25 November 2015

Film review: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), by Zhang Yimou, ****


From Zhang Yimou, the Director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, comes a stunning epic about the folly of war and the disintegration of one family under the weight of unrequited love, unforgivable betrayals, and a never-ending thirst for power.

On the eve of the Chong Yong Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace and when the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) unexpectedly returns to his Empress (Gong Li) and two sons, the tension is clear in his lavish kingdom. His absence has given rise to illicit love affairs, dangerous alliances, and malicious conspiracies; all of which threaten to overthrow his power.

However, it may well be the Emperor’s own dark secret that threatens him most of all. As the secrets of the Imperial family unravel against this backdrop of breathtaking opulence and grandeur, an attack on the Palace by myriad armoured warriors results in a spectacular climax wrought with thrilling action and epic tragedy.

Interesting bonus features on the main actors and backstage.


Another grand movie by Zhang Yimou with a sure-fire couple of protagonists in Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li). It will be a masterpiece for the lovers of wuxia and, more generally, of Chinese epic films. I am not, but liked the movie as well for the majestic historical reconstruction (a whole new Forbidden City) and marvellous costumes. Grand scenes of battle, with over one thousand extras (appropriately recruited in the Chinese army!) are memorable if utterly unrealistic.

What a sad life in the palace. From the Emperor to  the most humble of servants, everyone is watching everyone else, there is no privacy, no trust, no happiness really. I can't remember anyone smiling in this film! It makes you thank your fate for not being born a royalty in medieval China!

The western blurb for the movie (but not the Chinese) advertises it as taking place in the period of the late Tang dynasty. I was a bit disappointed because I expected more of a historical film about the Tang dynasty. I was led to think of this as a historical fiction, and it really is not.

See my selection of movies on China here in this blog.

You can buy the film here. Other films by Zhang Yimou here.

In the US and worldwide buy it here:

If you liked it, you may wish to look at other films by Zhang Yimou

14 November 2015

Film review: Red Obsession (2013) by David Roach and Warwick Ross, ****


Red Obsession is a film about power, passion and the fine wine game. Something unprecedented is happening to the fine wine market and that something is China. While the dragon economy could bring untold wealth to the revered wine-making region, the terms of engagement are different from any other customer in the past. This market is young, voracious and unpredictable. Demand is massively outstripping supply. The product is finite and this new client wants it all. For better or worse, Bordeaux is hitching itself to this new, infinitely wealthy client. RED OBSESSION sets out to explore this phenomenon and the link between China and Bordeaux.


A most interesting documentary on the rise of wine in Chinese society. The Chinese drank less than one bottle of wine each per year until just a few years ago. They have recently discovered wine. Not just to drink it, but to show it off, to display as a status symbol, and to invest in. In the past the Americans, and then the Japanese, similarly impacted the world of wine, but the sheer scale of the Chinese onslaught is greater by an order of magnitude. One Chinese billionaire who made his fortune selling sex toys has no qualms admitting in front of a camera that he prefers a bottle of great wine to great sex.

I was also pleased to see that some of the most prominent Chinese wine collectors seem to appreciate cigars and pipe smoking but not cigarettes. I can certainly sympathize with that. Great wine drinkers think alike!

While China is furiously planting new vineyards in regions with appropriate terroir and climate, and is already the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, the fascination of prestigiuous Bordeaux makes them spend billions on the most recognizable brands of Chateaux. This is driving the market crazy and may well portend a bubble in the making. Counterfeiting of expensive wines, like of so many other luxury products, is widespread.

It is going to be interesting to see how this pays out. China will soon be the largest producer of wine as well as the largest consumer. It will decisively affect both demand and supply. For now supply is more quantity than quality: local wines are mediocre (with some notable exception) and mostly for local consumption. Demand, on the other hand, is more focussed on quality, with rich Chinese buying only the best of the best. The global wine market is undergoing a Chinese revolution.

See my selection of movies on China on this blog.

27 October 2015

Recensione: Pillole di Cina (2013), di Massimo Donda, ****


Lo scritto “la Cina in pillole” non vuole essere un libro, ma una serie di appunti, utili per meglio comprendere. Esso nasce da una passione, quasi un innamoramento, dell’universo sinico da parte dell’autore causato da oltre 20 anni di frequentazioni e da rilevanti letture. Tanto da considerarsi occidentale fuori, ma “cinese” dentro.

L’autore ha voluto affrontre l’argomento Cina da moltissime angolature. Approfondendo la parte storica, sempre pero’ “utilizzandola” per meglio chiarire le forti influenze sul presente. Approfondendo la parte sul pensiero cinese (la “filosofia”) perché  fondamentale non tanto per una miglior comprensione ma proprio per “la” comprensione delle differenze tra la mentalità occidentale e quella sinica.

Parte rilevante hanno i capitoli sul diritto in Cina e sulla storia e sul pensiero filosofico che stà alla base del diritto. Si parla anche della vastità della geografia cinese e dell’importanza dei flussi migratori e turistici cinesi all’estero. Un accenno perfino al bon ton e alle principali regole di comportamento laddove differiscono con quelle occidentali, per non creare imbarazzi reciproci.

L’autore, fedele alla propria sinizzazione, non nasconde nemmeno l’uso disinvolto, per la mentalità occidentale, della copia: infatti applica alla lettera il detto di Confucio che disse:”Io tramando non creo”.


Interessante il libriccino di Donda. Il titolo è molto azzeccato. Non si tratta di una narrazione organica infatti, ma di una pioggia di informazioni che vengono lanciate al lettore curioso. Si spazia, senza ordine e senza un filo conduttore, dalla politica alla filosofia, dall'arte all'educazione, dall'istruzione pubblica all'economia all'agricoltura alla geografia e via così, in un lunghissimo soliloquio da maratoneta.

La quantità delle informazioni è enorme, la qualità è diseguale. Si percepisce come in alcuni argomenti l'autore sia più ferrato, in altri molto meno. Una imperdonabile ripetitività mi ha quasi fatto smettere di leggere in svariati punti del libro, ma alla fine sono arrivato all'ultima pagina e lo consiglio, magari per una lettura spesso più veloce che attenta.

Una valanga di informazioni, disordinata e spesso ripetitiva, ma utile e divertente!

Altri libro sulla Cina che ho recensito in questa piccola bibliografia.

12 August 2015

Film Review: Alone Across the Pacific (1963) by Kon Ichikawa, *****


A powerful hymn to the human spirit, Alone Across the Pacific by renowned Japanese director Kon Ichikawa (An Actor's Revenge, The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad) tells the extraordinary real-life story of one man's obsessive quest to break free from the strictures of society. In 1962, Kenichi Horie (Yujiro Ishihara) embarks on a heroic attempt to sail single-handed across the Pacific Ocean.

Leaving Osaka in an ill-prepared vessel, the Mermaid, the young adventurer must overcome the most savage of seas, the psychological torment of cabin fever, and his mental and physical breaking point, if he is ever to reach the fabled destination of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Using Horie's best-selling logbook as his source, Ichikawa portrays the epic struggle of man against nature.

'Scope cinematography with Horie isolated in the oceanic expanse of the frame and a score by celebrated composer Toru Takemitsu, add to the drama of a film for which Ichikawa received a Golden Globe nomination, among other accolades.

New high definition digital transfer, anamorphically encoded, original 2.35:1 aspect ratio
New and improved optional English subtitles
Original Japanese trailer and two teasers newly subtitled
A lavish 24-page booklet featuring a colour reproduction of the original Japanese poster, archival publicity stills, and an essay by Brent Kliewer (professor at the College of Santa Fe)


This is Traveling with a capital T. Traveling for the sake of traveling. The real story of Kenichi Horie's first of many sailing challenges he set for himself. In 1962 he was a young ambitious man in Japan, a country still recuperating from a devastating defeat in WW II. He felt for his country, and said that for a nation with a long maritime tradition it was a shame no one had yet sailed solo across the Pacific. He wanted to do it for Japan.

And yet he wanted to leave Japan, where he suffered because of the cultural and social restrictions that hampered his wandering spirit. He wanted to be free of Japan as much as of his own family, whom he loved but whose interference with his dreams he could no longer put up with. He was fascinated by America, the power that defeated the Japanese Empire and established such a pervasive presence on the islands. He wanted to sail under the Golden Gate bridge of San Francisco. And he did, after ninety-four days of excruciating adventure and hardship.

He did it in a Japanese way: carefully preparing everything, meticulously executing the plan he had drawn, even trying to apply for a passport (he did not manage to get one in time) because he wanted to follow the rules. It is ironic that when he completed his feat his father, instead of being proud, promised to the media that upon return the son would apologize to the nation for having contravened the rules. (It was not allowed at the time for small boats to leave Japan.)

Buy the book here

In the US buy it here

11 August 2015

Film review: Three times (2005) di Hou Hsiao Hsien, ***

Taipei temple

Un film diviso in tre episodi in cui si riflette sulla impossibilita' dell'amore.

1911, Dadaocheng. il tempo della liberta'. il padrone di una piantagione di tè e suo figlio vogliono riscattare il contratto di una giovane cortigiana. avendo capito che la ragazza aspetta un bambino dal figlio, m. chang cerca di accelerare le trattative. la ragazza intanto diventa la concubina del padre e m. chang va in Giappone a raggiungere un rivoluzionario cinese in esilio.

1966, Kaohsiung. il tempo dell'amore. chen incontra may, che lavora in una sala da biliardo che lui frequenta con regolarita'. i due giovani giocano una partita insieme poco prima che lui parta per il servizio militare. durante un permesso, chen torna a trovarla ma lei sembra essere scomparsa.

2005, Taipei. il tempo della giovinezza. Jing e' epilettica e sta perdendo progressivamente la vista dall'occhio destro. abita con la madre e la nonna ed ha un'avventura con una donna, michy. Zhen lavora in un negozio di foto digitali ed abita con blue, la sua ragazza. quando lei scopre che lui la tradisce con Jing, diventa folle di rabbia. che futuro avranno questi quattro giovani? Almeno uno di loro potra' avere una vita serena?

Taipen night market


Non il miglior film del regista di Taiwan Hou Hsiao-Hsien a mio parere. Parte con un ritmo difficile e stenta a decollare. È interessante la sequenza storica: la "prima volta" è il 1966, la seconda è il 1911 (si parla dialetto Hokkien sotto occupazione coloniale giapponese) e la terza nella moderna Taiwan degli anni sessanta del XX secolo (si parla mandarino).

Ho trovato difficile entrare nel film, ma penso sia comunque utile a capire alcuni aspetti della storia di Taiwan, questa isola cinese che da oltre un secolo è separata dalla madrepatria.

17 July 2015

Book review: Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), by Richard Wrangham, *****

Blogger learning to be human

Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

Wrangham argues that it was cooking that caused the extraordinary transformation of our ancestors from apelike beings to Homo erectus. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: the habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a gender-based division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, this book sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes".


Cogito ergo sum, said Descartes. Coquo ergo sum is the gist of this book. According to largely accepted scientific knowledge, Homo erectus sprung up from the earlier Australopithecines by eating meat.The transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, us, is owed to a major innovation: cooking.

Levi-Strauss, in his The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Pimlico), wrote that fire marks the transition from nature to culture. Few would dispute that the cuisine of any nation is a major trademark of its cultural somplexity and sophistication. And cooking, in its many diverse methods (grilling, steaming, boiling, baking etc) is an essential part of any major cuisine in the world.

Our bodies evolved because we learned to cook: besides a smaller stomach and larger brain, we lost our climbing ability (no need to climb if fire can protect camp on the ground) in favor of better running skills. And we have much smaller teeth compared to our ancestors who did not cook.

Cooking also played an essential role in making mankind a carnivore, as it makes it efficient to digest and store large amount of animal proteins in a way that would have been unthinkable with just raw meat. But for vegetarians there is some consolation as well: cooking made it possible to digest many more types of roots.

Finally, this book dwelves on the social implications of cooking: how it shaped the man/woman relationship in the house, and how it made it easier to use meals as a social event. Some cultures have peculiar (to us) habits: among the Bonerif of Papua, a woman will sleep with every man in the village except her brothers before finally getting married; but the moment she feeds a man she is irrevocably considered his wife!

In the UK you can buy it here:

In the US and worldwide buy it here

If you feel inspored to become more human, consider buying one of these books about cooking!

16 July 2015

Book Review: Geography of Attraction (2015), by Ali May *****


Ali May's collection of erotic short stories.


This is, in its own peculiar way, a travel book, which is why this review has a place in this blog. When I asked the author what his new book was about, his answer was simple: fxxxing around the world. The reader is led from ultra-conservative Iran to super-emancipated Denmark, with stopovers in Italian islands and European capitals. Along the way, we are led through many a decadent tasting of delicacies from around the world and lots and lots of drinking, all of which leads like a funnel to the inevitability of physical attraction.

Whether the protagonist of each story is him, or someone he knows, he wouldn't say. Maybe that's the most intriguing feature of the book. It's part fiction, but not all of it. It could all be real. Some stories are clearly autobiographical. I hope, for the author's good sake, much of it is.

For the rest of us what is left is good reading entertainment and the ability to draw inspiration. My favorite is the one about new year's eve celebration, when at exactly midnight she sat ... oh well I'd better not spoil it here.

You can buy the kindle version here on Amazon.uk

In the US and internationally find it here

Or contact the author here to buy the hard copy.

05 March 2015

Recensione: I Due Viaggiatori (2010) di Paolo Ciampi, *****

Odoardo Beccari


C'è Odoardo, l'uomo che abbraccia il mondo con la sua irrequietezza, con la sua voglia di conoscere popoli e continenti, di toccare con mano. Il battito di ali di una farfalla sconosciuta vale più di una cattedra universitaria. Dategli una foresta vergine e si sentirà al settimo cielo. La sua giovinezza è tutta qui. E c'è Emilio, l'uomo che se ne rimane a casa, però è attratto da tutto quanto è remoto, sconosciuto, diverso. Un nome che profuma di esotico è quanto basta per giocare con i sogni. E lui no, ma i suoi personaggi attraversano tutti i continenti, si muovono per spirito di avventura, di scommessa, di sfida. Odoardo Beccari ed Emilio Salgari. L'esploratore e lo scrittore. Lo scienziato e l'inventore di storie. L'uomo che ha toccato il mondo con mano e l'ufficiale di marina mancato. Così diversi, ma anche così simili. Il viaggiatore in carne e ossa, che calpesta il mondo con i suoi piedi. Il viaggiatore della fantasia, per cui l'avventura non presuppone uno spazio fisico, ma solo gli orizzonti che la mente può scorgere. I due modi di viaggiare. E chissà chi è andato più lontano.


Emilio Salgari
Originalissimo il viaggio di Paolo Ciampi tra Malesia e Indonesia. In compagnia di due grandi scrittori di avventure italiani: uno, Emilio Salgari, arcinoto anche se non era un viaggiatore; e l'altro, Odoardo Beccari, Viaggiatore con la V maiuscola, sconosciuto ai più.

Ciampi più che un viaggio percorre un quello che definirei un metaitinerario: parte vero viaggio (ha visitato alcuni dei posti ove si svolgono le narrazioni di "Emilio e Odoardo", come li chiama lui dopo che, avendone letti e riletti gli scritti, ne diventa amico.

E parte ricostruzione delle peripezie che hanno costellato le vite mirabolanti dei due scrittori. Alla fine della lettura si ha quasi l'impressione di aver letto due biografie in parallelo. Così tra cacciatori di teste e foreste (anche adesso) impenetrabili, Ciampi ci accompagna a scoprire il Borneo (oggi Kalimantan) e Celebes (oggi Sulawesi). Terre che si fa una certa fatica a definire ospitali ma che forse proprio per questo conservano, anche a distanza di molti decenni dal tempo di Emilio e Odoardo, un fascino inalterato. Posso confermarlo anche personalmente sulla base di un mio viaggio al nord di Sulawesi, destinazione che mi sento di consigliare a quei viaggiatori che ancora sentono il bisogno di uscire dal sentiero battuto.

Compra il libro qui:

Dello stesso autore anche questo libro sulle scoperte di Odoardo Beccari.

Questo è un ebook sull'archivio di Beccari.

12 December 2014

Film review: Salaam Bombay (1988), by Mira Nair, *****


Mira Nair adds her angry voice to the cinema of forgotten children in this wrenching drama of an 11-year-old boy (real-life street child Shafiq Syed) who heads to the big city and joins a sea of homeless children and down-and-out adults scrambling to survive the pitiless streets. The fantasy of Bollywood dreams hangs just out of reach in posters, movies, and radio tunes, momentary respites from the hard reality of a world ruled by brutal pimps and drug dealers.

This is a gritty look into the underbelly and plight of Bombay's poor street children, who call the gutters of its filthy urban streets home. It is filled with the sights and sounds of this urban nightmare. This highly acclaimed film allows the viewer a peek at another culture, only to find that basic human needs and desires are universal.

This was Nair's first film and one of very few Indian film ever nominated for an Oscar, (the others being Mother India and Lagaan).


Another moving story by Mira Nair. India is changing fast and this is one aspect of the country which neither tourists nor scholars get to see much. Drugs, prostitution and outrageous neglect of justice by the authorities paint a damning picture of the city we know of as the economic capital of India and home of Bollywood.

Not a pretty film, but, over twenty years after its shooting, still a must see to understand India.

Watvhe a trailer here

See my other reviews of films about India.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.