Sunday, 31 March 2019

Review: Fahrenheit 11/9

Moore explains how Trump got into the White House

Ah Michael Moore is back, this time gunning for Donald J Trump in Fahrenheit 11/9, referring to November 9, 2016, when the previously thought underdog became the 45th President of the United States.

Showing footage from the day before and the bizarre turnaround of election results from TV clips, Moore asks, "How the f*** did we get here?"

He says it started when Trump was fired from The Apprentice and was annoyed to hear Gwen Stefani was making more money from appearances than he was. So the Don created a fake event that looked like a presidential rally to make him look popular (with paid supporters).

What happened in the 2016 election? Moore asks
Somehow that stuck and people were interested in him. Why? Because he was refreshing, he spoke in simple words for people to understand (whether they were true or not), and the media admittedly enjoyed high ratings as he methodically took down his fellow Republican candidates.

But were we prepared for what happened afterwards, him declaring war on the media, being accused of collusion and corruption, and undoing almost every policy Barack Obama had implemented?

Moore tries to find out how this happened, and one theory backed with statistics is that many Democrats gave up on voting in 2016 because they felt the party was not listening to them. And for the record, in West Virginia Bernie Sanders had support from all 55 counties, but at the Democratic National Convention, the delegation spokeswoman declared the state was supporting Hilary Clinton. The old guard had decided she would go head to head with Trump.

The 64-year-old Moore also blames the rise of the right to Obama's policies, where he deported the largest number of illegal immigrants of all previous administrations, and ordered a lot of air strikes that led to the casualties of a lot of innocent people in Syria.

What's interesting is that the United States really is a liberal country, and cites a slew of statistics about acceptance of gay marriage, supporting free education, social health care, pro marijuana, and so on. But Moore also reveals a lot of cracks in the system, and uses his hometown of Flint, Michigan as an example.

He gives Governor Snyder some polluted Flint water
Rick Snyder just recently stepped down as Michigan state governor because of term limits, but during his time he created an unprecedented disaster with the water supply to Flint in 2014. Originally water had been sourced from Lake Huron, but that was changed to the Detroit River which was polluted. Tens of thousands of children were poisoned from the lead in the water and people died, and yet Snyder was never criminally charged for knowingly doing this.

In addition, the residents were disappointed in Obama not doing enough to condemn the situation and fix it by calling a state of emergency. During his speech he asked for a glass of water and some observers claimed Obama pretended to drink it which made a farce of the issue.

Also the city was literally under attack by the US Army that used Flint to practice fighting against terrorists in an urban setting -- except the residents weren't even told about it ahead of time.

But there are people across the country who are not depending on the system and are fighting back.

He meets student survivors of the Douglas Parkland shooting
After the Douglas Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018, where 17 students and teachers were killed and 17 others injured, surviving students took on local politicians who underestimated the teenagers in the gun control debate. On camera they were caught flat-footed in what they were going to do about magazines and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.

Moore is very pleased to see the next generation taking matters into their own hands and holding their own rally to bring attention the needless violence days later.

The filmmaker is also fired up by teachers who went on strike for more pay, and a former war vet in West Virginia who is willing to fight for change for his community, as he is tired of politicians pandering to corporate interests over the best interests of citizens. He also talks to Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who are shaking up the Democratic Party.

And then there is the comparison of Trump to Adolf Hitler, with interviews with two historians who say patterns from World War II are repeating themselves. The warning from Fahrenheit 11/9 is that we need to be careful to preserve our democracy otherwise it will be taken from us before we realize it.

Moore back in the 1990s joking around with Trump on TV
I enjoy Moore's humour -- he admits that Steve Bannon's company distributed his movie, Bowling for Columbine, and that Jared Kushner held a launch party for his documentary Sicko on the state of healthcare in the US. He also remembers meeting Trump on Roseanne Barr's talk show and seems to regret not having a go at him on TV.

Moore tries to make a citizen's arrest of Snyder and fails, and retaliates by spraying polluted Flint water on the property where the governor's mansion sits (sadly too far for the water hose to reach).

The research he does for his documentaries are pretty solid and you can't help but cheer him on and be pleased that someone out there is fighting for us. But this time he is warning that we must take matters into our own hands too.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)
Written, narrated, directed by Michael Moore
120 minutes

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Review: Free Solo

Free solo climber Alex Honnold climbing up El Capitan in Yosemite

The Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo will leave you breathless and your palms sweaty. Who in their right mind would want to climb up a practically sheer mountain face with just their bare hands without any assistance, let alone ropes?

But that's what a free solo climb is, and it takes a person with a certain physical agility, endurance and mindset to be able to execute these climbs successfully and Alex Honnold is one of them.

The cinematography alone is breathtaking, seeing Honnold a tiny speck climbing up a giant mountain and God knows how many metres below him. One false move and that could be the end.

But he embraces this challenge fully, having learned mountain climbing from his father and it suits his personality, quiet, shy, geeky, loner, determined. He's also vegetarian and does yoga to keep his body flexible -- you cannot be overweight or stiff to to do what he does.

El Capitan is a challenge climbers like to try
He had always been eyeing El Capitan (The Chief), which they constantly refer to as "El Cap" in the film, which is in Yosemite National Park. Its elevation is 2,308 metres or 7,573 feet. You can actually hike up to the top, or if you're like Honnold, you can climb up it.

The media and people at book signings ask him if he's crazy to attempt El Cap, and as he has a self-deprecating humour, he goes along with the joke, but inside he is burning to try.

Throwing a wrench in the works is his girlfriend who he meets at a book signing in Seattle. She even causes him to be injured twice, which freaks out his fellow climbers who are trying to help him prepare for El Cap.

Free Solo also documents the pressure filmmaker Jimmy Chin and his crew are under in trying to make this film. All his cameramen are professional climbers but they are worried about distracting Honnold and technically can they get this all on film? And what if he falls? Then what?

Professional climbers helped film the documentary
It's all laid to bare in the documentary and every time someone slips, the audience gasps. As a viewer you have a bit of insight into the mind of someone who likes doing free solo climbs, what is involved in preparing for these climbs (they practice with ropes may times beforehand), and that not everything is smooth sailing.

But his climb is also like a metaphor for life -- we all face challenges, but it depends on how we want to face them. Do we want to just run away and hope it goes away? Or do we want to attack it full on with enough preparation and determination?

It's a heart-thumping story from beginning to end, hence the sweaty palms, particularly in my friend YTSL's case! I'm not going climbing anytime soon, but now have a bit of an understanding of why people do what most think is completely insane.

Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin who won an Oscar for Free Solo
Free Solo (2018)
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Starring Alex Honnold
85 minutes

Friday, 29 March 2019

Review: One Child Nation

Just a few of the supposedly abandoned babies advertised in the newspaper
I am still trying to process One Child Nation, a documentary I saw today as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

China's one-child policy began in 1979 and was only relaxed in 2015, but since then there hasn't been the baby boom the government was hoping. After one of the filmmakers, Wang Nanfu has a baby boy, this prompts her to delve into the how this family-planning policy impacted her family and others.

Filmmaker Wang Nanfu with her son
Wang narrates and explains that when she was born, her parents were expecting a boy, as she has the word 男 nan, or "man" in her name. But the baby was a she and they gave her the name anyway, hoping their daughter would become a strong person.

They lived in a rural area, and local officials wanted to sterilize her mother right after she gave birth, but Wang's grandfather prevented it from happening; that's because there was a rule that those living in rural areas could have two children as long as they were five years apart.

And indeed she did have a brother, much to her parents' and grandparents' delight.

But having grown up bombarded with propaganda everywhere saying how the one-child policy was great, how it was a sin to have more than one child, Wang felt ashamed of having a brother.

She then tries to find out what happened to the women who were sterilized or were forced to abort. Wang interviews the midwife who helped with her birth. The elderly woman claims to have done at least 50,000 abortions and sterilizations.

Wang finds this hard to believe, but then the woman tells her she now focuses on helping couples who are infertile to get pregnant. She shows Wang two rooms in her home filled with maroon-coloured banners with yellow embroidery showing their thanks to the midwife and pictures of the babies taped on each one. She explains she is doing this to try to atone for her sins for killing so many fetuses, as she believes in karma.

Then Wang manages to coax her uncle and aunt to tell about their personal experiences of losing their baby girls because of the draconian policy. Her uncle doesn't want to look into the camera and seems numb talking about it over 20 years later.

Zhang and Wang win at Sundance
There is also an artist by the name of Peng who has painted fetuses on every page of Mao Zedong's little red book, for every unborn child that has been murdered under his leadership. The artist was originally doing research on garbage when he found lots of plastic bags with dead fetuses in them labelled as medical waste.

People in the audience started sniffling after seeing those disturbing scenes. But Wang doesn't end her research there.

She also tracks down a man surnamed Duan and his family who were jailed for selling babies to orphanages. He, his mother and sister picked up abandoned babies and then sent them to orphanages who gave them money for them -- this was in 1992 when China began to allow overseas adoptions. The demand was so high that they needed more babies and would pay for them. Duan was just trying to give these babies a home, and why not make money out of it too?

These overseas adoptions were done under sketchy circumstances too. Brian Stuy and his Chinese wife Long Lan live in the United States and adopted three Chinese girls. When they adopted the first girl, Stuy tried to find out as much information from the supposed "baby finder" where she found the girl.

Later Stuy finds out the story was completely fabricated and the couple begin creating extensive databases to see if there is a pattern. They also interviewed Duan and his mother before. But how would they remember where exactly they picked up which baby if they sent some 10,000 of them to orphanages?

Also disturbing are revelations that some children were taken away from their families by local officials and adopted overseas to make some money. One case features a girl who lost her older twin sister to an overseas adoption against her and the family's consent. The Chinese journalist who reported the story was immediately fired and he fled to Hong Kong where Wang interviewed him. He wrote a book about his research but no one wanted to publish it in Chinese. Eventually it was printed.... in English.

Throughout One Child Nation, Wang shows people's anguish at what they did, and how a government policy will drive people to do inhumane things. She also questions why she was so naive, believing that the one-child policy was the right thing, but she shouldn't be so hard on herself, when that was the only thing she knew.

I had many more questions about Wang -- her father died when she was young and was forced to give up school and work so that her younger brother could study instead. So how did she manage to go to the United States without much of an education? And does she know that after making this film she will probably make life difficult for her family in China because One Child Nation is critical of the government?

At the end of the film the audience clapped in appreciation for the film. One Child Nation was not at all what I had expected. It was deeply personal about Wang's extended family, but at the same time we wondered about the millions of babies who were "abandoned" and what happened to them.

One Child Nation (2019)
Directed by Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing
85 minutes
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the US Documentary competition at Sundance

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Review: The Eyes of Orson Welles

One of Orson Welles' sketches... of himself!
When there's a new documentary about someone famous, it better be interesting because previous docs have already tread on the same ground. And with Orson Welles, much is known about his acting career and personal life (three wives, three daughters). But do many people know that he liked to draw?

This is the premise of a new documentary called The Eyes of Orson Welles by filmmaker Mark Cousins who also writes and narrates this 115-minute love letter to the giant of cinema. Cousins somehow gets access to a box in a storage unit in New York, opens it, and wearing gloves, goes through it to find lots and lots of sketches.

The strokes are bold and deliberate, lots of play on dark and light, or quick drawings that capture craggy old faces. There are lots and lots of Christmas cards that he draws, paints, makes Santa Claus and the Christmas tree look more minimalist. These drawings are a vehicle in which to discover more about Welles' life.

A rough sketch of a knight on horseback
Cousins divides the documentary into five different parts, but basically he uses the sketches as a vehicle to put things into context, primarily showing how his sketches of landscapes of where he used to live, Ireland, Scotland, and Morocco, and shows them side by side with Welles' films that Cousins' believes to be the inspiration for his sets or particular scenes.

They are pretty convincing theories.

The filmmaker talks about how the camera always looks up at people to make them bigger or taller, and how the Nazis used totems of light and Welles echoed that idea in some of his films too, and how there was the "Orson swing" where people in scenes would swing around instead of just scoot over or walk a step away.

In Citizen Kane viewers look up or down at the characters
You can tell that Cousins has studied every minutiae about Welles' films and his life to be able to make such eagle-eyed observations. He visits practically every place that Welles lived or worked, going over the same landscapes he must have seen too, so the viewers can see what he saw.

There's wonderful scenes visiting Welles' third daughter who is still alive, Beatrice, who is 63 and lives in Arizona. She shows several paintings that her father did and talks about how her parents met -- her mother was an Italian heiress, actress and model Paola Mori.

Beatrice was recruited to act in her father's film, most famously in Chimes at Midnight, and later she became a model too. She now looks after her father's estate, and acted as consultant for this documentary, which is probably why Cousins got such great access to Welles' sketches.

Welles' youngest daughter Beatrice who lives in Arizona
In the beginning of the film, Cousins wonders aloud what Welles would think of the world now, over 30 years after his death (he died October 10, 1985). The narrator tells him we've had an African-American president and now some weirdo in the White House... Cousins argues we need Welles more than ever in this environment that has become so politically charged.

Welles would never back down from a political fight -- we learn that his mother was a community activist who took Welles to a church that did not discriminate, and Cousins believes this is where the young boy learned about social justice. Later on he abhorred what the Nazis did and even changed the ending of a film adapted from a book to have a more horrific ending to drive home the point.

In the documentary we see this picture so many times
Before the film I didn't know much about Orson Welles and afterwards felt like I learned a great deal not only about him as a person, but also as an actor and director, how he saw things so visually imbued with lots of meaning.

However The Eyes of Orson Welles seemed to drag on a bit too long towards the end, and Cousins keeps showing a picture of Welles probably in his late 20s or early 30s, lying on his stomach on a bed, his head propped up by his hand and looking wide-eyed into the camera. This got a bit too tedious -- he can't show another picture? And I also wondered what happened to the box? Did he bring it back to the storage locker?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the documentary, particularly the using the sketches to delve deeply into Welles' life. He created these drawings and paintings when he was happy, mad, sad. But most of all he was a very creative person who not only thought about words on the page, but how he wanted  viewers to see his world.

Filmmaker Mark Cousins
The Eyes of Orson Welles
Written, directed, narrated by Mark Cousins
115 minutes

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Impressions of Art Basel

Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota's Where Are We Going?
March is such a busy month with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, Hong Kong International Film Festival, Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central. Oh and did you know the artist Kaws' Companion is out floating in Victoria Harbour? Wish I could be like him and just relax but there's too much to see!

Photographer Liu Heung Shing
Today was the start of Art Basel and I took a taxi to get there. The drive decided to take the Central-Wan Chai bypass and before we got out of the exit for Wan Chai North, there was a traffic jam with cars going to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The first day is usually reserved for the media and VVIP, but by the time I got there around 3.30pm (it had started around 2pm), the bottom floor of the massive art show was already crawling with people.

And there were lots of beautiful people or people trying to dress arty farty. And lots of Mandarin was being spoken by lots of young women wearing Chanel boucle jackets and dresses, and men in Louis Vuitton shirts and even a crazy white vest with lots of pockets embossed with the LV logo. Do people actually wear this stuff?

Detail of pink swirls of Park Seo-Bo's Ecriture No. 160208
We didn't spot many celebrities, or wasn't paying enough attention, but saw Uli Sigg, the art buyer and philanthropist who is a big supporter of Ai Weiwei. We also saw Hong Kong-born photographer Liu Heung Shing who has come out with a new book comparing and contrasting the Soviet Union and Communist China.

The man himself embodies history, having seen China become a Communist country and watched it transform into a capitalist country with Chinese characteristics. I heard him speak about 10 years ago in Beijing and he has so many anecdotes he can still produce even more books.

But on with the art. My colleague noticed there were fewer large art pieces on show this year, perhaps galleries were worried about having big price tags that would scare off potential buyers and only brought out smaller ones instead.

What is she doing? Dan Colen's Rabbit and the Moon
For example some Francis Bacon prints were going for US$40,000. Wonder if they were snapped up right away.

As usual there was a lot of strange art that wasn't executed very well, and some that were visually arresting, which is what you need at an art fair where it can get mind numbing going by every stall. I did see a few pieces that I had seen at previous Art Basel shows. Perhaps they were hoping to catch buyers who were first timers at the art fair?

One of the large installation pieces was beautiful and airy. It's called Where Are We Going? by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. It's actually composed of lots of strings to make up a series of boats that seem to be floating in the air, making it very dreamy and light.

Rivane Neuenschwander's detail of garlic peel on fabric
A pretty piece in shades of pink is called Ecriture No. 160208 by Korean artist Park Seo-Bo. It's a series of acrylic swirls of paint that seem to be applied with a piping bag and different shaped nozzles. It's so pretty and pastel-y, like a giant vertical cake with tons of pink icing on top.

There were also some sculptures that made us do a double-take. One had a naked woman playing with a rabbit on her chest. New York-based artist Dan Colen created Rabbit and the Moon and it's a weird piece. Who would put that in their living room?

Another has a woman wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reading the paper with miscellaneous goods around her. And then we read the caption and it says: Flea Market Lady by Duane Hanson. A security guard had to be posted next to this statue in case people would touch her!

Chinese artist Zhang Yu performing Tea Feeding
Meanwhile Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le presented some quietly strong pieces featuring embroidery on cloth. And the embroidery is white thread on white cloth. One is called Texture of Memory #7 2000-1 and it's a portrait of three people together in a line drawing by embroidery. The lines look simple, but up close involve a lot of work and skill to execute well. Utterly beautiful to me.

This other work was white too. It's three-dimensional and at first it looked like bulbs from flowers, but up close they are actually garlic skins. How did the artist, Rivane Neuenschwander extract these thin skins off of the garlic in one piece? She had to do several hundred for this untitled piece.

Vic Muniz's Letter Rack Hong Kong (Yellow)
I find Brazilian artist Vic Muniz's work fun to look at and so I purposely made sure I swung by Ben Brown to take a look. This time it's more like a random collection of items one might find in someone's memory box or time capsule of Hong Kong. There's postcards and ticket stubs, name cards, coins, maps and stamps. I miss his visually-arresting collages. Or maybe he didn't have much time because Ruinart champagne had recruited him to do a special collection creating collages using the actual bark and leaves from the vineyards. Yawn.

The Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija had some pieces shown this year that are new, but using 2014 copies of the South China Morning Post as his canvas. One was untitled and strangely featured two giant circles on newsprint. Usually he has a message written on them. Another exhibited by another gallery had Chinese characters written in red on top of the paper, saying something like, "We are together under one sky making dreams". I prefer his previous piece that said: "Freedom cannot be simulated".

Oh and one final performance art piece. We saw Chinese artist Zhang Yu pouring red tea in giant bowls that were sitting on top of paper. He kept pouring the tea until it slightly overflowed. Then we could see why -- on the walls were uniform circular blotches from previous pourings. We don't know the significance of it, but they kind of looked like fuzzy ancient Chinese coins. The performance art is called Tea Feeding...

SCMP newspaper used by Rirkrit Tivavanija
After about two and a half hours of going through pretty much the entire fair, it was time to call it a day. I like seeing what's out there, the artistic zeitgeist. It was more whimsical pieces than serious political statements. Another Art Basel done and dusted!

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Word of the Day: Tegong

A university canteen with students in the back lining up for food
When I worked at a state media outlet in Beijing, at 12 noon we would get our empty food containers and chopsticks, and gather at the canteen door for some grub. Only when the staff were ready were the doors unlocked and we could see what grub was available.

There were thick noodles with a tomato and scrambled egg sauce, small plates of appetizers like pickled garlic cucumbers, or spicy pickled wood ear fungus, or even steamed or fried small fish.  My favourite on Thursdays was jiaozi, or dumplings. I'd get two catties' worth, or about 20 of them and was very happy eating them with a good dose of vinegar. The food was also very cheap too, only a few yuan.

Tomato and scrambled egg with noodles in soup
After a few days or weeks, I can't remember, a colleague I was eating lunch with said we were lucky to have good food. He explained that because we were working for a company that was state owned, the food was of a good quality. Of course he added, senior officials had access to the best quality food.

I was relieved to hear this, as there were so many stories of fake food in China, but I was also surprised to hear this privilege we had, just from working in state media, my colleagues toiling for 3,000 yuan a month.

Now I know there is a word for it, called 特需供應 te(4) xu (1) gong (1) ying (4) or tegong meaning "special supply", where food comes from organic farms, and quality trusted pork, beef and chicken producers.

This privilege extends to all canteens of local governments, state-owned enterprises, and elite athletes, while everyone else has to guess if the food they are eating is not dodgy.

Dumplings were never served like this in the canteen...
Tegong is an ancient tradition in China, where royal households in past dynasties used to source food from designated suppliers in regions known for their particular produce. One example is that during the Qing dynasty, emperors would only drink spring water from Beijing's western hills, which were carried over daily to the Forbidden City.

The tradition continued after the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949 for Communist Party leaders. The main reason was for food security to ensure central government officials were not poisoned, the second was for food security during famines and food shortages. The third is reputation, where the government designates certain farms and suppliers for overseas consumption, including Hong Kong, so that the quality and safety is ensured.

During the 1980s, one of the grievances that led to the Tiananmen Square protests was anger against officials' privileges that included tegong. After the bloody crackdown, the government promised to do away with the tegong system, but the measure wasn't implemented.

And so this privilege is still here to this day, while people continue to buy milk powder outside of China, and any other food they can get their hands on.

Until government officials eat the regular food that the laobaixing or ordinary people eat, food scandals will continue to fester, while the privileged can enjoy their tegong food.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Review: What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Film critic Pauline Kael was a force to be reckoned with and utterly fearless
Pauline Kael was revered by some, feared by others. The film critic who wrote for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, and McCall's to name a few, was fearless in writing what she thought of what she saw on the big screen and didn't care what others thought.

The documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael attempts to give a full a picture as possible of the woman and how she became one of the most revered movie critics in the western world. A lot of people appear in the movie, some her disciples called "Paulettes", some directors, producers and thousands of film clips are interspersed throughout the 95-minute film.

The "what she said" part is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, who reads out passages from her actual reviews, words that fans loved for being so subjective and relatable.

Kael was born in 1919 and her daughter Gina says her mother grew up watching silent movies, and then talkies, then colour films. In 1948 Kael had her daughter and was a single mother, something that was practically unheard of in that period.

She fancied herself a playwright but was terrible at it; in 1953 she got her first break in film critiquing when the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael arguing about films with a friend in a coffeeshop and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. She obliged and panned it, calling it "Slimelight".

She completely panned The Sound of Music
Writing didn't pay the bills and she also took a job as the Berkeley Cinema Guild manager from 1955-60, curating which movies to show and writing the mini reviews of them that people loved so much that they kept them on their fridges.

Her strong opinions got her attention that led to a job or got her fired from a job.

After publishing a collection of her reviews in 1965 called I Lost It at the Movies that became an unexpected bestseller, Kael got a job with McCall's, a women's magazine that pushed her into a mainstream audience.

When The Sound of Music came out the same year, she completely panned the film that was a box office hit, describing it as "the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat". After the review came out in McCall's, the magazine got a slew of mail from readers who disagreed with Kael.

The documentary says she was fired because of this, but in Wikipedia, Kael and the magazine's editor Robert Stein denied this. He said he fired her months later, after she didn't like such blockbusters as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, and A Hard Day's Night.

Kael championed Bonnie & Clyde to box office success
She then wrote for The New Republic but not for long -- Kael wrote a review of Bonnie & Clyde praising it but the magazine refused to publish it so The New Yorker took it and that piece helped give the movie the attention it needed to succeed in the box office.

Kael stayed at The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, but the film reviewing was only for six months of the year, the other half of the time they were reviewed by Penelope Gilliatt. So Kael still had to find other sources of income and even at one point took up Hollywood actor Warren Beatty's offer to help him write a screenplay but that only lasted for six months and she went back to New York.

Her scathing review of Ryan's Daughter in 1970 affected director David Lean was so much that he says in the documentary that he lost confidence in himself and couldn't make another movie for 14 years. Others complained they had thrown so much of their time and effort into their work only for her to rip it into shreds with her words.

Quentin Tarantino loved reading Kael's reviews
One director was smart enough to make sure his film was released just when Kael finished her six-month reviewing stint which made her absolutely mad, but for him this was the only way he could get an objective review.

However, the tables were turned on Kael when her collection of reviews in a book called When the Lights Go Down was published in 1980. Her fellow colleague Renata Adler at The New Yorker wrote an 8,000-word essay that dismissed Kael's work as "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless". The review hit Kael hard, and she never wrote a piece to rebut it. 

In the early 1980s she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and resigned from The New Yorker in 1991. She died 10 years later.

Kael found her voice in reviewing films
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a staunch defender of her, how she was such a forceful personality, at times to stand up to the men, and others to say what she thought of the film.

Not being familiar with her work, I found the film to be for those who knew of her, and didn't give enough context to the controversies she courted, or perhaps attracted. Nevertheless, she was a pioneer in her field and she wasn't afraid of giving her opinion on anything. What would she think about the world of film today?

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
Written and directed by Rob Garver
95 minutes
Appearances by Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Jerry Lewis, Quentin Tarantino, and Alec Baldwin

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Picture of the Day: Kim Chong Hak's Flowers

Beautiful fantasy bouquet of flowers from Korean artist Kim Chong Hak
Next week is art week in Hong Kong with the massive show Art Basel on at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

His paintings are vivid and childlike, inspired by nature
It'll be interesting to see if buyers are still enthusiastic about parking their money in art or are having second thoughts and bursting the bubble.

Aside from the speculation, I like to see what's out there, what artists are doing, what mediums they are using, and yes how some pieces are so absurd that you wonder if they were made to dupe unsuspecting buyers?

Nevertheless, the above painting caught my eye. Korean artist Kim Chong Hak is 82 years old and still painting vigorously.

He has an over 50-year career in painting and it seems like he's not stopping anytime soon, which is why he is nicknamed the "Korean Picasso".

This giant long canvas is covered in brilliantly-coloured flowers -- apparently that's his thing, using quick brushstrokes to capture the essence of the them.

Kim once wrote in 2000:

Kim, now 82,  working in his studio
I look at the flowers over and over again, imprinting them in my mind, and then I draw them looking only at the canvas. I like the ones I draw fast. It doesn't work very well when going too slow, thinking too much... When drawn fast, details are weeded out and only the essence of the object remains.

So fantastic to see an artist boldly making his mark in his 80s and I can only hope that I can be just as active if I ever get there...!

Saturday, 23 March 2019

China's Painful Economic Woes

The chances of finding a job is harder with more people out of work
The New York Times recently reported how the economic slowdown in China is affecting its workers and it's very worrying.

It's not just the factory workers and construction workers who are hurting -- it's also the white-collar ones with university degrees, making them wonder how stable their futures are.

There are fewer jobs available, some companies reporting layoffs of up to 30 percent in firms that employ hundreds of people, while jobs ads across all sectors have dropped by 10 percent. Start-ups have had it the hardest with new positions falling 51 percent in the third quarter of 2018 from a year earlier.

Not just factory workers, but white-collar ones are laid off too
Just after Spring Festival in February, Didi Chuxing, China's largest ride-sharing and taxi-hailing service, told employees that it would cut 2,000 jobs, or 15 percent of its workforce.

Previously the Chinese government would create an economic stimulus by throwing money at infrastructure projects like bridges and airports, and that would generally solve the problem, but not anymore.

Fraser Howie, co-writer of three books on the Chinese financial system says now, "there is no obvious catch up, and therefore it makes it all the more important that China makes important, difficult decisions to move forward."

The government really should be restructuring its state-owned enterprises that have grown into lumbering behemoths but they are the elephants in the room that aren't being addressed. Instead the government is in denial and hoping things shall pass, but perhaps not this time.

The economic slowdown is impacting young professionals like Sherry Xu, a 34-year-old finance professional who did all the right things, studying at a prestigious university and then rising up the ranks of the finance industry.

Infrastructure projects aren't solving China's economic issues
And then recently, right after she had just pitched a group of potential investors Xu was called into a meeting with human resources who told her that her employer, a financial firm was having difficulties and she would be laid off.

Xu then accepted a job as a freelance contractor with the same firm for half her previous salary. "The job marketing isn't looking good. I feel this time, it will be harder than ever for me to find a job."

Not only that but people's budgets have tightened which means less disposable income for shopping, dining and travel.

Maybe it's because of this worrying sentiment that the government just announced on Friday the May Day holiday would be extended to four days instead of one in a desperate bid to stimulate the economy.

But really, who is in the mood to spend when their futures are uncertain?

Friday, 22 March 2019

Kaws' Hong Kong Holiday

A new guy is in town and he's floating in Victoria Harbour now
We have a new visitor in town. He's a giant 37-metre long inflatable sculpture called Kaws that's literally floating in Victoria Harbour from now until March 31.

Kaws is the nom de plume for artist Brian Donnelly, a New York-based artist and designer who started off doing graffiti in Jersey City, New Jersey. He has admitted in interviews that Kaws doesn't have a particular meaning.

This piece, called Kaws:Holiday, is sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Asia Miles. It is reminiscent of the bright yellow rubber duck by Florentijn Hofman back in 2013, but will this grey-coloured character called Companion upstage the cute duck?

It's strange that Kaws was chosen to do this art installation, when just a few weeks earlier a giant floral statue of Companion was erected in The Landmark's atrium as part of a collaboration with artistic director Kim Jones on French fashion label Dior's summer 2019 collection.

The inflated sculpture is 37 metres long
Kaws seems too commercialized now in terms of artistic merit. Last summer the artist collaborated with Uniqlo for the Kaws x Sesame Street collection, and he has also put his design on reimagined Jordan 4s and Yeezys footwear collection.

But hey does it matter? Our taxpayer dollars are being used to pay in part for Kaws to bring this giant thing over and cheer us up.

He also has an exhibition at PMQ until April 14. It's a Kaws invasion of Hong Kong!

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Obsessed with "Xiangchun Freedom"

If you can afford to eat this vegetable, it's as expensive as a lobster
What can you eat to show your peers you've made it financially?

In China it was cherries, but now it's a vegetable called xiangchun 香椿, the young red leaves of the Chinese mahogany tree that are the in thing to munch on. The basil-tasting leaves have become so prized that in places like Beijing it costs 80 yuan to 100 yuan (US$12 to US$30) for a catty or 500 grams.

People have taken to social media to complain about the price of the vegetable that could cost as much as a lobster, 10 abalone or 39 crayfish.

Xiangchun leaves are from the Chinese mahogany tree
"You can buy this [vegetable] to show off your wealth," one person on Weibo commented.

Another said: "There's plenty of xiangchun trees at my grandmother's house. I feel like I've just found the path to riches."

The first spring leaves of the tree are traditionally used in Chinese cooking, especially in the north, where it is stirfried with eggs or tofu, or used as filling for dumplings.

Xiangchun per catty costs more than pork in Beijing, where it is priced at 8 yuan to 10 yuan. In places like Qingdao in Shandong province, Xiaogan in Hubei province and Xian in Shaanxi province, the vegetable costs 40 yuan per 500 grams.

However, if you can afford to buy and eat xiangchun, then you are considered to have "xiangchun freedom", similar to people who can afford to buy imported cherries to give as gifts. Before the Spring Festival this year, imported cherries were selling for 60 yuan per catty in Beijing.

Economist Yao Zhiyong is with the School of Management at Fudan University and says the wide use of the terms "xiangchun freedom" and "cherry freedom" showed a decline in real spending power.

Xiangchun are stirfried with egg or tofu, or in dumplings
"Many items have become more expensive, but people's salaries haven't gone up accordingly," Yao says. "In the meantime there are other expenses -- education, housing, healthcare -- that can't be ignored. That's why people are bemoaning their lack of 'cherry freedom' or 'xiangchun freedom'."

The Chinese have this cruel obsession of constantly comparing themselves to other people, either to psychologically feel like they have a leg up on their peers or to bemoan the reality that they are never going to win the rat race.

It's as if this competition is the only way they know how to relate to others which is unhealthy and scary. But the ironic thing is that people are willing to pay top dollar for a seasonal vegetable, and I'm all for a greener lifestyle!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

MTR Commuter Chaos

The MTR was back to running like normal today after two days of delays.

This wide walkway was covered in people all walking the same direction as me
Yesterday I was caught in the rush hour madness going from Causeway Bay to Central then walking over to the Tung Chung line to watch the documentary, Walking on Water about the installation artist Christo.

When I got out at Central station there were hordes of people getting out and upstairs on another platform there were tons of people trying to get on the train to go to Admiralty in order to get to the Kowloon side.

Meanwhile as I walked towards the Tung Chung line, there was a giant mass of people going in the same direction as me. By the time we got to the train platform, the train was already full and I had to wait for the next one and that filled up quickly before going on its way.

Thank goodness things are back to normal today, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor warns there will be tough action against the MTR for the accident that occurred in the early hours of Monday morning when two trains collided with each other due to a signalling software fault.

However, it's very easy for the MTR to blame the supplier, French company Thales for the software glitch that they are trying to fix. And what punishment will it be? The MTR can be fined up to HK$25 million, which is typically distributed as a rebate to commuters. Whoohoo, HK$3.60 per person if you count around 7 million people.

While the MTR is far superior to many other public transport systems around the world, it should strive to be even better, not just maintaining its 99 per cent efficiency. The MTR is something Hongkongers are proud of, but when these incidents happen we wonder what is going on. Investigations and reports are all fine and well, but we really need visionary people to lead the MTR forward.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Review: Walking on Water

Installation artist Christo "walking on water" on Lake Iseo in Italy in 2016
The 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival is already underway and I bought tickets to watch seven documentaries.

Hundreds of thousands of people visited the project
The first one was this evening, Walking on Water, a 2018 documentary about the installation artist Christo and his project in 2016 to create 3km of floating pontoons covered in yellow fabric. It was a project he and his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude had created back in 1970 and tried to get permission to do this several times and were denied each time.

In the 50 years they were together, they were able to create 24 works, many dozens more denied permission. But Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 after complications of a brain aneurysm and Christo didn't do much afterwards, which is where the documentary starts, watching him finish off his sketches of Walking on Water.

It turns out he has permission to make his project a reality at Lake Iseo, in northern Italy near Switzerland. He's 85 now, and the viewers can see how passionate he is about his work, how he is determined that things must be done his way, and it is his will that keeps him active and alive. There aren't many people in their 80s who are as mentally and physically active as he is, constantly talking to people from school children to officials about his work and traveling everywhere on a tight schedule in all weather conditions.

The walkway is made of plastic cubes screwed together
He tells New York students that an artist never stops doing art; it is not like a job you switch off, but something you do everyday, all the time. It's probably too deep for them to understand, but do they even know who Christo is?

He is grateful to the local Italian authorities for allowing him to do Walking on Water, where he promises the people will literally be able to walk on water for three kilometres, and then we watch a team of people get to work.

They build pontoons made of 220,000 dense polyethylene white cubes that are screwed together tightly, and when they are put out into the water, they do as Christo had hoped, undulate with the waves like fabric and he is so excited.

Out on the dock is an army of women with sewing machines, madly sewing the 100,000 square metres of yellow fabric together and they are placed in giant white bags and helicoptered to various spots.

Overview of the 3km walkway with another in the far right
But then lightning strikes in the evening and there are fierce arguments about how they are going to get this all done in time. Christo also gets into verbal fights with his assistant Vladimir Yavachev, but in the end he supports the artist in getting the work done by being the liaison with all the other people they have to deal with. It's a huge logistical operation. It's amazing Christo did this before without computers and smartphones.

In the end Walking on Water is realized on time but now there's another challenge -- hordes of people are descending on the place and the pontoons can't handle 50,000 people in one day when they were expecting 45,000 people for two weeks.

The local government wants to cash in on the event as much as possible without regard to safety, which is Christo's main concern and things come to a head.

There is also the uncomfortable scene of Yavachev trying to sell Christo's sketches of Walking on Water because they fund the installation projects, but the prices go up each day by tens of thousands of US dollars, frustrating one Italian buyer.

Throughout the film I wondered what he was thinking... was he thinking about Jeanne-Claude and what she would say about the project? There was no asking Christo about this. Instead the camera follows him constantly, the footage dizzying at times and captures whatever unfolds.

Nevertheless the project looks stunning and something the public enjoys and interacts with the work just as Christo had hoped.

However, Walking on Water the documentary would have benefited more with some reflection from Christo or maybe the filmmakers didn't want to interfere. He doesn't seem to care the camera is there, he is wrapped up in his work.

Christo does not stop either -- the last scene has him in Egypt watching camels walking in the desert and he is plotting his next project...

Walking on Water (2018)
105 minutes
Directed by Andrey Paounov