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.

























07 October 2016

Trekking in the New Territories of Hong Kong

Meeting Stanley at my hotel in Mong Kok. He is a late-twenty-someting Hongkonger who freelances as a tourist guide.

We hop on the ever trustworthy MTR and are whisked to a station in the New Territories called Tai Po Market. From there it's a short taxi ride to the start of the trek. We walk through thick forests, and come within sight of the mainland: Shenzhen in just across the narrow bay.

At our destination we meet with David, a local local Hakka guide. He speaks German as he lived and worked in Germany for 20 years came back to revive village. With not a little pride he shows us around the Hakka village. Simple dwellings, a school, a temple. Hi brother cooks a delicious lunch for us: duck, pork and tuna. I am not sure which I liked the most, I ate too much of all of three. Yet I don' feel guilty, we are going to walk a lot today, some 20km all in all perhaps, so I need the calories.

The village is "protected" by a Feng Shui wall, which serves the dual purpose of keeping the evil spirits out and good fortune in (good fortune gets into the village through the gate, which somehow the evil spirits can't muster). The gate is impressive, very pretty and solid. Next to the door, on two golden panels, one can read the names of the people who live in the village, a kind of census. Next to each name a number: the amount of money each donated toward the restoration of the village.

It is called the Lai Chiwo (lychee) Village because in the early days people found the fruits in the surrounding area.

On the main square I am impressed by an austere building, the old school, now shut.

The temple is, as always, a deep experience. David insists, and I oblige, that I don't take pictures directly to the face of the deities who are watching us from the top of the altars.

Villagers mostly live off sustainable agriculture. They grow many different vegetables, notably rice and sunflower.

Toward the end of the tour we meet two ladies working in the fields, they speak good English, too good to be farmers of an isolated village. After talking to them I discover they are actually academics, have MAs and PhDs but do this farm work for free when they have time to keep their old village alive.

It's almost sunset, we are going back. Stanley takes me to another route, so I have a chance to see a different area. Lush valleys and rolling hills, I would never have expected Hong Kong to have this hidden face to show a curious traveler who digs deeper than shopping and dim sum. At one point Stanely tells me we are almost home, ie to the bus terminus: then I see a sign that says we have 5km to go! Distances are relative. It's a bit exhausting for me but I enjoy it. Stan walks ahead of me but never forgets to look back and check on me. there are no other trekkers around. I enjoy the solitude of the moment though I can also anticipate with enthsiasm the moment I will lower myself into a hot bath back at the hotel.

25 August 2016

5. - 25 August: Jakar to Mongar


We wake up at 6 o'clock, have breakfast and hit the road by 7. Low clouds at dawn give room to a sunny morning very quickly and it promises to be a gorgeous day.

Very long and tiring drive on a road which badly needs some repair work. Bhutan makes a lot of money by imposing expensive daily charges to tourists, hopefully some of that money will go to road improvement.

We drive through the Ura valley and over the Thrumshing pass (3800 meters) one of the highest motorable roads in the country. Lots of multicolored prayer flags, and many white ones as well.

Stop for lunch in a local restaurant, the Wogon Villa, in Sengor village. Momos and other local veggies and meats. Not too much variety but strong and inviting flavors and smells, I love it.

Our guide today tells us about the African snail infestation in Bhutan. The snails got into the country who knows how, they liked it and are now multiplying out of control. Good Buddhists cannot "kill" them of course, so the king approved of a policy to "reduce" their population.

Most of the country is buddhist, except for substantial minorities of Hindu practitioners, mostly Nepali immigrants in the south of the country, and amounting to some 25% of the total population. The first Hindu temple was built in 2012, in Thimpu.

Thsering tells us how Christian missions have been welcome in Bhutan for some time, but no preaching is allowed, that was the deal with the government as a condition to be permitted to operate. Yet, in the last few years some Christians, both foreign and Bhutanese, have been arrested for displaying their faith. In theory the constitution of 2008 provides for freedom of religion but in practice it seems there is still some way to go. No religion is allowed to do any proselytism at all actually.

Accommodation at the Wangchuk resort. Before dinner we take a walk around town, lots of people in the streets, street vendors, old folks spinning a prayer wheel in the main square of the town. Two kids play with an old typewriter, who knows maybe it belonged to their grandfather.

At some point I strike a conversation with a policeman and a policewoman, very relaxed and unarmed. It's hard to think what police would have to police here.

A public garden/playground is full of kids running around and playing with their toys.

We have dinner and hit the sack early as tomorrow it is going to be a long and, we already know, momentous day.

Road sign of the day:

Wish you a safe and happy journey


24 August 2016

4. - 24 August: Bumthang

Today we drove about two hours each way, to the Tang valley.

For lunch we had the opportunity to taste the food prepared in a farm house. Local cuisine such as buck wheat noddles and pancake. It was quite staged for us but nonetheless interesting to see them preparing their traditional fare.
Traditional Bhutanese farm tools

The Ugyencholing Palace and museum which we stopped at next was full of old masks (a bit eerie!), tools, furniture. A look at Bhutan a few decades ago.

Nunnery
En route we visited the Pema Choling Nunnery, where we spent some time witnessing an afternoon session of the nuns singing their mantras. A peaceful atmosphere.

We all sat around the young nuns and listened to their recitations. I started to use a flash but stopped as it would disturb them.

After the mantras we were offered some tea and light refreshments and of course gave our offering to the temple.


I was struck by a sign posted on the door of one of the common toilets. It reflected the education of these nuns, learning to take pride in each and every task they were assigned to. A lesson for all of us.



Dinner in local restaurant for momos (Bhutanese dumplings) similar to what I had eaten in Ladakh. At night we were back to our Yugarling hotel.
Toilet door. Pema Choling nunnery















23 August 2016

3. - 23 Aug: From Paro to Jakar, Bhumtang

Keeping Paro clean
A couple of hours in Paro in the morning, just getting acquaited with the small town and doing a little shopping. Locals are friendly if somewhat detached. The town is relatively clean, some ladies sweep the streets with simple brooms. We would have to look around when we return but the first impression is one of placid serenity.

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

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

A few passengers disembark and new ones board. Again the turboprop was the only game in town at the tiny airstrip and as the turboprop headed up to the sky one more time.

Landed at Bumthang again in dramatic scenery. It took them forever to unload the plane even though it was the only plane at the airport (probably for the whole day). No problem, we sat around the runway and took pictures. Then headed to our hotel, the Yugarling 3 star resort and checked in.

We spent the afternoon exploring the ancient temple of Jamphel Lhakhang. Quite understated compared to other in the country. We also went to Kurjey and Tamshing on foot. We walked over a suspended bridge that was once made of ropes but was recently reinforced with steel cables, like many in the Himalayas.

At the end of our long walk we stopped at a tea house that doubled up as a souvenir seller. A young girl managed the shop and let us use the toilet. Some of us bought some tea.

Bhutanese mountain roads, much like in India, are peppered with road signs that encourage cautious and responsible driving. I noted them down, some were pretty funny and often rhymed, and would note them at the end of each post on the day I saw them. Road sign of the day:

Mountains are pleasure
only if you drive with leisure




22 August 2016

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

Early checlout and transfer to BKK airport, where we leave our bags intended for our subsequent trip to China at the left luggage. It is a bit of a nuisance because they only accept local cash, Thai Baht, a bit complicated. The x-ray everything and tag it. They also ask to see our electronics first, possibly to ensure they are genuine gadgets and not explosives.

We land at Paro airport after a smooth flight from Bangkok which includes a stopover in the Indian city of Kolkata (the new name for Calcutta). Very few airlines fly 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 (together with Sri Lankans I believe) who are allowed into the country without visa or currency exchange requirements. We would find out why in the course of our trip: Bhutan wants Indian labor to do its construction and soldiers to guard its frontiers.

Paro hosts the only international airport of Bhutan. They will explain us that the king decided to build the airport here because he did not want to create noise pollution in the valley of the capital, Thimphu.

I try 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 landscapes of the 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 met our group. Diverse mix of nationalities, age, and cultural backgrounds. It was always 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. This time we have quite a few nationalities represented: German, French, Chinese, Italian, American, Australian and British, both for and against Brexit!

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 we are 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. From the terrace of the restaurant you can see the runway. Not that it is a very busy, only a handful of planes land at Paro every day... if the weather is good enough, that is. Our first encounter with Bhutanese momo and other specialties.

In the afternoon we visit the Paro Rimpung Dzong (17th century fortress) and arguably the most interesting sight in town. Lots of local and foreign visitors. One young lady was breastfeeding on  the steps of a prayer room. I was happy people left her alone, I read many times recently how in the US and in Europe it was considered socially unacceptable for women to breastfeed in public. How silly.

Produce sellers on Paro's main street
Afterwards we walked back down from the Dzong to town in a little less than one hour and went for some shopping for basic necessities along the main (only?) shopping street of Paro, a small town that sported rather heavy traffic of cars and motorcycles. A few ladies were selling fresh produce on the pavement.

In the evening we dined at the Sonam Trophel Restaurant, a traditional local eatery in Paro. It is run by a friendly couple and their daughter, they make local as well as Indian and Chinese food. He is a local but she comes from India. We would see how both India and China have, or have had, great influence over small Bhutan over the centuries. We went for local fare and were quite happy with it.

Final task of the day is transferring to our accommodation, the Olathang, a 3 Star Hotel. Our first night in the supposedly happiest country on earth, we'll see, I am always skeptical of broad-sweep claims like that but the first impression is quite positive: a serene place.



Sonam's momos

21 August 2016

1. - 21 Aug: Arrival in Bangkok

Land at Bangkok in the early morning after a relaxing flight.

It is a bit of a nuisance to get through passport control because we need to get a visa on arrival for Lifang. To get a visa we need to get her photos. To get her photos we need to get some local currency 1000 Baht in cash. To get the cash we need an ATM. Luckily one is available in the transit area of the airport. All of this takes time and we are tired and jet lagged but hey it's part of travel. Other than that Bangkok airport is quite efficient and clean.

I booked a room at a hotel near the airport, the Ammata Lanta resort. The hotel pick-up is late, they had forgotten us and I had to call them, but eventually they do come and take us to the resort, 5 minutes away. Very convenient to rest for a day before starting out to Bhutan tomorrow. The resort is huge, we are driven around in open electric vehicles. Rooms are really small villas spread out over a large green area.

Staff at Ammata Lanta is friendly and always available. Our room was large and comfortable if a bit dark. Restaurant offered good Thai food and excellent value. Also a good breakfast a la carte is included in the room price. Our masseuses are OK, but not great, Thailand can do better. Free wifi fast and free.

A large jacuzzi in our villa's terrace is a nice touch. You can sit in the hot water under the rain and watch planes land at the airport!

Nice Thai dinner, a 8pm we're the only patrons in restaurant, which is decorated with sculptures and paintings from all over the world. Apparently the owner is a collector. Baroque bordering on kitsch, I like it.

In the evening it is raining hard so we climb up an observation tower and watch the scene of the hotel grounds under heavy downpour while more and more planes keep landing at the busy international airport. A Chinese family also on the tower is a bit too noisy and spoils the atmosphere a bit, but luckily they soon leave and ...leave us alone!



20 August 2016

0. - 20 August: Departure to Bhutan

Off we go: time to fly again to Asia. I can never get enough.

Destination Bangkok, where we plan to spend a night at a hotel near the airport before joining the rest of our group of travel photographers for a tour of Bhutan.

Bhutan has a reputation of an exclusive destination, and it is, mainly because their government makes it an expensive destination by means of a minimum daily expenditure, 250 US dollars to be precise, that goes toward the visitor's hotel, food and transportation in the country, as well as the mandatory local guide that will escort him or her every step of the way. The current king's father is credited with having replaced gross national product with gross national happiness: money is less important than spiritual contentment. But the spirit is evidently aided by a nice trickle of dollars.



This time it's British Airways via London. Good service, not great really and the plane looks a bit tired, but it's comfortable and punctual. BA seems to be among the few of the old flag carriers to survive. Let's try to get a good night sleep.










29 February 2016

Book review: Married to Bhutan (2011) by Linda Leaming, ****

Synopsis

Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan—a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product.

In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment.

As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of. For over ten years, Leaming has lived and worked in the town of Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people. “If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.” (back cover of the book)

About the author


Linda Leaming is a writer whose work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Mandala, The Guardian , A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. She regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay.

Linda first traveled to Bhutan in 1994, and moved there three years later. This tiny Buddhist country hidden away in the Himalayas is a very happy place for many. Its king believes in Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. Leaming writes about her life in Bhutan and how she learned to live more simply, how she laughs at herself instead of getting mad at others, and how she slows down to look for magic-- because it's everywhere. In Bhutan, she's known for using a salad spinner instead of a washing machine, and her village man makeovers.

Her writing has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Huffington Post, Mandala, Guardian UK, A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales, 2005), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his 2008 bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. Originally from Nashville, she has an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and she regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars, and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay. (from Amazon)

Review

This is a solid personal story that will help you understand much about the country of Bhutan. Her personal love story with the Bhutanese man who became her husband is captivating. Her myriad anecdotes are most informing and entertaining, she really makes it a pleasure to read through them.

She is on less firm footing when (and this happens a lot) she compares the way of life in Bhutan with that of Western countries, and especially the US. One can hardly think of two countries that are less comparable.

Throughout the book one gets that feeling, that is common when reading so many books about developing countries, that life before modernization was tough but happy. That before Western influence began to make its way through the valleys the local ways and culture were not "contaminated" and pure. I am not sure life was happy in Bhutan before the arrival of electricity, cars, antibiotics, education for everyone and not just for the clergy, etc. I don't think it was. As far as I could tell when visiting the country, no one wants to go back to the "good old ways". They are happier now as they embrace development, albeit at their own pace. Bhutan is a quintessentially Buddhist country, and Buddha was, in his time, "imported" from neighbouring India and Nepal.

You can read more about Linda Leaming and her work on her own website.

Linda Leaming

You can buy the book on these websites










17 February 2016

Book Review: Bhutan - Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (2009) by Françoise Pommaret, *****

Synopsis

Shoe-horned into the Grand Himalayas, Bhutan - Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon - is a fiercely independent kingdom that celebrated its centenary in 2008. Isolated, charming, peaceful, and religious, the Bhutanese are a pragmatic, sensitive people who take from the West what will benefit their country and leave the rest.

The countryside is pristine, the lifestyle and culture have been preserved for centuries, and the love of life is abundant among the people. Few outsiders know Bhutan as intimately as Francoise Pommaret. This title presents a passionate introduction to Bhutanese culture and history by resident author - the world's leading expert on Bhutan.

It features literary extracts with an historical perspective. It offers information about: trekking and mountaineering in this spectacular kingdom; national symbols of Bhutan, ceremonial scarves, the Dzongkha language, chortens and mandalas; and, archery and other national sports.


Review

Excellent primer on the country. Not a guidebook but a rich resource to deepen your understanding of Bhutan before and after a trip. Or if you never get a chance to go. There is a section on "Facts for the traveller" with practical info, but most of the book is devoted to the cultural and natural wealth of the country.

Special sections on Symbols, Chortens, Medicine, Ceremonies, Etiquette and much more will capture your interest depending on your personal preferences.

Beautiful pictures by a number of famous and less famous photographers make this a book one not to miss.


View a video on Bhutan by the author here



Here is another of her videos on cultural diversity in Bhutan



And here another on on tradition in the country



Finally on the biodiversity




In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here



03 February 2016

Film review: Happy Times (2000) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is an ageing, unemployed bachelor who is desperate to get married, but has so far failed to meet the woman of his dreams. When he ends up on a date with an overweight divorcee (Qibin Leng) he proposes instantly, wanting a large lady "to keep him warm", and she agrees, thinking he is the rich owner of a large hotel. Needing 50,000 yuan to pay for the wedding, Zhao turns to his best friend Fu, who comes up with an idea to get hold of the money. The two men refurbish a derelict bus, name it the ‘Happy Times Hut’ and rent it out by the hour to young couples who are in need of privacy! The plan goes awry, however, when the council take the bus away during a clean-up of the area.

Meanwhile, Zhao’s intended introduces him to the son she dotes on and the blind stepdaughter she despises, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Despite her pretences in front of Zhao, she mistreats Wu Ying, forcing her to do all the chores and making it clear she is considered an inconvenience. Zhao reluctantly agrees to give Wu Ying a job at his ‘hotel’ after pressure from his fiancée who wants her out of the flat. Hoping that Wu Ying’s blindness will fool both her and her stepmother, Zhao sets up a fake massage parlour in an abandoned warehouse for her to work in. Enlisting the help of his retired friends to pose as customers, he often gives them his own money to use as tips. Despite the fact that their relationship is based on deceit, a genuine bond develops between Zhao and Wu Ying, who appreciates the efforts her new father-figure has gone to in order to find her a job. Wu Ying is desperate to save up enough money to find her real father, who has promised to return one day and help her find a cure for her loss of sight. However, Zhao is fast running out of money to pay her, and Wu Ying may not be as naïve as he believes about the reality of her situation.


Review

This movie is not as flashy or stunning as some of the other ones for which Zhang Yimou is so famous. And while he launched the careers of several great actresses, Jie Dong is perhaps the least celebrated when compared to Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi.

But this is a very good movie in its own, more subtle, nouanced and delicate way. It is a story of the search of happiness, and of how one can be led off the beaten track to find it.

It is also a movie to be watched by foreigners to learn about daily life in China. Modernization of the cities and rapid growth of wild private enterprise, for one. But more interestingly, one learns how a single man in his fifties is a social basket case and must overcome impossible odds to find a wife. Which is odd, considering that China, because of the one-child policy, has a surplus of women. And especially a surplus of single women in their late twenties, thirties and forties: the women who, unlike their mothers, got an education and started a career, and did not rush to get married in their early twenties or ever earlier.

One also learns about some physical features the Chinese especially value: a man may look for a fat woman "to keep him warm". And both men and women pay a lot of attention to whether a potential partner has a single eye lid or a double one, which is highly prized (see picture).

The ending is a bit of a mystery: both Zhao and Wu Ying are posivite and energetic, and they could have accepted reality and build a father/daughter relationship and move forward together, but they don't. No one seems to have found their "happy times", and they don't have much hope ever to do so.

One or two eye lids?
Read other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

Watch a trailer here





Buy the DVD here:




21 January 2016

Film review: Like Stars on Earth (2007) by Aamir Khan, ****

Taare Zameen Par
Synopsis

Ishaa Ishaan is an 8 year old whose world is filled with wonders that no one else seems to appreciate; colors, fish, dogs, and kites are just not important in the world of adults, who are much more interested in things like homework, grades and neatness. Ishaan just cannot seem to get anything right in class. When he gets into far more trouble than his parents can handle, he is packed off to a boarding school to be disciplined.

Things are no different at his new school, and Ishaan has to contend with the added trauma of separation from his family. A new art teacher infects the students with joy and optimism and breaks all the rules of how things are done by asking them to think, dream and imagine. All the children respond with enthusiasm except Ishaan. The teacher soon realizes that Ishaan is unhappy and sets out to discover why. With time, patience and care, he ultimately helps Ishaan find himself.

Bonus features (in Hindi only, no subtitles) include: Director's Commentary, panel discussion on children, deleted scenes, making of, Music CD with two beautiful collectible postcards. This film is Aamir Khan's debut in directing.


Review

In this film we see a story of commitment and hope against all odds. The film takes place in contemporary upper middle class India, but the moral of the story is one for all places and all times. The subtitle, "Every child is special" tells it all. Yes there are children with special problems, and they do need special attention in special schools. But there are perfectly "normal" children, capable to become integrated in society like everyone else, who simply need to find their own pace and place to do so.

What they all need is love and appreciation, even for quirky "special" inclinations that they may display and that may arouse scepticism and criticism from "normal" people, especially adults. "If you want to win competitions, then breed race horses, don't raise children, dammit!" says Khan, and sums it up well.

In the end, Ishaan comes out on top, while his "normal", super skilled brother, the repository of the family's expectations of success and achievement, does not.

Ishaan's triumph


Darsheel Safary as seen by his art teacher












You can see my other reviews of films on India here in this blog.






Click this link to buy more films with Aamir Khan.