The Monotony of Poverty: ‘Return to Burma’ Review 《歸來的人》影評

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KTV; Source: Return to Burma

For me this film doesn’t work for completely the opposite reason that another film by this director, Ice Poison, didn’t work. Whereas Ice Poison is centred around the rather hackneyed trope of “young man led astray by damaged young girl”, this film is rather unclear in its voice and direction.

The film is underlaid with a pseudo-neo-colonial gaze, as much of it is pure exposition aimed at a Taiwanese audience, what people earn in relation to wages in Taiwan, what the different smuggled Chinese imports cost etc. This is not an unworthy goal, given that South East Asian workers are reported to have faced substantial discrimination and exploitation when employed in Taiwan and China, but I’m not sure if this makes the film interesting beyond its Taiwanese context. Otherwise the kind of poverty that they suffer, although awful, is rather unexceptional: the struggle to find work and support oneself and one’s family.

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Temple; Source: Return to Burma

Not much happens in the film and I felt that, although the director might be aspiring to capture the fatalistic outlook of the characters in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films in the face of tragedy, the tragedies seemed too distant from the core of the film to give the impassivity of the protagonist any gravity in contrast. We hear his sister was kidnapped and forced to marry an older Chinese man, but she’s resigned herself to her circumstances and is wealthier than the rest of her family now, with two kids that she loves (interestingly Ice Poison shows us a woman who makes a different choice, in that she runs away from her husband in China and, long story short, she ends up in jail for drug-dealing (moral lesson: stay with your kidnapper?)). While I might criticize that sentiment, it underlines the desperate poverty of many of the people featured in his films. It’s also a common trope in the Chinese anti-modernist tradition, in which writers like Shen Cong-wen suggested that though tradition might seem overly exploitative or repressive of a certain group or class (i.e. women), the discretionary power inherent in traditional social relations tended to mitigate this harshness in everyday practice and that “modernity” could actually be more repressive in its lack of this discretionary power (see his short story 〈蕭蕭〉).

There is no real exploration of the political state of Myanmar (Burma) in the film (it occurs in the run-up to substantial political change) and the regime is largely invisible, other than the rather amusing pro-government songs that play, praising the new congress and a vague reference to strict anti-smuggling measures. This in a way reinforces the neo-colonial idea that the film is aimed solely at creating “Taiwanese guilt” for the way they take advantage of this poverty, which, although it may have some merit, doesn’t do anything to address any of the domestic causes of this poverty. Nor is there any exploration of the ethnic conflicts that have surfaced in the country over the last decades. This means that the telling of this story of poverty is so universal, that it would have had to take a more interesting narrative line or adopted a more interesting technique to keep it from being a rather monotonous retelling of what we’ve all heard before. I almost feel that Ice Poison was an attempt at breaking from this monotony by staging a romance, it’s just a pity that it felt so… staged.

 

 

MRT Prose: ‘You Can’t Drive into Taipei City’ by Hsieh Kai-te 謝凱特的「開車進不了臺北城」

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開車進不了臺北城                                 謝凱特

那一瞬間,我想起父親背著一袋沉重的家私,裡頭裝著電鑽、鐵鎚等數不清叫不出名字的工具,受雇於出錢的資方,看建築師的藍圖,聽工頭的指揮,把臺北蓋出一座城之後,他像那些風雨烈日下吹曬刻虛的鷹架和綠色圍籬一樣,直至功成身退,訕訕退出城外,讓這些光鮮亮麗的符號進駐城中。

是他蓋起這座城,又被城阻擋在外。

You Can’t Drive Into Taipei City    by Hsieh Kai-te

In that instant, I thought of my father carrying a big bag of his things on his back, with his electric drill, his hammer and countless other tools I don’t even know the name of inside. Under contract from the moneyed classes to build the city of Taipei, he consulted the architect’s blueprint and listened to the instructions of the foreman, before, just like the scaffolding and walls of plants from the building site, weathered by the wind and rain then scorched by the sun until hollowed out, he returns to obscurity, sheepishly withdrawing from the city, allowing these symbols of grandeur to establish themselves there.

It was he who built this city, but he who is held beyond its limits.

節錄自《第18屆臺北文學獎得獎作品集》

This kind of prose always repels me to some extent, although I admire the imagery of the scaffolding. One reason for this is because I always think that overtly political art (with the possible exception of newspaper cartoons) generally comes across as preachy and tends to oversimplify nuanced issues. This was also one of the reasons I really didn’t like a lot of the work of theatre director Wang Molin. Another reason is that it echoes a lot of the political rhetoric of trade unionists and implies a sense of unpaid debt to the imaginary working class builders, mechanics and plumbers that pepper the speeches of Conservative politicians when they’re trying to incite anger against immigrants or intellectuals. The subtext to this is an implication that newcomers to the city and non-working class people are being rewarded at the expense of working class people. This kind of notion is often what feeds the xenophobia and inter-class resentment that featured heavily in both the Brexit referendum campaigns and in the recent US election campaign by Donald Trump.

Despite this, I do have sympathy for the chip on the shoulder view of Taipei that many people from central and southern Taiwan have, as I had the same chip on my shoulder when visiting London from Belfast growing up. Lots of people in Taiwan call Taipei the 「天龍國」 and Taipei citizens 「天龍人」. This is a term suggesting that they are elitist and look down on others. It takes its origins in the term “World Nobles” (Japanese: 天竜人 Tenryūbito) from Japanese manga One Piece and literally means “Heavenly Dragon Folk”, snobby arrogant elites who serve as the world government in the manga. 

MRT Poetry: Chen Ke-hua’s ‘Night’ 捷運詩句:陳克華的「夜」

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Another day, another opportunity to lean over someone to take a photo of the poem on the MRT behind them. This one’s by Chen Ke-hua and I thought it was pretty appropriate for this humid summer night.

夜     Night

沸騰之夜,     The Simmering Night,

將她最燙的一塊皮膚     Lays the most scalding piece of its skin

貼在我頰上。     Against my cheek.

我疼出淚來,說:不,     I cry tears of pain and say, “No”,

這不是我最需要溫暖的位置。     This isn’t where I’m most in need of warmth.

Chen was born in 1961 and was born in Hualien in Taiwan, although his family were originally from Wenshang in Shandong. After graduating from Taipei Medical University he started his career in medicine. In 1997 he studied at the Harvard Medical School, returning to Taiwan in 2000. He now works at the Department of Ophthalmology of Taipei Veterans General Hospital and as an assistant professor at the medical school of National Yang Ming University. As well as his medical career, he’s also a poet, an author, a painter and a photographer.

Attempts to Author the Sunflower Student Movement

Was waiting for a friend at a bookshop and was flicking through a few titles when I saw these volumes about the Sunflower Student Movement. The first one I picked up was this:

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The cover looked OK, but my heart sank a little when I saw that the dedication was to Benedict Anderson… and sank even more when the opening sentence featured Marx…

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How very politics student circa 1989. I guess that’s why they called it a student movement. The chapters are each written by different people, but it seems quite dense in style and heavy with academic aspirations as opposed to aiming for readability. That said my friend arrived before I was able to get any kind of measure of it.

There were another two as well, and they seemed a little more aimed at the general reader:

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Anyone had a read of them or would recommend?

I also read a chapter of Luo Yu-chia’s (羅毓嘉) new book You’re my stove light in dark days (天黑的日子你是爐火). It was a little bit too much navel gazing for my taste, discussing his romance with a Hong Kong man. As Luo is a gay rights advocate the Hong Kong man’s unwillingness to adopt a gay identity is challenging for him. The chapter I read showed him attempting to justify the lack of recognition with humour and by insisting that non verbal markers like wanting Luo to be well fed shows affection where words do not. The romance wasn’t very engaging for me, and I didn’t find the Hong Kong guy very likeable as Luo sees him.

Book Review: ‘Poet Robot’ by E.I. Wong

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Some time ago I stumbled across a blog on WordPress called “A Narcissist Writes Letters To Himself” that made me laugh. The style of the blog reminded me of a mix of the absurd humor of Flann O’Brien and the comic logical fallacies of Douglas Adams, and this was reflected in his self-published book, Poet Robot: An Introduction to E.I. Wong. I preferred the off-the-wall absurdity to some of the other stuff, but it was an enjoyable read overall and had me laughing out loud at parts.

The highlights of the book for me included ‘To Describe Blowjobs Artistically’, wherein the author takes up the challenge of one of the literary critics in SlaughterHouse 5 who states that the purpose of the modern novel is ‘to describe blow-jobs artistically’. I enjoyed the tone of this section of the book, essentially charting the thought process of a man receiving a blow job. Much as it may be packaged as pastiche, there was a real depth to his examination of the male psyche and how it hovers between the horrifyingly banal and the comfortably lewd when inhibitions are wavering:

As Oscar’s mind leaves for an indescribably present yet distant sense of time, the beast within this soulless man will occupy her with pulsating gyration of up, down and up, and she will sync up with him, her fishy lipstick going, up and down.

The other highlights were a bit punchier. Some of the shorter pieces hit the mark and made me laugh, while a few just didn’t land. I liked the internal monologue that ran through the book, from the copyright information, through the footnotes and in the letters to the governor about the author’s bid to be Poet Laureate of California. When it came to the other longer piece in the book, ‘The Second Person’ I found that it was the more outlandish lines that really made me laugh. I laughed at the repeated reference to police officers having an irrational hatred for foster children, for example, and the moose pee. I didn’t quite get the attempts at race humor, but that could be that I’m not American. Wasn’t sure about the “it’s funny because he’s a dwarf” angle of the story either, and the male presence in the book could have done with a little more female input than references to my girlfriend (read: the shrew) which came up now and again.

Looking forward to seeing what he gets up to in the future.

 

What I’m Reading Dec 2015-Jan 2016 我最近在看什麼書?

Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.

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I bought a book called 《斷代》 by  Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man (《荒人手記》):

我站在那裡,我彷彿看到,人類史上必定出現過許多色情國度罷。它們像奇花異卉,開過就沒了,後世只能從湮滅的荒文裡依稀得知它們存在過。因為它們無法擴大,衍生,在愈趨細緻,優柔,色授魂予的哀愁凝結裡,絕種了。

《荒人手記》,朱天文,時報文化,二版,臺北市,65頁

Translated by the talented Howard Goldblatt Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Sewn Together’ by Lai-chu Hon 韓麗珠的《縫身》書評

12315282_10102256948261369_1284331862_oThis novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.

Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor Continue reading

Review of ‘Revisiting the White Bridge’ by Roan Ching-yue 書評:阮慶岳的《重見白橋》

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*Contains spoilers*

Roan Ching-yue is an architecture professor in Taiwan and has written several stories featuring gay themes, including ‘The Pretty Boy from Hanoi‘ and ‘The Con Man‘ (click through for my translation), both featured in the short story collection City of Tears (《哭泣哭泣城》), this was his first long-form novel and it was published in 2002.

We meet the protagonist of this novel at a time of crisis. An only child, he meets a man resembling his dad who claims to be his brother by the same mother and father. Despite the questions that surround the man’s sudden appearance in his life, he accepts him as a brother pending further inquiry. It’s at this time that he finds out that his company is moving the majority of its employees to China, so he quits and fails to find another job, so has a larger amount of free time. Over this period he discovers that his “brother” is gay and then we are introduced to the brother’s perspective, with a chronicle of his childhood growing up in Australia and his wild sex life.

The glimpses we get of the brother’s life, show him to be a lot more carefree than the protagonist, however, one of the main stories he recounts involved an attempt to shame him:

[My translation] I was once at a motel in Los Angeles and, bored, so I decided to pleasure myself. I stuffed the cap of a bottle of shaving cream into my ass. As I was unable to get it out again, I had to go three days without moving my bowels. I gradually lost my appetite and my face turned a shade of reddish purple. The doctor at the emergency room knew, of course, what I’d done, but he insisted on forcing me to recount all the gory details of what I’d gotten up to that night in the motel room in front of a group of strangers comprised of interns and nurses. He made me lie squatting on the bed like a dog, while he and his female assistant tried in vain to take it out, threatening that if I didn’t cooperate as best I could, he would have to cut my anus open with a knife. I calmly asked him: How long would the wound take to heal if you cut it open? He said: Maybe a lifetime, maybe you’d never be able to use it again for anything but shitting.

I accepted him shaming me through the entire process and at the moment when he finally retrieved the plastic cap, I sprayed the shit I had accumulated over several days out of my elevated ass all over him and his assistant just as the cap slid out.

This was shame’s parasitic twin, revenge.  [pg. 138]

Continue reading

A Dictionary of Maqiao 《馬橋詞典》書評

A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. 10867069_10101763657599809_38699079_nI liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:

Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]

Continue reading

Film Review ‘Ice Poison’: All the right ingredients but no magic 《冰毒》影評

Ice-PoisonThis film is set in and around Lashio in Northern Shan State in Myanmar, a region populated by many ethnic Chinese. Some are later immigrants, while others are remnants of the retreating Nationalist Army – posted there as guerrilla forces after the main force retreated to Taiwan. Conflict between rebels here and the Myanmar central government spilled over into Yunnan province recently when a bomb dropped by a Myanmar Air Force plane killed some villagers there.

The film deals with a very current issue as the civil war in Myanmar between government forces and northern ethnic rebel groups continue. China has been struggling to outdo the US in wooing the government and the main opposition ahead of general elections there next year, although illegal border trade with China is believed to be the main supply line for rebels in the north. Chinese business people are also responsible for a lot of the illegal logging and mining taking place in the region (despite getting permits from northern rebels, many of them are aware that logging is illegal in Myanmar).

This had the unfortunate effect of raising my expectations for the film, as despite being located in a fascinating part of the world, I felt that the “love story” wasn’t done in a convincing way. The female protagonist returns from China where she has married a substantially older man, from whom she seemingly wants to escape. She travels home for the death of her grandfather, taking him funeral clothes from his hometown in Yunnan. She is driven home by a farmer-turned motorcycle driver, who is not very successful at his new job. She meets him again when he takes a message to her from the town, and eventually she proposes that they go into the meth business together, as her cousin is in the business and can set up deliveries for her. They fall in love while working together and both start using from their own supply. Eventually they get caught on a delivery and the male lead flees the scene, leaving her with all the blame. He then flees back to his rural village and appears to be in great mental trauma. The process of the female lead stripping the male lead of his innocence was portrayed in montage style, so we end up feeling distanced from the process which would have drawn us in and made us identify with the two of them. The girl’s life in China is never really presented in a way that allows us to understand in a visual sense why she comes back and what motivates her to get involved in the drug trade, as we just learn about her treatment in China through phone calls with her mother in law.

The film is beautifully shot and the issues it deals with, the rise of amphetamine in Myanmar and Southeast Asia and the poverty of Chinese ethnic groups in Myanmar, are interesting, although they get a more interesting examination elsewhere. Check out the references below for a more interesting analysis on how the meth trade is affecting China and for more news on Myanmar and South East Asia from a news site run by exiles from Myanmar.

That said, I thought that certain scenes were moving, like the death scene of the grandfather at the start of the movie and the bookend-style scenes on the male lead’s family plot at the start and end of the movie. The film does achieve its end in the sense that I was convinced of the frustration felt by these people and that there is no way out for them other than death from starvation or criminal behavior and prison, however, I felt this could have been achieved with a lot more pathos if the characters and the love between them had been more three dimensional than the “romantic montage” allowed for.