Monday, February 28, 2005

sudden trip to D.C.-Smithsonian attack!

I took a compulsive and surreal trip to Washington D.C. this weekend. I didn't know I would until Wednesday, and I was flying there on Friday evening. (ATA has an awesome fare to the East coast right now. $59 for each trip!) With the cheap air fare, cheap B&B ($60 per night for a double room with shared bath), excellent seafood and Trinidadian cuisine (hmmmmm....), and several pictures of cool amphibians, it was a great, impulsive weekend.

pious frog
This is one of them... Taken in a reptile house (an insult on all the amphibians there!) of the National Zoo, he looks as if he just had a religious epiphany, looking skyward, with light shining on his face. I fell in love with the mint green body and the golden eyes, and took about ten pictures of him, so kindly blocking the view of a couple of small children. :P

I did what a first-time visitor is supposed to do. At the White House, I saw a squirrel bleach the strict security, which included at least two snipers on the roof, watching through binoculars an anti-nuclear protest in the plaza across the street. At the Washington Memorial, they were doing a complete overhaul of the lawn around it, currently showing a vast muddy field studded with heavy construction equipments. It was quite suggestive--a phallus symbol of America towering over a lifeless devastation--hmmmm. The historic Georgetown seemed to be under attack of corporatization. With Urban Outfitters, Berns & Noble, GAP, Banana Republic, (and don't forget the Starbucks), sadly, the area had started to look like a pseudo-historic shopping mall in any sprawling suburbia.

All these aside, there were Smithsonians after Smithsonians. Temporarily overwhelmed by the Freer and Sackler Galleries (Asian art) and Hirshhorn Museum (contemporary) that we did on Saturday, we decided to inhale some fresh air at the National Zoo. I thought it was an escape from anything Smithsonian, but it turned out that it was still a part of the Smithsonian federation! It was an exciting zoo, though--we ended up spending more than four hours there, mainly gazing at and taking picture of spiffy creatures, such as this. The cage was poorly lit with several fluorescent lights, but the light filtered through the big bird's beak was absolutely gorgeous.

light coming through a beak

Thursday, February 24, 2005

how a woman can walk into an office like a centipede

I'm taking a creative writing class in college. It is very stimulating, and is a good way to understand some reasons why contemporary American fictions are the way it is now, but it is another matter. (Hopefully I'll come back to that topic sometime soon.) The matter here is the unintentional humor that can kill. In class, we had fun ridiculing some of the winning entries in a Washington Post competition for inadvertently funny metaphors written by high-schoolers.

"John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met." Okay, which is a metaphor of which here?

"He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells..." wow, this one's going fine! " if she were a garbage truck backing up." Well, maybe not. He doesn't love her, and you don't love your writing, either, Ms. Author!

This one actually works. "The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work." Ouch. Sorry, Phil...

Someone went too deep into details. "The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton." Okay, I understand you follow the news... I actually didn't know Clinton's middle name until now. But, sorry, what were you talking about?

"She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs." That's real creativity you've got there, man. I actually like it, though I have no idea about how "she" looked like other than she had two legs and very long, scaled body. Poor thing.

But my favorite so far is this one: "Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever." It tells soooo much in soooooo short a sentence!

My thanks to the adolescent providers of entertainment, and my only hope is that they won't be too traumatized by the fact that their (probably) serious writings have won a space in such a degrading contest...

Monday, February 21, 2005

two random things of the day--one bothersome, another funny

With a gallon of milk and a family-pack of chicken legs, I was in a cashier line at Jewel Osco, one of the two major supermarket chain in the city earlier today. A woman probably in her early forties was in front of me. The cashier, another woman in her forties, prompted her for a Jewel preferred Customer Card, with which we get discount on merchandise in exchange for our intimate consumer information--from our favorite bland of crappy chips (and how long it takes for us to devour the entire bag) to the date of our last purchase of sanitary napkins. The customer fumbled in her purse, and said to the cashier.
"Can you use your Dominick's Card?"
Uh-oh. She made a mistake. Dominick's is another of the two major supermarket chain in the city, similarly trying to keep us loyal to them with their version of discount/information-surrender card. The already-grumpy looking cashier looked up, and coldly said,
"I don't have any Dominick's Card."
Ouch. The customer apologized (how nice of her!), to which the cashier did not show any sign of recognition. She apparently had a great employee loyalty to the chain. The unfortunate customer turned to me for emotional help, and smiled a meek smile. I smiled back, feeling sorry for her. With the presence of the Ms. Cashier, I couldn't do more than to sneakily stick out my tongue in complicity. But oh, boy, what an unpleasant woman the cashier was! Everybody knows that more than 80% of the customers of the two chains have those stupid cards from both stores. They can name their cards whatever way they want to, but let's not pretend that anyone with a "preferred card" or "fresh value card" is a loyal customer to the specific chain who never goes to the other store, for it is an illusion that cannot be more obvious.

I had lunch at a Corner Bakery today. (A combination of cesar salad and half a South Western roast beef sandwich on Poblano cheese batard... hmmm, yum!) With the sandwich in a hand, I was reading "Illness as Metaphor" that I picked up on Saturday after the car show at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park. The place was packed with lunch crowd. So it was not surprising that the mom of a family (mom, grandma, three teenage boys of about ten to thirteen years old) sent the kids to get the food while she held on to the table next to me. When their food came, the forty-something mom exclaimed in astonishment.
"Oh my god, you guys are having cesar salad!? What happened to you boys?"
I looked up, and here they were, two of the boys were receiving cesar salad. Not even with a strip of roasted chicken. Just plain ol' lettuce with croutons and dressing. Wow. AND they are drinking water! What happened to them boys? Aren't they supposed to be gulping down hamburgers and fries, along with a 24-ounce coke? Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe it's in fashion for adolescent boys to be lettuce-eating crickets. It's a weird world. It certainly is.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

thawing on a warm February day

thawing on a warm February day

Behind my house, there is an abandoned railroad, which, with all the flowers, reeds, pebbles, birds, and occasional rabbits, is a wonderful treasure box for any photographer with an inclination to nature and miniscule things. Several days ago, when the formerly-frozen temperature rose up close to the teens (in celcius), the seemingly perpetual snow and ice started to melt quickly. With the advent of afternoon sun after an overcast morning, the thaw sped up. I grabed my camera and went out to this my favorite field, in search of cool things to photograph. Soon I found pieces of remaining ice, oddly shaped along the contours of the pebbles they had been sitting on. This particular piece caught my eyes with its animal-like shape and its contrast against the fresh, vibrant, alomst appetizing (think of plump berries...) colors of pebbles that had come to life with moisture and light.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

word of the day: prostrate

lying face downward, esp. in submission

*Nothing to do with prostitute, nor with prostate.

She fell down the stairs and found herself lying prostrate on the floor.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

review: "Sky Blue" quite promising and approaching sophistication, but could use much more originality

Recently I watched my first South Korean animation. There is a large room for improvement, but it seems to be worth keeping an eye on the creators--there appears to be a potential in future. (Here is the link to reviews on

"Sky Blue" is set in a post-apocalyptic world where incessant poisonous rain soaks the earth. The story arc is quite hackneyed. There is a ruling class and the oppressed. The former lives in an allegedly organic city (which looks nothing but mechanical) that protects the residents from the hostile environment, exploiting the latter in contaminated mines to extract from the thinning reservoir of carbonite necessary to maintain the huge city. There is a secret plot of rebellion against the ruling city among the oppressed people, and (of course) one of the most important member of the secret group is originally from the city, has been expelled from it after an incident, and has been in love with a girl from the city who is now a member of the city's merciless army. But (of course) she hasn't lost her humane side. She suffers at the suffering of the oppressed. Although she is emotionally involved with her commander (the rebellious young man's childhood rival, of course), she still keeps the image of her childhood love in her heart.

There is an easy solution to the soggy poisonous environment of the earth--the "energy release" from the city, whatever it means. It will not kill the people of the city. In fact, it will not even destroy the city. Hmm. Then why they haven't done that yet? But anyway, that is what the rebellion group plans and succeeds to do with the amazing contribution of the young man, flying into the heart of the city on his red old-fashioned airplane reminiscent of Porco Rosso's. It is so easily done despite a battalion of city's army that one cannot help wondering why it took so long for them to do it. The reunited childhood lovers get shot in the flower-looking glass dome, but seem to be resurrected from death by the mysterious side effect of the "energy release." The evil is defeated and the sun shines on the earth for the first time in God knows how long. Everybody's happy.

Bunch of predictable stock characters, a predictable and sweet-ever-after style plot, and bad English dabbing really hamper the occasional charm of the visual imagery. There are some memorable scenes, especially a scene in the museum when a bullet of the young man shatters a staind glass to reveal Krimt's "The Kiss" behind it, as he crouches on the floor with his childhood sweetherat now as enemies, a shot from underwater of the young man's red airplane being shot at by the army and a sequence close to the end where the sunshine pushes back the perpetual shadow from decaying buildings and rusting ships. The incorporation of traditional Korean culture is also stimulating to see: the intricate patterns on the floating cubes in the heart of the building, the curved mask the young man wears when sneaking in the city, and some traditional attire worn in a strangely blue-saturated festive procession. With (a lot) more originality and thoughts in plot and characters, the film could be much more enjoyable. I hope to see the creators' future works acquire distinct style and voice in the world of animation.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

odd sense of affectionate detachment--on the viewpoint of "In and Around Yukinuma" by Toshiyuki Horie

When my mother visited Japan in last October, I asked her to bring back some Japanese books that I had longed to read. One of them were "In and Around Yukinuma" by one of my favorite writers called Toshiyuki Horie. I finihed reading it after almost four months--not because it was a boring read, but because it was such a beautiful piece of literature that I didn't dare rush. It was the kind of books that one would love to read very slowly, allowing enough time for the words to sink into one's heart, almost carressing them. I am still floating in the clean, crisp but gentle air of the stories, but I will try here to verbalize what I felt was unique about this work.

"In and Around Yukinuma" is a series of short stories depicting loosely interconnecting lives of people in a remote Japanese town called Yukinuma (which directly translates into "snow lagoon"). A last day of a bowling center run by a widowed man, still listening for the sound he once heard old-fashioned bowling pins make, a funeral service for a owner/chef of a small French restaurant whose mysterious herbs and urban sophistication was an object of admiration of the townspeople--the ordinary is portrayed with a quiet affection to the smallest details and subtlest emotion. Unlike his other works, which trod along the thin line between essay and fiction, mainly drawing from his own experience in Paris as a foreign student, these stories are distinctly fiction, and are more successful. The almost stoic focus on the quiet lives of ordinary people living in an unexciting rural town, without his habitual indulgence in bibliophiliac tidbits and unconvincing chain of coincidences as a single driving force of the stories (abundant in his other works), makes the stories in "In and Around Yukinuma" a true gem.

The oddity of the stories told in an omniscient third-person narrative is the fact that all the characters are referred to with "san," a Japanese counterpart of "Mr." and "Ms," but with a little more affection than rigid reverence. In the opening page of the first story, readers are challenged by the question of determining the narrator. As is permissible in Japanese language, there is no explicit subject in the sentences in the first few paragraphs. It makes the narration appear to be a dramatic monologue of one of the characters, reflecting upon his own feeling and referring to those around him with "san." Then, a reader would be puzzled to find the narrator referring to who seems to be himself with "san," as if talking about someone else. And in fact, the narrator IS talking about someone other than himself, for the narrator is NOT the protagonist, despite the initial appearance. It is a separate narrator who cautiously but seamlessly enters into the psyche of the characters and speaks as if the protagonist himself were telling his intimate feelings.

What makes this strange obscurity of perspective possible is the absence of the (grammatical) subject in many of the sentences. Thanks to the characteristics of Japanese language that allows the absence of grammatical subject in a sentence, the omniscient narrator can dissolve into the intimate consciousness of the protagonist at times, and can reappear as a visible, somewhat detached narrator at others. Combined with the affectionate use of "san," the frequent absence of the subject enable the disappearing and reappearing narrator to achieve a unique voice that is at one time intimate and detached.

Friday, February 11, 2005

"Dolls" by Takeshi Kitano: a promising imagery and fabulous costume spoiled by a heavy-handed treatment

When "Dolls" (a 2002 movie directed by Takeshi Kitano) came out in Japan, I was still there and wanted to see it, but never did. It was quite odd, therefore, to finally get to see the Japanese film in a foreign country, with an English subtitle (which really helped me understand the highly stylized and elongated, thus unintelligible Bunraku narration). However, the film itself was a bit of a disappointment. Here are the reasons.

Three stories of tragic lovers, though connected with each other with common space and characters, do not form a single, unifying story arch. The main story, in which a young man roams around the country, tied with a crimson rope to his fiancée, whom he once abandoned to marry the daughter of the president of his company, only to leave her imbecile as a result of her failed suicidal attempt, is utterly sad and quit compelling. Unfortunately, though, the two side stories, one of a rekindled old love of a Yakuza boss and the other of an extreme act of love of a pop idol fan, interfere with and undermine the effect of the main story, rather than reinforcing it. There is a thematic coherence to some extent, for all of the stories somehow deal with a crazed lover and a lover who chooses to love the crazed, as Roger Evert points out. But the paralell is not presented in a convincing way.

Another, possibly a larger and deeper problem of the film is the fact that the three stories are considerably detached from the Johruri presented at the beginning of the film, to the disappointment of the audience who expect to see a stronger relationship between the traditional Japanese marionette show and the film. The Johruri seems to be "Sonezaki Shinju" or "Double Suicide of Sonezaki," probably the most famous work of Monzaemon Chikamatsu, a renowned Johruri playwright from the Edo period. If my speculation is correct, it is a play in which a beautiful prostitute and a poor store clerk who cannot afford to bail her out commit double suicide to be together in the other world, to transcend the limitation of this world. Kitano sticks to the original Johruri to some extent, for he obviously follows the format of the Johruri--an important and tear-duct-stimulating sequence called "Michiyuki," the elongated, beautified journey of the lovers with only their death in mind.

However, the discrepancy between the relationships of lovers in Johruri and the play is more than distracting. The film's apparent theme, the conscious choice of lovers to be or be with the crazed, risking their own death, does not fit with the somewhat beautified tragic suicides in the Johruri. The double suicide in the Johruri could also be interpreted as the lover's conscious choice to live out of the reason of the world, so that it resonates with the theme of the film, but nonetheless, (again) the parallel is not presented in a convincing way.

Furthermore, the cinematography was not as "stunningly beautiful" as some critics have described it. There are some memorable moments--such as the shot of the crimson rope, which the young man uses to tie his crazed girl to himself, being dragged on the ground drawing a beautiful curve, collecting fallen leaves of various reddish hue. But there are far more awkward shots than excellent ones. Some, such as the scene in which the young lover of the main story momentarily sees an illusion of Johruri marionettes hanging from a pole, are beyond the realm of awkward, plunging into the realm of painful first film of a high school film club. Editing is not satisfactory, either, with so many shots floating in the air without any connection to the previous and following sequences. The costume, designed by Yoji Yamamoto, is absolutely fabulous, especially his use of bright colors reminiscent of the Johruri costume. It is a shame, for the wonderful costume is not well incorporated into the scenes, thus losing much of its appeal.

What salvages the entire film is the superb acting of Miho Kanno, who played the crazed fiancée in the main story. She has been noticeably good in roles of insanity, but in this film, she surpasses herself. She succeeds in appearing to be a woman with a brain damage, whose emotion is paralyzed except for only a few trivial things that catches her attention (like a cheap plastic toy that fascinates her). But what is more striking is the fact that she really looks like a spiritless doll. Her entire body moves like a marionette being awkwardly manipulated by a puppet master, with jerks and jolts, her arms inanimately dangling from the shoulder, her eyes fixed on something nonexistent (just as the marionettes' eyes do not move). When she is first shown to us, sitting on an outside unit of an air conditioner in the psychiatric hospital, she doesn't look alive. She IS a doll, propped up against the wall behind her, her neck barely supporting the lifeless weight of her head. Her best moment is when she briefly sees through the cloud of her insanity and recognizes her lover who once deserted her. She expresses the sudden burst of complex emotion—surprise and joy of finally recognizing her beloved again, then profound hatred and distrust at the (second) realization of his betrayal—only by the movement of her eyes. It is stunningly revealing performance worth waiting for during the slow-paced film.

It’s a shame such an interesting idea to combine a modern fantasy of tragic love and a traditional tragedy of love was wasted by the heavy-handed treatment. With a more sophisticated presentation, the film could have been much much better. The beautiful imagery of the Johruri and the gorgeous kimono-inspired costumes deserve a more careful and aesthetic production.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

the best way to fail drivers' license exams

"Be a legal alien and try to get one" is the answer--you might not even allowed to take the exam.

The so-called Real ID Act that is going to be presented to the House floor tomorrow caught my attention as yet another hindrance to my ever-furthering goal to get a drivers' license. The little known fact is, it is neigh impossible to obtain one if you do not have a social security number, even if you are residing in the U.S. perfectly legally. The matter concerns the kind of visa you are issued. If you are on a student visa, with which you are not authorized to work off campus, you are not eligible for a social security number. That is not too hard to understand--social security is based on workers' financial contribution to the system. The problem arises, though, from the fact that the functions of social security number is not solely limited to the administration of social security, but also extend far into the everyday life as the ultimate ID number. Without a SSN, one cannot open a bank account. Nor can one obtain a drivers' license. Or at least one could not.

With the introduction of Temporary Visitor's Drivers License by the State of Illinois this year, now lawful residents without a SSN can get a drivers' license and feel like a human being. If everything goes fine, that is. You might be turned away by an ignorant drivers license administrator who refuses to believe your (absolutely correct) explanation on how one of the hundred immigration documents you present to him function. Or your immigration record might not show up on their computer for some mysterious reason or the other, in which case you have to go home and wait for an obscure verification letter supposedly sent from Springfield. When you go back to the facility with the letter in hand, what would happen I do not know, for those were what happened to me and I have not received that (optimistically) omnipotent letter from the State Capital yet.

I do not understand why so many people oppose the idea of nation-wide ID numbers, when it aleready virtually exists as a SSN. The problem of using the SSN as a universal ID is the fact that the issuance of the numbers is not universal(!). Its original purpose of providing contribution-based benefits blocks quite a few legal aliens from obtaining one, thus in effect greatly hindering their ability to function in the society they legally reside. It probably will not materialize, but I am eager to see the widespread use of SSN as an ID someday reconsidered.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

keep the art in our hand

Chicago has joined the bandwagon of copyright frenzy--now the entire Millennium Park is copyrighted, so anyone who wishes to photograph any part of the Park for commercial purposes has to buy a permit to do so. Near the end of last year, my better half witnessed a couple of people with cameras mounted on tripods being harassed by a police officer on one of those segways at the Park, and had been wondering about the incident, but the mystery is finally solved--in a somber way. Apparently the officer took the existence of the tripods to be an evidence of the people taking professional pictures for commercial purposes, the negation of which none of us is capable of proving (No one can prove a negation).

It is certainly understandable if an artist gets infuriated to find someone else complying a big book of photos of his/her work without permission (and making money on that). And so far the ban of unauthorized photographing of the Millennium park is limited to the ones for commercial usage, which excludes most of us casual snapshot-takers. However, with copyright, they could block us from taking ANY kind of pictures at the park, for as far as the copyright law is concerned, the purpose of reproduction does not matter. It is simply not fun to see an inspiring "public" art and not be able to take pictures of it. But the problem is not that simple.

The city is definitely not sending a positive message to tourists from all over the world, which it desperately wants--the very purpose of building the shiny object was to attract tourists. There are considerable number of amateur photographers who care the quality of their photos enough to use tripods and conspicuous semi-professional cameras, who will probably fall victim of suspicious look and possibly annoying questions from security guards and police officers. What they would tell back home about Chicago's hospitality, I would not want to imagine. Surely neither would the tourism bureau of the city.

There are more grey areas to the entire copyright protection, concerning the nature of art and culture. They say one cannot take a picture of the copyrighted bean. Then what if I oil-painted an extremely true-to-life rendition of it? Isn't it a reproduction? What if the shiny thing inspired me to write a greatly visual poem about the bean? Is it a reproduction? They might say that those are interpretations of the bean, not mere reproductions (which is very true). Then what if I came up with a sharply original compositional photography in which a part of the bean plays an important role? Isn't it an interpretation of an existing piece of art?

These questions lead us to the very nature of any form of art, be it photography, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, poetry, film, and all the other forms that currently fail to come to my mind. A large and important part of art is the fact that it is a digestion, interpretation, and (when successful) sublimation of the preceding pool of all the human culture. No artist is free from debt to predecessors, which is not a curse but a blessing. The basic idea of copyright, which is to keep a piece of art (one might say that the "cloud gate" of the Millennium Park does not fall into this privileged category, but that is another matter), from going into the public pool of references from where other pieces of art sprout, not only discourages artists but also seriously undermines the accumulation of human heritage, a tremendous resource open to everyone. Without that open resource, our civilization must eventually come to a halt. The civilization, or our culture, has been a cumulative process in which newer generations absorb and then advance (or sometimes defy) the accomplishment of the former generations. The greed to privately possess not only the physical piece of art but also all the possibility it could open up for the humanity (which is what the current copyright frenzy is all about) is a grave harm to the cumulative process.

A world where a photographer cannot have an artistic dialogue with a sculptor by responding to the latter's work with an origial new take on the work in question is not the world where art thrives. That world is not an exciting world to live in--inspiring maybe, but the inspiration only entails frustration, for it does not allow to have an outlet in that world. I do not want this world to be turned into that world by a few.
drop of mercury
Originally uploaded by uBookworm.