Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 04 2022

Space-age childhood

Recently my friend Sean Lotman tweeted about a Richard Linklater movie he’d seen that he said gave him nostalgia about growing up in the states, so I took a look, expecting a generic childhood in some random American town, but when the flick started:

“The time is spring, 1969,” the narrator, voiced by Jack Black, says at the beginning of Apollo 10 1/2. “The place is Ed White Elementary School in El Lago, Texas.”

I went to Ed White Elementary in the late 70s/early 80s. We lived in El Lago for six years. Damn.

I waited for someone to pick me up from school many times on this portico.So I’m just going to go through the film and comment on what stood out for me. From the start, it’s interesting what they got exactly right and what seemed off. The sound of the kickball game is exactly right, but their depiction of the school doesn’t look quite right. I know it was supposed to be 1969 and I only started there in 1976 or so, but still, it doesn’t look like they had any actual alumni on staff, and the school’s been added to over the years. It was from that kickball court that I watched the first space shuttle fly on the back of a 747 over the school, possibly while I was wearing my puffy silver astronaut’s jacket, complete with patches, but I never had any aspirations in that direction. They did get the big fields next to the school right, but the hallways had windows at the top that don’t show up in the movie. I remember being so frustrated that I kicked my bright red plastic lunch box into those walls so hard that it broke into pieces. I also remember the beatings that the film passes off as just the way things were then. To me, Texas was a different world from Florida where we’d lived prior to that. Toxic masculinity permeated the entire society. From what I read on the news, it still does.

The houses of El Lago look different in the film too, smaller, simpler, with simpler, smaller yards. That doesn’t seem like it would have been too hard to research…you can go on Google Maps and look at them to know what they look like; they’re still there. Ours was built in 1960, like most of them, but the movie claims everything was being built in the late 60’s, which I don’t think was the case. It said there were no trees in 1969, but if that was the case the large trees we had everywhere grew very quickly in only seven years. We even had treehouses. Perhaps Linklater grew up in Houston, but I don’t think he grew up in El Lago.

I do remember the Astrodome games and the electronic sign. The interior decor of the film’s family’s house looks a bit too modern, too stereotypically 60’s. I can’t say whether our decor was in step with the times, but it seems to me from seeing other people’s houses that our Ethan Allen standard wasn’t too far from the norm. We certainly did have that coiled rug though; I spent many an evening and Saturday morning lying on that thing watching our big Zenith.

I remember the occasional flooding; to this day I get nostalgic about walking on grass with a few inches of water over it. The U-tote’M, yeah I remember that place where I spent my allowance on Mad Magazines and Hubba Bubba bubble gum. I also remember the rocket in the playground. I think one of them is still there actually, according to Google Maps. The TV shows and cartoons seem largely the same, though the ones we saw were largely already in syndication by the 70’s. These kids, though, they were allowed to stay up til midnight? How?

I remember “sewage park”, though we never called it that. It was just a field by the plant; we had to ride our bikes through the fenced-in bottleneck between the two to get to and from school without going miles out of the way. You can see it here, complete with some kid riding their bike towards the bottleneck after school. Substitute that red bike for a black Huffy Bandit and it could have been me. It was, alas, a great spot for bullies to ambush kids, which I managed to avoid until my last day of 5th grade, when I was attacked and all my stuff from my elementary school career trashed and strewn around that damn field. In fact, there was plenty of trauma during those years.

I don’t recall the fumigation trucks, and certainly nobody thought it would be cool to ride bikes behind those things. As for “Big bike adventures”, I would explore the woods nearby, finding an old cemetary that I now realize probably should have been a protected historic site, and unwisely hid in a storm drain in the rain. It’s all condos now.

I remember the Baskin-Robbins (damn, it’s still there too?), but not the bowling alley or arcades. Then again I didn’t really have many friends, got into too many fights, and my brother and sister were too much older to want to have much to do with a little kid like me, so I was alone a lot of the time. We did have that same stereo cabinet to play records, and I had a small radio to listen to music to make things seem ok late at night. We never had parties either; perhaps my parents also didn’t really have friends, or, as they both worked and were raising three kids, they were just too tired.

Astroworld I remember going to but not much else other than that it was across from the Astrodome. I have much better memories of concerts in the park and at Jones Hall. Our station wagon was a 1973 Pinto Squire, baby blue with fake wood trim, but the family car was a 1969 Buick Electra 225, gold and white two-tone. We called it Burt, or at least my sister did, as she was a fan of Burt Reynolds at the time.

Then again, the film Apollo 10 1/2 is about the summer of 1969, and things were different by the time I came along. I missed the moon landing, and by the time we were living in El Lago moon missions had stopped, Vietnam was over, and indeed the whole culture was undergoing huge changes. We left in 1981.

It’s nice that Linklater is nostalgic for his childhood, but it was apparently very different from mine. The film, while light-hearted and interesting, just brought back too many ghosts, and I kind of wish he’d picked somewhere else.

posted by Poagao at 8:37 pm  
Jan 13 2022

Movie Sign!

A week or so ago I watched a movie in a theater for the first time in literally years. Chenbl had a couple of free tickets, so after work I met up with him for a lunch of questionable quality at the chicken place next to the previous location of the Vie Show Sun theater, which has sadly been torn down. It’s particularly sad because it was an IMAX theater, and now we have to go elsewhere, such as all the way out to the Miramar Cinemas for IMAX movies. Fortunately for us, the free tickets weren’t for the demolished Vie Show, but the Shin Kong theater in the old Lion Plaza building, that golden monstrosity on the corner of Xining and Wuchang Roads. The escalators up past the first few floors of little shops weren’t working, so we took the small, blue-lit elevator up to the completely empty lobby. The theater was big enough, but the projection and sound weren’t great. The movie was Spider-man: No Way Home, which was…fine. I mean, it was fun and entertaining, and the extended cameos were fun (though sadly missing my favorite version of Spider-man), but it became more about them than about the current Spidey’s character arc, which really only the first Tom Holland movie explored to any degree. I enjoyed the nostalgia, just as I also enjoyed The Matrix: Resurrections and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Encanto is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, though). But the whole time I was thinking: I’d rather be watching this at home. Note: I do not have a terribly big-screen TV, just a 16-year-old 37″ 720P set that cost a pretty penny in 2006 but now just emits static in one speaker whenever I watch Star Trek due to the ship’s engine rumble, so I tend to watch things on my iMac. But the point remains: I wonder if the age of theaters is on the wane, due to be something only old people remember.

My views on the future of theaters and public gatherings in general are perhaps biased by the steadily growing number of Omicron cases pouring in from everywhere but mostly the U.S. Americans seem to have just given up on any preventative measures and are just watching case numbers explode. Some Americans in Taiwan, well, white dudes in particular, it seems, think that Taiwan should just roll with it as well, pooh-poohing any attempt at controlling spread of the disease. But I’ve noticed an interesting, or perhaps obvious correlation: The expats who feel the most entitled to a consequence-free lifestyle here are the ones who rail the most against any kind of COVID-based regulations. “I can’t take another months-long lockdown!” I heard one such dude say, apparently unaware that we’ve never had a real lockdown, let alone one that lasted months. Most people just go along with it, but to him, it’s an egregious affront to the “freedom” to which he feels entitled.

Fortunately Omicron has yet to overwhelm our system, though it’s being sorely tested as so many incoming passengers have it these days. It has inspired more people to get vaccinated, though, and the government has changed the previous 5-month time between 2nd and 3rd shots to 12 weeks, meaning I can likely get a booster next month. Older people seem to be the holdouts, for the most part. It remains to be seen how the government and the CDC will alter their protocols to deal with the nature of this latest wave. We’ve scheduled the photography course to resume next semester, but we’ll have to see how things develop and where we are by March. One thing that helps immensely in planning photo-related excursions is the partial return of Google Maps’ 3D capability; this is wonderful for getting a feel for an area before actually going out to the area in question, I’m glad it’s back and I hope it is expanded more around Taiwan in the future.

I took advantage of the pre-Omicron state of affairs to finally meet up in person with Alexander Synaptic of Spectral Codex last week at a cafe in Xindian’s Dapinglin. I have long appreciated the wealth of information encapsulated in Xander’s online exploration pieces, and he has helped me out a lot with website advice, but we had never actually met IRL. He showed me an old map that showed that my old army base used to be an even older Japanese landing strip, which explains how the area “Big Flat Top” might have gotten its name in the first place.

In other news, I’ve been asked to perform in an ensemble paying tribute to the late Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five group. This is both an honor and a challenge, as I consider Satchmo to be the GOAT. I will need to put in some real work to get ready for that level of syncopation, range and just cool-ass 20’s jazz. Again, nobody knows where we’ll be by March; we’ll just have to see.

posted by Poagao at 11:18 am  
Jan 10 2017

Rogue One Spoiled Just for You

I saw Rogue One the other day. It was…ok. Thanks to the wonders of IMAX© technology, I spent altogether too much time wondering what the hell was wrong with Darth Vader’s neckpiece. Did they use CG reanimation for any other humans besides Tarkin and Leia? Because those two completely took me on a run down the Uncanny Trench. Of course, because I knew that they weren’t real, I was probably being overly picky and looking for imperfections, but those dead eyes were just. so. dead. Even with Tarkin, who is supposed to be unsettling. Just. So. Dead.

But even with the actual live characters, I had very little sympathy. It was like a bunch of wood blocks running around Forest Whitaker and Donny Yen. “Wait! Why are you leaving me behind?” Whitaker might as well say when they flee the Necessary Plot Point/Explosion.

“As a black actor in Hollywood you really should know this trope!” They shout back at him from the escaping spaceship. “Otherwise nobody would believe that it’s 1977!”

“Oh…” replies Whitaker, and sighs, thinking, you all gonna die anyway.

So they all die. I kind of knew this going in, and it depressed me, but it wasn’t just that: If they had started out with a scene from the time of Episode IV or later, a la the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, it would have made the audience accept this from the beginning and proceed without that nagging thought throughout the film, e.g. “Are they really all going to die? Every single one? Maybe someone won’t die. Let’s see…nope, they all died. Oh, well.”

It was a fascinating concept, and an excellent idea. I would have liked to have seen the story, but it was hidden behind explosions of bad writing (and actual explosions). Perhaps the writers were also thinking: Well, they’re all going to die. We can’t have the audience actually identify with them, so we’ll have them run around the plot for a little bit, smother everything with luscious, shivery familiar music and scenery to take them back to the good old days, and INSERT STEP TWO HERE (Note: This means explosions)…and Win!

For the record, I loved The Force Awakens. I cried like a baby in the theater; I saw it twice. Even though I’m still pissed that Leia completely ignored Chewbacca’s suffering after Han died, I was actually interested in the characters and where they were going. Perhaps the Star Wars writers should take a note from this: Make us interested in where the characters are going more than where they’ve been. Episodes I-III were about where Anakin had been…turns out we really didn’t want to know. We don’t want spoilers. Heaven forbid! But we at least need stories that make us want to cover our ears when a friend start out with, “So I saw…”

posted by Poagao at 11:36 am  
Jan 20 2015

Taichung show

We took a bus to Taichung on Saturday. Well, most of us did. Sandman got lost and couldn’t find the station in time, so he caught the next bus. But David, Slim, Eddie, Conor and I managed to board at the new Taipei Bus Station, hidden in the lofty heights of the Q-Square building, in time to get down to Taichung by mid-afternoon. Every time I travel to Taichung I wonder what it would be like to live there, and note how much it has changed since I went to college there. And every time I conclude that without a metro system I would probably find it quite inconvenient. Hopefully the first new mayor the city has had in well over a decade will do something about this situation. We’ll see.

We were playing at an underground live house, the Sound Garden, where the performance space seemed to be hidden behind a door in the “regular” performance space. I had to ask where the fire exits were, as the place seemed ready-made for disaster with one long tunnel to the exit. After our sound check I noticed that nobody was around, but when I went outside I found a long line of people waiting to get in.

The show was great, even though we were without Thumper, our percussionist. Mojo, who had been waiting for us there, was helping us keep time with some small cymbals, but I had to concentrate rather harder than usual on keeping the bass-line steady, as I could feel everyone leaning a bit more heavily on it than they would have if Thumper were there. The audience reaction was ecstatic throughout the show and encores. The mood was great, and we sat around signing CDs for a long time after the show. This was followed by a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant across the street, which ran long because we were all still high from the show and full of bright talk. It was after 1 a.m. before we caught a bus back to Taipei, and after 4 when I tumbled into the Water Curtain Cave, grateful for my bed.

Our post-gig dinner

Our post-gig dinner


On Sunday I practiced violin. You didn’t know I played the violin? That’s because I don’t, really. I signed up for community college classes that start in March, but I haven’t studied since I was a five-year-old Suzuki student with a quarter-sized instrument in Maitland, Florida. But Chenbl convinced me to give it a shot, and now I feel really sorry for my neighbors. Sure, I play trumpet at home at reasonable hours, but I know how to play the trumpet. A beginner violin student really should be exiled to a soundproof room for several months at least. But the violin is borrowed and the classes are cheap, so if it doesn’t take…well, no harm, no foul.

I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” recently. I kind of had to, as every single friend of mine had asked me if I’d seen it, and, as a photographer, if the movie really resonated with me. It was a strange film, with great camera work, but it didn’t really resonate with me, probably because I was wondering throughout whether it should. Another reason was the way photography was portrayed in the film, and the nerd in me got in the way when I saw Sean Penn trying to act like a photographer. “I just want to be here, seeing it for myself,” Penn says at one point in the film.

“No, you’re not seeing it for yourself, that’s a frickin’ 400mm lens!” I say to the TV and any neighbors who are listening in. “And Ben Stiller just screwed up your focus anyway!”



posted by Poagao at 10:13 am  
Jun 12 2010

Renting movies

After failing to find a movie I wanted to see at Q-Square after work Friday (damn 3D flicks everywhere are ruining my chances to see a film that doesn’t give me a headache), I rented three DVDs to watch over the weekend: Quantum of Solace, The Handsome Suit, and Bodyguards and Assassins. It’s Saturday night now, and I’ve already finished all of them.

The latest James Bond flick was, to be frank, boring. Yes, yes, 007’s doing things his way and M gets to clean up the mess. Again. I’d had higher hopes for this as I liked Daniel Craig’s performance in the last one, Casino Royale. He’s really the first actor to grasp the nature of Bond since Connery, and reading Fleming’s books lately just shores up my opinion in this respect. But there was no soul to this one; it felt like the bits and pieces left over from the last film. The writers must be struggling for new material after going through each and every book and short story Fleming penned, and it shows. It may be just as well that the studio is having a hard time coming with a means to make another one. It’s a pity that Craig, probably the last Bond actor actually older than I am, might not get another chance to excel as Bond, but there are plenty of other things he can excel at, I’m sure.

Bodyguards and Assassins, I’d thought from the preview was just another historical kung-fu action piece, but it turned out to be a rather over-the-top tragic/patriotic piece where almost everyone dies in the end after trying to protect Sun Yat-sen on a trip to Hong Kong. It was well done, of course, but I wouldn’t have rented it if I’d known its true nature. Donnie Yen is always interesting to watch, and were most of the other actors, with the exception of the annoying kid who played Lin Yu-tang’s son.

The Handsome Suit, a Japanese film where an “ugly” guy gets to play at being “handsome” with the aid of a mechanical suit, was actually pretty fun; I liked the underlying message that most people are actually quite ugly, no matter what they look like on the outside. The film managed to take this sobering truth and gussy it up with lots of up-beat music and colors, but it came through anyway. I personally would prefer the main character’s original appearance to his “Handsome Suit” form, but I’m just strange like that. Again, I really should learn some Japanese instead of having to rely on subtitles for these films.

posted by Poagao at 10:21 pm  
Feb 01 2009

Looking for Leone

We had breakfast at Zeluan again in the morning; my ham and cheese croissant had no chocolate but was covered with sugar instead. The rain outside changed the atmosphere of the place considerably, at the same time more moody and more comfortable. Gordon was sure the weather in Granada bore no relation to the weather in Almeria, so we set off despite the rain in hopes that it would be sunny at our destination. As we drove I noticed once again the prevalence of graffiti everywhere in Spanish cities. Who draws it? Why doesn’t anyone bother cleaning up at least the obviously poorer examples of the art?

The highway climbed eastwards into the hills, and the rain turned to snow, light at first; then much heavier. Snowplows were parked along the road, and signs warned of giant snowflakes that were actually alike, a terrifying thought. The weather improved as we came down the other side, though, and distant patches of blue appeared above the fields of giant wind turbines and solar farms that dotted the landscape.

The land itself was becoming at once more wild and more familiar, at least to fans of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, which were filmed here. This was the reason we were here, actually; Gordon and Ray weren’t particularly interested, but I had to visit the place where some of my favorite cinematic moments were filmed decades ago. Watching the shadows of clouds speed over the hills, I realized that it must be the inspiration of Leone’s title sequences, the titles sliding over the mountains like clouds, no doubt painstakingly rotoscoped by some poor shmuck in the studio.

The sun was shining as we pulled into the parking lot of Mini Hollywood, the amusement park made from the old original movie sets, and as we were about to get out of the car, literally out of the blue, hail began pounding down around us, bouncing off the ground and some of the cars. A few minutes later it was over, but another one followed almost immediately. The ground looked like it was covered in mothballs before the hailstones melted.

We got our rather expensive tickets and crossed a wooden bridge over a gulch to the fake town. I immediately recognized the bank and hotels from “A Few Dollars More,” but some of the other buildings and angles took some time to recognize. The houses of both the Rojos and the Baxters were missing, but some of the buildings from the middle of the street were familiar. It would have been helpful if guides were on hand to explain which scenes were filmed where, but perhaps modern audiences aren’t interested in that and would rather see more touristy things.

We almost left after that, but at the last moment decided to stay for the dance show at the saloon at 4 p.m. Lunch at the canteen wasn’t as bad as I was expecting for a kitchen that is basically holding visitors hostage.

Before the show, I walked around the area, wondering what it was like when they were filming the movies, standing where I figured Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach or Lee Van Cleef had been standing in various scenes, climbing the balcony where I figure the “Me in the middle” speech took place, etc. It was actually pretty cool, though the place has been made over into a really cheesy version of itself for the Spanish tourists, complete with old video games.

The show turned out to be a kind of psychedelic can-can review, with canned music straight from “Hooked on Classics” and dancers with widely varying physiques wearing what appeared to be tighty whiteys under their skirts, which didn’t spend much time covering anything. It was very bizarre.

As we crossed the bridge back towards the parking lot, I was reminded of another scene, where Tuco crosses the rope bridge to the town after crossing the desert in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It seems like the same spot, but I could be wrong.

On the road to Cabo del gato, we passed more spots I thought looked familiar, such as The Small House (Marisol! I wanted to shout out the window) and the location of the final shootout in A Few Dollars More.

Cabo del gato was the last thing on my checklist, what I thought was the site of the church where El Indio and his gang hid out in the second film, where El Indio gives the speech from the pulpit about a very special safe. We drove further and further into the desolate lands east of Almeria, and I began to think we’d never find it. I was already feeling a bit apologetic for dragging Gordon and Ray to Almeria in the first place, and this was turning into a real excursion when on the map it looked like a simple drive.

When we finally reached Cabo del gato, we stopped by a surprisingly turbulent ocean, faced by some kind of ancient stone guardhouse. I was nearly knocked over by the strong, cold wind the moment I stepped out of the car. We took some pictures and then got back on the road. I had nearly given up when I spotted the tower of a church in the distance, located between the coast and some nearby hills.

A sign next to the remote ruin mentioned that it was built in 1907; a centenary was held in 2007, but the church looks just as it did in 1963. I’m not sure who decided to build a church out in the middle of nowhere like that or why, or how Leone knew about it, but it is certainly a dramatic looking location, especially at that time of day. Ray and I got out and took pictures of the old church by the seaside, which was yellow in the light of the setting sun and striking against the blue sky. Not far down the road was a seaside resort of a much more recent vintage, completely shuttered and boarded up for the winter. “I never saw a town as dead as this,” I said; nobody got the reference.

I’m sure Gordon and Ray thought I was crazy for wanting to see such places, but to their credit they didn’t complain once about the detour. In any case, I’ve seen what I could, though ideally I would hire a guide and do research to find other locations such as the cemetery at the end of the last film. From now on the itinerary is up to them, though.

We drove back westwards along the southern Spanish coast as night fell. The highway was closed for most of the drive due to construction, so we took the winding regular road all the way to Malaga, where we had a late dinner of fried artichokes and fish. Gordon felt I should drive to the hostel we’d booked so that he could read the directions, but we somehow ended up in the middle of a pedestrian square surrounded by angry cops in cars and on motorcycles waving and shouting at us. Luckily they didn’t arrest us, and even guided us to the hostel, a strange, cheap affair on the third floor of an office building in an area of dubious repute. As I type this, I can hear loud conversations, scooter horns and thumping music out my balcony window. The in-room shower is exactly that; there are no walls, just a curtain, and the toilet is located across the hall. 30 euros a night. Obviously there is no Internet, so I will have to post this later. Tomorrow we might try to see Gibraltar, though Ray and I might not have the right visa.

posted by Poagao at 4:26 pm  
Sep 22 2008

Photo award and Cape No. 7

I was lucky enough to win an award in the “Beautiful Xindian” photography contest recently. The awards ceremony was supposed to be last weekend, but they had to reschedule due to the typhoon. I’d never been to one of these things, so when the people from the contest called to see if I’d be attending, I said ok. “By the way, ” the woman on the phone asked, “What nationality are you?”

“Taiwanese,” I said.


The weather on Saturday was bright and hot, so quite a few people showed up at the awards at the Xindian Library. I think the fact that they had free food had something to do with it as well. I picked up my name tag, got an assigned seat, and then walked around looking at the various prize-winning photographs. There were some really nice shots, beautiful composition and subject matter there, but the quality of the photography not only varied widely, it seemed to bear no relation to the level of prizes. Many of the “recommended” shots were easily better than the photos that won medal awards.

Award ceremonyThe ceremony was a little embarrassing. No fewer than three dance shows were held, one with several bored-looking girls and one excited-looking but rather erratic girl, one pseudo-Arabic dance, and a hip-hop dance show during which the MC didn’t shut up about the dancer’s background until halfway through. Then the awards started.

All this for a photograph? I wondered as I watched the people lining up to get their plaques and have their picture taken with some random official. The mayor was stuck in traffic and only arrived later. I’m not sure if she got to see the picture of her painting calligraphy, the one with no real attributes besides having the mayor as a subject, get a bronze medal. Some people had several shots win awards, which seems strange. Apparently over 3,600 entries were received; why not limit it to one award per person and give some other people a chance?

I got my award and picture, and as I sat down again the MC related the gist of the phone call concerning my nationality to the audience, which clapped appreciatively. A “photography expert” then got up and gave a speech about photography which quickly devolved into a slide show of his shots, some of which were ok. I was pulled outside at this point to give an interview to a local TV reporter, who asked me why I took the particular shot, what it meant, etc. “I thought it looked nice,” didn’t seem to satisfy her, so I babbled on about reflections and dragonboats and whatever came to mind until she got what she wanted.

Back inside, another “expert” was giving tips on shooting, which also quickly became a slideshow of the guy’s shots. I was waiting for the speeches to be over so I could eat some of the free food in the lobby, so I amused myself by taking pictures of the chairs in front of my and other people’s feet. After the slideshow/speeches, however, I was drawn into a conversation with the organizers about photography.

I’m afraid I got a little controversial at this point. I usually don’t enjoy talking about photography as it is too subjective and I find it difficult to describe what appeals to me about a particular shot. I was feeling rebellious, however, and gestured at a photo on display to the side of the room, one that either got a bronze medal of maybe an “excellent” award, I forget, and declared: “This is probably the best photo here,” and promptly pointed out all the ways it could have been even better.

In retrospect, I probably erased any chances I have of ever winning an award from these people ever again; I should have kept my mouth shut and just nodded when told that all the photographs there were wonderful works of art. The immediate result of this was that, by the time I made my way to the lobby, all the food had been eaten already. Serves me right, I suppose.

In other news, last night I went to see Cape No. 7, a local film that has become very popular recently. The preview didn’t impress me, so I wasn’t originally interested in seeing it until a friend of mine mentioned he wanted to see it, so I thought I would go see what all the fuss was about. We saw the film at the dusty, old Scholar Theater in a basement on Changchun Road. The place was packed, though, a good sign and always useful in gauging audience reaction.

I have to say I was impressed. Although the film’s a bit long, with so many characters that many strings are left untied at the end, it was a very satisfying story despite the lack of development among the main characters. I spent the first hour hating the Japanese girl, and occasionally caught some awkward bits, clumsy shots and bad CG, but in the end, this movie has heart. I haven’t felt this way about a Taiwanese film in ages; it reminds me of The Scarecrow in its tone. Some have accused it of sugarcoating reality, but it is not meant to be a documentary. It had a sense of pacing and a touch of art usually absent from what some would call “lowbrow” cinema here, but it mercifully rationed its share of long, brooding shots that have trademarked Taiwanese cinema for decades now, in my opinion to its detriment. We’ve mourned enough via films like City of Sadness and Yi Yi; Cape No. 7 strikes a more confident tone, without the whininess and yet allowing the audience to laugh at itself and Taiwanese society. This, I think, lies at the base of its appeal to local audiences. Yes, this is who we are; we have flaws, it proclaims, but we also have heart, and we are no worse than people in other countries. Perhaps this kind of reassurance is sugarcoating, but the reception the film has received so far suggests to me that perhaps it has struck a much-needed chord in this society. For better of worse, there will no doubt be many copycats hoping to cash in on the film’s success in coming years; if we’re lucky it will inspire a renaissance of filmmaking here as well.

posted by Poagao at 1:07 am  
Apr 25 2008

Forbidden Kingdom

I just got back from seeing The Forbidden Kingdom. My main reason for going to see it, besides liking martial arts films, was to see the historic first on-screen pairing of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. If the fight scene between the two is all you’re there for, you won’t be disappointed; I just about cried out in joy. In fact, most of the fight choreography in the film is good, thanks to Yuen Wo-ping, but Li and Chan’s stuff is just brilliant, especially for those of us who have seen countless movies by them both throughout their careers and wondering what they would look like fighting together.

Of course it’s all carefully orchestrated not to show a clear winner between the two. Even the the opening credits, their names appear at the same time, linked together by sharing the “J” at the beginning of their names on the screen. It’s obvious that the producers of the film took great pains to make sure the two got equal billing and screen time. In fact, it seems that the purported protagonist of the film, Jason Tripitikas, played by Michael Angarano, was pretty much ignored throughout. The result is that the story is not told from any particular point of view, and not even the director seems to care what the protagonist of the film is thinking in more than a cursory fashion.

Aside from the choreography, the music, cinematography, editing and art direction of the film are all excellent. The writing, however, is pretty awful, and the story told as an afterthought. If the people making the film had given Jason not only more lines, but better lines, even some character development that didn’t depend on other people making remarks about what we should have seen, it could have been a compelling story. Jason speaks gratingly poor Chinese throughout the movie, seemingly unrelated to the motions of his lips. Either Angarano’s Chinese was too fluent for him to be a “believable foreigner” or it was simply unintelligible and had to be looped, (but looped badly? Is there any reason for that? Maybe it’s just the Taiwan version that’s like that?). A few sardonic remarks. maybe in English, a couple of witty asides as he goes through his miraculous training, could have gone a long way in fleshing out his character. As it is, there’s simply nothing in the character to latch onto.

Chan and Li are the real stars of the film, and they both do a good job. Li makes a surprisingly good Monkey, I have to say. But in the end it feels more like an American Hollywood production with a pseudo-Chinese veneer than anything else. It could have been a great film, alas. Reports say that Jet Li and Jackie Chan enjoyed working together so much they’re thinking of doing more. I hope they get a chance to work with better writers and directors when they do so. Perhaps the US involvement in this project was considered “neutral ground” for the two stars to cooperate on, but I’d like to see what they can do under a Chinese director.

posted by Poagao at 12:32 pm  
Feb 10 2008

Palace ground-walking and some disturbing films

It seemed warmer when I stepped outside this morning, so instead of taking the subway, I decided to just walk and see where I ended up. As I proceeded south, more people began appearing on the deserted streets. By the time I came upon a series of shops selling snowboarding equipment, and then a group of music stores, the sidewalks were actually kind of crowded. Young people sat outside a coffee house taking hits of an espresso bong, while a cavalcade of black cars with the Japanese flag and the war flag drove by, loudspeakers blaring shouting and music. Japanese nationalists, I assume. Nobody seemed to be paying them any attention.

shining treeI found myself near the Imperial Palace grounds, so I went in to have a look. I was disappointed to find that, although the grounds are nice, there are precious few old buildings left inside, and none of those that are still around are accessible. There’s a large base with nothing on it near the center of the park. Apparently a large castle stood there for a few years hundreds of years ago before burning to the ground. I sat on the concrete at the top of it and figured out exactly where I was with GPS, and then took a picture for a couple of Australians.

After finding my bearings, I walked across the highway bordering the grounds to see the Budokan, which I’d read about and seen in various martial arts publications since I was a kid. What I didn’t expect was to hear be-bop music coming from inside. It turns out that there’s a concert series being held there, and I heard a ripping harmonica solo issue from within. I have to say, however, that it did somewhat lessen the solemn image I had of the Budokan in my mind.

More popular was the Science Museum. So popular, in fact, that there was a long line of cars waiting to get parking spaces there. The drivers were amusing themselves by reading, watching TV, texting, or just staring into space.

I went back to the Palace-less palace grounds and listened to the crows for a bit, as they are the only birds you can hear in winter here. Then I walked across the spongy yellow grass and down to the front gate, where a guard yelled at me to get off the edge of the moat where I was taking a rather mediocre picture. The grounds are strictly patrolled, on foot, bicycle, car, and camera, to keep people from going places they shouldn’t be. As it happens, the original guard stations are some of the few original structures to survive, and they seemed familiar to me in their placement and arrangement, perhaps because I spent a lot of time in various guard posts when I was in the army.

On Sundays the city government shuts down many major thoroughfares in the city and opens them up for bicycles and pedestrians, which is quite cool.

buildings, skyI’d arranged to meet Yas at his shop at 3:30, but I keep forgetting how big Tokyo is. The efficient subway system makes it seem smaller than it really is. I walked to the Tokyo Station, which looks like the mother of all old Taiwanese train stations (and I guess it is, in a way, as the Japanese built them all), and got on a train about 15 minutes later than I should have. Consequently, as soon as I walked in the door, Yas said, “Let’s go.”

It turns out the festival was held basically where I’d been walking this morning, in a small theater in an alley in the Kanda district. Yas introduced me to an actress named Aya, as well as another director. A heavyset man with long hair was busy threading the projector and setting up things while occasionally filming things with his handheld 8mm camera. Eventually he put it on a shelf and left it, but it was still taking a frame every five seconds. I guess he was making a time-lapse thing, so I played around with it, moving incrementally every five seconds so that it would look like I was moving at normal speed for a second or so.

The heavy guy made a short speech, the lights went down, and the first film played. It was quite terrifying and very abstract. The second film opened with a woman giving a guy a blow job, after which they had naked, black-and-white sex. Nothing was omitted. In another shot, I realized that the guy having sex was the projectionist standing just behind me. The film was processed in a really strange way I assumed was on purpose, but later Yas told me that it was because he developed the film in his bathtub to save time and money. He also said the guy has won a lot of awards in Europe for his experimental work.

Then Yas’ film, Carnophobia, played. It was both claustrophobic and extremely disturbing. Later I made some suggestions about how the knife should sound when it…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

The first part of the show over, I talked to a jazz pianist Yas knows for a bit, though his English is not really, uh, existent. He did give me a CD, though; I gave him a name card, hinting that the Muddy Basin Ramblers would really like to play a gig in Tokyo sometime.

I had to get something to eat as I hadn’t eaten all day, and some of the films in the second half seemed pretty guaranteed to make me lose my appetite, so I skipped out during the break, feeling very disoriented when Yas pointed me in the direction of the subway station. I think it was the films, which weren’t bad, just…really, really…bizarre.

nightrainOriginally I had planned to go to a bar in Shinjuku, but I ended up walking around Kanda some more, taking pictures of trains and tunnels near the medical university and St. Nicolai’s ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral. Nearby I found a restaurant called “Gorilla Curry” or something like that; you know I had to have me some o’ that, and it was delicious. Ads for the restaurant played on a TV inside, which I thought kind of superfluous; if you’re already in there, you probably don’t need convincing.

After dinner I walked around the area some more, thinking I would go back at 10pm and talk with Yas and the portly guy again, but when I got there it was closed; they’d finished early and left. I didn’t feel like taking the subway and walked all the way back to my hotel, admiring the three-dimensional nature of this great city, with its elevated trains, subways, and multi-level architecture, its tiny restaurants crammed into every nook and cranny, it’s apparent complete lack of roaches, rats and smoking scooters. The Japanese people, however, are still mostly a mystery to me:

The police stations all have a sign outside counting the number of injuries and deaths in the district the day before.

Workers are some of the most stylish I’ve ever seen, with wonderful baggy pants, tabi shoes, bandanas and trendy long hair and goatees.

The first thing the staff says to a customer entering a store is “Sorry!”

Those films.

Instead of coming upstairs, I walked around the streets behind, which I hadn’t seen before. It was oddly empty; nobody was around at all. I stood in the middle of an intersection, filming the lights turning red and green. It was eerie. The sound of my shoes squeaking echoed in the silence, and I halfway expected someone to open their window and shout, “Enough with the squeaky shoes!” but nobody did.

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Dec 31 2007

Losing our place

Reading this story on one user’s discovery of what she felt was a critical flaw in a new e-book reader -mainly that she felt vaguely troubled by the fact that she didn’t know where she was in the book, how close to the end, etc.- reminded me how bound most of us are to the traditional construction and ensuing emotional needs involved in storytelling. When stories come in standard formats like a 250-page paperback novel, a half-hour TV show or a 90-minute movie, we base our expectations of what’s happening and what’s going to happen on where we are within the story. When I was watching American Gangster last Wednesday, there’s a scene involving a raid on a warehouse. I found myself looking at my watch to ascertain whether it would be successful; if we were at one point in the movie it would work, whereas if it were earlier than I thought, it probably wouldn’t. It turned out I was right. When I was watching Ratatouille, the winning of the restaurant felt like it came too soon, but it turned out that it was not the major obstacle in the plot, which differed from most Hollywood story-telling conventions in interesting ways. If this doesn’t make sense to you, surely you’ve encountered watching a TV show you know for a fact to last only a half-hour, minus commercials, and at some point it becomes plain that the plot cannot be resolved in time. Sure enough, it’s a two-parter. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!

It seems that a measure of our enjoyment of a story in any form is the reassurance of knowing where we are in the dramatic arc. This knowledge may remain on the subconscious level for the most part, but it’s definitely a part of the experience, perhaps a part we’ve come to take for granted. But as the e-book phenomenon shows, things are changing. With the advent of such technologies as well as more downloadable, variable-construct media being made available, it may seem like we’re in danger of losing our place in the story.

My guess, however, is that although the next generation will see things differently as a result of different constructs, the power of good storytelling will prove more resilient than the medium that conveys it. My hope is that, with the breakdown of set formats for our stories, as well as the inevitable fierce competition resulting from the ability of just about anyone to produce content, will result in even stronger, more dramatically engaging stories that pull us in and give us a sense of where we are without the need to for surreptitious glances at watches or the folded corners of tattered paperbacks.

posted by Poagao at 4:11 am  
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