Saturday, December 31, 2016

Its sound is my sound. I can't bear to part with it.

An Equal MusicAn Equal Music by Vikram Seth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When violinist Michael Holme's past lover reenters his life unexpectedly in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, he suddenly finds himself dealing with both the struggles of quartet life and the unrest of his own broken heart. Julia, now a married mother, is not the woman she was before, and Michael cannot—despite how hard he tries—bring back the music of their past. Yet music permeates the entire novel. At the bass line of the story's main melody, which follows the adulterous duet between the two protagonists, the tensions within the quartet, and Michael's lonely solo life, is music.

Seth clearly knows what he is talking about, musically. The classical music speak throughout the novel is the best thing about it, and makes it a delight to read for music lovers. There are passages in the novel that nail how I feel about Beethoven's Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3, playing the second violin part, and even my own violin:

"I agree with whoever said it should more properly be called "the other violinist". Its role is different, not lesser: more interesting, because more versatile. Sometimes, like the viola, it is at the textural heart of the quartet; at others it sings with a lyricism equal to that of the first violin, but in a darker and more difficult register."
"I love it and it loves me. We have grown to know each other. How can a stranger hold and sound what has been in my hands so long? We have been together for twelve years. Its sound is my sound. I can't bear to part with it."
At the same time, there were times when I felt I was being lied to—Seth would foreshadow disaster in a concert, only to later reveal that the performance went wonderfully. Towards the end of the novel, as Michael grows sentimental, his narrative voice also becomes poetic and erudite in a way that does not seem to befit his character at all:
"A walk at the end of the world, the earthquake plate, alone; the mudflats of subsidence and flood, and the hermitage of the one who found the true cross. . . . If we had four hands, would Bach's mind have further branched? Let our thumbs be opposable at the opposite edge. Let our teeth be pulled, let us have baleen like whales, that our plankton love might grow, that we might ungnashing plash and play."
This shift in tone, combined with Seth's use of an apostrophe ("the little dog ... knows that what is, is, and, O harder knowledge, that what is not is not"), points towards what Seth wants us to realize: Michael is an unreliable narrator. Indeed, moments in the book make us detest him. "You're a bully, Michael," Julia tells him when he insists that they play in the church. His imperative tone ("make that a promise") and relentless pursuit of her don't help us empathize with him.

But ultimately, his love of music and his love for his violin are what matters. That is the love that, unlike his relationship with Julia, is at the heart of the novel.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

I grew up watching Star Wars—on the clunky TV at home, on Dad's laptop, in the campus library using giant LaserDiscs. We moved once, traded our stout little television set for a sleeker one, and continued watching Star Wars. In 2005, I had my first galactic experience in a cinema when watching Revenge of the Sith. I started watching the films way back in primary school; now at university, I'm friends with a group of people who love the galaxy just as much as I do.

Star Wars has always been an important part of my life, and at the heart of it for me is Princess Leia. Bold, brave, and badass—she saved lives, fought for what she believed in, and sustained a calm wisdom throughout the rebellion. What would have happened to Luke and Han if she hadn't befriended the Ewoks? Where would Han have ended up if she didn't unfreeze him? I always felt a special connection with her (as a girl, as a twin) and know that this connection will live on.

Carrie Fisher herself brought the badassery she took to the big screen to real life. Her character fought to restore galaxy to the empire; Carrie fought to battle the stigmas against mental illness and addiction. She created hope in places of darkness. As she would have wanted us to say, she went in the most eccentric and poetic fashion—"drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra." Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher—your legacy, both on-screen and off, will live on in galaxies near and far. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rebellions Are Built On Hope

Around this time last year, I watched The Force Awakens. It is fitting, then, that the first film I watched upon returning to Hong Kong was Rogue One.

The prequel to A New Hope, the film tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance procured the death star plans (and hence knew they had to blow up the reactor). Action-packed, suspenseful, and right in the heart of the galaxy, Rogue One thoroughly achieves what it sets out to do—although its aim, as I'll later explain, can be considered problematic.  


The film must primarily be commended for its stellar cast. Felicity Jones was bold and badass (this franchise deserves female protagonists), Diego Luna was kind and indefatigable, Riz Ahmed nailed the stressed-out-rebel-pilot vibe. But I must give a special shout-out to Donnie Yen, who is a Big Deal in Hong Kong and absolutely kills it as Chirrut (I was super happy to see his Yip Man skills strengthened by the Force). The action scenes in the film were well-paced and thrilling— by the time the Jedah scene was over, I had already stress-eaten all of my popcorn.

Rogue One is in many ways a classic Star Wars film—ships jump into hyperspace (and there's always some anxiety regarding this jump), an endearing talking droid is present, the Force is ~there~ but often scoffed at, the Empire is making everyone miserable, the protagonist has unresolved questions about her father, and so on.

But Rogue One is also different from the other films in that it is considerably darker (although that opening slaughter scene from The Force Awakens still gives me chills). ONLY a film like this—sandwiched between existing (and very successful) films, Episodes III and IV—could pull off killing all its main characters. After I walked out of the cinema, I somehow could not remember the names of Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and this usually isn't a problem for me. It's almost as if the film set up its characters to be unmemorable, nameless nobodies (Bodhi is more often referred to as "the pilot" than by his name). Through killing off the rebels, the film implicates (without every explicitly saying it) that the rebellion on the ground level is essentially a suicide mission. This perspective puts a *yikes* but also realistic spin on the film, which repeatedly tells us that "rebellions are built on hope".

The ending—despite the predictable yet nevertheless much-welcomed Leia entry—is truly kind of unsettling, given that it was preceded by a string of deaths (and nasty ones, too, at the merciless hands of Darth Vader). Leia tells us in the final scene that the chip she holds represent hope, but that somehow doesn't seem like a very satisfying answer. For me, it represents the tenacity and sacrifice of the rebels we just spent the past two-ish hours following; condensing all their efforts into 'hope' feels unjust.

And how many moviegoers genuinely care that pretty much every character we just rallied for died by the end of the film? They were never part of the 'big' picture. Ultimately, any new Star Wars film will always hinge upon the shadow of episodes IV-VI. That's why C-3PO, R2-D2, Vader, and those familiar headshots of goggled rebel pilots flying their ships had to be in the film. That's also why so much effort was made to extremely impressively and unsettlingly recreate Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia via CGI (honestly, I was floored by the results).

So, Rogue One did feel a little extra in the context of the whole Star Wars saga (the obliteration of the opening crawl already seemed to distance it from the other films). But I do like how it introduces more diversity into the galaxy and presents a view of the Star Wars universe that is less lightsaber-centric than its predecessors were. I grew up watching Star Wars as a kid and am honestly just happy that I get to keep watching these films as an adult.

As the url of this blog will always read, may the force be with you!

Monday, September 12, 2016

So much of life was the peeling away of illusions.

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was National Read A Book Day on September 6th, and I pretty much devoured Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves. I've had a problem all summer where finding time/energy to read has been difficult, but binge-reading We Are Not Ourselves made me feel a lot better.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Eileen Tumulty (tumulty / tumultuous is not a coincidence). As the rest of the book will reveal, she spends her whole life trying to take care of others and fulfil personal dreams that - although more disillusioned at times than practical - make us sympathize with her nonetheless. She marries Ed Leary (again, Leary / King Lear is not a coincidence), an intense, practical, and extremely productive academic. They have a child, Connell, who is bright like his father and as subject to the pressures to conform as his mother can be. The novel revolves around this trio, usually tracing their shared yet individual lives from one angle at a time, putting distance between each of them in a way that accentuates their different perspectives and concerns. In all ways, we see how they all act in ways that are not entirely themselves - be it Connell's decision to act like a jerk in order to fit in with the cooler kids, Eileen's fleeting cult experience, or -- most distinctly -- Ed's Alzheimer's.

Figuring out what was wrong with Ed was my main incentive for reading on. I should have gotten the hint because of the Leary-Lear connection, but I kept thinking it was OCD until the reveal. He was the least clichéd character in the novel. Eileen, with her ambition to buy a house + escape Jackson Heights, and Connell, with his adolescent urge to fit in, were the closest to being stock characters. But Ed stood out as the one who was most 'not himself,' not only because of his illness, but also his attempts to masquerade his discomfort around his family and friends when Eileen threw parties. His letter to Connell was one of the most poignant points of the novel.

Matthew Thomas is an alumn, so perhaps it's no big surprise that Connell eventually goes to UChicago. The description of campus - Cobb, the Med, the Rockefeller Chapel all honestly made me feel pretty nostalgic for college.  I'm flying back in two weeks, and am going to make it a mission to leisure read as often as I can. I might not be able to produce a review after every book, but I've decided that is okay - getting the words into my system will be good enough.
“Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve.”
“You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.”
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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Look for the bare necessities


I finally watched The Jungle Book (on the plane, of all places). It only took a minute of Mowgli darting through the jungle for me to start kicking myself for not watching the film in 3D—the animation and cinematography are stunning.
                                      
Although the opening scene suggests danger, we realize soon after Bagheera pounces on Mowgli that our protagonist has a special place in the jungle. Raised by wolves, the man-cub calls the pack his family and considers the jungle his home. Yet he has never assimilated completely into the wild; unlike his brothers and sisters, he matures slowly and has a penchant for ‘tricks’ that set him apart from the animals. He lives in contradicting circumstances as someone who is at once accepted in the pack but also a clear exception to ‘The Law,' which emphasizes the importance of being wolf-like.

Mowgli’s sense of belonging is not seriously thrown in question until the water truce brings all the animals—including Shere Kahn, the most feared and menacing tiger of the jungle—to the same place. Bent on killing Mowgli, whose father scarred him with fire (the ‘red flower’) years ago, Shere Kahn will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Thus, Mowgli is told to return to the ‘man village,’ the only place he will be safe.

Threats are abound in the jungle, from the hypnotic Kaa (not the first time Scarlett Johansson’s voice has been used to seduce) to the towering and power-hungry King Louie (truly reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt).

“Don’t run away from who you are,” King Louie tells Mowgli, thinking that he is destined to wield the flower of death and destruction. His advice, however, can be reinterpreted to reflect the truth; Mowgli defeats Shere Kahn by fighting “like a man,” demonstrating the power of channeling one’s true aptitude through devising ‘tricks’ instead of repressing his instinct for tool making.  

It seems symbolic that Mowgli does not finish reciting The Law at the end of the film, for much of The Jungle Book is about the beauty of bending the rules. Bagheera’s very decision to take in Mowgli at the beginning already sets such a precedent. The story is an important reminder that anyone can harness their potential and overcome the stereotypes that entrap them (even the initially slothful and plodding Baloo, who ends up scaling a cliff).

The animals came together once during the water truce, but it is ultimately Mowgli who unites them in a sense of solidarity and shows them that friendship can transcend the barriers in a community that may seem dictated by a food chain.

The film was so enjoyable to watch—intense, humorous (can Bill Murray go wrong?), and moving. I love how the elephants command an Ent-like presence (the similarities are uncanny: both are venerated, walk slowly, and use great volumes of water to their advantage). Of course, I also love the soundtrack (apart from the two swing dance classics performed by Baloo and King Louie, the film’s epic orchestral rendition of The Bare Necessities is what made me want to watch it in the first place).


“I wanna be like you,” sings King Louie. But the film shows us that it is much better to be the individual you really are, no matter where you come from or who you live with. Mowgli is not a man or a cub; he is a man-cub, and he belongs in the jungle all the same.