regained appreciation for edward yang and wu nien-jen

September 16th, 2008

I enjoy being in Boston a lot – and one of the reasons is the presence and close vicinity of the Harvard Film Archive. It’s a treasure trove for rare, obscure, foreign, or otherwise hard-to-find movies.

Last weekend and this weekend, they are showing a retrospective of Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen, two of the pioneers of the Taiwanese New Wave. I have long had a huge admiration for Taiwanese cinema and Edward Yang is no exception. His movies, besides maybe Yi Yi, however, have always been incredibly hard to find. I always thought it was the definition of irony that his most widely acclaimed movie, Yi Yi, who is so quintessential Taiwanese, was not distributed in Taiwan itself. Maybe it has by now, but when I was in Taiwan from 2001-2002, the movie won awards everywhere but my classmates at the National Taiwan University could only see this movie by downloading it.

Three nights ago, I saw Taipei Story, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, although the Chinese title (qingmei zhuma) translates more accurately as a proverb that refers to the kind of friend you have that you have known since childhood. In that sense, it’s a strongly nostalgic word that captures the appreciation for a shared history between you and your friend – all the things you have gone through together, the good times, the bad times, the way you dealt with adversities together, the successes you enjoyed together. This mixed sense of nostalgia and appreciation is explicated layer for layer for layer in this wonderful movie by Yang, who casted another Taiwanese New Wave director Hou Hsiao-hsien as his main protagonist. HHH plays a former Little League baseball star who is now wondering what happened to a world where his role was so clearly defined but now has changed so much, leaving him behind. It’s a critical look at the success of Taiwanese economic development – underscoring the social costs that often come with economic growth spurts (this, however, is not a necessary outcome. For a brilliant argument on why economic growth has to take into account and include social and political growth as well, see Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom).

Last night I saw another wonderful movie by Edward Yang, That Day on the Beach. I won’t summarize the story here, but it’s a wonderful story that plays with narrative structure and weaves a web of relationships between fascinating characters that portray the richness of human life in all its glory (and not so glory).

In short, I’m extremely grateful to be in a place and position where I have been able to see these movies that have been almost impossible to find these days. Edward Yang and Wu Nien-jen also just skyrocketed to my list of directors I have a deep admiration for – not that it wasn’t there, but being able to see their earlier works in full glory, something I haven’t been able to do before, confirms and underscores my admiration for them as persons who have a deep passion for what they do, have a admirable understanding of the oh-so important nuances of human life, care about the world around them and seek to share this through their work.

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December 10th, 2006
cafe lumiere

We decide to go to the cafe I just mentioned to her. We stroll along the street, turn into another alley and find ourselves staring in front of the large window of the cafe. I open the door for her and follow her in.

We sit down. The cafe has high ceilings, with a little staircase that goes up to a smaller floor, that serves as a kind of loft. Looking at the menu, she orders a Blue Mountain coffee, I opt for the stronger and coarser Mandheling. Having ordered, a bit unsure, we look around, half-casually. She looks gorgeous.

“Have you been here before?” I ask her. She looks at me with her big black eyes, just briefly, and lightly shakes her head.

“I am glad we are here. Even though you will be leaving soon.” She says, while looking at me.

Unsure how to respond, I look down and glance her briefly in the eye. A faint smile.

And then all of a sudden, I feel like I am a million years away, as if the present turned into a memory, and I find myself missing her, reminiscing this very moment. You wonder if that is how you are going to feel, once you really have left.

“I’m glad I met you too. The moment is kind of unfortunate, what with one month before I leave. But at the same time, I am grateful that we did meet.”

She kept looking at me, during the whole time I said those three sentences.

The coffee arrives, and a whirl of smoke emanates from the two cups of black liquid.

Adding one sugar, we stir and take a sip. A rush of warmth courses through my body.

“The coffee here is great!” She beams. I smile.

It’s one of those rare encounters that you will come across once every so many times in your life. They are brief, but leave a strong impression. In our darkest nights, we suddenly remember and cherish them dearly, at the same time wondering where she is, how come you had almost forgotten about her, and what if .. ? The brevity of the moment is similar to the sudden dead of a person in her youth: forever young and beautiful, etched in our memories, with yet so many unwritten tales now only left to our imagination.

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Three Times – Movie Review – Stylus Magazine

February 4th, 2006

Three Times – Movie Review – Stylus Magazine

There isn’t a better filmmaker than Hou Hsiao-hsien working anywhere in the world right now.

It is hard to argue with the above, and perhaps I would rate a few others in his class, like Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, or even Ann Hui, but Hou Hsiao Hsien (affectionately HHH) is definitely one of the most outstanding, if not the best, filmmaker these days.

My favorite movie of his is still Dust in the Wind but Three Times, his latest one, is high up there. Seen during the New York Film Festival in an amazing setting (thanks James for the tickets) – the movie breathed emotion, feelings, with an intensity – as if, a first glance of the world after years of being in coma. Struck with silence, beauty.

The first part bleeds nostalgia. Driven by a pair of songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and, in particular a favorite of mine, Rain and Tears, one relives a past where – because nothing much happened – you live so much more aware and feelings are so much more intense. Resonating, still, and desperately grasping onto it. A time of friendship, camaraderie, growing up, deciding life. Critical juncture – choices that will set the structure of your future – but back then, it was just your gut guiding you. The lightness of being.

Two times; the second part. Set in the time before the Japanese take-over, shot in black and white, silence. Not until then do you realize the mediated world we live in, cinematic experience overthrown – equilibrium of senses off guard. It ironically feels more unmediated, by mediating it in a silent movie. The conjuring of images, sounds in your head – dialogues, intensity of speech, voice. Very, very, impressive, HHH. Show us why we care, why we should care, and show it good.

Catch it in the cinema if you get the chance.

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interview with bae doo na

November 9th, 2005

bdn affectionally introducing bae doo na: she hasn’t played in a movie for over two years. seems like this is the fate of a lot of my favorite actresses, think jacqueline wu qian lian – who disappeared from the movie set in the mid 90s; she made a brief return in Jiang Hu last year.

but this is about bae doo na: the first time i saw her was in one of my alltime favorite movies, Take Care of my Cat. one of a group of friends in high school, now all graduated, and trying to find their own way in life, with mixed success – she is the one who is misunderstood by her family, the illogicality of blood ties surging through (hah) her blood veins (she cuts herself out of the family picture when she decides to leave), and her noble but almost futile attempts to keep the group of friends, the camaraderie going. bravely picking up the bricks, when the house around you, life, friendships, are starting to fall apart, slowly. the start of your own life is rooted in violence, the destruction of family life – like any nation-state, its birth is intrinsically tied to cleansing – the coming-of-age.

my second movie with her was with yin, at the berlinale (what year? .. it was our first time in berlin). in an unknown city, freezing cold (the berlinale is held every year in february – often during snow), we were able to get tickets for this movie because i remembered her fondly in Take Care of my Cat. the movie was called Sympathy for Mr Vengeance: that should ring a bell for you now, for those who are into cinema. Shot by the same director who did Old Boy, it was a brutal movie me and yin  and our virgin eyes were about to witness, on a cold, estranged sunday morning. what still sticks with me was the utter desolateness of the violence, bleak, dry, so natural. bae doo na played in this movie a role never to forget: lovely, idealistic activist youth, singing manifestos and something with electricity and ears. (for those who have seen the movie ..)

oh bae doo na, where are you?

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book and sword : gratitude and revenge

is the first novel written by Jin Yong. The protagonist is Chan Ka Lok, who is the leader of the Red Flower Society. The book title refers to Ka Lok being famous for being well-versed in culture and martial arts, but also for having to make a difficult ethical decision. My father named me and my brother after him.

The subtitle is from a poem Desiderata