs, but eyes are so easy to ignore, real frog-in the-well (or blender) stuff.

I am plagued with late mid-life vision--I used to be able to read road signage a mile away; now I misplace glasses everywhere, and never can find the right ones. I have been known to wear two pairs at the same time. While doing a house-cleaning purge, I discover eight pairs of bifocal soft contact lenses, something I experimented with a while back, and loved, though I think I loved them too much, and wound up with iritis.

"Maybe you shouldn't wear contact lenses," the doctor said.

"Damn," I said.

Just for the fun of it, I popped in a fresh pair for the first time in...four years. After a minute of feeling there was something foreign in my eye, I suddenly can see things I miss with my otherwise naked eyes. Trees in detail on the mountains. Cobwebs in corners. (Yin and yang.) And subtitles easily read on the new 50"plasma TV (although it took some doing to figure out how to invoke them; digital devices with remote controls are so cumbersome, not like my Mac laptop that makes this all so simple.)

I check out my new 50" plasma TV...testing DVDs of Infernal Affairs III with Tiny Tony Leung; Emperor of the Sea with Song Il-guk; Vincent Zhao in True Legend.

Infernal Internal Closeted Affairs

Song Il-guk..In My Closet!

And television. But...57 channels and nothing on. The cable connection wasn't working at first and the Wizard called Oceanic/Time Warner, whose satellite dishes are within walking distance of our apartment. He had a long conversation with the customer service rep; I think he wants to hire her. "How long has it been broken?"

"Maybe...three weeks since my wife last turned on the TV." He never watches TV. Never.

He eventually gets it up and running, and here is a Syfy (when did this channel change its name?) New Year's Day marathon of old B&W Twilight Zone episodes. Jack Klugman and, is it Jonathan Winters? (it is), playing pool to the death, like a martial arts saga. Very Taoist script, really. Next episode, abut contrived conventional beauty, not unlike the shows/channels I have never watched, Nip and Tuck and Extreme Makeover. Very prescient.

Klugman and the Devil?

"Look at this," I say to the Wizard, "the resolution is so good."

"Pretentious Communist twaddle..."

"But," he says later, "if you quote me, say 'pseudo-psychological-sociological twaddle'...but more a reaction to Rod Serling as anything else."

He was not a TZ/Rod Serling fan (or, for that matter, the equally pretentious Steve Allen). More of an Outer Limits, Fire Maidens of Outer Space kind of guy. (Not to say those Fire Maidens didn't look exactly like all the contrived beauties in the Twilight Zone episode.)

Now back to the episode with a young James Kirk (now Priceline spokesman) obsessed with a fortune telling device in a roadside diner, a devilish I Ching thing.

My resolution is really good! Especially with contact lenses.