Sunday, February 27, 2011

A little under the weather with a late winter cold, enjoying a few capsules of Alka Seltzer Plus, I turn to the Chinese medicine of videos. Finished Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, the wuxia fantasy set in part in Wudangshan, nearly as familiar to me as my own neighborhood. The double-edged plot swirls around the acquisition of two important magical weapons in the Yuan Dynasty, and the plight of Zhang Wuji (or Chang Mo Kei, for the Cantonese speakers), the ultra-cute top-knotted orphan, who has a bad habit of promising to marry any woman he meets along the way. He has extraordinary kung fu and leadership skills, but is a little blind in the relationship area. (He has over-committment issues, and celibacy seemed not to be an option.) Of the four fiancees, one returns in self-exile to lead her monastic sect in the jianghu; another conveniently, but poignantly, dies (or so everyone thought); the third carries out some revenge missions that both help and hinder Wuji/Mo Kei, and the fourth, the most unlikely, but perkiest, a Yuan princess, disowns her Mongol heritage to become his life-partner. This all suggests that arranged marriages may have been a good idea. But who speaks for an orphan?

Or maybe not, as seen in In the Wild Mountains (Ye Shan), another hilly escape, this time to the Shaanxi countryside, where the lifestyle is undergoing Deng Xiaoping's economic transition. Here, the setting also looked familiar to me; in 1988, the Wizard and I took a train for a weekend in a remote area three hours out of Beijing in a peasant's guest house to wander about the mountains, eat noodles and ride horses. Last spring, I mentioned to my guide in Beijing that I had been to Ye Shan Po, but I was never quite sure where it was...west, north, south? "How do you know about Ye Shan Po," he asked, as if I had discovered a state secret. He told me it has become much more developed as a tourist destination. I feel partly responsible. (I was part of the rising of the Chinese middle class?) It only occurs to me at this moment that the movie's Chinese name is the same as the area I visited: Ye Shan. Wild Mountain. Don't know what the "Po" might be, a yin, earth spirit maybe?

In the movie, two brothers, one traditional and lazy, the other, fired up by the idea of money-making schemes, are married to the wrong women. In an effectively legal wife swap, they manage to live the lives they were supposed to. If you're an entrepreneur, probably a supportive equally driven spouse is a good match; if you just want to kick back and smoke the tobacco and make babies, a quiet domestic partner is probably more suited for happiness. The movie explores the changes in social and economic structures that were (and still are) happening as a result of economic reforms in rural China, but the landscape was what really grabbed me.

I picked up My Son, a more recent Korean film, at the going-out-of-business sale at my neighborhood Blockbuster (everything must one seemed to want this one but me). The tale of a father, imprisoned for life for robbery and murder, gets a day's leave to meet the son he hasn't seen since the boy was an infant. That leaves a lot of room for emotional drama and some comic moments too (mostly rendered by the guard who accompanies the prisoner on his visit home). Compassion in the face of great tragedy is the theme of this, and if you liked Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, you will enjoy this one as well. Pay close attention the first time around; it has a completely surprising twist that you will only be able to experience once.

Lightening the mood with some martial arts, The Prodigal Son, not a Biblical epic, but a 30-year-old and fabulous kick flick by Sammo Hung (rendered as Samo in the credits) with his buddy Yuen Biao in his first big break...all these actors who were younger then, but still kicking. I especially like a scene, Chapter 12 on the DVD, the "Drunken Calligraphy" demonstration: Sammo Hung performing with a huge inky brush, not quite the way my Chinese painting teacher delivers her lessons. This is hard to find to buy (even Netflix had to get it from another location), but in a simple search I found it for you to watch here. (For a calligraphy lesson from a master, start at about 56:50 in the video.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wanted to take a picture of some very beautiful cloud formations off the lanai, and thought I would just use the Wizard's nice new Nikon digital SLR that I got him for Christmas--there it was on the coffee table. But can I figure out how to make it just take a picture? I am lost in some menu land. (I drove his car yesterday and had the same experience with his new radio; I didn't want to listen to his Teaching Company CD of the "Life and Operas of Verdi," so just thought I'd tune into NPR. But how? I have gotten used to my own new audio system, but there seems to be no consistency to these things. Too many tiny buttons with cryptic icons. Just give it up. (But eventually I did find the radio.)

And, actually I think I have figured out how to TAKE the photos, but retrieving them is another matter. Nice camera really, the Nikon. Feels good in the hand. Next I will post a comparison of the images from my faithful pocket Casio XILIM and the hefty Nikon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A little break from my fantasy travelogue of Wudang, my Netflix DVD delivery this week was Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a film I never saw when it was released in 1972 (the day before my birthday, but I wasn't really doing film that decade). Some years later it was recommended to me, maybe in the early '90s, by a guy who loved it, and who in retrospect, looked a lot like the character of St Francis of Assisi in the film. (Indeed, he was a kind and sensitive Catholic.) It appears to be one of those films that is rated as "my most favorite movie ever" by some folks.

When it popped up on a "recommended" list in my Netflix queue another couple decades later (OMG, am I that old?), I thought I might revisit it. Looking really good on my new 50" plasma TV, better than the videotape I rented in the early '90s, it's a pretty film, perhaps a little contrived, about the life of St. Francis, which, as interpreted by Franco Zeffirelli, probably had great hippie appeal in 1972. And the soundtrack/music by Donovan is a little too much like the "guitar masses" of contemporary Catholic liturgy; I thought they ended in the '70s, but not. (I have a high-church-Anglican taste for Renaissance music with my bells and smells.) Not that there's anything wrong with Donovan, but, I can never hear him without thinking of the scene in Don't Look Back where Dylan pretty much demolishes him.

Still this movie, almost 40 years old, is fresh and beautiful and full of appealing message. It's not a "Catholic " film except historically (although Catholics may beg to differ) and presents a pure Gospel message that is very in line with Taoism--Brother Sun, Sister Moon, all that lilies of the field stuff? Or maybe Buddhism --a lot of caring for lepers and loving-kindness. (A book I have on the lives of the saints also attributes the "serenity prayer" to St. Francis, in addition to the "Canticle of the Sun.")

The best part is at the end: Alec Guiness as Pope Innocent kissing Francesco's feet. Ah, Alec Guiness who once planned to become an Anglican priest... but how he owned his roles: a Pope, Obi-Wan Kenobe, Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia, Adolf Hitler, George Smiley, Sigmund Freud, to say nothing of movies he wasn't in but seemed like he was, like Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter...I get him confused and conflated with Richard Harris, Ian McKellen, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Well, what an awesome group for confusion! Like St. Francis and his band of Brothers and Sisters.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

If Nielsen diaries are manually tabulated by a real person, like piecework, whoever counts my 15-minute increments of broadcast or cable television viewing will move three diaries through in record time. Two of the three don't count at all; one TV was never turned on and the other discarded just before the survey period but after the diaries were issued. Regarding the third, only one hour and 45 minutes in one week by one viewer will need to be counted or scored or whatever they do. And that was a couple of times when CNN news was on in the background while I was brushing my teeth and looking for clean underwear. The other two times, which actually might count as "watching," more like rubbernecking, were pondering the offerings of the Falun Dafa network, one of which currently is a Korean drama (The Great Queen Seondeok) with Mandarin audio and English subtitles. My limited viewing period also featured a behind-the-scenes production story of Shen Yun; subscription solicitiations (advertising) to The Epoch Times and a lot of odd health and wellness promotions. Still, much of it was in Chinese and thus a language learning opportunity. (My Chinese painting teacher has been learning English through Bible study.)

Not that the big new 50" plasma TV hasn't been used. Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber is a veritable travelogue of Wudang, but watching personal DVDs or Netflix doesn't count in Nielsen's rating eyes. (This was verified through at least two phone conversations from representatives of the company, making sure I was doing the diaries correctly. "Don't forget to mail them on Thursday," I was reminded.) Too bad. Personally selected and controlled viewing might be a statistic that would be useful.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Six days after my Nielsen survey ratings exercise began, I found reason to make a second entry in my diary. Doing this for TV watching is a little like writing down all the food you eat when monitoring your diet; if you know you have to write it down, do you eat it? The study affects the behavior.

A little hesitantly, I clicked-on the new 50-inch plasma TV in my closet, perhaps the only big TV in the country that was not tuned in to the Superbowl on Sunday. I just wanted a little background information while I completed my morning toilet...a little news to confirm that there is still a world to enter (after the Superbowl and associated cultural controversies like the "groupon" Tibet ad controversy** which I only heard out about--orally --this morning from a co-worker).

I tune to my weekly 15 minutes of CNN...but wait! I spy a flyer handed to me during last week's Chinese New Year parade promoting Oceanic Time Warner's Channel 698--a lot of Chinese text--(the distributor apologized that it was all in Chinese), but I did recognize some of the images for Chinese (and Korean) dramas on offer. Hmmm...I might like this!

So forgoing CNN, I locate digital channel 698 (now I know I get digital), the New Tang Dynasty Television network (NTDTV). The morning slot featured English newscasts of Asian events, for instance, a story about a pro-democacy person's funeral webcast that was banned in Hong Kong. (I think I read about this on a Hong Kong blog I follow.) Something disastrous going on in Malaysia or Thailand, a lot of people putting their meagre but colorfully wrapped possessions in the beds of small pickup trucks...a "wish lantern" festival in Singapore...a feature on the upsurge in recruitment and training of the Japanese national guard. All much more interesting than CNN. Reminded me a little of watching TV in Beijing, slightly off-kilter, foreign, but real.

So I did a search for the network schedule, and besides there was something that sounded familiar about NTDTV. And what was it? NTDTV is the television arm of the Falun Dafa "empire," or dynasty, kind of a 700 (Qi Bai) Club with "a regular focus on the promotion of traditional Chinese culture, and [which] devotes extensive news coverage to Chinese human rights issues, taking a critical stance on the Communist Party of China." The network's website features promotional clips for Shen Yun, the cultural extravaganza I attended a month ago, and explains NTDVD's mission to:
  • Bring truthful and uncensored information into and out of China

  • Restore and promote traditional Chinese culture and values

  • Facilitate mutual understanding between the East and West

And who can really argue with any of that? (Well, maybe Taoists, if Confucianism is the traditional value being restored.) The "Tang Dynasty" part of the network puzzled me. I suppose there is a conservative longing, (a Tang Restoration?) to return to an era that is generally considered one of the highest points in Chinese civilization. Sort of the way Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network longs to return to some biblically based better past.

So, this might kick up my diary entries for the next two days. I'm always willing to check something out before passing judgment. More than news and serialized historical dramas, there might be interesting qigong shows. Meditating with the TV. And more. "Health and Healing with Dr. Noto." "A Decade of Courage: The Falun Gong Story, "an ongoing documentary about laogai and organ harvesting that won an award at the Detective Fest Film Festival in Moscow and was an Official Selection at the Kastav Film Festival in Croatia. Are these like the Sundance Festivals of the former Soviet Union? Where else could you see this?

Like I said, won't Nielsen be surprised? Skewing the survey with The 698 Club...Liu Jiu Ba Hui.

**If you have to explain or justify an adverstisement, it was likely a mistake. The name recognition gained is probably all negative in the end.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

On one of my returns from Wudangshan, a skeptical friend asked me about the monks and nuns who lived in the temples, "How do they support themselves?"

I wasn't sure how to answer, but contributions, patronage, and tourism, seemed to be the source of cash.

Although, I suspect there may be something else, the same way Hawaii brings in revenue from TV and film: Magnum P.I., Hawaii 5-0 (then and now), A Man Called God (Korean drama), some highly successful TV programs like Lost, and others long forgotten. And of course movies like From Here to Eternity (I have swum at that famous beach); Six Days Seven Nights, ( I know that place where they jumped off the cliff), and Jurassic Park, filmed on Kauai. (There are a lot of movies filmed in Hawaii. And TV series.)

While visiting my Chinatown video vendor last week during the festivities welcoming the Year of Rabbit, she pressed on me a couple of Hong Kong TV series, one a precursor to Condor Hero (which I have seen and enjoyed)--"This one's about about their parents," she said--and another I had actually made a note to find, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre*, the third part in the Jin Yong (Louis Cha) Condor trilogy. I swear the proprietress of the Dragon Gate (Longmen) Bookstore reads my mind. Or I am completely under her spell. Whatever.

So, after finishing Sweetness in the Salt, a curious romance in which I learned something about salt trading in the late Qing, and a study of the poorly received Wu Ji, (The Promise), **a film by Chen Kaige, I popped in episode one of --OMG-- forty (40) of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre.

And then had a Hawaii 5-0 moment. "Those mountains look really familiar," I thought, watching a gu qin player against a stunning background. "And wait, that's Betel Nut Palace...Purple Heaven Temple...the gate below where the old hermit lives...Golden Top." I have photos of myself with the big gate lions where a scene was shot. We practiced the Eight Brocades in the same courtyard at Purple Heaven. Indeed, the story opens with some sort of Shaolin-Wudang conflict (Buddhist vs. Taoist conflict), but I never expected to see the actual scenery in places I have come to know and love so intimately.

I once watched a Magnum P.I. episode being shot on the street just below where I lived some years ago in Honolulu. I only hope the owner of the local chicken shop and bodega got paid sufficiently for their appearance in the episode, as I hope the monks of Wudang have been recompensed for using the very sacred locations in this classic wuxia story. I had just come to terms with the exploitation of Wudang in Jackie Chan's Karate (Kung Fu) Kid, where constructed sets live on as attractive tourist attractions. But now to see these even more sacred spots, temples and mountains in film, I am conflicted.

And this is only in episode one. Like an insider, I had some moments of wonder: "How can you get there from there?"

*Although I am intrigued to find that my favorite Tony Leung, Chiu-Wai the Tiny, was in the cast of another version, back in 1986. These stories have an incredible power for retelling.

**Concerning Wu Ji, The Promise. This is a Chen Kaige film from 2005, very poorly received. This is the director that did Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, movies worth watching, I think. Wu Ji was dismissed, but I think because it was misunderstood. It is not quite a martial arts film, not quite a wuxia or historical Chinese drama. It is an Asian-themed fantasy romance, maybe Shakespearean or Chinese-operatic, very pretty to look at and maybe a chick flick. If you rent it, say from Netflix, watch it once, then be sure to look at the deleted scenes, and maybe the "making of" feature. Then watch it again. I hate to think that this movie, which cost something like $35 million US, one of the costliest ever Chinese films, is not worth watching. There are some lovely performances -- by Nicholas Tse, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Ye Liu, in particular-- don't pay attention to the naysayers. This is worth it.