Saturday, February 26, 2011

Black Swan: A Strange Bird

"We open our season with Swan Lake. Done to death, I know. But not like this." - Vincent Cassel as Director Micheal Brennan
After weeks of receiving mixed reviews from overseas, Black Swan finally opened in Hong Kong this past weekend just in time for the Oscars. Like Tom Stoppard's 1990 film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Black Swan is true metatheatre. It plucks characters from a fictional world, in this case Swan Lake, and reimagines them in a different context while still retaining ties to the original. The world of Black Swan isn't meant to be "real"; it's fictional, created in part by Peter Tchaikovsky, composer of Swan Lake, in collaboration with Black Swan's director, Darren Aronofsky.

Aronofsky pulls off a genuine coup with this remix by smearing together different genres and archetypes. The results are stunning. Characters simultaneously rehearse and act in an "artificial" world, one created by the only "gods" worth mentioning - artists, authors, composers, directors. As a result, Natalie Portman is much more than simply Nina, a talented, but troubled ballerina from Manhattan preparing for the lead role in Swan Lake; she's also the embodiment of the twin characters Odette (the White Swan) and Odile (the Black Swan) from Tchaikovsky's ballet.

But Black Swan is anything but an absurdist farce or existential treatise like Stoppard's Rosencrantz. It's a terrifying psychological thriller, a fantasy mind-fuck that smudges both conscious and subconscious worlds into a dream-like trance, pulling the viewer into its orbit with the same gravitational force as Nina's visceral pirouettes.

Portman is great, but like Winnona Ryder before her - who delivers a brief and compelling performance - she's too complacent at times when more Dionysian rapture is needed. The three other main characters - Vincent Cassel as the "sorcerer" who casts a spell over Nina; Barbara Hershey as the psycho-mum; and Mila Kunis as Nina's evil doppelgänger - all fill their designated archetypes perfectly. Aronofsky has succeeded in creating something truly unique - a mash of genres and goosebumps.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hangman: George Orwell

"We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away." - from "A Hanging"
To say George Orwell had a problem with authority is an understatement. He was Brando wrapped in tweed as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One. When Mildred asks, "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" Orwell had the quintessential answer: "Whaddya got?" Not only was he right about the three biggest issues of the 20th century - imperialism, fascism, & Stalinism - he delivered their most thorough rebuke in essays and novels like Burmese Days (1934), Animal Farm (1945), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He had the ability to distill truth from the detritus of popular thought and relished his role as an executioner of falsehoods.

As Christopher Hitchens said:
"Orwell's first rebellion against power, illegitimate power as he thought of it, was against the assumption that the world would be ruled indefinitely by white Europeans."
I just reread Orwell's brilliant short essay, "A Hanging," based on his time as a colonial police officer in Burma from 1922-1927. Published in 1931 when he was twenty-eight, it's a perfect still photograph, rendered in words, of an execution. As a master writer, he knew what to reveal and how to shade his language in such subtle tones that his intent is both invisible and undeniable at the same time.

"A Hanging" is a scathing indictment of capital punishment and imperialism at a time when his employers (the British Crown) were in no mood to receive it. As he would continue to do for the rest of his life, Orwell railed against all forms of tyranny. He remains more relevant than ever in this age of extraordinary rendition, terror wars and despots like Gaddafi. It's no surprise that his original title for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. Orwell knew too much to ever be duped.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Laos: Luang Prabang

A quiet spectacle occurs at dawn every day in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos. Hundreds of saffron-robed monks file out from the city's monasteries seeking alms. In small groups throughout the streets of the historic old town, locals line up and kneel, heads bowed in silence. As the monks pass by, they place offerings such as rice and money in the monks' silver bowls and receive blessings for the coming day.

It's a peaceful image at odds with the country's violent past. Years of war and poverty have left the landscape visibly fractured. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs on the country every eight minutes in a futile effort to defeat the Vietcong. Because of this, Laos earned the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare.

There's little evidence of that this quiet morning. After following the procession through the rising heat and dilapidated grace of the old town, I walk over to Laos's most revered temple, Wat Xieng Thong, built in the 16th century. I meet Samone, a 20-year-old monk relaxing in the shade of a tree. I make out a few tattoos underneath his robe as he explains that his years at the monastery are almost up. Out of economic necessity, many Lao send their sons to a monastery, where they can receive basic shelter, food, and education. Samone explains he's now ready to move to Vientiane, the capital, and enroll in university. He plans to study English and perhaps work as a tour guide, get married, and buy a new scooter. He's lucky–he has a sister in the U.S. who can provide some assistance. University is out of the question for most in a country for which the CIA's World Factbook estimates the annual per capita income at only about US$2,400.

On the edge of town, a short distance from the temple, is the outdoor Hmong market. The Hmong are one of many hill tribes scattered across Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, in an area known, because of its opium production, as the Golden Triangle. They are comparative newcomers to Laos, having arrived from southern China at the beginning of the 19th century, and they have long been met with suspicion. After the Vietnam War, the Hmong were severely persecuted by the Communist government for supporting the wrong side. Today, forced relocation and urbanization have scattered them as far as the United States.

They have an international reputation for their artistry, and many survive by selling crafts and textiles. After a few minutes of browsing, I find myself haggling with a girl about 10 years old. She looks sweet enough in a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, but she's as tough as nails and knows her English numbers as well as any accountant. After negotiating like a seasoned pro, she gets her price: US$40 for a large aquamarine blanket embroidered with her tribe's trademark geometric patterns.

We decide to visit a Hmong village just outside of town. As we turn off the dusty main road into a dirt compound, we find a group of women grinding corn with a large swinging pestle and others gathered in the shade of their huts sewing bright designs on fabrics that they will sell in town. I'm welcomed by an older woman with a beatific smile that consists of one single tooth. She takes my hand and pulls me into a hut. Through the cloudy sunlight I make out a group of men sitting on the dirt floor. One reaches up and pulls on my hand for me to sit down. As I do, another offers me a water pipe. It's opium. Suddenly everything swims into focus: the men are stoned. I smile and turn back outside into the clear sunlight.

The Hmong's relationship with opium is well-known. Some rely on it for economic sustenance, selling it to drug smugglers who eventually transfer it to Bangkok and Hong Kong for overseas export. The Hmong's connection to the U.S. is a well-documented tale of manipulation and betrayal. During the war, the CIA exploited Hmong resentment toward the government and actively recruited an anti-Communist faction. In return, the Hmong were promised aid and an independent state. At the end of the war when the Communist Pathet Lao became the new government, promises were forgotten, and the Hmong have been treated with suspicion and derision ever since.

The next day we take a boat ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou caves. After a few hours, we arrive at the final resting place for thousands of Buddha statues. Rather than destroy the images, the Lao prefer to bury them or place them in sacred caves. As we climb the staircase, row after row of Buddhas–in differing sizes and styles–comes into view, their wide eyes staring out at us in a surreal welcome.

On our final night in Luang Prabang, we walk up Phousi Hill for a view of the sunset. The hill is the geographical and spiritual centre of the city; it also happens to be capped with a rusted anti-aircraft gun dating from the Vietnam era. A couple of young monks sit casually on the barrel as the sun dips below the horizon. The contrast is striking: in just a few hours they will likely be offering blessings despite the country's shattered past.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Russian Enigma: Cheburashka

When in doubt, turn to the folk for an explanation. After all, folk music, as Bob Dylan said, is "weird, man, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts." And Cheburashka (Чебурашка). He's an adorable little half-bear-rodent character who lived in a tropical forest until he ended up falling asleep in a crate of oranges bound for Russia. As one woman in a Moscow shop on the Arbat told me, "I don't know what it is - like Russia, it's an enigma."

Whatever Cheburashka is, his appeal has spread far beyond the simple story Eduard Uspensky wrote in 1966. In it, Cheburashka, which translates as "toppled" or "roly-poly", makes friends with Gena, an "awesome alligator" in the song below, but who in actual fact is really a crocodile.

Adoration has spread throughout the motherland and he's been adopted by the Russian Olympic Team...

Chebu has been their mascot since 2004 and is currently vying for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games:

Now he's big in Japan...

...and has even become food for a bentō!

What else to do, but take over as an international revolutionary icon?

Viva Chebu!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tahrir & Tiananmen: Karma Trolls

"The Egyptian people demand that President Mubarak step down"
Since protests overtook Egypt much speculation has focused on whether Tahrir Square of 2011 will end up resembling Tiananmen Square of 1989. At first it seemed unlikely that a western ally would mow down its own people with a military bought and paid for by the U.S. But after Mubarak's "sadistic speech" last night, suddenly the grisly prospect doesn't seem so impossible.

Trolls appear to have sabotaged the karma wheel and now signs with Chinese have begun springing up in the Egyptian demonstrations. What's going on? Are they hoping to address the world's new superpower? Spread revolt to China? Probably not. As it turns out, it's more likely an ironic riff on the English equivalent of, "it's all Greek to me." In other words, Mubarak is such a clueless old sod the protesters' demands may as well be in Chinese.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Blind Librarian Dreams Of Tigers: Borges

"I trudge from side to side
Of this lofty, long blind library"

- Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

The other morning when I woke up and gave my wife Yuko a hug she said my heart was beating louder then usual. I told her I'd just had a dream where some statistician was measuring my heartbeat and had translated its code declaring it "good." It was a weird coincidence and later in the day I had to ask Yuko about it again because I'd forgotten the details. I'd been in that twilight state between the sleeping and waking worlds where dreams seemed to be spilling over, creating a sympatico reality.

Jorge Luis Borges' Dreamtigers is a collection of similar moments, a synthesis of dreams and waking visions where he engages in conversations with figures like Shakespeare, Cervantes, Don Quixote and himself.

Poem About Gifts

Let none think that I by tear or reproach make light
Of this manifesting the mastery
Of God, who with excelling irony
Gives me at once both books and night.

In this city of books he made these eyes
The sightless rulers who can only read,
In libraries of dreams, the pointless
Paragraphs each new dawn offers

To awakened care. In vain the day
Squanders on them its infinite books,
As difficult as the difficult scripts
That perished in Alexandria.

An old Greek story tells how some king died
Of hunger and thirst, though proffered springs and fruits;
My bearing lost, I trudge from side to side
Of this lofty, long blind library.

The walls present, but uselessly,
Encyclopedia, atlas, Orient
And the West, all centuries, dynasties,
Symbols, cosmos and cosmogonies.

Slow in my darkness, I explore
The hollow gloom with my hesitant stick,
I, that used to figure Paradise
In such a library’s guise.

Something that surely cannot be called
Mere chance must rule these things;
Some other man has met this doom
On other days of many books and the dark.

As I walk through the slow galleries
I grow to feel with a kind of holy dread
That I am that other, I am the dead,
And the steps I make are also his.

Which of us two is writing now these lines
About a plural I and a single gloom?
What does it matter what word is my name
If the curse is indivisibly the same?

Groussac or Borges, I gaze at this beloved
World that grows more shapeless, and its light
Dies down into a pale, uncertain ash
Resembling sleep and the oblivion of night.
In the 1938, Borges found easy work at the Buenos Aires Municipal Library where he was able to do much of his writing during his free time. He soon realized he was going blind and his sight came and went for the rest of his life depending on different treatments. When Juan Perón took power in the mid-forties Borges was "promoted" to inspector of poultry and rabbits at a local market for not supporting his regime. As a result of this humiliation, Borges never forgave the Perónists and held a grudge for the rest of his life.

Borges is often regarded as the greatest writer never to win a Nobel, generally attributed to his support of Argentine and Chilean right-wing military dictators, including Augusto Pinochet. When the Argentinian junta finally collapsed, his feeble statement, "No leo los diarios" ("I don't read newspapers"), was ridiculed as echoing those oblivious Germans who claimed never to hear about the extermination camps until it was all over. Borges was a fierce individualist suspicious of any collective form of authority. He famously dismissed Pablo Neruda as:
"a very fine poet. I don't admire him as a man...he's on the side of the Communists, I'm against them."
Then in 1982 he condemned the Falkland Islands War as "Two bald men fighting over a comb." He went against the grain of his times, ultimately pleasing no one with his political opinions. But as even Neruda knew, it's not the singer that matters, but the song.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Japanese Cinema: Tetsuya Nakashima

Over the past decade, Japanese cinema has been experiencing something of a renaissance not seen since the heyday of Godzilla and Akira Kurosawa. Oscar winning films like 2008's Departures (Okuribito, おくりびと)...

...or Hayao Miyazaki's hugely successful Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, 千と千尋の神隠し) (2001), have sparked international interest and inspired accolades.

Director/Actor Takeshi Kitano has gained recognition as a provocateur with enormous breadth in such films as Kikujiro (Kikujirō no Natsu, 菊次郎の夏) (1999) and Zatōichi (座頭市) (2003):

...paving the way for a younger director like Hideo Nakata to explore more forbidden territory:

Along with Nakata, another current enfant terrible is Tetsuya Nakashima.

Nakashima is to Japan as Quentin Tarantino was to the U.S. with the release of Pulp Fiction back in 1994. His films are the familiar made strange, the detritus of the culture exacerbated and mashed together. With Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Isshō, 嫌われ松子の一生) (2006), Nakashima created something truly remarkable and moving:

His latest, Confessions (Kokuhaku, 告白) (2010), is visually just as striking, but not as emotionally relevant. It's a cold and murderous revenge tale that relies too much on a speak-over narrative to propel its momentum. Too often Nakashima leaves holes and expects a willing suspension of disbelief to relieve him of any burden to explain. The result is an unconvincing and somewhat plodding thriller.

Confessions was short listed for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars, but didn't make the final cut. It furthers the tired trope of 2000's sensational Battle Royale that posits adolescents as the enemy of humankind, a sort of Blackboard Jungle remixed for the cyber generation.