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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Finding a good acupuncturist is like winning the lottery. Seriously, I have seen the positive effects of acupuncture first hand, and I feel blessed to have found a great acupuncturist here in San Francisco.

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As someone who spends a lot of time sitting at the computer, I developed a repetitive stress injury in my neck that was causing all kinds of discomfort. To those of you reading this now, I hope you’re sitting in an ergonomic chair that fully supports your back with the computer screen at eye level. Don’t slump, don’t bend your neck, and don’t forget to take breaks every hour (more if possible).

I didn’t always follow that advice and now I have to be really careful. My Western doctor prescribed all kinds of muscle relaxants and pain killers but I really didn’t like the side effects (bad on the G.I. tract, dizziness, grogginess). Plus, they really didn’t solve the problem. I went to see a chiropractor, various physical therapists, and even joined a gym, but nothing seemed to help. Finally my doctor suggested acupuncture.

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To my surprise and delight, I started experiencing relief after my second acupuncture treatment.

Yeah, I know this looks spooky, but it really doesn’t hurt! And I’m as squeamish as the next person about needles. (I spent my childhood doctor visits fainting at the mere sight of a hyperdermic needle for each vaccination.) But a few strategically placed needles in my hands, wrists, and occasionally calves have really helped!! I was afraid I’d have to get needled in the neck, but not so.

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I was lucky that Qingmei Chen, of Center of Harmony Acupuncture, was recommended by a friend. Qingmei received her undergraduate degree from UC-Santa Cruz and then spent four years studying acupuncture for an M.S. She really knows her stuff! She even did her practicum in a hospital in China.

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To my great relief, both literally and metaphorically, acupuncture treatments in my hands and wrists have been helping with neck pain! And now I’m going to step away from the computer to take a break from typing. 😉

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It was very hard to come up with a top ten film list for 2012. I was able to see so many interesting movies this year. I’m sure I left some really good ones off, but here are the ten that stuck with me.

10. Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’or)

This charming documentary details the gems of Cambodian cinema before the Khmer Rouge took over and destroyed civil society. Director Davy Chou is the grandson of one of the great producers of the era.

Golden Slumbers trailer

golden_slumbers

9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
This documentary captures the spirit of activist artist Ai Weiwei and it also opens a window into life in China. The film shows the bravura, humor, and brio of an artist who refuses to accept the government’s attempts to impose limits on his intellect and his sense of moral outrage.

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

8. Searching for Sugarman

This documentary is about a 1970s folk singer named Rodriguez who was all but forgotten in America, working odd jobs and living in poverty in Detroit, but who turns out to have been the most important singer of his generation in South Africa. This is the feel-good movie of the decade.

7. Magic Mike

Ah, the death knell of the American dream. Once upon a time a young man like Channing Tatum’s character would have dreamed of being a Top Gun or a crusading lawyer for justice. In post-George W. Bush America, he dreams of being a male stripper. Steven Soderbergh turns the infamous “male gaze” of the camera upon men…and the objectification seems symptomatic of our era.

6. 11 Flowers

This Chinese movie directed by Wang Xiaoshuai is intelligent and moving, portraying four young boys at the end of the Cultural Revolution. The film has an almost “Stand by Me” quality–recalling the exuberance of youth amidst poverty and hardship. Stand-out performances from all the actors!

11 Flowers trailer

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5. Argo

I never expected to see a Hollywood movie celebrating an achievement of the Carter Administration. Not ever. There’s been some criticism online about the portrayal of Iranian protests. I was more surprised by the context this film actually provides for those protests–showing the flawed American foreign policy in Iran that led to the overthrow of the Shah.

4. Patience (After Sebald)

This film is magical. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of watching this gem by describing it. It’s based on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.This is how a literary adaptation should be done–capture the spirit of the writing without being literal.

Patience (After Sebald) trailer

Patience_(after Sebald)

3. Wuthering Heights

Andrea Arnold has directed the definitive adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel as far as I’m concerned. The opening shot of a branch tapping at a window evokes the ghostly opening of the novel without literally filming it. Similiarly, Arnold shows us what the moors must have felt and looked like to Cathy and Heathcliff. No other film has done that for me.

wuthering heights

2. This Is Not a Film

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been banned from making movies by the government of Iran. So he made this “non-film” with a friend and shot parts with an iPhone. His enormous talent as a filmmaker and his love of cinema come through in the scenes where he describes the artistic choices he made in his other movies. Talk about a master class! And his scenes with the young garbage collector in his building create a character portrait as vivid as in a drama.

This Is Not a Film trailer

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1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Visually stunning. Great plot. Part detective story, part portrait of a land, this film was unforgettable.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia trailer

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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So glad I had the opportunity to see Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Disturbing the Peace” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

“Disturbing the Peace” depicts Ai’s attempt to attend the trial of activist Tan Zuoren in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Tan conducted research on schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and found evidence that shoddy construction work was to blame. However, officials did not appreciate his efforts and charged Tan with subversion.

Ai and a group of 10 associates travel to Chengdu in the documentary to show their support for Tan, but shortly after they arrive, police break into their hotel room, beat Ai, and take a woman into custody. The film shows their efforts to free her. The documentary shows rather amazing footage of Ai, his lawyer and the woman’s husband confronting local police and the public security bureau’s legal affairs department bureaucrats. The verbal battle of wits and nerves is fascinating…and harrowing. It’s amazing how brave these activists are!

This month (July) every Sunday the YBCA will be showing one or two documentaries by the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist (and dissident) Ai Weiwei.  You can check the schedule at the  YBCA website.

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Opening shot: a room where Chinese women are assembling something shiny. A woman’s voice stumbles as she reads aloud a book of poems condemning corrupt bureaucrats and their cheap-looking mistresses. Uniformed guards stand and watch. On the soundtrack we hear an odd crinkling sound. It takes time to realize its the metallic material the women are folding into what appears to be gaudy party decorations.

CUT to a street scene. A bored looking man sits at a table on a sidewalk. He offers to register people looking for work, promising them for a fee he’ll send their forms to employers. Several migrant workers bargain, pay cash, fill out the forms, affix a photograph.

But the man is a grifter. A cop comes by and the man pays him off. Later the man goes home and affixes the photographs of the unemployed to his wall. Another sucker, he tells his girlfriend, who smokes on the bed in his spartan, otherwise unfurnished apartment.

So opens Zhao Dayong’s quirky and deliberately surreal first feature. Zhao is primarily known for his documentaries, including the extraordinary Ghost Town, which documents life in southwest China’s border towns and villages, where many ethnic minorities live and try to find work.

In his first fictional feature, The High Life, Zhao has given his film the look and feel of a documentary as he mixes actors (all nonprofessional) with real people and street scenes. Whereas this technique has been widely used in China at least since Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhao’s film feels very different from any other contemporary Chinese films I’ve ever seen.

By his own admission, the story is “surreal,” mixing realistic and completely impossible scenarios. Audaciously, Zhao drops his first protagonist half way through the movie and instead picks up the story of a male prison guard in a women’s prison. The guard likes to write poetry . . . about official corruption, June 4th (the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, as it’s known in the West), and his own sense of despair before society’s many ills. He forces his prisoners to recite the poems and even memorize them. In a scene that mocks contemporary police interrogations in China, the guard forces the grifter to read a poem and then critique it.

Zhao’s film is not going to be appreciated by everyone. At one showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring (2011), Zhao said he knew it had no chance of commercial success: “It’s not beautiful and it has no story.” (Many would disagree with that statement.)

What it does have is attitude. His editing, gritty cityscapes and urban soundtrack made me think of early Martin Scorsese. As in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Definitely not The Age of Innocence or Shutter Island. Zhao’s unusual choice of camera angles, where the viewer watches characters askance, glimpses through doorways or else peeks over their shoulders reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

At the San Francisco screening, I asked Zhao if he was worried how China’s offiicials and censors would react to a film that so daringly directly addresses contemporary issues that are verboten in Chinese state-sponsored films: corruption, rape, prostitution, crime, even June 4th. He said (in Mandarin), “My film’s an underground film. No one will see it. The censors don’t care.” He explained that he and his friends show each other’s films in small private screenings, even in bars or restaurants, but not in regular theaters.  That’s too bad, because Zhao’s sensibility would provide Chinese cinema with a welcome dose of street cred.

Western critics (and Chinese officials) may prefer the artful, slow pace of directors like Jia Zhangke whose more statically framed films are quite pretty, but those films seem anemic compared to the restless, nervous energy of THE HIGH LIFE.

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Links:

dGenerate Films (his distributor in US) Profile of Zhao Dayong

New York Times article about Zhao Dayong and his documentary “Ghost Town”: Times profile of Zhao

Electric Sheep magazine interview with Zhao Dayong: Interview with Zhao Dayong

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Saw the most thrilling concert by the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, the famed Chinese pipa player, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

First they performed “Ghost Opera,” an original work composed by Tan Dun (1994) and a new multimedia work entitled “A Chinese Home.”

I had heard “Ghost Opera” on CD but nothing compares to the live performance. The musicians from Kronos Quartet started out playing from various sections of the small gallery theater at YBCA while Wu Man sat stage right, later moving to center stage where she performed behind a long, ghostly white veil.

“Ghost Opera” combines traditional Western-style symphonic music and Chinese pipa solos as well as Chinese opera vocalizations. There were snippets of a Chinese folk song as well as lines from Shakespeare, shouts (meant to evoke the cries of a traditional shaman), the shaking of paper, gongs, and dripping water as the musicians dipped their hands into clear bowls of water positioned around the stage.

I personally love “Ghost Opera” and find its music transcendent of any place or time, although of course it strongly evokes many Chinese musical traditions. But like many of Tan Dun’s more experimental works (for example, his score for the opera “Peony Pavilion,” which had its debut in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in the 1990s [available on CD as “Bitter Love”]), the music stands as its own uniquely modern composition, a hybrid that would have been impossible in any other time period.

The second half of the performance was a newer, multimedia work called “A Chinese Home,” inspired by the rebuilding of a traditional Chinese house that was shipped and re-assembled in the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. The musicians played in four segments, each meant to evoke different periods of time in Chinese history while video images flashed on the screen behind the performers.

Personally, I found the video distracted me from the music, especially in the first segment, called “Return,” which was meant to evoke “traditional” China. The images showed contemporary scenes from rural China and minority groups living in China’s southwestern provinces. Furthermore, the handheld video was shaky and a little hard to watch. Yet the screen was so large, it was hard to ignore the video and watch the live performers, which was a shame.

The second segment was entitled “Shanghai” and featured some of the great jazz and pop music of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. Here Kronos Quartet and Wu Man seemed more clearly to be playing music meant to “accompany” the images, which ranged from the U.S. Deparment of War’s newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937 (edited by Frank Capra) as to clips from the best of Shanghai’s silent films from the 1920s and 30s. Here I didn’t even try to focus on the musicians; the images were too compelling and featured both scenes of actual suffering as well as some of the era’s most famous movie stars. The emphasis on suffering (as opposed to the hybrid quality of life in Shanghai or open-minded nature of its residents) did not account for any of the creative brilliance that was clearly evident in the music. To juxtapose the suffering of war with the brilliance of Shanghai’s culture is an artistic choice that I’ve seen a lot of recently in Chinese mainland works about Shanghai.

The third segment, “The East Is Red,”  opened with a quote from Mao, and featured images of kitschy Cultural Revolution operas and ballets while the musicians played rollicking folk music that seemed to come directly from the era. There was no hint whatsoever of the suffering of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution or Mao era.

The final segment entitled “Made in China”  had the most sophisticated, abstract video imagery of China’s fast-growing cities, featuring modern skyscrapers, billboards, Shanghai monorail, and people engaged in leisure activities from singing to sitting to shopping, but there were also hints of destruction in the image of China’s ubiquitous wrecking cranes. While the Kronos Quartet literally unleashed boxes of Chinese-made electronic toys that crawled across the stage, Wu Man plugged her pipa into an amp and synthesizer and literally rocked it like an electric guitar!

I still need time to think about this exciting program.

Meanwhile, “Ghost Opera” with its delicate and nuanced score will remain one of my most precious musical memories and I feel infinitely grateful that I was able to hear and see it performed live. Perhaps the abstract quality made it easier for me to appreciate than the almost documentary nature of the second program.

However, I also have a purely personal reason to love Tan Dun’s work. When I was a student at Nanjing University in 1988, our American coordinator for CIEE (Rich Lufrano) played for us a casette tape of music recorded by Tan Dun called “Mong Dong.” In those days, Tan Dun was not famous but rather happened to live down the hall in New York City from Rich (who was a Ph.D. student at Columbia) and they had become friends. As a result, Tan Dun had given Rich a copy of his composition. The name is made up of invented, nonsense characters, and the music included chanting, moaning, singing that evoked not only Han Chinese musical traditions but ethnic minority music that Tan Dun had heard when he had traveled in the south of China. I loved “Mong Dong.” As we listened in our unheated classroom to the crackly tape player, I was transported by the power and inventiveness of this new kind of musical composition. In those days, I never imagined that one day Tan Dun would become a famous, Oscar-winning composer nor that I would get to hear Tan Dun’s music performed live by amazing musicians like the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man as I sat in a chair mere feet from the performers. Such a life seemed very far away.

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The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also opened to concert goers its gallery exhibit by Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong “Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well.” The exhibit featured video displays of the artist’s family and a spectacular full-room installation of literally 10,000 items his mother had been hoarding in their house in Beijing. (For the New York Times review and photos of the installation “Waste Not,” click here .) The artist was able to get his mother to give up the items after his father died by promising to turn her possessions into a work of art. And indeed he did. From balls of ordinary twine, displays of bottle caps, neatly arranged pairs of shoes, hats, shirts, even shopping bags, Song Dong has made a beautiful tribute to his mother, his family, and to a generation of Chinese who learned never to throw anything away because of the terrible shortages they faced. (In fact, seeing the mother’s collection of styrofoam containers, I thought of my own grandmother, who had survived the Sino-Japanese War and Civil War in China when starvation and deprivation were common. Even after immigrating to the U.S., she could not bring herself to throw away newspapers, twist ties, old clothes, slippers or even styrofoam containers. These items of so-called “junk” stand as a testament to the suffering of people who have lived through war and hardship, but also the resilience of women like Song Dong’s mother and my grandmother, who saved everything and lived so thriftily so that their own children would have a better life.)

The exhibit is open until June 12. I highly recommend it.

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BIUTIFUL starring Javier Bardem has restored my faith in filmmaking. Why? The truly beautiful performance from Bardem and the very moving story about globalization’s underbelly (or rather, frankly speaking, its most despised participants: migrant workers and their go-betweens). Also the best use of ghosts this side of Korean filmmaking!

Bardem, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, plays a man dying of cancer with very little time to tie up a lot of loose ends in his life. Many people depend upon him–not the least of whom are his two young children. Others include a group of illegal African and Chinese migrant workers in Spain; various middle-men, including factory managers, a construction site foreman, and a crooked cop; and the families of the dead who pay him to tell them their loved ones’ last thoughts. Yes, in a twist that would seem out of place in less deft hands, Bardem’s character Uxbal has the psychic ability to communicate with the newly departed.

This theme, far from being hokey, is essential to director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision. Death is not seen as a release from life’s troubles nor the gateway to a munificent Heaven. Instead as another psychic mentor in the film tells Uxbal, death is the beginning of a long, arduous road.

This notion is echoed in the sentiments that the dead whisper to Uxbal. They worry about thefts, the pains in their bodies (one man says his body is a sea of mud, his hair on fire). They do not impart words of wisdom or comfort. . . just as BIUTIFUL does not provide pat answers to the serious issues of economic inequity, exploitation of global migrant workers, and desperation that the characters endure.

Yet I did not find BIUTIFUL ultimately depressing. Far from it. The fact that a renowned director and successful actor who could have his pick of Hollywood roles chose to make this movie about the least powerful people among us gives me hope. The film does not disparage or condescend in telling the story of the difficult lives of its characters. It also does not turn any of them into paper saints. They are all complex, flawed, interesting and at times infuriating characters portrayed believably by the actors in the film.

Obviously, this film is not “lite” entertainment. It is not meant to distract us from our daily worries. And if your daily worries are overwhelming at the moment, this is probably not the film to see right now. But if you are invigorated by great acting and moments of visual poetry, BIUTIFUL provides a profound journey indeed.

(Note: a friend of mine has pointed out that the gay couple who run a sweatshop in the film could be used by homophobic and ignorant individuals to justify their bigotry. That is unfortunately possible given the climate of hatemongering that we live in…even though I don’t think it’s the intention of the filmmaker or his cast. Straight characters–male and female–also exploit those who are less powerful than themselves for profit. Straight people are not shown as being in any way morally superior because of their sexual orientation.  In fact one of the most exploitative characters–he’s willing to dig up his father’s coffin and sell the space so a shopping mall can be built–is clearly shown to be heterosexual by his many sordid liaisons. The film is not a critique of sexual orientation or a study of sexual orientation. It IS a study of people who exploit poorer people, often because that is the only way they themselves can keep from falling into a greater poverty. That being said, until there is equal representation of gay characters in movies–and truly complex explorations of gay characters in mainstream movies–I think my friend’s concern is a point well worth mentioning.)

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Around the world, Chinese in the Diaspora and in China are spending the start of the Lunar New Year (February 3, 2011) by celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit!

Families gather to eat hearty meals, give red envelopes with lucky money inside to children and unmarried young people, and set off firecrackers (originally to ward off evil spirits, now to celebrate the new year). Here in San Francisco, over the course of the entire month there will be street fairs, lion dances, the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, and the largest Chinese New Year Parade outside China.

But for hundreds of millions of Chinese in China, the Lunar New Year (a.k.a. Spring Festival or chun jie 春莭) is also a time to leave the cities where they work–in factories or  on construction sites or in other jobs that city dwellers don’t want–and return home to the countryside where their families must live and wait. This is the only vacation these migrant workers are allowed in order to visit their families. Some families are separated for years on end. (For example, see the essay Waiting for Chinese New Year written by a 14-year-old girl whose parents have not returned home in three years.)

This mass movement of Chinese workers is the largest annual human migration in history. This year according to People\’s Daily, an estimated 230 million Chinese will be traveling home…mostly by train.

In honor of these arduous journeys, I am posting below a series of links to articles and videos, including the trailer for the award-winning documentary “Last Train Home,” that convey in words, pictures, song and video this annual phenomenon.

Amazing photos of the yearly migration 1995-2011

Chinese New Year migration, Guangzhou 2008

Video for the song \”Afraid to Go Home for the New Year\” (with translation of the lyrics provided)

Running Naked Man … Chinese internet sensation (he’s not really naked, but this article shows how one man became an internet sensation after he waited in line for 14 hours for train tickets home only to be told he couldn’t buy any. He stripped down to his underwear and confronted the ticket office personnel at the train station…and inspired Chinese with his chutzpah!)

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