House of Flying Daggers

Dir: Zhang Yimou
Zhang Yimou’s Hero may have promised wuxia and delivered it in a Rashomon-style vehicle, but his follow up, House of Flying Daggers, is something different altogether:
a classic love triangle playing itself out in a world of the Law and a band of secret rebels who plan to overthrow it (the titular House being the rebels’ HQ).
Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro play Leo and Jin, policemen who go undercover to arrest a suspected member of the Flying Daggers, played by Zhang Ziyi, who is incognito as a blind dancer at the local Peony Pavilion brothel. These opening scenes, as Ziyi’s Mei is put to the test by Leo, mark the film as a thing of beauty, as it trades in “Hero’s” solid colors for extravagant, finely detailed silks of many colors and patterns. After her arrest, Jin breaks Mei out of jail and flees with her to the north, hoping she will take him to the group’s hideout. Being undercover means Jin has to fight alongside Mei, even when his fellow officers, not knowing who Jin is, attack. And of course, meanwhile Jin is falling in love with Mei (when it’s Zhang Ziyi, who can blame him?) while only pretending to do so for the sake of his cover. There are more twists and turns to come, and the film is so pure in its story (Salon rightly compared it to silent film and opera), that they still surprise.
The action sequences are finally, truly breathtaking, instead of us wanting them to be so (as in Hero). Jin undertakes some archery skills that would put Legolas to shame (with a motion technique that Peter Jackson would love), and the Flying Daggers get their due as well. Adding to all this is the excellent sound design: for a fight in a bamboo forest (a wuxia staple), Yimou drops out all the music and leaves just the strange sounds of bamboo, which are after all a forest of hollow tubes. A good 5.1 system should be required to appreciate what is done here.
Yet it’s not all flash. In the center is a true romantic tale, free of irony, which few directors would get near in the west. Love is suffering, as my wife likes to remind me (physically sometimes). Yes, there’s princesses and such in sword’n’sorcery tales here, but they’re the prizes to be won after the battle, not the causes of the battle themselves. Plus, Zhang Ziyi’s Mei can do fine by herself, thank you, if you give her some daggers. Andy Lau, who I’ve never particularly liked as an actor is really good here too, with all his character’s repressed pain returning in the very last reel. Of course, maybe it takes a director like Zhang to bring out a good performance in Lau.
There was a period (“Not One Less”) where I really thought Zhang Yimou had lost it as a director, and who’s string of mediocre films were approaching than of his contemporary Chen Kaige. But fortune’s wheel had turned again, and he’s come back, in a surprising different style, perhaps, but he’s rediscovered the emotional power of his earlier work.

Oh yes, I bought stuff

I came back from my Taiwan trip with a lot of DVDs and VCDs. I’ll be giving these a look soon enough…:
From Beijing with Love
Fight Back to School 2
Look Out, Officer
Street Angels 3
House of Flying Daggers
Goodbye Dragon Inn
The Missing
Dog Soldiers
Welcome to Sarayevo
My Name Is Joe
Time and Tide
My Sassy Girl
Donnie Darko
So Close
Light Sleeper
The Warriors
Curry and Pepper 3
Double Vision
The Addiction
Viva Tonal
Sex For Sale
A lot of the Western films were for sale in a cut out bin where DVDs were something like $3 each. Total amount spent: $115. Nice, eh?

Days Between Stations – Steve Erickson


I first heard about Steve Erickson’s writing
in a long artist-resurrection article by Brian Evanson in The Believer (one reason why I love the magazine). It was an examination of how Erickson was labeled the “next Pynchon” after the success of his first novel, and what happened to him since (quasi-obscurity). It was much later that I found his first novel in a used store for a dollar. Can’t say better than that. It wound up being my read over the two weeks spent in Taiwan this November, so the novel and the country are strangely mixed.
Perhaps Erickson would want it that way, for “Days Between Stations” is all about dislocation, not just of place, but of character and place. There are several characters in the novel, which begins in modern day (the 1980s) and jumps back to the 1910s, but I got the sense that essentially we were meeting the same three people in different guises, whether or not they turn out (later in the novel) to be related through the decades. There are love triangles between Lauren (the first person we meet) her philandering husband Jason, and her mysterious downstairs neighbor Michel. But Michel could also be a version of Adolphe, a wunderkind who grows up to be an Orson Welles of the silent era, audacious and revolutionary in film as D.W. Griffiths. He’s in love with Janine, the star of his film on the French Revolution, who also may be his half-sister, but she is “owned” by a unscrupulous rich bloke called Varnette. Janine, in turn, may be Michel’s mother. Or maybe not.
This is not a straight-forward novel, and when we meet Lauren and Jason, they live in a Los Angeles that is turning into a large sand-dune, battered by desert storms. Later, we learn that the Mediterranean has receded so far as to run Venice’s canal’s dry. There are also time loops and mysterious fogs and experimental films and unfinished masterpieces and a cold snap that almost leads to the immolation of Paris. It’s like Sci-Fi Romanticism, without any explanation how these events are happening. Erickson doesn’t care how it happens, he cares what happens to the people it effects.
In the end, some of these questions are answered, some not, and the great romance that’s promised remains tantalizingly out of reach.
As for reading, the opening takes some bearing-getting, but once I got to the silent movie sequence, I was hooked.

Taiwan Day Fourteen: Back the Land of Giants

Yaa boo sucks! Do I really have to go back to the United Fundamentalist States of Bush? Nooooooooo!
Apparently so.
Fortunately, the typhoon cleared out today, suddenly veered off east, leaving only drizzle and dark clouds, but no winds. My last breakfast: a McDonalds Sausage McMuffin (not my choice). Boo!
The sisters all came with us in a similar rented bus, and at the airport, at our last lunch, which was some surprisingly good shabu shabu from the food court. By the time I was done with the razor thin slices of pork, the broth was delicious and complex, and the noodles that I emptied into the soup were tender. Yum!
At airports there’s not much to do. Either you hang with the people who have come to see you off, and chit chat pointlessly, or you just go through and wait for the flight. We chose something between the two. Lynn and Mike had enough frequent flyer miles on China Airlines, that they bumped their return flight up to business class. Me, I’ve never been on anything but peasant class.
Jessica and I did get a spare seat between us, but I could never seem to take proper advantage and fall asleep properly. I didn’t watch any of the movies on the way back, but I did finish off Days Between Stations, the Kerry issue of the Believer, and the entire BFI book on Eyes Wide Shut, so it was at least productive. We never saw Lynn and Mike the whole flight.
They took off for Phoenix, and we for Santa Barbara, where my Dad picked us up. Home was chilly and fresh and suddenly smelled just like it had been when we moved in two years ago. So we’re back and bloody hell, it’s like we never left.

Taiwan Day Thirteen: William’s Tour

Well, today I hung out with my friend and Taipei denizen William. We’ve known each other for a few years after being on the Pizzicato Five mailing list together and trading stuff. Pretty much everybody I’ve met from the list over the years has turned out to be a decent fellow (and they’re usually fellows).
Despite being an intelligent being, anytime I set off on my own into Taipei, the sisters all worry that I’m going to get lost using the MRT. Not to worry, though finding the Starbucks at Taipei Main Station that William told me to meet him took some doing. By the time I did so I was covered with sweat. First, William hooked me up with some CDs of WMFU weirdness, then we set off for a day of art gallery walking and such. The weather by now was dreadful, and trying to turn our umbrellas inside out. First stop was MOCA Taipei, which is housed in something like an old schoolbuilding, all redbrick and classroom sized galleries.
Taiwan is in a national crisis of identity, and this is borne out by so much of the art I saw today and on other visits. Asking “What Is Taiwan” is up there with asking “What is Real” (asked over at the Fine Arts Museum).
At MOCA, many of the rooms were devoted to “The Rumor of China Towns: Chinese Architecture 2004”. Not a particularly impressive collection: most of it seemed to be asking the question, “What do we do with these old cardboard architectural models from school?” and rooms full up of interesting junk. Other rooms tried to artify or glamorize photos of awful modernist concrete blocks (Corbu, Bauhaus, damn you). The question I asked William: “Would you actually want to live here?”
A larger room featured stacks of bound newspapers on their side, on top of which we were invited to walk in our stocking feet. I don’t know what this actually meant, but it did feel a bit like quicksand. Another room had a full apartment made out of string and wire. In another, molded shapes in styrofoam and plaster suggested we assume yoga postures to then watch respectively aligned monitors. The molded body shapes were obviously not made for this tall, rather bloated Westerner.
So…nothing made much of an impression, all apart from the building itself which had that proper mix of warmth and non-intrusiveness that befits gallery space. Oh, and the bag lockers, which were named after artists and movements, and not numbered. Where else could you store your satchel in “Existentialism”?
Continuing on…we took a train to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Most of the museum was devoted to “Do You Believe In Reality?” curated by Barbara Vanderlinden and Amy Huei-hua Cheng.
The theme is so open ended (citizen’s rights and the reality offered by each perspective) that pretty much any contemporary artist could be represented here. I didn’t feel any grand question being asked.
Therefore it was still down to the art. Ones that stood out:
Jeanne Van Heeswijk/Rolf Engelen/Siebe Thissen/Frans Vermeer/Innbetween’s appropriation of postered walls from the streets of Amsterdam, turned into shelters. Mostly I grooved on seeing the two-inch thick layers of years of plastering up concert posters. Like cutting through substrata.
David Claerbout’s “Vietnam, 1967, Near Duc Pho” a video manipulation of a still by Hiromishi Mine of a caribou aircraft split in two and falling to earth, where craft and landscape evolve over time differently.
Yang Fu-Dong’s “Dai Hao and Man Te”, a small labyrinth of white walls and fluorescent bulbs that centers into a room with a projector playing a 12 minute 35mm film of two guys on the beach. Meant to “metaphorically depict the ungraspable nature of experience and the fragmentary state of memory” (raspberries), I liked it for its compact 35mm projector, the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Raqs Media Collective’s “The Wherehouse Project,” a series of modern archaeological artefacts (read, interesting objects culled from houses). I liked it for the reason William did: it was like going through a very cool flea market.
Agnes Varda’s “Patautopia” a video tryptich of old potatoes, now turned into weird and beautiful tubular flowers.
Anri Sala’s “time after time,” a slowly metamorphosing video of a horse standing on a bridge? a beach? a housing project? while the camera goes in and out of focus in the low light.
Down below in the very large space, there were three rooms devoted to Ton Yang-tze and Ray Chen’s “Realm of Feelings–A Dialogue of Calligraphy and Space”, one a large empty room filled with projections of animated Chinese calligraphy (and then once we entered, our distorted shadows); another room containing three large canvases of calligraphy, but only attainable by transvering a small series of paths separated by low tables of black glass (acting as great reflectors of the art); and finally a circular room filled with sand around which a calligraphic poster spiraled out.
William and I took a small lunch-like break in the museum, which boasts a truly paltry selection of hot food. That I chose a hot dog should give you a clue. Regardless, we had a long chat, mostly about film (Tsai Ming Liang’s “Goodbye Dragon Inn” being one of them) and what to do with my unfinished experimental film “Gone When Police Got There.”
Then we took a MRT to our final location, the Taipei Film House, which is currently showing a Documentary Film Festival. It also features an Eslite bookstore with a film and cinema theme. Joy! I wound up getting two DVDs: one a documentary on Taiwanese music, Viva Tonal, on Willaim’s recommendation, and one of the Shaw Brothers reissues, Sex For Sale, which looks to be kooky and campy.
While deciding on buying these, a gentleman approached me, a bit nervous to speak in English. He explained that the end of the year is coming up and he still needs to get “purchase points” on his Eslite(?) credit card or he’ll have to pay a large fee. So could he buy these on his card and I just give him the money? I thought at first it was a scam of some kind, but he was on the up and up. If he’d hung around longer, he could have gotten more points for buying the BFI book on “Eyes Wide Shut” and Jonathan Romney’s book on Atom Egoyan, which I wound up paying for in cash.
William took one photo of me with the Holga (the excellent toy camera with two manual controls) and then we walked back to the station to bid each other adieu. I called Jessica and they said they were out on the town and to meet them at City Hall station. I did so and all I heard on the way home was the excellent lunch they had and that I had missed. Jessica was trying to make me regretful, I guess, but no dice, despite having a hot dog for lunch.
We spent the rest of the evening back at the sisters’, with an occasional run to get food and drink downstairs (more watermelon juice for Mike and me). Not to mention the bloody packing, incorporating all the stuff we bought in Taipei the first couple of days.
And would we be taking off in the middle of a typhoon? It looked like it…

Taiwan Day 12: Back to Taipei

All the news today has been about this bloody typhoon that is heading our way and supposedly will be right on top of us on the day we take off from the airport. Lovely. But in anticipation of that, today was pre-typhoon weather. That is, all the crap gets blown out of the air and Chia-yi showed what it looks like on a sunny, scattered clouds day without a haze of carcinogens hovering overhead. It was also bloody hot.
Last night we spent packing, and both Mike and myself were faced with a similar problem: where do we put all this stuff? In one case I have the new water boiler, still in the box (and with socks and fragile teapots packed inside) and everything packed around it.
This morning, the family took us out to the stinky tofu place down the road, the one with the best hot sauce in the area, but blast it all, it was closed. We continued walking, until we came to another former neighbor who had a very popular duck noodle stand. Now she’s made enough money to expand that into a bigger shop. The noodles are still lovely and the thick broth is still as multi-layered as I remembered it. Mike and I also sought out some watermelon juice on the way back, probably this trip’s most popular drink.
There was some last minute shenanigans over taking gifts back. Mama wanted Jessica to take back some “long life noodles” for a family friend in Santa Barbara, but the noodles weighed a ton, so we halved it. Mother and daughters hid money in each others’ bags/beds to help each other out. That’s the Chinese way…
We caught a coach up to Taipei and two films played on the way up: Four Chefs and a Feast, one of those slapdash New Year’s comedies from Hong Kong about three chefs trying to recreate a famous end-o-WWII banquet (the fourth chef was their mentor); and “Needing You…” starring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheung in some sort of romantic comedy or other. It had no subtitles, so I didn’t really know what was going on. Sammi Cheung is cute, tho’. As is Wu Chien-lien, who plays one of the chefs in the first film–she has a Anita Mui thing going on…
By the time we got to Taipei, the weather had soured and was now dark grey and drizzly, while at the same time being oppressive and humid. So on one hand I had to wear my jacket, on the other it was really to hot for such a thing.
We took a taxi, dragged three bloody heavy suitcases up four flights of stairs and waited for the sisters to return home, which they eventually did.
We took a train back out to visit Berry’s company, where she is main packaging and grpahics designer. The company is called UCI, and they make USB storage devices, MP3 players, and an upcoming movie player which will probably arrive after iPod movie busts out on the scene. Berry works in at a desk in the corner of the small office, which is two floors away from Rock Records, one of Taiwan’s main record publishers. She has all the cool goodies–all the other desks looked rather bland. The boss, a rather unassuming youngish guy, gave us a little tour, and let us play with the movie viewer and even asked us, the two Americans, for input.
We decided then to walk to one of the night markets and saw some nice upmarket areas of Taipei (at least some with architecture that pleased my eye. At the night market (the most popular one, I’ve forgotten the name, but we’ve visited once already this trip), I tried a refried donut (a donut thrown back in the deep fryer and then sprinkled with sugar) and it wasn’t as horrifically greasy as I’d imagined it would be. I also had some sticky pork rice and some herbal jelly drink.
Taxi back. Called my friend William to arrange tomorrow’s day out, and then watched some bad HK movie called The Three Lusketeers, which starred Euro-looking Simon Lui as a lothario trying to scam millions out of one of his father’s old Filipino mistresses. Quite unfunny yet compulsively watchable, for some strange reason. Those strange reasons included Gigi Lai…


Dir: Yoichi Sai
The poster may show a labrador puppy,
but Quill is much more than a cute widdle doggie film. Instead, Quill is something that has yet to be achieved in the west, methinks: a realistic portrayal of a dog’s life. The Quill of the title is a labrador than is chosen, because of its calm nature, to train as a seeing-eye dog. We follow Quill from puppy through academy graduation to being in the service of a irascible blind man, Kaoru Kobayashi, and how their relationship unfolds.
In America, we seem unable to have a film about a dog unless it has super powers, can play sports, or rescue children trapped down wells. Though director Yoichi Sai is better known for gangster films, he brings the right lack of sentimentality to this story, though there’s plenty to get choked up about. No CG mouths, no talking dogs, no humans falling on their ass (“D’oh! That darned dog! WhyIOughta…!”). Just straight ahead dog behaviour.
There is one slightly amusing diversion to the realism, where Quill falls asleep and dreams of his old squeeze toy, now walking by itself and tormenting him–which is probably what dogs do dream about. But for the most, we see Kobayashi and Quill interacting as owners and dogs do. His wife doesn’t like the dog at first, but we never get the obvious “Quill does something daring and wins her affection” scene that some hack would write, we just get a quiet admission later on in the film that you might miss if you’re not paying attention.
The film also deals bravely and clearly with death, and as I said, this is a dog’s life story, so we encompass all. No, Quill doesn’t die saving the owner from an oncoming train, but instead the film simply observes the facts of life. There’s more, but I don’t want to spoil it.
By the end, Jessica and I were wiping away tears. This would be a good film for all the family, especially if you want your children to accept that we don’t all live forever, and that dogs have more to offer than just making dunk shots.

Taiwan Day Eleven: Straight! Go!

All week I’ve been trying to get everyone to go see a movie while we’re here, especially one that probably won’t open in the States. Currently, the Japanese movie Quill is the film of choice and today, after much lazing about at home, we went out to see it.
That is, all except Lynn, who a) didn’t want to see it, b) was still recovering from a slight cold, and c) was going to be taken out today by Mama to the fortune tellers up in the forest nearby. I know that sounds more interesting than seeing a film, at least blogwise, but I didn’t get to go.
We got there at about 3:30, but the ticket counter told us the 3:10 showing hadn’t started yet, so we jumped in. This cinema is tiny (maybe 50 seats at most), the screen is poor, and the sound is hollow, but compared to some of the Taiwanese viewing experiences my friend William has had, acceptable. “Quill” is a cute and often sad little movie about a seeing-eye dog, and I’ll write more soon about it on my movie blog. (BTW, “Straight! Go!” is one of the commands the Japanese owner uses to control his seeing eye dog.)
Afterwards, we walked a little ways home, and stopped at Barista coffee to just relax and talk about dogs and such. We also stopped at a computer store while Jessica mulled over buying a 17 inch LCD monitor for work. One thing about computer and electronics stores is that unknown or hinky-sounding brands get major shelf space alongside major companies. But with the side-to-side comparisons (all monitors were playing the same HQ slideshow), it was obvious the best monitor was by Samsung.
Later in the evening, Baba took us out to one final night market on the west side of town, and getting a little lost while driving there. How long has he lived here, we joked. I ate some “oya-zen”–an oyster omelet draped in a red sauce. S’good.
Tonight, after packing, I backed up all our photos onto two CDRs, so they wouldn’t be trapped on mama’s computer. On the TV was a long documentary about the worldwide transvestite beauty contest, and they were following Taiwan’s entry, who looked a bit like Namie Amuro, but not in a good way. The cameraman and host soon lost interest and instead pursued Miss Thailand, who looked so much like a cute japanese idol it was disturbing. There were no telltale signs of “Mr. Lady”-ness about her. Mike was rattled. France’s entry, however, looked like a stringy old dude in a dress.