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Thursday, October 7, 2021
Saturday, August 21, 2021
In January 2000, I was briefly unemployed after the completion of my post-graduate internship. In fact, I was waiting for a job offer from the place where I did the internship, but that's beside the point. During the idle weeks, I sometimes walked to the library nearby for internet access. (Ah, the era of no smart phones.)
On a cold day with melting snow on the ground, while using the library computer, an Asian American young man, of the same age as I was, standing next to me asked me whether I would meet him for coffee. I was not interested in a romantic relationship at the time, but I was too bored to turn down an opportunity to meet my curiosity half way. So we met for coffee once and talked. I remember much of what he told me. He was of Korean heritage but born in the US. He enlisted in the military out of high school, where he was diagnosed with depression and soon left it. He alluded to pressure from his parents for him to be "tough," which might have led to the disastrous experience. He continued to feel conflicted and confused. I listened with interest and sympathy, and suggested that he "should talk to someone," ie, to pursue psychotherapy. To be sure, I had not gone through any psychotherapy myself by that time, but I had an interest in psychology and some education in that area to sense that it could be beneficial to the young man.
Before we parted --- never to see each other again --- he said, "You are a remarkable person."
Years later, I had my own encounter with psychotherapy, which led to some important, even transformative, growth in me. I continue to think of this young man from time to time. I hope he did pursue his own psychotherapy and achieve his version of emotional growth. There is a connection between me and the vulnerable and confused person on that day that seems to become stronger over time.
And I continue to have complicated feelings about being a "remarkable" person, one of the central issues I explored long and hard, often with pain, during therapy. Like all of the issues we worked on, it never completely resolves and will always require exploration and reflection. Am I a remarkable person? Is he? Why and how? And, of course, the most important question, how does it make me feel?
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Let's be frank, OK? The sword fights in Star Wars are lame. There is no excuse for such poorly choreographed, poorly shot, poorly edited action scenes in one of the most expensive and highly grossed movie franchises. This is all the more lamentable, as George Lucas began making the series after watching loads of Japanese samurai movies, including but not limited to Akira Kurosawa's work. (There are perhaps as many elements "borrowed" from Kinji Fukasaku as Kurosawa, but that's another topic altogether.) After studying the thrilling sword-fight sequences in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, all he came up with was the slow and clumsy lightsaber duels. Huh.
I have been a SW fan since I was 10, but I also grew up with Jackie Chan movies --- imagine my disappointment when I saw the original trilogy for the first time.
The subsequent SW movies had even less excuse. As so expertly dissected by Accented Cinema on YouTube, the sword fights in these movies became faster and more acrobatic (not saying much there) than the original trilogy, but they contained even less emotional impact and visual prowess. As SW movies got progressively worse in action choreography, other non-Asian movies (see Luc Besson, Wachowski brothers, the Bourne series) have absorbed Asian action cinema's many lessons, leading to what I consider the peak of the genre --- Atomic Blonde and the John Wick series made by David Leitch and Chad Stahelski and co, in which one can no longer distinguish the influences from Hong Kong Kung Fu movies to modern Korean and Thai movies.
Back to Star Wars. Accented Cinema pointed out a number of deficiencies in the sword fight scenes, such as the lack of character and emotion, the lack of impact, the lack of stillness and tension, the lack of form, the lack of narrative clarity (who the hell is winning and how?), etc., etc.
This leads to a long-term question I have been interested in -- How to make untrained actors look like real martial artists or action heroes. It's a filmmaking specialty that seems to be lost even in modern Hong Kong and Japanese movies. I don't want to write a Ph.D. dissertation on this topic (although I suspect I could), but two indispensable but vastly overlooked ingredients are:
- Stunt people
Of course, sometimes a director can't turn an actor into Jackie Chan or Gene Kelly in a short time. But most of the time it is apparent that nobody is aware of the importance of lower body movement, which is the issue in every single SW movie. Without footwork, they look like lumbering, fumbling idiots flailing their arms and swords.
The lack of good stunt cast is perhaps the most invisible but critical element in filming action scenes. From the Zatoichi to John Wick, no action hero can look good on screen without an army of skilled and selfless stunt cast to be beaten up and die with impeccable reaction and timing. This is why, in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves looked the best when he is fighting a herd of villains and the worst when he is fighting Laurence Fishburne one on one --- because neither has the training and experience to take a hit and fall realistically. This is why the experts like Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-Ping, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen (and, I suspect, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski) have their own teams of stunt actors. The decline and demise of Hong Kong and Japanese action cinema can be directly traced to the dwindling supply of well-trained stunt actors.
Stars come and go, but stunt actors are forever.
Thursday, March 4, 2021
I cannot think of another mythological figure more complex and fascinating than Krishna. He is beloved, but why is he beloved? There are tricksters in various mythologies, one of the most famous being Loki. However, being deceptive and "tricky" is usually not an elevated trait for gods and runs the risk of being dismissed as a minor clown.
I remain convinced that Krishna was not among the original characters in earlier versions of the Mahabharata. His role in the epic is that of a peripheral presence. His story is documented primarily in the appended Harivamsa.
The complexity in this character is reflected in his color, the black, which contains all colors and all shades of humanity, including the idea of deception and illusion.
Deception is a human trait that causes some degree of revulsion and disgust, and relatively modern and prescriptive religions are understandably reluctant to condone, much less exemplify, such an element. Yet it is elemental to humanity and induces a thrill and a recognition when we witness Krishna's tricks (for some, the thrill might lead to a moral outrage rather than admiration).
How they made him both extremely human and thoroughly above humanity, both contradictory and harmonious, continues to puzzle the mind. It is a feat I have not seen in any other myth or religion. It might not be a cure but certainly a therapy for the dichotomized worldview brought on by monotheistic religions that lately came to dominate human societies.
Sunday, February 7, 2021
Saturday, January 23, 2021
It was serendipitous that MHz Choice (a streaming service) started an Italian TV series called La Guerra E Finita last Tuesday, January 19, 2021. The series is based on a nonfiction book, The Selvino Children, about the experience of hundreds of Jewish underaged refugees, who had survived the Holocaust, on a Northern Italian estate, where they were cared for and educated, in the post-WWII years. They eventually emigrated to Israel.
The title "The War is Over" and the mood of the characters, both adults and children, after their gruesome ordeals and traumas, are eerily resonant.
I wonder about those average Italians. They lived with their Jewish neighbors for decades without strong resentment, suddenly got swept in Fascist power and propaganda, and became willing participants of the persecutions and violence against their old neighbors and friends. Then one day, suddenly, they were told, The war is over. You lost.
I have seen many books and movies and TV series depicting the period before the rise of the Nazis, before the war, and during the war, all the way up to the end of the war. But this is the first time I think about what happened after the war in the minds of most average Italians or Germans. Most stories about the postwar period keep their eyes on the resistance fighters or those who simply disliked Fascism or Nazism, but the fact is that a very large proportion, perhaps a majority, of average Italian and German people, as well as Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and French people agreed with the Nazis. One might suppose they were convinced by the forceful propaganda or they wanted to side with the power, or they were brainwashed. While pogroms occurred periodically throughout history, most areas did not have deep-seated or widespread racial hatred. Nevertheless, when Nazis came into power, many people joined them, and many more accepted the new ideology with little reflection or resistance. The new leaders say this is right (and they look so tough and strong!), so it must be right.
That's not an isolated phenomenon in human history.
So, what happened to the believers and supporters when the war is over? Even if they had to claim that they were merely following orders, did they really change their mind?
Recently I decided to re-read Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories". They were semi-fiction about the social conditions and people in Berlin in 1930 to 1933, until Hitler came to power. He wrote them before the war and, at the time, did not know that Nazis would eventually lose. The depictions of Nazi thugs and the police who sided with them were chilling, but not as chilling as how average Berliners, weighed down by economic distress and frustrations, gradually accepted Hitler as their rightful leader and somehow realized that they, too, hated Jews and communists. Nazism was going to make Germany great again. Hurry and get on the bandwagon. When the alternative is terror and death, conformance suddenly becomes voluntary and even heartfelt.
What happened to their moral compass when they lost the war and it was all over? How many abandoned or renounced their previous beliefs without difficulty? Surely it could not have been easy to deal with the cognitive whiplash in the post-war era. Did some think Nazism and racial hatred were not wrong, except it lost? Or did some believe that only the right side can win the war, and therefore "we" must have been wrong?
Perhaps the same questions can be asked of the American Civil War, in which the anti-slavery Union side won. But, it was less of a mystery what the people on the losing side had thought about all this, after the war was over. Their actions spoke louder than any words. History has recorded what both sides did in the next 150 years. People went on pretty much along the same ideology as they had before. Losing a war did not significantly changed their minds. The same ideas and feelings, including hatred, went on and on, perhaps even grew more intense, after the war was over.
This realization is very different from the common view of turbulent events in history, such as wars and war-like periods (see also Stalin's Purge and the Cultural Revolution). We tend to assume that the end of such an event or period inevitably brings a fundamental change to people and society, including what they believe and how they behave. We are under the impression that people have changed when the war is over, because, look, the Holocaust has not occurred again, slavery has not returned, the same things are not repeated in history. But that's stupid. People remain largely unchanged, but the circumstances have. So their beliefs and ideology manifest in superficially different ways. History does repeat itself, but we just refuse to see it.
Because the war is never completely over. "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Saturday, January 2, 2021
A quick online search after watching Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai confirmed my suspicion: The plot is very rarely understood b...