12 February 2017

Massage and electric treatment

Today Ouyang takes us to his favorite Spa for a session of massage and hot tub bath. To get there, I ride on his motorbike while my wife rents a moto-taxi. None of us has any helmet, in keeping with local practice. I am not sure if I am more scared of hurting my head or making my cold worse. In the end everything goes smoothly.

It is a great couple of hours. He knows this town very well, he says he does not like to travel and spends some time every day taking care of his body at various salons. He is in his mid-forties and looks a good ten years younger. He has a membership card with many and the staff clearly know him very well as a regular.

Two minute Chinese ladies perform a powerful and very professional massage in a dimly lit room. Massage sessions alternate with dips in a very hot tub filled with water and herbs. A thin sheet of plastic is laid on the tub's surface before it is filled up with steaming water, ensuring proper hygiene. We get nice slippers and disposable undies, as well as soft towels. Quite a break compared to the chilly weather outside. At the end, we are served herbal tea in the waiting room, and Ouyang joins us for a chat with the owner, a lady she knows well for being a regular. Our two masseuses stand by. I can only speak to them with the help of translation, but I want to make sure they know I really enjoyed their treatment and look forward to coming back soon.

Electric practitioner diplomas and Chairman Mao

Traditional Chinese herbs
We then go to a practitioner who Ouyang says can treat my cold. Upon arrival I am offered a potion of tea and herbs to drink. He then performs a kind of electric treatment by gently rubbing my back with his hands while electricity flows through his body. He can adjust power with a pedal. It is a bit uncomfortable at first but then I get used to it.

My muscles contract when he revs up the current. All of this lasts about 45 minutes. More herbal tea is served at the end.



As we leave the practice, I feel a bit shaken up by the electricity, but overall I do feel better. My cold is still there, we'll see the results later.

Street vendor of fruits and veggies
Just outside a lady with balancing baskets on her shoulders approaches. We buy some from her, she is quite friendly and the prices are good, so says my wife. It is a pleasure to find these sellers in a day and age where supermarkets (which I think do have a role to play, so convenient!) seem about to take over even in smaller Chinese towns like this.

13 January 2017

Film review: The Story of Qiuju (1992) by Zhang Yimou, ****


Synopsis

Qiu ju, a peasant woman in Shaanxi province (central China) seeks redress for her husband, who has been badly kicked by the village chief following a trivial dispute. Local authorities rule in her favor, the chief is ready to pay compensation but does not apologize.

Qiu ju appeal to ever higher higher levels of government but the result is always the same. There is a stalemate in the proceedings until an unexpected turn of events puts Quiju and the chief face to face again. She will come to regret being so stubborn.
going to see a doctor

One of the first films by director Zhang with his long time collaborator and, at the time, partner Gong Li.


Review

Interesting peek into provincial China in the 1980s, and the contrast between hard, backward rural life and rapidly modernizing cities. The director uses "verité" camera to show us real street life, which makes the film part documentary.

This film also shows a very sympathetic bureaucracy, ready to listen to the grievances of a country girl, which may not always be the case in real China. Maybe the director was trying to be ironic about this or perhaps the movie is meant as an encouragement for real civil servants and law and order officials to do their job.

It is also a story of human relationships: one moral of the story is that even when something wrong is done to you, you need to keep calm and find a way out that is reasonable. For us non-Chinese the film illustrates very well the value of not "losing face" in China. All is well that ends well? Not really, but I won't give the ending away...

See my reviews of other films about China here in this blog.


selling chilis to pay for a lawsuit













In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here




29 December 2016

Film review: Alamar (2009) by Pedro Gonzalez Rubio, ***

Synopsis

Jorge and Roberta have been separated for several years. They simply come from opposite worlds: he likes an uncomplicated life in the jungle, while she prefers a more urban existence. He is Mexican and she is Italian, and she has decided to return to Rome with their five-year-old son, Natan. Before they leave, Jorge wishes to take young Natan on a trip, hoping to teach him about his Mayan origins in Mexico. At first the boy is physically and emotionally uncomfortable with the whole affair, and gets seasick on the boat taking them to their destination. But as father and son spend more time together, Natan begins a learning experience that will remain with him forever.


Review

The real life of a family of mixed ethnic background. Or, rather, of what could have been a family but wasn't. Not sure what the point is about this film. You can get a glimpse of a lesser known part of Mexico, yes, and pristine waters along the Banco Chinchorro, one of the largest and most stunning coral reefs in the world. But then what? The little kid is going to grow up and probably wonder what were his parents thinking when they made him. What was his mother, especially, thinking to get pregnant with a man she knew she could never live with. Or perhaps she could have but she did not want to. She preferred her cosy life in Rome to giving her son a family. The father too, he might have moved to Rome, but didn't. Maybe the movie is an indictment of irresponsible love adventures by careless travelers, and if so maybe it does have a purpose after all. Beautiful photography.


You can buy this film here.

11 December 2016

Film review: A Perfect World (1993), by Clint Eastwood, ***

Synopsis

Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood confront each other from opposite sides of the law in A Perfect World, an acclaimed, multilayered manhunt saga (directed by Eastwood) that rumbles down Texas backroads toward a harrowing collision with fate. Costner plays Butch Haynes, a hardened prison escapee on the lam with a young hostage (T.J. Lowther in a remarkable film debut) who sees in Butch the father figure he never had. Eastwood is wily Texas Ranger Red Garnett, leading deputies and a criminologist (Laura Dern) on a statewide pursuit. Red knows every road and pothole in the Panhandle. What's more, he knows the elusive Haynes – because their paths have crossed before.





Review


A film about America's south in the 1960s, its gun culture and trigger-happy police. The story unfolds against the background of pre-civil rights movement racial relations. A culture that is still to a large extent there, half a century after the time when this movie is set and despite eight years of a black American president.

Clint is his usual hard-nosed expression-less man, and Costner plays very well the role of an equally tough criminal who reveals his inner kindness, even to the child he loves and who eventually contributes to his death.

The movie is a succession of apparently casual events that decide the life or death of people, seemingly by fortuitous coincidences. In a perfect world, there would have been a happy ending, or rather this story would not have started at all!



Choose your favorite Clint Eastwood movies here.

In the US buy it here



Buy other movies by Clint Eastwood here.

03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom






















29 November 2016

Film review: Red Sorghum (1987) by Zhang Yimou, ***


Synopsis

This film is based on the well known novel by Mo Yan, which I have reviewed here in this blog. The story is that of three generations of a family in the deep Chinese hinterland during the first half of the XX century. China is in the midst of great upheaval, as the old order of the Qing Empire crumbles and the new republic is not strong enough to take its place. At the family level, a young woman who is forced by her father to marry an old leper so he can receive a mule in payment, rebels.

This would have been unthinkable in the past, but she does. At a broader social level, bandits rule the countryside and the state can not enforce law and order. Then the Japanese invade, and cruelly plunder the country taking advantage of its weakeness.

It is an interesting historical novel, useful to understand the conditions that gave rise to Communist China after Japan's defeat and a brutal civil war.

Review

In my view, the film in not as good as the book. The take on the story lacks credibility. It is also not as harrowing as the book, but that is just as good as some scenes from the book could only be put to film at the cost of making it impossible to watch but for the toughest souls.

Gong Li is a young actress here, and she has not developed her skills quite yet. The script, too, is a bit naive, which the book is anything but.

I would recommend watching the movie but much more so reading the book.

A better movie by the same director, with a similar thread is Ju Dou, which I have reviewed in this blog. Same lady forced to marry same old man (silk dyer instead of wine producer) in a traditional Chinese context where the odds are stacked against her. But in the later movie (1990) she succumbs to the overwhelming odds.



See my other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

Buy the DVD here





Buy the book here



18 November 2016

Film review: Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, ****

Synopsis

Kiyoshi Kurosawa the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world.

When Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is unceremoniously dumped from his safe company job, his family's happy, humdrum life is put at risk. Unwilling to accept the shame of unemployment, the loyal salaryman decides not to tell anyone, instead leaving home each morning in suit and tie with briefcase, spending his days searching for work and lining up for soup with the homeless. Outstanding performances; serene, elegant direction; and Kurosawa's trademark chills are evident as he ratchets up the unsettling atmosphere and the grim hopelessness of Sasaki's unemployment.







SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT EDITION:
  • Gorgeous 1080p Blu-ray transfer in the original aspect ratio
  • Making Of documentary [61:00]
  • Q&A, Tokyo, September 2008 [12:00]
  • Première footage, Tokyo, September 2008 [15:00]
  • DVD discussion [9:00] UK trailer [3:00]
  • 28-page colour booklet with a new essay by B. Kite


Review


It is a film that took me some time to appreciate. At first it  was actually boring. At the end it was riveting! You can see a traditional male-dominated Japanese family where the father is actually more concerned with preserving his wobbling authority, and face, than with the well being of his wife and sons. He loses his job to outsourcing to China, and can not pick himself up again. His elder son is a bit naive and wants to find purpose by joining the US military, only to be sent to the Middle East and change is view of the world after seeing the horrors of war. His house wife tried to make things work in the family but is constantly sidelined by the father.


The only member of the family who turns out to have a clue is the youngest son, who dreams of becoming a pianist and takes lessons in secret when he is forbidden to do so. In the end, his dreams are the only realistic prospects for the family and his success helps the father find his way once again.


The moral: follow your dream with passion and determination and be humble, true and honest to yourself.









10 November 2016

Book review: Hunan Harvest (1946) by Theophane Maguire, ****

Synopsis

Diary of a young American Passionist missionary who is sent deep into China to preach and help. Theophane is just twenty-five years old when he travels to Hunan, learns the language and starts four years of intensive work against all odds.

According to the Passionist Historical Archives, Father Theophane Maguire, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province (1898-1975) was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He attended St. Joseph's Jesuit Prep in Philadelphia. There he became interested in the Passionists and decided to enter the novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On August 13, 1917 he professed his vows and received the name Theophane. He was ordained on October 28, 1923 and quickly was assigned to the Passionist mission in Hunan, China. After he returned from the mission in 1929 he wrote Hunan Harvest which was published in 1946.

Back in the United States he went to Pittsburgh and eventually to Union City where he was editor of Sign magazine. Later in Pittsburgh he did fund-raising and worked at the retreat house. His later years were at the Passionist monastery, North Palm Beach, Florida. His last days were spent at the Passionist infirmary of Brighton, Massachusetts.


Review

Unique book by an ardent Christian missionary in one of the least known provinces of China. Magire writes well and draws the reader into the harsh reality he experiences every day.


He is very dedicated to the people of Hunan, but even more to their souls, which he wants to "harvest" for Jesus Christ. It is an attitude one often finds in Christian missionaries around the world.   While he humbly serves his superiors and is truly compassionate with the Chinese, he does betray a kind of complex of superiority. He writes (p.24) that training of missionaries in the local languages is a good idea because "it is a matter of results, which in this case is to be reckoned in souls. We were to deliver a doctrine entirely new to these people. We were to deliver a message that is supernatural. It is opposed to beliefs that are rooted in centuries of obstinate tradition. it slashes at old habits and widely observed superstitions." Well many Chinese are superstitious indeed, but I am not sure they are more so than Westerners on average, and in any case the incredible wealth of Chinese culture can hardly be dismissed as just a matter of superstition,. many would argue that religion itself, any religion, is superstition.

While he does endure lots of suffering, one can see he and his colleagues are often privileged compared to their fellow Chinese helpers: for example he is depicted as traveling on horseback while his Chinese companions are on foot.

At the end of the book, he seems to worry more about the future of Christian proselytism in Hunan than about the horrors of the civil war or the gathering storm of the Japanese invasion.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that he pays a lot of attention to the minorities of China, especially the Miao people whom he met on several occasions.

He is also a careful painter of scenes of everyday life in rural China where warlords called the shots and the rule of law enforced by the state was nowhere to be seen: the Emperor is far away, as an old Chinese saying goes.

The book is also valuable because it contains lots of drawings that convey a sense of the atmosphere where father Maguire worked for four years. I reproduce them here.

























23 August 2016

3. - 23 Aug: From Paro to Bhumtang

In order to save a dozen hours of driving or do (we'll have more than plenty anyway) today we're flying east to Bhumtang.

The small ATR 42-500 (the only one in the fleet of Druk Air) takes off after a short acceleration and makes a steep ascent into the clouds. Some 45 minutes later the pilot points the aircraft's nose down to make a stopover at Gelephu.

A few passengers disembark and new ones board. Again we're the only game in town today at the tiny airstrip and as the turboprop heads up to the sky we leave.

Land at Bhumtang again in dramatic scenery. It takes them forever to unload the plane even though it is the only plane (probably for the whole day). No problem, we sit around the runway and take pictures. Then head to our hotel.

Roadsign: Mountains are pleasure, only if you drive with leisure

22 August 2016

2. - 22 August: From Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan

Land at Paro airport after a smooth flight from Bangkok which includes a stopover in Kolkata. Very few flights to Bhutan, so the flight from Bangkok always stops in an Indian city to pick up passengers. Many Indians go to Bhutan because they are the only foreigners (with Sri Lankans) who are allowed into the country without visa or currency exchange requirements.

I tried to get window seat but no luck, yet when we board there are plenty window seats free, which is great to be able to watch the amazing Himalaya. Spectacular landing after a few tight turns by our plane as it finds its way among the mountains and into the narrow valley of Paro.

On the plane we meet group. Diverse mix of nationalities, age, and cultural backgrounds. It's part of the fun in taking these photo tours: you not only get to know the country you visit, you also learn more about your own country, or anyway about fellow Western middle-class internationally curious photographers.

Easy border formalities. Our electronic visa has been arranged in advance and we go through passport control quite smoothly indeed. At my request the lady officer agrees to enrich my passport with an unnecessary but cute rubber stamp. She even asks on what page I'd like to have it stamped on.

Bags are quickly delivered to one of two luggage carousels in the cosy arrivals hall. Ours is the only plane on the tarmac in this balmy late morning.

After a quick and relaxed x-ray check were out into the tiny parking area where we meet Matt, an Australian photographer who has organized this trip as a roving photo tour of Bhutan. We also meet Tshering, our local Bhutanese guide, who will turn out to be very knowledgeable and speaks excellent English. 

We all go for lunch at a scenic restaurant near the airport.

In the afternoon some shopping for basic necessities along the main (only?) shopping street of Paro, a small town that hosts the only international airport of Bhutan because they did not want to create noise pollution in the valley of the capital, Thimpu.