Movie Review: Wong Kar-wai’s 2046

Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a lavish, flurrying piece on love in its dizzying expansive heights and its restrictive chambers of regret and obsession. As a sequel to In the Mood for Love, Kar-wai follows Chow Mo-wan (Tony Cheung), a journalist and a writer of romances, after his rejection by his lover Su Li-Zhen (the regal Maggie Cheung). The superstructure of the stories in this film is a science-fiction story written by the Chow set in 2046. In it, he imagines himself as a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura) stuck on a train in an endless loop; he falls for an android (Faye Wong) on board. He can’t escape, but nevertheless he doesn’t want to escape (Hotel California-style).

In the present tense of the film, Chow falls in and out of love with a frisky, petulant call girl Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), lands a trusting, short-lived friendship with Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), and relies on and almost devours another woman called Su Li-Zhen (the stunning Li Gong). Throughout his longing and feeling of loss can’t be restrained or quieted, but reoccurs in all his future relationships. In a dazzling scene, Chow pushes Su Li-Zhen to a wall with a violent, long kiss goodbye-it is as if to say this is what kind of passion I have for you (and her) but if I stay with you, I can never be content as I would have been.

Wong does as masterful job of getting those scenes of riotous feeling, angst, and regret just right. Though its sci-fi escapade seems inessential and excessive and sometimes the characters dawdle around too much (cutting down on the pace), Wong delivers another insightful, bare treatment of love.

Book Review: The Woman Warrior

I picked up Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior at a local used bookstore. As I went through the pages, I noticed that almost every page had extensive annotations in red, green, and black Sharpie. There were brackets, underlines, circles, and notes. The first page had the name of the previous owner, a New York state campus, and a date “1992.” I purchased it. Reading this book, which is subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts,” took longer than a spell at the end of 2016 when I went through a couple in succession. This book took several months. Not because of its length at 209 pages, but because of the author uncompromising method which fights against the signposts we seek in a memoir: an narrator from a future time speaking about the past; a this-then-that chronology; the sketch of the growth of relationships; and all that explanation.

While the subtitle states this book is a collection, it is a memoir. At first, I thought that each story was a segment of the narrator’s life from a different perspective. While it has that in it, each piece starts with the narrator and then segues into another story from or about her aunt, mother, younger aunt: it is storytelling about storytelling. Once all the pieces are read, you start to fill in the gaps a-chronologically but with the guide of context from the collective body of these voices and how they shape and express the narrator’s psyche. I would only realize that the urgency of those annotations from grappling with this maze.

I return to the word uncompromising because Kingston’s vision does not rest. For one, it does not abide by the traditions of Asians in American letters. She sees the transitory state of immigrant not as a recent phenomena, a challenge or fulfillment of to the American ideal, or solely a particular socioeconomic condition, but a state carrying through human history. She does not simply externalize this, but shows through her method how that state also a personal even literary one. It is one thing to be written about and for a story to be told about you. It is one thing even to take advantage of a story for oneself. But only rarely would one wield the power of the immigrant, outsider, or warrior–like the Mulan of this book’s title no less–to bring forth and articulate a new vernacular: true to one’s own and polyglot and American. Here Kingston clasps the hilt.

Book Review: 8/10: A singular memoir that breaks and re-imagines the genre.

Television Review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 (2016)

A television series that has not been mentioned in any awards show is Halt and Catch Fire. It was at least one of the top three shows last year. I have been a fan of this show since its wildly uneven yet provocative first season about the origins of the personal computer in Central Texas.

In this third season, the triumvirate of Cameron, Gordon, and Joe has been reunited in Silicon Valley despite the machinations of the other characters. Especially, I didn’t like that they let go of their Indian character Ray in the service of Joe’s personal growth. Though it was unfair for the series to knock these people off, it is true to the storytelling of this series which is perhaps the most true to everyday life I’ve seen: people rarely change; the professional is personal; a most curious, wondrous thing is the human relationship.

You can feel in Donna, Cameron’s once-friend and business partner, the simple thirst for fiscal success and the longing for a companion and forgiveness for herself. In Cameron’s moodiness and spontaneity, she has moments of clarity like when she states that “the future” is just a nothing that people sell you on. These characterizations and the working group scene at the end of Season 3, where they figure out and explain how the Internet will change the world, should be appreciated by more. Halt and Catch Fire is available on Netflix.

Television Review: 8.5/10: Through the lens of work and love, a discourse on the human relationship.

Mahatma Jotirao Phule

I picked up a book about Mahatma Jotirao Phule (Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India) to learn more about education in India pre-Independence. At the end, I learned also about a social reformer who, despite significant material challenges, social resistance, and, at times, weak ideas, began to change how a major portion of Indian society looked at themselves and their destiny. I praise the author Rosalind O’Hanlon for taking up this neglected and important topic and learning Marathi to investigate primary sources. Her wise and adroit manuevering through the delicate and substantive differences between ideologies, communities, and power structures seeks to dissemble false conflations. She expounds their differences while noting their at times coalition in terms of joint protest.

Jyotirao Phule lived during the British Raj in the city of Pune in Maharastra. He received a modest education at missionary schools. He then founded and ran schools for members of the scheduled castes and women who had been denied an education based on social prohibition. His wider role was of a founder of a reformist association. He also served as a spokesman for another association petitioning the British Government for representation in a congress to make their needs plain to the British administration. Previously, Brahmins had monopolized such posts based on their social and religious standing. Phule welcomed British rule as a way to unhinge Brahmanic control over India, but saw the new system was, on the whole, perpetuating the same inequalities as before.

One of the virtues of O’Hanlon’s book how she traces the origin of Phule’s ideas to Indian sources and missionary arguments. Missionaries had linked a Deist conception of God and Nature, the advances of Western science, and the deplorable condition of the majority of Indians under a stagnant and exclusionary religious order maintained by Brahmins. Though he did not convert, he used this linkage to create an alternative history and reinterpretation of major figures in India, such as Shivaji, to emphasize how the contemporary order was primarily a mental oppression by the few who had monopolized learning and religion. One of the weaknesses of Phule’s argument was his unclear reinterpretation of religion. Though Brahmins used this as a basis of authority and some analysis and refutation was needed, I think that he could have stuck to his reformist agenda based upon shared interests of the oppressed rather than wade into a religious debate. If Buddha had called for the abolition of caste more than two thousand years ago, Phule’s ideas about religion and caste had no luck when drawn into this contentious sphere.

O’Hanlon’s book makes you wonder and ask for a book connecting Mahatma Phule’s work with Mahatma Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s during India’s Independence movement. I think a work like this needs to be in English, given that these conflicts are an every present reality of contemporary India.

Movie Review: Arrival

I give Arrival credit for being different from the typical sequel or tent pole movie. I like that it spends much of its two hour run time following a linguist (Amy Adams) as she decodes an alien language. Also, its ending is unorthodox and mirrors its theme, the non-linearity of time. However, this movie tries a little too hard to be a sentimental about world affairs. Without much of a way of explanation for their other motives, it appears that the alien activity was meant to get the world together under a “United Nations.” While this idealism may have been touching at another time, right now it seems inadequate and a narrative troupe.

Many reviews cite that this movie was more about Amy Adams’ characters personal struggles and not about the aliens as a sort of virtue. The aliens are weird enough, but the narrative just doesn’t seem to have much interest in why they are there. Yes, the action is based on finding out their purpose, but we don’t know much about them. An alien narrative can be weird and help us learn more about ourselves. I had read Octavia Butler’s Dawn soon after watching Arrival. That book had the courage to posit and explain out a strange alien culture and use it to expose human frailties. While a well-acted movie, Arrival’s ideas (some of which ripped from Noein and other anime) need some more action or even time to breathe.

Movie Review: Arrival: 6.5/10: Amy Adams stars as an unconventional explorer of the unknown but the narrative does not astound as it should.

Book Review: the Moon over the Mountain

Both Atsushi Nakajima and Haruki Murakami are taught in Japanese high schools. Nakajima is the kind of author that is loved in Japan, but not praised by the Western press and are often ignored outside of Japan if translated at all. You may think it’s because of the subject matter. Instead of liberal protagonists living in post-War Japan, Nakajima goes back to historic and mythic China.

While the text in Japanese is in an elaborate masculine style with an extensive use of Chinese characters, in translation the text is more accessible. Despite the intricate style, Nakajima does not presume a cultural background, but sits at a juncture between East and West. This intertextuality is evident when critters in a bizarre short story promulgate Western philosophies. But this is true also with Nakajima’s orientation: Nakajima is concerned with elemental existential questions and doesn’t seem to operate solely within his cultural milieu nor see his culture as a box or barrier in his quest.

The Moon over the Mountain
The most famous work “Sangetsuki,” or “The Moon over the Mountain,” is a strange tale of a government official who wants to be a poet. His desire, so intense, turns him into a tiger that stalks the mountain country. Some tales with the excessive listing of battles, provinces, leader names, war stratagems, court drama, and battles course with the martial vigor. When he turned historical, Nakajima paid closer attention to facts, but the emotion of his work reflects the time it was written, which is during the brutality of the Japanese occupation of a fractured China during World War II. While this may bear scrutiny of complicity, his best work is when he focuses on the human relationships or individuals trying to make sense of the world and themselves.

The best story is “The Disciple,” a historical tale about Confucius and his disciple Zilu. This story, because of that open intertextuality, expresses the teacher-student tradition common knowledge for those in the Eastern (and Greek) tradition into English. Ironically but truly, Nakajima shows that moral education is not about adhering to strictures, the grasping of the intellect, or performance in the field, but it is a form of love.

Book Review: 7.5/10: Nakajima’s best work are classics of modern world literature

Anime Review: Noein

Noein is a bold, intriguing romance. Yu and Haruka are two elementary school students from Hakodate, Japan–(Hakodate, an actual city, is so expertly and lovingly recreated it becomes a character in itself). Before we know it, blue snow falls and these kids–at an important juncture in their lives–are swept up in an adventure that involves nothing less than the destruction of all dimensions of creation.

The Cast of Noein
The Cast of Noein

Noein takes string theory and runs with it to create a mesmerizing arena within which traditional inquiries into identity, human suffering, and the nature of existence are explored. This quantum world is a world of infinite dimensions. Every chance event and every choice we could make inhabits another dimension. What gets the plot rolling is that an elite fighting squad from a dimension ten years in the future bolts into our slice of life anime and are in pursuit of the Dragon Torque, the key–they believe–to save their dimension from destruction. What is bold about this series is that some of the characters of this squad confront and observe themselves 10 years younger.

These encounters help the characters grow into their selves. The supernatural mechanics of the plot are superb in showing how reflection is an active process. The pacing is right on, but because of the Dragon Torque’s supreme power Noein’s climax is not as gripping as other back-from-the-brink finales (Giant Robo, Evangelion). However, Noein’s plot resides in the working out of the characters’ identity. For that emphasis, Noein deserves a strong recommendation.

Movie Book Reviewer: 7/10: Noein is a fascinating time traveling take on the coming-of-age story

Use of Poetry in Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The title of Robert Flanagan’s novel The Deep Road to the Far North is what Japanese soldiers used to call the “Death Railway” to Burma made by Allied POWs under slave conditions. From the novel, it seems like an name given in earnest as this feat was intended to extol the Emperor and spread Japanese culture as exemplified in Basho’s travelogue of the same name. How could this travelogue written in a refined combination of haiku and mannered prose by a Zen Buddhist Japanese author who sought eternity in nature in the later stages of his life and who composed his celebrated haiku during spontaneous moments of union with reality be used to justify a crime against humanity?

Have any of the Imperial soldiers met The Emperor? Who is the Emperor to these soldiers? “The Emperor” in this novel is a literary creation and fixed pattern that is exclusionary and was used to justify any crime that stands in the way of the military objective. In the Christian sense, Emperor worship here is clearly a form of idolatry. It makes the idolater a slave to the image and, by during so, estranged from the reality.

Basho and the other poetry in this book has the same function. When a Japanese soldier wants to recite a poem before executing a POW, he falters because he cannot remember the lines, the pattern. Poetry, such as Basho’s, that was a spontaneous expression of a vision of eternity in nature had been turned into an “object” or a fixed pattern. As such it was treated as an idol against the experience and intention of Basho. A counterexample used in the book is a death poem by Shisui, which is simply a brushstroke of a circle. This poem cannot be turned into a fixed pattern because it is illustrative of an ongoing process. Like Basho, I think this is what Flanagan wants to approach: a description of a human life’s passage in this inevitable process without any fixed patterns, or easy narratives, obscuring reality.

Book Review: Native Speaker

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee is a clear-eyed account of the status of the Asian American in contemporary America. No other book I have read by an American author has so expertly allowed for cultural identity to be a present in the characters without letting the individuals becoming caricatures, stand-ins, or less than human. In the case of one character, a lady from Korea who manages the house named simply Ahjuhma (Aunt), most other authors would have made her a one-note personality. It definitely seems that the character lends herself to that, but in a surprise shift Lee gives her a hidden grace that flows at unexpected, withdrawn moments. No matter how I act or what I say, I have an internal life, I am a person, this character and Lee seems to say.

The narrator is Henry Park, a middle-aged Korean-American who is estranged from his white American wife. During this time, his work, he is a spy for a private intelligence agency, is breaking his cultural allegiances as he was tasked with posing as a helper for a prominent Korean-American politician with an eye to running for Mayor of New York City. It even appears as if the politician is an alter-ego of the main protagonist. And Henry’s employers, white men, relish as they see Henry take down a man who would demonstrate that Korean-Americans are not foreigners in their own country.

Maybe a little too obvious, (this was Lee’s first novel), his job and his task are metaphors for the status of Asian American in the nineties (when the book is written and set) and today. Asian Americans are enlisted to speak and stand only for their ancestral culture and are sometimes manipulated to turn against other minorities to get ahead. And, while Asian Americans can achieve individual success and familial happiness, for the most part, they cede any social or political notoriety and influence as a price of living in this country.

Throughout the book, the narrator comes to see his life as closer to his father’s than he had thought. This change in consciousness, from a state of rebellion to a sagacity, is perhaps the greatest achievement of this work as we are forced to see his father as less than a grouchy, angry man but more of a pioneer. We come to see his silent pain as more social, economic, and a result of the position he is placed in as an ethnic minority and less of an individual failure. By doing this, Chang-Rae Lee uses his art to unpack privilege.

Book Review: 8.5/10: The best Asian American fiction I have read. 

Book Review: Silence

The novel Silence by Shusaku Endo is set in the Nagasaki during the severe persecution of Christianity in 1600s Japan. With letters, documents, and third-person narration, Silence chronicles the journey of a Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues to corroborate whether his esteemed mentor apostatized during his mission. This novel grips to major questions and does not let go. With some of the existential sharpness of Kierkegaard, Silence is a vehicle to investigate the possibility of cross-cultural communication, endurance, and faith. But it is not an erudite exercise; in his depiction of human frailty and depravity, Endo combines this novel of ideas with the pathos of short, painful lives.

Rodrigues and his mission does seem like Marlow’s trip into the Heart of Darkness. His journey from his native Portugal, stowing away on a boat to Japan, learning about the new culture, and facing a warped doppelganger mirror the structure of Joseph Conrad’s work. In Heart of Darkness, the machine of colonialism is revealed as an elaborate form of the savagery in the Congo. While spreading Catholicism may seem like a parallel, for all their politics, the lone priests have kindness and conviction to lift peasants out of a brutish existence. And in Silence, the brutality of the natives is utterly remorseless, yes, but also intellectually devious. In Endo’s work, the would-be subjects colonize the mind of the colonials and seek to end their movement not by force per se, but by a turn of conscience.

Endo describes Rodrigues’ precarious life in feudal Japan with periods of ease before the inevitable capture. We are almost led to believe that his mission, as one of only a two remaining active priests in this unforgiving land, may succeed. What’s most riveting, however, is when the conflict becomes internal. When he is in dialogue with his captors, at first, he is strong, but he seems to partially agree to their statements, and then seems to have little foundation to stand on. They want to use him to break the resolve of the Japanese Christians holding onto their secret way of life. They want to prove that their beliefs are foreign, could never live inside them, and must be ejected as not Japanese. And these captors could be replaced with Japanese society, specifically, at many other times when authorities were resolute on destroying individual threats to the power structure with bureaucratic rigor. It is an endemic pattern that repeats elsewhere: the goal of the captors brings to mind Winston’s fight against Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.

The climax shows the power of a novel to express a change in consciousness. This change is unexpected, but resonates with the narrative. Quite different from what his captors wanted, this change may even show how Christianity is not as foreign as his captives want him to believe. Whether you believe that Rodrigues’ trip had not merely been a fatalistic nightmare–the descriptions of the slow crucifixions of poor people at sea are particularly harrowing–may depend on whether you believe in his mission in the first place. But Endo has made us witness one resolution to the conflict between culture or races. There could be some kind of accommodation or persecution and death.

Book Review: 8.5/10: Shusaku Endo uses a traditional close third person and first-person perspective to uncover the relation between the Japanese thought and Christianity. He endeavors to find not only whether a universal truth is possible for a Japanese person, but whether this faith, tested in extremis, is universally true in itself.